Monday, August 30, 2010

The purpose of posters

Poster sessions have always reminded me that Everything I Needed To Know I Should Have Learned in Kindergarden.

But didn't. I always really sucked at that stuff. That's why I was in science. If I had been good at cutting, pasting, drawing, etc. I would have majored in art.

I always got the impression that girls were supposed to be good at that stuff. I had more than one male advisor tell me they were surprised at my complete lack of skills in artistic pursuits. I told them I was in science because I got kicked out of girl school.

Towards the end of my postdoc, I finally started getting compliments on some of my posters, just as I was starting to be chosen to give talks at major meetings. So of course by then it didn't help or matter anyway.

I think the culture has changed somewhat, at least in my field. Posters are only useful for

• beginners
• those working on the truly obscure
• those whose work is already in press but who hate public speaking
• chumps who want to get scooped.

Anyone who wants to get anywhere had better be invited to give a talk, or stay at the bench.

But I have been thinking a lot lately about whether I stayed in science longer than I should have, and why I stayed despite multiple setbacks.

One of the first things that should have been a clue that I did not fit the existing science mold was my graduate program's annual retreat. There, the students were required to submit an abstract, do a poster, and if we were lucky, present a talk.

From the very first one, it was obvious to some of us that:

a) Prizes were awarded based on publication, not on the quality of the poster or talk

b) Publications were largely a matter of
• timing (picking up the end of a project that had already burned out several postdocs and completing it during a summer rotation)
• politics (working for someone who happened to be on the editorial board of a Major Journal, for example)
• isms (it was probably not a coincidence that males seemed to have more opportunities to get on the perfectly timed, high-impact project in the highly connected lab than did females)

c) The best way to get through these events was to bring alcohol, start drinking early in the day, and escape as soon as the Administrative Psycho had finished noting our attendance.

Our program was very secretive about how this all went down. We didn't know which faculty were judging the posters, so we had to try to be standing there talking to any and all of them if we wanted a chance to win the coveted $500 prize, to be spent on travel or supplies. We had to at least pretend to laugh at their lame jokes.

Of course, the irony was that those of us who were most desperately in need of money for supplies or travel were also the least likely to have completed and published our rotation projects, much less working for a politically influential PI.

So in that sense, I should have known. It was really kind of a hopeless feedback loop, and hard work alone would never get me unstuck.

But this post was inspired by a comment, which described an anecdote where a highly accomplished female student was initially overlooked for a poster award in favor of less productive male students, until our local hero App spoke up on her behalf, noting that her work was published.

Two things about this anecdote gave me a visceral reminder of what I hated about those fucking poster sessions in grad school.

1. The inherent bias in the "whoever comes to mind" process of giving awards

I've witnessed this firsthand, and most anyone who has served on an awards committee probably knows exactly how it works. Some people sit in a room, and maybe call out names of people. Other people say yay or nay.

The main problem with this approach is that, more often than not, many otherwise eligible participants are ignored. Because not everyone's work is scored based on defined criteria, it usually comes down to whether they like the person enough to remember who they are, much less their work.

In other words, it's inherently biased towards charisma, and whatever else appeals to the judges.

It's terribly subjective, but most science faculty will deny that it's unfair. They believe themselves to be ultimately objective in all things. They get very defensive if you tell them they might have implicit biases without even being aware of it.

2. The implication that peer-reviewed, published work is more worthy or "better" than the earliest stages of unpublished but groundbreaking research

And truthfully, it's not. Not at all. But at my school, peer review was always viewed as validation.

Really? Three random people say it's okay, so it must be wonderful? Try again, guys. It just means it was deemed complete enough to publish. That's all it means.

In fact, if I were in charge of a graduate program, I would insist that published work be disqualified from departmental poster sessions. I think it's only fair that everyone present work-in-progress.

Isn't that the point of grad school? To shelter students for a few years so they can actually focus on doing something useful, instead of being distracted by all the unfairness inherent in peer-reviewed competition?

Moreover, if I were in charge of a graduate program, I would disqualify projects on which the grad student in question is not first author. Which is usually the case when it's a new graduate student whose work is somehow miraculously already published. And no co-first author nonsense, either, unless the other first author is also a grad student. Fuck that.

But when we're talking about contests that don't include separate categories for new students vs. senior students, this is just kind of stupid. Why make students waste their time worrying about layout when they don't even have a defined project yet?

All those years of practicing making posters (montage!) did not lead me to a moment of victorious poster-making. It was not a cumulative gain: it was a waste. What changed was the technology. I was never going to have patience with cutting and pasting on cardboard, but I do okay when I can make my poster using Adobe Creative Suite. I think the new era won't be posters at all, just walls of video presentations with animated models and raw movie data. And hopefully, publications will be that way, too.

Seems to me that poster sessions should be more about discussion and feedback, and less about prancing about like puppies at Best in Show. If the project is finished and published in a peer-reviewed journal already, you don't really care what we think, do you? You already have the stamp of approval from your so-called "peers". Now you want money, too? Who do you think you are?! I mean, puh-leeze.

My field became very secretive very quickly, in the last 5-10 years, everyone started holding their cards very close and lying to each other about how far along they were or what they were planning to do next.

If that's all we're doing, then poster sessions are just about competitively bragging about work that's already finished, and I'd rather stay home and practice drawing futuristic cartoons with crayons.

In my imaginary future I'm the head of a graduate program where there is only open publication. No anonymous peer review nonsense, and no poster sessions. Also, naptime is mandatory.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Thank commenters it's friday

Just want to send a big e-hug to those of you who occasionally drop in a comment just to say you liked a post, or that something similar happened to you, or that you've witnessed similar horrors, or want to correct the trolls.

Yesterday I got overwhelmed with a strong feeling of wanting to be told I was doing a good job on something, ANYTHING. Sometimes blogging is the only thing that seems to be going well.

Thanks for the e-pat on the head, ya'll. I'm glad I still have the blog as a way to touch base and hopefully help those in need.

Next post will be soonish, I promise... hang in there.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Potholes in progress

Saw this article today in the NY Times about the shortage of civil engineers in India.

To summarize briefly:

1. Civil engineering entry-level positions in India used to pay really poorly.
2. Most Indian civil engineering majors now work for foreign (read: Silicon Valley) software companies, because it pays better.
3. India has a lot of potholes.
4. India put a lot of money aside to fix the potholes.
5. India can't find enough civil engineers to do the work.
6. Pay for entry-level civil engineering jobs in India has doubled in the last 5 years, but it's still kind of crappy.
7. India's solution to their current (immediate!) problem: putting more money into universities to encourage more students to major in civil engineering.

I read this whole article thinking only two things:

1) Why aren't they recruiting from overseas, like we do? Is there an international shortage of civil engineers?
2) Don't they realize that it's going to take at least 4 years to graduate new batches of civil engineers from college?

Anyway it reminded me of the periodic Chicken Little reports from NSF claiming that there's a shortage of scientists. Except here, we just import them.

And no one seems to understand that all they have to do is raise the salary to an attractive level, or provide some other benefits, like housing for immigrants*. The problem will fix itself if they just provide some incentive to the people who would actually be doing the work.

*Sort of like we do for foreign graduate students in the sciences

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Saw a comic in the newspaper about a mythical food called Type-Os as a knockoff of Alpha-Bits cereal. This post is about Type and Oh.

This week I went shopping with a friend for a Large Purcha$e. I don't think either of us believed I'd be particularly useful or supportive. I think she just didn't want to go alone.

Which is okay. I didn't have to go, but I didn't have anything better to do, either.

This friend reminds me a bit of my old neighbor crossed with a Sex In the City character. In a good way. She's cute, smart, knows what she likes, has expensive taste and ambition. A little materialistic, maybe. Maybe a little shallow, maybe a little sheltered, I can't be sure because she's very worldly in some ways. Anyway, she's fairly entertaining. We'll call her Carranda.

We show up at the place and Carranda admits to me that she's nervous. The guy we're dealing with reminds me of a friend of a friend, someone who always annoyed me because he's a smartypants. We'll call him Snob. You know the type, he's usually the smartest person in the room in his social and professional circles. In fact, he thinks he's a freakin' genius.

Snob's the one who, upon learning that I was going to teach a class, immediately began lecturing me on how to conduct the homework policies and exams. He's never taught anything, and he only knows about the one college he attended, which wasn't challenging at all for him, and which he didn't like. So naturally, he wanted to make sure I wouldn't teach like that.

I had a hard time controlling my rage and telling him I appreciated his input and no, I wasn't planning to do any of the idiotic things he was complaining about.

Anyway so Salesguy starts using all the tricks on Carranda, who is smart enough to see through it. But she was torn enough about her purchase to patiently let him go on saying things like:

"You're a smart girl, you know..."

"I gotta be honest, I can't give it to you for less than... I wish I could but..."

"Let me go talk to my manager."

You know, the usual bullshit. Calling her "girl" instead of woman is supposed to be flattering, I guess, and it gets her feeling young and helpless. Then listing all the positives of the product, reiterating the pitch about why it's the best and so special, etc.

Saying you're honest raises all my red flags, because only dishonest people ever say that.

And of course the manager is fictional. There is no manager.

Anyway I asked some questions, because I was getting annoyed and Carranda was floundering. I wasn't sure if she needed more time to think or what, but I figured I would distract the guy.

Salesguy didn't like that.

I started thinking about why this type of guy is so uncomfortable with someone like me. This guy was clearly good at reading people. He had my friend pegged in a matter of moments. He even told her she would have buyer's remorse no matter what she chose to do.

Now, I thought that was crap. I told her: "If you get the right thing, you won't think twice about it. You'll just be glad you got it. In fact, you might wonder why you didn't get it sooner!"

But she said: "No, he's right. I will. No matter what. That's just the kind of person I am."

So he had figured out exactly where all her buttons are. And how to push them.

Personally, I wasn't buying any of it, but I wasn't his target. His sales techniques seemed ham-handed to me, as the Observer. Even if he had sized her up correctly and pushed some of the right buttons, it was obvious when he was trying the different techniques of Persuasion, such as Flattery, Guilt, Scarcity, etc.

And I had the feeling he was quite baffled by me.

As one of my other friends put it, "They're surprised by the contrast between how you look and what comes out of your mouth. I don't think you'd have a problem if you didn't look cute and harmless. Or if you were a guy."

And it's true, I look pretty unthreatening. But my questions really got his hackles up. And I wasn't being aggressive about it, I was just puzzled because I could tell there were inconsistencies (LIES!) in his stories and rationales. I hate that, I can smell it ten miles away. So I ask. As simply and calmly as I can.

Even though I knew that in this case it didn't matter why. All that mattered, really, was whether Carranda was sure she wanted to buy this thing. And she wasn't sure at all.

Of course, I couldn't help thinking it over afterward. That's just the type of person I am.

Maybe there are two kinds of people in life. Most people cope with the fear of meeting new people by learning to categorize. It's simpler. Almost makes strangers seem familiar, so you know how to handle them. What to say, how to react, how to interpret. We all do this to some extent.

Some do it instantly and refuse to budge from their initial impression.

But there are those of us who go in with fewer expectations. We just observe. We adjust quickly and take note of exceptions. And we most appreciate those people who don't fit the categories. We like to collect characters full of contradictions.

My friend, for instance. I don't know her that well, but I have been enjoying getting to know her. I refuse to jump to conclusions about who she is, although I can make observations and correlate those with my existing database on other types of people, and honestly say I've never met anyone quite like her.

The Salesguy Type usually doesn't like me. Or maybe he would if it were to his advantage, but I won't give him a chance because I don't like his approach. And maybe he can tell that.

I actually am sort of friends with Snob, because although we've argued on more than one occasion about his stubborn sexism, I think he genuinely wants me to like him. That's the thing about this type. He wants to be smart, but he's ultimately a big softie, and he's lonely. In Snob's case, he's lonely because while he wants to be smart, he isn't yet wise. He hasn't learned to open his mind to the possibility that deep down, he's rationalizing his sexism and relying on it as a form of denial.

I suspect that Salesguy does the same, based on his experience in his job, where he deals with people all the time. It's most efficient to try to size people up right away, and rely on Types to choose an approach when your job is to manipulate them as much and as quickly as possible. And sexism is one of the easiest tricks to fall back on. Most women go along with it out of habit, or because sometimes you just have to pick your battles.

In a happy end to this story, Carranda ended up walking away from the deal with Salesguy and getting something else at a different place.

I hope she doesn't end up having buyer's remorse. Because that's just the type of person I am.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The gender blender

This morning I read a provocative review of a new book called, aptly, Delusions of Gender. In it, the author throws down a gauntlet, taking particular aim at studies claiming that gender differences in ability are primarily biological.

I'm glad to see books like this, in the sense that I think there are far too many people (okay, mostly men) out there who need convincing. However, I'm not sure that they'll be convinced by anything like this. Will that stop me from reading the book and possibly sending copies to all my friends with daughters? Probably not.

Especially the ones who have one of each: the boy who likes robot toys, and the girl who likes the easy-bake oven. Do they accept any responsibility for this? Of course not. How could parents possibly be biased?

But for those who don't have an open mind about the question, I'm not convinced that battling it out is going to help anyone.

I'm so tired of fighting all the time, I actually passed up a coupon for super-cheap martial arts lessons. There was a time when I would have (and did) jump on these kinds of opportunities, but lately I just feel like I'm shadowboxing all the time. I'm making myself tired, but I'm not landing any hits on my opponent. And I'm not really any more prepared when I find myself on a dark street at night.

I'm still encountering these gender-biased assumptions regularly in real life.

In a rather heated example, I had a long argument with a "friend" over Facebook chat, who was arguing about gay marriage and how it's not just important but also easier for women to take care of children than for men to take half the responsibility, and how this is why the traditional formula of one man + one woman is better.

I was trying to tell him that being a woman does not, by default, make you a better parent. At all. And that breastfeeding does not, by default, prevent all possible health problems later in life, or anything remotely like that. I was breastfed, and I have terrible allergies, and I still kind of hate my mother. Yet I still hear, on a regular basis, that allergies and "bonding" are two of the biggest reasons why breastfeeding is so important.

I also try to point out that there are just as many studies showing that it doesn't matter as there are studies claiming that it's absolutely essential.

And when I see both men and women using breastfeeding as their default, fallback excuse for a) whining all the time about their kids and b) making excuses for why they don't try harder to share the parenting responsibilities equally, it makes me want to bean them on their heads with dirty diapers.

In a more subtle example, more than one friend has suggested I should really consider a Perma-doc type of position, just to stay in academia. It's usually a guy who uses his own wife, or another friend's wife, to illustrate his point, which usually goes something like this:

"She's really happy, she's the right-hand person of this PI, the lab is all women, she's the senior person who oversees all the benchwork and he writes all the grants, so she doesn't have to worry about funding. He's such a great mentor, great boss. He offered to help her get her own lab and funding but she didn't want to. I mean, you've never had a great mentor like that, it would be so good for you."

So I say, Uh, I'm gonna have to stop you right there, buddy.

I have to point out that I have, indeed, had "great mentors" who would have been happy to keep me as their right-hand person. The problem was that none of them did more than offer to help me get my own lab or funding. When I tried to take them up on it, the offer somehow dematerialized.

Or, it turned out they didn't really know how to help, or the offer was actually to help me help them get more funding for their projects, with some nebulous offer to eventually help me get my own projects funded independently.

Yeah, right.

I mean, what?

As in, what rock are you living under?

Because at the end of the day, I sincerely doubt anyone would be pushing me in the direction of aspiring to be the Perma-doc version of the lab harem's best wife if I were a guy.

Historically speaking, that is where women have always been welcome in science. In the supporting roles. Not leading.

But somehow, maybe because I happen to be female, nobody seems to hear me when I say I think I'd be best utilized in a leadership role.

And yet, the younger women seem to see it. They say how discouraging it is that they won't be able to join my lab someday.

And then I have to read these idiotic emails from various women in science groups lamenting how they can't figure out why more younger women don't want to go into science. And how we need to do more outreach with little girls to get them interested.

I keep trying to tell them, there's no inherent difference in girls vs. boys at the level of interest. All kids, when shown cool science demos, think it's fucking cool. Because it is. And only some kids want to know how it works. And only some kids are encouraged to pursue finding out how stuff works. Probably, in our culture, we do encourage boys more, but I think that difference happens more at home than it does at school.

The real problems come later. The glass ceiling is still there. And it just cuts deeper the farther you go up.

At the end of the day, it always comes back to this. Somebody wants to know why it's not fair, why it seems like we're not treated equally.

And some jackass will try to console us by saying it's because our brains are different. Or because we have boobs.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Meh and you too.

The request was to expand on the 5 big W questions + 1: what, who, where, when, why and how.

So I'll start with a secret: this is the seed of all writing. So I could write something for this topic over and over and write something different each time.

1. What

"What do I do now?" I've been struggling a lot with this question about what do I want to do. I've been through this once before, and that's how I ended up doing science.

So I think I've covered heart and head. What's next? Gut feeling?

I feel like doing science for so long has had two contrasting effects on me:

1) It made me braver, and made me realize courage is not really an area where I'm lacking
2) It put me relatively out of touch with my own gut feelings.

The thing about science is that you're taught not to be superstitious, that hunches don't count unless you can explain them with data, and that you should often ignore your gut feeling, especially if your gut is telling you to run away from public speaking or doing animal work.


Truthfully, I think my best weapons in science were my gut feelings. But I was told to ignore them, that I was being paranoid about the people I worked with (who were every bit as crazy and back-stabbing as I feared), and that I was making logical leaps (all of which turned out to be right once I had the evidence to demonstrate my hunches were good).

And I wouldn't have done science at all if I had listened to my gut feelings way back when I interviewed for graduate schools.

Regardless, my goal now is to spend a lot of quality time focusing on my gut feelings.

2. Who

"Who is going to help me?"

At this point I'm not sure if anyone can help me figure out what I want to do, but once I figure that out, I will probably need help to do it.

One thing I fucked up royally in my science "career" (according to the blamers) was not getting the right help from the right people. I realized too late that I needed help from different people, but I couldn't figure out

a) who were the people with both the interest and the power to help me, and
b) how to get them to be interested in helping me

Also, "Who are the people I want to work with?"

This is something I'm focused on right now. I really hated most of my coworkers for a long time in science, maybe because we weren't really coworkers at all, just competitors pretending to be polite. The whole system was set up so that there was never enough to go around, and we were basically trying to climb over each other to get to the good stuff: the money, the attention from our advisor, the jobs.

So I'm wondering who are the kinds of people I can work with? Would I be better off with more creative types? Should I just steer clear of male-dominated careers? Am I better off doing the kinds of things where everyone works independently but in parallel? Are there any careers anymore where there's plenty to go around? Or does this economy pretty much preclude that from happening at all?

3. Where

Also known as, "Will I have to relocate?"

I like where I am now. I am learning new things, slowly, and the pace is more or less up to me. But what if I decide the thing I most want to do in life is something I can only learn in a city far away? Am I going to make MrPhD go with me? Is there anything I want to do so badly that I'd make him quit a job he loves to follow me on a hunch about my next big thing?

4. When

Yes, when. When will I figure this out. When will I feel better. When will the bolt of lightning strike me down, or give me that aha! moment I could use right about now?

One thing I'm certain I'll miss about science are the aha! moments. I loved that. I loved problem solving, I loved getting new data, I loved finding something unexpected in the middle of an experiment designed to look at something else, I loved reading a paper and having so many ideas I had to scribble them all down excitedly.

The good news is there are other kinds of aha! moments, and I wish I had the perspective to realize that years ago. They are there when I cook, and when I shop for gifts, and when I read good books. When I listen to really good music. And when I write.

But mostly I want to know when I will stop having dreams about the bastards who fucked me over in science. I am so tired of the nightmares where I have to go back and work with them again, or I find out one of them is taking credit for everything I did in his lab, even though it was my idea, etc.

5. Why

The one I'm doing the most lately is "Why is this happening to me? Why do people say I chose this? Did I choose this, really? Why would I do that to me?"

Also known as,

6. How

"How did I end up here?"

I keep retracing my steps and saying "No, I couldn't possibly have known any better at the time, I actually got a lot of bad advice, or people seemed to think I could figure it out from obscure hints, and I didn't. I didn't figure it out until it was too late."

I made a lot of mis-steps. One foot in front of the other, right?

But it's pretty much impossible for me to see how I could have known to do any differently, given where I came from, my family, and a general lack of good advice.

Does that make me feel any better? Only slightly.

Also, "How do I move forward and get on with my life?"

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interviewing myself

On the last post, Bee wrote: what's important to you in life? Wisdom? Serenity? Integrity? Popularity?

Yes three times, and no. Sort of like telling the LOGO turtle to draw part of a box, and then stop.


I want to be surrounded by people who really have perspective on what matters and what doesn't. I don't really presume to ever acquire or wield wisdom myself, but I hope to be in its presence as much as possible. Or others with a similar goal of aiming ourselves in the direction of finding more of it.

One thing I've learned though, wisdom is not something you gain just by thinking about it. I didn't know that when I was a kid. I thought if I read enough books, it would make me both smarter and wiser.

It did make me more of a wise-ass, but so far I haven't fully capitalized on that...

Now I think it's sort of a fancy word for learning through experience, but doesn't necessarily equate with age or visible hardship.


Ever since the Joss Whedon Firefly series, I associate this word with two things: a) yogis floating in midair doing the lotus pose (my old image) and b) a creaky old POS-looking spaceship pushed to her limits, who just might fall out of the air at any moment. The way I think about it now sort of superimposes these concepts.

I identify with several of the characters on Firefly: Mal, the scrappy embattled bitter renegade loser leader; Zoe, the mysterious no-bullshit fighter who just keeps keepin' on no matter how much shit she's been through; Inara, the ultimate combination of feminine grace and business sense; Kaylee, the mechanic who is passionate about her work, but also utilitarian and romantic; River, the somewhat psychic nutjob; Shepherd Book, the mysterious ninja priest.

There's two things I've learned.

1. Serenity is worth striving for, but I don't ever expect to get there.
2. It's about the journey, not the destination.

In other words, I'd rather be sailing along and steering with the wind, rather than clawing my way up and icy mountain.


Still, despite all I've seen, one of the most important things to me. Above almost all else.

Case in point: I've had mentors, on more than one occasion, who encouraged me to lie or otherwise break rules for their own or my benefit. But I just can't do it. And I don't mean I can't do it effectively (although I can't, really). I mean it actually hurts me, physically and emotionally, it just goes against the fibrous grain of my being.

Blogging pseudonym-ominously (pun intended) is about as close as I've ever gotten to keeping up a big fat lie. But I've done it so I can tell more truth than I could otherwise.

I don't know if that makes it okay. But I'll defend it as a choice I made, given where I was at the time, and I make it again every day. Is that the same as integrity? Or is that just living as a human being?


Do I care? Don't I? I don't know.

For example, I like having people read this blog. It's not popular, I don't think. But I like that enough people read it and comment on it from time to time that I don't feel like I'm writing in the void.

Would I rather be popular or have fewer, more devoted fans? Devoted fans, definitely. Kindred spirits are worth more to me than schools of fad-following fish.

Would I rather have more followers on twitter? Sure. Am I sick of people who compare stats of how many thousands of followers they have, like it means something? Hell yeah.

When I was a kid, for a while I desperately wanted to be popular. In high school, I had lots of friends, but I wasn't one of The Popular Kids. And in college I always felt like an invisible loner, but it was mostly by choice. I didn't really like the pond I found myself in. I kept to the edges.

So somewhere in there I let go of the idea. I think I equated popularity with feeling loved, naively, and it didn't take me too long to figure out they're not the same at all.

And in case it's really still not clear to you what the difference is, I recommend the movie Mean Girls, because I think it's one of the most clever depictions I've seen.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Meh. And you.

I am grouchy. This is not news to anyone who knows me here or IRL. But I don't have a lot of fresh ideas for blog posts right now. The new Scientiae topic for September looks good, so I might write something for that. But otherwise...

In the meantime, my other writing projects are progressing in fits and stalls, which is contributing to the big pot of grouchy.

If I had to pick two of the five to put in a tattoo, I'd pick "When?" and "Why?"

As in, "When will this feel better?" and "Why am I doing this again?" Which seem to be the two questions around which I have framed all my major life decisions.

What about you? Would you pick "what?" "where?" or "who?"?

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Science and premeds, continued.

In response to comments on last post:


you'll just have to wait and see! Or, you know, lurk more often.

lost academic,

actually I think it's an interesting question, because I really had to think back on what my reasoning was at the time. It's funny to think about now only I could have known back then what would end up happening.

I have students ask me from time to time, "should i major in this or that?" or worse, tell me they want to go to grad school in my field. I always tell them to do the engineering version of what I do, because at least then they MIGHT be able to find work. Full stop. Without grad school or postdoc.

Usually the ones interested in med school are just really gung-ho, so they're not asking. OR, their parents are insisting that they have to go to med school, so they have no choice in the matter. Those two groups are more likely to pick majors where they're sure they can get straight A's and still have time to volunteer as candy-stripers or EMTs.

My parents would have loved for me to go to med school, but they didn't know that the science track was a careerless wasteland, or they never would have let me do it. Part of my reasoning with them was that I could get paid to go to grad school, but I'd have to go into debt to go to med school.

Still, I wouldn't have done it if I had known there would be no jobs after all this "training".

I thought med school + internship + residency was too long to wait to have a Real Job!

Okay I can kind of laugh about it now...


I hate to say this, but I think you're right that med students don't get enough training in how to reason through evidence in support of newer or alternative treatments. Although, I think younger doctors coming out of school now are much more prepared than older doctors.

However, I don't think most undergraduate programs provide this kind of training, either. I'm not sure that requiring lab experience at the undergraduate level provides enough exposure, either. Most of those kinds of internships are in advanced dishwashing and basic pipetting. A good way to get your hands wet, maybe, if you want to see what the research life is like. But it doesn't really show you more than a glimpse.

Instead, I think that perhaps some of the classroom time that med students currently spend memorizing and being tested on out of date material would be better invested in laboratory time learning how research is done and how to evaluate new information with critical thinking skills.

But hey, that's a crazy idea and nobody would ever do it, right?

No, I'm kidding of course. (Some? Or most?) med schools already do lab rotations even with their regular MD students. Sometimes it's just an elective over the summer, or whatever, but it's there for the students who want it.

My beef with this is two-fold, but this is an important point so I'm going to break it down:

1) it's too short
2) it has no consequences.

It's too short

It's usually not long enough for the students to become really invested in their research projects and go through the publication process that basic scientists go through.

In fact, I was astounded to learn how relatively easy it is for MDs to publish their research. Essentially, they just write it up, send it out, and voila! It's accepted.

it has no consequences

Totally bizarre, right? Where's the long wait? Where's the nasty reviews? Where's the arguing with the editor? Where's the political dance you do with your collaborators to avoid citing their boys' club friends just to help cover their asses?

Why no teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, heavy drinking, suicidal thoughts? Why no threatening fights where your PI says he won't renew your fellowship if you don't make this experiment work the way he wants it to?

No I mean, seriously. They don't even have to have someone sponsor them as a PI. They can just, uh, write it up and publish it. Totally bizarre.

Which I think is probably part of why MDs often don't seem to realize how flawed the basic science literature is, how corrupt, how painstaking the process can be just to get a few years' worth of work out the door.

It's really surprising, in some ways, how some MDs assume, like my parents and probably most laypeople, that basic science is somehow really honest or just slow and that's why it takes so long.

It's not slow at all. Academic basic research is just really really fucked up. That is why publishing takes so long.

In other, better news, there's this new thing that I've been clamoring about for years.

So maybe there's hope for us after all.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

On science and pre-meds

In one of the comments on my last post, lost academic wrote:

why MAJOR in science if you really just want to be a doctor and don't want to screw your chances?

I can only tell you from my point of view, what I did and why.

1) why major in science

Because science is quantifiable.

I loved writing. I loved my humanities classes. I loved that my homework was curling up with a book and underlining my favorite parts, making notes in the margins.

I loved getting writing assignments. It never felt like work. It made college feel like summer camp.

But I hated grades. Getting graded on my writing always felt personal. It was all so subjective. What seemed to appeal to one professor was hated by another.

When I got a B+ or an A- in my humanities classes, or god forbid even a B-, on a paper I wrote, it wasn't always clear why. Even to the person who gave me the grade. I was baffled when I asked a professor or TA what I could do to improve my writing. They always hesitated, rarely gave useful feedback.

They said my writing was fine.

Sometimes, if I pushed hard for suggestions, they said they didn't like the premise (my hypothesis offended them somehow) or felt I was making "wild claims" (ha! and now I'm a blogger!).

I couldn't figure out what they wanted me to do differently when the assignments were vague and the feedback even more so.

Ironically, this is also where I got stuck in my wannabe career in science.

I wanted to improve. To me, the fun in school was improving, mastering, making progress. That was also the fun in research.

Nobody told me what I was missing. I'm still not sure. The subjective part, somehow. The likability, whatever that is.

Science classes were fine. They were predictable, formulaic. I knew how to do science. I knew how to study for it. It was fascinating in its own way, and some classes were better than others, but the format was always the same: sometimes graded homework, sometimes quizzes, always exams.

I read the books, I took notes, I did the problems in the books, I reviewed my notes, I took the exams.

Rinse, repeat. It was fine. I was learning. I enjoyed the stuff I was learning. Knowledge was power.

But I have to admit, I look back at the stuff I wrote in college and think it sounds somehow smarter than anything I write now. Probably because of what I was reading at the time. In my humanities classes.

if you really just want to be a doctor

Because I didn't just want to be a doctor. I wanted to study human disease. Grad school was one option; med school was another. I also considered trying to do an MD/PhD.

What if I didn't get into med school? Grad school seemed like a viable backup option.

I was interested in anatomy, in diseases of all kinds: genetic, aging, communicable.

But I wasn't interested so much in working directly with patients. I thought about studying pathology. I did not consider being an EMT or a nurse as a viable option.

There didn't seem to be much work for humanities majors. Everyone I knew who majored in the humanities was determined to get into med school or law school or grad school or business school.

Here's the thing: not all of them got into med school or law school or grad school

In the end, I decided I'd rather go to grad school. And I got in. Pretty easily. So I went.

I was actually kind of baffled when people didn't get in. I knew my grades were not spectacular, and neither were my GREs. I didn't win a lot of awards or fellowships.

All I had was some lab experience. And I did that mostly to keep from dying of boredom.

and don't want to screw your chances

And therein lies the rub. Most of the students I knew who obsessed about grades did not obsess about learning. I didn't want to be one of them.

I had already spent four, no five, years being harassed about my grades so I could get into a college deemed worthy enough by my parents to ensure my future success.

And look where that got me!

I just hated the idea that school was about report cards, just like I hate the idea that science is about impact factor. It never made sense to me, and you'll never convince me that it's a better reflection of quality or productive output than taking the time to actually read the fucking papers.

I also felt like med school was the military. Like I would have to fit a mold more tightly than I would ever have to fit if I went to grad school instead. The culture of it turned me off.

Ironically, some of my favorite people in the world went to med school and came out... still themselves. But now they're MDs. Then again, they always had better grades than me.

And, I was always secretly really rebellious. I think it's just been building up over the years. Lately I feel more rebellious than ever before. Like, fuck it all, it's all a bunch of bullshit.

This was years before Fight Club came out, but even by the time I was finishing college I had already figured out that I am not my report card. I am not my job. I am not how much money I have in the bank. I'm not the car I drive. I'm not the contents of my wallet. I am not your fucking khakis

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Are you sure you want to be a professor?

Saw this article by Kerry Ann Rockquemore in my Monday Motivator feed this morning.

I learned of Kerry Ann Rockquemore at one of those so-called "diversity workshops" where she was one of the few speakers who even MENTIONED sexism as a factor. The actual purpose of the workshop was unclear, since it seemed to be chock-full of general career advice that I'd already heard, none of which had helped me at all.

She was probably the best speaker there, because she really gave concrete advice. So I have to laugh a little at getting her stuff in my feed. It's intended for people who are already tenured or tenure-track faculty.

I probably should unsubscribe.

She's the kind of person I desperately want to ask for help, except that by the time I found out about her I realized it was a) too late and that she was b) too busy to help someone like me c) unless I could pay her workshop fee. And even then, like for most things designated for faculty, as a postdoc I wouldn't have been considered eligible. Probably.

Anyway the part that struck me in this column was where she wrote

The trick is to determine the difference between escape fantasies that result from feeling overwhelmed and the genuine, gut-level resistance that occurs when you REALLY know you're on the wrong path. Below I'm going to suggest a few things you might try as ways to differentiate between momentary frustration and the need to create an exit strategy.

Yes, that really is the trick, isn't it? My therapist seemed to think I was on the wrong path, that I was exhibiting signs of gut-level resistance to the career in general.

In truth, I thought then and I still think now that I was experiencing gut-level resistance to my advisor, maybe, but not necessarily to the career itself.

Some days, I still have trouble extrapolating the concept that my evil advisor represents the evil inherent in the entire profession. And yet, clearly I think that all of our horror story examples are representative. Blogging has certainly taught me that. You can run, but you can't hide forever.

Still, I went with the exit strategy only moments before I might have made it, finally, or been kicked out anyway. Was it self-sabotage? Was I delusional? I still don't know. Maybe I couldn't have survived another year of that, but why did I stick around that long in the first place? Could I have just taken a left turn instead of jumping off?

Had an interesting chat with a religious friend the other day about knowing whether you're on the right path. I told him I'm not sure I believe in the concept of having a path. He said something vague like you'll know you're on the right path when you're on it.

Uh, ok. Thanks.

There's that and then I saw this article in the Chronicle written by a guy who left academia for 20 years, and then came back, only to find it had gotten even worse.

He tells a particularly familiar story about advising a grad student on just how impossibly dismal her career chances are.

And how she ignores him.


Elsewhere on the internets, people are talking about this article in the NY Times about med schools who allow some students to major in the humanities and still become MDs.

Oh, the horror! MDs are not scientists? They don't have to be?

And this is news?

And yet, the fact that it is news has some interesting implications. Maybe not yet, but for the future. For whole generations of patients and students.

One friend remarked to me that it's too bad they weren't doing this when we were in college, how I probably should have majored in English and gone to med school, instead of majoring in science and going to grad school.

It occurred to me that this may be one of the unique facets of our transitional generation. We may be among the few whose doctors who lack creativity for the simple reason that they had it beaten or selected out of them earlier on in their education.

I was also reading about how our generation is composed of control-freaks who are ruining our children, while the generation after us is full of the new flower-kids, who will certainly use creativity to change the world.

What does it matter if I change the world at all?

Sometimes I feel like i was born just a few years too early. Maybe this is why I like Futurama so much.

And just think, if I were a professor right now, I wouldn't have time to sleep or eat, much less watch several episodes of animated sarcasm.

Oh where is that cryogenic accident when I need one? Perhaps my path lies in delivering pizza. Pretty sure somebody is actually hiring people to do that.

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