Picture, or no Picture?

I was saddened by the Neanderthal comments about Sheril’s appearance on what was meant to be a post welcoming her and Chris to Discover blogs, but I guess I was not surprised. Why should the blogosphere be different than any other part of life in this respect? Lots and Lots of posts on many excellent blogs have been written about this ‘incident’ in the last few days, and I’m not going to belabor it. I admire Sheril’s courage at putting her picture out there for everyone to see, this works for her, and have been thinking about my own choice in this respect.

I write quite a bit about myself and my own experiences as a ‘woman in science’, navigating academia, wife, mother-of-two, progressive person, lover of music, traveler, writer of grants/papers, and mentor to a new generation, on this blog. Some of these bits are my triumphs, some are my dismal failures, some- are just lists of my thoughts at any given moment. You may not realize how much of myself I reveal to you this way, but trust me on this one, I let you see quite a bit.  These are the really important parts of who I am as a person, and the important components of my life.

Yet, I’ve deliberately shown you nothing more than the back of my head.  Why?

You all know that I’m a woman, because I told you this already. So I don’t obscure my appearance out of fear that you won’t read or consider my ideas BECAUSE of my gender. I guess I wanted you to learn by listening, because I have things to say from time to time, and knowing what I look like isn’t really important for that. As for being a role model- I’ll be the first to say that women who want to be academic scientists could use a few great role models and a demo that those role models are multi-faceted individuals- but I don’t think you have to see my face to know that I’m on your side, or to learn from my advice and my failures, or to know that I have this wonderful complex life with many interests and loves.

I don’t keep images of my face off this blog out of fear, and I’m not trying to make a point about my appearance one way or another- I just want to have a productive conversation about the things that I (and maybe you all) find interesting and important.

Take the Poll…please…

Would you loyal readers of the blog do me a small favor and take this poll.…(see the left of the page)  about how you think science should be taught in Texas public schools. I’ll give you the heads up that this poll is being run by the hometown TV station of Texas State Board of Education Chairman, and local dentist Don McElroy- an individual that is a radical creationist.  (I’ve written before about Intelligent design and the fake controversy, and the issue of teaching of science in public schools in Texas)

It would be awesome to push the majority in the ‘EVOLUTION ONLY’ direction.  Vote early, vote often, and get all your friends to vote too!

Team Paper Writing

I’m working on putting the finishing touches on a paper. A really lovely paper. The project and the writing itself have been a lot of fun, but coming to the end of the writing process has been a little more taxing. Did I mention that I really love this paper??

Here’s the deal. There are lots (>5) authors on this paper that are all involved in the editing of the text. Very hands on, all of us are. While I think that’s awesome, I also see problems with the complete democratic approach to editing a manuscript- especially when you can’t all physically be in the same room talking about issues that need to be resolved, and especially in the final stages prior to submission. When I’ve looked at the manuscript in the last couple of days  I felt like there are parts of the text that I was reading for the first time…. and that shouldn’t be happening one or two days prior to submission!! Yesterday someone decided to remake one of the figures in a new way… but looking essentially exactly the same as the original version. I’m asking myself WHY??? We should be at the dotting the i(s) and crossing the t(s) stage, not the re-inventing the wheel stage.

Why is this happening? Who knows. Maybe I didn’t read the manuscript very well on previous runs, maybe my memory is shot, maybe I’m cranky?, Maybe we have too many cooks in the kitchen. Actually, I think the answer is in that last option (although I freely admit I probably am a little cranky)- there are too many of us pulling in too many different directions, or writing with slightly different emphasis. Normally I wouldn’t mind this- all good intellectual exchange and bla bla bla, make the manuscript better bla bla bla,  but we are NOT at the early manuscript stage anymore here-we are the T-1 ready to submit revised manuscript stage. I think its time to start cutting back on the number of cooks, and have someone be the ‘decider’ (or maybe the two senior authors) on when we’ve reached the appropriate level of awesomeness in the manuscript to stop worrying about absolute perfection and push this thing out the door.

Otherwise, the manuscript will languish here for too much longer with too many cooks each adding their own secret sauce.

That Dude Is Dangerous

I had a few days away from home with my family, which was lovely.  My children are now old enough to be hearty travelers, and although we still tote quite a lot of luggage, it’s not nearly as much as we took along when they were smaller. I think we got to do everything that they wanted to do- which is what spring break should be like, I think. The grown-ups got to eat at grown up restaurants, and the kids ordered off the grown-up menu. I was at one point told that they don’t NEED the kids menu anymore. You have no idea (or maybe you do), that after literally years of chicken nuggets and fries, I was just delighted to see them eating shrimp and fettucine with vegetables that they couldn’t necessarily identify straight away. I’m not a huge fan of theme parks (just for myself), but we do brave the crowds and go once every few years… and we all had fun. This part of the vacation was awesome.

One of the mornings though, I was waking up and my kids flipped on the TV… to the news. I guess the pope is visiting Africa right now. Apparently he had a few things to say about the spread of HIV and the use of condoms… I’ll just quote straight from The Guardian:

The pontiff said condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV and Aids and could make the problem worse.

I literally wanted to vomit into the trash can in the hotel room. Some 22 million people, yes that’s right folks- human beings, men, women and CHILDREN, are infected with HIV in Africa.  HIV has driven the epidemic of Tuberculosis… rates of TB infection have something like doubled or tripled since the 1990s… and we are talking about babies here… And this in a part of this world that is extremely poor, and totally and utterly unable to fight this rising burden and win. Yes, uh huh, right here in the good old US of A a single person gets on a plane with MDR TB and it dominates the headlines for DAYS (remember that??)- while in Africa the HIV, ( and TB) crisis is deepening by the instant… and this mouthpiece gets up on the stage and poo-bahs one of the very few, relatively inexpensive, public health tools we have to slow the spread of this massive problem… that for all you public health beginners out there… will almost certainly NOT STAY confined to Africa.

Some people (especially those with huge audiences) should keep their personal opinions, not based on science but based on their own opinion and beliefs, to THEMSELVES.  Those of you that belong to this church- if you care about the health and welfare of your fellow human being, and about the children left parentless, homeless in Africa by this crisis, I urge you to put personal beliefs aside and donate the money that you might give in collection basket in church today- instead to a worthy organizations like UNICEF that works to fight HIV and TB in these nations that need our help. Better yet, find an organization that purchases and distributes condoms in Africa, and give them your $$.  (I don’t know much about this organization, but a quick google search brought up this one)

Fighting One Too Many Battles

Just a warning- this post has a high likelihood of turning into a rant. A whiny rant. Consider yourself warned.

There are some things I just expect to work. Really. I don’t want to think twice about them, I don’t want to waste time on them,  I want to do my job – and if other people do their job correctly, these things should be invisible to me. Autoclaves, the physical plant, steam generation, care taking for experimental models, facilities approval for biosafety.

I’m doing my job the best I know how. I’ve been a grant writing machine, I’ve put out a whole mess of papers, I’ve graduated a student, I assemble and deliver the lecture material I’m assigned, I mentored a whole slew of undergraduates that are now in various professional schools (of which I’m exceedingly proud, but consider a smaller part of my job description)…  a colleague remarked to me today that when he’s leaving late, my car is the only one left in the parking lot. In the last three years I’ve continuously felt like I’m fighting an uphill battle- especially in the grant writing department- but I haven’t complained- I’ve just put my head down and gotten it done.

But I’m tired. I just don’t have the energy right now to fight the stupid little battles for things that should just WORK. Period. I mean, it’s totally awesome when one has an Illumina Solexa… but it’s just shameful when one spends a ton of money on that deal, yet doesn’t have reliable steam generation or autoclaves.  Yes, totally awesome that you’ve got that IVIS-200 in the animal facility, …but kinda sad that they can’t keep rodent chow off the floor of the holding rooms though. … And… ensuring that the physical plant is suitable for the biosafety level that is proposed to be used in said facility… who should that responsibility fall on??? It sure as shit shouldn’t fall on the PI.

Seems to me that if you want to be a major research university… don’t get carried away with the technology before you take care of the basics. I’m doin’ my job, now let’s get some people over there doin’ their jobs. Please.

That concludes today’s rant.

Shifting Ground

You are probably wondering where I’ve been… and I really have no good excuse other than to say I’ve been hanging out with my daughters and finishing that paper in revision on the side. Doing both of those things is a joy. The children are excited to have me back, I’m excited to have them back- and the paper is – well, the data are just beautiful and that makes writing easy.

Things shifted dramatically at the MrDrA and DrDrA house in the last two weeks. I’ve had my 6 months of near continuous working, and it’s now MrDrA’s turn to go for broke in that department. I’ve wiped two grants off my list of planned re-submissions for the spring- (if they get funded that is). DrMrA’s having a hard time believing that I’m laying off- he keeps telling me that I should work late. But I do not WANT to work late. I want to come home at a reasonable hour and eat dinner with my children like a normal  human being. Saturday I went for a 3 mile walk with my 6 year old (almost 7!)… and I quite enjoyed watching her and the back end of the neighbor’s dog marching proudly down the street, nothing in particular on my mind. Something I wouldn’t have been able to do just a few weeks ago.

Well, it’s back to the manuscript for me, but for one more piece of news. I just realized that my score from the R21 is up on Commons… a 151 on the first submission. I’m pleased and I’d be delighted if that project got paid- since it’s one I’m really going to enjoy doing and think is valuable. But, you know- I can’t believe that things are working out this way. I never, not in a million years, would have anticipated this.

Position Yourself

DM left a comment on a post I made about some recent potentially good grant news. I was thanking you all for cheerleading… for me and DM said:

Cheerleading or not, YOU are the one that kept the hammer down doubledoc. Great job, way to keep those grants going out and way to keep your science in play. YOU were the one who got yourself into position for someone to notice your great ideas when the situation finally was such that they could do something about it.

Yeah, DM, I know you are right in certain respects. News like this doesn’t usually just fall from the sky- or maybe it does but you can’t benefit if you are not standing in the right place prepared to catch the long shot when it comes your way. So maybe it’s worth going back and doing a little self-evaluation (and I’m a freaking tough critic!!)  and seeing what I did right and what I could have improved upon in the whole junior-faculty-project-setting-up-grant-getting process.

Did Right – in no particular order:

  • 1.  I wanted this job, I took this job, and I made the decision to give it 150% whenever possible and whenever necessary.
  • 2.  I took some calculated risks in projects, based on my knowledge of the field and the literature in my area and in more disparate areas- with full understanding of the consequences if they didn’t work out, but without fear.
  • 3.  I actively sought out like-minded colleagues and collaborators. I wasn’t shy about chatting with people at meetings and sending out cold-call emails to people whose work I thought might overlap or complement mine in a great way.
  • 4.  I developed a support system in the field I’m in, and also in other ‘tribes’ to which I belong.
  • 5.  I tried not to make enemies.
  • 6.  I sought out colleagues that would HONESTLY tell me my weaknesses, and I listened to what they said and didn’t take it personally. And when I did (take it personally), I got over it in a hurry.
  • 7.  I didn’t let up or give up – even though there were some very low moments. (that’s where you all come in!)
  • 8.  I put as many grants as was possible for me and that I had strong preliminary data for, in the pipeline.

Areas where I could have improved (hindsight being what it is and all)

  • 1.  Coulda pushed a bit more and put out papers sooner.
  • 2.  Coulda sent that R01 one or two cycles sooner.
  • 3.  Coulda sent that R01 one or two cycles sooner.
  • 4.  Coulda sent that R01 one or two cycles sooner.

All you junior faculty pay attention to those last three things. They can make you or break you.

If things work out grant-wise as I hope they will- I’m going to shift my attention a bit to:

  • 1.  Speed up data collection.
  • 2. Better oversee my students and other staff.- that should help with #1, as well as improving their training!
  • 3.  EXPAND the lab. Very likely with post-docs and techs  (and a veterinarian or two?) that don’t need a lot of very basic training up front.
  • 4. Take care of a backlog of manuscripts that are ready to go out, and plan experiments  for the next manuscripts.

It feels like I am entering a whole new phase where I’ll have to learn distribute my time a little differently than I have been- since the grant writing is going to lighten up. I’m nervous about this- but excited at the same time!

Peer Review and Its Flaws

I found this article late last week, at Inside Higher Ed… entitled “The Black-Box of Peer Review“, about a new book by Michele Lamont entitled ” How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment“. I’m looking forward to reading this book… when I can get my hands on it and have a bit of spare time (insert big laugh here). According to the Higher Ed. article- for the writing of this book Dr. Lamont was able to go inside the ‘anonymous’ peer review system and have a look around. She did this because she was interested in the idea of excellence… according to the Higher Ed. article:

Michèle Lamont decided to explore excellence by studying one of the primary mechanisms used by higher education to — in theory — reward excellence: scholarly peer review.

Excellent indeed. So- how’s the whole thing working? To quote Higher Ed again:

For those who have always wondered why they missed out on that grant or fellowship, the book may or may not provide comfort. Lamont describes processes in which most peer reviewers take their responsibilities seriously, and devote considerable time and attention to getting it right.

She also finds plenty of flaws — professors whose judgment on proposals is clouded by their own personal interests, deal making among panelists to make sure decisions are made in time for panelists to catch their planes, and an uneven and somewhat unpredictable efforts by panelists to reward personal drive and determination over qualities that a grant program says are the actual criteria.

Uh huh…sure- I get this, and I believe it- it’s sorta old news, but it’s nevertheless nice to see it in print so that we know we are not crazy!!

But I’m more interested in the whole idea of excellence, and I’ll tell you why. At a recent meeting I attended, I was eavesdropping on a discussion at lunch at the table behind mine  (ok, it was  loud so I didn’t actually have to eavesdrop much),  about which grants should be funded. There was one contingent at the table that was arguing in a rather heated way that the ‘best’ science should be funded, without regard to the significance of the public health problem and other factors.  I guess that made me wonder how two reviewers of a particular grant figure out what’s the ‘best’ science, or which grant is the most ‘excellent’.  I don’t think Dr. Lamont’s findings  in the Inside Higher Ed. article made me feel any better:

The most common flaw she documents is a pattern of professors applying very personal interests to evaluating the work before them. “People define what is exciting as what speaks to their own personal interest, and their own research,” she said.

Other flaws in the peer-review process that are covered in this article… and appear in the book:

  • 1.  Little time spent discussing proposals with either broad or no support- most attention directed toward the middle of the pack. Alliance building among panel members – and ‘strategic’ voting to get particular proposals to win approval. Giving higher than deserved scores to particular proposals to keep them alive.
  • 2.  What the article calls luck of timing… rare to go backwards in a discussion to a more deserving proposal that has already been discussed, so it matters where your proposal is in the order of the review… cause they won’t go back to it.
  • 3.  Favoritism for work similar to one’s own… or for some personal interest (other than direct personal ties).
  • 4. “Morality and Character”… ??? According to Dr. Lamont, panels link their evaluation of a particular proposal to the applicant’s character.- ok, to me this is just favoritism by some other name.
  • 5.  Broad agreement that diversity is a good thing, but little attempt to put this into actual practice- other than working on the assumption that elite research universities are ‘priviledged in the competition process’. This means that applicants from such institutions get the benefit of the doubt- when, if you are located at a different type of institution you probably won’t benefit from that.  (That’s a pretty freakin’ weird definition of diversity- you people on panels)…

Yikes. The ugly underbelly- uncovered. What say you all?


I started this blog and made my first post on  March 6, 2008 – so today is my 1 year blogiversary (well, er… actually it’s tomorrow morning, but, what the hell, I’m celebrating a little early)!!

Perhaps you are wondering, what with all I have to do already, what possessed me to start this little diversion?  The summer of 2007 I attended a scientific meeting, at the behest of one of my staunchest allies. At this meeting the organizers set-up a session on Women in Science/Careerism type issues that was well attended. I went- of course- and ended up doing quite a lot of talking (something I’m never short on… hence BLOG)… about the job search, two-career academic couple issues and the like. I had recently been through the whole 9 yards myself and the experiences were fresh.

After that session I remember feeling like there was something basic missing in the training of many academic scientists- they just don’t learn and are never taught science ‘careerism’ or how the academic system works. That fall I coached three post-docs that I knew on getting faculty jobs- and all three went out and successfully competed for academic positions (I’m sure they would have done fine w/o my help though). I thought about finding a place to write everything down for my trainees and friends that would ask me for help. I don’t think the way the ‘system’ works needs to be a mystery to anyone who is interested in competing in it successfully.

Second- I didn’t know any academic women scientists who had little kids pre-tenure (actually, that’s a lie, I knew a single one way back in my training). I longed for someone to talk to about this experience- Mom’s and Dad’s alike- about the difficulties of the continuous balancing act- about being able to find reward in both. I thought that maybe if I could share my own experiences I- I would find others in the same tight spot- and we would all feel a little less isolated.

Anyway, these thoughts rolled around in my head for months- but I didn’t really know what or how little ol’ me could contribute something that might help others in similar situations understand the academic system, see the complexity of two career academic family life for what it really is, then make a choice and feel supported if academia was not their answer.  Although I kept a blog about my family for a couple of years prior to this- at that time I was completely unaware that there was a bigger science blogging community. On my family blog I had some references to my academic work life and career- and I noticed that Bora started visiting my blog (which was NOT highly trafficked so it was pretty obvious). I followed the link back to his blog… started reading… and typed the words ‘women in science’  into google… and I saw the LIGHT. Blue Lab Coats was born that very day.

I didn’t know if anyone would read it- and honestly- at the time- I didn’t really care. I had a place to write down everything that I’d been teaching postdoc friends about academia etc, that I could refer people too if they asked me for advice,  and if a few unknown but interested parties stumbled upon it, that was ok by me as well. I can’t remember who found me first, Juniorprof, Comrade Physioprof, Drugmonkey, or Abel Pharmboy– or Bora (of course)- I’d be remiss to name one since I can’t really remember…. I’ve so enjoyed reading their blogs as well as many many others- and all of those listed on my blogroll (which isn’t very up to date- so if you are missing- give me a shout out and I’ll add you!!)… (and Mad Hatter...where are ya??)

I didn’t expect what came next. Who knew that this blog would grow to over 11,000 pageviews per month?  I wasn’t anticipating what a talkative bunch you all are- the awesome discussions we would have, the moral support we would offer each other, the teaching- the occasional virtual yelling. The schooling in creative and incredibly dirty vocabulary that would be offered up by Comrade Physioprof.

I enjoy it all. I always learn from you people- and I hope that this works both ways!