Happy 2010!!

I’ll get back to regular posting soon, I promise. But for now I’d just like to say- 2009 has been a tough (but good) year for me, and a very tough year for several people close to me. I hope that we can turn the page on those difficulties and move forward in 2010. I think we can, and maybe we have already?.

Tonight my family is together (mostly) and my friends are closer than ever. Thank you all for continuing to visit this blog, and for contributing to the discussion. Happy 2010 everyone!

Research program first, teaching second?

Ok, well I’m back. Not that I was holidaying it up or anything. I feel like I’ve spent the whole of December lying on my back in bed. First that little GI thing I got from my daughter and then the nasty sinus head cold that I’ve had for the last 5 days. Imagine cooking Christmas dinner for a houseful of guests, and walking 3 households worth of dogs like that. I’m better today, thanks.

Now I’m starting to think about January and February, and all of the competing responsibilities I have for the next few months.  See, I think I’ve taken on a lot….rather, I KNOW I’ve taken on a lot. Writing and teaching are going to be especially heavy in the next couple of months, and I’m always asking myself how much I can logically take on in any given time period, and of those tasks- where my efforts need to be focused most and what can get less attention, at least in the short term. There is triage going on in my head, and the triage is based first on what needs to be done to get grants goals accomplished and get grants renewed, and second on everything else.

Anyway, as far as getting grant goals going and grants renewed. I know that in order to get these things to happen I have to get the new people that I have hired up to speed and working, and I have to push out papers. I have 3 papers that I want to turn out relatively quickly, for one I have a nearly complete manuscript, for a second I have to motivate my postdoc to give me some text, and for the third I need to put my head together with my collaborators and we have to turn out a manuscript quickly or we are going to get scooped on the story. I’m DELIGHTED to have all this writing to do, writing about actual data, that is. It is this, and getting the lab moving now that I have filled up the group, that I really want to be doing. The fact that I want to be doing the writing makes it easy to have this as my top priority.

There are also lots of tasks that are less fun, or let’s say that I get less personal satisfaction from, that also need to be done.  I’m teaching here and there in various courses in the spring, and for two of these courses it will be the first time I am delivering the material. For one of the courses, taught out of my home department, I am taking over some established course material and I am charged with updating the content. I don’t find this fun (I’m not sure anyone does), but I know it needs to be done. For the second course there was a bit of a crisis and I decided to be a good citizen and help out. Now, I know what you are all saying… (you… VOLUNTEERED?…WTF)… but I think these things need to be done from time to time, and this teaching is in a department where I have a joint appointment- so it is a bit of calculated pay-it-forward.

This all seems pretty straightforward when you look at it from the research intensive faculty perspective. Individual research program first, teaching second. Right? But the problem with this is that this is not how the institution seems these responsibilities- or it is, at least, not how they talk about them. I hear about a bazillion hours of stuff in meetings on curricular redesign, how and where lecture hours are to be delivered, and the needs of the professional/undergraduate students, and absolutely zero on developing a strong research program and managing and running a productive group. I spend countless hours fighting for small amounts of resources, mainly facilities type resources, that are necessary for me to get research done- it just doesn’t seem to be a priority of the institution. Sometimes it feels like their triage is the exact opposite of my triage… theirs is teaching first research second… and mine is research first… teaching second.

2nd Annual BLC Holiday Roundup

And so it goes. Another year. I’m going to try this holiday letter thing again- because hopefully I can only improve upon last time- so here goes.

We’ve had a busy year in the DrdrA Laboratory. A few high points included securing our own independent funding, publishing a few nice papers, putting in the tenure package, and graduating our first Ph.D. student. These were community efforts, if ever there were such, with everyone pulling 150%. My trainees now understand that my crazy-burning-the-midnight-oil hours have helped to keep them in their jobs for a few years more. In return, they know that I expect a lot from them this coming year. And I do mean A LOT.

But there are always a few low points, and to those I think we should confess- lest I repeat the same mistakes again in 2010. I’ve got to get faster about reading/editing and otherwise turning over manuscripts that come across my desk. There are still too many piled up here and they should be out, out, out the door. 2010 will be the year for this. Second, mentoring. Since I am shifting away from grant writing, I’m shifting back toward mentoring- and not necessarily more mentoring- but better, more effective mentoring. I realize I have trainees with all different personality types and that one size does not fit all for them. I’m going to enjoy getting to know them all better and figure out what works for each of them, and they are going to get pounded- each in their own way- to work on their own set of skills –bench, written and oral presentation. Data- and troubleshooting, do you ever find that you don’t look at the data enough? I just haven’t had enough time to ponder the data. And I need time for that. I’ll gladly reclaim that time in 2010.

As for the life part of the work-life balance, well, we’ve had quite a year there as well. BigA is a mid-career 6th grader with a 16 year old attitude. We are riding the roller coaster of teenage personality, wondering what happened to our quiet, well-behaved and ever-agreeable 5th grader. But we’ve been told that could even itself out in the 7th grade. BigA is very bookish (which we encourage), musical (which we also encourage), and full of interesting and mostly useless factoids (just like her dad, and of course he encourages that) that will someday make great cocktail party conversation. She likes mythology and the clarinet. Anyway, we are trying to teach responsibility, politeness, inquisitiveness, two languages, and a strong work ethic… she’s learning and we love her. She reminds me of myself at her age, a champion debater.

LittleA is, well, LittleA. Ever into mischief- can be the most loving and the most naughty child all at the same time. She’s the sporty one, playing the soccer goalie and really loving it. Fortunately for her parents she’s been pretty well behaved in school this year, and she seems to fit in there better than in the last couple of years. I suppose that was only a matter of maturity. Both girls love cooking, being outdoors, reading, pets (of which we sadly have none), and traveling.

As for me, well, I continue to work like mad, be a good parent/spouse, blog when I can, monitor my own aging parents, keep up with my sister and with friends. I do the best I can to balance all of these areas, and I think this usually works out. When things falls through the cracks once in a while I’ve stopped beating myself up about it- or at least I’m trying to. I’m older, and maybe a little bit wiser, and generally content with our state of affairs. DrMrA and I have our goals for the next few years set out in front of us and I feel like we are working on them together. We have solid jobs/careers that we enjoy, we have great family and friends, and we are all relatively healthy. I wish all those things for you now and in 2010.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all!

Anyone familiar with this site: Under the Microscope?

I noticed these guys following me on Twitter- so I followed the links to their site which can be found here.  Their mission is to:

Under the Microscope collects stories from women involved with science, technology, engineering, and math with the goal of publishing a survival guide for young women in science. Under the Microscope also publishes news, tips, interviews and profiles.

More specifically:

Because women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineeringand math, the goals of the Women Writing Science project are:

  • To increase for young women and the general public the visibility of women working in scientific fields and engineering.
  • To raise awareness about how women enter scientific careers inside and outside traditional pathways.
  • To provide young women with role models, images and accounts of women working in STEM fields.
  • To provide young women with widespread access to essential STEM concepts in especially interesting and socially-relevant ways.
  • To help parents and teachers use their influential positions and wisdom to encourage young women to pursue STEM fields.

Go on over there and have a look around if you have a minute!

For lack of a better topic…. (UPDATED)

I’M ALIVE!! Ok, I don’t really have any deep post topic today. I’m feeling constrained by that medium right now- so I’m just going to riff and we will see where that goes. Feel free to stop paying attention at any time.

I can’t believe it is 7 pm and I am only just now getting started with the things I want to do today. I told DrMrA just last night if I could get this blasted book chapter and a second piece of writing that I’m working on off my plate this week, I’d be a happy camper over the holiday. I could relax and polish up a manuscript- and maybe even submit it between the holiday and the new year…. We carefully went through the weeks negotiation about who would be home early on which nights this week, and who was taking care of what responsibilities with which kids… and when. The handoffs with the babysitter were carefully choreographed. Yeah, well, THAT was last night.

This morning the shit hit the proverbial fan. What’s that they say about the best laid plans?? Ours were bloody beautiful. But a couple of unexpected crises at my job are going to suck some of the little time that there is out of Monday, Tuesday, and probably Wednesday. Leaving Thursday (not my night to work late), and Friday (which, as it happens is an important family birthday for which we have dinner reservations, and the day I pick littleA up from school at 3 pm)…. for writing.


Ok, I’m calm. I can do this, NO SWEAT.

BUT- I’m not doing another book chapter until …say….2015. Don’t EVEN ask me. (I’m still learning about how to set boundaries)

I expect you all to remind me I said that when I pop out some chirpy sentence in the middle of a blog post somewhere about how delighted I was to be asked to do another.freaking.book.chapter.

Yikes. 7:22 now, better get cracking!

**UPDATE** And it just keeps getting better every time I turn around. Last night when called home at 9:22 pm- the kids were still up. The three of them (the kids and their dad) got a tongue lashing about bedtime being at 8:15, and about I don’t want to hear ANY whining about how tired everyone is this morning. Sheesh.

THEN, when I arrived home at 9:45 pm…. DrMrA announced that I am now also taking care of the neighbors dog for two days (WEDS, WAS my night to work late, and THURS)…. cause a relative passed away and they have to travel. (Seriously though-I don’t mind. Really.)

Just keep piling it on. I KNOW I’m being tested.

Early X-mas gifts

Child with fever and GI issues give me an early X-mas gift.

Two Actually:

Fever and GI issues.

I’m totally wiped out.

Lovely. She’s going to have to learn to wipe her own bottom.

(p.s. actually I can’t complain too much, we’ve had about a 1 to 1.5 year run with no illness at our house. An accomplishment unimaginable when my girls were younger.)

(p.p.s.- Gross- I know, but if you are going to have kids, you are going to have to toughen up.)

No it’s not the history, it’s the missed opportunity…(Updated)

I haven’t stepped out into many blog controversies lately, but looking through all the stuff in my Google reader this morning I found this really excellent post from Tara at Aetiology, further commenting on this post by Dr. Hgg, and yet a third post from Sheril on her blog.

All this text is about a new book out ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing‘…ala Dawkins, and the current subject of all of these fine posts is that out of the 83 excerpts in the book- only 3 are written (actually 2 are written and 1 is co-written) by women. Hmmmm, surely there are a few more fine science writers out there who are women…. and why are they missing?!

Well, one can always say that the contents of this book are the top choices reflect the preferences of one individual, one very learned and powerful individual, one individual that would be excellent to have as an *active* advocate for women in science, Sir Richard Dawkins. Dr. Dawkins actually responded to a comment by Ed Yong on Sheril’s post:

“There is certainly no shortage of excellent female science writers to choose from. One of them writes this blog. Others are linked to in this very post. Olivia Judson, Deborah Mackenzie, Virginia Hughes, Natasha Loder, Linda Geddes, I could go on. Their skill is equal to and often superior to their male peers. . . . You’d be insane to argue that the 83 pieces in this tome are the best 83 articles written in 2008.” (Yong)

2008? Who said anything about 2008? This anthology goes back a hundred years, and not a single contribution is as recent as 2008. It is not an anthology of “science writing”, such as would indeed include Olivia Judson and the other admirable science writers whom you list. It is a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology. (Dawkins)

Dr. Dawkins-…let’s not focus on the past. Let’s focus on that lost opportunity, however big or small, to actively and positively influence the future of the other 50% of the population to participate in academic science and participate at a high level.  That, in my humble opinion, is what everyone is so upset about. You see, I’m a young(ish) female scientist- and there is a high probability that your book will cross the threshold into my house, like so many of your other fine books. I’m going to read your book, and I’m going to see that great science writers don’t include people like me, hardly at all. Then I’m going to re-read your – hey, sorry,-it’s-not-my-fault-history-is-what-it-is comment up there- and I’m going to have the reaction I’m having right now…. which is- yes, duh- I know you can’t change history- but you CAN influence the future SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

See, I hope the power of this little controversy will be to highlight fact that the future for scientists who happen to be women, and science writers who happen to be women can be different but it *requires* the active advocacy of powerful people.  I’m sure you must have noticed the paucity of women on your list when you were putting your book together (at least I hope you did). If you truly are as you say:

I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists

Then I respectfully challenge you to put the ‘history is what it is’ bit aside and figure out what active role you might be able to play in the future to even out the gigantic gender disparity on display in your book.

p.s. I *truly* and deeply appreciate that much of your time is spent fighting creationism… for which, as a biologist, I’m very grateful… but I suggest that advocacy for scientists who are women (and steppin’ in to advocate with women like these achieve these goals)  is a similarly worthy cause.

**Update** p.p.s Both Drugmonkey and Greg Laden have written their own posts since this morning, and there is also discussion over at Miranda’s blog

You know you are a microbiologist mom when…

Your kid has fever/diarrhea and you are up with them all night…. while they are snoozing in between episodes you can’t sleep… mentally listing all the foods they ate in the last 4-5 days, which might be suspect…. organizing the list of differentials in your head…. and determining how high E. coli O15:H7 is on it. Even though you logically know that the number of cases of O157:H7 is very, very small, compared to all the other potential causes.

Luckily this morning she is feeling much better. I’m trashed, but I don’t care- because she’s better.

What are you teaching your trainees about grants submission?

To all you mentors… what are you teaching your people about grant submission?

I realize that by the time most of your people submit their first big grant, they are off your payroll and out of your lab. But while they were in your lab, what were you teaching them about grant submission and the whole process? A few questions:

1. Did you talk to your trainees at all what happens when you are preparing the grant – you know about all the non-meat-of-the-proposal stuff that goes in there, and about how grants administration – especially pre-award grants administration- is done at your institution?

I had no idea whatsoever about this as a student, although since I wrote/submitted myself as a postdoc I did quickly pick what all that extra paperwork is and who-does-what support type stuff. We have superb pre-awards administration- but not all institutions are like that. As I understand it there are some hinterlands where PIs are left mostly to their own devices for pre-award administration (i.e. they get to fill out all the complex forms in triplicate, do budgets etc etc.). That must be a big bummer- I know we are very luck to have such great support.

2. Were you talking to your trainees about the structure of the NIH and what happens to a grant (i.e. where it goes) after your research administration people hit send?

I admit that I was totally clueless about this as a graduate student. I vaguely remember certain times of the year when my cherished graduate advisor was running around with stress coming out of his/her pores just prior to a granting deadline. But I confess that I had no idea of specifically where grants go and how they get there other than that they fell into this big black hole called NIH. During my postdoc I became much more savvy to this, because I was writing some myself, and my advisor was very good about helping me through the process. He/she didn’t write me a handbook- but the advice was pretty darn good.

3. Did you talk to your trainees about what institutes and study sections that you submit your grants to and why? If you have experience with more than one study section and they have subtle (or gigantic) differences what were those leanings, and did you pass those along to your trainees?

I don’t think I really got this kind of mentoring until I was junior faculty. I wonder how commonly grad advisors and postdoc advisors are providing this kind of information to their trainees. From my side I’ve been really lucky to have close mentors that talk to me about this stuff- I’ve made a few missteps here requesting or de-requesting particular study sections, just because I was inexperienced in the process, I didn’t know the right questions to ask of my mentors or of the scientific review administrator (SRA) or program officer (PO) (that link is for NCCAM but applies pretty much to program officers in general), perhaps I didn’t even understand the distinction between the SRA and PO, and I didn’t quite know who looks at what in the process to making the determination of which study section is most appropriate for a particular grant.

4. Did you give your trainees any idea how long the whole federal grants process takes from writing to submission, from submission to review, from review to summary statements, from those time points to council (and what the heck is that?!) and then ultimately to funding or re-submission?

I imagine that many people don’t come up against this until they are in their first faculty position- and generally have no idea how long things take and how many things you can and should overlap to hike up your chances. I was lucky, I had written and submitted grants during my postdoc, I had good mentorship, and I knew the approximate (and very lengthy) timing of things.

OK- grad students and postdocs, those of you that have visions of an academic position sometime in your future, get out there and start talking to your advisors about this stuff. Sure, you can and should get the basics first by doing google searches and poking around on the Office of Extramural Research website (OER)– but the more subtle stuff you will either have to learn by bitter experience or you’ll have to just ask and ask and ask until you find the mentor who will lay that information out for you, step by step. And believe me, there is LOTS of this little subtle stuff that is really important.