Twisted Travel Dreams…

You know you are doing too much traveling when you have dreams about being in an airport and trying to check in for your flight- only to discover that the airline has decided that the flight you were supposed to be on is now scheduled to go to some other destination. Then, in your dreams, you climb into the sofa-bed that is available in the airport  (!!!)  while discussing with a flight attendant (displaced from the same flight) whether or not this would be an instance in which the airline should pay for a hotel room, and how you are going to get yourself home.

Seriously, that was in my dream last night.

Did your student write the paper, or did you?

Hmmm. Not sure I’m happy with that title, my students probably could have done better.

I was talking with a colleague about paper writing the other day. In comparing mental notes, we had completely different experiences of how our papers got written as graduate students. I wrote mine. Well, that is a lie.  I wrote the complete first draft. That first draft came back to me absolutely bathed in red pen. Yeah- that’s right PEN. These were the days before you could just hit ‘accept all’ on the track changes function and have a nicely edited draft with the touch of a few buttons. I alternately hated (not really, only figuratively of course), and loved, and hated (only figuratively), and loved my mentor as rounds of drafts were turned in and handed back sometimes with words edited back to read exactly as they had been written in some earlier version. In the end I admired my mentor’s technique with this whole thing- because he/she made paper writing a very valuable learning experience for me, the trainee.

I try to torture teach my students this way now, and I see both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The biggest strength I have already mentioned- the learning experience of becoming a better writer and learning the thought process of putting a data, a paper, a story really- together. To build a case, make an argument on paper. The weakness- of this approach is that it can take what feels like forever and a day- as green students cobble together their idea of what constitutes something publishable (with anxious advisers prodding them along). The difficulty, the time and the effort involved for the adviser depends on the language, writing ability, and background knowledge of the student. When English is the second language- having the student write the first draft can mean that the mentor re-writes practically every.single.word. Re-writing at this scale can be incredibly labor intensive for the mentor.

My colleague, on the other hand, never had the experience of putting a paper together and doing the crazy amounts of editing during their graduate training. Oh they may have lightly edited some draft- but the bulk of the text was written at the outset by the mentor themselves. I’m sure that this approach ultimately brings the paper to submission status faster, and students may still learn what pieces of data are needed to put a paper together- but I bet a lot of the learning of scientific writing is lost when papers are written this way. There are clear benefits to the mentor, the student, the lab and the project in being able to publish quickly. What happens though- when the student has to put together a thesis? What happens when they move on to their postdoc and haven’t yet written a whole manuscript from start to finish?

And finally- I wonder how career stage of the PI plays into this… are more seasoned PIs more secure ($s, papers) and not as needy of quick pubs… thus able to let newbie paper writers flounder a little? Does the necessity of as many pubs as quickly as possible that early career stage PIs make them more prone to do the paper writing for their trainees? Or are these factors irrelevant… are we bound to repeat what our mentors trained us to do- do it like they did it. That seems to be how I do it… then again – I think I had a stellar mentor in this respect.

Linky Linky…blogging and doing science while female.

I’ve been meaning to write about Science Online 2011 (#scio11), which I found so enjoyable but for some reason more intense than scio10. Anyway- I came across this post today by Kate Clancy on her blog called Context and Variation. This was one amazing post and really sums up some of the perils of blogging and doing science while female. A couple of Kate’s observations from conversations before the panel are things I hear over and over and over:

  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.
  • We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men.

FOR SURE. In fact I’m asking myself if this is ever going to get better? And the observation below from the panel itself-

  • One fantastic young woman talked about how she avoids discussing her blog with her peers for fear of becoming the “soft skills chick.” Doing anything other than the hottest science seems to delegitimize women very quickly; however in some cases men get rewarded for doing the same thing (examples that come to my mind are picking up extra teaching and service, or having offspring, the latter being empirically supported).

Many male scientists that I know that blog are doing so under their own names… (Bjorn Brembs, and Jonathan Eisen – both writers of great blogs that I read regularly), and I never ever ever think of them as less of scientists because they blog about topics sometimes outside of bench work. They why oh why do I always feel like I have to keep my blogging/tweeting on the down low because I may be considered a less ‘serious’ scientist…. I guess I didn’t realize that this was a general feeling among us blogging girl scientists…

 

10,000 miles in 10 days

Study section… to home… to SciO11… to home… to distant state to give invited seminar… in 10 days. Only enough time in between to do laundry. Met so many interesting people, talked about science, science communication and more science. Saw old friends, mentors, met several new people who I hope will become collaborators. Exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. Juggling the work stuff with the phone calls from kids who (a) lost something needed for a school assignment due in 3 weeks and must find it right NOW, (b) are fighting with each other, (c) want me to take care of some ache or pain from 2000 miles away, or (d) are just having a weak moment of missing their super-mom, make for a schizophrenic existence.  And as for the traveling one thing is for sure- I’m not 30 anymore…it just seems to take me longer to recover from these crazy multi-leg trips than it used to.

To make it all more complex- BigA became a teenager this past week. It was super important to me to put together a cool teenage birthday event and try to keep the  dorky science geek mom thing (not so easy when you are on science geek 24/7 while traveling) to a minimum around her friends. We seem to have hit that age where she is embarrassed by her parents and she is so wanting to live up to the social pressures (OMG, who knew you could have a Coach purse at the age of 12)… of middle school. She’s also embarrassed by all things geeky and nerdy… which makes it tough for her parents to convince her that excelling at academics IS cool … it is just so NOT cool in the collective middle school psyche. She has however, admitted to thinking genetics is ‘interesting’, and we sometimes chat in the car about how it is possible that Little A has brown eyes when parents and sister have green eyes… There is a glimmer of hope in there that she secretly thinks science is OK. To be truthful, handling the middle school angst is more difficult than anything I do in my job, and I worry about what parts I’m not seeing when I’m not physically here.

Yeah, so this is more of a diary entry than a blog post… what can I do… my brain is JELLO….so this is all I’m capable of.

I fell off my horse…say what?? “Nature One”??

Via Martin Fenner and Bjorn Brembs this news…  a press release from Nature Publishing Group announcing “Scientific Reports” :

An online, open access, peer-reviewed publication, Scientific Reports will publish research covering the natural sciences – biology, chemistry, earth sciences and physics. Scientific Reports is accepting submissions from today, and will publish its first articles in June 2011. More information is available on the Scientific Reports website (www.nature.com/scientificreports).

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Is this the same Nature Publishing Group that last year crapped all over PLoS One in an editorial by Declan Butler provocatively entitled ‘PLoS One Stays Afloat with Bulk Publishing’, echoing ugly whispers in the scientific establishment that PLoS One would be a dumping ground for data that couldn’t get published anywhere else for a myriad of reasons. Guess the release of PLoS One’s impact factor (somewhere above 4… 4.4 or 4.3 I think I read) in early 2010 probably made some people re-think their assumption that it was a final resting place that people would pay to deposit their  trash data. NPG’s new model appears to be nearly identical to that of PLoS One, publication fee and all.  (BTW I now hear grad students going around saying stuff in the vein of ‘we shouldn’t publish in Journal XYZ… ? It’s OPEN ACCESS.’ They picked that drivel up somewhere- and are repeating it without even knowing what open access means or why they think it is bad. )

Anyway- about the Nature “Scientific Reports” thing- I’d say this is not just a good indication that PLoS One is doing something right (a la Martin Fenner)-  it is an indication that PLoS, and PLoS One* in particular, have changed the paradigm that was scientific publishing in a rather radical way. I hope the champagne corks are popping in San Fransisco this Friday. Congratulations PLoS One, and welcome NPG to the future of scientific publishing- just follow PLoS One and they will show you the way.

*Disclaimer: I’ve been an out-of-the-closet lover of the PLoS One publishing model for several years, I have papers there, I know some editorial board members, and I’ve been an unabashed groupie of Pete Binfield since I saw him speak at scio10.

Fine line between simple and empty

There is a certain skill required to communicate complicated techniques or ideas in limited space and in an understandable way, with just enough detail in the important places so that the reader can (1) clearly understand what you are proposing, and (2) believe that you know what you are talking about. Apparently, this is not a very common skill.

If I read one more sentence  like this “We will use molecular [make absolutely sure not to insert anything here that might provide even the slightest clue about the identity of said tool] techniques to answer question X“, as shorthand for a technique in a section where some detail (even limited!) is supposed to appear- I think I’m going to hurl.

That skill of being able to put things simply and understandably, while still containing the essential elements- cultivate it! I can’t take this anymore!!!!

To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

I know I have been neglecting this blog, and I assure you this is not a desired or a permanent state. I am not sure when I’ll get back to regular posting- as I have a January travel hell coming up, but I really want to emerge from my self imposed blog hiatus and give a shout out to Gerty Z, on the occasion of her Sunday afternoon panic attack.

I too recall when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, trying on my new lab for the first time, feeling like I could accomplish everything and nothing all at the same time. The science, as the thing I knew best, seemed like the least of my concerns since I had to deal with all kinds of subjects I had little experience in like hiring people, mentoring rotating people, managing budgets, attend a bunch of meetings (that seemed pointless at the time), and- importantly- submitting 1001 grants on 1001 different deadlines each with their own 1001 pieces of supporting paperwork. I don’t think I mentioned the bane of my existence … compliance paperwork for about the most complicated set of experiments one could imagine- 3 different animal models, non-survival surgeries, and biohazardous agents. And, I was lonely in my new position- not having a fellow jr. faculty buddy to compare notes, successes and mistakes with. Tenure seemed so far off, and I kidded myself that I just wanted a honest shot at it under my own power and it didn’t really matter to me whether I got tenure or not. What I’m trying to say (and perhaps should have used less words for) Gerty Z- is I know where you are coming from.

Take heart though- I’ve made it to the other side of tenure now, and if I can make it- so can you. First- the pep talk. You must trust in yourself, your abilities, and your education, recognize that few mistakes are fatal and try to avoid those that are. Do your science and build a network of colleagues and collaborators as though your life depends on it. Worry less about absolute number of papers you need to get tenure, and more about having every piece of preliminary data you need, publishing it all, hitting every grant deadline, and taking those reviewers just as seriously as you can. Don’t compare yourself to others, just DO the science that got you on the tenure track. And… ENJOY IT… after all… you do this because you love the questions and seeing the results, don’t you?

As for your specific questions….I’ll revert to my preferred mode… the list:

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA’s most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey’s repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Wow. Good one. Stop looking at the tree and look at the forest. Less important that you need 7.4 published papers in journals with impact factors of 9 or higher to get tenure (ok, I totally made those #s up), more important to recognize that if you don’t have a GRANT you are highly unlikely to get tenure at a research heavy institution. More important to recognize that without publishing your data you are unlikely to get a grant… reviewers will say you are unproductive. Tenure requirements are vague, I think (and I’m sure physioprof will correct me if I’m wrong) in part because they depend on your departmental standards, your institutions standards, and what the field considers important contributions. These will vary from field to field, candidate to candidate.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

You will know that you are talking to her too much when she tells you to go away. IMHO- better to err on the side of too much talking to chairpeople and senior colleagues- science talk, grant talk, paper talk, or career talk not idle chatter. You are bound to make some mistakes in all that chat- but remember, not everything is a test, and if people remember even 10% of what you say to them I would be shocked. What they will remember is that feeling of being in the loop, that they know that you are trying (submitting grants and papers!), and they will feel brilliant when they can solve a problem or an issue for you.

4. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get “advocates” that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people’s offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don’t even know what I would say. I don’t want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ve had new jr. faculty send me emails saying basically, I’m new, I see our projects are closely related, I wondered about bla bla bla (interesting research angle), and would you have time to meet. You can find other junior faculty by asking around, and by looking at departments related to yours and seeing who has recently been added as asst. prof on their web pages. As for getting ‘advocates’ that are more senior faculty in other departments… I’m not sure why at this early stage you should be thinking about this. You’ve got time. Set up your primary relationships in your own department, seek out other scientists with the expertise that you need on projects that are of mutual interest to you, mentoring relationships and senior faculty advocacy of you will flow from this.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don’t want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

This is an easy one. You need to set up a short, contained project utilizing very few specialized techniques, and preferably some that can be repeated. Unless you have a great tech or postdoc, you will need to hold the rotation student’s hand at first. You should think more about what YOUR expectations for the rotation students are- and less about what their expectations might be of the rotation. Talk to a colleague in your department that has high success recruiting grad students, who gets the smart ones, and whose students walk out having done great projects… if you need advice on how to set up a rotation and how to recruit the best students.

I’m going to skip over 6, 7… and cut straight to:

8. How do I “pick mentors”? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

There are two issues here- the ‘official’ mentoring committees and those people who are your real scientific and career mentors. These can be the same individuals but often they are not. You must have individuals in your department and in your previous life as a postdoc and grad student that you know well, and whose opinion you trust. I have news for you – those people are ALREADY your mentors. Network like a madman at meetings … find people in your field with like interests, or experiences…  As for the official mentoring committee, no need to set that up this instant. If you have a sense that one or two of the faculty members in your department are in your corner, and are willing to give you solid, straight shooting advice EVEN when that advice might be something you don’t want to hear… then at least you have a start on this.

9. I don’t know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so – but how does that work?

This is also a tough question. I never participated in any collaborations as a student, and only one as a postdoc. Now I’m hideously and insanely collaborative. Do all of these collaborations work? Nope. Did I expect them all to work? Nope. Have I gained some really awesome colleagues and mentors this way- and have some really excellent projects been spawned because of this? YES, without a doubt. My advice to you is start slowly, with a colleague that you have a good relationship with and trust, and with someone who has a skill set that is unique to yours. My most fantastic collaborations are with individuals interested in significantly similar questions… but who have an expertise that is completely different from mine. Expect that some (or even many) collaborations are going to fail, and fail miserably. Expect that a few will be better than you could possibly imagine.

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

There is a tendency to compare yourself to the last guy/girl. But resist. You have a unique set of projects- and you know that the milestones are doing great science, putting out some well-thought out solid papers, and bringing $$ into your lab. Outside of that resist the temptation to compare yourself to the last guy.