A writeup in ScienceCareers on an AAAS survey of postdoctoral mentors has a few gems:


Todd Castoe, a postdoc at the University of Colorado Medical School, … “My adviser is giving me a lot of firsthand experience with the practicalities of running a lab. We talk about why we should finish specific projects and how that relates to current and future grants. We look at a pile of new data and decide what direction is most profitable to follow up,” he says. “I get to see the larger picture.”

Castoe has been involved in writing grants, reviewing papers and then discussing them with his adviser, establishing collaborations, and working on grants for large projects. “Thirty percent of my day is devoted to things other than my own research,” he says. Although he sometimes worries that all the added exposure will not be reflected on his CV when he starts to look for a job, he realizes that the training is preparing him to run his own lab. “I would call this one of the best-case scenarios for training. It is very holistic.”

Here’s a guy who understands that the job of a postdoc is not only to get a RealJob but also to prepare oneself as completely as possible for success in that RealJob. Particularly in the first few years where the learning curve is steep, anything you bring along already-learned is a GoodThing.

According to the survey, most supervisors (61 percent) spend 20 percent or less of their professional time supervising their postdocs; the remainder (39 percent) spend more than 20 percent of their time doing so. A large majority (78%) feel that they have this balance just right, while 14% would prefer to spend more time supervising, and only 6% believe this responsibility to be taking too much of their attention. “My philosophy is I could focus on publishing 20 really good papers or also make sure that I train 20 really good scientists who then each publish 20 really good papers,” says professor Graeme Mardon at Baylor College of Medicine. “In the end mentoring makes a greater contribution. For me it is more satisfying to see someone develop than the nuts and bolts of running a lab.”

A fascinating equation. Ever attend the GeezerLecture (you know your society meeting has one or three of these every year) which is either for a formal mentorship award or just from a Luminary who is proud of his (yah, generally male GeezerLectures) trainees? Are you the type that thinks “Damn, I’d be pretty happy to look back at my career and see those 20 of my trainees who are now luminaries in their own right”? Or “Aha! The path to world domination of my scientific views is to generate viable careers for scientists who think like I do!”  I know I do…  And yet looking at some people’s approach to mentoring and career development you can see that this isn’t even remotely on their radar for a life-accomplishment. I don’t get that.


August 30, 2007

Scientists love them some data and love them some log books. Which came first? Chicken or egg?

I think the first computer program I ever wrote was a log program to keep track of rides as a teenager.  It was rudimentary and I never kept up with it; I switched to paper logs in the racing years. I’ve used The Athlete’s Diary for some time now, even though my workouts come in long-interrupted waves. Thirteen rides in the past 17 days though, thank you for asking.
At this point it isn’t really about the motivational obsession although there is a role for that. As in, “Oh no, I can’t have a week with zero hours graphed!” is not to be dismissed for those of us who have a hard time fitting working-out into our job/home/kids schedules. The thing is that with all of the aforementioned busyness, I just can’t remember a damn thing and workouts come way down the list. So how to know if you’ve been overdoing it? How long *has* that knee been throbbing after rides? Why do I feel so dead on the bike? Ahh, when was the last time I did a genuine “just spinning for 30 min” ride? etc. So logging for me tends to motivate *not* working out just as much as it does doing another ride.

A prior post was all about training intensity. This one is to remind that there is great value in rest, backing off and very light workouts on a regular basis.

In a recent post, YoungFemaleScientist opines:

as a postdoc, you’re essentially a PI with most of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. You’re frequently on your own, but they get to claim they’re training you. You’re basically doing everything yourself, but they get to be senior author on your paper and put your work in their grants. Etc. etc.

See Thus Spake Zuska discussing an offhand PI quote in a LA Times 4-parter on a neuroscience lab in which it was suggested that grad students are “cannon fodder”. These comments are also supported by a recent Nature piece on trainees as indentured servants of their PIs. These types of comments (and indeed much more of the attitude to be found on YoungFemaleScientist blog) reflect the disgruntled post-doc and disgruntled grad student mindset on “exploitation”. This is a common theme, inevitably cited as a reason for all that is wrong with this “business”. There is some truth to the complaint, of course. But the PI is not always the bad guy and sometimes “exploitation” is actually the voice of experience trying to help the trainee’s career. We’ll start with the hit-em-hard: Read the rest of this entry »

EPO? Remember EPO?

August 29, 2007

Sevilla defender Antonio Puerta died Tuesday. He was 22.”

Anyone remember how EPO first reared it’s most ugly head in bike racing? Mysterious heart attacks in otherwise young and highly cardiac-fit athletes. EPO (erythropoietin) is a naturally occurring substance that promotes the development of red blood cell precursors. More red blood cells, more oxygen carrying capacity and you get improved performance in aerobic sporting activities. You also, apparently, run the risk of turning your blood into sludge (that’s a technical term) and causing your heart to stop working in the middle of the night if you overdo it.

The obvious inconsistency with the soccer player (footballer for non’Muricans) is that he died on the pitch, not in his sleep.

Nevertheless, remember how cyclists and fans started complaining that other professional sportsmen were involved in Operation Puerto? (Leading to an official denial.) It doesn’t take much to see that EPO would be a nice little help for a soccer player. In fact of the “team” sports this is probably the top suspect for EPO-dopers.

This could be a mysterious virus or congenital defect. Could be.

Update 09/10/07: One conclusion from the ME is a congenital defect, an article on goal.com reviews the issue.

Another of my societies has circulated the request from Director Scarpa of the CSR to supply screened lists of senior scientists to serve on study sections. Interestingly, the head of this one has downplayed the “screened” part of the request. So far, there is no chatter on either list respecting the implications of this request.

You can see some of the motivation for appearing to include professional societies here.

Comments from Kathy Wilson of The American Society for Cell Biology:

Staffing Panels

  • Have at least 10% junior people on each section. Their freshness and honesty can counteract some of the conservatism and self-interest.

Um…wow. Somebody gets it…

But then there’s:

Dr. Gregory A. Petsko, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

  • Assistant professors should not serve on study sections


Dr. Gail Cassell, American Society for Microbiology

  • No one beneath the associate professor level should serve, nor should those who have unsuccessfully competed in peer review. Peers should review grant applications.

same old drek about seniority. No explaining the reason why this is recommended…as usual.

Perhaps more telling in the Q and A:

Q: Particularly in this funding climate, it is important to use a lot of caution when using a merit-based system. We should continue to avoid cronyism and especially not bias against younger people.

No answer was supplied for Zerhouni, Tabak or Yamamoto. I’m picturing them on the dias looking at each other with blank looks…

There is still work to be done people. The comment period closes on the 7th…


August 28, 2007

Writedit has been cataloging the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) findings of scientific/research misconduct, as well as the odd retraction or two.

Young Female Scientist has a good take on the usual “the now-departed postdoc did it” issue including a set of instructions on how to not be a faker-facilitating PI. Go read it.

Two essential points.

First, many good PIs are deathly afraid of being victimized by cheaters in their lab operating without their knowledge. The usual finding of “the postdoc/grad student/tech did it” underlines this paranoia.

Second, readers of ORI findings who are familiar with labs in which suspicious data are common wonder a LOT about the complicity of the PI in such cases. The first comment to the Young Female Scientist post explores this.

A most-confirmedly ex-competitive athlete,  I. The formative years, athletically, were the overall formative years and I had the benefit of some formal coaching here and there. One might debate the quality but it was certainly coaching.

I run across the later-life convert to running or cycling, now and again, and there is a common theme. The person who “gets serious” about what-have-you. Marathons, USCF type bike racin’, etc. Being smart and dedicated people they go out and train a whole bunch and usually get pretty decent. Then, there is the plateau. “I want to qualify for Boston, my times are consistent but I can’t get faster”. “I want to do group rides but I’m not fast enough”.  “I got dropped from the Cat 5s”.


Everyone has trouble with this idea, the first obvious thing for distance sports is just to go out as hard as you can for most workouts. This is wrong.  Once a certain level of competency/fitness has been reached (you completed a marathon? okay, you are there) little benefit is obtained by “doing more long runs” or “training more consistently” or the like. You need to run faster to improve. Speedwork, intervals, etc are the only way.

The cycling plateau is usually the group-ride threshold because being able to stay with the group of riders is a pretty necessary calling card. I can’t tell you how many people focus on average speed. “Well I can hold 18mph for my rides but I hear the local group ride is 24mph so I have to ride more so that I can hang”. Wrongo. Once you get up to the approx 18mph average on mixed terrain you are ready for the next step. Group rides and yes, you will get dropped at times  ( So know your roads). The first reason is , of course, the benefit of drafting. Otherwise known as not having to bash through the wind all by yourself. People know this intellectually, of course, but nothing like a 50 miler in a group ride to really generate understanding. The other reason is subtler. You just can’t ride that hard by yourself. Call it motivation, nod to intermittent effort, whatever. There is some weird physiology at work. You’d think all effort would be the same, right? Put out X watts because of a hill, increased wind resistance, or drag brake and it should all be the same training, no? Dunno why but it doesn’t seem to work this way. There is no substitute for sustained big gear riding that you can only maintain because of the pack.  So you have to suck it up and go on those local group rides. You’ll get dropped at first, perhaps frequently. Eventually, you’ll develop the skills and power and notice you are a much better rider. You won’t get there by yourself no matter how many hours you put in.

This has something to do with science careers.