Grind it out

December 17, 2018

I recently had reason to recall the wisdom imparted to me by a friend during graduate school. My end stage was not pretty. The dissertation writing was going on a lot longer than I would have really anticipated and I was basically trying to make something out of a bunch of negative findings.

I’m sure I did a lot of complaining to my friends. For……oh it had to have been months.

At one point one of my friends just said “Why are you doing this? If it is so horrible and you hate it….just stop and do something else.”

There was probably no way I was ever going to just quit. Not in the cards for me not try to earn my PhD at that point of the process.

However, it was a good thing to hear. It really did sink in after awhile that I had to decide. Did I like the job? Did I like doing this horrible science thing when it was going shittily? If not, why in the heck wasn’t I bailing to do something I found more interesting?

I still complain about my job. Don’t get me wrong, we all like to blow off a little steam now and again. I get that.

But I am grateful for the guy who long ago put that little voice in my head that pulls up the reins after a certain point has been reached.

If you don’t like the job, why on earth are you still doing it?

I had to grit my teeth and grind out my dissertation year.

I’ve had to grit my teeth and grind out more than one interval of time in my career since then too.

Grind, my friends. Grind it out.

A recent editorial in Neuropsychopharmacology by Chloe J. Jordan and the Editor in Chief, William A. Carlezon Jr. overviews the participation of scientists in the journals’ workings by gender. I was struck by Figure 5 because it is a call for immediate and simple action by all of you who are corresponding authors, and indeed any authors.
The upper two pie charts show that between 25% and 34% of the potential reviewer suggestions in the first half of 2018 were women. Interestingly, the suggestions for manuscripts from corresponding authors who are themselves women were only slightly more gender balanced than were the suggestions for manuscripts with male corresponding authors.

Do Better.

I have for several years now tried to remember to suggest equal numbers of male and female reviewers as a default and occasionally (gasp) can suggest more women than men. So just do it. Commit yourself to suggest at least as many female reviewers as you do male ones for each and every one of your manuscripts. Even if you have to pick a postdoc in a given lab.

I don’t know what to say about the lower pie charts. It says that women corresponding authors nominate female peers to exclude at twice the rate of male corresponding authors. It could be a positive in the sense that women are more likely to think of other women as peers, or potential reviewers of their papers. They would therefore perhaps suggest more female exclusions compared with a male author that doesn’t bring as many women to mind as relevant peers.

That’s about the most positive spin I can think of for that so I’m going with it.

Your kids’ best friends

December 10, 2018

Parent blogging alert.

There was a tweeter thing today on how kids that get straight As lack creativity that among other things dragged up an old NYT article on suicide on college campuses. The latter article attributed these to pressures and all sorts of stuff but one thing struck me hard.

…dean of freshmen at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims…was also troubled by the growing number of parents who not only stayed in near-constant cellphone contact with their offspring but also showed up to help them enroll in classes, contacted professors and met with advisers (illustrating the progression from helicopter to lawn mower parents, who go beyond hovering to clear obstacles out of their child’s way). But what she found most disconcerting was that students, instead of being embarrassed, felt grateful. Penn researchers studying friendship have found that students’ best friends aren’t classmates or romantic partners, but parents.

emphasis added.

I can think of no more terrible fate. My parents were fine and all, and indeed were super focused on our nuclear family. They themselves did not seem to obsessively prioritize their alone time, their couple time, their own respective families or their friends at all, when I was in the house.

But I sure as shit didn’t consider them my friends. They were my parents and my friends were my friends.

You’ve noticed I’m not the friendliest guy in the world and trust me I wasn’t as a child. But for damn sure I had friends. Some of you that pay close enough attention to my antics on social media will be aware that I still interact with friends I made in high school, college and graduate. I am kinda tickled that my kids have been in school classes with the children of some of my closest graduate school friends.

I enjoyed the social experience of college and I think that a massive part of that was the interaction with friends from a much broader span of life than I had experienced to date. I had friends from all across this great Nation and I am the better for it. I met some ersatz sisters who taught me a whole lot of shit I didn’t know. I am intensely grateful for the friends that I made, the experiences we had together

….and the fact that nobody had photographic and videographic equipment at their fingertips through all of these experiences.

It horrifies me to read that “researchers studying friendship” at a major institution of higher education like Penn could find that “student’s best friends” are their parents.


December 7, 2018

There was recently a little twitter thread on the obligations scientists have to work on finishing up projects, particularly once the formal association with that project has expired. This made me recall some thoughts I had from the PI perspective on finishing projects one has been funded to work on. So I was primed when these thoughts occurred today.

Once upon a time I ran across an interesting RFA from the NIH that seemed highly targeted for one particular lab. Oh, don’t get me wrong, many of them do seem this way. But this one was particularly…..specific. The funding was generous, we’re talking BigMech territory here. And while I could theoretically pull together a credible proposal with the right collaborators, I really wasn’t the right person. Meh, it was a time of transition in my lab and in my science and I didn’t have anything else to write at the time so….I put a proposal in.

And did not get triaged! whoohoo! Really, I should have been triaged. Clearly the field of proposals was really, really weak. As in not even credible, I am assuming. You know my mantra….always submit something that hits the minimal standards for a reviewer to get behind it. So mine was credible. I just didn’t really have the specific chops on that area of work to support a good score.

The top-suspect lab got the grant, of course.

Which again, was very specific as to the topic and goals. Most interestingly it was for “Approach X” to the general idea when this laboratory had only vaguely flirted with X in their earliest going and had settled upon Approach Y.

I kept a bit of a weather eye on what they were doing with the funds, as you can imagine. After all I was interested in the topic enough to put in a grant proposal.

The Approach Y papers kept on coming. Nary an Approach X paper to be seen. I saw one very limited poster at a meeting once in the middle of their funding interval. And then at the end those data were published, with not much ground traveled. I did mention it was a BigMech, right?

That was a fair bit ago and apparently the laboratory got a second BigMech, a different one, but again clearly devoted to Approach X on the question at hand. And it was a few years in by the time I noticed.

I hadn’t paid the strictest attention but at one point I got a manuscript to review from the laboratory. “Aha”, I thinks to meself, “this is going to really kick ass after so much funding and so few papers”. Both BigMechs are acknowledged, so we’re on solid ground assuming what paid for this work.

Of course the manuscript was underwhelming. Not that anyone else is doing amazingly better solving this particular question. But the point is that they had copious funding over at least seven years and have barely published anything relevant to Approach X take on the topic. This dataset is relevant but far from earthshaking. It just retreads territory published five years before it appeared. And the functional outcome of this work is no better than one-off papers from at least three other groups who have not enjoyed such amazing levels of funding.

Now, the laboratory has published other work. Just mostly on Approach Y which was not the goal according to the original FOA and going by the abstracts on RePORTER.

It’s possible that the group has been working away like beavers on the topic and just never had any positive results. It is not totally foreign to see a laboratory that will only publish big positive hits. But I do not see that in their overall history. There does not seem to be a reluctance to squeak out small papers with one thin asterix showing positive effects. So I have to conclude they just aren’t really working on Approach X much at all.

In a way this makes me angry. I still feel like the bargain we make is to take a serious stab at working on what the grant says. Yeah, yeah a grant is not a contract but in this case there were fairly focused calls for applications. Someone who was actually planning to do the work was not funded. Perhaps more than one someone.

[record scratch]

Wait a minnit dude, doesn’t this apply to you!???!!!!


It has.

I mean, not in the sense of highly targeted original FOA but sure, I’ve had my intervals of what looks like pretty good funding on a topic and have batted below expectations on publications. Of course I know how hard we worked to get something going on the project as proposed. I know that we did the science as best we could. I know what headaches interfered and I know what data exist that I mean to publish* one day. I have certainly credited that project with other somewhat-related side project work to the extent it was kosher.

But a critic could go through this same thought process when they get my manuscript to review.

“That’s IT????!!!!!”

And if they have been less fortunate than I in the NIH grant game, the odds are they are going to rant about how unfair everything is and how I must have sweet political connections and the Systemz is Brokenz.

They aren’t wrong.

And they aren’t exactly right, either.

These scenarios play out all the time in NIH extramural funding land. I don’t know how you do real science and not come up blank once in awhile. Occasionally this is going to play out to the tune of an entire BigMech, right? Maybe?

Otherwise we are only doing utterly safe and conservative science. Is that correct?

*This is where it intersects with the twitter discussion. Writing up old projects, exciting or not, may be hindered if the staff who worked on it have now departed. I’m not going to sidetrack but obviously the obligation to render published science for grant dollars awarded falls heavily on the PI and less so on the trainees. But still, if you have been paid to work on the project, there is an obligation to produce on that project.