Some Input for NIH

(by bashir) Feb 09 2015

The current wave on the science-Internets is all about a not-a-proposal-yet from NIH for what is current being called an Emeritus Award. I confess I don't entirely understand the logic but this would be funding for senior researchers on their way to closing up shop and passing the proverbial torch (I had no idea that was a costly proposition). In theory this mechanism taking researchers out of the active pool, though that is already happening all over with paylines they way they are.

Well, everyone hates it! Perhaps just in the way that everyone hates any potential new NIH move. What will this do for me? I am no different. Here is how I'd frame this potential move (yes I am going to submit a comment).

NIH's money is finite. Create a new mechanism the money has to come from some place. What they are not-proposing here is to create a mechanism aimed at the most demographically homogenous group of researchers. Take a look at the data for your field, your university or your department. I can almost guarantee you that the least diverse set of people are the most senior ones. When promotions through the ranks happen racial and gender diversity goes further out the door. This is not necessarily NIH's fault though it is certainly something NIH has to deal with.

After all that determination to do something after Ginther Report, with mentoring groups and other round-a-bout approaches aimed at eventually addressing racial disparities in grant awards, suddenly we may have a very direct new mechanism that, regardless of the underlying logic, is essentially un-diversity.

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Year 1 update

(by bashir) Oct 31 2014

An update from year 1 in a tenure track position.


Everything they say is true. Take that as a re-recommendation to read the various blogs of junior professors if you ever find yourself staring down the barrel of a vaguely worded offer letter. Nearly all of the prophecies have been fulfilled.

-Felt like I was being pushy during negotiation. Hmm, in retrospect probably not quite pushy enough.

-Faculty meetings are both awful and hilarious. Sometimes at once. Lean towards keeping your mouth shut.

-All of those "of course you can do/have access to that! It will be fun and easy!" things from the interview turn into "umm, gee that'll probably involve a lot of forms and money. I dunno who you give either to."

-It's going to be paper work and setting things up for a while. If you have old data to write up that helps with feeling that you're still a scientist.

-The situation regarding your department's space & money can change very quickly. Provost-level sh*t can intervene at any moment. Plan for rainy days if you can.

-Basically everything that was promised, implicitly or otherwise, might happen. You just have to fill out 1000 forms and wrangle several dozen cats for each. Hopefully you can do all that before you go up for tenure.



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Things to know

(by bashir) Jun 10 2014

I recently did a informal interview with some undergraduate students about grad school & academia (part of an assignment for them). I certainly did not know much about academia when at their stage. The students seems a little surprised by a few of my anwers. Here are a few things

Not every professor is a professor.
There are professors, lecturers, postdocs, etc. Many of these folks may teach a class from time to time. From the student's perspective perhaps a teach is a teacher. Though these folks may have very different status in the department.

Not everyone is a student or professor (ie what is a postdoc?)
They had no idea what a postdoc was, or more generally that there are people in the department who are mainly here for the research.

Everyone is, to some degree, winging it. Your career decisions may be as much serendipity as serious long term planning.

What drew you to your field? I turned to the wrong page in the class bulletin and saw something interesting.
What about your research topic? My undergrad advisor handed me a paper and said "figure this out"
Why did you go to the particular graduate school? I got in.

Ok, not that decisions were due to random chance. But there was not detailed grand master plan that I hatched junior year.

Relatedly, you don't have to pick a specific research project early and stick with it. They seemed a little surprised that I'd bounced around a bit while figuring out what I wanted to do. And even when I applied for grad school I wasn't totally sure.


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Responsibility and Ambition

(by bashir) Jun 04 2014

"My responsibility as an educated member of society was eating away at that ambition [to be a scientist] "

A quick video of Neil Tyson telling a story from his autobiographical book.
(Here's the full version)
(he's such a ham!)



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Still academia?

(by bashir) May 13 2014

Five years after my postdoc started has come to an anticlimactic end. It could have ended a lot of different ways. I don't have any wise words about why I am staying in academia or how I managed to do it. I got a job. Eventually. During the last few years especially I planned for the very likely possibility that I wouldn't get an academic job. This involved some thought about what exactly it was I liked about my current job. What I wanted to try to keep.

Coding & Math
My research topic
Something Else

A common misunderstanding among early-career scientists is the thought that their passion is their research focus. A more careful examination reveals that their passion is not so much the subject but rather, the promise of the life that academia might offer.

Would it be best to look for jobs related in my topic? Jobs in the field my research is applied to? Jobs that are somehow more science-y(e.g. science writer)?

It took me a while to realize I don't actually like science. No that came out wrong, I do like science, but what I enjoy about it is not present in every single "science job" and not absent in every "non-science job". The default "what am I going to go with my life if I can't be a science professor" seemed to be to try to hold on to either the Science part or Professor part. Science writer. High School teacher. These are fine occupations if that's what your interests are. That's not necessarily the case for every postdoc considering leaving academia when the job market isn't enuff.

I am a bit unimaginative and have been ensconced in academia as much as the next postdoc. My best idea of a non-science job was based on what my college classmates were doing 10 years ago. Work for Google/Microsoft/etc. I've been saying meh to that since college, so I needed a fresh look.

Long story short, I settled on "data science". I like 1) math, 2) sports 3) complaining about code. That made it seem like a good fit. I have no idea if that was the right call. At the very least it seemed like something interesting to do. At the very least I'd figured out that this myth you occasionally see floating around the university halls, that nothing else in the world besides science/academia could ever be as intellectually fulfilling, was as mentioned, a myth.


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I'm going to do what?

(by bashir) Mar 19 2014

Below is a one of those "scientists' stories" videos by the American Chemical Society. They have a bunch more up which I recommend (here). I'm struck by the detail in her "how I got into science" story about her high school history teacher directly telling her 1) that she was going to be a scientist, and 2) how to get started. It seems remarkable that a student could show both an interest in and aptitude for science, for a while, but need to be told directly: "You could be a scientist."  I have heard many stories like this from people who end up in science careers. Often around high school or college, some mentor-type person will say "You seem interested in this science stuff. You know you could be a scientist, right? Here's how to get started.".

You too could have a significant effect on a future-scientist by saying something that simple. See, mentoring is easy!

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Baptized in a pool full of grant money

(by bashir) Mar 16 2014

(blame the person that double-dog dared me)

Now I done grew up 'round some people living their life in labs
Granddaddy had the golden flask PCR every day at U Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem
I was in a dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon
That I'mma get granted up, fillin' up my cup, I see the crowd mood
Changing by the minute and the record on repeat
Took a pipette then another pipette, then somebody said to me:

sci, why you babysitting only two or three grants
I'mma show you how to turn it up a notch
First you get a swimming pool full of RFA’s, then you dive in it
Pool full of RFA’s, then you dive in it
I wave a few grants, then I watch 'em all flock
All the postdocs wanna play Kandel
I got a swimming pool full of RFAs and they dive in it
Pool full of RFA’s, I'mma dive in it"

clean version, for your sensitive ears
RFA = Request for Applications


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a modest comparison

(by bashir) Mar 06 2014

S: sup big worm
W: how much you got left?
S: man I got a lot
W: you still don't have my manuscript?
S: man I'm trying to. PI's is broke these days
W: I don't think you're applying yourself
S: huh
W: you reanalyzing my data?
S: hell you fuck with your shit
W: you reanalyzing my data?
S: now why would I do that
W: I'm going to have to fuck you up. Playing with my authorship is like playing with my emotions.

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Corner Cases and the Big Big Tent of Science

(by bashir) Mar 03 2014

During grad school I spent a year or so being supported by a very broadly defined interdisciplinary grant. At fist I hated it. It meant attending a weekly meeting with everyone at university associated with the program. A group of people I never would have voluntarily chosen to associate with professionally. They were nice people but. This is science?! This is research? What are these people doing?! ..these were my common complains.  It took me a while to get to know these disparate fields. Once I did I saw how much their constraints (and questions) were totally different than mine and it started to make more sense. I just had no idea initially. What they were doing had seemed ridiculous to me because of my underlying assumptions t about research priorities, questions worth investigating, and constraints in answering those questions.

This takes me to the PLOS open data announcement. Let's get this out of the way: not a bad idea. But a tough roll out. I appreciate that PLOS is in a difficult position here. PLos ONE covers all of science. That's a big big tent.

I mean really big. Easily underestimated, when was the last time you seriously talked to someone who works in a research area vastly different than what you do, easy to underestimate.

Here's the list from PLOS One: Biology & Life Science, Computer & Information Sciences, Earth Sciences, Ecology & Environmental Sciences, Engineering & Technology, Medicine & Health Sciences, Physical Sciences, Science Policy, Social Sciences.

That is a massive diversity of approaches to Science. I don't even know what I could confidently generalize about all of these areas. Social Science itself includes many disciplines. This is not simply 5 different ways to do biology. The data that PLOS is requesting varies greatly in, size, type, difficulty of collection, uniqueness, etc. etc.

This difficulty with figuring out the in and outs and whathaveyous of the big tent is relevant for any big how to improve science proposal. These proposals frequently suffer from a bit of discipline (or institution type) myopia. Some the differences across disciplines are merely historical accidents. Others may reflect real differences in constraints, goals, current professional realities, etc. That these differences exist, are important to be cognizant of, and cannot be understated.

(I am a little amused at both large video data and human data being mentioned as unusual corner cases. There are three or four labs on my hallway that use both of those.)

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Selection Processes

(by bashir) Feb 13 2014

In a twitter conversation I mentioned that my department had a decent record bringing in a gender balanced set of speakers. That was silly of me. Since people tend to overestimate diversity I figured it was possible I misremembered. So I checked the last 8 years of speakers in the big department colloquium.


For last year I was correct. About 50/50. For previous years...not so much. That's a pretty dramatic jump towards parity (the talk series is very broad including areas with high % of women researchers. no real excuse).

Related, I highly recommend the quick read There's No Excuse for all White Male Panels. Print it out. Put it in your chairs's mailbox. Email spam it to your society listserv. I'm guessing that the committee here took some of the suggestions to heart (or someone told them to).  Trust me, if the fine fellows here can get their act together and look beyond their golfing buddies, you can too.

Adapted from the linked article:

1. Examine your Selection Process. Who makes the list of possible invites/sources/etc? Do a few grey beards just throw names around during their weekly squash date?
2. Improve you Selection Process. Just because you 'got some good people' last year doesn't mean the process doesn't have room for improvement.
3. Look Beyond the usual suspects. Take Chances. Maybe not every invitation needs to be a known big name.
4. Get Help. Ask for recommendations. Ask widely. Again, step outside of your immediate network.
5. Approach people. You don't need to wait until the perfect opportunity is available to develop connections. Write down names. Keep contact info. Develop a stable of interesting people that's perhaps not as homogenous as the members club at Augusta National. Just a thought. You know depending on your priorities.

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