Struggles of the Scientific Riff-Raff

I have a grant due on the 3rd. It’s a smallish, sort of medium-sized grant that would allow us to add some supplementary studies to our current model. The blessing and the curse it that it’s only 1.75 pages. One would think that I could get my shit together to write 1.75 pages but, as with other things in my life, the smaller it is the harder it is for me to get it finished.

If you head over to Drugmonkey’s joint and read the comments of ASBMB president Steven McKnight, you might conclude that I am a member of the scientific #riffraff – less talented and creative than my predecessors in previous generations. Maybe that’s why these 1.75 pages are so damned hard to write.  After all, “ the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors… Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s.”

I should be able to have big ideas and big dreams and be able to easily communicate my wispy, truthy sounding ideas in that short amount of space.

Or, maybe the game has gotten so hard because the rules continue to change in unpredictable ways. Back in the 60s and 70s, a bunch of old, white dudes held the keys to the club. They knew each other and gave out money to the gentleman, renaissance scientists they knew and their big, innovative ideas.  But, the probability of funding was different, both because of the number of people and the breadth of fields, and its easier to split pie when there are fewer mouth to feed.

Now, I find myself with a damned conundrum. Having written R-type grants, I know that the ones most likely to be funded are the ones solidly rooted in pilot and feasibility data.  I understand that it’s important to sell the notion that the shit will really work and “Do you know who I am” doesn’t get a gal as far as it used to. The proof-of-success strategy worked for a time being, to be sure.  Yet, there are also awards that hint at a desire to get back to this renaissance scientist notion - the NIH is trying to be hip and edgy, funding people and their high risk, highly innovative ideas. Allegedly. I remain skeptical of our commitment to new and edgy when the pot feels so small. When people tell me “be innovative and pilot data be damned”, I feel like a puppy whose nose has been hit too many times.

But, this is the easily predictable outcome when you expand the number of areas of research that you label “important” in excess of the amount of money you pour in and it means that we’ve taken to eating our young. I would remind the esteemed and noble Dr. McKnight that he and his ilk produced us riff-raff. Empires were built on the shoulders of a large number of trainees. Perhaps the error was in making the number of faculty trainees one generated a milestone of success. None of us trained ourselves and now that the next scientific generation(s) poses a threat to the established greybeardatariot, it’s time to get offa their lawn.  Dr. McKnight lists 40 riff-raff scientists that he has trained. Where did he think they were going to go? Where were they going to get money from? Who does he think is making up the society that he allegedly steers?

Perhaps at the core of his discontent is the fact that there simply isn’t enough money to go around to do science the way McKnight would have it done. He writes on his lab website:

…how might a young scientist pursue this course and decide what to do? The actual choice of direction is the easiest problem to solve. One simply has to look where the trends are headed and go the other way. Here, for conceptual purposes only, I suggest a “pin the tail on the donkey” approach. A randomly assembled chart is printed up containing squares labeled with all of our 20 to 30 thousand genes. Of these, we know lots about some, a bit about others, yet almost nothing of the remainder. We slap on a blindfold then throw the dart against the wall. Chances are reasonably good that the dart will land on an “unknown” gene—as long as the contestant does not peek around the blindfold and aim the dart at the squares adorned with the comfortable names that already appear every day in the literature. That the unknown gene does something critical is supported by the fact that it’s been kept in place by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. That every gene and every protein are both interesting and important is incontrovertible. This being the case, why would anyone want to work on a gene or protein already staked out by dozens of other scientists?

Individual scientist, toiling away in their lab, each working in parallel on some randomly selected bit of the scientific enterprise simply for the discovery of science’s “mystic state [his words]“.  Then how does one judge merit for entrance into the priesthood and eligibility for future funding? The way it was done when Dr. McKnight was a wee lad – by maintaining a club of well-connected, similar individuals with similar goals and attitudes.

I’d much rather be a member of the riff-raff.


That, My Darlings, Is Not Irony…It’s Just a Waste of Time

I don’t consider myself to typically be a member of the grammar police, but misuse of the word “irony” really chaps my ass in some kind of special way. I mean, you can be a dumb ass about any other component of the English and I will literally feel nothing. Literally.


When I left my old MRU, I left a bunch of things and took a bunch of things. I kept some collaborations and I parted with some collaborations. One of the collaborations I parted with involved a particularly difficult (in my view) set of measurements. When I developed them, it took a year of mistakes to finally realize all of the important steps to collecting good data. I offered help to the group to get things up and running, providing they acted within a time frame that didn’t impair my own productivity.  They deferred and the head of the group told me that she was sure that, if I could do it, someone else could surely figure it out. I didn’t disagree, but did note the amount of time it had taken me to develop things from square one. But, I mic dropped and headed on my way.

mic drop2

These measurements are the bred and butter of my program, though, and I have have been spending some time recapitulating the setup in my new lab. Today I spoke with one of the vendors about a purchase and she remarked…

How ironic! [Our tech support person] was just at your old MRU seeing if he could help another group through some trouble they’re having and figure out how to ]make these measurements with this equipment]!

My friends, that is not ironic at all. Irony requires a reversal of expectations. It may be like a traffic jam when you’re already late, but it is certainly not irony.

Which brings me to my absolute biggest pet peeve about the way some trainees embark upon a new scientific endeavor. The one lesson that I have not been able to impart upon anyone thus far is, when you’re trying to implement a new non-commercial technique or establish a model, have a conversation with the people that have already done it. Our field is not generally one where experiments are easily scooped by others. If you get scooped, it’s usually because a project took months to years longer than it should have.

I’ve had people spectacularly waste more time dicking around, thinking they could get stuff  to work, than I’ve had stuff scooped because I let another group know what direction I was thinking. I don’t know if it’s hubris that people think that recapitulating a technique will be easy, or too much faith in the completeness of methods sections in the scientific literature, or fear of contacting other scientists.

I don’t know what it is, but I do know that it wastes time and resources. It’s no skin off my nose if another group does it, but I have got to figure out a way to get people in my group to not establish this time and money wasting M.O. Literally.

The Fine Art of the Rubber Stamp

It’s an awkward situation when you’ve identified issues with a PhD candidate’s experiments…you tell them that you should meet to discuss some of these issues and how to solve them…then months or years go by and you don’t hear from them..

…until you get an email about scheduling their defense..

Where do I sign?

Ponderings About Retirement..

It may be a bad sign that I am already pondering retirement, but my dream career was always to have a bed and breakfast and I thought I might do it after I retire from science.

Except, I wouldn’t have a bed and breakfast, I’d have a bed and dessert because dessert is a far superior meal to breakfast. Anyone can roll out of bed and go to a waffle house, but finding good dessert you can take back to bed before it gets gross is a challenge.

My regular menu would include two staples that are among my favorites – cheese-wrapped bananas and ice cream and frosted flakes.

Oh, to introduce another generation to the beauty of ice cream and frosted flakes…

Science Has A Thomas Jefferson Problem…

Early in the day yesterday I had two very interesting interactions with two older women that made an impression on me. The first was a woman who has been teaching, but never pursued a research or tenure track career. She remarked to me about how “..if she had it all to do over again..” but she came “..from a time when a career in nursing or teaching or administration was expected.” The other visit was from a tenure track woman who came by to gush about how happy she was that I had come and how she felt a responsibility to make sure I get tenure at my new MRU.  Both experiences were humbling.

Then last night I, like many, read Hope Jahren’s piece in the New York Times about her assault while scoping out a site to do field work.  My heart breaks for her and for anyone that suffers that sort of trauma.  It’s a damned tragedy and I wish her nothing but all thee healing and support that she needs. It saddens me that these types of events can dictate and redirect the way a woman pursues her scientific interests

But, in the piece she makes reference to a recent study from Kate Clancy’s group documenting the incidence of sexual harassment and assault in scientists doing field work.  It’s people’s reactions to this that have made me salty as fuck.

My fellow tweeps, people that have been reading the science feminist internet for as long as I have been around (aka, a long time) describe her story as “eye opening” and “stunning” and “shocking”.  In my eyes, the results of Clancy’s study are completely and entirely predictable.  and I can only hope that having actual data to present to people in positions of authority will empower the SAFE movement as they work to make changes to how women are treated in science.

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that the notion that “Science Has a Sexual Assault Problem” makes me salty. Life has a sexual assault problem.  26% of women scientists are assaulted in the field, but about that many women in general report sexual assault. A large portion of the attacks against scientists are perpetrated by someone the victim knew, but many women in general know their attackers. So, at the crux of the stunning and shocking and eye opening is something that I find more insidious – it is the belief that science is somehow different than society at large.

After all, surely rape and assault and violence are acts committed by poor people, and brown folks, NFL players and the occasional misguided frat boy. Certainly our logical, skeptical, professional and enlightened scientific brethren aren’t capable of the type of violence that Hope describes. Surely, tenured white women aren’t at risk for that type of violence. If Hope’s story shocked you, or you found Kate’s study shocking, where the fuck have you been? I will cosign the notion that we should strive to create a place where people are mutually respected and protected and cared for, but it you’re surprised by any of this, it’s worth reevaluating your preconceived notions about who can be a rapist and who can be a victim. If you’re shocked, I’m willing to wage money that your preconceived notions are fucked.

How many of these stories do we need to hear to stop being shocked?

The only portion of Hope’s essay that I take exception with is her statement about young women that “[t]hey need to know that daring to act upon their dreams of science can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing.” Choosing to do anything in the context of having a vagina can be both beautiful and dangerous.  Choosing to sit around and eat Cheetos can be dangerous. Hope describes how she did “everything right” by covering her head and averting her eyes and she was still a victim, but there is nothing a victim does that makes her any more or less a target. The issue is with them men that perpetrate these crimes. Being a woman is the single greatest risk factor for experiencing all the horrible shit that happens to women.

What we need to do is knock down the narrative that academia is an enlightened, safe place that is somehow immune from the discrimination and prejudices that afflict the rest of society.