The science internets came up with a great idea today, which is to celebrate #drugmonkeyday, to list the many ways in which fellow blogger Drugmonkey has helped us in our careers. Its not often that we get to thank someone who has helped us with their mentorship and guidance, unless said person either died or is leaving the "scene". So I think it's great that we are getting together to celebrate Drugmonkey and let them know how much they has helped us. About 8 years ago or so I came across this so-called "science blog" by some such person that went by the moniker of Drugmonkey, and that to my surprise it wasn't so much about science per se, but rather about life as a practicing scientist. In fact there was a whole bunch of these blogs by people with odd names like Dr. Isis and Professor Like Substance and Doc Becca. I was totally hooked. Not only were these people sharing experiences that were similar to mine, but in their comments section there was a lively and informative discussion going on. So after lurking around for a while I started participating in the dialogue and found this community incredibly welcoming and encouraging. I remember getting great advice from Drugmonkey and sometimes profanity-laden partner in crime, Comrade PhysioProffe about how to handle the first publications from my lab, how to deal with grant reviewers and resubmission, how to find funding opportunities, and all sorts of insider knowledge that I couldn't believe was not being offered to all junior faculty in departments across the country. I certainly wasn't being offered this in my own department. All of this convinced me to start my own blog, and Drugmonkey and Dr. Isis were incredibly incredibly supportive, promoting it prominently in their own blogs. I was flattered, I had drawn the attention of the legendary Drugmonkey! Remarkably, once the age of the science twitter came about and many blogs fell into disuse since the conversation moved into a different platform, Drugmonkey's blog has continued to thrive, and become incredibly more and more useful, doling advice about the NIH, the grant game and lots of other topics. I don't think one could count the number of people that that DM has helped with sage advice, as they transition through various career steps. And in reality this is not a gargantuan effort by Drugmonkey's part, but rather a willingness to share her experiences and things that have been learned throughout the process so that others might benefit. So keep on keeping on, and I look forward to reading Drugmonkey's blog for years to come.
In my endless search for apt analogies to the grantsmanship game, I have a new one. Have you ever played the card game Fluxx? It's an incredibly awesome game in which the rules keep changing as you play. You think you have a winning strategy, are ready to win the next turn, and then someone changes the fucking rules and someone else wins. Or you are just plodding around trying to regroup your strategy to the new rules, then the rules change again, and suddenly you find yourself with the right card combo and you instantly win. Writing grants is the same thing, you think you have a winning strategy and then suddenly your panel switches emphasis, or changes the grant requirements/deadlines, or study sections are reorganized. Sometimes this suddenly works against you, sometimes in your favor, like when a new RFA is released dealing exactly with your topic area. You just have to keep on playing and hope that the rules change in your favor. I guess one difference is that in Fluxx, you can be the one to change the rules, in the grant game this seldom happens.
Recently a friend of a friend (yes that’s a real person), who apparently is quite wealthy, wanted to donate a substantial sum of money for research in a specific disease. He had been in contact with a major research university and was directed to a given investigator working on this disease and who wrote up a research prospectus of the research and clinical study he was going to use the funds for. My friend knew I was sort of in the field (not really, neuroscience is a BIG field) and asked me what I thought of the research plan. I told him I wasn’t an expert in this and referred him to someone who was, and who could help give a proper evaluation. I also gave him contact information for a professional society dedicated to finding a cure for this disease and who could also provide better guidance. However, I did look at the prospectus and spoke to some folks about said disease and really it didn’t seem to me like this would be the best use of this person’s money. The investigator didn’t seem to have a long track record working on this disease nor any current funding for this type of work. Which to me poses an ethical dilemma, clearly this donor is invested in funding the best research for a disease to which they probably have a personal connection to, and clearly since funding is so screwy it is becoming more common for individual investigators to make direct philanthropic appeals to fund their own research. However is the best research being funded or are development offices taking advantage of someone’s goodwill? Clearly this was a case where advice from a panel of independent experts would be useful and hopefully my friend told his friend to get in contact with the experts (although he also made it sound like this donation was a done deal). But I don’t really feel comfortable directly advising my friend not to fund these people as I’m not an expert, even if my instinct tells me that his money might be better used elsewhere. Perhaps donated to the professional organization which can then allocated as grants.
Stay away from assholes.
That's it! Whenever I've followed that advice that was given me as a grad student I've been glad I did, whenever I've not followed this advice I've regretted it. This applies to mentors, big shot collaborators, colleagues and trainees. If they are established and confirmed assholes – stay away, if your asshole-meter is ringing all over the place – stay away. The corollary of this advice, of course is: don't become an asshole yourself.
Last week was my last class period for the semester and the final is later this week. Now is the time when the students start studying and coming up with all sorts of questions. In a class of around a hundred students this adds up to a lot of questions. To help we have a review session run by our trusty TAs and I also have office hours. Both of these are fairly exhausting for the TAs and for me, since it involves answering a relentless barrage of questions from students. A few years ago I instituted a class policy to not answer any questions related to the class material over email, mainly because I find myself answering the same thing multiple times and my inbox goes crazy. Instead we set up a course discussion board (using a great free tool called Piazza) where students can post their questions (anonymous to their classmates, but visible to me) and the instructor, TAs and fellow classmates can post answers and followups. This provides an archive of questions people can look up before asking the same thing again, and everyone can benefit from seeing the answers. By the end of the semester, about half the questions are being answered by other students, so I don't even have to do it, just check that its correct (it allows the instructor to endorse an answer). I've been very happy with Piazza and the students also like it based on their course reviews. That said, I've had colleagues have bad experiences with discussion boards, especially when students use them to ridicule other students or complain about the course. So I guess your mileage may vary, depending on the students in your class.
So today for my class, rather than having a regular period I decided to give a research talk about some of the research going on in my lab. I think it went pretty well, I gave it at the level that I would to a regular seminar audience (usually grad students, postdocs and faculty) and they appeared to be following quite well based on some of the questions. They should be able to follow if they had been paying attention during the whole semester, since there really wasn't any concept in the talk that we hadn't at least touched upon during the course. For some reason I felt far more nervous giving a research talk to my class rather than to a seminar audience, maybe because if I came off sounding like an idiot I would still have to confront them during the rest of the semester. In any case I don't think I came off sounding like an idiot, and hope that they learned something.
Does anyone else routinely talk about their own research during your classes? Or is this bad form and self-important?
I had fun reading the various #gatewaytoscience tweets late last week. People wrote in what initially got them into science. I think anyone who is a scientist as an adult probably had some interest in science as a kid and it was fun reading about the various books, teachers, experiences that got people hooked. But the tweets I found more interesting were those that describe how folks became interested in science as adults. And I wanted to share my own experience, not because it is particularly interesting, but because it is apropos about recent discussions about undergraduate access to research labs. When I started college I knew I wanted to do some sort of life science (molecular biology sounded good, although I had no idea at the time what that actually meant). My first semester I enrolled in a Neuroscience course. I was very excited because I literally knew zero about the nervous system, and that was pretty much the same for everyone else in the course. This was a great equalizer, because we were all on the same footing and about to learn some really cool things about an incredibly complex system. Needless to say I was floored by the course. It was a huge lecture course with about 350 students and team taught by various faculty but I remember just being awestruck, and decided I wanted to learn everything I could about neuroscience (I also realized that molecular biology, at the time, was kinda boring to me). So I kept on taking neuroscience courses and becoming more and more enamored. I remember going home that first summer and working in my father's hardware store and just thinking about how I'd much rather be working in a lab. So sophomore year I went back determined to work in a lab. I approached my favorite professor, told him I wanted to learn everything about the work in his lab and wanted to do research. He told me his lab was already too big, that he appreciated my enthusiasm but sorry. So I kept on bugging him until finally, second semester he offered me a volunteer position. For two semesters I volunteered (also got a summer fellowship for both ensuing summers) and then I worked in the lab for course credit the other semesters. I have to say this was a life-changing and career defining experience. Not only did I get to do a bunch of incredibly cool things (record from neurons! study memory in a dish! slice and stain brain slices!), I also learned so much both from the PI and from the other people in lab. I learned what research was like, how to make figures, how to analyze data, I got to present at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, was co author in a glam pub and was also first author in another paper based on my senior thesis. To me having this opportunity, first as a volunteer and then as an honors student, was central to me becoming a neuroscientist, and to hear someone say that I was being 'exploited' because the PI benefited from my labor seems ridiculous.
Not to say that unpaid undergrad volunteers can not end up in a more exploitative situation, as proposed elsewhere. Especially with lack of mentorship and being relegated to menial tasks like making stocks and washing dishes, rather than contributing to a project. So just because I wasn't exploited doesn't mean that others haven't suffered from such an arrangement. But what I see as the biggest issue here is access. I was lucky enough that I did not have to work and extra job during the school year when I was in college, so I had time I could devote to working in the lab. Not everyone can do this, and that is why I have made the argument before that working in a lab should be something that could be used to fulfill work-study obligations. And so we should work towards making research accessible to everyone, rather than limiting the ways people get to do research. Everyone's path is different, what worked for me might not work for others. Nevertheless I think that lab experience really is something that should be done by anyone before they go to graduate or medical school. For future grad students it really helps you figure out if research is really for you, before its too late. With such a low probability of success of a career in academic research, you better really want it before you embark on your journey. For med students, science is really at the root of their discipline, and knowing how fickle and variable science really is will go far in making future doctors evaluate medical and scientific literature when deciding how to treat their patients. I certainly have far more confidence in a doctor if I know they've spent time doing research.
A lot has been written about how big labs with more grants are not necessarily more productive per grant dollar spent on research. This may be true, but one big advantage that having multiple grants gives you is: insurance. I've always had a small lab and I think we've been fairly productive with the very limited amount of grant funding we've had over the years. The largest my lab has been (briefly) was 2 postdocs and 3 grad students, but normally we're about half that size since that's all I can afford to support (barely). Which is fine, we also have a lot of undergrads working in the lab for course credit and towards their Honors theses and they can be fairly productive, but often devote less of their time to research during the school year. And I've been lucky to have good people who get a lot of work done. But the problem with a small lab like this is what happens when one of your 2 or 3 lab members is not very productive. And I don't mean so non-productive that they'll lose their job, but maybe just not so into it or distracted with a bunch of other stuff. As a mentor, one tries to correct these things, but sometimes it just doesn't work out quite as well or the person only partially responds to your intervention. As a result of one unproductive person, you can have entire projects grind to a halt, making it harder to publish papers and to get more funding. And it is easy enough to say, well "why don't you just kick this person out". But again that is hard to justify in the absence of any egregious wrongdoing, and even if you do, then you are halfway through the grant cycle and can't really commit to hiring anyone else, since who knows if your grant will get funded again. This makes it increasingly difficult to recover from funding lags, and forces one to basically start from scratch once new funding comes in but there's no one left in your lab to help train the new people. With multiple grants one can afford to support multiple individuals, spread projects more evenly across the lab and thus be more protected if things don't work out with a lab member.
So I've been making some drawings on my iPad. I started playing with my cool new Pencil stylus and by habit I drew a few neurons. Then started adding some color splotches, and then digitally cutting up the image and rearranging them. This lead to more doodling, this time following connectivity schemes of specific neural circuits and then overlaying some of them on collages made from drawings from Cajal and other classic neuroanatomists. It's a bit hard to have much control on an iPad mini, but it works OK. I've been posting a few of them on Twitter, but I figure it's be fun to share some of them here. A sort of "Handbook of Neural Circuits".
Here's one of my favorites, it's based on the circuitry of the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for sorting, organizing and relaying olfactory information from the olfactory epithelium to the rest of the brain. The underlying image is actually a drawing from Camillo Golgi, Cajal's colleague and rival. Hope you like it!