Friday, August 18, 2017

DonorsChoose challenge to support social sciences and tolerance in the classroom

So many friends and colleagues have been posting on social media about how they feel that the world is spinning out of control, and that the basic principles of human decency, mutual respect, and acceptance are being trampled.

Inspired by blogger DrugMonkey's challenges to fund as many school projects as possible via DonorsChoose, I decided to set up a new challenge. DonorsChoose is a fantastic charity portal where teachers can post funding requests for specific school projects and donors choose which ones to fund. I selected a group of projects focused on current events, social studies and history, and teaching about diversity and immigration. The goal is that with the new school year starting we want kids to learn what is going on around their communities and around the world. We want to inspire a new generation of citizens and leaders.

So here it goes: click on the projects and donate whatever you can. Even the equivalent of a daily latte at $5 can make a difference and some projects have other donors matching donations 100%. You will help kids and teachers develop strategies for a better world.

Mrs. Gaines (NC): Love, Tolerance, Acceptance and Diversity ($257 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mr. M (CA): Help my refugee students ($828 total - 100% match) FUNDED
Mrs.VanderKamp (MI): Cooperation in the classroom and around the globe ($582 total - 100% match)
Ms. Cunningham (TX): Tolerance and compassion begin early ($240 total - 100% match)
Ms. Clemons (DC): America: Home of the beautiful ($483 total - 100% match)
Ms. Cree (PA): Time for non-fiction reading ($197 - 100% match)
Mrs. Froning (NC): It's all about the TIMES ($175 total - 100% match)
Ms. Hepburn (FL): "Time" to be tolerant ($833 total - 100% match)
Mr. Gaspard (IN): Everything you need to ace American history in 1 notebook ($155 total)

I will strike out projects as they get funded and add new ones. Maybe we will get DrugMonkey out of retirement...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fighting loneliness on the tenure track

My emergency contact is moving away. One of the friends who convinced me to move where I am was fired earlier this year for not having an R01 grant. She found a new (much better) job, was awarded a large foundation grant and will likely get her R01 in the next month or so. She's heading to be awesome somewhere else. The other good friend I had made after moving to "New PI town" moved away a few months ago also for a job opportunity closer to her family and boyfriend. So, who should be my emergency contact now? Likely someone in my family in Europe, since I don't have close friends nearby.

What I'm really asking is: how much loneliness is one supposed to put up with for the sake of their job? Many jobs may push you to move around for career advancement, but I do not know any other one where getting a new job takes 1-3 years and will most likely mean you have to move somewhere else. Being on the tenure track adds a level of restraint where you may not be able to be completely honest with senior or junior colleagues. In addition, being the boss is a lonely job, as you can be friendly and caring, but not the one to share your deepest fears and doubts. Not being in a relationship makes things more lonely, but relationships can complicate things. Some people move to less than ideal situations to follow their significant other. Other couples are stuck living in different cities because two academic positions in the same place are hard to find. Last but not least, studies have shown that it becomes harder and harder to form close friendships after a certain age,

Children's voyage (Wikimedia Commons)
This sounds dire. What is an academic to do? When deep ties built during graduate school and postdoc years are severed and friends are scattered all over, conferences and seminars become as much about science as about getting together and catching up. I never really appreciated how critical this is for my well-being until I started as an Assistant Professor. Other networks are also available to get support and develop a sense of belonging. Twitter provides a broad and supportive scientific community, though trolls and the constant barrage of news and opinions sometimes require taking a step back every now and then. Nonetheless, friendships can be forged on the site. The New PI Slack (no relations to me) is a supportive community for early stage investigators which is now hosting more than 300 academics in constant discussions about running a lab, writing grants, training, teaching and many other topics. What matters is that there are A LOT of other people out there going through the same things and having the same problems I have. Science in academia doesn't have to be so lonely.

I will miss my friends terribly, but everyone has gotta do what they gotta do. Old friends are still an email, a phone-call or a flight away. And I am glad there are all these other groups available. I am still not convinced that you cannot develop new strong friendship after 30 or 40, in real life and online.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hiring is hard, but firing is harder...

Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions I had to make as an academic. Not only because it came with the feeling that I had failed as a mentor, but also because of the overall HR stress associated with it.

As a student and postdoc I often observed situations where principle investigators (PIs) would not fire an unproductive and disruptive element for years, leading to infighting in a tense and unwelcoming workplace and tens of thousands of grant money lost. In many cases, these were large laboratories where the PI was aware and upset about the situation, but mostly ignored it and let it play its course. When this happens in a small lab things can get much worse. There is nowhere to hide and the $40-60K in salary lost in keeping someone who does not do their jobs can mean reduced resources for the lab, less support for other people, and delays in getting grants and papers threatening the long term survival of the entire group.

I'm not talking about when someone is struggling and needs coaching or a different communication approach, but when after multiple discussions and interventions someone is unable or refuses to follow instructions or reach objectives. When everyone else in the lab has decided that they do not want to interact with the person, or when the person has shown no respect for other people's work or animal welfare.  In general, managers take longer than they should to fire employees because it is uncomfortable and this can take even longer in science. As an educator, I consider everyone in the lab, including the technicians, as a trainee. They have to do a job, but it is my job to train them and help them succeed. So, everyone I had to let go felt like a personal failure. I mostly think that the lab is a better environment because of it, but part of me always feels that I could have done more as a boss and as a mentor to find the one thing that could have motivated and inspired them. I'll never know. The additional damage they could have done to our progress and finances could have been catastrophic and I couldn't take the risk to let the situation progress any longer.

In some cases the decision will be mutual and the situation so uncomfortable for both parties that the employee decides to leave, but sometimes you will have to have the dreaded discussion. It is critical to have the entire process mapped out by HR and know exactly what you can and cannot say. HR does not take these situations lightly and has a lot of rules. Many of these rules are in place to protect the institution and you. There are some good primers out there, but the bottom line is that the interaction is all about the employee and easing them through the transition. "Your feelings are irrelevant" and you need to prepare (a helpful list of questions from Monster). An HR representative will likely want to be there with you and they can coach you through the interaction and the exact words to use. Since research staff positions are attached to grants, poorly performing individuals can be let go when grants end and lab salaries need to be reshuffled. In this instance, performance should not be included in the termination narrative at any time and the only explanation given should be about funding. Otherwise, an employee can request a performance improvement plan (PIP) or sue the university for wrongful termination.

It's not easy and it shouldn't be, but ample warning, a clearly defined course of action, and a steady demeanor can make this incredibly stressful event go smoothly. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Is resilience the name of the game in academia?

As I was going through one of the hardest days in my tenure-track experience, struggling getting grants and keeping projects staffed, a friend advised me: "Resilience is the name of the game in academia. Just keep going." And so I did, I doubled down on my efforts and ticked every possible box on the tenure check-list...apart from one...an NIH R01 grant. I applied at every funding cycle revamping old applications and drafting new ones, went from Not Discussed last year to two not-fundable, but decent scores in 2017. And so we keep going through the slog of applying to an NIH grant every four months until something hits. "Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'..."

Lately I've been faced with what happens if something does not hit. A very close friend was let go and will close her lab in the next couple of weeks. Then, this week Dr. Becca (@doc_becca) who has been a beacon for junior faculty everywhere got one more not-fundable score on an R01 application, and may not get tenure. In both cases, these women are recognized young leaders in their respective fields, speakers at national conferences and part of national society committees, in addition to being great mentors and good citizens at their universities. In Dr. Becca's words...

What if you do everything you are supposed to do and the NIH still doesn't believe you? What if you are doing cool and innovative science which doesn't fit a certain mold and the reviewers don't get it? You can say: "Well, maybe you did not explain it well enough." "Maybe, though it was explained well enough to get nice papers and talk invites." It just feels like there is something fundamentally broken with the system and that wishin' and hopin' is not going to cut it. I have completely changed strategy with every grant I have sent in. When I have responded to reviewers comments by doing everything requested, things have gotten worse instead of better. Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist. And this is particularly punishing to women as they receive lower scores than men. I have some hope in the new NIH initiative to increase new investigator pay lines to 25% across the board, but this still doesn't fix the overall lack of support that many junior and mid-career faculty receive from their institutions.

I didn't mean to start this as an hopeless post. I'm still wishin' and hopin'. Still hustlin' to come up
with some new ways to tell my stories so that journal referees, conference attendees, AND NIH reviewers are wowed. I'm just wondering if resilience is necessary but not sufficient, and if luck is the defining factor. The good fortune to have the right mentors at the right time to guide your applications, the right reviewers, the right star alignment for a favorable outcome. Then everything is a gamble, and all a young scientist can do is her/his best. If you are one of the lucky ones, how do you move forward from there? How do you motivate your trainees through such instability? But  also how does this impact the status of scientific development and innovation at a national and global level? These are the days I would really want to move into policy-making to fix this, but then the most exciting science of my career is sitting there waiting to get done...and I need to find money to do it. So, I get back to my work and try not to think about any of this, while somewhere in the back of my mind still lurks the suspect that I'm being conned...

Monday, May 29, 2017

A scientific Sophie's Choice

One of my mentors once said that women have a harder time letting projects go. Both as it relates to the level of perfection that needs to be achieved to publish and to the general attachment to an idea that keeps resurfacing over the years. Right now, I am struggling with the decision of whether to let a project go.

If you have not seen or read Sophie's Choice, it's worth it. Meryl Streep is amazing in it and she won an Oscar. Sophie is a Polish woman captured by the Nazis with her two children. As she enters Auschwitz she has to decide which one of her children will die. Which one will be more likely to survive the camp? Which one is the weakest needing more protection? Which one is the favorite? I have written many times of how my lab is split between two major projects, of how they are different in many ways, which is messing with my identity as a scientist. In addition, while they both were funded, one project has been struggling from the start and has required a huge amount of my attention and effort. The right people to carry it on have not materialized, so I have kept it going mostly by myself by sheer willpower and elbow grease. As I make the final tenure push, I have to decide whether to let it go. This feels like cutting out a piece of myself. This is the project that got me my job. It's the one that was my pride and joy as a postdoc, the one that made a beautiful job talk, and the one that was supposed to support my independent lab for years to come. It was not supposed to falter. It taught me that no matter how many brilliant ideas you have, your environment and your hires are critical for success. It required infrastructure that did not exist where I am and that had to be built from scratch without the proper support. It required equipment that was not available. Some major senior faculty stakeholders left to pursue other opportunities, collaborators who signed up to help did not deliver on their parts of the work. Funding runs out in a few months. The reviewers of the R01 application based on this work thought the hypothesis was interesting, but they wanted me to prove it. Which I cannot do without more money. So there. All in all, over four years we are talking of an investment of around $800K and I have to decide how much more time and money I really want to devote to it. The seed fell on ground that was not fertile enough for it to grow quickly.

The other child had been the recalcitrant one. Uncooperative and slow to develop, but it brought in money, so I kept it. I added it almost as an afterthought in my job talk, because I had a freaking K99 on it, so it would have looked weird if I ignored it. Opposite to the first one, this project required all my attention during my postdoc without much reward. Now the duckling has morphed into the most beautiful swan and we have three major papers in the pipeline. Because of the multiple personnel losses last summer, it stalled for six months and is now picking up again with new talented postdocs. My mentors tell me to cut my losses and go all in with this second project. Focus on getting the papers out to make this become my sure bet for an R01. Yet, I have come to my faculty position with an identity and a hypothesis I have been pursuing for 10 years, and I am faced with forsaking it. My gut is confused. I do not have the luxury of time to figure things out. In less than one year I have to start assembling my tenure package and I need an R01 to survive. I love both my projects, I have poured so much of myself in them. But the funding is what it is and I have to be savvy. My biggest conundrum is whether savvy means relying on a strong track record or on a really snazzy idea. I can write a new boring R01 on project 1 on things I am proven to know how to do, or I can continue to pursue the very exciting project 2 where study sections are permanently worried about my expertise. I can't decide...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Is the pre-tenure job search a thing?

I recently posted a pool on twitter about when to apply for a new faculty position when you already have one.

I had often seen friends and colleagues apply when their tenure package went in to boost their leverage with current university and to see what was out there. I thought this is just what people do. My friend, who's a senior faculty member in engineering thought this was a terrible idea and that his department would immediately assume the candidate had been told they would not get tenure.

The poll which is not scientific, but had a good number of respondents, also suggested that a good time to look could be earlier than tenure, Year 3-4. But why would you leave that early when you have barely set up your lab?

I still don't know what is the "right" time and the reasons for doing a job search are many pre- or post-tenure.

The most obvious reason is that you really want to leave. Let's admit it. A lot of junior faculty candidates may not have many options or may not be savvy enough to ask all the right questions during their first search, so they end up in a situation which is not ideal. In addition, circumstances change: department chairs retire or move to a different position, colleagues move, deans and university presidents change and shift priorities, your significant other is in a different city. Or simply your research program brings you in a new direction and you need different equipment or resources.

But there is also the need for leverage. My assumption that the pre-tenure search was a frequent occurrence came from seeing multiple people do it, and not only get tenure, but also nice retention packages, because another school was trying to take them away. I have also seen senior academics play this game over and over again. The more competitive the university is, the more you need an outside offer to grab attention. A friend once complained "I feel the people who get the most are the ones constantly threatening to leave". So, you don't really want to leave, but you need something and you get it through a job search. This is a tricky proposition as senior administrators may not appreciate this game and it must be played very very shrewdly, especially if there is an expectation of loyalty. It may be more effective in larger places and it's not that you can ask "So, is the pre-tenure search a thing here?"

Yet, I personally think that if you are at all worried about tenure, it may not be a bad idea. The thing with tenure is that you don't necessarily know how it's going to go, unless you really trust your department and your university. I had friends who were told everything was great, but then were nixed by the department. Others had full departmental support and were nixed by a new senior administrator who suddenly changed the standards. Some of them really regret not doing a search after they obtained their first or second R01. Applying for jobs as a hot fully funded researcher has a very different vibe than applying after tenure denial. And going up for tenure with a few job offers makes sure you will land on your feet, no matter what.

In general, moving is difficult because of the downtime in your research and having to learn a whole new set of politics and mores. At the same time, it could be great and sanity/career-saving. And a job search doesn't have to mean moving, but simply exploring options. If just it wasn't so time-consuming and emotionally exhausting...

So, the upshot is that I don't know. When I did a second poll to find out when people had moved, I had very few responses, but I know from experience that scientists move around and that many more want to move. What do people think? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, April 10, 2017

How can you be authentic on the tenure track?

At a recent personal effectiveness workshop I attended I was asked to look up the definitions of "authentic" in different dictionaries to find the definition that would work for me.

- Genuine.
- Worthy of acceptance or belief based on fact.
- True to one's own personality, spirit or character.
- (In existential philosophy) Denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible mode of human life.

I have been longing to be more true to myself in my life. Despite the fact that I have been able to be authentic to my feelings and experiences in this blog, I have not been the same at work. By not being myself most of the day, I sometimes feel like I turn on the same facade outside of work, even without thinking. This generates a disconnect between who I know I AM and who I am being, which comes off as guarded and detached.

Armour, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
Being on the tenure track means being thrown without training in a leadership position and being judged about your performance for 5-9 years. I am being guarded with people in my department because even people I do not like will be voting on my tenure and I need to be seen as a helpful team member. I am being guarded with my superiors and admins because when I want to get things done in a somewhat dysfunctional environment I have to say the right words and grease the right wheels. I have to smile and bite my tongue when some days I just want to scream. I am being guarded with most of my peers because I don't want to mention I am considering leaving and because I want to support the new hires, from whom I withheld information through the interview process, as their experience could be different from mine. I am guarded with the people in my lab mostly because one day I may have to fire them if I don't get funding and I hired them on a promise that I am not sure I will be able to fulfill. Also, like with children, you don't want to show you have any favorites.

This is not much different from any other job, apart from one detail: the tenure clock. Similarly to grad school, you are waiting for a group of people to tell you that you have done enough to join their club. This touches different aspects of self-worth that the more impostor syndrome you have, the more results into neuroses and uneasiness. I am not sure that tenure is synonym with job security in academia anymore, but it is certainly still a token of acceptance, of having made enough on an impact. Being passionate and engaged in your career, which is a critical part of doing science, is hindered by constantly having to hide your feelings.

So, how do you reconcile being yourself with being on the tenure track? I wish I knew! The answer may different for different people as everyone may be using different strategies to cope. For me, it is mostly that I am dead tired to be wearing a full set of armor every day and that I will do my best to negotiate being myself with the demands of the job...I know I still cannot express all my frustration, but I may be able to identify new ways to affect change.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

4 years on the tenure-track

The lab is turning 4 today! This year has been a heck of a ride. As I was going through posts from Y1, Y2 and Y3, I realized how far I have come. I think the tenure process puts you on uncertain footing from the very beginning. As things progress and you are given more and more responsibilities, being exhausted and overwhelmed can become a constant. On this respect, my year 4 was particularly bad. I spent 2016 continuously applying for NIH funding without any traction. I have pushed an R01 application all the way to major revisions and resubmission and it went from scored to not discussed. Now I have two more R01s and one R21 in play. Putting something in every four months means I'm spending six months of the year focusing on grants which is terribly draining. I love writing, but the uncertainty of the current funding climate, even before the new budget proposal threatened to cripple the NIH altogether, made writing terrifying. The grant going from scored to ND hit me particularly hard. I thought I had done everything right and they still did not believe me. I was at a loss and sitting down at my laptop to write felt like standing by a precipice with a blindfold.

Multiple key people in my group left in 2016 leaving three major papers stalled on a project that will be critical for my career progression. I had to almost start over, while I was already halfway my tenure track. I had a lot of travel obligations during the Summer-Fall and felt the lab slipping away from my fingers. How do you balance? You have to write grants, you have to give talks, you have to mentor people, you have to do service, and suddenly you have to start doing experiments again. You write the papers, you do revisions, you push and push as hard as you can. It is fair to say that by the end of the year I was not well. The Trump election and this feeling that science had no meaning for society any more contributed to the general malaise. I could not recognize myself: I was angry and bitter and so so tired. I was getting to the brink of burnout and depression, and wondering whether I should go on medication(*). I had to do something. I had to find a way to cope with the job or quit.

I asked for help. I did a personal development workshop recommended by a friend. I found a good therapist through another friend. I found multiple other instruments to cope and feel better through science Twitter. I took the time to go to physical therapy so that I could get out running again. If you follow me, you'll know I'm not one for half measures: when I do something, I do it 150%. One 2,000 year-old quote I encountered in January really resonated with me "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters (Epictetus)"(see a recent Harvard Business Review article about this). I sat down in a quiet spot and took a long hard look at how I react to things and why. I faced some painful stuff, some long-held beliefs that I am not good enough or smart enough. Beliefs that could sneak up in unexpected ways to sabotage my confidence and slowly make me doubt everything I was doing. Through therapy and other tools, I started taking these apart. One exercise I've been doing is writing down good things that happen every day in my Passion Planner, a weekly planner designed to identify and reach your personal and professional goals. On Saturdays I go through the week and at the end of the month I review the month and make a list of everything I have accomplished. It sounds like a corny little trick, but it has been transformative. What makes a day memorable? What makes me happy? Just appreciating what I get done makes me feel better. Even on a crappy day, there will be something, a contact with a friend, a run, a piece of data, a moment I chose to devote to myself, which can be recognized as good.

Nothing has changed for the better in my life and work since November, yet everything has changed. I am stronger that I've been in a very long time mentally and physically. Is it possible that I won't get a grant in 2017 and lose my job? Maybe. Is the world around me going to s--t? I hope not. Is there still a long hard road ahead of me? You bet. Most of this is not within my control. I can only control how I live and how I react to what happens to me. Year 5 in the lab will be about cutting down all the extra noise and getting some awesome science done, and hopefully, having fun with it.

(*) Just a note on the medication so that my suggestions are not taken as an alternative. I have had major depression in the past triggered by life events. I am one of the lucky people for whom SSRIs work like a charm so I wouldn't think twice about going on meds if necessary. Because I know my symptoms very well, I knew things were not as bad and my doctor agreed. If you feel like you're getting sick and need treatment, seek treatment :)

Photo credit: By Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, February 18, 2017

What is work/life balance in science?

There was a very lively discussion on Twitter today started by this tweet by Terry McGlynn @hormiga who has been a wonderful advocate for diversity in academia.
This opened up a discussion on how much academics work in different continents, but also whether a 40hr/week is actually feasible in US academia. I have never worked a 40hr/week in my life, as a grad student or a postdoc or a faculty member. Now that I have to manage people I have to take a very hard look at my productivity and my people's productivity, and I'm always wondering if I am being unfair in my expectations. The rub here is "How do you decide how much you are supposed to work?" This is not a trivial question and it is really critical at the faculty level.

I know students and postdocs think they work a lot. I thought I worked a lot then, but I had not idea of A LOT was until I started my faculty job. The work never ends. It's no longer "I have to finish this set of experiments" "I have to write this paper". There are mountains of work and deadlines and obligations that pile up. There are things I have to do now, things I can postpone to next month and things I can postpone to two months from now. As deadlines approach, tasks get reshuffled as necessary, so that there are things in my to-do list from 2015...not a priority, but still in the to-do list because at some point I would like to get to it, maybe next year. So everyone has to decide when to stop working and when to start again, how to set internal deadlines and when to press the pause button.

I have never fully understood the concept of work/life balance. My science is my life. I define myself as a scientist and everything I have ever done in my life has been for my science. I have moved countries and cities for my science and I will go wherever my scientific interests are nurtured, so work and life are not two separate things. I believe that a single handed focus, the ability to learn from one's mistakes and move forward, to never-ever give up are the keys to success. But what does success mean? Who sets the parameters of success?  My therapist as I was dealing with depression in graduate school used to say "You are too grandiose. Your expectations for yourself are too high and you are never going to be happy, if you don't revise them". Yet, aren't all scientists grandiose? Isn't one of the primary reasons that we do what we do the fact that we thing we are uniquely suited to solve our scientific problem of interest? And that this passion, this bottomless curiosity cannot be sated? This megalomaniac streak has pushed me to achieve things, I would not have otherwise achieved, and I have taken it as companion, but I have also learnt to tame it. Mostly gone are the days of emotional cutting on Pubmed...you know, when you Pubmed the people in your cohort and see how much better they are publishing than you? It's a really good alternative to looking up old boyfriends on Facebook!

At any given time there will always be someone doing better than you, even if you are Bill Gates. So, the million dollar question is "What does success mean FOR ME?" I finally realized that this is a much more important question to ask than "What do people expect for me?" "What do I have to do to graduate? Get a job? Get tenure?" As a student and postdoc there was a sense that I had to measure up to others in my class/lab, but assistant professor is a very lonely job...unless you're in one of those places where they hire 3 people for 1 tenured-spot and you have to worry about besting the other 2.

So, what does success mean for me? I want my research to have an impact on people's lives in two domains: I want to significantly advance biomedical research and I want to train the next generation of scientists. This is why I stay in academic science. All I care about is my research program and my people. If you mess with my research program or my people, you will hear me roar. Tenure doesn't mean much to me because if I cannot pursue my research and I have to fire my people. I don't care about a stable job.

It took me a long time to divorce my thinking from the societal/academic expectations. Does this mean I do not play the game the way it's supposed to be played? No. Does this mean that I do not have a list of things to check off? Of course, I do. But the focus has shifted. The issue is not getting a glam paper at all costs, but actually continuing to do good science that impacts people's lives. When I veer off course and fall back into old mental tricks, I have to come back to what I really want.

What does this mean for you, or for my trainees? It means that you have to find what you want and they have to find what they want. Then it's not the issue of 40 or 60 or even 30hrs/week. But how we can coordinate what I want and what they want so that we move forward together. It is possible that individual wants may not fit with each other, but isn't that the issue in any job?

PS: Just to stress that my favored approach is an unstructured schedule which allows for lots of flexibility here is an old post on my philosophy and an even older one on running a Results Only Work Environment. Also I never advocate for ANYONE spending all their time in the lab. You have to spend however much time you want in the lab and however much time you want doing everything else that is important to YOU. While I was working this entire holiday weekend, I also went to the symphony, the movies, our for dinner with friends, shopping and out on a run...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer Part 2: meeting

In a recent post I went through some of the benefits of the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience in the NIH review process. I was accepted into the program last year and just participated in my first study section meeting.

Detail from Raffaello's The School of Athens with the artist (in white)
eavesdropping on reviewers...
To preserve full confidentiality the NIH doesn't allow reviewers to speak of the proposals or the discussion outside of the grant discussion itself, even among each other, so there will be not details divulged or even specific references. The CSR has some excellent videos and tutorials in their applicant resource page and the discussion process is pretty much as shown in this video. Briefly, each application is assigned to three reviewers. Reviewers state their initial scores, then reviewer 1, the primary reviewer, sets the tone by summarizing the application and stating their critiques, then reviewers 2 and 3 can add their comments. If there is variation in the scores, as shown in the video, the discussion can focus on specific points and all members of the study section can chime in and ask questions or add comments. At the end of the discussion the chair summarizes the comments and the primary reviewers can confirm or change their scores. Their scores set the range for all other reviewers to vote, but anyone can choose to vote outside the range (above or below) as long as their declare their intention to do so. And that's how an NIH score is born.

It was a fascinating and eye-opening process and what I can say will reiterate what has been said to me. But these concepts were really driven home by the experience.

1) Study sections can be VERY DIFFERENT from each other: they have a specific focus and specific expertise, which fluctuates depending on the members and whether there are power groups. Part of the SROs job is to balance things out since study sections change or merge depending on how research progresses, but it may not always work. Knowing your study sections can go a long way for finding the right fit. I spoke to several people about their experience in different study sections and they knew that there were places where they wouldn't get funded.
- Look up the standing members. Do you know who they are? Are they people in your field?
- Go to NIH Reporter and look up the grants they funded in the past few cycles. READ the summaries. Do not just assume that because there was one grant that kind of sounds like yours, it would be a good fit.

2) If you truly think you are in the wrong place, move heaven and earth to MOVE YOUR GRANT. Make a request and justify it. Ask for advice from senior people. You can literally be Not Discussed from one group and funded from another. It is again a question of fit because the right people will have the expertise to understanding why your work in important and how it fits in the field. Excitement about the problem can go a long way to rescue a proposal with grantsmanship issues.
- Call the SRO, call the CSR. Get out.

3) Take a STEP BACK and look at your grant from the prospective of an educated tax payer or a science journalist. Why is this exciting? How will giving you money make the world better? Why should people be reading your work? Your reviewers will be good scientists, but may not have direct expertise in your specific project. You need to make them see the relevance (Significance), the novelty (Innovation), the sound hypothesis (Premise) and the feasibility (Rigor) of your work. If you hit all the right notes your impact will be high (or in reality as close to 1 as possible). In a funding climate where only 10-15% make it, it's not the question of whether your project is worth it, but rather whether you can make multiple people believe it is WORTHIER than others.
- It's a mantra I wrote down multiple times in my weekly planner for the month "Go big picture! Be clear! Be specific!". Counterintuitive, I know.

4) BE CLEAR! I'll double down on this. By "Be clear" I mean...If it's 5pm, people have been discussing grants for several hours and your Specific aim page is 30% acronyms, therefore not readable, you are at the mercy of the lowest scoring reviewer.  If it's 11pm and your reviewer cannot understand how the different molecules in your proposal are connected and how your experiments flow, your impact score may be lower.
- Leave the acronyms and abbreviations for the Approach and even there use them in moderation. Also, don't make new acronyms up.
- Generate as many diagrams and visual aids as possible to drive the message home.
- BE CLEAR! Be so clear that the undergrad in your lab gets it.

5) BE RESPONSIVE, DON'T BE A JERK. This seems like a given, but I think people have gotten used to pushing back to editors and reviewers on paper submissions. Suddenly, they'll believe that if you say "I know you told be X, but I don't want to do it and I'll do Y". Unless Y is groundbreaking new work, it's not going to fly. Be responsive to reviewers' comments, you only have one shot at resubmission. As part of the discussion of resubmissions the assigned reviewers have to comment on the steps taken to improve the application. Do not behave like you're too cool for school, because people will not buy it, if the grant does not hold up to scrutiny.
- Do as much as you can to satisfy reviewers' comments and justify things that you couldn't do in the Introduction. It will not necessarily work, but at least your review will not start with people who are annoyed.

As I wrote in the last post, I knew all these things, but for some reason I feel like I didn't. I rushed home to take a long hard look at my grant and make sure that everything was properly framed and explained. At the end you never know. My own grant was reviewed at the same time at a different study section and while I'm usually a basket-case on "study section day", I was much calmer. There was a definite sense of control because I could tell myself "This is what is happening right now to my grant." "This is how people are looking at things." There was also a sense of resignation because of the callousness of the whole process. Not that the reviewers were mean or dismissive, it was a great group and I felt review was deep and fair. It's just that the paylines are so low that you cannot get attached...even if it feels deeply personal for the applicant, whose academic survival may depend on it. If your goal as a reviewer is to be fair and make sure the best grants get funded, it cannot be personal. And that is the topic for a whole new post...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer Part 1: review

Last year I applied to the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience to review grants. It was brought up in a CSR seminar on grant writing and I thought "Why not? It may be a good experience." I was told it helps to identify study sections of interest and reach out to the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) in charge a few months before. I was debating which study sections I could go to, when an SRO emailed me. I was completely confused because I thought the group had hated my grant and that this particular study section was not a good fit for me, but of all the SROs I dealt with this one was the most communicative and helpful, so again "Why not? It may be a good experience."

I have only two words for you: DO IT!! I cannot speak of any of the specifics of the review process, because everyone signs a confidentiality agreement and review secrecy must be respected, but I can speak of things that are available to the public and tell you how this was helpful to me in general terms.

1) First of all, you get to see a lot of grants. It had not dawned on me that you get to see ALL the grants in that study section in that cycle and ALL the critiques as you have to participate in voting on all of them (unless you have a conflict of course). I don't know why it had not clicked that I would get a folder with dozens and dozens of grants, but it was better then Christmas Day.

2) You really understand what that specific study section is about. My application was wrong for them, but now I know exactly what kind of stuff they get. And it isn't a bad fit at all. The grants I received were a good fit for my expertise. I could give useful and cogent critiques. I can totally see sending a grant there in the future, but it will have to be very different from the one I sent them first.

3) You figure out how agonizing it is to judge "impact". How you have to balance all the review criteria and figure out "Is this going to work?" "And if it works, is it going to move the field forward?" It is literally like judging a pointillist painting: you step in to see the brushstrokes, you take five steps back to see how it all comes together. Sometimes you're willing to let go of minor errors for a truly lovely picture, but if it doesn't come together, you don't buy it.

4) You figure out how to judge everything else. You are constantly reminded which criteria are critical. The NIH was not joking when they introduced premise and rigor and sex as a biological variable criteria. Also, your senior colleagues were serious when they told you "You are only allowed to fight for one grant". As special snowflakes, we all think that our grants are brilliant and the reviewers may see beyond minor flaws...they won't. They can't. You can only champion one. 10-15% get funded...so you're looking for the best one and hope other reviewers will like it too. A good average grant gets a 5, a bad grant an 8. Do not take it personally. It's the Hunger Games out there.

5) You get coaching in writing your critiques. As an ECR, you are the official reviewer in training, so you do a bit of extra work and get help from the SRO on what you need to focus on to give effective feedback (not science-wise, but more regarding NIH criteria).

6) Oh right...you get an extension on your grant submission, so that you get to submit your own grant AFTER the regular deadline and likely after you have served on study section. As an ECR you only receive half a grant load, but it is still substantial, so the extension is really needed.

It is truly a great program! If like me you have been struggling to figure out what reviewers want to the point that you can't write any more, this will jolt you out of your paralysis with tons of new ideas. I can't promise it will work, because nowadays there is an element of luck in grant funding that is outside of our control, but it will definitely get you to understand what steps you could take to be in the best possible position. I'll see how the actual meeting goes and whether I can do a Part 2...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Calling scientists to get involved in scicomm and early education

I have been very worried about the distrust of science and scientific thinking that is creeping into the public and political discourse in the US. If we do not keep science and technology at the forefront of our economic agenda, progress and innovation will stop. Most importantly, I truly believe that more scientific thinking (approaching everything around you with an open, curious and critical mind) can really make the world a better place. One solution for this is for scientists to really get out there to do outreach and education. There are days when I seriously consider quitting my job to tour the Southern and Central states of the US to speak about evolution and neuroscience and the importance of scientific thinking in general. Follow Amanda Glaze (@EvoPhD) for more on this.

I occasionally do outreach for K-12 whenever asked and I do a lot of career development activity, but I felt like I could have more impact by working with an organization. I asked Twitter if anyone could recommend programs to help me find one and boy, the science Tweeps replied!!

There were so many great programs that I thought to collect all the suggestions so that anyone else scientist or teacher trying to create new connections could benefit from this list. Please continue to suggest programs in the comments or on Twitter @TheNewPI and I will add them.

Let's get involved, people!

US programs
Global STEM Alliance (US) - New York Academy of Science programs providing mentoring for kids and young scientists locally in NY and globally
Scientist in the Classroom (US) - National Center for Science Education program to connect scientists and teachers
Science Education Partnership Awards (US) - lists and maps of all funded NIH R25 science education programs so that you can find one near you
BioEyes (US/Australia) - K-12 education programs using zebrafish as a model
Find a Neuroscientist (US/global) - Society for Neuroscience catalog of scientists willing to visit classrooms
MAD science (US) - company providing after school program (may also be an option if you think about transitioning into a full-time outreach career)
Letters to a pre-scientist (US/global) - connects scientists with kids who want to know more about science and what a scientist does
Skype in the Classroom (US/global) - Microsoft effort to allow speakers to interact with classrooms around the world

Local/university outreach program
Science Bus (CA) - after school program K2-5 staffed by the Stanford community
NWABR Speaker Bureau (North West US) - North West Association for Biomedical Research has programs for outreach and promoting science in the community
DC STEM Network (DC) - offers volunteering opportunity to teach and do outreach in the DC area
Penn STEM outreach (PA) -
Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (NY)
Neuroscience Outreach Group at NYU (NY)

North America
Let's Talk Science (Canada) - mobilize university/college students and STEM professionals for outreach
Clubes de Ciencia (Mexico) - connect K-12 students with young scientists

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Going big for the New Year: sticking to my resolutions

Sitting in the back of an Uber in London between Christmas and New Year's, I was listening to whatever was on the radio. The newscaster announced that a new study had shown that to lose weight after the holidays you have to set unrealistic expectations. The higher the number of "stones" you set as a goal, the more weight you will lose, even if it's just a portion of the initial resolution. As I have assimilated into the American canon that a British accent makes someone more believable, I called on my inner Bridget Jones to make propositions for 2017.

I have already written about how 2016 has been productive, but emotionally destructive. My big thing for 2017 is to always Think Positive. Like that's easy, when you're an overworked, overwhelmed young investigator approaching the finish line of your tenure-track...And while I do this I want to run a half marathon.

I forget who said this, it might have been Under Armour, "When things are too heavy, you need to get stronger". I've been injured a lot while running because I neglected the conditioning and strength training that goes with increasing my distance. Similarly, I feel like my full potential as a scientist is still eluding me because I need to spend more time doing the mental work that goes with the job. The never ending admin work and constant emergencies while I'm in the lab, not only leave me very little time to truly think, but also remove me from the exciting stuff that is going on and from what I love to do. To get stronger, I have work my physical and imaginary muscles.

So what are the steps I'm taking to write a funded R01, publish ground breaking work, get my body in 10-13mi shape and overall figure out my life in 2017? Taking tips from several Tweeps and the internet.

1) BethAnn McLaughlin (@McLNeuro) recommended the Passion Planner in a blog post on Edge for Scholars. OMG, I LOVE IT! Thank you, BethAnn. While I will never ever give up my Google Calendar, having a physical book to write things in has a certain grounding effect (Think 13-yr old full of possibilities. Please add a locket on the 2018 version! I'll pay extra for it!). The most important aspect of the planner is that it doesn't need to be for appointments at all, but just for intentions. Personal, professional, philosophical intentions. It doesn't matter. It provides inspiration for guided thinking about the goals of each day, week, month. It urges you to record the small changes and successes, and to be mindful of yourself. The fact that they recommend to use colors finally provided a use for the pencils I got last year for the adult coloring books I never used. A huge plus. I've only used it for a week, but the practice to define a reachable goal for the week and write each day every good thing that happened has had a strong stabilizing influence. Even when bad things have happened around me...and they already have.

2) Veronica Cheplygina (@vcheplygina) mentioned Habitica and wrote about it in her blog. Habitica is an app that turns developing habits into a game. It's based on the concept that building habits is like building muscles and you have to repeat every day until things become ingrained. It keeps track of habits you want to form and rewards you for sticking with them every day. It's simple and cute, and I'm using it to keep motivated for my Passion Planner entries, be positive, exercise...and floss. Word to the wise, the more habits you try to change at once, the more Health points you lose if you do not check in or do your homework.

3) On the spur of the moment, through a 2-for-1 deal at the airport I picked up "Get Your S*it Together" by Sarah Knight (the author of "The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*uk"). The title seemed appropriate to my current situation, and the book was easily finished in the duration of one transatlantic flight. If you like your life coach swearing you through your life-improvement experience, think of Jillian in the Biggest Loser, you'll enjoy the book. There's something for everyone, even the type-A Ms. Perfect "my s*it is all in a perfectly pyramidal pile, thank you very much" (wink, wink). Having read my share of self-help books, there was nothing new and some of the exercises are exactly what the Passion Planner has you do, but you never have enough motivation, right? P.S. The other book was The Sellout by Paul Beatty, seemingly the hottest book of the moment, by the first American to win the Booker Prize.

4) And now to the real muscles. Because I was away and the flight over was not kind to my running injury, I was desperate to find a good free yoga practice to build core strength and flexibility during the break. Google brought me to Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. The 30 days of Yoga series is great. Each session is 20-35mins and you can do two in a row if you wish. Day 6 short abs workout is particularly fierce. Since every day has a theme, I can see coming back to specific days as needed if I want a short routine or if I'm traveling. Luckily the campus gym reopens tomorrow.

OK, this is all I have. Feel free to share other tips in the comments.