Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Project Management for Academia 101: learn the basics

Project Management (PM) is a full-fledged discipline which focuses on the planning, execution, and completion of projects. In large corporations, projects like the launch of a new product can take a year and involve dozens or hundreds of people with different expertise in different departments (R&D, marketing, sales, production, distribution). The Project Manager's role is to plan and coordinate the project so that it is successfully completed by a defined date.

I started looking at these practices just through conversations with friends in other industries and quickly realized that many academics are already expert project managers and other academics would really benefit by learning some of the PM rules. I have always thought that your PhD is supposed to teach you how to conduct and complete a project, your postdoc is to identify and plan a project that will get you a job while you learn how to write grants and manage a few people, and your faculty position steps everything up to next level where you manage projects, people, budgets, and several other responsibilities. PM is a critical skill to develop early as it will sustain you throughout your career, and is readily translatable to any other industry.

A good place to start is the Harvard Business School Project Management Manual. It's 20 years old, but it's short and simple and a good introduction to basic practices. The major steps for managing a project are: Initiating, Planning, Monitoring, Executing and Close Out.

Initiating involves defining and organizing the project and it’s one of the most critical aspects of PM. If you don't know what the project is about, what is needed, and who is doing what, you are setting yourself up for chaos from the very beginning. You need to define objectives and the expertise needed to achieve them, including bringing people on board and giving them clear instructions on what their responsibilities are.

Then you Plan: set intermediate objectives, deadlines, and deliverables, assign specific tasks to people and define how the different parts of the process fit together, for example, whether assignments are sequential or parallel and which steps depend on completion of previous assignments. My guest blogger Duc Phan will expand on this in the next post.

Only after you define objectives and set out a plan, you start Monitoring how the different moving parts proceed and get into the Execution/Management portion. Depending on the size of the project this is where things can get hairy due to planning errors, unforeseen obstacles, or personnel issues. This is where the manager may step in to troubleshoot or find someone else with the expertise to do it, reallocate resources, adjust deadlines, etc, until "Tada!" the project is complete and the final deliverable is produced. As part of the Close-Out process, it will be important to go through the flow of the project and see where things went wrong and whether a different design is needed for the future.

I'm sure you can see how these principles could be applied in the lab, but I will give you a concrete example. You can think of projects in terms of published articles, and this type of project management is a good primer for both trainees and faculty. Managing a large project like the one outlined in an R01 application will include multiple publications.

GOAL: I want to publish a paper!
Great! How?

* What is the paper about? Define the title of your project/paper, the main hypothesis that you want to prove.
* What was known about this before? Read the literature to decide what are important questions left to answer and where the knowledge gaps lie.
* What do you need to do? What are the necessary steps to prove your hypothesis and what are the techniques/approaches involved? Are there techniques/reagents you need to acquire?
* How many people do you have and how many do you need? Do you need collaborators to bring different expertise? Do you need to recruit a few junior trainees to take on data collection/analysis?
* Do all the steps need to progress in an IF/THEN fashion (each step dependent on the previous) or are there parallel steps where multiple techniques can be used at the same time (e.g. biochemistry and histology on the same tissue to answer parallel questions)?
* What if my hypothesis is wrong? Develop a risk management plan: alternative approaches and when to abandon the project.

* Lay out the steps you have identified and outline experiments.
* Assign experiments (to yourself or different people) and determine how long it would take to complete them.
* Factor experimental failure, broken equipment, illness, and other factors that could delay the process.
* Prioritize experiments and organize them based on time available, personnel, reagent generation and troubleshooting, animal breeding, equipment scheduling and other factors intrinsic to your research design.
* Define clearly who is responsible for what, who reports to whom, and how participants are supposed to communicate.
* Set deadlines for each component of the project and make everyone aware of them. This is critical when hand-offs are needed, e.g. animals to be shipped to a collaborator, summer student leaving, etc...
* Remember that most likely the manuscript will go to several rounds of review and that you also need to factor time for revisions. If you plan to graduate or leave the lab, who is going to finish it?

Note: Some people like to lay out figure plans when starting to develop a paper: they organize the outline of each figure and which data is needed to complete it. I sometimes find this difficult as the story can change a bit as you go along. I use a hybrid system where I write out the questions we are asking (e.g. Does loss of gene X alter protein levels of Y and Z?) followed by bulleted experimental outline (e.g. 1. Generate 5 animals per genotype/sex, 2. Prepare protein lysates, 3. Run Western blot for Y and Z). Then when we have enough data, we print things out and start organizing figures at the white board, then find the holes and plug them. Which brings me to...

* If the plan is laid out well, the tracking becomes easier during regular staff meetings, as you can just go through the experimental outline and see what is done and what is not done.
* There are ways to monitor without meeting such as Asana which I have discussed in a previous post or the team messaging app Slack and its ToDo option. I will further discuss these strategies in a post dedicated to getting lab members on invested into projects.
* The simpler and more annoying part of managing the project will be dealing with troubleshooting and unforeseen delays leading to changes in deadlines.
* The hardest part of managing a scientific project will be reframing and readjusting your goals as you go along. Scientific discovery is not like launching a new iPhone. As your results come in, you may find your hypothesis is not true or you may find your beloved biological mechanism does something amazing you had not anticipated. The thing is that once you have this PM loop ingrained in your day to day planning, you can shift very quickly and use the same framework I outlined to redesign your workflow and continue based on new goals. Instead of single loop, doing research is more like going through these steps over and over again in a spiral.
* Overall the hardest part of managing in general is managing people, which is particularly challenging with smart and strong-willed scientists, but as I said above, this merits an entire post.

Close out:
* Once you have a collected all the data, you set up a mini-project to write the manuscript and submit, while you plan for revisions do to on the holes that you willingly left for the reviewers to find. 
* The reviewers find a few other holes and you plan for revisions. The manuscript goes back in and is accepted!! 
* Remember to celebrate and thank all the contributors for their valuable contribution. 
* The proofs of course come back while you're on vacation without internet access (I don't know how journals know that, but they do), so remember to plan for a back-up proofreader as your final Close-Out item. 
* Review your process, adjust, and repeat roughly 100-200 times throughout your career.

Now, think of how else you could apply these strategies!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why should you care about project management in academia?

I promised I would start this year on a more positive note going back to the original goal of my blog, learning how to manage a research laboratory. I was inspired by a discussion about Project Management on Twitter a few weeks ago. I've been obsessed with learning more about Proect Management for over a year now and I thought I'd share what I found out.

Design flowchart (Wikimedia Commons)
What is Project Management? I will do what we tell students not to do, cite Wikipedia. "Project Management is the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at a specified time."

This should sound familiar to anyone who has ever published a research paper or written a doctoral thesis...possibly with the exclusion of "at a specified time". What many students and postdocs don't realize is that, in general, Project Management is one of the most important skills acquired during a PhD that is directly translatable to industry or to any other job.

Project Management has evolved into a discipline with certifications and Master's programs, and Project Managers (PMs) are a now critical part of most projects in various industries. In conversations with friends in PM roles in banking or IT, I have been amazed by how similar our issues are, and how easily we can share tips and concerns about managing people and tasks in our respective fields. While scientists usually develop Project Management skills on the fly, having some idea of the type of approaches that have been tried and tested in different industries may help streamline project development and performance. It's also a very useful skill to mention early in your resume when you are looking for a nonacademic job, and it's absolutely critical when running a lab.

To take the time to go through different aspects of adapting PM rules to research, I thought I'd run a series of posts providing info and useful links to additional materials:

1) General Project Management rules and how they apply to scientific research
2) Different types of Project Management approaches to chose from depending on your personnel and project (guest post by Duc Phan, UCI grad student and PM aficionado)
3) Managing your own project vs. managing several projects in a lab
4) Managing different personalities and learning styles to make sure people perform as necessary
5) Managing while female (while a lot of PMs are women, we often encounter issues in telling people what to do).

Stay tuned! Links will be added here as the posts are published. Also, if there is something specific you are interested in, write a comment. We would be happy to elaborate and add more posts.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

You are not alone and the scientific community is strong and caring

Some days on Twitter it sounds like the academic scientific community is cold and competitive with a few evil overlords sitting on piles of money and feasting on the remains of trainees killed by overwork. While I will not deny that such characters exist, I sometimes worry that the image portrayed online is bleaker and scarier than the reality, and that it may contribute to deterring trainees from staying in academia. Social climbers are the same in academia as they are in corporations or banking, you will always find power hungry people with no scruples.

My experience both in real life and online has always been that many remain in academia because they enjoy teaching and mentoring, creating a strong caring network that has cheered for me and supported me every step of the way. I have seen my friends from grad school rise through the ranks, postdocs are now associate/full professors and grad students are my peers. Students that I knew as a postdoc are now starting faculty positions and becoming colleagues and collaborators. Mentors and senior faculty have been staunch advocates, often when least expected. Everyone knows how hard this is! It became really clear to me when I was checking references for my first postdocs and I would mention I was starting my own lab. Every single senior faculty I talked to was eager to help and discussed my needs and whether their trainees would fit in a new lab or not.

In this job you constantly meet new people, but once you've been around for a while in a particular field, you constantly find how you are connected with everyone by fewer degrees of separation than you think. You can often sit at dinner at a conference and find that the person next to you is a good friend of a friend, and every year your circle becomes larger and larger. As a trainee I really did not appreciate the benefit of networking with your peers, since for me it was just hanging out with other students and postdocs. But because of academic mobility, every time I moved and my friends moved, we accumulated more friends, who are tied in a mesh of other close colleagues around the world. Online academic communities, be Twitter, ResearchGate or The New PI Slack, only expand these horizons. This supports job opportunities and collaborations, talks and conference invitations, requests to review manuscripts and grants. It will make your career.

Young scientists are often intimidated by approaching older/"famous" faculty, especially if they are hanging out in a group, but often what they are doing is exactly what the juniors are doing: complaining about stuff and catching up with friends. If you want to meet them at a conference for a job opportunity or a collaboration, shoot them an email before the meeting and set up a time to chat. Many people will be happy to comply and to help. Some won't because they have no time or they do not care, which brings me to what motivated me to write this post. Do your due diligence when choosing a mentor and surrounding yourself with a mentoring team. Do not accept abusive behavior as the norm. In rising through the ranks I have begun to be involved in broader conversations about scientific training and career development and I have been inspired by so many senior scientists who care very deeply about helping trainees and affecting change. They are dismayed at their colleagues who use trainees as cheap labor to produce high-profile papers without providing proper training, and there is constant discussion on how to change that culture. One solution is just not to go work for the jerks and find those who will support you. If you consciously choose to work for a jerk at your own risk (sometimes science and money may drive the decision), find others who will support you. But also ask for what you need from your university's trainee office and student/postdoc association or your scientific society. There are a lot of people out there who really care. You are not alone!

So to open the discussion, students and postdocs, what do you need? Let's say I'm in the position to generate some of these resources in the future, what resources are you missing?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Is the resilience the name of the game in academia? Part 2. The Aftermath.

Is resilience the name of the game in academia? was the title of a very popular post from last year which opened a wide discussion on how much can one suffer through federal grant applications before they are deemed worthy, and whether the tenure track process is a pyramid scheme.

A couple of weeks ago I was working on my 7th consecutive NIH application and doing the obligatory chat with the NIH Program Officer who could take it in his portfolio. After the discussion he said "I looked up your application record. You are doing exactly what you are supposed to do. Keep going!" I was on the phone so I could roll my eyes. I thought "If someone tells me to keep going one more time, I'm going to to lose it." But what else can you do?

So, I kept going, through the emotional turmoil of working on application #7 while #6 was being reviewed (the NIH running wheel). As I was checking on eRA Commons that the new application was OK, the score for #6 came in...5.0 percentile...Wait. What?! I had to do a double take and make sure it was 5 and not 50. Single digit %. I broke down in tears. The score is well within the pay line and doesn't require any New Investigator bump or special treatment. My PO replied to my email with "Congratulations!"

I am happy, but the tension from running on the wheel for 3 years started dropping and I mostly feel so so tired. The enormity of what happened has still not entirely hit me. The possibilities, the change in focus for a lab that has been just pushing to get one more piece of preliminary/feasibility data, not being afraid that I could not keep the lab alive for more than 6 months...

I started thinking of what I learned from all this and what I could tell others in the same situation I was in. So here it goes.

1) Accept coaching. I remember reading this New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande about always needing a coach to truly become great. Coaching is more than mentoring. A coach identifies your weak spots and tells you how to improve, pushing you beyond what your comfort zone. Seek the people who will look at your grants and your writing and who will rip them open. Anyone who says "This is great" is not helping you. A coach is also someone who knows how to point you in the right direction. Reading my good grant some of my senior mentors said "You finally cracked the language you need to use for the NIH". Yet, they had not been able to tell me how to do it in previous applications and I had to look for professional grant coaching with Peg AtKisson @iGrrrl. So in a society where everyone needs to be praised, actively seek criticism and embrace it. Look for the people who really give you their honest feedback either gratis or for a fee.

2) Take all advice with a grain of salt. Ah, here I'm going to mess with you. You should take coaching and mentoring, but even the best coaches make mistakes. Your ideas are unique to you, as is your individual situation. You are the only one who can make the final decision on what goes into a project, a paper, and a grant proposal. While you should request a lot of feedback to see how different people react to your writing, this will mean a cacophony of different opinions. It is up to you to judge what is useful and what is not. And this is by far the most difficult aspect of being a leader: sticking to your guts, your choices, and your vision. The way I look at it is that if I have to drive my career into the ground, it will be on my own terms.

3) Be nimble. Rapidly adjust to situations and events as they happen. My first R01 application didn't work out and my PO recommended I write something else to target a different study section, so I did. If you are on a short 6-yr clock like me, time is of the essence. If you take 2-3 years to beat a dead horse...or rather to try and raise a cute little foal into a race-horse, you may end up with a project that is still not quite there. If you are in a place where you need two R01s for tenure, forget it! Some if the advice I got was to have multiple projects cooking and also figure out how to constantly repackage a proposal for different funding sources. That's what I call "application Tetris", where you can take one aim from here, one from there and voila', you have a new grant proposal! There is no single way to do things, mostly because you never know what is going to be a hit with reviewers.

4) Keep going! You know this was coming. Resilience is the name of the game. I have often wondered about how to keep going. This job has the ability to drag me back in on the exact moment I am ready to give up. You have probably heard many stories of people who were ready to quit and then everything turned out. I think there is an element in there of your colleagues throwing you a bone. Sometimes study sections appear to be like air-traffic control for young investigators: there are so many in the air, that they want to make sure you are running out of fuel before they let you land and refill. Maybe there is clarity that comes when you are truly desperate that makes you write your best proposals. I don't know.

The last think I can say is 5) Take care of yourself. Nothing is worth your health and well-being. I wish I practiced what I preach, but I'm working on it 😉

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

It is grad school/faculty job interview season. How do you pick where you will end up?

As you go on campus visit for grad school or faculty positions you not only have to decide if this is the university for you, but also whether this is a place where you want to spend a good chunk of your life. You may have done a wide search and be unfamiliar with some of the cities and schools, so what do you look for? How do you pick?

I was debating this issue with one of my senior mentors who suggested a clever approach, develop a ranking system. Define the things that are important to you for your work AND your life, and rank the different aspects of each option. One place may be #1 for work and #8 for life, so maybe you'd rather be somewhere that is only close to the top but has more attributes you like. It's an interesting exercise, especially because it really makes you think about what you want.

This is how I did it for faculty jobs. I came up with 7 criteria for work and 7 criteria for life, so that the scoring would be balanced. I chose things that are important to me personally and that I realized I would like for running a lab:

WORK: good colleagues, resources (cores, internal funding, etc), percent of salary support, students, good administrators, ability to attract good students/postdocs, recognition/ranking

LIFE: large city, proximity to friends and family, good art museum, good theater, good symphony orchestra, weather, distance from New York City

Then I made an Excel spreadsheet and assigned a value from 0-10 to each for a possible total of 140 points. Interestingly, the highest value I got was 106. Being in NYC immediately gives a score of 66, because let's admit it, the weather is not the best. It was clear that there is no perfect place and the final order was not necessarily what I expected. While this is not the only decision-making tool you should have, if you have been going back and forth in your head about some universities and cities, seeing how they rank on all aspects can be eye-opening. Defining your criteria can also remind you to ask specific questions during your interview to properly assess whether the place is a good fit. If you want a primer on which questions to ask and how to ask them there is an old post here. And another here on the all-important, but very loaded "Are you happy here?" and how to deploy it on a job search.

PS: Grad students: I was so confused when I had to pick a school that I literally let it up to fate, so don't feel bad if you don't know what you want. But trying this may help...

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 in review on The New PI

Many people have been posting on Twitter about their accomplishments in 2017. My biggest one is that I have survived with the mental health almost intact because of an effort I started late last year. Coming to the end of yet another year on the tenure track, I feel like I made no significant progress: I still do not have an R01, I am still single, I am still trying to steady myself in my personal and prefessional life. Yet, I have fought as hard as it was humanly possible for me to keep going while safeguarding my physical and psychological sanity. I have given this year truly everything I had. Things have happened to continue to destabilize me, but I weathered and navigated the changes. Every grant I sent out was scored, every pre-proposal invited. I have worked hard to build a stonger community and support network around me. My mental stamina has paralleled my running one, where I trained and conditioned so that for the first time in a few years I didn't get an overuse injury at the end of the summer. The plan for 2018 is to train harder and run further than I ever have. Hopefully, the lab will follow.

In building the annual 'Year in Review' post where I go through the first post of every month, I realized that the theme of resilience was combined with philosophical musings about why we do this job. It's a good summary of what happened. The first couple of months in 2018 will decide what happens next...

January: 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.

February: In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Review Part I: 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.
#3 2017 greatest hits

April: 4 years on the tenure track. The lab is turning 4 today! This year has been a heck of a ride.

May: 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.

June: 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 to get grants and to keep projects staffed, a friend advised me: "Resilience is the name of the game in academia. Just keep going."
#1 2017 greatest hit

August: Hiring is hard, but firing is harder. Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions I had to make as an academic.

September: How much time should a new PI spend at the bench? Some time ago I saw Huda Zoghbi give a talk describing her career path and mentoring philosophy.

October: Are academic scientists cogs in the machine of education corporations? Are we as academic scientists running a small business renting space from a larger corporation (the university)? And if yes, is this attitude damaging how we train our students and postdocs?

December: How do you keep going on the tenure track? The blog just turned 5 in November. I missed the actual birthday because it was a crazy month, but I've been thinking about this milestone.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Is "go big or go home" the way to go in academic publishing?

For the past few years, I have been struggling to reconcile my tendency to build large complete stories for publication and the need to show productivity for grants and promotion. I have agonized about what would be a manuscript that would satisfy both requirements, while I had to contend with deadlines, reviewer requests, delays, and personnel leaving. I am still not sure of what is the right way...or if even a right way exists, so I thought I'd brainstorm this here and see what people think.

I was trained to build substantial mechanistic stories so that a phenomenon would be reported with a mechanism attached to explain it. But these take time. I was also trained, maybe naively, to follow the most interesting question and identify whatever approach was most suited to answer it, which has led me to use an array of approaches and not to be technically specialized. This takes even more time. When you are in a large lab with massive resources in an institution with all kinds of expertizes you can draw from, this is greatly intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. When you are in a small place where you are the only person doing what you are doing, and sometimes the only person in your entire scientific discipline, suddenly this approach is not working so well.

Image: Adi Holzer, via Wikimedia Commons
I had to learn this the hard way applying for funding when reviewers couldn't quite place me and
questioned my qualifications to perform techniques I've been using for years. Despite having worked on a particular approach for a long time, I wasn't as prolific in publishing about it since I was building a larger story, and reviewers didn't believe I could do it. So I put a portion of the story together and published it, but they still said it wasn't enough. I looked at what I had, at my submission deadlines, and decided to break things apart a bit more. It broke my heart a little as I was cannibalizing another paper in progress to break it into smaller "single approach" pieces. Now, while I write yet another paper, which relies on some of the previously published data, I so wish I had kept everything together! It would have been so beautiful and cohesive, and now I have to do somersaults to make my point. There is another paper which has been in the works for 10 years now (yup, ten) because we have been learning new techniques which are taking years to perfect, and I wonder if it will be worth it.

I watch people who stuck it out and built one of these beautiful and cohesive mechanistic stories and I have to admit I am a little envious. Not necessarily because of the high-impact paper and the admiration of their peers, but because of the pride that comes with having a great piece of work to call your own. In giving a talk I can still place all the smaller pieces into a bigger picture. Yet, I cannot tell if it is as evident for others such as study section members, search committees, and university administrators, to see. In the end, my belief has always been that one has to strike the right balance between publishing a large story and not taking too long to do it and risk appearing unproductive. I still have not figured out how to walk this tightrope...

Saturday, December 9, 2017

How do you keep going on the tenure-track?

The blog just turned 5 in November. I missed the actual birthday because it was a crazy month, but I've been thinking about this milestone. I realized that never in my wildest dreams I would have thought it would serve my readers and myself the way it has. It has followed me through twists and turns and going back through it gives me perspective on everything that happened. I went back to the beginning to read the post I wrote the day before I started my faculty position.

"Tomorrow I start the job I have been working towards for the past 15 years and I have been dreaming of since middle school. I always wanted to be a scientist and when I first joined a lab as an undergrad, I decided I wanted to run my own lab. I have had wonderful times and truly terrible times, when I have teetered on the edge of dropping out of college to man the cashier at a supermarket, dropping out of grad school to go write movies or just simply hide under a rock, leaving my postdoc to go work as a scientific consultant in finance or a policy advisor. For years, every day, I would wake up and think "Will I quit today?", and then I would choose my job as an aspiring academic scientist above anything else. Every day. And then, as I was interviewing for positions, something snapped into place..."

Little did I know that I would be back to the cycle in no time. This Fall as I went through the Nth federal grant proposal, dealing with the Nth admin disaster, and trying to keep my life together after months of antihistamines and steroids to calm my chronic hives, the thought of just quitting keeps coming up in my mind every day. Every day I wonder whether I want to go to work or not, whether I really want this job. I still consider working in policy, but have also developed a renewed interest in pharma.

What if I just resigned? A pragmatic friend asked if I have money ready for a transition to survive for 6-12 months, and I do. Heck, if I sold my place and moved to Bali or Costa Rica for a bit, I could probably rest easy on a beach for a couple of a yoga studio...soak in some rays.

I saved a Tim Ferriss piece on TED talking about visualizing what would happen if you did what you are afraid of, and your fears came true. So, I indulged the fantasy and did the exercise of going through what I would do if I actually decided to quit. There is no scenario where the people in my lab are not taken care of, and I don't end up on my feet...and most likely on a beach, at least temporarily.

So, as usual, it all boils down to focusing on what I really want. What is this job worth to me? Is it the job itself or the workplace? Is it worth chronically affecting my health over this? In talking to my friends in and out of academia, I find these are the questions so many in my cohort are struggling with. Including "Am I making myself miserable by expecting too much?" "Should I just settle for what I've got and deal with the feeling of failure?"

2016 was truly terrible for me and I did a huge amount of personal development work in 2017 to keep going with a certain degree of sanity and level-headedness. And I was reasonably productive. But despite being more empowered and having figured out what I want and what I need, I'm still getting unexplained hives, which tells me that something is very wrong. In January 2016, in what I feel was a watershed post for the blog openly discussing some very personal feelings which resonated with my readership, I set a two-year moratorium on quitting. I didn't know then that the two years that would follow would be has hard as hell. I continue to feel the erosion and the sand slipping beneath my feet. Can I survive this job if it continues to be this hard? What is this worth to me? But also, should I stop pushing as much as I do to meet my huge expectations? Again, what is this worth to me?

Honestly, I have found some answers, but I do not know all of them yet. My plan is to put in one more R01 in February 2018, see what happens with the grants that are in review now and then take stock of what is going on. The only thing I know is that something's gotta give for this to be sustainable...

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Are academic scientists cogs in the machine of education corporations?

My last post focused on how to motivate lab members during the last stretch of the tenure track and it spurred by far the most lively and interesting conversation we've had on this blog. The discussion touched many topics regarding motivation, results-only work environments, and how to run a lab in general. But there is one topic that often finds people deeply divided.

Are we as academic scientists running a small business renting space from a larger corporation (the university)? And if yes, is this attitude damaging how we train our students and postdocs?

Having grown up in a country where most universities are public, affordable and open to everyone, I have spent my entire career in the US grappling with this question and feeling uncomfortable when people extol the "tuition-driven" model, which for academic biomedical research becomes the "grant-driven" model. I'm not naive, I get how the cash flow will provide better services for students and more resources for researchers. But the cash flow also leads to the corporatization of education and research. The moment an institution starts to correlate space given to a lab with indirect recovery on grants on a bi-annual basis, research becomes a product...I will not digress on how this may push people to make bigger claims than necessary or to cut corners.

I think many of us, new principal investigators, who have finally seem how the sausage gets made feel uncomfortable, as we are pulled between an ideal and the reality. The ideal is that I would like to be like Plato in the Symposium, discussing big ideas with like-minded individuals, training young minds towards major discoveries which will have a lasting impact on mankind. The reality is that I have to be mindful of accounting, HR and facilities, which I constantly write grant proposals to keep everything going. Trainees have to be productive because without money, I cannot keep myself or them employed and even if I find money to pay for their salaries, I still have to pay for all the supplies and reagents they need to do science. So, am I running a small business? All that I know is that in work-related conversations I can relate much more easily with friends in management or with a friend who owns a coffee shop, than with friends teaching in the humanities.

Newly minted Nobel laureate Jeff Hall's comments upon leaving science ring true "Might an institution imagine that it should devote part of its ‘capital fundraising’ toward endowing the ongoing research of its employees — at least so that no such effort would abruptly sink to the null point? The answer is ‘nice try: we will raise funds, but we'll put them all into building buildings — in order to fill them with additional hires, who will be as haplessly on-their-own as is ill-fated you.’ " It is telling that lately Nobel laureates feel the need to say (and I paraphrase) "I would never have made it today" (Peter Higgs, Physics) or "The whole publishing system is messed up" (Randy Schenkman, Physiology and Medicine). I expressed before how I sometimes feel this whole career trajectory is a Ponzi scheme, and that we should call it like it is. If you work for a private university, especially a school of medicine or hospital, you are most likely a cog in a massive money-making operation and it is very clear that if you do not bring in the money, there will be no room for you.

How does this reflect on how we train students and postdocs? I feel like we just need to be honest of the challenges and benefits. As a grad student I was very aware of labs that were on the verge of being shut down down the hall and professor transitioning to pharma and medicine because tenure doesn't mean much when you have to pay 70% of your salary. It helped me shape future strategies for survival and also prepare me for what to expect. I wish I had been exposed to different types of institutions in addition to the "massive fancy school of medicine", so I really try to make a point to show my trainees that there are multiple different ways of being an academic and of doing research...and that as in every job you can look for the right "fit". I also make them aware of the budgetary considerations of running a lab, of the need to look for independent funding for their salaries and their projects, and of the need to get papers done to show productivity. The part of me that would like to be in the Symposium, hates having to chop stories up to get papers out to support a particular grant application. I want my stories to be whole, elegant and solid, but the university and funding agencies want to look at numbers...and so we balance being a cog and dreaming of being a wheel running free on the road.

I think good training can still be achieved independently of the current funding situation and that it is a disservice not showing the students and postdocs what the pressures and considerations of running a lab are. Eventually, talking about it may even get someone to do something to change the system...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

SfN 2017 Restaurant Guide and other tips

It's time to revamp my Society for Neuroscience (SfN) restaurant list. So much has happened since 2014 and you now get to go East of the Convention Center! New restaurants are opening all the time in the area. I'm already making reservations, organizing dinners, lunches, etc for the meeting, so now my readers get to reap the benefits of such activity and I get a break from my lab management rumblings.


The best source for restaurants in DC is usually the Washingtonian “Very Best Restaurant” list. I’ve never gone wrong trying one of these.  Several are going to get booked quickly for the week of the conference from 5pm to 9pm, so make your reservations pronto. The list is across DC, Virginia and Maryland, so make sure you figure out where they are located.

This said these are my favorites in the Convention Center area (with their best restaurant # if they are on the list). Click the names for more info.

Casa Luca (#35 - Italian) 1099 New York Ave NW (11th and NY Ave – 5 min walk) Great central Italian food from Fabio Trabocchi who is one of the most popular chefs in town. This is the cheapest of his restaurants which also include Fiola (#27) @ 601 Pennsylvania (6th and Indiana Ave – 12 min walk) and one of the hottest hot spots on the Waterfront FiolaMare (#5) @ 3100 K st NW in Georgetown (31st and K on the waterfront– Take the Circulator bus).

Zaytinya (#71 - Middle Eastern) 701 9th St NW (9th and G – 5 min walk) and Oyamel (Mexican) 401 7th St NW (7th and D – 12 min walk) are two iterations of the tapas empire of Jose Andres, who took over the DC food scene with Jaleo (#44 - Spanish) 480 7th St NW (7th and E – 10 min walk). Zaytinya and Oyamel are awesome. Small tapas to share of Turkish/Greek or Mexican inspiration. The tequila selection at Oyamel is extensive. Jaleo I find kind of blah so for tapas I go elsewhere…see North West.

Rasika (#11 - Indian) 633 D St NW (6th and D) is very famous and Michelle Obama's favorite, but I've never been able to get in there.

Brasserie Beck (Belgian bistro) 1101 K St NW (11th and K - 5 min walk) Belgian spot for mussels, steak frites and hundreds of beers on the menu.

In the relatively newly opened City Center complex my faves are:
Centrolina (#51 - Italian) 974 Palmer Alley NW is a small hip Italian restaurant and market with a seasonal ever-changing menu. I love it!
Daniel Boulud's DBGB (#80 - French) 9th and I, with a fantastic selection of charcuterie.

If you want burgers the closest Shake Shack is on 9th and F, Bolt Burgers by the convention center (11th and L/Mass) is okay.

Estadio (#24 - Spanish tapas) 1520 14th St NW (14th and Church, after P – 18 min walk) has my favorite tapas in the area. Make sure to try the slushito…a slushi for adults.

Pearl Dive Oyster Place (Seafood) 1612 14th St NW (14th and Q). Oysters, yum!

Le Diplomate (#18 - French Bistro) 1601 14th St NW (14th and Q). Hard to get into French spot from the people who brought you Buddakan and Morimoto in NYC. Good brunch.

Ted’s Bulletin (American) 1818 14th St NW (14th and S). A DC staple with its original in Capitol Hill, it’s worth a visit even if just for their homemade pop tarts and adult milkshakes. Also good lunch.

Kapnos (#30 - Greek tapas) 2201 14th St NW (14th and W - yes, you can go that far North now. The U street area is happening) Chef Mike Isabella twist on Greek tapas.

El Rinconcito Café (Salvadorean/Mexican) 1129 11th St NW (11th and M) a hole in the wall with awesome tamales, papusas and burritos. Good for cheap but massive lunch or dinner.

And last but not least, EAST:
Farmers&Distillers (American) 600 Mass Ave NW (6th and Mass) huge new spot for everything locally sourced, artisanally made, grass fed. Also has own distillery.

Ottoman Taverna (Turkish) 425 I st NW (4th and I) another massive new restaurant with great Turkish fare

Mandu (Korean) 453 K St NW (5th and K) Good Korean + Soju martinis

Busboys and Poets (Breakfast/brunch) 1025 5th St NW (5th and K) a DC staple with multiple locations

A Baked Joint (Breakfast/brunch) 440 K St NW (4th and K) new Brooklyn-style breakfast place and OMG the "morning sammies" are awesome (if you can stand in line for 45mins on a Sat morning)

Places with lots of restaurants to explore are also Georgetown and Capitol Hill. Georgetown is easily reached on the Circulator bus (1$ fare).

Also in DC you have to try food truck food for lunch. Closest trucks to the Convention Center will be in McPherson Square between 13-14th and I-K. A lot of good restaurants have trucks and all will take credit cards. Trucks can be tracked with Food Truck Fiesta and are usually only around Mon-Fri.

Other useful places
Closest supermarkets: Safeway (New York and 5th just walk on NY from the Convention Center) is open 24 hours and Whole Foods is on P between 14th and 15th

Closest CVS: tucked away on 10th and L

For a moment of peace the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum building is just a few blocks away at 8th and F and you can sit and use the free Wi-Fi in the Foster re-designed courtyard or walk around the exhibits. Both the American Art and the NPG have lovely things....unless of course you want to go for a real art trip to the National Gallery (Should I mention the only Da Vinci in the American continent?).

For the runners:
3mi #1: from the Convention Center area go straight south to the Mall, run west along the Mall, run back up on 17th and loop east on J until you hit New York Ave all the way back. This is also a good evening route...Secret Service is every 300ft or so.
3mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, run EAST along the Mall up to 1st street and the Capitol, wave your fist at Congress demanding more science funding and sanity, loop back along the south side of the mall and come back up on 9th or 10th.
4mi: Combine #1 and #2
5mi #1: Combine #1 and #2, but also go say hi to Lincoln at the west end of the Mall.
5mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, at the Washington Monument keep left and go towards the Tidal Basin, run all the way around, say "Hi" to TJ in his marble temple, slow down at the FDR Memorial which is really awesome, dodge the ducks, avoid the mobs at the MLK you can run back, or since you've come this far, make 5.5/6mi, go say "Hi" to Lincoln via WWI and WWII...if it's early enough in the morning you can try and pull a Rocky on the steps.
Water fountains for your convenience at every Memorial :)