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 (], 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 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 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 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.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 year in review for The New PI

And there is goes: 2016 in sucked, and I should have guessed from how it started, but I'm starting 2017 on the upswing and with a lot of hope :)
Happy New Year, everyone!!

January: This blog post has been brewing in my head for several months.
And a big one it was. By far my 2016 greatest hit with almost 4,000 reads...

February: The second R01 is done and it was very different from the first one.

March: Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about expectations and "fit" in academia. We are interviewing faculty candidates and a huge amount of scrutiny is put in figuring out how their research and their personalities will fit with ours.

April: I'm official mid-tenure track and probably need to officially update my Twitter handle to The Newish PI.

May: With one R01 application waiting for additional experiments before resubmission and one R01 submitted, I received the dreaded email from the NIH saying that my ESI (early stage investigator) status had ended.

June: The hashtag #academicselfcare reminds you that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself, because academia will rarely do it for you.

August: "Midway upon the journey of the tenure track I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." (adapted from D. Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1)

September: The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is.
2nd greatest hit of 2016

October: My R01 resubmission went from scored to not discussed. I don't know why yet, but this hit me hard.

November: I never thought that these three little words could carry that much innuendo, but "Are you happy?" turns out to be one of the most revealing and difficult questions you can ask a scientist.

December: I cannot deny that 2016 has been an annus horribilis at the personal and professional level, but I am trying to find some meaning out if it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Recapturing my spirit after 2016

I cannot deny that 2016 has been an annus horribilis at the personal and professional level, but I am trying to find some meaning out if it. If you have read my blog a lot of confusion and disillusionment and anger have transpired, people left my lab, grants eluded me and I became stuck in a dysfunctional situation with lots of amazing results and not enough people to do it. I felt a bit like being thrown back to the very beginning of my tenure track, but in the middle of year 4.

Yet, when I look at the year that is ending and the year ahead, the picture is not bleak and I have to thankful for it. I'm funded for 2017, so I don't really have to start thinking about possibly firing people or requesting bridge funding until this time next year. Despite everything that happened in 2016, my lab has published five papers (1 primary, 1 review and 3 collaborative), one manuscript was accepted, one more was rejected, two more collaborative papers are under review and two reviews and two large papers are at various stages of writing. So it's 8 articles in 2016 and at least 7 in the works for 2017. I am not trying to humblebrag. I need to acknowledge this to myself. I have at many points through this year felt stuck and unproductive, I felt that everything was lost and that I should just quit, while at the same time an enormous amount of work was getting done, not just by me, but by dozens of people around me. And because of this network, because of the people in my lab and my collaborators the train keeps running.

My proudest story of 2016 is about the paper that was just accepted. This was not in the cards for this year. I had found a couple mutations years ago, but apart from a gut feeling that this gene was the real deal, I didn't have enough evidence to move forward. I had entered the gene in a matching site. Yes, such a thing exists for rare disease genetics, where you get anonymously matched with other people "You're both interested in gene X. Would you like to meet in person?" In May I got a match, one more kid. We picked up the slack and started exploring the gene function in earnest. In June came another match. This time a large international group with multiple cases and a manuscript in preparation (we'll call this Group 2). When this happens and you are lucky enough to find out who the competition is, you roll your mutations into the bigger paper and move on, but the head of Group 2 was very nice "We are still finishing up some experiments, let's keep in touch and when we are ready you can join us or we can publish back to back." In July I start doing experiments like a dog and coordinating everyone in my lab to add results and Group 2 puts us in touch with their collaborators to get more data. Then a friend in the field emails me about someone else who is looking for mutations in the same gene, yet a third group working on this. Work intensifies to 150%, weeks are spent trying to understand what is going on, where everyone stands. Group 3 has more patients, great functional data, but not enough, so we join forces, co-write a kick-ass paper and submit back to back with Group 2. While the initial families had been recruited during my postdoc, I had recruited them and paid for sequencing, so I ask my postdoctoral advisor if he would agree to not be listed as a co-author to showcase that this work was done independently. He heartily agrees and fades into the sunset. Papers are in review for 2 weeks. Ours comes back with minimal comments. Group 2 gets slightly worse revisions, but we do everything we can to help and get them through. The two stories together are perfectly complementary, they have to come out together. We all get accepted! All collaborators around the world rejoice!! 26 institutions from 5 countries!!

This how I love to do science and I have stated it from the very beginning. Collaborative, open and fast because everyone speaks to each other. My holiday wish is that everyone would see the benefit of doing things like this. It's fun and you'll make a lot of friends along the way.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Are you happy? How a simple question can be loaded

I never thought that these three little words could carry that much innuendo, but "Are you happy?" turns out to be one of the most revealing and difficult questions you can ask a scientist.  I have encountered it in so many scenarios and it can provide a lot of information independently of the answer.

Let's look at some examples.
The genuine question: How are you doing? Say you are hanging at a social at a conference and a senior faculty you know well asks the question. Depending on how much you trust them you can tell the truth, half the truth or lie, but this could be your chance to discuss issues you are having and get some mentoring and advice. If someone is truly interested in your well-being, you should take advantage of it, because at this day and age, we need all the help we can get to figure out academia, the job market, the funding agencies and just how to live life in the "post-truth" era...

The hidden question: Are you interested in moving? At the aforementioned social you bump into a faculty member whom you know marginally well or not at all. If they are looking for new faculty and are interested in what you do "Are you happy?" is the easiest way to gauge whether you would be moveable. Anything less than a resounding "I really am. I love it there." will give them a hint that there could be trouble in paradise. Of course the right answer is "Eh, I guess so", as "I hate that horrible place. Please get me out!" may not be the right strategy to find another university. Or to negotiate a killer start-up package.

The trick question: Say that you're okay! This happens when a senior faculty asks you the question in front of another senior faculty at your institution. At which point your brain is racing at a million miles an hour to regain composure and instead of glaring at them "Why are you putting me in this position?!", you quickly say yes and divert attention to how abysmal NIH funding is right now.

The probing question: Am I going to be happy? Very few people ask this all important question at job interviews, but I think it could be critical to figure out what is really going on at an institution. During interviews, the faculty you meet is in recruitment mode and has to show the best possible side of their university. The unhappy people are temporarily hidden in a closet. The people you will meet agreed to recruit and sometimes they couldn't say no, but if they are not happy, they have been hiding it. It will take a very skilled actor to crack a wide smile and answer "I love it here", if they are lying. Of course, you must take answers with a grain of salt. Some people are never happy, no matter where they are and recognizing the Debbie Downers may be difficult. But if someone changes the topic "I really like the city" and has nothing good to say, there may be a problem. If multiple people hesitate before answering, there may be a problem. And in some cases, people who are moderately happy may volunteer some of the issues they are encountering, which, if you decide to take the job, will prepare you in advance. All universities have some kind of issue, but coming in with some idea of what to expect may help.

Hope this helps to find your happy place...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Requiem for my 2016 dreams

My R01 resubmission went from scored to not discussed. I don't know why yet, but this hit me hard. My program officer had been very supportive of the first submission and had given me specific advice on how to address the reviewers' comments. We did a year of work and added everything they requested adding all the modifications they wanted. In this day and age you cannot ever think a grant will get funded, but I was sure it would get scored, that by following the instructions of the PO and the study section I would be able to adjust my aim (pun intended) and at least improve.

I was utterly shattered. Shattered because of the self-doubt that no matter how much work I put into it, I will never make the cut. Shattered because after submitting at 3 consecutive NIH cycles, I do not have the strength left in me to pull together a brand new application for February. But then, after the initial shock, I realized I was shattered mostly for one reason, that my dream of going back to the job market this cycle has been quashed. I have been very unhappy for a long time and each NIH submission comes with added weight that, in addition to possibly getting me tenure and bringing some stability to the lab, an R01 may start the process of breaking me out. I don't like who I am right now: exhausted, angry, frazzled, always rushing, so busy that I don't have the time to mentor my people as I would like, and most importantly so mentally drained that I cannot take the time to enjoy the science any more. This is not who I want to be. I don't want to feel a weight in my chest every day when I walk into my lab building. I hate that my happiest moment every month is when I walk out to leave for a trip. This is hurting my lab, my science and my health.

The reasons why I want to quit are the usual ones: I don't feel like the university is the right fit for me, I feel isolated, ungrounded and organizational issues make my life impossible. Some issues I could have figured out during the interview process, if I had known which questions to ask, but others evolved over the years. Things keep getting worse, instead of better, and at some point I disenfranchised myself, I stopped trying to affect change. I have been running so that the endorphins get me through the day, but I've been riddled with injuries for the past year. I have tried to run through the pain as much as possible, but the pain right now is too much even to do yoga. So not running has also contributed to declining mental health.

Which brings me to a reality of academic life. A lot of our stress in addition to practically having to run a small business for an education corporation, comes from the length of our transitions. Getting a faculty job takes 1-3 years and this alone generates sustained stress, which can be become punishing of you are in a difficult situation. Transitioning to an alternative career can also take a while because new skills may be necessary. I am writing things that you are not supposed to write, because I have spoken to a lot of friends about my situation and theirs, and I know I am not alone. I think this is, in a way or another, similar to how a lot of your faculty feel right now, and many examples were given in a Nature feature on early career researchers this week. I wish I had a solution. I wish I didn't think that our generation may be lost. The worst part is that everyone I talk to is so upset that we are all amplifying each others' emotions to the point that talking to friends does more harm than good.

Being upset and angry at this point is crippling and counterproductive. A year and a half ago, when I realized I really needed to get out, I put down on paper what I want in my life and road map to reach my goals, so I went back to read that. I realized I had given myself a deadline which is still in the future, and I still think it is reachable. So, what to do now? I made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor. I found the contact of a good therapist in the hope that they can help me develop better strategies to deal with work for another year and help me figure out whether academia is really what I want. But most importantly, I need to find a way to regain my love of science...and to do that I need to engage more with the people in my lab and take my time to actually think, read and do science. A friend who just came out of study section told me "Getting grants is a lottery. The name of the game is resilience." I'll work on that and see what happens in 2017...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The emotional toll of the "NIH running wheel"

There are few posts in my queue right now, that will never see the light of day. They were born our of anger and confusion and anxiety laced with a hint of depression. I suffered from severe pre-menstrual depression my entire life, and until I found the right medical team, every time I randomly felt despair and the desire to curl up in a ball and wail, I had to ask myself two questions: "Is this emotional reaction appropriate to the current events in my life? What day of the month is it?" If the reaction was "not appropriate", I usually had to ride out the next 24-48 hours before my brain magically reset itself back to normal (Someone should study this, because it's crazy fast. Literally like a curtain lifting). So as my life started spiraling out of control in the past few weeks, my safety questions came back to me with a slight variation "What time if the year is it?"

While it's a different cycle, the NIH cycle is as bad as the menstrual one. Especially, if you are on the running wheel of submitting a grant every cycle, which means having a grant reviewed every cycle as you are writing the other one. I haven't quite recovered from the meltdown in June (post here), which was on the heels of the February one, and here comes the October deadline. Last cycle my R01 was due the same day the other R01 was being reviewed. This time I'm on three R21s for October. Yup, you've heard this right. Three. And my R01 is being reviewed at the end of the October. Because for some reason, all my study sections tend to cluster as close as possible to the resubmission date, so that there is no hope I could skip a cycle. As my other funding gets close to the end, and the pressure increases for keeping the lab going, every grant generates more and more anxiety. The more you submit, the more it feels like there is no rhyme or reason and you just have to do your absolute best and hope that your proposal will fall in the right hands. The closer the study section date gets, the more you start second guessing what you have already sent in and you find all the flaws in your mind. Positive thinking and negative thinking run a strange relay in your head, when you want to believe the grant will be funded, but you want to prepare yourself for the worst at the same time, so you kind of go for the middle ground "All I want is a score!" I hate you running wheel!! (Waving fist to the sky)

So more and more yoga. And maybe I should pick up Transcendental Meditation...or drinking. What I should really be doing now, is writing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?

The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is. I have posted recently about some setbacks in my lab and having to pick up the pieces after some unexpected departures. Some of my readers wanted some more detail. I am not going to go into specifics too much. What I can say is that this year I have lost all three postdocs, each for a different reason. One was not a good fit and decided to quit before I had to drop the axe, one was poached away from a biotech company, and one had to leave because of family obligations. None if them had reached the three year mark in their tenure and none of them will be able to see their major project to completion. The saddest part of this is that one was awarded an NRSA fellowship from the NIH and we had to give the money back. Just the thought to give money back to the NIH makes my heart sink every time! I had to do my best to apologize to the program officer with the hope that this will not held against me in the future.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why this happened. Whether in addition to extraordinary bad luck, there is something that I have done to make the environment inhospitable, or to just pick the wrong people for the job. The thing is, at least two were not wrong. Between the two of them, they produced data for at least four good papers in two years. So what would make a productive scientist with exciting data, give up? Part of me is afraid that they see what I am going through, despite my desperate attempts to screen them from the vast majority of what I have to do, and they realize that they do not want my job. Another part of me thinks that, because I do so much career development and planning in the lab, I am pushing them to explore alternative careers and shooting myself in the foot at the same time. Yet, I had so many conversations with friends on whether it is even moral to hire postdocs nowadays and tell them that a career in academia is the only option. Getting into the ivory tower is harder and harder, and once you are in, it does not get easier. As a mentor, I cannot and I will not leave them ill prepared for what is out there.

My question is: Could this have been avoided? When I think about what pushed me forward all these years, don't laugh, it all comes down to my postdoctoral theme song. Yes, I have theme songs. My PhD song was Fighter by Christina Aguilera (if you listen to it, think as if it was addressed to my thesis committee. It'll be funny). My postdoc and current song is Remember the Name by Fort Minor. The key here is the refrain: "This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill/fifteen percent concentrated power of will/five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain/and a hundred percent reason to remember the name". If this doesn't describe academic science, I don't know what does. The "concentrated power of will" bit in particular, because there are days that razor-sharp uncompromising concentrated power of will is the only thing that makes me to get out of bed and keeps me going. I see it in many of my colleagues and I wonder whether this attribute, more then anything else, is what keeps academia afloat. A semi-deluded cultish sense that "I will not ever stop asking questions and pushing forward". I don't know whether you have to be born with it or whether it can be cultivated. I have not trained enough people to know and I have not figured out ways to test it. Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper.

How do you find someone with skill, power of will, luck and high pain tolerance? Is this really what it takes? I cannot fault any of my former people, because in the end they decided what was best for them. But, if the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out, how do I reset my expectations for running the lab?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Redefining expectations: I'm a PI now.

Today should have been a good day...
A very nice review article which took a lot of effort in the past couple of months was accepted and for the first time I saw my name in print in Science. Granted this was my collaborator's paper, so it's not from my lab, but it's pretty sweet CV padding. My department chair will like it. Plus, one of my postdocs told me about some pretty spectacular data which we are hoping will lead to a major publication from my own group. Yet, I was miserable and almost closed my office door to curl in the fetal position and cry. And know one thing, reader, I'm not the type of person who cries. When I cry, people who know me tend to freak out, because something major must be catastrophically wrong.

The Shining screenplay.  By William Beutler  [CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons" 
So, what is so wrong? This summer multiple people quit the lab, leaving me understaffed and we need to finish a paper, so I had to get back to the bench and step in to help with experiments. This paper/project is under very strong competitive pressure and through false information I thought we were getting scooped, so I have put in back to back 80hr weeks to try and finish it. I have been mostly alone in the lab up to 10-11pm every day. We have done a lot of stuff, but one critical experiments will be delayed by a couple of weeks because I overlooked some details and some things need to be redone. I have regressed...I'm back to my grad school hours, occasionally wearing my grand school clothes, feeling the pressure of my life and my lab depending on this project. And then it hit me. "What am I doing? I'm not in grad school! My life and my lab do not depend on this project. I'm supposed to be writing 2 grants on the other super cool project my postdoc was telling me about."

If we cannot finish experiments in time I had already agreed with our collaborators that we will fold our data into their paper instead of going back to back. And then I will have a ton of extra data to get a lovely study out. My postdoc's project, which will be finished in the next month, will lead to another paper. And this second project is more likely to get me tenure than anything else I'm doing. Plus we just published in Science...Why was I upset, again?

I was upset because I fell into the mental trap of putting all my professional eggs in one basket. As a student and postdoc this is a common trap, thinking that your career depends on one project, one major paper, one checklist item checked off after another. Getting stuck in an obsessive rut that your life sucks. The thing is, it doesn't. This is all in your head. There are multiple career paths and multiple ways of moving forward. But when you work so much that you need to prop yourself up to keep going and you're exhausted, you're bound to flawed thinking. I'm not a postdoc, I have 6 or 7 baskets at the moment and I have to decide how to distribute my eggs. I have neglected my physical and mental health for this project, and I am too worn out to deal with anything else. This was a mistake. I cannot carry the entire lab on my shoulders and finish every single experiments and run everything. This is not sustainable. Sometimes, all you need is a change of prospective...regroup and objectively see where you stand. Objectively, things are going pretty well and I should just go on vacation.