Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Resolutions: develop autonomy and promote innovation

While I like being in control as much as the next person, I tend to function well working with people who are self motivated and autonomous and I have little patience for people who are not. So in thinking about models for running the lab, I was immediately drawn to the concept of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). A ROWE is a company focused on results, not on workplace structure: you work when you want, you leave when you want, you organize your day as you want, all that matters is that you generate the results you need. The emphasis being on flexibility and results, with the idea of fostering "freedom and responsibility" (see this article about Netflix unlimited vacation policy). This is not that much of a stretch, since most labs are run this way anyways. I have always worked in a ROWE, it fits my personality and so far I found that I do like people to tell me when they're coming in or taking days off, but once they keep me in the loop, I'm fine with anything they want to do as long as they're productive.

Climbing on the Potomac
However, this does not work for everyone and I have seen several people flounder when given no structure. In addition as an academic I will have to learn how to motivate students and teach them how science can be rewarding even when it's hard. While taking this pictures, I remember thinking these people were crazy carrying their kayaks on their heads up the rocks to run the rapids again, but isn't this the perfect metaphor for science? Spending most of your time carrying a heavy load up a rock-wall to experience the short thrill of discovery. How do you teach people that the thrill is worth the wait? And how do you keep them focused when they are given freedom?

My New Year's resolutions for the lab are to develop autonomy and promote innovation, but this is no small feat. Postdocs may be more likely fully autonomous and motivated, but technicians and students which will abund in a small new lab will still be figuring themselves out. So here are some more specific resolutions:

1) for the ROWE to work, we'll need to have specific goals set for everyone with a precise timeline. I don't necessarily have to set the goals for them if they are self-directed, but I'm a good enforcer and scheduler, so I can help them keep track

2) I should help them develop their organizational skills, so that they can schedule their experiments efficiently and plan their days productively

3) I need to learn to give people freedom to think, sit back and set them back on track when needed. This may be the hardest because I tend to want to jump in and help/direct, but it would be a good learning experience to have them figure things out through trial and error and develop their own ideas.

4) I need to listen: listen to ideas, listen to feedback, listen to grievances.

I will follow up in the Captain's log about how it goes.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

myIDP: a SMART career development plan

Science Careers recently launched the myIDP website (here), which helps you define your Individual Development Plan, a blueprint for the next steps of your career in science. Though bare bones the site is brilliantly designed so that anyone can use it at any level of their scientific career from undergraduate to professor. The site starts with a questionnaire about yourself, your professional skills (communication, teamwork, level of focus, etc) and your values, and ranks different career options based on your answers. Interestingly I was almost evenly split between a academic staff scientist and a Principal Investigator, which is good because I am a staff scientist at the moment and I'll be a PI shortly...
If you are interested in exploring different careers you can go through the Career Exploration section or go directly to develop your Plan. You can set long term goal about career advancement or more specific goals about developing skills or finishing projects. The most important thing is that they have to be SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Actionable, Relevant, Time-bound. While "Get tenure" is certainly a career advancement goal and may be attainable, you need to break things down in little steps: "Apply for R01", "Teach X course to graduate students", "Publish paper #1", "Publish paper #2", and so on and so forth. Each of these larger goals can be broken into smaller goals with closer deadlines and with clear end-results. For each goal you have to define an accountability plan, which makes you really think about how to break things down. One of my goals has always been to "Read more papers" especially outside of my field, but sometimes there is just so much to do in the lab that skimming the weekly table of contents of major journals seems enough. So to make it doable I wrote "Read at least 4 new articles a week", which I know is not much, but some weeks feels like an achievement. I have a weekly reminder in my Asana schedule which needs to be checked off to make me accountable. And then there's finishing papers, lab renovations, grant deadlines and the likes which will come to you in a handy summary email every month.

After the planning, there is the implementing and for the Implement Plan you have to define your mentoring team. You not only define who your mentors are, but also what specific mentors are for: there may be people you talk to for job search advice, people you need to write letters for you, people who must teach you techniques. It is surprising how many mentors you can find and this exercise helps you identify areas where you may not have a specific mentor and where you may want to find one.

I like checking things off lists and when you ask yourself where you want to be in 5-10 years it's nice to be able to plan it out on paper. Early in my postdoc, I went to a grant writing seminar and they told us how you have to plan out your fellowship from the first year: early fellowship grants in year 1-2, career development awards in year 3-5, papers, job search. It stuck with me and I found it very useful advice, as sometimes I have seen colleagues miss opportunities because they did not think about the deadlines or time-limits involved.

In closing, thumbs up for myIDP. I'll do my best to have my techs, students and postdocs use it.

Remember to go to the Management page for more Career Development tips.
Photo credit: Sten Pose, Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why we love Life Technologies Bolt gels

Lately we've been running A LOT of Western blots and our trusted Life Techologies rep, who always suggests new things to try, has been pushing the new Bolt Mini Gel Tank and the Bolt gels, so we bought one of the welcome packs (gel tank, 10 gels, running buffer, sample buffer, reducing agent and standards for $390). And a week later my tech begged for another one!

I only use Life Technologies Novex gels because despite the expense of the proprietary running buffer, they are better than the Bio-Rad ones and they were the only ones which worked well for mass spec band purification. The Novex NuPAGE gels cost the same as the Bio-Rad ones, but last longer and run very straight and crisp bands.

The Bolt tank and gels are completely redesigned. It's a double-length and narrow tank where gels are run side by side, which was strange at first, but this way you can only run a gel at a time with half the buffer. The tank also has a white background behind the gel to help you better see the loading. The Bolt gels have wells cut as wedges to make loading easier and to hold more sample than the Novex gels, AND Life Technologies lowered the price from $13 to $10 for Bolt. They run way faster, so that you can be done with a 4-12% gradient run in less than an hour. And last but not least, the bands are incredibly crisp (see the pictures comparing our samples run on the Novex vs Bolt). It kind of looks like a Christmas tree...

Note on 2/6/2013: After 3 months we found only one glitch. Running the gels at 160V as recommended makes the buffer too hot and causes some random gels to start melting deforming the front. We are lowering back to 120V as for the Novex.

Remember to look at the Lab things we like page for other reviews and cool products

Saturday, December 8, 2012

End-of-year meetings?

Umberto Boccioni - Visioni Simultanee
(Simultaneous Points-of-view)
As we get closer to the end of the year, I have been thinking about having end-of-year individual meetings to discuss performance, expectations and general issues. During the first few years of my post-doc, my boss conducted yearly meetings to formally discuss the issues that you often do not discuss in science: Are you happy with the lab and with where you are in your career? What are your overall plans for your project and your career development? Do you need a raise? Which conferences do you want to attend?

It was a venue to air professional issues which only come up in passing, and it also forced you to make a summary of the past year and communicate your needs. It made it clear that it was okay to talk about what you want creating an open communication environment. I really liked it, because like a lot of people, I tend to be afraid of asking for things (help, money, advice, etc) and having a forum where I was expected and encouraged to identify what I needed was very empowering.

In addition, being always pressed for time, I realize I now tend to assign tasks without discussing their larger purpose within the project, so I have been trying to communicate more frequently on how everyone's work fits into the global scheme and I have seen how it immediately makes people more interested and engaged. I think it could be a good idea to establish biyearly meetings for my lab members: one comprehensive end-of-year and a 6-month review just to keep things going. It can be an occasion to discuss my vision for the lab so that everyone is aware of where we are going long-term, to address concerns people may have, to get to know their plans for the future, and to give feedback on behaviors needing improvement (giving feedback tips can be found here and here). To avoid giving a daunting corporate feel to the meeting I am holding the meetings over lunch and told them to pick whatever type of restaurant they like.

In preparation of the first of these meetings, I have been asking friends in business on how they like their performance to be assessed and discussed, and one friend raised the issue of "performance standard criteria". Companies have specific criteria for a specific job which must be met and the employee functions according to a framework where behavior and performance goals are set from the manager. This whole concept makes me break out into hives, because as a scientist I don't necessarily have a rigid structure to control my work and do not want one. However, I understand how it can be very reassuring to have performance standards and to know that you are doing a good job. We constantly function from deadline to deadline and have a self-imposed set of short and long-term goals which must be met. How do I develop that? And most importantly how do I teach others to streamline their work and set their own goals? What are appropriate performance standard criteria for scientists?....more posts will follow.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aztec Calendar Conundrum: organization and project management

As time becomes more and more limited and things to do multiply, I am looking for good ways to organize my days and projects and keep everything straight. I am starting to understand why PI's tend to ask the dreaded question "What am I looking at?". The student thinks their project is all important, but the PI has too much on her/his minds to remember exactly which experiment you are doing and want help on.

What to do when your calendar looks more like an Aztec one?
During the past year, I have tested a few different time and project management sites and here is what I found. This is in no way a comprehensive analysis, but just the results of hours of googling and trying.

I used HiTask for 6 months and liked it a lot. It's a calendar, task manager and project manager all in one. You have a calendar where you can schedule events (talks, meetings, etc) and plan experiments. You have task manager where you can list everything you need to do and assign specific tasks to projects. And finally you have a project manager where you can invite your lab members and assign tasks to them directly. The calendar is nice and handy and the task manager is very straightforward (though not very organized once tasks are completed). You can assign priority levels, star specific tasks and keep track of a lot of different things.

Example from the HiTask website
Unfortunately, HiTask forbids me to use the site now because I have reached the maximum number of free tasks. There was no prior information on whether there was a limit to the free account and even if I went back and cancelled my tasks from 6-months before, it still didn't allow me to use it. This really annoyed me! To keep using the site I have to pay $8/month. If it was just me, I would have considered it because it's a very well designed site, but I think it's not worth it for the whole lab: $8/month for 5-10 people would be $480-960 a year and you'd have to remember to cancel whenever someone leaves or for temporary students. However, I would definitely recommend it for personal organization.


After HiTask, I went back online and I found Asana. After co-founder Dustin Moskowitz left Facebook, he created Asana, a project management platform to provide "a single version of the truth about what everyone is doing" (see more on Bloomberg BusinessWeek here).  Like the yoga pose it is named after, Asana may not be straightforward right away: it needs concentration and thinking on how and why you want to use needs practice. But man, it is powerful and beautiful and completely customizable, and you can plan your entire life on it! And everyone else's life for that matter. And it is free for groups with less than 30 members.

The intro videos are very useful and in fact necessary, because you'd have no idea what to do without them. The help team is also very responsive. There are many ways to run Asana and organize your workspace: public and private. I split my workspace in Lab space and a personal space which is not accessible to others. In the Lab space I have pages for individual projects where each project is mapped out: I set headings for different parts of the project (Intracellular signaling, Learning and memory) and then use each task for a question that requires one large experiment each, e.g. Does my protein of interest regulate AKT signaling? Within each task you can set subtasks with specific due dates (Transfect cells, Drug treatment, Run Western) and keep adding them as many times as you need to repeat the experiment until the question is answered. You can then assign whole tasks or just subtasks to specific people, and lab members can plan their own work or expand on the assignment as they wish or assign tasks to you.
In addition of the individual project pages where you can generate an overview of what needs to be done, you then have your own task page where every task can be listed day by day independently of project so that you actually know how much you have to do. The organization of this page still needs some work, I think, since the sorting can be awkward and there is no calendar view to remind you of scheduled meetings and seminars. However, sorting my tasks for the day on Asana has become a routine by now. The only drawback is that it is not super user friendly and you would actually have to take the time to train people to use it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fun with data

Some more fun in the lab after all the management posts.
The other day after filling my undergrad's USB drive with confocal images, I decided we needed some more portable data storage. So I ended up buying animal shaped thumb drives for $15 for a 8GB and $9-12 for 4GB at Staples sometimes data collection can be fun. They have a little chain to attach them to your ID strap or your keyring. I got the mouse, but could not find a zebrafish!!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Objection! Leading...And why Socrates would not like it.

Socrates teaching (detail: Raffaello Sanzio, Stanza della
Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome)
A few nights ago at dinner, a friend brought up an issue which stuck with me. She is a teacher and briefly mentioned how they try to avoid "leading questions" at faculty meetings, which made some of the other dinner guests comment on the high number of leading questions being asked at lab meeting. A leading question is designed to make someone say what you want or to influence their thinking, and it could be negative and sarcastic, such as "Don't you think you need some controls for that experiment before you can come to any conclusions?" Leading questions can be good or bad and they are closely monitored in the legal system and in journalism where the truth can be easily altered by how a certain person is questioned. Children and people who absolutely want to please are very vulnerable to leading questions as they will say what you want them to say, and may believe it too.

So I started thinking and realized that I ask a lot of leading questions! A leading question from a superior, maybe asked a bit too harshly because you're in a hurry, could stifle the impulse to bring new ideas to you. It may also not be the best way to promote critical thinking in students.

Researching questioning and teaching around the web, I bumped into an old friend, the Socratic method. The Greek philosopher Socrates had always been one of my favorites in high school, but he would not have approved of top-down way of teaching used back then in Italy. As detailed in the Dialogues of his pupil Plato, Socrates developed theories by constant discussion with his followers, often asking either broader or narrower questions to foster critical thinking and strive to fully understand a problem.

I found a great article about Socratic questioning in teaching and learning (here) with tips on how to pose Socratic questions and prepare for the discussion with students. Looking forward to trying.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mr. Pink and Motivation 3.0

Daniel Pink has been popping up everywhere around me, not only during a recent management class, but also in casual conversation with a friend who's a corporate trainer and who gave me his book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us".  In Drive, Pink explores the underpinnings of human motivation challenging years of economic theory with scores of behavioral studies showing that, once that salary needs are met, people are intrinsically driven to perform. Unless the task is menial, repetitive or unpleasant, money bonuses only go so far, and in the case of complex intellectual tasks monetary rewards can actually hinder performance by focusing individuals too narrowly instead of allowing them to explore solutions to the problem at hand.

Image by Nevit Dilmen
To foster workplace happiness and engagement, Pink proposes a new motivation paradigm he calls Motivation 3.0 based on three principles: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. The best results as far as creativity goes, he argues, are obtained when employees are self-motivated and are allowed to express themselves. Autonomy: people want to feel in control of their lives and of how they do their job, they want to be "players, not pawns". Mastery: we pay to solve the New York Times crossword puzzles, not the other way around, because it's human nature to want to be really good at something and to keep trying to achieve our goals. And finally Purpose brings it all together and trumps money any day of the week: if we have a greater ideal to aspire to, we'll work harder and longer.

It all made perfect sense to me, since Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the main drivers of any scientist. Nobody dictates our hours, yet we spend innumerable long days in the lab and think about work in the shower. We love our jobs because we're self-directed, because we want to be experts in our fields and because in one way or another we are working towards a greater good for humanity.

Yet sometimes is hard to communicate our drive to those working for us and this is where "Drive" provides some excellent guidelines on how to develop intrinsic motivation in others by fostering Autonomy, promoting Mastery and clearly communicating our Purpose. For an excellent summary of Pink's ideas watch the RSA video below:

More to follow on my attempts to drink the Pink Cool-Aid and start a fully engaged, innovative and driven lab.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Applying for a K99/R00 Award from the NIH

The K99/R00 award from the NIH can be elusive, but if you get one it can help enormously in getting you a job. It certainly helped me! I've been officially and unofficially mentoring other postdocs on how to apply. These are some of points that I wish I had known before applying and that will add to the instructions found in the Funding Opportunity Announcement.

  • Go to the latest Funding Opportunity Announcement Number PA-14-042 as of January 2014. This is the official document with instructions and links to application forms and additional information
  • READ IT in detail and bookmark it in your web browser because you’ll go back to it a million times. Also familiarize yourself with the NIH and the grant proposal structure by reading the great books suggested here.
  • BUDGET TIME carefully. Applying for a K99/R00 is a long process: I made initial inquiries at the NIH in October-November 2009, applied February 2010, resubmitted November 2010 and had final confirmation my grant was awarded in June 2011. One try takes almost 1 year, resubmission almost 2 years.
  • There is a LIMIT on when you can apply: it used to be 5 years of postdoc, but it will be reduced to 4 years starting February 2014 (here). You need to start thinking about it in the 2nd-3rd year after receiving your PhD.
  • CONTACT THE NIH. Write out a possible Specific Aims page and 2-4 months before the deadline and write to the NIH institutes you think may be interested in your work. NIH RePORTER  is a great resource to find out which grants get funded. Be nice and listen to the advice of the program officers at the NIH: they know what gets funded and which institute and study section may be appropriate for you.

  • IT’S A LOT OF WORK. You’re asking for almost $1 million from the federal government, and unless you have been involved in writing your PI’s R01, it will be the biggest grant you have ever written. Excellent detailed how-to guides from ChemicalBiLOLogy and K99Advice.
  • Again, BUDGET TIME. The science is only a part of it: only 1/5 of your score and 9 out of 80 pages of the application. Get a few examples of (successful) grants from friends and colleagues. Most of the equipment/facilities parts will be the same as your PI’s R01s, so get one of those too.
  • Remember to justify MENTORING. The K99 portion is mentored and the mentoring plan and job search plan are very important. In the candidate statement you will need to discuss the short and long-term goals as an independent investigator, but you still need to justify the need for mentoring (i.e. training in something new). The mentoring plan has to be very specific: how much are you going to meet with your mentors? What are they going to help with? What other mentoring opportunities and career development sources do you have?
  • Remember the LETTERS. You will need letters from collaborators, consultants and a job search advisory committee (a group of 3-4 PIs who will help you and guide you during your job search). Getting all the letters take time, so plan accordingly.

  • You make your visit to eRACommons part of your daily routine, to find out where and when your grant will be reviewed. For an overview of the peer-review process watch this helpful NIH video:
  • SCORES are out on eRACommons a couple of days after the study section meets. K99s do not have a percentile and paylines vary from year to year and from institute to institute. Now you can contact your Program Officer (listed on the grant eRACommons page) and see how you did. They can be cautiously positive (rejoice!), uncertain or negative. As government employees they may not be able to give a final answer until the grant actually appears in the payroll a few months later, since it may happen that a grant with an excellent score will not get funded.
  • SUMMARY STATEMENTS are out after 1-2 weeks. If you are close to the payline, your Program Officer can really help here to plan changes for a resubmission to make your grant more competitive.
It’s a long and very painful process, but it really forces you to grow up scientifically. After doing this you are ready to apply for a job and know how to write a big NIH grant. If you then need info on submitting your R00 application see my follow-up post and take a look at the Writing Grants page on the blog for links.

Good luck!!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Watching kittens on Youtube makes you a better scientist!!

OK, this may be fluff, but it proves that we all need fluff and that it makes us better scientists. I have always wondered why baby animals who need parental support are universally snakes look just like adult snakes, but baby birds or mammals often have large eyes, fluffy coats and big paws, which make them adorable even if they'll grow up to become a ruthless killer.
A Japanese research group at Hiroshima university asked whether "cuteness" affects behavior in any other way than making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (here) and found that looking at pictures of baby animals makes you more focused and able to perform difficult intellectual tasks.

So there you go:

And while you're at it, a second motivational tool to hep you with your grants and papers, Written?Kitten!, every 100 words you write you get a new kitten picture to keep you focused.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Do you have too many monkeys on your back?

Who's Got the Monkey is an eye-opener and after reading it, I was not surprised it is one most popular reprints from the Harvard Business Review despite being almost 40 years old. As a grad student and often as a postdoc, you are mostly master of your own lab time or you have requirements imposed by your boss ("Attend lab meeting", "Do this experiment", "Go to this seminar"). However, when you start managing people it seems that there is never enough time: you have to deal with everyone's project, write that grant, write that paper, read that thesis, attend that meeting, prepare that talk, teach that class, fix that piece of equipment.....

This article divides time in 3 chunks which I loosely applied to lab work:
  • Boss-imposed time - anything a superior (your PI, your department chair, your dean) requires you to do and that you cannot disregard without penalty (faculty meetings, teaching, etc...).
  • System-imposed time - what you need to do to work with your peers and advance in your field (writing papers and grants, attending meetings and conferences, help someone learn a new technique, etc...).
  • Self-imposed time - things that you originate yourself, which may include subordinate-imposed time, the time devoted to the people working for you. This is time to plan experiments, read papers, work at the bench or run your lab.
Any task, issue, problem or any other thing that requires your attention is a "monkey", and a screaming monkey at times. Monkeys climb on your back and jump around your office becoming increasingly restless until you "feed them or shoot them" or pass them on to someone else. When someone asks you to do something, you've got the monkey. When someone passes an issue on to you, you've got the monkey. When a grad student asks you for advice, you've got the monkey. When you need a problem solved but fail to clearly communicate who needs to do it and how you want it done, you still have the monkey!! How many monkeys do you have? And most importantly how do you return the monkeys to their owners or get rid of some of yours?

This is the proposed approach:
  • Make appointments to deal with monkeys - Don't let them jump you in the hallway or on Friday night
  • Specify the level of initiative the person taking the monkey needs to have - Do they need to report back to you on every step? Or do you just want the monkey dealt with as they please?
  • Agree on a timeline for a status update
  • Examine your own motive - Are you hoarding monkeys because you feel bad giving them to others or you think you're the only one who can properly care for them? Are you giving away your own monkeys?
  • Develop employees' skills - Taking the time to teach people to deal with bigger and angrier monkeys will pay you back in the long term
  • Foster trust - Create communication and an open environment so that you trust your employees and they trust you to have their back
and if you want more, this Bloomberg Businessweek article nicely expands on the approach.

Pictures. Top: Black spider monkeys, Singapore Zoo, Singapore. Middle: Long tailed macaque, Ubud Forest, Bali, Indonesia.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The 1st one


I'm starting my own lab in a few months and I find this to be a very exciting and terrifying time. Exciting because after years and years of training I finally get to lead my own scientific research developing new ideas and exploring important questions, hopefully leading to great science and major discoveries. Terrifying because I'm not entirely sure how to do this. What if the ideas don't quite pan out? What if the funding agencies don't believe in me? What if?

I've been talking to a lot of friends and colleagues and mentors. I've been taking classes and reading books. There is a lot information out there and a lot of confusion, so I thought I'd try to put everything I'm learning and everything I'm worried about in one place. I'm going to talk about my experience in the Captain's log, but also list resources for grantsmanship and management, and talk about cool things in the lab. By journaling and sharing this trip maybe I can find help around the way and be helpful to others...