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...