Sunday, March 31, 2013

To the aspiring scientists out there

Tomorrow I start the job I have been working towards for the past 15 years and I have been dreaming of since middle school. I always wanted to be a scientist and when I first joined a lab as an undergrad, I decided I wanted to run my own lab. I have had wonderful times and truly terrible times, when I have teetered on the edge of dropping out of college to man the cashier at a supermarket, dropping out of grad school to go write movies or just simply hide under a rock, leaving my postdoc to go work as a scientific consultant in finance or a policy advisor. For years every day I would wake up and think "Will I quit today?", and then I would chose my job as an aspiring academic scientist above anything else. Every day.
And then, as I was interviewing for positions, something snapped into place. I truly loved the interview process. I loved talking to people about science all day, sharing my work, developing my scientific program and most of all, I loved the image of my lab which was forming in my head. Kind if when you imagine the face of your future baby and you are filled with joy. One day I was ogling the different scientific positions LinkedIn was throwing my way and the next I was set on a course to start plotting all my R01s.
I can honestly say that since getting my job I have had the best year of my life. Hiring people, buying equipment, shaping my thinking as a leader, networking like crazy have all been fascinating and exciting. It was that wonderful time when you are still protected in your postdoc lab, blessed with lots of my own funding to spend, and trying things out with training wheels. A time when you can enjoy and imagine what is coming without really worrying about it.
Tomorrow the training wheels come off. Tomorrow we begin to worry. Starting tomorrow I have 3 years to come up with substantial NIH funding and the clock starts ticking to March 31 2016. Considering how fast these past 6 months have flown, and that setting up everything in the lab may take another 6-9 months, and that I'm trying to finish three papers, and that there are multiple grants due this summer, the future is uncertain. Yet, I'm still excited and hopeful and happy to start this adventure. I am living my dream. At the same time, I have a lot of grad school friends who have not chosen this career and have gone to do a lot of fascinating things in other professions. And that comforts me, because I see that they are happy and successful, and if the NIH continues with this crazy run and funding doesn't come, I will be okay no matter what.
So, to you, aspiring scientists out there, most of all learn to believe in yourselves. Figure out what you want to do in life and plan for it, develop it, grow into it. A job, any job rarely falls in your lap, no matter if it's in academia or outside. In the lab look for your anchor, the one place or one experiment that makes everything alright, no matter what (for me it's at the microscope, looking at cells; I have friends who clone when they are stressed...go figure). My anchor tells me that I need to be there and nowhere else. And finally, if you do something you really enjoy, it will come through when you talk to people about it and maybe they will see how cool it is. So far this transition is great fun, more fun than I ever thought it would be, so know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

You need an assistant, but don't have one: apps for travel and organization

Nowadays sometimes there is so much to do, that I don't have the time to think, let alone get organized in my life. There are days when I would really love to have an assistant. Since I do not have the money for an assistant, while trying to keep it all together, I looked for the next best thing....apps and websites.

When I travel my new best friend is Tripit ( It checks your email for you for trip reservations (flights, hotels, buses, you name it) and nicely organizes everything. It even calculates the trip between the airport and your hotel and maps it for you. You can input the location of meetings and it will show you where those are also and it will tell you by when you need to check out of the hotel to get to the airport on time. The smartphone and iPad apps are great and have all information you need right at your fingertips, so that you don't have to fish around for pieces of paper or email to figure out where you are going. If you need to coordinate with other people you can just email Tripit their plans and it will include them. I'm moderately addicted to the Stats where you can keep track of miles traveled and cities visited. I logged more than 60,000 miles last year.

When I'm looking for the best and cheapest options for flights, I just discovered Hipmunk (, a great site with a very nice visual interface organizing flights based on price, stops, times or "agony", which is a fun algorithm computing stops, layovers and price and deciding which flight would be less painful for you. On shorter routes, it even inserts the Amtrak timetable and price so that you can decide whether a train would be preferable. Then to watch fares, I still use Yapta (, which I have used for years as it was recommended by multiple travel sites. You pick the flight and the airlines you want and then you watch them. Every time the price drops you get an email, and after you purchase the site still tracks the flight for refunds in case the price drops even more.

For conference expenses, I discovered ExpenseCloud (, a site (and apps) to keep track for all receipts. You email registrations and travel receipts to the website and upload pictures of any random receipt on your smartphone and the site organizes a report. If you are in a company that actually uses ExpenseCloud then you would just need to send it out for approval, but even having all the numbers together in a neat report without having to organize and find all the receipts is really helpful.

Finally for everything else there is TaskRabbit ( where you can pay someone to do stuff for you: go get your groceries, help you find a new apartment, bake cookies, organize your bills, you name it. You post your task and your target price or let people make a bid, and you'll likely have a host of TaskRabbits ready to work for you. Virtual tasks are available from everywhere, in person tasks are only in New York, Boston, LA, SF Bay Area, Portland OR, Chicago, Seattle, Austin and San Antonio. One friend was wondering whether they'll count synapses...I haven't asked, yet.

Hope this helps some overworked scientists.

Image: By Aaron Logan (from, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 16, 2013

You can't succeed in science without mentors

Mentors are necessary for any type of career development (Where would you go if nobody recognized your talents and cultivated them?), but even more so in science where you need people to believe in you, give you money to develop your own ideas, trust your judgement and abilities, pretty much starting from the day you step into a lab as an undergraduate. A lot of effort is put by the NIH and other institutions to  have Mentored Career Development awards like the K99, K01, etc (see links, here), however mentoring is not uniform across laboratories and it is completely dependent on the Principal Investigator (PI). When you write a mentoring plan for one if these grants you have to describe a Utopian situation in which you constantly meet with your PI who will steadily guide you every step of the way through your projects, your papers and your career. In reality things can be quite different: your PI may not have time, may not be guiding type or only have insight on some aspects of what you do, and in the worst case scenario may actually undermine you. I have had my ups and downs, but I have been lucky (or picky) to have the mentors I needed for me at every step of my career. I've heard horror stories and wonderful stories from others.

I think the important thing is to always looks for mentors and to realize how important mentoring is. I know that people say that women always underestimate their own abilities and give credit to their circumstances without extolling their own achievements, BUT mentors were incredibly important in shaping my career trajectory. Every mentor had strengths and weaknesses, but there were multiple other mentors around me (colleagues, friends, other professors) I could rely on. While setting up my Individual Development Plan (myIDP, here), not only I had to think who my mentors are, but what they are for and it was a very interesting exercise. Instead of putting the burden of "full service" mentoring on only one person, it may be more effective to identify what each mentor is good at and use multiple mentors for all your needs. For example, a mentor for a specific part of a project, a mentor for departmental diplomacy, a mentor for grant writing, etc. As part of my K99 application I was requested to establish a Job Search Advisory Committee, a group of PIs young and older who would help me in shaping my application and navigate the interview process. Everyone of them contributed in a very important yet different way and I was a real eye-opener. Anyone can be a mentor even if just for 10 minutes, so started just asking any PI I meet for a piece or two of advice on how to set up a lab and got lots of great info.

The thing is that you will always need mentors: you will need letters from people for the rest of your life, for every career development grant application, for your tenure, for your promotion to full professor, for awards. My advice to graduate students is always that you should find at least a very strong mentor in your career, someone who will be there for you and support you and promote you and talk you off ledges whenever necessary. Having a good mentor makes your life much easier, but a lot of mentors are even better.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On the fear of branching out into a new field

This has been an exciting and emotional week. I am venturing into a new field in biology and I decided to attend a small specialized conference on the topic. I am still trying to determine in my head which projects are going to be the best bets for the new lab and I thought I could look for collaborators to help me branch out.

It is always difficult to go to a conference on your own, but it is even harder to go to a conference in a field you do not know where you know absolutely no one. I am no shrinking violet, but the constant level of attention you need to maintain and the pleasantness can be exhausting. You are trying to figure out who the leaders in the field are, who the movers and shakers are and which topics are trending, while trying to understand exactly what everyone is talking about. I'm at the top of my game with genetics and cell biology, but here surrounded by biochemists, structural biologists and biophysicists I often found myself smiling an empty smile. It had been a long time since I had felt this ignorant...

Overall, I think it went exceptionally well, I was kind of adopted by the best possible collaborators, I was invited to give several talks, I was made privy to interesting unpublished ideas and plans which will help me with directing my projects, yet I feel tired and deflated, and completely out of my depth.
It is easy to do what we know, to feel confident of our expertise, and after you spend so many years to become an expert, it can be daunting to feel like a rookie again. Yet, in chatting with established investigators and asking for advice as I usually do, a picked up a new piece of wisdom: "Don't be afraid to branch out to a topic you don't know". At dinner with one of the movers and shakers I was trying to meet, he told me about his career path and how being at the right place with the right expertise can make you able to answer very exciting questions in a new field.

I guess I have to take this advice and tell myself that I can now rely on people who have the expertise to help me. I need to build on the very valuable contacts I have made during this week.

Image credit: The road not taken by Harvey Robinson via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pros and cons of new K99/R00 regulations

Lat month the NIH announced some changes to the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award guidelines (NOT-OD-13-034), as a results of recommendations of the Biomedical Workforce Task Force. A major change is the lowering of the deadline for application from 5 years from obtaining your PhD to 4 years, which has been very upsetting to many. The Task Force was composed of several deans, department chairs and university presidents (roster) and their goal was to "develop a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce that can inform decisions about training the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions".  A recent blog post from Sally Rockey, the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Funding, also a member of the Task Force, discusses the impetus behind the deadline reduction: the goal is to emphasize mentoring, promote earlier exit from the postdoc and it is supposed to be accompanied by an increase in the number of awards to achieve a 30% success rate (here). The problem is how this is going to be implemented.

As I was applying for my K99 3 years ago, I chatted with people who had served on study sections and heard that there was widespread confusion on how to judge these awards. In going through an initial submission and resubmission and discussing with other awardees, it was clear that you pretty much had to be able to go on the job market right away. You had to provide a plan for your job search and your overall goals for your lab and you had to assemble a Job Search Advisory Committee. There was still substantial emphasis on mentoring, since you had to justify why you needed 2 more years of training, but the idea is that now mentoring will be even more important. But considering that an application with a resubmission takes one year, the timing becomes critical. You basically have to figure out what you want to write in your application during the 2nd year if your postdoc, apply at the beginning of your 3rd year and if necessary resubmit 6 months later. This is a tall order since most people do not have a well defined project until later in their postdoc and do not necessarily have a project that they can take with them. If you change fields and do a postdoc on a different topic from your PhD you may still be learning in year 2. If you are making a mouse line, you'll be at the beginning of characterization with no clear idea of what to write about. So you are left with abandoning the idea of a resubmission and just putting all your eggs in one basket applying only once. In addition, there is the issue of penalizing fellows who decide to take on a high risk project and develop new techniques, who may be troubleshooting for a few years before a big break.

I personally thought that the K99 was timed perfectly, kicking in when the early fellowships were ending and providing a cushion for the last 1-2 years of postdoctoral work. I had several friends who were blindsided by the 5 year deadline and could not make it on time despite having very exciting projects in development. I was able to take an additional year after securing my position to finish up a paper and I have been able to use the money for some really cool and pretty expensive experiments which will build the basis of the first couple of years in my own lab. It has been a huge blessing and I am a little scared for the transition to the new guidelines. I am trying to make sure all the younger postdocs know that they have to start thinking about this right is just very hard when the first year is often spent reading and starting and stopping multiple possible projects.