Saturday, November 29, 2014

I'm a professor now. A week in the life..

This week there have been a lot of firsts which finally made me feel like a real professor. Since my teaching is still very limited, I just spent the first year preoccupied with the lab and getting everything up and running, but that didn't necessarily make me feel "professorial".  So while things are a bit crazy, this week I get to delve into different aspects of the job. Everything is new, so it's all very exciting. It may soon become a chore, so I'm enjoying it while it lasts.
I don't know if I have been protected so far or if I'm on track for things I should be doing at this point in my career, but I'll just list what's happening, which is what I'm thankful for in this Thanksgiving week.

- Sunday-Monday: I got to be an ad hoc reviewer for a big grant for a foreign funding agency. This was likely a present from a senior investigator, but it was great fun especially because the grant was great! I did consider the bias of giving some slack to a well known investigator over minor experimental issues, but overall the work was really cool and should get funded, so I was exceedingly positive.

- Sunday: I worked with a collaborator to rewrite a paper for resubmission. The first from my lab without any "mentorly crutches".

- Monday: I was part of a thesis committee for a colleague grad student and tried to give cogent suggestions.

- Tuesday-Wednesday: I wrote the mentoring plan and sponsor information for my postdoc's NRSA application. While this is not the first mentoring plan I write, since I wrote all of mine, this is the first one I really mean. This included a lot of tap-dancing to navigate the trickiness of writing a mentoring plan for my very first trainee. I'm very curious to see how it is received. And yes, we do have a senior co-mentor.

- Wednesday-Saturday: I have to evaluate and rank 100 faculty job applications in the next 4 days (Happy Thanksgiving to me!). As part of my first job search committee, I'm really looking forward to our first committee meeting next week, to see how things shake out. Will I get to pick a buddy? What will the dynamics be?

- Sunday: As soon as I am done with the job applications, I have to finish a couple of powerpoint presentations for a mentoring workshop for postdocs I'm running next week, where we will discuss grant and faculty job applications.

- Next Monday? Finally, at some point I should get to read a semi-final version of my postdoc's grant application to give it the final polish before submission.

In the meantime, for the following week I was invited to review a paper, to give a talk and to participate in one on one mentoring program for female postdocs. Sweet!
I still feel like I'm trying this new skin on for size, but so far it seems pretty comfy.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

You never know who your peers will become

In the comments section of my last post about networking at conferences we discussed whether as an early trainee it makes sense to randomly go up to senior scientists just for the sake of networking and this brought up a couple of excellent point which I think merit an independent post. 

1) As a young trainee (grad student, early stage postdoc) you feel that you are not justified in going up to someone without a valid reason, i.e. a brilliant question about their work or wanting a job in their lab. It's scary and daunting and often they are in a huddle talking to their equally famous friends. I tend to go back and forth about the schmoozing just for the sake if it. I have friends who are fantastic at it and will just go up to anyone and engage them in fascinating conversations. This has made them well known to a lot of people and has resulted in a lot of exposure, because the more people know who you are the more they will invite you to speak at symposia and meetings. Unfortunately, science is a popularity contest, in addition to your publications and grants, your tenure also relies on how many national and international talks you have given and on how many meetings you have been invited as a speaker. These early interactions to "make yourself known" can make a difference. While introducing you to people should be your advisor's job, some advisors are not as adept as others and you need to take your networking into your own hands.
This said, there are multiple ways of networking, and I find that small meetings are much more useful than large meetings. I hardly ever meet people I didn't already know at large meetings, but at small meetings you can have a meal or a drink with lots of new people in a much less frantic environment. Getting to know people happens over time. If you genuinely enjoyed a talk, just go up to the speaker and say what struck you. Very very few speakers are 100% sure that their message got across and they will be happy to hear that they made an impact on a young trainee. This may lead to a brief conversation. If the person is in your field, you will see them again. The next time you'll remind them you met at the such and such meeting and talk again and this person will begin to know you. Years later you go on vacation to their country and say "Hey, can I come see your lab?" and they invite you to give a talk and talk to their students. There you meet other faculty who would like to invite you to a symposium they are organizing...and maybe a few years later one of their awesome students becomes your postdoc. True story (potential postdoc still wishful thinking). You never know how a scientific relationship will progress over time. The important thing, I think, is not to expect the world from that initial interaction. The people you need to know, you will see again and again and again, so you can network bit by bit.

2) Never underestimate your friends. The postdocs and students you work with already ARE your scientific community. You all can grow up to be the keynote speakers you admire at the meetings. So when you go to meetings, it is often easier to strike conversations with other students and postdocs. You can share your experiences, learn about their work and their institutions and just start building your network from the bottom up. I can say that right now 70% of my network is people at my level or immediately above I have met through grad school and postdoc. Many have progressed to faculty jobs, they sent me examples of their grants and job applications, they read my stuff, they invite me to speak. Some have been really close friends for almost 20 years, some I have met as conference buddies (people working on similar things whom I always met at the same meetings), some overlapped somewhere and have kept in touch. Many have moved on to industry or other jobs and they are as important as the academic contacts because you can refer students to them when they are thinking about switching jobs, or you can just talk to them about their experience if you need a pharma collaboration or maybe another career altogether.
Your pipeline can go in many different directions as I discussed previouslyMy network happened organically throughout the years. There was no intent to have all these people in place all over the world in all different aspects of STEM. They are friends, buddies, people I met over time, who have spread out in often unexpected ways. Everyone watching out for everyone else. If in addition to your grad school friends, you comfortably meet 4-5 new interesting people at each meeting you go to, over 15 years of grad school/postdoc your network will grow a LOT. You never know who your peers will become and it's amazing watching everyone evolve.

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's conference time. Network! Network! Network! But how?

The approaching madness of the Society for Neuroscience conference bringing 30,000 neuroscientists to DC had gotten me thinking about the relative calm of the American Society for Human Genetics with "only" 6,000 people and the absolute bliss of small conferences. In all cases, be it your society or your subfield conference as a graduate student, a postdoc looking for a job or a new investigator, it is imperative to network. It's that dreaded pit in your stomach when not only you have to discuss your work in front of the world, but you actually have to go walk around introducing yourself to people selling yourself as a job candidate, a seminar invitee or just as an all around fascinating scientist.

I've had multiple discussions throughout the years with friends who refuse to accept the public relations portion of their science job. Well, I'm sorry, but with scientists becoming more and more specialized and funding dwindling, how you write, talk and present yourself makes a huge difference and unless you are a rare exception, PR is just part of the job. As I have written before in a post about the struggle of getting noticed as a new investigator, your network, i.e. the people you know, you collaborate with, are critical for your success. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear, does it make a sound?

One of the most important things I learned during my PhD was how to network, since my PhD advisor was great at introducing us to everyone she knew...which was a lot of people. We were included in conversations with scientists visiting for seminars, we were introduced to several people at conferences and even now she still makes frequent email introductions to people she thinks I should meet. This made things much less intimidating when I went to a meeting alone as a student, because I could just go up to people and just say "Hi, I'm M's student. We met in her office." and immediately strike a conversation. A lot of PI's don't do that, and I find that male PIs do it much less than female ones. This is not necessarily a malicious thing, since they are just generally oblivious of the importance of introductions for a trainee who may be otherwise tentative to approach an established investigator. I would urge the new investigators and even the postdocs, especially the male ones, to remember to act as "connectors" for trainees and colleagues. And you can always just use your friends for introduction, like LinkedIn in real life. Grad student should remember that other students they meet at meetings may one day be the other junior investigators in their cohort and that decade-long transition and evolving relationship has been great fun to watch.

While it's definitely easier to have a previous introduction, the standard "Hi, I'm X from Y. I work on Z." or "That was such a great talk! I really liked...I was wondering about..." would work with most people. The vast majority of scientists will react positively to a nice comment about their work and will want to talk about what you do. Don't be intimidated. After all we go to conferences to present our work and to communicate with other scientists. Everyone would like to have a very insightful fundamental question which will impress the target scientist, but sometimes even a simple question or clarification can lead to a deep conversation. In the past 2-3 years, one question I tended to ask a lot after striking a scientific conversation with a successful scientist was "What is your advice for a new investigator starting out?" and it has always led to great discussions on running a lab and on academia in general...and to multiple blog posts here, here and here.

Science is a common language all over the world. It doesn't matter how different your language or culture is or even how broken your English is, scientific discussions break those barriers. Large conferences bring together scientists from all continents and that is just a remarkable opportunity to meet different people and generate collaborations you may not otherwise have started. However, large conferences can be more difficult to navigate and isolating than small conferences. At a small meeting career networking can be much easier because you have more direct access to possible collaborators and high-profile investigators in your field: you can sit next to them at lunch and have a higher chance they will have time to stop by your poster or hear you talk. For large conferences, you'll need to do more legwork, in the sense that you need to schedule meetings and coffees in advance, since virtually all keynote speakers will be booked non-stop at committees and other events. At a recent large meeting I wanted to touch base with a keynote speaker with whom I had spoken before and on whose radar I need to be for possible tenure letters, but both our schedules were crazy and I just told her I would stop by after her talk. I said Hi, commented on some cool new data she presented and went my merry way. Showing you face periodically is always better than fading away. Eventually, of course, the goal is that work out of my lab will stay on her radar because it's awesome and relevant, but it may objectively take time to get there.

As your papers are brewing and your projects are moving along, communication with potential collaborators, reviewers, or future colleagues will make your career trajectory much easier and most likely your science better. Sometimes a collaborator you had been looking for comes out of left field when you least expect them, or a really cool project is born over drinks at a social. Think of all the possibilities! Go network!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

SfN 2014 restaurant guide and other things to do in DC

For the first time I am learning what it's like to be in the SfN host city and while everyone in the lab gets to go for cheap, the prep is not trivial. I have been suggesting restaurants, making reservations, organizing dinners, lunches, etc for the past couple of weeks, so now my readers get to reap the benefits of such activity and get a break from my new lab management rumblings.


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

This said these are my favorites in the Convention Center area (in no particular order). Click the names for more info.

Casa Luca (Italian) 1099 New York Ave NW (11th and NY Ave – 5 min walk) Great central Italian food from Fabio Trabocchi who is one of the most popular chefs in town. This is the cheapest of his restaurants which also include Fiola @ 601 Pennsylvania (6th and Indiana Ave – 12 min walk) and the hottest new restaurant (and Obama favorite apparently) FiolaMare @ 3100 K st NW in Georgetown (31st and K on the waterfront– Take the Circulator bus). So far I've been unsuccessful at getting into Fiola Mare, but I've heard it's great.

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

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

Around Estadio on 14th street is the hottest new restaurant area with new places opening every month (some are too new to even get reviewed). Other options are:
Birch and Barley (American) 1337 14th St NW (14th and Rhode Island/O)
Pearl Dive Oyster Place (Seafood) 1612 14th St NW (14th and Q). Oysters, yum!
Le Diplomate (French Bistro) 1601 14th St NW (14th and Q). Hard to get into French spot from the people who brought you Buddakan and Morimoto in NYC. Good brunch. One of the 10 places to eat this Fall according to the Washington Post.
Ted’s Bulletin (American) 1818 14th St NW (14th and S). A DC staple with its original in Capitol Hill, it’s worth a visit even if just for their homemade pop tarts. Also good lunch.

Other good options around the convention center are
Brasserie Beck (Belgian bistro) 1101 K St NW (11th and K) Mussels, steak frites and hundreds of beers in menu.
Ping Pong Dim Sum (Chinese fusion) 900 7th St NW (7th and I – basically across the square) Fun twist on dim sum also…dim sum all day!
Mandu (Korean) 453 K St NW (5th and K) Great Korean + Soju martinis
Busboys and Poets (Breakfast/brunch) 1025 5th St NW (5th and K) another DC staple with multiple locations
El Rinconcito Café (Salvadorean/Mexican) 1129 11th St NW (11th and M) a hole in the wall with awesome tamales, papusas and burritos. Good for lunch.
Daniel Boulud just opened DBGB in the City Center  (9th and I) and it usually looks mobbed, but I have not tried it.
Rasika (Indian) 633 D St NW (6th and D) is very famous and Michelle Obama's favorite, but I've never been able to get in there.

If you want burgers the closest Shake Shack is on 9th and F, Bolt Burgers by the convention center (11th and L/Mass) is not very good, but fries and smoothies are okay.

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

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

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

Closest CVS: tucked away on 10th and L

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

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