Sunday, December 20, 2015

2015 "year in review" as a Y3 PI

The rules for the "year in review" post are simple:
-Post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.

I find truly amazing how well this reflects what my blog was all about this year 1) R01 writing, 2) mentoring and 3) promoting the lab. This is what I have been doing in 2015.

January: So, you are sitting at the bench in your graduate program/post-doc and you say to yourself; “this is not where I want to be.”

February: We are 18 weeks out from submission day and I have started putting all my ducks in a row to see if this crazy idea of submitting two R01s at once is really going to work.

March: As a new principal investigator, I'm always in a frenzy to promote my work, so that I'm going to establish myself in my field(s) presenting cool new data.

April: It's 730 days of being an Assistant Professor. After the absolute exhaustion and chaos of the first six months and the light at the end of the tunnel of finishing year one (Y1), year two (Y2) was a very different beast.

May: Despite the absolute madness of the past two months, I was still holding on to the hope I would be able to submit two R01s for the June deadline as detailed in a post earlier this year.
This was April 30th, but nothing was written in May because....R01 deadline on June 5th...

June: "Mirror mirror on the wall, what are aims to win it all?"

July: I thought I'd weigh in on the kerfuffle going on on Twitter about the mostly irrational fears that Obama will force us to pay postdocs $50K.

August: This week I was honored and excited to be cited, together with none other than DrugMonkey, as someone who provides good advice for new investigators, but what really caught my eye in the tweet was "NHLBI K-to-R01 Meeting". What was that, pray tell?

September: As a trainee I always wondered what my PI was doing cooped up on her/his office and when I became a PI myself I was shocked by the endless list of things I was now responsible for.

October: I launched the "day in the life of a new PI" challenge a few weeks ago to see what the days of principal investigators are like at different places and at different stages of their careers.

November: PharmaFriend here to give you a glimpse of my day while I’m at a scientific conference. I’m a few days late; so, please accept my apologies. There are a few differences between attending a congress as a participant/scientist, vendor for pharma client, and actual pharma client.

December: Sometimes insecurity and impostor syndrome work to your detriment.

2015 greatest hits:

The R01 twin strategy: Parents of twins will probably laugh at my naivete, but as someone who always wanted two kids, I always thought that twins were the most efficient way to achieve that goal: you have two of them at once and you're done. So I didn't bat an eye when one if my senior faculty mentors outlined what I will call the "R01 twin strategy" to me.

Questions you should as on postdoc interviews: Following the "Questions you should ask" for the faculty job search, I was asked for a similar post for the postdoctoral search.

Looking forward to 2016!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On finding "your people": who do you want your field to be?

I have written a lot about my confusion in defining my identity as a new PI. I work on a couple of different things and in both cases these projects require very interdisciplinary approaches requiring me to wear a lot of different hats. As I was finishing my postdoc I have written about branching out into new fields (here), and then as a new PI on trying to make your mark and be noticed (here) and struggling with a changing identity (here). A few things have happened lately that have made me think some more about this topic.

Many people told me that the first few years as a new investigator are the loneliest and most difficult, and I can confirm this has been true for me. I am starved for colleagues and scientific discussion and I feel very isolated, so I've been going to a lot of meetings (6-7) every year. In some cases I just go to see friends and catch up on the field, in others to try and learn new things, and in all of them I do my best to showcase what we are doing in the lab and make new connections to be become "established". Everyone says you feel better when you become "established", but what the heck does that mean?
Well, my interpretation at this moment is that you start becoming "established" when people recognize you for something you do as the expert in that topic and reach out to you for presentations and collaborations.

The path to this can be completely random. In the past two months I went to two meetings, one for each area in the lab, with very different expectations and opposite outcomes from what I was anticipating. Meeting one was supposed to be my big break. We have some very very exciting data on that project (probably the most exciting data I've had in my entire life), which I was going to present for the first time. All the movers and shakers were going to be there and I worked on my talk for almost a month. I reorganized, I practiced the talk multiple times. Everything had to be perfect. While I have met many of these people at one time or another, they don't "know" me, in the sense that they may vaguely remember me from some other meeting or seminar, and this was going to put me ON THE MAP. The outcome was not as expected. Most of the speakers only showed up for their session (some only for their talk) and left immediately. The whole set-up was very awkward so that there was no common space to mingle or eat. My talk was toward the end of the meeting, so only a handful of trainees and the attendees for the next session were there. It all kind of fizzled and I still feel like an outsider in that field. I was a bit dejected.
Meeting two was an afterthought. I had been invited to speak at a pre-meeting symposium by someone I had met at a conference a few years back, and since I've been trying to do some work in this field with one of my collaborators, I decided to stay for the actual meeting. I thought I would learn something and I brought my postdoc so that she could be exposed to the techniques. First of all the symposium was truly kick-ass, fun multi-disciplinary kick-ass science. But the most amazing thing is that I came away with multiple new collaborators, a spot in a multi-PI consortium, a new NIH program officer who wants my grants and a bunch of new contacts. It turns out I am the one person generating specific models that they need... It was the most science fun I've had at a meeting in a very long time. So, hum, who do I want my field to be? These guys (and gals, lots of awesome gals there). They share the same interest for questions I think are extremely important and understudied and want to help figuring things out.

I haven't truly turned my back on the group from the other meeting, but this whole story is just to say that vibes in different fields can be very different and it takes time to figure out who will end up being "your people". I did come back from this second meeting with a sense that now I'm "in" and that this is a really cool crowd I'd love to hang out with. Maybe I don't have to forge my career out of sheer willpower, but just find my tribe...

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How I figured out too late what the new biosketch is for

Sometimes insecurity and impostor syndrome work to your detriment. When I started approaching the new NIH biosketch Contribution to Science section I had a meltdown (here). I felt I had more proper contributions, i.e. publications, in one aspect of my research and not as many in the other, so I framed the biosketch on the former to make myself look more impressive. When I got the comments back from my R01 review, I realized how dense I had been in not understanding what the new biosketch is actually for...framing your expertise to show how you are the best person to perform the research. Because I was insecure, the reviewers did not understand who I was and where my strengths really lie, they questioned that I was actually able to do the experiments I was proposing to do.

Just to make it clear, I do genetics and cell biology. I started as a geneticist and then really dove into the functional analysis to understand the mechanisms of disease following genetic mutation, so I am now primarily an animal model person. If you have the patients, you can happily publish a nice human genetics paper a year, while a substantial mechanistic work can take 3-5 years, hence the discrepancy in my publication balance. In the initial version of my biosketch, I highlighted all the wonderful genetic discoveries I made and all the contributions to medical genetics, to support a very hard core cell biology grant. One of the reviewers wondered if I knew how to make complex mouse crosses...I've been crossing mice for almost 20 years...

The thing is, despite this I got really good investigator marks. They thought I was very productive and well trained, they just wondered why the heck I was doing cell biology and mouse genetics and whether I knew what I was doing. My biosketch was an epic fail, as it was framed and organized in the wrong way. And while some scientists were harping about it when the new biosketch guidelines came out, this whole ordeal made me realized what an incredible advocate this new biosketch can be. In the K99 application you have a 3 page Candidate section where you frame your training, your goals for your science and your vision. The same can be done in the new biosketch. As I went back and redid my biosketch with my goals in mind, explaining how all the pieces in my training fit to lead to the singular expertise which is perfect for this proposal, I realized I had been a complete idiot. And now you can learn from my mistakes. Work that biosketch!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Things I've learned from my first R01 submission: grantsmanship is a moving target

My first R01 submission is now complete (review, summary statements and PO discussion) and I am entering resubmission mode. As I start thinking about the resubmission I would like to take stock of what happened, since I have learned quite a lot and there have been a few surprises. I thought it may be helpful for the other novices out there, and maybe for some of their mentors.

Just to put things into prospective this is what happened. I wrote a very ambitious proposal on a little studied gene with direct human disease relevance. The proposal spanned basic cell biology, biochemistry and behavior in animal models. Because the review process is so study section specific, a lot of effort was taken in learning everything I could about the intended study section and writing the proposal being mindful of the roster. There were a lot of discussions with senior advisors about making sure the big picture was always present and eschewing too much experimental detail (some if it summarized here in a post I wrote about the multiple versions of my Specific Aims page). I made choices based on the advice I was receiving, wrote a very detailed cover letter requesting two institutes with two program officials (POs) I had been talking to and who had expressed interest in my work, plus the intended study section, and sent the grant off in June. First glitch a couple of weeks later: the assignment went to a third institute, but the study section was fine. Second glitch a couple of months later: the Center for Scientific Review decided my proposal was more suited for a different study section, which I've heard compared in the past to one of the rounds of Hell. I panic, my chair panics, frantic calls to the SRO with no avail. Everything is now wrong! The focus of the study section is different, my proposal has the wrong tone and scope.

So we wait...

Study section comes and goes. After 12 hours I get my score (yes, new investigators have priority and get their scores right away). It was discussed! I'll get detailed comments. OMG, my impact score and percentile are so low, I didn't even think they could ever get that low if a grant was discussed. They hated it!! They thought it was overambitious. They didn't understand what I was trying to do. They thought my gene is useless. They thought I'm a loser!

I get the summary statements late at night a week later and I consider going to bed without reading it, because I wouldn't be able to sleep. But imagining the horrible horrible things that could be in it would also not allow me to go to bed. So I open it very cautiously...

Reviewer 1 loved it! WHAT?! HOW!? Overall they all thought it was a great project, very clear disease relevance, very cool experimental design, very promising your investigator...very poorly written approach. Ha...The choice to keep the tone big picture as advised by senior colleagues, backfired BIG TIME!! And in fact senior colleagues were shocked by my summary statement. But it all made perfect sense. The study section members don't know me, and my publication record, while very productive in other realms, has been slower on this project as all the papers are in the pipeline right now. The burden of proof is entirely on me. There was no trust that I could do any of the things I said I would do. There was no trust that I could even design appropriate controls for the experiments.

Good news: They liked the study! They liked me! According to my PO is a very viable proposal. It just needs more preliminary data and a thorough rewrite.

What have I learned from this?

1) The study section will dictate what you need to do. You can try and game the system predicting what they will say, but your grant may be sent somewhere else and you'll get a different batch of people. So just listen to the batch of people you get. Unless the assignment is so wrong that you need to go somewhere else.

2) Take all advice you get while writing with a grain of salt. As I have said in other posts about grant writing, each single one of your advisors will tell you to do what worked for them and they will all be different. So try to figure out what will make sense and then go back to point (1): do what the study section wants.

3) The expectations for new PIs are very different from those for senior PIs. The burden of proof on a new PI is much bigger especially if you have limited publication in the proposed field. I was shocked that they thought I could not even set up a control, so I'll have to show them that I can. Be wary that your senior advisors may not know this, and this could also be very study section dependent.

4) A score doesn't mean much unless it's <10%. Unless it's a fundable score, it seems that a score can be a suggestion, or a message, or a warning. I knew from a friend that this particular study section gives ridiculously low scores, so I knew not to be completely dejected about mine. My impact score also had very little to do with the scores I got from my reviewers. The panel must have decided it was not fundable and needed a lot of rewrite, and they made it clear by giving me a Poor rating. Nobody seems to think that's a problem, so I'll behave like it's not...

5) Make good use of your chat with your PO. I knew from my K99 application, that discussing your summary statement with your PO really allows you to develop a very clear action plan to turn a proposal around. This time it wasn't different. Prepare your questions and voice your doubts, and make sure you listen to the comments on how the panel viewed the grant. If there's hope, try again!

And so we try again. Wiser and still little bit confused...

Friday, November 13, 2015

A day in the life of a scientist in pharma medical communication

A guest post from PharmaFriend about a day in her life in big pharma medical communication, aka marketing (Sunday 11/8).  BTW, this was her great post on applying for jobs outside academia.

Hello Dear Readers,

PharmaFriend here to give you a glimpse of my day while I’m at a scientific conference. I’m a few days late; so, please accept my apologies. There are a few differences between attending a congress as a participant/scientist, vendor for pharma client, and actual pharma client. The biggest difference is how much time I spend working before the actual meeting starts. So let’s take it from the top:

4:30-6:00am. AWAKE. Jet lag is killing me, but I try to be somewhat productive and do some emails.

6:00-7:15am Jog to Pier 39. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I have a lot more stamina when I work out during the meetings. Fortunately, the jet lag has worked in my favor and I have been able to get some good calorie burning in before this long day begins.

7:15-8:15am Cleaning up my inbox. I did not put on my out of office notification (big mistake). This means that I should respond to some of the mails that keep pouring even when I’m away.

8:15-9:30am Breakfast. It’s an important meal and I’m starving after my run. While at breakfast, I confirm that the external clinicians have everything they need for today’s activities. I also catch up with colleagues that have other pre-meeting activities going on at the congress.

9:30-10:30am Film crew prep. We are doing an activity that requires interviews with several medical experts. So, I need to brief the film crew and go over the discussion guides. The facilitators are not really subject matter experts; so, I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not doing the interviews myself, which tweaks the control-freak within, but I move on.

10:30-12:30am The shoot. All goes really well. Everyone was engaged and we got some really good footage. The crew and doctors got along fine and I can calm down about part 1 being all done. This is going to be a great piece when it finally hits the internet.

12:30am-1:45pm Dim sum. We are in San Francisco after all and it’s delicious.

1:45-2:30pm Walk the congress center exhibition floor. There are 2 reasons for doing this. 1) Competitive intelligence and 2) Figure out who has the best coffee. Hey, the learned behavior of seeking free food has not diminished since grad school days. It’s just a bit more refined. I ran into an old colleague from my vendor days. It turns out that 4 of us are here and I so psyched to see them all.

2:30-4:00pm Attend some sessions. Finally, I get to hear some data, after spending the day in congress-adjacent activities. Of course I have 2 different sessions on opposite side of the congress hall. My pedometer is getting its fill as it always does onsite. Back when I worked in the ad agency world, I could easily log 30K steps in McCormick Place, alone. My speaker has just told me that she is not coming for her interview tomorrow. She is overbooked and I am panicking a little bit, as this is critical education content for physicians.

4:00-5:00pm Back on the congress exhibition floor. I’m trying to maintain calm and put out this little fire. There is not much, I can do, but I didn’t have transparency into the scheduling issue until now. I actually found the good coffee and I need it since I’ve been up since 4:30. I take a peak of the amount of gaming being incorporated into the medical education. These ideas could be something to incorporate into next year’s designs.

5:00-6:30pm. Downtime before dinner. I do more email cleaning. Thank goodness for Sundays and the lack of new emails. I get my inbox down to something more manageable and send a note to the speaker for tomorrow’s video interview. It’s all a bust; so, I head to Macy’s with a colleague.

6:30-9:00pm. Ladies’ dinner. Nice ladies’ dinner with work colleagues. The food was unremarkable, but the company was nice. I’m still pissed about interview tomorrow, but I need to get over it.

9:00-10:30pm. Nightcap. After a long day, I spend a little time sipping something with bubbles.

10:30-midnight. It’s morning time CET, so, I check in the other half back home and I look at my iPhone. I’ve got to review some documents and take care of some budget issues to prep for the end of year. I really should write up these meeting minutes, but I am super sleepy. Those may have to wait until after the congress is all finished. Tomorrow, I get to do it all again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"A day in the life" redux: what do scientists outside of academia do?

A few weeks ago I launched this challenge to blog a day in the life of a new (or not so new) academic lab head (here), so that new PIs would not feel so alone in their quest for setting up a lab and trainees would figure out what we do in our offices all day. I had asked my readers to pick 3 random days and I would blog about everything that went on during my day. There is still one day left, but I feel like shaking things up a bit. Multiple people participated and we managed to get a nice cross section of PIs (see mine and links below here and here). What I would like to do for the last day, November 9th, is to get scientists who have left academia to blog their day, instead.

After all, our trainees see what we do every day and now have multiple posts with more details. But what to people outside academia really do? I think very few of us actually know what goes on in the real world. So I reached out to @Doctor_PMS and @inbabyattachmode, who have recently left academia per jobs in sales and industry R&D, respectively, and to PharmaFriend who had guest blogger for me on industry interviews (here) and works in marketing. On November 9th PharmaFriend will take over my blog and the others will blog on theirs, so we'll see what they do with their days.

If you are a scientist who has left academia and is working in industry, policy, law, journalism, anything, tell us about your day on November 9th or any other day you think is interesting. I'll collect all the links at the end of this post.

@Doctor_PMS - Scientific equipment sales

@inbabyattachmode - Biotech R&D

PharmaFriend - Big pharma medical communication

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The big lab/small lab conundrum

Jan Bruegel the Elder - Landscape of Paradise and Loading of
the Animals on the Ark
I wish things were as simple as Dr. Jon Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, describes in his video here, envisioning a scientific environment of many small labs, each with $300-500K in funding tops, developing exciting new ideas. Everyone has different focuses, making breakthroughs in many fields. PIs unburdened by writing grants and spending appropriate time mentoring the manageable number of people in their labs, so the everyone is happy and gets a job.
Meanwhile, at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in Chicago, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the entire National Institutes of Health, talks about supporting more science "super stars" using the R35 mechanisms, the Outstanding Investigator Award (NINDS call here). Giving exceptional scientists $750K per year for 8 years to do as they please, not much different from the MIRA awards that Lorsch himself had introduced last year (or HHMI funding).

So which is it? As young investigators, where do we fit? How do we plan? What if you're not a superstar or you don't meet their superstar definition? What if the current funding climate will never allow you to get sufficient funding to become a superstar or just a simple yellow star? How is a small lab PI going to compete? What if people leave and you have to start over again and again?

I will recount a story. Recently a huge paper came out in a fancy journal describing a new finding and was picked up by the popular press as a magnificent breakthrough. I first heard of that hypothesis at a small meeting three years ago from a young investigator who was chatting with one of the leaders in her field. He told her they had some inkling that it could be true and she should pursue it. The fact is that she couldn't. From my estimation, that project cost upwards of half a million dollars with expertise from multiple people and a kick-ass computing cluster. The technology development alone was staggering. I'm in a similar boat. I have been fighting for the better part of a year to put together all the collaborators for a ridiculously ambitious NIH grant and most likely the NIH is not going to believe me. I think it's a great idea and I think it's feasible, but I cannot do it alone because the number of people and the resources I need are just too many and most are not available at my university. Getting everyone to work together it really tricky and exhausting...(Note: grant was triaged)

While I applaud Lorsch's intent, in light of what I'm going through, his statements terrify me.  Also I find this concept that labs with lots of money are hotbeds for unproductive trainees kind of insulting. I did my postdoc in a multimillion $ lab for the reason that I would be free to do anything I wanted with as much money I wanted. The project I want to propose right now would be a regular one there and the NIH would fund it in a heartbeat. Unburdened by budgetary issues, I've seen trainees accomplish astonishing feats (with very limited PI interference, luckily). There are some things in science that you can only do with lots and lots of money. In the time of multi-omics and cohort replications in male and female mice project costs are skyrocketing. Plus it would be really nice if we could make some of our postdocs staff scientists requiring some hefty salaries.

So I'm kind of annoyed, because the truth is that we need more research funding, so that the big labs can do their big lab thing, the little labs can thrive and sometimes play with the big labs. And while I'm at it, universities should be less greedy and a bit more that people don't have to have one R01 just to pay for their salary. Here I said it, now discuss. My R01 is getting reviewed next week so I'm here just to rant.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

An experiment in "mentoring over coffee"

This past year I was part of a mentoring program for female postdocs at a neighboring institution, when I met with my mentee every month to discuss any career development issues she was interested in. As this mentoring activity was paired with management training and life coaching, we had a lot of things to discuss every time we met. We usually went for coffee after work, or brunch on the weekend, and chatted informally. By end of the program, I felt like I knew her better than the people in my lab and that we had covered a lot of awesome topics, so I tried to figure out how I could implement something similar that could be useful for my trainees.

The idea was to have a time and place to discuss career development issues that are not directly linked to the science: different career options, time management, networking, running a lab, and anything else that would interest them. I liked the informality going to a coffee shop and moving the meeting away from the lab to detach the discussion from the projects, which usually monopolize our time. So the format became a 1 hour one-on-one meeting every other month which we schedule the day before depending on our mutual schedules. It can be coffee, lunch or dinner, which I pay for. I tried to make sure that they feel like they can talk about anything they want without being judged, e.g. discuss careers outside academia without thinking I would think less of them. And I also do my best to divert the conversation away from their projects whenever science talk finds its way in (this happens all the time, since it's our default mode).

After the first cycles, I think things are going well and I made a few interesting discoveries. The first question I asked everyone was how they preferred to be mentored. I meant it both as whether the relationship we have in the lab was working for them and how they wanted to conduct our mentoring meetings, but I was mostly met with blank stares. They had never thought about it and this was uncharted territory, and part of the discussion became about defining how we wanted to proceed. So, mentees, take some time to think about what you want from your mentor and let them know.
The most surprising thing was how useful this is for me. How openly discussing their career progression and expectations helps me develop a better plan for the future of the lab. I can align expectations and timelines with what I need and try to make sure that everyone is productive in their own way. As a PI you have an overall vision of where the lab is going and where everyone fits, but that may not work out the way your think, so knowing what everyone wants is important. You may need to bring people back towards your vision or adjust their role to fit their goals and bring in someone else. I think by now I see it also as an exercise in communication to make sure that they know they can talk to me, and that there is a dedicated time to take stock of where they are in their careers. Too often I've seen years go by and postdocs suddenly realizing that they had missed deadlines for career development awards or spent too long on a very risky project or in the wrong lab.

In light of the Geoff Mercy sexual harassment scandal that has been filling the newspapers and social media in the past few days, I started wondering what it would be like for a male PI to invite a female trainee out for coffee or lunch and whether it would seem improper. At the same time, a lot of noise was made earlier this year on Capitol Hill by female staffers who were banned from one-on-one meetings with their bosses to avoid any possibility of developing a scandalous relationship, and effectively hurting their chances to become trusted advisor and their career advancement. I have mentors who are guys whom I met for coffee at meetings (hint, hint, SfN attendees) and I am just so incredibly grateful for their time. In fact, it doesn't have to be coffee at all because it's just a gift of the PI's time, time which is usually in very short supply. You can do it however you'd like and if you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A day in the life of a newish PI: Thursday October 1

I launched the "day in the life of a new PI" challenge a few weeks ago to see what the days of principal investigators are like at different places and at different stages of their careers. New PIs often feel overwhelmed and are never sure whether their work load is "normal" or too much. Trainees often wonder what their bosses do and why they are so stressed (hint, mostly grants, but also paperwork...). The first day Sept 17th went really well (here) with multiple people blogging about their day and even a certain sciencing bear joined in....

Today was picked by my readers as the second date and here it goes...

8:00-8:45am Skype conference call with colleague in Europe. Have some interesting results and wanted to talk about them with someone who knows the molecular mechanism. Luckily a friend from grad school who is now a PI is an expert in the field and we threw around some ideas. Remember, students, you never know who your friends will become (an old post about this).

8:45-9:15am Mad cleaning and putting away because the cleaning lady is coming today. A post will follow on having other people do the stuff you don't want to do, but in a nutshell never scrub a toilet again. You still have to clear all the surfaces and put your clothes away before the cleaners come, though.

9:15-9:45am Walk to work because a walking challenge starts today and for your mental sanity you should sign up for any challenge that gets you to exercise.

10:00-10:30am Budget meeting with the departmental staff. We have two small grants coming in and hired a new tech (whom I was interviewing on Day 1), so we had to go through all the efforts that are changing and figure out all the percentages. My effort distribution is getting a little ridiculous and for some reason it is always wrong in the reports. Musings on effort and salary are here.

10:30-10:35am Quickly shoot out a couple of orders on iBuy.

10:35am-12:00pm Teach a rotation student to do oocyte injections.

12:00-12:10pm Fill paperwork to put the student on animal protocol, while on the phone with ordering person who cannot find the orders I sent in earlier.

12:10-12:40pm Lunch. Go on a hunt for pizza at Whole Foods because it's raining and cold and nasty outside.

12:40-1:30pm Go over a manuscript I'm reviewing. The postdoc who could help me with this is on vacation. Trying to get other postdoc involved.

1:30-4:30pm I should really be working on a letter of intent for a grant, but I had signed up for a AAAS Communicating Science Workshop offered by the university, so I decided to attend. For a university-wide event it was sparsely attended, which is sad considering how important science communication is. It was not necessarily the level of detail I was hoping for, but it was really good to be reminded about really considering who your audience is and it helped refine my elevator pitch. I've been meaning to spend more time on my non-pseud Twitter account and talk about some actual science to became more engaged with the general public and patient groups.

4:30-5:30pm I was supposed to go attend one of the medical school lectures at this time to see if I could pick up more teaching, but the lecturer pointed me to another person who could be more amenable to relinquishing lectures, so I'll go next week. The thing about medical schools is that you have to be careful about taking lectures from teaching-only faculty (and this is where everyone who has to teach 2-3 courses a semester is now hating me...but I still have to pay for most of my salary from grants). Instead of the lecture I pop into a senior colleague's office to, find out what is going on in the department, university, academic world...Senior colleague suggests dinner.

5:30-6:00pm Back to working on the manuscript review and some email.

6:30-8:00pm. Hit really swanky new restaurant I've been meaning to try with senior colleague. More chat about the intricacies of academia and academics, etc, etc. Amazing meal. Must put restaurant on list for dinners with seminar speakers.

8:00-9:30pm. Home nice and clean. All the animals happy to see me! Some quality time with Mozart as I've been roped into learning some chamber music.

Now I really need to read some papers for background for the letter of intent.
Today was a good day, a relaxed day. Next up Nov 9.  In the meantime, here is today from @biobrainsy

PS: 10:30-11:00pm Interestingly the day ended with a mini-meltdown about being unproductive, irrelevant and isolated. Partially triggered by the conversations with senior colleague during the day and partially by other factors such as reading papers and seeing other people's productivity. The constant rain doesn't help, but I think this is a common occurrence among scientists, so I'm reporting it. I've been thinking about writing a blog post about this for a long time, but it's very hard to find the right balance.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A day in the life of a newish PI: Thursday September 17th

A couple of weeks ago I suggested a series of posts based on "a day in the life of a newish PI". The array of BS and of random things that a new investigator has to do is staggering and this is sometimes made unbearable by a generalized institutional inability to get anything done or anything fixed. Just yesterday, Dr. Acclimatrix tweeted

What is normal in academia? I am 2.5 years in and I don't know if my days are normal, or insane, or if I'm doing things I should not be doing. So I proposed I would log my activities during 3 days chosen by readers in the next 3 months. The days are September 17, October 1 and November 9. While I'll be traveling a lot this Fall, none of those days are travel/conference days, so they will be just run-of-the-mill lab management days. Let's see what happens and what random adventures will pop up! I would love if others decided to do this too to compare or if they commented about it.

8:00am. I know today is going to be super busy so after a good night's sleep I start with a 3mi run. I have a race on Sunday and I was crippled by running injuries all summer.  Since regular strength training wasn't helping, my PT guy dry needled the trigger points in my IT band last week and it was like magic! Running is the best way I have to deal with stress and increase energy on the job, so I'm really happy to be back in business.

9:00-9:30am. Phone interview with a job candidate for research assistant. I have discussed my experience with hiring in the past, so I will shamelessly plug my "Learning how to hire" series (#1, #2, #3, #4). But briefly, I have a script to follow for 20-30 min interviews, so that everyone answers the same questions. Also I cluster the interviews in 1-2 days to concentrate and reduce the pain of it. I'm doing 5 of these today.

9:30-10:00am. Get to work.

10:00-10:55am. Second phone interview. Emails piling up...couldn't get the candidate to stop talking.

11:00-11:30am. Third phone interview.

11:30-11:45am. Catch up with email. Trying to match my postdoc salaries to the NIH recommended as they are lagging behind the new guidelines. Going back and forth with my department chair, who's going back and forth with the associate dean.

11:45am-12:00pm. Run through the lab. Discuss pump malfunction in the fish room and remediation plans for repairs and water supply. Setting up new image analysis workstation and getting a desk upstairs from storage downstairs has been going on for a week now. Need to coordinate with Facilities about moving the desk.

12:00-12:30pm. Fourth phone interview.

12:30-1:30pm. When I scheduled all the interviews, of course, I had forgotten that today was the career mentoring day for one of my postdocs. I am planning a more detailed post, but every 1-2 months I take each person in the lab out for coffee or lunch to discuss career trajectory, strategy, plans or just to answer their questions. The goal is to avoid talking specific experiments/projects and focus on the bigger career development picture. One of the things we discussed today was the accounting that goes into planning salaries for the lab and the latest discussions on raising postdoc salaries, hiring staff scientists and promoting running a lab on one R01 .

1:40-1:50pm. Twitter.

1:50-2:00pm. Going over emails. Postdoc sent a list of plasmids to order for a project. I looked them over then recommended gene synthesis, because I hate cloning and inflicting cloning on other people.

2:00-2:10pm. Phone interview candidate not picking up the phone...Annoyed.

2:10-2:30pm. Using this half hour of freedom to 1) sign some requisitions for orders, 2) figure out that a ticket was in fact generated to get our new desk upstairs for the imaging station, 3) package a whole bunch of CRISPR primers I bought for our collaborator, so that I can send them to her.

2:30-3:00pm. Taking the chance to go down to our injection room with my tech to check that our second injector has been setup and to switch microscopes around. Bumped into Facilities manager and mover to discuss emergency water supply to fish room...and about moving the desk. Because the more people know about your problems, the likelier it is someone will solve them.

3:15-3:45pm. Our weekly seminar is sometimes held at an Affiliated Hospital (AH), which is hard to get to. I decided to go this week because I have been trying to pin down a collaborator at AH for months and I managed to schedule a meeting after the seminar. Naturally, collaborator emailed yesterday and cancelled, but I had already told people I would go and set up other meetings, so I got in a cab... I lost my phone a couple of weeks ago and I had nothing to do but stare out of the window for 30 mins...Yay!

3:45-4:00pm. Since I was early, I barged into the office of a colleague working on sexually dimorphic brain circuits to discuss our awesome new results. Sexually dimorphic behavior ensues when I asked him where he thought we should submit: he said Nature, while I was thinking of Nature Communications. Men are from Mars...

4:00-5:00pm. While I only marginally cared about the seminar and I just went to be a good citizen, it was actually pretty good. And it was basically the only scientific activity in my day.

5:30-7:30pm. The postdoc organization at AH asked me to be part of a career development panel next week. The organizers wanted to go out for drinks with the panelists and some other faculty to discuss what to expect at the panel discussion. Very fun and stimulating conversation.

8:00pm. Home. If I wanted to I could edit the postdoctoral application package of a former student, but I'm tired, so I'll do it tomorrow. I'll watch TV instead.

So, today was about management and mentoring and had very little to do with doing science or with anything I had done before becoming a PI. It was a day with a pretty heavy load of things, but I've had worse. What strikes me about this job is that I cannot honestly tell you what a typical day is, because every day is different. Today was a "busy non-science" type of day.  When you start a lab, it seems that this kind of day is all you get, but luckily these are getting rarer as I go on with this job. How was your day?

See additional "day in the life" posts from @FitAcademic on getting things done, @PsycGrrrl on fighting ignorance even when you are horribly sick and @bashir9ist who had a run-of-the-mill new investigator day filled with meetings, teaching, writing, ordering, etc..

Saturday, September 12, 2015

To Glam or not to Glam: that is the question...

In following the discussion between Jean-Francois Gariepy and Potnia Theron this week I find myself somewhat in the middle. Briefly, Gariepy is disgusted with academia, the frauds, the pressure to publish only fancy papers or too many papers, and he's leaving to spend time with his son (which is commendable). Potty defended academia saying that fraud is not that widespread, that academic pressure is not that different from pressure in other professional fields and basically that Gariepy should realize that not everyone is like he thinks.

I mostly agree with Potty, but I also understand where Jean-Francois is coming from. I have never worked at Duke and do not know the general environment and his specific environment, but I have been to multiple places like Duke. When the stakes are really high and the pressure piles up and PIs are set on a shiny idea, fraud happens and it's usually perpetrated by individuals and sometime supported by institutional culture. I find that each institution is different in how they react. In my 15+ years I have been privy to maybe 4-5 glaring falsification cases and I have heard of many others. The PIs reactions have been varied. In one case the PI was very well respected and still at the bench, he tried to replicate the results and found out that all the constructs were faked to generate the desired results (very skilled fraud), he reported it, retracted the paper, lost most of his major funding as a result. In another the PI protected the result, refused to retract, went through an audit and lived to live another day as a fancy department director. But these are very isolated cases, mostly I have seen people cut corners. And what I find is that people cut corners more frequently if they were not trained correctly as grad students and if they were pushed to generated data without careful scrutiny or training. So while I think Jean-Francois is grandstanding at times, I get where he is at. I've been disgusted myself, but I have an internal compass and I follow my compass. The majority of the scientists I know follow those same rules, even in what Potty calls the "BSD/Glam world". They know which papers are good and which ones are bad. They know who the cheaters are.

What I don't understand is the demonization of the Glam world. In my mind a Nature paper is a monumental achievement. I have seen the genesis of multiple Cell, Nature and Science papers and the amount of work and money and grit that it takes to get one is amazing. While sometimes you can get a CNS paper with a phenomenal idea, I find those papers to be the minority. Most CNS papers I have seen originated from an interesting finding that was studied from every side and understood mechanistically after 4-5 years of work and probably 2 years of revisions. Sometimes this is not worth it. I have seen a large number of grad students be pushed to the brink to get a CNS paper and just leave academia right after their PhD. I have seen careers destroyed by CNS while people waited 7 years to publish because they only wanted to be in one of the top 3 journals. I have also seen people with exceptional stories be rejected, get into other journals and still be recognized for their work.

Do I hate CNS with the same vitriol found on Twitter? No. I think it's important to have a benchmark. I still strive to hit that benchmark every day, the benchmark to understand how a natural phenomenon works. I marvel at some Nature, Science and Cell (and Nature Neuroscience and Neuron) papers, I teach them to my students and help them understand what it takes. I wave my fist at the sky when the same journals publish trendy crap from powerful people, but mostly my cry is "Who? Who reviewed this BS?" However, I still make my choices based on my career necessities. I like full multi-faceted stories and I want to be proud of my work, but sometimes understanding a mechanism takes 10 years. Sometimes you need to cut a story short because you need a paper out for a grant. Or competition requires you to move quickly. Or you need a descriptive study to start a mechanistic study. And so you parcel out pieces of a bigger story that still makes you proud. If people run around "like headless chicken", like Jean-Francois suggests, then those people are idiots and don't really know what they are doing. But maybe from the outside it looks like headless chickens and in 15 years we'll see them give a talk with a perfectly constructed story where each paper is a slide in the presentation. Only time will tell.

I usually explain my job of running a lab in an R1 institution like running a small business. I have to pay for the salary and benefits of my people, publications are my product which gets me my financing and presentations are my advertisement. Teaching is my pro bono work. Some labs are like Apple, full of shiny and trendy products, but always in beta. Some labs are like oil companies, always using the same reservoir thinking it will never run dry. Some labs want to stay local mom&pop operations and some others want to make it big...Some have international subsidiaries.

I like it. This is the type of job I want. Like all my friends in banking or pharma I struggle every day with the fact that I am embedded in a corporation, a "non-profit" corporation in the business of education and healthcare. But at the same time, I love my lab. I love my employees and I love my product. I stand firmly behind it and will not cut corners. As people go through their PhD and postdoc they have to look at the reality of what these jobs entail and decide whether they are for them or not. Working at an R1 medical school is different than working at an R1 undergraduate school and is even more different than working at a liberal arts college. AND each school is different in their culture and values...really different. Same as in every job, you find your niche where you can do your thing, or you find a good enough fit you can live with, or you decide you are better suited to something else. None of these things can be construed as success or failure.

I find it reductive to throw away all academia because it's full of cheaters and thoughtless drones or to damn the Glam world because some people don't reproduce findings. Academia is not one thing. And it's very cool because of its diversity. And yes there are lots of problems that need to be fixed, some systemic and some institutional, but that will require a lot more posts from better people than me. :)

PS: and now I head to lab to check on my CRISPRs...because it's trendy ;)

Monday, September 7, 2015

What's the right size? Lab evolution

I have taken in more part-time students in the lab few and, feeling a bit overwhelmed by this growth, I tweeted about it. This spurred a very interesting discussion about what is the "medium" size for a research lab and how much money it really takes to run a lab. This got me thinking about how much one's experience dictates how we do things in academia. As you learn to do the job of a principal investigator on the fly, you set your standards based on what you know and what you liked.

I went from being in 10-15 people labs, which were pretty much the norm where I was, to a 20+ person lab, which was not the norm, but wasn't a rare occurrence either. An average size 2 R01 lab in my experience is around 10. Not necessarily 10 fully salaried people, more 5-6 full-time and 3-4 part time students (undergrad, rotation, volunteers). When I had to think about what I wanted when I was interviewing for jobs, I decided that I didn't want a huge lab because I like mentoring and I would lose contact with my people. I liked the bustle and flow of my grad school lab, so that's what I'm going for. Also my space does not allow for more.

As you learn to be an adult by watching your parents and other adults, your experience of lab life is molded by where you grew up scientifically. I'm discovering this makes a huge difference in how you design your lab and how you adjust to different environments. In parallel, your personality and how you prefer to be treated dictate how you treat others. Learning how to leverage different personalities and how to manage people that do not think like you is one of the biggest difficulties you encounter as a leader. You may want to work with people who are highly independent and able to think on their feet, but this type of worker may get bored doing more menial tasks or very repetitive project that you still need done. I am having frequent discussions with my colleagues on how they deploy undergraduates and high-school students, and whether they prefer postdocs or graduate students. Everyone is different. Even my own thinking continues to evolve as I go along and as I balance adding more people with priorities for specific projects.  I thought I would never set up an assembly line, as there is nothing that I loathed more as a student, yet I find myself designing one because I just need things to get done. As much as I'm overwhelmed by the number of people in the lab, I'm in extreme need of them because there is just too much to do.  I'd be interested in hearing how other people deal with these issues.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A day in the life of a newish PI challenge

As a trainee I always wondered what my PI was doing cooped up on her/his office and when I became a PI myself I was shocked by the endless list of things I was now responsible for. A good friend became a PI last week and he was complaining about some administrative delay...all I could say was "Welcome to the other side". While I do try to shelter the people in my lab as much as possible from all the madness in my life, I think it may be a good idea to chronicle a day in the life of a new (or now newish) PI. It may be interesting for trainees to see the breadth of items and extent of multitasking required on some days. Not to put them off, but to actually make them aware of the additional skills they would need to develop to do the job. Since I myself sometime lose track of everything I'm doing and I have been meaning to figure out where all my time goes, I'm willing to go through the exercise and write down what I do...
Here are the rules, you, my readers, pick one date in October or November and post it in the comments. So that I don't bias my reporting based on my schedule and we get a random sample, I'll blog on each of the first 3 dates a chronological list of what I did that day and the approx. duration for each task.

If someone else wants to join in and blog on the same day, it would be awesome to see what everyone is doing, as things are probably very different at different universities and career stages.

Selected days were September 17 (here),  October 1 (here) and November 9 (here with a twist)

GIF credit: Juggler with 10 balls, generated by Mathematica Details

Friday, July 31, 2015

Doing more for the K to R01 transition: the NHLBI way

This week I was honored and excited to be cited, together with none other than DrugMonkey, as someone who provides good advice for new investigators, but what really caught my eye in the tweet was "NHLBI K-to-R01 Meeting". What was that, pray tell?
Luckily, one of my friends and colleagues is an NHLBI (Heart, Lung and Blood) K99/R00 grantee and was attending the meeting, so I got to snoop around.

The transition from K08/K01/R00 to R01 has been notoriously difficult. Both Data Hound and DrugMonkey have discussed this, here and here. Data Hound's analysis of the data of R00 to R01 transition showed that after 6 years from the start of the K99, half or less awardees have transitioned to an R01. Some people are told to transition early so that the study section will not require independent publications, some others (like myself) are told that an R01-like productivity is required. The NHLBI noticed the difficulties its trainees were experiencing and decided to do something about it, and it's awesome.

K-award recipients attend a 2 day meeting focused on helping them for the R01 transition. Talks from former trainees who have successfully transitioned and the usual discussion on how to apply for an R01 and what happens on a study section, are accompanied by panel discussion on the different NHLBI divisions and introduction to all the program officers who discuss their interests and lead break-out sections. In my opinion, this is truly invaluable. In talking to colleagues, I realized I had a very pro-active program officer, whom I met in person during the very first year of my K99 as she was roaming the halls of the Society for Neuroscience meeting in DC to come to meet her grantees, but she is not necessarily the norm. My colleague with the NHLBI K99 met his program officer for the first time at this K-to-R01 meeting. Having the chance to pick the brain of division chiefs and program officers, to discuss different study sections and to present your plans for your own lab could improve your chances of success in this horrible funding climate. Plus, such a meeting allows all the promising young investigators in similar fields to get together and network.

I was really impressed. I wonder if there is a way to get other institutes to do this. Are you aware of any other institute with similar programs?

Note from the Twittersphere:

Thanks to @TheSpenceLab we found out that the NIDDK (Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease) also has a similar workshop (invitation only) for its trainees. Link here. They have also developed a special R03 ($50,000/year for 2 years) just for their K01/K08/K23 grantees (PAR-12-285). Apparently they tend to prefer K01s to K99s and push people towards smaller mentored grants.

Interestingly, @jmcin9 points out that the NIDCD (Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) also uses R03s as tool to help trainees toward independence and has a separate PAR from the standard one (PAR-13-057).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another annual identity crisis on the tenure track

Multiple possible directions! I liked that the university is
opposite to Prosecco station...
A couple of years ago I had written about the fear of branching into a new field of science. When
your research brings in an unexpected direction and you have to "make friends" with a whole different crowd who speaks a slightly different language. At the time I welcomed the challenge and branched out. I wanted to pursue a really cool and little studied question, which may take forever to figure out, and I'm still doing it. However, since I've been running the lab I found myself at a similar crossroads over and over again, and I resisted. Choosing to embark in a new literature and a new network was just too daunting for an overstretched new investigator. I decided to hire postdocs instead and to send them out into the world to learn about the new fields we need to get to know and to make their own contacts. It didn't quite work out as I expected. They did love the exposure and collected comments and ideas for their projects, but as the primary grant writer and the "big picture" person in the group I still need to get my own hands dirty. As the one at the helm of this boat, I need to actually steer and to steer I need to know the currents and the stars (as far as I know there is no GPS guidance for science).

The overwhelming fear is to become too diffuse and spread thin, to lose my identity. Everyone tells you that as a new investigator trying to become "established" (whatever that means...) you have to FOCUS, you have to forge your persona and make sure that people know about you and your accomplishments so that you get invited for talks and meetings to spread the gospel of your research. See an awesome post on how to get noticed by Dr. Becca. I already feel like a shape-shifter: one day I talk about disease, one day about very basic cell biology or molecular biology or genetics, one day I work on human sequencing data, the next I inject zebrafish embryo, and the next I go over mouse behavior data. I'm a jack of all trades and master of none. I have always worked this way and run multiple parallel operations. I really enjoy the intellectual exercise of connecting different dots, but I can't help but wonder whether this is the reason why I feel like I have made no big scientific contribution. I've never reached the necessary depth. Thus, the idea of taking on another field terrifies me.

Yet, my identity crisis last year was about not fitting in what I used to see as my field any more. There is security in having built a network of like-minded scientists, in knowing the history and the gossip, which questions have gone hot and then cold, but science moves forward and you move with it. In the past couple of months I talked to a few friends who are at or just past tenure and I was surprised to hear that I am not alone in this struggle. Everyone listed half a dozen things they do and talked about feeling lonely at some new conference trying to break into a field where they didn't know anyone. The trick, it seems, is to find multiple new directions and then go all in when something really works. I'm starting to think that these may be just growing pains, the sense of fear you have when your lab is getting bigger than something you could have handled alone. I am taking inspiration from Nicola Spaldin's recent piece on "Finding your most interesting question" and doing my best not to be afraid.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why postdocs should ask for more in general

I thought I'd weigh in on the kerfuffle going on on Twitter about the mostly irrational fears that Obama will force us to pay postdocs $50K. I'll have to start by admitting that I was never a "disgruntledoc" and I often wondered why people whine so much. When I was looking for postdocs I think I just accepted the job without even asking about salary and received an offer letter that stated that I would be guaranteed the NIH minimum for 24 months and then I was supposed to obtain fellowships to pay for my own salary. If I was able to do this, I would receive a 10% raise over whatever my salary was at the time. Within a year, I had my own fellowship and paid first for most, then for all my salary and fringe. However, I also knew that if I ran out of money, my boss could spot me if I was productive (or fire me if I was not). It is normal in any job that you can be fired if you don't produce or if the company goes out of business or closes down you unit. I also assumed that I was supposed to start writing grants as much as possible, since this is what would be required of me for the rest of my career. By the 5th year of my postdoc I had been promoted to a non-tenure track staff position and I made $63K. I should have made $75K as recommended for my position, but I needed money for exome sequencing, so I capped my own salary. I was comfortable, saving for retirement and paying my mortgage (in Boston, not in Iowa City), but had I had a child with a $1400/month daycare bill or even a car to take care of things would have been very very different. Then I started talking to friends who still made less than $40K after 4-5 years of postdoc, and friends at institutions that cap postdoc salaries at $50K so that you can never ever make more. Yes, yes, as a grad student in New York City, fresh off the boat from Europe, I was giddy for my $18,000 stipend, BUT in your mid-30s you need some sense of stability, you need to know that your work is valued and that your life is going somewhere. So I am shocked whenever PIs say that asking for $50K is too much. One of the most depressing thing that happened to me was when I got my first postdoc paycheck and it was only $200 more than my grad student one. Where had the extra $1,000/month gone? Damn you, FICA!! After all, one thing I learned in this great country that is America, is that you are worth what they pay you. No PhDs working for free, no 6-month in between postdoctoral fellowships when you have to go to lab anyways, like in the old country.

So the thing, Postdocs, is that you have to ask, because I find that most people don't ask nicely and venting on Twitter doesn't accomplish much. It only hit me recently that I was in a privileged position. That I was given clear guidelines and expectations, fair raises (including an annual review with a discussion about salary), a lab flush with cash and in addition, a very very strong office for postdoctoral development with constant seminars and workshops on grant writing, management, job talk delivery, you name it. And with "given" I don't mean as an unexpected gift and I was Oh, so lucky!, I mean that it was available to me and I took it and I worked like crazy to make sure I was successful. I had friends who asked for a $15K raise for childcare expenses and got it, and friends who asked and only got $5K, and friends who asked and got roped in writing a grant so that they could get the raise because there was no money. If your boss is an asshole and you lab is hell, you should just leave or start plotting your exit. In most cases, your boss is probably crazy busy and going insane trying to figure out how to keep the lab running. If they don't automatically offer mentoring, you should ask for it. I see myself as a good mentor, but I was in the middle of first R01 hell and I had an undergrad who made sure he scheduled regular meetings to talk to me. Every time I thanked him for being so proactive because my schedule was so crazy I would not have known how much time had passed. If your boss is not really the "mentorly" type, which is possible and still workable if they provide other assets, you find another mentor or better a group of mentors (see an older post on this). If career development workshops are not available at your institution, ask for them. Start a postdoc group at your university. Most likely some Associate Dean will be happy to give you $100 for pizza because they've been "meaning to do more for trainee development but have not gotten around to it". You cannot wake up in the middle of year 5 of your postdoc and realize that you are paid nothing, have never applied for a grant, work for a jerk and are all alone. Then you should just be angry at yourself. There was a great post today from Dr. Acclimatrix on learning how to fail better on the academic job market, which means that at least if you fail because you are unlucky and the market sucks you have done your homework and are a step closer to succeeding.

But then, be careful what you ask for, because you have no idea whatsoever of what's on the other side. You think you do, but you don't, because most of us in the corner office are doing their best to screen you from all the bullshit that goes on in our job, so that you can do your job. In some cases, we are probably too embarrassed about such bullshit to actually talk to you about it, because we are afraid to disrupt morale or to make you want to look for another job. As we freak out about our own career, life and family, we simultaneously freak out about the future of everyone in the lab. Because it's not my salary that keeps me up at night right now, it's my people's salaries. How long can I keep them? How much money do I need to bank if I don't get an R01 within a year? How do I buy them an extra 6 months of funding? A friend starting a lab recently asked me what I had learned about money management and I replied that all that matters is salaries (and mouse costs, but she's a zebrafish person, so she didn't care). So, part of me, also gets the angry PIs harping about an extra $10K expense. It's not easy on the other side when all you see is the bottom line getting smaller and smaller. There are multiple solutions, but trainees, PIs, universities and funding agencies have to work together to make things feasible and the government has to provide the money. I won't go into this, but if you have not, there are some really interesting suggestions originating from the U. Wisconsin Madison workshop on rescuing the biomedical workforce.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The psychology of writing your first R01

Two months before the deadline: "I totally got this. I have it all figured out and will be able to whip it up in a month or so to give my readers lots of time to make it perfect."

One month before the deadline: "WHAT IS GOING ON? WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING? It made sense last month. Now nothing makes sense, the pieces do not fit. THIS GRANT SUCKS!!"

Three weeks before the deadline "Okay, if I move this piece and this piece and put them here....and then remove, put this back...remove this other thing....rephrase this...rephrase this....rephrase this..."

One week before the deadline: "It's all useless. This is a worthless piece of crap. The study section will think I'm a loser. I should just skip to next cycle or maybe never write on of these again. What else could I be doing with my life? Maybe it's not too late to go back to school. Would it be a problem for admissions that I'm already a university professor?"

Two days before the deadline: "It's a decent effort, it makes no sense to keep changing it over and over again, so I'll pull the trigger now. At least if it gets discussed I'll get comments back. Need to get to work on the other two grants due in the next three weeks."

And more here, here and here

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What's in an aim? Specific Aims for your R01

Note added after R01 review: Beware of this post. The big picture strategy backfired big time. Find out how here.

"Mirror mirror on the wall, what are aims to win it all?"
Everyone will tell you that most of the time spent on writing your R01 should be spent on the Specific Aims page. You should have an aims page written up to a month or two in advance of the deadline and start shopping your ideas around with the NIH and colleagues. Then you write and rewrite and polish your aims until you submit. Having just completed my first R01 submission, I can only say that I couldn't agree more. Yet, this experience left me completely confused about the whole process.
I have been contributing to someone else's grants for 15 years and writing my own for almost 10, and I still felt I had no idea what I was doing. I had the aims page ready two months in advance and sent it to my senior advisors, who tweaked a couple of things here and there, and said everything looked great. Then three weeks before submission, the s#%t hit the fan. I had been oscillating between two versions of the research approach because I felt that one of my three aims was too descriptive and too much work. If I thought the whole thing was overambitious, the study section was surely going to nix me! So the specific aims kept changing too.
At a loss on what to do, I ended up at one of my old universities, which is much bigger than my current one and has people in my field I can talk to. After talking to various friends, I sent the specific aims page to a colleague who is on one of the study sections that could have reviewed my grant. A study section that is notoriously difficult and that I have been trying to avoid like the plague. He told me bluntly that with aims like that my grant would get triaged and proceeded to point out where things were problematic. What he didn't know is that all the things he pointed out, corresponded to the passages I was struggling with in writing the research approach. The fact that he could tell from just looking at that page where the grant was lacking was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I set up a meeting to talk about things. Decided to drop the grant and move submission to October, then spoke to another mentor, who said maybe I should just change the focus of the aims to better fit the data I have. And so the Great Aim Rewrite began.
What I have learned from it is that everyone recommends what works for them. Throughout my postdoc I had been trained to follow a very basic formula "Our preliminary data show that....leading to our hypothesis that....We will prove this hypothesis by...(using bullets and listing specific experiments)" My mentor who had multiple millions in grant money swore by it. I've had an 80% success rate.
Someone told me to write more experimental detail summarizing the grant, someone else told me to remove all experimental detail and outline the big questions I would answer. Someone said the title of the aims was supposed be like the title of a figure legend. No, a question! Why was it not a goal to reflect the fact that it was an aim? I wrote and rewrote and reformatted. Then I tried tie breakers. I sent an experimental and a non-experimental version to a former mentor who used to have 5 R01s (yes, at once). Which one did she like best? The big picture one. Completely extricating myself from experimental detail literally makes my skin crawl, so I left at least one sentence per aim saying what I was going to do. But most space was taken up by framing the question and the hypothesis, and by saying how the results would push the field forward. With as much specificity as I could muster.
The exercise was very useful because by clearly having to articulate the specific contribution and impact of each aim, I was forced to really think about how everything fit together. I mirrored the structure in the Innovation section with three primary conceptually innovative domains. Then concluded each aim with a big picture summary sentence. Is it going to be enough? Do I feel this is a killer grant? Not in the least. I think that it's a reasonable effort given the data we have at this moment. I hope not to be embarrassed and I'm just trying to get scored.
When I sent the latest version of the Specific Aims to my K99 program officer, she immediately suggested the study section I wanted (not the one I dreaded), which means that my aim is true (pardon the pun). I made the strongest case I could in the cover letter and I secured two institutes for assignment. Now we just wait and see.
My recommendation is to not be bashful and send your specific aims page out to as many people as you can. Don't freak out if everyone has a favorite formula for you. I realized the whole thing is so stressful that it becomes a sort of superstition: "I was wearing this shirt when my team won, so I'll wear this shirt for every game". Whatever format you decide on, I highly recommend the exercise of writing down a sentence on how each aim fits in your field and how it will push it forward. It really helped me think about how to frame everything else.