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