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.