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!