Monday, May 29, 2017

A scientific Sophie's Choice

One of my mentors once said that women have a harder time letting projects go. Both as it relates to the level of perfection that needs to be achieved to publish and to the general attachment to an idea that keeps resurfacing over the years. Right now, I am struggling with the decision of whether to let a project go.

If you have not seen or read Sophie's Choice, it's worth it. Meryl Streep is amazing in it and she won an Oscar. Sophie is a Polish woman captured by the Nazis with her two children. As she enters Auschwitz she has to decide which one of her children will die. Which one will be more likely to survive the camp? Which one is the weakest needing more protection? Which one is the favorite? I have written many times of how my lab is split between two major projects, of how they are different in many ways, which is messing with my identity as a scientist. In addition, while they both were funded, one project has been struggling from the start and has required a huge amount of my attention and effort. The right people to carry it on have not materialized, so I have kept it going mostly by myself by sheer willpower and elbow grease. As I make the final tenure push, I have to decide whether to let it go. This feels like cutting out a piece of myself. This is the project that got me my job. It's the one that was my pride and joy as a postdoc, the one that made a beautiful job talk, and the one that was supposed to support my independent lab for years to come. It was not supposed to falter. It taught me that no matter how many brilliant ideas you have, your environment and your hires are critical for success. It required infrastructure that did not exist where I am and that had to be built from scratch without the proper support. It required equipment that was not available. Some major senior faculty stakeholders left to pursue other opportunities, collaborators who signed up to help did not deliver on their parts of the work. Funding runs out in a few months. The reviewers of the R01 application based on this work thought the hypothesis was interesting, but they wanted me to prove it. Which I cannot do without more money. So there. All in all, over four years we are talking of an investment of around $800K and I have to decide how much more time and money I really want to devote to it. The seed fell on ground that was not fertile enough for it to grow quickly.

The other child had been the recalcitrant one. Uncooperative and slow to develop, but it brought in money, so I kept it. I added it almost as an afterthought in my job talk, because I had a freaking K99 on it, so it would have looked weird if I ignored it. Opposite to the first one, this project required all my attention during my postdoc without much reward. Now the duckling has morphed into the most beautiful swan and we have three major papers in the pipeline. Because of the multiple personnel losses last summer, it stalled for six months and is now picking up again with new talented postdocs. My mentors tell me to cut my losses and go all in with this second project. Focus on getting the papers out to make this become my sure bet for an R01. Yet, I have come to my faculty position with an identity and a hypothesis I have been pursuing for 10 years, and I am faced with forsaking it. My gut is confused. I do not have the luxury of time to figure things out. In less than one year I have to start assembling my tenure package and I need an R01 to survive. I love both my projects, I have poured so much of myself in them. But the funding is what it is and I have to be savvy. My biggest conundrum is whether savvy means relying on a strong track record or on a really snazzy idea. I can write a new boring R01 on project 1 on things I am proven to know how to do, or I can continue to pursue the very exciting project 2 where study sections are permanently worried about my expertise. I can't decide...

8 comments:

  1. Can you shelve it for a year until you get tenure on the R01 and the project(output) that is not close to your heart? And then pick it up again once you have time and freedom (or something similar, you know, in the land where the grass looks greener)?

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    1. That's what I'm doing, but I'm not going to stop applying for money :)

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  2. Well I'm not as far along as you so not qualified to judge, but my instincts are generally to keep multiple threads of inquiry alive at once and just apply apply apply for funding. Seems like some of my dumber ideas have gotten funded on first try and there is plenty of criticism and rejection for my clever, well thought out ones.

    Once the money comes then we can do whatever we want with it. To make that decision I'm a fan of the somewhat cliche/naive question: if I am successful in doing what is I'm trying to do, could it potentially win me a Nobel Prize?

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  3. Grumpy speaks the truth -- keep multiple threads alive if you have the intellectual bandwidth. And this, so much: "Seems like some of my dumber ideas have gotten funded on first try and there is plenty of criticism and rejection for my clever, well thought out ones."

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    1. Yeah, this is how I feel too. It's too much of a crapshoot...

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  4. If there is anything that my recent grueling experience to the coveted R01 has taught me it is this: go with the boring project. Unless you are a superstar, riding your uncompromising scientific passion all the way to R01 nirvana is difficult and risky. Sadly, NIH tends to reward boredom. In my case it was so bad that reviewer suggestions resulted in me having to morph my resubmission into something that I almost no longer care about. The good news: I got the grant and tenure, and a new startup shortly thereafter... so now my lab spends 75% of its effort on unfunded projects that are super exciting to us. And without the tenure clock pressure, we are actually more productive, putting out better papers. I'm confident that this new freedom will land us new grants soon. More confident than I ever was chasing after that first one, anyway.

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    1. Thank you for this insight! I love "NIH tends to reward boredom".

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  5. Luminiferous AetherMay 31, 2017 at 2:41 PM

    I agree with your mentors' recommendation if for no other reason than the fact that your OtherChild project has a track-record of NIH funding. As others have said above, there's no need to cut the DreamProject permanently. Once you have secured sufficient funding on your other projects, you could resume working on it.

    I had an experience where the reviewers got jittery when my proposed work digressed from my core area of focus even though it eventually tied back to the latter. That proposal was scored but not funded. I feel that as junior investigators we are expected to stick to our core area(s) of focus where we have a solid track-record of publications/funding. I suppose other tangential ideas will be tolerated only later in our careers once we have proven to be responsible stewards of mega $$.

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