Thursday, October 5, 2017

Are academic scientists cogs in the machine of education corporations?

My last post focused on how to motivate lab members during the last stretch of the tenure track and it spurred by far the most lively and interesting conversation we've had on this blog. The discussion touched many topics regarding motivation, results-only work environments, and how to run a lab in general. But there is one topic that often finds people deeply divided.

Are we as academic scientists running a small business renting space from a larger corporation (the university)? And if yes, is this attitude damaging how we train our students and postdocs?

Having grown up in a country where most universities are public, affordable and open to everyone, I have spent my entire career in the US grappling with this question and feeling uncomfortable when people extol the "tuition-driven" model, which for academic biomedical research becomes the "grant-driven" model. I'm not naive, I get how the cash flow will provide better services for students and more resources for researchers. But the cash flow also leads to the corporatization of education and research. The moment an institution starts to correlate space given to a lab with indirect recovery on grants on a bi-annual basis, research becomes a product...I will not digress on how this may push people to make bigger claims than necessary or to cut corners.

I think many of us, new principal investigators, who have finally seem how the sausage gets made feel uncomfortable, as we are pulled between an ideal and the reality. The ideal is that I would like to be like Plato in the Symposium, discussing big ideas with like-minded individuals, training young minds towards major discoveries which will have a lasting impact on mankind. The reality is that I have to be mindful of accounting, HR and facilities, which I constantly write grant proposals to keep everything going. Trainees have to be productive because without money, I cannot keep myself or them employed and even if I find money to pay for their salaries, I still have to pay for all the supplies and reagents they need to do science. So, am I running a small business? All that I know is that in work-related conversations I can relate much more easily with friends in management or with a friend who owns a coffee shop, than with friends teaching in the humanities.

Newly minted Nobel laureate Jeff Hall's comments upon leaving science ring true "Might an institution imagine that it should devote part of its ‘capital fundraising’ toward endowing the ongoing research of its employees — at least so that no such effort would abruptly sink to the null point? The answer is ‘nice try: we will raise funds, but we'll put them all into building buildings — in order to fill them with additional hires, who will be as haplessly on-their-own as is ill-fated you.’ " It is telling that lately Nobel laureates feel the need to say (and I paraphrase) "I would never have made it today" (Peter Higgs, Physics) or "The whole publishing system is messed up" (Randy Schenkman, Physiology and Medicine). I expressed before how I sometimes feel this whole career trajectory is a Ponzi scheme, and that we should call it like it is. If you work for a private university, especially a school of medicine or hospital, you are most likely a cog in a massive money-making operation and it is very clear that if you do not bring in the money, there will be no room for you.

How does this reflect on how we train students and postdocs? I feel like we just need to be honest of the challenges and benefits. As a grad student I was very aware of labs that were on the verge of being shut down down the hall and professor transitioning to pharma and medicine because tenure doesn't mean much when you have to pay 70% of your salary. It helped me shape future strategies for survival and also prepare me for what to expect. I wish I had been exposed to different types of institutions in addition to the "massive fancy school of medicine", so I really try to make a point to show my trainees that there are multiple different ways of being an academic and of doing research...and that as in every job you can look for the right "fit". I also make them aware of the budgetary considerations of running a lab, of the need to look for independent funding for their salaries and their projects, and of the need to get papers done to show productivity. The part of me that would like to be in the Symposium, hates having to chop stories up to get papers out to support a particular grant application. I want my stories to be whole, elegant and solid, but the university and funding agencies want to look at numbers...and so we balance being a cog and dreaming of being a wheel running free on the road.

I think good training can still be achieved independently of the current funding situation and that it is a disservice not showing the students and postdocs what the pressures and considerations of running a lab are. Eventually, talking about it may even get someone to do something to change the system...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

SfN 2017 Restaurant Guide and other tips

It's time to revamp my Society for Neuroscience (SfN) restaurant list. So much has happened since 2014 and you now get to go East of the Convention Center! New restaurants are opening all the time in the area. I'm already making reservations, organizing dinners, lunches, etc for the meeting, so now my readers get to reap the benefits of such activity and I get a break from my lab management rumblings.


The best source for restaurants in DC is usually the Washingtonian “Very Best Restaurant” list. I’ve never gone wrong trying one of these.  Several are going to get booked quickly for the week of the conference from 5pm to 9pm, so make your reservations pronto. The list is across DC, Virginia and Maryland, so make sure you figure out where they are located.

This said these are my favorites in the Convention Center area (with their best restaurant # if they are on the list). Click the names for more info.

Casa Luca (#35 - Italian) 1099 New York Ave NW (11th and NY Ave – 5 min walk) Great central Italian food from Fabio Trabocchi who is one of the most popular chefs in town. This is the cheapest of his restaurants which also include Fiola (#27) @ 601 Pennsylvania (6th and Indiana Ave – 12 min walk) and one of the hottest hot spots on the Waterfront FiolaMare (#5) @ 3100 K st NW in Georgetown (31st and K on the waterfront– Take the Circulator bus).

Zaytinya (#71 - Middle Eastern) 701 9th St NW (9th and G – 5 min walk) and Oyamel (Mexican) 401 7th St NW (7th and D – 12 min walk) are two iterations of the tapas empire of Jose Andres, who took over the DC food scene with Jaleo (#44 - Spanish) 480 7th St NW (7th and E – 10 min walk). Zaytinya and Oyamel are awesome. Small tapas to share of Turkish/Greek or Mexican inspiration. The tequila selection at Oyamel is extensive. Jaleo I find kind of blah so for tapas I go elsewhere…see North West.

Rasika (#11 - Indian) 633 D St NW (6th and D) is very famous and Michelle Obama's favorite, but I've never been able to get in there.

Brasserie Beck (Belgian bistro) 1101 K St NW (11th and K - 5 min walk) Belgian spot for mussels, steak frites and hundreds of beers on the menu.

In the relatively newly opened City Center complex my faves are:
Centrolina (#51 - Italian) 974 Palmer Alley NW is a small hip Italian restaurant and market with a seasonal ever-changing menu. I love it!
Daniel Boulud's DBGB (#80 - French) 9th and I, with a fantastic selection of charcuterie.

If you want burgers the closest Shake Shack is on 9th and F, Bolt Burgers by the convention center (11th and L/Mass) is okay.

Estadio (#24 - Spanish tapas) 1520 14th St NW (14th and Church, after P – 18 min walk) has my favorite tapas in the area. Make sure to try the slushito…a slushi for adults.

Pearl Dive Oyster Place (Seafood) 1612 14th St NW (14th and Q). Oysters, yum!

Le Diplomate (#18 - French Bistro) 1601 14th St NW (14th and Q). Hard to get into French spot from the people who brought you Buddakan and Morimoto in NYC. Good brunch.

Ted’s Bulletin (American) 1818 14th St NW (14th and S). A DC staple with its original in Capitol Hill, it’s worth a visit even if just for their homemade pop tarts and adult milkshakes. Also good lunch.

Kapnos (#30 - Greek tapas) 2201 14th St NW (14th and W - yes, you can go that far North now. The U street area is happening) Chef Mike Isabella twist on Greek tapas.

El Rinconcito CafĂ© (Salvadorean/Mexican) 1129 11th St NW (11th and M) a hole in the wall with awesome tamales, papusas and burritos. Good for cheap but massive lunch or dinner.

And last but not least, EAST:
Farmers&Distillers (American) 600 Mass Ave NW (6th and Mass) huge new spot for everything locally sourced, artisanally made, grass fed. Also has own distillery.

Ottoman Taverna (Turkish) 425 I st NW (4th and I) another massive new restaurant with great Turkish fare

Mandu (Korean) 453 K St NW (5th and K) Good Korean + Soju martinis

Busboys and Poets (Breakfast/brunch) 1025 5th St NW (5th and K) a DC staple with multiple locations

A Baked Joint (Breakfast/brunch) 440 K St NW (4th and K) new Brooklyn-style breakfast place and OMG the "morning sammies" are awesome (if you can stand in line for 45mins on a Sat morning)

Places with lots of restaurants to explore are also Georgetown and Capitol Hill. Georgetown is easily reached on the Circulator bus (1$ fare).

Also in DC you have to try food truck food for lunch. Closest trucks to the Convention Center will be in McPherson Square between 13-14th and I-K. A lot of good restaurants have trucks and all will take credit cards. Trucks can be tracked with Food Truck Fiesta and are usually only around Mon-Fri.

Other useful places
Closest supermarkets: Safeway (New York and 5th just walk on NY from the Convention Center) is open 24 hours and Whole Foods is on P between 14th and 15th

Closest CVS: tucked away on 10th and L

For a moment of peace the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum building is just a few blocks away at 8th and F and you can sit and use the free Wi-Fi in the Foster re-designed courtyard or walk around the exhibits. Both the American Art and the NPG have lovely things....unless of course you want to go for a real art trip to the National Gallery (Should I mention the only Da Vinci in the American continent?).

For the runners:
3mi #1: from the Convention Center area go straight south to the Mall, run west along the Mall, run back up on 17th and loop east on J until you hit New York Ave all the way back. This is also a good evening route...Secret Service is every 300ft or so.
3mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, run EAST along the Mall up to 1st street and the Capitol, wave your fist at Congress demanding more science funding and sanity, loop back along the south side of the mall and come back up on 9th or 10th.
4mi: Combine #1 and #2
5mi #1: Combine #1 and #2, but also go say hi to Lincoln at the west end of the Mall.
5mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, at the Washington Monument keep left and go towards the Tidal Basin, run all the way around, say "Hi" to TJ in his marble temple, slow down at the FDR Memorial which is really awesome, dodge the ducks, avoid the mobs at the MLK you can run back, or since you've come this far, make 5.5/6mi, go say "Hi" to Lincoln via WWI and WWII...if it's early enough in the morning you can try and pull a Rocky on the steps.
Water fountains for your convenience at every Memorial :)