Saturday, September 24, 2016

The emotional toll of the "NIH running wheel"

There are few posts in my queue right now, that will never see the light of day. They were born our of anger and confusion and anxiety laced with a hint of depression. I suffered from severe pre-menstrual depression my entire life, and until I found the right medical team, every time I randomly felt despair and the desire to curl up in a ball and wail, I had to ask myself two questions: "Is this emotional reaction appropriate to the current events in my life? What day of the month is it?" If the reaction was "not appropriate", I usually had to ride out the next 24-48 hours before my brain magically reset itself back to normal (Someone should study this, because it's crazy fast. Literally like a curtain lifting). So as my life started spiraling out of control in the past few weeks, my safety questions came back to me with a slight variation "What time if the year is it?"

While it's a different cycle, the NIH cycle is as bad as the menstrual one. Especially, if you are on the running wheel of submitting a grant every cycle, which means having a grant reviewed every cycle as you are writing the other one. I haven't quite recovered from the meltdown in June (post here), which was on the heels of the February one, and here comes the October deadline. Last cycle my R01 was due the same day the other R01 was being reviewed. This time I'm on three R21s for October. Yup, you've heard this right. Three. And my R01 is being reviewed at the end of the October. Because for some reason, all my study sections tend to cluster as close as possible to the resubmission date, so that there is no hope I could skip a cycle. As my other funding gets close to the end, and the pressure increases for keeping the lab going, every grant generates more and more anxiety. The more you submit, the more it feels like there is no rhyme or reason and you just have to do your absolute best and hope that your proposal will fall in the right hands. The closer the study section date gets, the more you start second guessing what you have already sent in and you find all the flaws in your mind. Positive thinking and negative thinking run a strange relay in your head, when you want to believe the grant will be funded, but you want to prepare yourself for the worst at the same time, so you kind of go for the middle ground "All I want is a score!" I hate you running wheel!! (Waving fist to the sky)

So more and more yoga. And maybe I should pick up Transcendental Meditation...or drinking. What I should really be doing now, is writing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?

The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is. I have posted recently about some setbacks in my lab and having to pick up the pieces after some unexpected departures. Some of my readers wanted some more detail. I am not going to go into specifics too much. What I can say is that this year I have lost all three postdocs, each for a different reason. One was not a good fit and decided to quit before I had to drop the axe, one was poached away from a biotech company, and one had to leave because of family obligations. None if them had reached the three year mark in their tenure and none of them will be able to see their major project to completion. The saddest part of this is that one was awarded an NRSA fellowship from the NIH and we had to give the money back. Just the thought to give money back to the NIH makes my heart sink every time! I had to do my best to apologize to the program officer with the hope that this will not held against me in the future.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why this happened. Whether in addition to extraordinary bad luck, there is something that I have done to make the environment inhospitable, or to just pick the wrong people for the job. The thing is, at least two were not wrong. Between the two of them, they produced data for at least four good papers in two years. So what would make a productive scientist with exciting data, give up? Part of me is afraid that they see what I am going through, despite my desperate attempts to screen them from the vast majority of what I have to do, and they realize that they do not want my job. Another part of me thinks that, because I do so much career development and planning in the lab, I am pushing them to explore alternative careers and shooting myself in the foot at the same time. Yet, I had so many conversations with friends on whether it is even moral to hire postdocs nowadays and tell them that a career in academia is the only option. Getting into the ivory tower is harder and harder, and once you are in, it does not get easier. As a mentor, I cannot and I will not leave them ill-prepared for what is out there.

My question is: Could this have been avoided? When I think about what pushed me forward all these years, don't laugh, it all comes down to my postdoctoral theme song. Yes, I have theme songs. My PhD song was Fighter by Christina Aguilera (if you listen to it, think as if it was addressed to my thesis committee. It'll be funny). My postdoc and current song is Remember the Name by Fort Minor. The key here is the refrain: "This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill/fifteen percent concentrated power of will/five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain/and a hundred percent reason to remember the name". If this doesn't describe academic science, I don't know what does. The "concentrated power of will" bit in particular, because there are days that razor-sharp uncompromising concentrated power of will is the only thing that makes me to get out of bed and keeps me going. I see it in many of my colleagues and I wonder whether this attribute, more then anything else, is what keeps academia afloat. A semi-deluded cultish sense that "I will not ever stop asking questions and pushing forward". I don't know whether you have to be born with it or whether it can be cultivated. I have not trained enough people to know and I have not figured out ways to test it. Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper.

How do you find someone with skill, power of will, luck and high pain tolerance? Is this really what it takes? I cannot fault any of my former people, because in the end they decided what was best for them. But, if the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out, how do I reset my expectations for running the lab?