Saturday, December 24, 2016

Recapturing my spirit after 2016

I cannot deny that 2016 has been an annus horribilis at the personal and professional level, but I am trying to find some meaning out if it. If you have read my blog a lot of confusion and disillusionment and anger have transpired, people left my lab, grants eluded me and I became stuck in a dysfunctional situation with lots of amazing results and not enough people to do it. I felt a bit like being thrown back to the very beginning of my tenure track, but in the middle of year 4.

Yet, when I look at the year that is ending and the year ahead, the picture is not bleak and I have to thankful for it. I'm funded for 2017, so I don't really have to start thinking about possibly firing people or requesting bridge funding until this time next year. Despite everything that happened in 2016, my lab has published five papers (1 primary, 1 review and 3 collaborative), one manuscript was accepted, one more was rejected, two more collaborative papers are under review and two reviews and two large papers are at various stages of writing. So it's 8 articles in 2016 and at least 7 in the works for 2017. I am not trying to humblebrag. I need to acknowledge this to myself. I have at many points through this year felt stuck and unproductive, I felt that everything was lost and that I should just quit, while at the same time an enormous amount of work was getting done, not just by me, but by dozens of people around me. And because of this network, because of the people in my lab and my collaborators the train keeps running.

My proudest story of 2016 is about the paper that was just accepted. This was not in the cards for this year. I had found a couple mutations years ago, but apart from a gut feeling that this gene was the real deal, I didn't have enough evidence to move forward. I had entered the gene in a matching site. Yes, such a thing exists for rare disease genetics, where you get anonymously matched with other people "You're both interested in gene X. Would you like to meet in person?" In May I got a match, one more kid. We picked up the slack and started exploring the gene function in earnest. In June came another match. This time a large international group with multiple cases and a manuscript in preparation (we'll call this Group 2). When this happens and you are lucky enough to find out who the competition is, you roll your mutations into the bigger paper and move on, but the head of Group 2 was very nice "We are still finishing up some experiments, let's keep in touch and when we are ready you can join us or we can publish back to back." In July I start doing experiments like a dog and coordinating everyone in my lab to add results and Group 2 puts us in touch with their collaborators to get more data. Then a friend in the field emails me about someone else who is looking for mutations in the same gene, yet a third group working on this. Work intensifies to 150%, weeks are spent trying to understand what is going on, where everyone stands. Group 3 has more patients, great functional data, but not enough, so we join forces, co-write a kick-ass paper and submit back to back with Group 2. While the initial families had been recruited during my postdoc, I had recruited them and paid for sequencing, so I ask my postdoctoral advisor if he would agree to not be listed as a co-author to showcase that this work was done independently. He heartily agrees and fades into the sunset. Papers are in review for 2 weeks. Ours comes back with minimal comments. Group 2 gets slightly worse revisions, but we do everything we can to help and get them through. The two stories together are perfectly complementary, they have to come out together. We all get accepted! All collaborators around the world rejoice!! 26 institutions from 5 countries!!

This how I love to do science and I have stated it from the very beginning. Collaborative, open and fast because everyone speaks to each other. My holiday wish is that everyone would see the benefit of doing things like this. It's fun and you'll make a lot of friends along the way.


  1. Glad to see your overall write up is positive, but most of all curious... what's the link to that matching site?

  2. Very cool story about how that paper ending up getting pushed through.

    Here's hoping that 2017 improves on 2016!

  3. Luminiferous AetherDecember 27, 2016 at 9:43 AM

    Loved this story! As a new PI with plenty of that eagerness, enthusiasm and idealism still running in my blood, this is exactly how I would like to see science done. I hate it when investigators talk about trying to stonewall the competition or play games to publish "first", etc. Sometimes I think it is naive of me to think this way, but then stories like yours are the redeeming factor.

  4. Great story about the paper! I agree that this is the way it *should* be. Can I ask how you handled the question of authorship? Were there co-first or co-senior authors? Do you think that these even exist, or is it only about whose name is first/last? I am struggling with this at the moment....

    2016 was a very hard year for me, too. I think it will be the year that I decided not to pursue a faculty position after all, but we'll see.... I am just so tired -- permanently tired of a lot of BS! And all of the reasons I wanted a TT position in the first place no longer seem to matter to me :-(

    Luckily, I'm in a field where I have options in industry, so it could be worse.

    1. Hey there, Happy New Year! The authorship fell into place quite easily because I actually led the project and did most of the critical experiments. I had people in my lab pick up controls and other easy things, but this way I was able to give away first authorship to the other group and we did 2 corresponding authors, where I retained the last spot. If this had been a normal situation with this project belonging to someone in the lab we probably would have had two co-first authors since figures were split roughly 50/50.
      I felt this paper was extremely critical for me because it provides progress for a couple of grants that are ending and will set the base for a future grant, so I needed it to belong to me. The entire part of the lab it stems from has been in jeopardy and the enormous effort I put into it was to keep that portion of my work alive...I feel like this is the last time I can do something like this.
      As you probably have seen 2016 was very hard for me too. As far as not pursuing a faculty position, I can't blame you. I struggle with finding value in what I do every day. So far I still find some, but if you feel you can happily do something else, why not? There is a lot to do outside the ivory tower.