Saturday, August 15, 2015

My department chair told me I'm planning too many grants

I had a meeting yesterday with my department chair.   I was really excited because I was just notified that I received the nomination from our university to apply for TWO(!) of the super fancy early career scholar awards.  I also had a department of defense grant make it through the pre-proposal phase.  Then I told my chair that I also wanted to write the new NIGMS MIRA grant that is due next month, as well as my R01 resubmission.  I basically have grants due every 2-3 weeks from now until Christmas. 

I don't think I wrote on this blog yet that my R01 for which I got an R56 actually scored much worse on its resubmission.  A LOT worse.  As in, I need to replace 2 of 3 aims, and completely re-write the third one.  The study section was completely re-populated and they just hammered everything this time. 

So it is imminent that my lab will have a funding gap, though technically with a no-cost extension of the R56, my salary requirement from the university will still be covered for another year.  But I feel like I cannot miss applying for any of these grants!  My department chair, on the other hand, told me that the quality of my applications will go down if I try to do all of these.  The chair said something to the effect of, "I know you're a workaholic, but nobody can submit this many grants in this amount of time while running a lab and teaching." 

The fancy scholar grants aren't really a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but they basically set you on a path to being famous, and make you part of a cohort of famous scientists that you'll know for the rest of your career.  I think I would be regretful if I didn't give those my best shot.  The DOD grant is a lot of money and my research fits perfectly into one of this year's goals.  However, it's also a long application with a ton of paperwork.  MIRA is a pilot program and is also currently only open to new investigators and early stage investigators, so I may not be eligible in the future.  Plus, I think I'm a good candidate, so I can't see not applying to that one.  As for my R01, I also can't see not submitting a revised version, since scores almost always get better on a resubmission.  If I had to eliminate one, I think it would be the DOD grant, but I'm very open to any advice or suggestions. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Decision in Process" at PLOS

A manuscript from my lab is under consideration at a PLOS journal that is one of the top journals in my field.  The paper came back from the first round of review with a decision of major revisions, and we sent it back after addressing most of the reviewer concerns.  The online status said "Under Review" for roughly two weeks and then changed to "Decision in Process."  I first noticed this yesterday morning so I thought I would surely receive the decision by the end of the day.  Well, it's now the end of day two with this status and still no email from the journal.  So I did a little internet searching about what this actually means.  According to the PLOS website, this means that the handling editor has already entered a decision, but that it is not yet finalized.  It's unclear what the holdup is, but perhaps the decision also needs to be approved by the Section Editor.  So why do they change the status???!!!  No other journals do this, and it is like torture for me and my students to know that a decision has been made, but for some unknown reason it is has been withheld from us for 2+ days. 

Update:  The decision came after 4 days.  Two reviewers were completely satisfied by the revision and had no further concerns.  The third reviewer asked us to do additional experiments to address peripheral issues and also to change our title.  I am assuming that the handling editor and section editor spent time evaluating the requests of reviewer 3, so I guess I now understand the apparent delay.  They ultimately chose to accept the paper.  Wooohooooo!!!!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Waiting for my study section to meet

My study section meets on Monday to review the third submission of my R01 on my lab's main project.  When I think about it, I get this tightening in my stomach and feel like I can't breathe, so I thought I'd write a blog post about it. 

One thing that I thought might make me feel better was to look at the roster for the study section, which is posted around this time prior to the review.  I can identify one ideal reviewer who was probably brought on as an ad hoc reviewer specifically for my grant, but I have no idea who the other two reviewers would be.  So looking at the roster just made me more anxious. 

I don't really have much more to say except that if you feel this intense anxiety too while thinking about your grant reviews, you are not alone!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I hate reviewers for low impact factor journals

I'm seriously irritated.

We just got reviews back from a journal with a relatively low impact factor, not terrible, but lower than ideal.  The reason I submitted there is that we have an intriguing finding that was made by a medical student who worked in my lab last summer, but since he was only around for the summer, we don't have a ton of data. It's also not something I want to devote additional resources towards.  But again, he made one main discovery, and I've gone on myself to corroborate this with an additional method, and I've added a few more figures so that there were a couple more points of interest to discuss in a manuscript.  The student really wants to get a publication out so that he can join the medical student honor society, so I told him we'd try to get it published.

I usually start by submitting to journals above where I really think it belongs and then go down the IF ladder from there. But this time I decided to start low so that it would definitely get accepted both for his application to the honor society and so I'd have another last-author publication for my grant review coming up next month.

Well, the reviewers, while overall positive about the manuscript, asked for just as many additional experiments as though it was being reviewed for Nature Genetics.  If we did all of these experiments (or had the will to do them), I certainly wouldn't be trying to publish in this low IF journal.  I know that we need to be scientifically rigorous, but don't reviewers also have to review with the realities of the specific journal in mind?  It's not like they were saying that what we did was bad, they just suggested a million more things to do, none of which would change the conclusion of the paper.

Major revisions.  So frustrated.   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Introducing yourself to important people at meetings

I am a shy person in a group setting, maybe even extremely so.  I feel absolutely comfortable meeting with even the most famous professors one-on-one in my office.  But, throw me in a crowded room during the coffee break at a conference and I'm useless. 

This past week I was at an international meeting with some of the most well-known people in my field.  I had one main goal for the week, and that was to introduce myself to the chair of the NIH study section that I primarily submit to.  And I did it!!!  I just sat myself one chair away from him at one of the sessions, made eye contact, and introduced myself.  We made 30 seconds of small talk, and it was actually pretty easy.  Turns out he has a postdoc starting a position at a different institution in my city.  Now hopefully he'll at least vaguely remember me when my application comes up for review this summer. 

The other thing that I'm pretty happy about was that I made a point of also trying to meet all of the other new PIs who were at the meeting.  The organizers seemed to pick a lot of us early-stage faculty members to speak at the afternoon sessions (when most of the people were off sightseeing), so it was pretty easy to identify them.  I figure that we'll be the famous big shots at these meetings in 20 years, and these things might actually become enjoyable if I make friends while we're young. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Feeling terrible after giving a seminar

I’m writing this in response to a blog post by The NewPI.  She recently gave a talk at a meeting and left feeling pretty bad about it.  This wasn’t because anything particularly bad happened, but rather, she didn’t feel like it was as exciting as it could have been, and also because she didn’t really get much positive feedback. 

I have felt exactly the same way after every talk I’ve given since becoming a PI three years ago.  Seriously.  Every time.  But I’ve had two eye-opening experiences recently that I thought might be worth sharing. 

First, a couple weeks ago I went to a work-in-progress seminar for an assistant professor who is new to our institution and department, though she is quite an accomplished scientist.  A day or two after the seminar, she stopped by my office to ask if I would be willing to do a peer evaluation of her lecture.  She went on to say that she felt like she had disappointed everyone because no one said anything to her after her talk. It was like it was as though people just ignored the fact that she had just given this seminar that to her was a major milestone.  She wanted feedback about how she could improve.  I was SHOCKED to say the least.  Why?  Because her seminar was fantastic!  It was clear and full of new and interesting data.  So I told her this, and then realized that nobody in our department ever tells each other that they did a good job.  As a matter of fact, the people who get the most affirmation after giving a talk in our department are usually people who do a really bad job!  This was kind of a revelation for me when I realized that maybe all of MY bad talks aren’t really as bad as I think they are! 

Second, I was invited to give a talk at a nearby fancy teaching hospital.  They have a seminar series where a clinician presents background and a clinical case, and then a researcher presents whatever they’re doing in their lab to address this clinical problem.  The audience is pretty much a 50:50 mix of physicians and researchers.  The seminar counts for CME credit for the physicians, so I totally felt like I had to spin my research in the most clinically relevant way possible.  This isn’t much of a stretch for my work, but I’m not at all used to presenting it in this way or to this type of audience.  My portion of the seminar was also only supposed to be 20 minutes, so it was really challenging to explain things adequately.  While I was talking I felt like I was bombing the whole time.  People were getting up and leaving or standing up to get more pizza or looked like they were falling asleep.  Then at the end, all the questions were for the clinician and not me.  And as I was leaving, no one said anything to me at all.  It’s just such a strange feeling to be the center of attention as a seminar speaker and then be almost completely ignored after it's over.  I had been so anxious about this talk for months and I left feeling like I had completely failed.  Fast forward two weeks, and it turns out that as part of the CME credit requirements, the physicians in attendance filled out evaluation forms for both of us.  This was in a huge auditorium full of people and I got ranked all 9's and 10's for almost every aspect of the talk that they evaluated.  I seriously could not stop smiling for the rest of the day!  I was SO WRONG about how I had done.  I became even more convinced that lack of feedback after a talk and people ignoring you are probably strong indicators that you did a GOOD job. 

So, New PI, you probably did a lot better than you think!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science as a career

I read a lot of science and grantwriting blogs, and follow a lot of scientists on Twitter.  What I've noticed recently is that every time I check Twitter or link to, I leave feeling like every scientist is incredibly angry and horribly bitter.  I personally joined Twitter to tout our research accomplishments and the successes of my trainees to whoever wanted to follow us, and maybe increase my visibility to other scientists.  I would call my Twitter posts humble bragging and strategic posting of our awesome science that I want other labs in our field to see.  But, it seems like the most vocal and most-followed scientists do nothing but gripe.  Whether it's about the latest national non-scandal, or open access publishing, or how evil Nature/Science/Cell are, or how terrible Sally Rockey is, or the instsability of NIH funding in general, I can't help but wonder how all that collective negativity is affecting the way that potential future scientists see science as a career.  I constantly feel myself falling into this spiral of anger and helplessness when I start reading these things.  But is the life of a university science professor really so terrible?

What I've learned in my teaching experience so far is that those students who complain the loudest almost never represent the entire class.  This is probably true of our most vocal scientists as well.  It is indeed correct that the stress of NIH funding has affected nearly every university lab in the country.  But that message has swamped out the fact that being a professor is an incredibly awesome job.  (Admittedly, you have to get the job and keep it, both of which are becoming harder and harder, but I'm trying to stay positive in this post.)

I was involved in some graduate student interviews/recruitment a few weeks ago.  One of the students asked me some very pointed questions about why I chose to come to this university and why she should come here.  I realized that I hadn't thought about anything positive regarding my job in very long time!    I started spouting off reason after reason about why our university and city are so awesome.  Then I came back up to my office and started thinking about just how true those things are and just how great life really is as a PI.

I'm at a medical school, so I teach, but it is not overwhelming, and it can be fun.  My teaching will increase this year, but it has been incrementally increased, so I think I can handle it.  I spend most of my day doing research or talking about experiments with my grad students and undergrads.  I absolutely love to analyze data and make figures.  I even do this at home while I'm watching tv.  Making a convincing, publication quality figure that contains data that no one has ever seen before is like crack for me.  I love it.  I'm addicted to it.  And I get paid for it!  Writing up papers is the same way.  I really love doing it.  Writing grants is a different story because right now it feels like there's so much arbitrariness in the system, but I don't mind the actual process of writing the grant.  I mean, what other job would allow me to go to a Starbucks and just think or write for three hours in the middle of the day surrounded by young, energetic people on a college campus?   I even love the committees that I serve on.  I'm on a university grant review committee that is incredibly fun and important.  I'm on a committee that assesses the safety of work going on in new labs at the university, so I get to learn about every single new lab on our entire campus.  And I'm on a committee that chooses speakers for a seminar series in my field. 

Of course my tune may change next year since we're only funded for 1 more year.  I just don't know if all the complaining about NIH funding is actually helping or causing a backlash.  There seems to be this counteracting sentiment that scientists don't deserve a handout or taxpayer sponsored job stability.  Maybe less complaining and more talking about our research and training of students would be a better approach. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mentors for new faculty

What does it really mean to have a mentor in science?  I'm just going to ramble for a bit here...  To me it can really mean two very different things.  These can be people who teach us tangible skills or concepts.  Your PhD mentor might have taught you how to do Western blots, for example.  But this isn't really the kind of mentoring that our administrators are talking about when they constantly urge us as new faculty to have a mentor.  They cite statistics showing that if you want to be successful, you MUST have a mentor.  And yet, what does an administrator in a faculty development office know about science mentoring?  How do they expect us to just FIND one!?  And even worse, how in the world do they think that an assigned mentor in a university program is going to do anything useful for us?  This brings me to what I think the second type of mentor is.  This is someone who constantly has you in the back of their mind as they go through their day because you've built a relationship with them.  When they see an important paper, they send it to you.  When they have a colleague coming for a seminar, they invite you to dinner.  When you ask them to read a paper or grant, they critique it diligently and quickly.  When someone asks them to be on a super easy, but important, committee, they suggest you instead.  When they hear that someone from your study section is visiting the university next door, they make some calls and get you on her meeting schedule.   When they get invited to write an article commentary, they suggest you instead.  These types of relationships don't happen over night, and they will rarely, if ever, come about because of a university program.  The effective mentors I have in my life also get something back from me (or at least they once did).  My PhD and postdoc mentors had me working like crazy in their labs and publishing lots of papers.  That built up a lot of good will that I'm still cashing in on.  At my new university, I have a senior collaborator who got a paper published very quickly because of a technique that I brought here.  We now have ongoing projects and he's constantly doing things for me like I mentioned above. How does this happen?  I don't consider myself to be particularly gregarious.  I'm actually pretty shy and maybe even socially awkward.  I wouldn't say that I'm "friends" with any of my mentors outside of work or even inside of work.  But what I think I have going for me is that I'm hard working, open to collaborations, and do a good job when I'm tasked with things.  Those are the reasons that I have mentors. 

High Impact Open Access Journals: A Dilemma

If you follow many scientists on Twitter, you probably know that open access publishing is a hot button topic.  Some sit in their ivory towers with their reputations fully established and claim that publishing in traditional journals is immoral.  Similarly, some "indie" scientists claim martyr status for publishing in PLOS One because it (supposedly) cost them an academic faculty career.  At the core of it, I agree with these people.  Our research, which is mostly funded by taxpayer money, should be made freely available to everyone.  But on the the practical side, I know that the only way for me to be able to keep going, i.e., get tenure and get funding, is to publish in high impact journals.  Right now my lab has a draft of what I consider to be a pretty important paper.  I would love to submit it to an open access journal, one,  because of the whole morality thing, and two, because open access journals usually get more readership and citations.

I've tried to compile a list of high impact open access journals.  There are some good options.  But I am SHOCKED that it costs so freaking much to publish in these journals!  It's really double or triple or maybe quadruple the amount of a traditional journal.  Where is this money supposed to come from?  This means ten less antibodies for my lab.  Or maybe my tech should be laid off for a month.  It's really nuts.  Anyway, below is the list that I compiled.  This is in no way complete and it's only the open access biology journals for which my work would be suitable.

PLOS Biology, Impact factor 11.8 -- $2,900
BMC Biology, Impact factor 7.4 -- $2,605
Nature Communications, Impact factor 10.7 -- $5,200
Cell Reports, Impact factor 7.2 -- $5,000
Genome Biology, Impact factor 10.5 -- $2,770
eLife, Impact factor 8.5 -- free for first few years

It seems that eLife is the clear winner here.  But, the experience of my friends who have submitted here is that if you're not a nobel prize winner or an HHMI investigator, don't even try.  Browsing their recently published papers in my field is like browsing the list of the keynote speakers for all the meetings I've attended in the past ten years.  This would lead me to believe that despite this journal's claim that they promote young scientists, what they're really promoting is the old boys' club (and maybe some of the postdocs who happen to be in these famous labs).  In terms of cost, the runner up would be BMC Biology.  This is a real possibility.  I've read a few great papers in this journal, and it's maybe only double the cost of a standard journal.  However, at least in my field, this just doesn't have the same status as having a paper with the words Cell or Nature in the journal title.  But wow, paying $5,000+ in publication charges just doesn't work for me when I think about all the other things I could do with that money.  It's really a dilemma, and I gladly welcome any thoughts, but I really think I'm going to have to go with a traditional journal.   

Update:  I didn't actually do what I said I would do at the end of this post.  I submitted to Nature Communications.  It was editorially rejected within two days (which I can easily move on from because they didn't waste too much of our time).  I'm quick with reformatting, so we resubmitted to PLOS Biology within a couple hours.  It took several days to make it through the technical checks due to mistakes of the journal staff in saying that we needed IACUC approval when we do not.  But, the status is now "with editor" and has been that way for about a week.  Hopefully it will at least get sent out for review.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

NIH Funded!

My R01 was funded!!!  Well, kind of.  The R56 bridge award that I talked about in my last post came through.  It was funded for one year at almost the full requested amount.  This is major for my lab because it's coming just as my R00 funding is ending.  We can keep going full steam ahead.  This is also incredibly important for me because my university has salary requirements that have to be covered by grants.  I was immune from this policy during my first three years, but it's just about to kick in, and now I can actually comply.  I even have enough money to hire another person.  The problem is that I'd much rather take on a new student or even a postdoc than a lab tech.  But with only one year of funding, I can't commit to a student or postdoc.  But, I'm also considering using the money I could spend on hiring another person to buy a bunch of pre-designed CRISPR constructs to make a whole library of knockout cell lines for the enzymes we study.  It's just really awesome to now have the option to do some high risk/high reward stuff that I wasn't even considering before.  But anyway, my lab will survive for another year!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Something is happening with my R01

I don't think I ever posted on the fact that I resubmitted my R01 and got the EXACT same very close score.  Well, this resubmitted grant has not been funded either.  The PO was also not overly supportive of doing anything for me in the way of nomination for select pay.  He did however say that he would throw my grant in the pile, but that select pay was a long shot.  The council met three weeks ago and I never heard anything from my PO, so I assumed it was a lost cause.  As a matter of fact, I worked for the past month to rewrite the grant and resubmitted it just a couple days ago (as an A0)  for review in the next cycle.  Then today I got a request for Just-In-Time information for this old grant, and the "SNAP Indicator Code" on ERA Commons changed to Y (which is what it is on my funded applications as opposed to being blank for all of my unfunded applications).  I have no idea what this really means, and I've heard nothing from my PO, but I think it's a good sign.  Maybe select pay.  Maybe an R56 bridge award.  Maybe false hope and nothing at all.  This is such a roller coaster, but I'm feeling really hopeful that SOMETHING is happening!

Update:  I got an email from my PO that my grant is being considered for an R56 bridge award.  A new grant appeared in my ERA commons grant list with an R56 number and the same title as my R01.  The status of this grant is "pending" and has been that way for two days now.  This is fantastic and seems like it's moving in the right direction, but the uncertainty and mystery is really driving me crazy.  The words "pending" and "considered for" do not provide any certainty of funding and I also have no idea how long it could take for the powers that be to decide on this or to get the paperwork done.  In my department we've had two people receive these grants in the past.  One got a year's worth of funding and the other got two years of funding.  But I've also heard of getting one year of funding at half the budget, so I'm not really even sure what to be hoping for.  The other thing I've learned from asking around about R56 grants is that if you get an R01 during the R56 funding period, the NIH will either take back whatever you've not spent from the R56, or they will cut funding from the first year of the R01. 

Update again:  Today there was a status update that says "award prepared."  Still no Notice of Award and the overall status still says "pending," but this seems really promising!