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!