Thursday, May 24, 2007

Writing, sun and some good reads...

The weather is great, lab work needs to get done as does a pluthera of writing, needless to say my blogging has taken a dip of late. Now to restart, I will stand on the greatness of others.

Mike the Made Biologist, discusses the original sin of the religious right-segragation. It feeds from one of the original sins of the United States-our treatment of African Americans. How many compromises since the nation's birth through modern times were on the backs of African Americans? There was the 3/5 compromise with the US Constitution, along with the fugitive slave provisions in the Constitution. There was the Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1877 lead to the end of Reconstruction and basically turned the South over to segregationists right through the middle of the 20th century. The rise of the Civil Rights movements & calls for integration are what drove the Christian Right into action as Mike dicusses. Those are just the major compromises through the nation's first century of existence. Their effects still ripple through our nation. The politics of fear they spawned our what got the Bush Administration "elected" twice.

Changing topics, Incoherently Scattered Ponderer, ponders whether post-doc life is truly carefree.

Holly talks about actually walking at graduation where she got to listen to two presidents for the price of one. I skipped mine. Not exactly a pomp-circumstance type of person.

Kate ponders why we don't get science. Very interesting read and brings up questions then how to best reach people about science both in the short term and long term.

There are lots of great posts to check out over on the 4th Postdoc Carnival. Katie did a great job of putting it all together in addition to her usual excellent blogging.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Must fight the procrastination...

I hate printing out papers, especially when I am reading them in order to cite them. It seems like such a waste of paper. So what is the green way of handling things? Download the PDF and read them in your favorite viewer on your computer screen. Which is all fine and dandy but if you are like me you then look up references in the paper. Of course this requires having your computer connected to the greater network that is out there. This means in turn, you can check your e-mail, catch-up on the sports scores, update my fantasy sports teams, read the news & blogs, check out some zany clip on youtube, download from itunes an episode of one of your favorite shows that you missed, etc. In other words, there are so many options that are more appealing than writing a review. Must fight them and write. A final draft is due on June 1st. I wish I could say that is it. In the cue are 2 research articles to write which I have been procrastinating on by thinking of new experiments, a review with another lab member and then getting my advisor to get out a larger review which has been ongoing project in the lab for the last couple years. How does the latter happen? Procrastination-which means it constantly needs to be updated with all the new info that is being published. Of course two years of doing that leads to a bloated review, so my task was to help cut so for the fat. Myself and another labmate have trimmed our parts to half the length they were before. Advisor was supposed to take the three page intro and turn it into two paragraphs. Still hasn't happened and slowly you can see the need to start adding again. So be warned-procrastinating over time can lead to more work!

Easier said than done though. My download is finished. TV on the laptop time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tenure, pipeline, teaching, oh my...

Rob Knop discusses his woes trying to get tenure at Vanderbilt. By all accounts, Rob is good at his job (teaches well, serves on committees, etc) except for getting grants. That will be his downfall. His point, if NSF is only funding 16-20% of all the grants submitted there are too many people trying to be faculty members (this is in astronomy). It is overly competitive, selecting people like him out. Some like Chad have pointed out that all the depressing news of tenure can be a negative, encouraging students not to pursue graduate studies. The key is going in with your eyes wide-open. The advice Chad got as an undergraduate was "the only reason to go to graduate school was in order to pursue a career in research-- which, it should be noted, is not identically equal to academia." (The latter is why it is important to choose an advisor in graduate school who is open to you exploring options besides being a faculty member at a research university).

Incoherently Scattered Ponderings and Open Reading Frame point to the fact that the bottleneck is not getting tenure per se but rather getting a tenure track position to begin with, the jump from being a post-doc. It is also why so many advisors can be such jerks. They figure if you leave, there is someone else who will be willing to jump through their hoops. Of course this selects for people in the sciences who are overly passionate about science relative to other facets of life. And when those people choose who goes to graduate school, they pick people like themselves-focussed on science and the cycle keeps going.

Of course what feeds this push for more post-docs/grad students than there will positions for? For faculty members to focus on getting grants and why it is so important for getting tenure? The dollars brought in from grants. Mike the Mad Biologist points this out in his skepticism of calls in Harvard for improved teaching leading to anything. Why? The selection is for money which comes from doing research and not from teaching.

From Mike:
"Overhead, also referred to as indirect costs, are a surcharge on the direct or actual costs* of the grant. More people on a grant and more research costs mean more 'indirects' for the institution. Typically, these indirects run 50-75% of direct costs."

"A certain amount of indirects is needed: all institutions have administrative and infrastructure costs (e.g., personnel, IT, utilities, and so on). But 50%-75% is exorbitant (and, incidentally, reduces the total number of awards federal agencies can give. Federal granting agencies subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars every year***)."

In other words, we are funding higher education in the United States through science research grants. Universities get even more money from the government by charging PhD students tuition which is paid for by those federal grants. The tuition for PhD students in the humanities and social studies is usually waived (it was at GradU and it is waived at SnobU). SnobU by the way charges for internet access and email accounts in addition to the overhead so it takes in even more revenue. Universities are addicted to this grant money. It helps pay for administrative costs. It pays for non-revenue producing departments. It allows universities to grow their endowments which in turn makes them more prestigious attracting more students, allowing the university to be more selective and thus more prestigious. Faculty thus are under pressure therefore to get grants and keep getting them. The system puts a strong selection on keeping labor costs low (hence very few faculty positions relative to the number post-docs/graduate students) since so much grant money goes towards overhead but a lot of research is needed in order to get a grant. This sets up a situation that favors bringing more graduate students and post-docs into the system than their will be jobs for as faculty members. It also favors advisors trying to get every last drop out of those in their labs which is why so many push their post-docs and graduate students to work long hours.

The overabundance of PhD candidates & newly minted PhDs in turn creates an overly competitive environment between post-docs and graduate students, who for the most part are encouraged to shoot for being professors at research universities. It is why so many young scientists are so willing to put up with such horrible working conditions. The chances of getting a tenure track position are low. Getting a slightly better letter of rec. from your advisor becomes vital for your future.

The question is how do you break this cycle that feeds itself? Reducing overhead at this stage won't solve the problem because universities will just put greater pressure on advisors to get grants. More money will help but it can't just be in the shape of research grants. There has to be incentives for teaching well. For being good mentors. How do you put that into grants? It will also require graduate students and post-docs being more involved in how their departments are run, having a real voice and say. That is scary not just to administrators but also faculty.

Of course that would require these young scientists to organize. This seems unlikely as the competitive environment selects out those who would be most inclined towards this (Incoherent has a post on this centered around the number of scientists who played team sports as kids). Not to mention the current organizing seems to be centered around forming traditional employee unions. For graduate students especially, I think this would be a mistake. Being treated like employees is the problem. The fight has to be for fighting to maintain their status as students who demand quality teaching and mentorship. Who demand conditions that allow them to learn (which at this age group includes such things as child care). That of course requires revolution and effort but what choice do we really have? Are we really getting the best science for our dollars? What type of scientists are being churned out? Is this why scientists have trouble connecting to the general populace?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Confidence, joining a lab and breaking a cycle...

Propter Doc had a visitor to her lab, a potential post-doc looking to join the lab. From the sound (or should I say read) of it, the visitor is clueless, a deer in the headlights. As Propter Doc discusses asking the right questions to the right people is key in figuring out if a lab is right for you. The other part of the equation is trusting yourself (i.e. having the confidence) not to go with the stellar name but rather what is the best place for you not just scientifically but also as a person. As PD puts it:
"And make damn sure before you turn up to an interview that you’ve removed from your little brain any nonsense about being ‘grateful for the opportunity to work with professor X/happy just to get a postdoc’. That’s just bullshit, and a pretty quick route to a very unhappy postdoc."

This of course is easier said than done. What if you have had a poor graduate school advisor who slowly eats away at your confidence? An advisor who makes your feel like you barely are getting by and are not working hard enough? How can said person really go into an interview for a post-doc position without feeling grateful for the opportunity? These are the ones who will get stuck in similar situations for their post-doctoral training.

In theory, thesis committees are supposed to protect against such advisors but in practice this doesn't happen nearly enough. There is no real incentive in the system for committee members to intervene other than being good people. In many respects, the system at research universities actually encourages them not to. If there is a problem, it takes effort to do something about it and time. Most PIs are exceptionally busy people. Most of them are not spending the time they should to be great mentors for their own students & post-docs and definitely the time to be good teachers in the classroom. Professors have to be writing grants, papers to get grants, dealing with university administrative duties along with duties for the general scientific community and giving talks. Add having a family on top of that and you do not have a situation where stepping up on behalf of a student in a bad but not horrible situation isn't easy to do.

How do you get around this? At the end of the day it will require money whether it is lessening the need to publish or perish, hiring faculty for different purposes, training PIs to be good mentors/teachers (& rewarding those that are). In addition though it will also require a change in the culture of science. Selecting for hard workers has to go. This encourages those most willing to endure long hours (not necessarily producing anything more with those extra hours) who don't have as much of a life outside of lab. Those are not people who will make good mentors for most people in graduate school. You would be amazed how many hours in lab are just wasted because the incentive is to "work hard" as measured by hours spent in lab.

Another change that must occur is that mentorship and teaching have to be greater components of getting tenure at research universities. They are places of higher learning. If said scientist doesn't want to teach & mentor then they shouldn't be professors at such places. Go to a research institute. Work at a company. Unfortunately, top tier research universities despite being school are all about churning out research to draw in grants. Their isn't a selection against poor mentors and teachers. You have enough of them, it isn't like graduate students really have a choice then on only joining labs with good PIs. The climate is to encourage students to join "hot" labs doing "exciting" science-the prestigious labs. Basically students get pushed into situations where they basically get used to generate data to keep these top labs going which brings money to the university.

Enough make it through the system, who are very grateful and drink the Kool-Aid to keep the cycle going. Graduate students and post-docs will have to stand up more and let it be known joining a lab has to be more than just the science.

More on choosing a lab:
Natural Scientist

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Risks and reproductive rights...

Pharyngula links to a great blog, Well-Timed Period, that discusses issues surrounding reproductive health. One post in particular caught my attention; it is the one quoting from an article found in Contraceptive(Volume 73, Issue 5, Pages 437-439 (May 2006) that points out the relative risks associated with reproductive health as compared to one another and "everyday" type risks.

Here are some of the numbers:
Activity Risk of Death
(per year)

automobile accident 1 in 2900

In an airplane crash 1 in 250,000

Risk per year for women
(15-34) preventing 1 in 1,667,000 (non-smoker)
pregnancy using OCs 1 in 57,800 (smoker)

Risk per year for women
(35-44) preventing 1 in 33,300 (non-smoker)
pregnancy using OCs 1 in 5200(smoker)

Risk from pregnancy 1 in 8700

Risk from spontaneous abortion 1 in 142,900

Risk from induced abortion:
Mifepristone/misoprostol 1 in 110,000
Surgical 1 in 142,900
within first 8 weeks 1 in 1,000,000

In other words from the perspective of most woman, abortion and using oral contraceptives (OC) are safer options (especially if you don't smoke) than pregnancy or driving in a car. The pregnancy risk is not usually talked about by the anti-choice* crowd. There are risks associated with being pregnant and giving birth. Abortions are typically safer options for women than staying pregnant. Those lives saved don't really seem to enter into the discussions about abortion. What if those were men who were dying instead of women, would we care more?

Pregnancy is not easy. A woman is basically developing part of her body to become a separate being. Think how much energy we each expend to keep our bodies going let alone doing additional activities. Add on top of that, gestating part of yourself to grow to become another person that itself will need energy just to keep going, let alone grow. That is a lot of effort and that is just looking at things from a more macro view.

* I detest the pro-life naming of such groups. Many are not pro-life as they support the death penalty, wars, etc. Not to mention it is not like the rest of us are against life nor are we pro-abortion. We are though pro-choice. They want to limit the choices women have available to them.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A round-up...

Kate over on The Anterior Commissure has a blog piece on former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert's reaction to Mooney and Nisbet's pieces on framing science. Mooney promises a reaction as well.

The Ranger of the West discusses second homes near your undergrad institution.

Chad over on uncertain Principles asks, Why Physics?

The Propter Post-Doc touches upon Scottish politics (Independence v. nationalism), lab life and other topics including why House, MD.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Sun through the weekend...

Can I say how great it is to finally have spring? It is amazing how my attitude changes. I wake up and I am chipper (ok more so than usual). I have energy at the end of the day when I go home. There is green around you. It is very nice. Lab during the winter can be a drag. The sun is barely risen (if at all) when I get into lab and has already set when I go home. The cold during the day doesn't encourage going out during lunch & when you do all you see are dormant trees. Basically for a person from a sunny state it is a nightmare. Spring though everything changes. It is almost like home. Of course it doesn't last long as summer with its humidity will show up soon, but I do enjoy the spring as long as I can.