Thursday, October 16, 2014

What makes a scientist creative?

Science is about generating knowledge, but it’s also about the process of generating knowledge, and few things delight as much as creative ways to generate knowledge. Some of my favorite examples include ribosome profiling from Jonathan Weissman’s lab, or Michael Elowitz’s two color noise experiments. Not that all scientific progress comes from creative experiments, nor do the results of all creative experiments stand the test of time. It’s just that these are the ones that are so awesome that you never forget about them.

Some scientists are just really good at coming up with creative ideas (Sanjay Tyagi, my former PhD advisor, is one of them). Where does scientific creativity come from? There is I think some notion that creativity is an innate ability, but I’ve come to think of creativity as a skill, which has an important distinction: skills can be learned and honed, whereas innate abilities cannot. Some amount of creativity is innate (perhaps having as much to do with interest in a topic as raw brainpower), but if you have someone with the raw materials to be a creative scientist, then you can help shape that material to make that scientist more creative than they would be otherwise. How? Does some of this just rub off from the mentor to the mentee? What in particular is it that can rub off?

I’m guessing there’s a lot of psychology research in this area, but here is a thought that I had recently. It came from an e-mail I had with one of my (very creative) trainees, which was an awesome moment as an advisor. I had just e-mailed the trainees, posing a question, like “hmm, what are the implications of these results.” My trainee wrote back, saying “well, could inform x or y”, which is pretty much the current thinking in the field. And then I got another e-mail 10 minutes later saying “These are both silly answers. It is definitely something to continue to think about.” I was so proud!

This exchange got me thinking that maybe one of the underappreciated elements of being creative is just not settling for being not creative. If you are in science, there’s a pretty good chance that you have ideas, probably many ideas, maybe all the time. The key is really in the evaluation. When am I just settling for the status quo of thinking? When is the status quo probably right and there’s maybe nothing here? When have I really hit the foundation of the problem we’re working on? If I could do any experiment to test this, possible or impossible, what would it tell me? What is the closest I can approximate that in the lab? These are all things that we can consciously think about and that mentors can teach their mentees, and I think it can help us to be creative. I also think that establishing a rigorous culture of idea generation and evaluation can help the group as a whole become more creative.

Thinking about creativity reminds me about when I was in a band back in college. The leader of our band, Miguel, was one of the most creative people I have ever met–lyrics and music came out of him in ways that seemed mysterious and divine. (Incidentally, I feel like not settling was a big part for him as well.) He was really good friends with this other amazing songwriter named Joel, and Miguel used to say “You know how I know that Joel is a better songwriter than I am? Whenever I play someone a song I wrote, they say ‘Man, how did you ever think of that?’ When they hear a song Joel wrote, they say ‘Oh man, why didn’t I think of that?’” Same applies in science, I think.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Disabled Google Plus comments

Hi there readers,

Quite some time ago, I enabled Google Plus comments on this blog, not fully knowing exactly what that would do. Seemed like a good feature, I thought. Only just recently did I realize that it required people to be on Google Plus to leave a comment, which really sucks. So I'm disabling that feature, because I know it discourages some commenters (like my mom). Sadly, this means that virtually all the comments on the posts for the last however long will be gone (which is why I was reluctant to switch). So sorry about this! Just want to say that I really appreciate all the comments that people have left here, and the only bright spot in doing this is that maybe this will result in more people leaving comments. If there isn't any uptick in comments, I'll re-enable the feature and all the old comments will come back.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

What have I learned since being a PI?

Our lab started at Penn in January 2010, and the last several years been probably the most busy and action packed of my professional life. I still vividly remember the very beginning, when we had far more boxes than people. Actually, I guess that’s still the case. But lots of other stuff has changed, and the lab now feels like the bustling, fun place I had always hoped it would be. What I had not anticipated was how much I would change and learn, both as a scientist and as a person, since I started. Here are some musings and observations:

- I realized that as a group, scientists (meaning grad students, postdocs, PIs and all the other folks that make a lab go) are pretty lucky. They are by and large smart, talented, driven people who could succeed in many different walks of life. They happen to do academic science, but can probably do many other things successfully. It would be okay to do so. Also, staying in science is a privilege, not a right, one handed out with a lot more care than many people think.

- I stopped worrying as much about my career. Like, I need this paper to get this grant to get this job to get this… whatever. Partly, I’m just too tired and busy to do so. Partly, though, it’s also because I have realized just how lucky I am to do something I love, which I think is very rare in this world, especially for something as generally useless to the world at large as science. Not to say that I don’t want to get papers or grants or tenure or anything like that, nor is it something that I never think about, but just saying that the day to day makes me happy, for the most part.

- Life is long and can take scientists in many different directions. Academics have curious minds and will always be searching for new challenges, and doing what I'm doing now is just one of those challenges.

- I really want to try to do something important. I’ve now been in science just long enough now to have seen a few scientific fads come and go, and while I’m not much of a scholar of science history, I think that experience has helped me gain a somewhat better perspective on when we really learn something about the world. I also realize that I will probably fail to do something important, because it’s just really hard to do so. But I hope to have fun trying.

- Related to this last point: it’s hard to predict where your science will take you, whether it will lead to something important or not, either in your time or the next. But the quality of how you execute your science and the conclusions you draw is the one thing you can enforce. And in a way, it’s the only thing that matters.

- I learned to not dismiss crazy ideas, and allow flexibility to let them grow. Starting out, I thought that I was going to run this super tight ship, with every project subjected to rigorous risk/reward analysis. I still think that’s actually not a bad thing and that most people don’t do enough of that, but sometimes its good to just let things go. Some of the best things going in the lab come from projects that I didn’t think had much future at the time.

- It is hard to change fields. Once you’re going in a certain direction, it’s what everyone expects of you: your trainees, your colleagues, yourself. On top of this personal inertia, the system is also set up to prevent you from changing fields, because you rely on your social network for papers, grants, etc. Your only hope is to develop enough clout that people outside your field might give you the benefit of the doubt. Or to just be such a small fry that nobody really cares.

- The colleagues I admire most are the ones who don’t take things too seriously, especially themselves.

- I’ve learned a lot about how to do science over the last few years, and I’m a much better scientist for it. How do you frame a problem? What can you really claim based on this data? What are alternatives? Looking back at myself coming into this job, I feel like I was hopelessly naive in so many ways, and now at least somewhat less so. I owe this development almost entirely to the incredible people in my lab, who really helped push me to think harder about virtually everything, and to my excellent colleagues here at Penn.

- It’s cheesy, yes, but it’s very satisfying to make a difference in someone’s life. A view from the outside is that this is about reaching students in class. That doesn't work too good for me–I’m not a natural lecturer, and as such, I think my classroom teaching is just OK, despite a fair amount of effort. But I love working with people (graduate students, undergraduates, postdocs) in the lab, and for me, that’s how I feel like I make the most difference. I had one undergrad tell me that working in my lab was his single best experience at Penn. That was so awesome!

- Speaking of connecting with people, this blog has also been one of the most fun things I’ve done since becoming a PI.

- Got a lot to learn about leading a group, but I have learned one thing: personnel isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

- “Failing to reach a trainee” (i.e., someone flames out of the lab) happens to everyone. PI will be traumatized, trainee too. It sucks. And it has happened to virtually every PI I know. It’s just one of those things people tend not to talk about.

- Don’t give up on people. Or do? One school of thought preaches that people never change. Another school of thought is that there is some nugget of talent inside of everyone that is waiting to be nurtured. The truth is somewhere in between. I have now seen people who just can’t seem to figure it out no matter how much time gets put into them. I’ve seen others who seemed hopeless at first transform so utterly that it’s like talking with a different person by the end of their PhD. Personnel: completely maddening!

- For some aspects of running a group, there are clearly some right and wrong things you can do. But I feel like I've seen as many different paths to success as to failure. If you get conflicting advice, it probably means nobody really knows, so just trust your gut.

- Some people are out there to take advantage of you. Some people really want to help. Seek out the latter. Avoid the former. But you will encounter the former, so don’t let worrying or fuming about them take over your life because it will destroy you.

- Lots of stuff is broken. The temperature is off in your scope room. The bulb is out in the bathroom. The website for submitting grants was designed by masochists intent on making you cry up until the grant deadline. Some engineering undergraduates with good AP calc scores apparently don’t know what a derivative is. You can’t fix it all. Choose your battles.

Oh yeah, and one big thing I learned: setting up a lab is HARD WORK. One of the beautiful things about being young is thinking that you'll do it better yourself once you get the chance. Maybe. But I’ve developed a deep respect for anyone who has managed to set up a functioning, productive lab. Cheers.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A proposal for controlling the amount of paperwork

As anyone who’s tried to submit a grant knows, there is an absolutely enormous amount of paperwork involved. Budgets, front matter, various other little bits and pieces and forms. It’s so much paperwork that it’s basically impossible to apply without a professional grants administrator, which most universities have. In fact, I was recently working with someone who didn’t have access to a grants administrator, and I wanted to have him participate in a grant, and he said that he couldn’t because he didn’t have the time to figure out how to fill out all the forms. Yipes!

I’m sure there are plenty of studies about how paperwork tends to proliferate, but here’s my take on it and a potential solution. My feeling is that every bit of new paperwork comes from some sort of new initiative in which the new paperwork serves to encourage that goal. Like, “We want to promote diversity, so now include a minority involvement plan.” Or, in a recent grant, I had to include a Research Leadership Plan, presumably to encourage thinking about how the PIs will collaborate together. All laudable goals, so it’s sort of hard to argue with these being a good thing, right?

Well, the problem is that this leads to more and more paperwork as these encouraged goals pile up over the years. Here’s a solution, inspired, ironically enough, by the NIH. When we submit a grant, we have a page limit, right? This means that we have to make decisions–if you want to include a particular piece of additional data, then it must come at the expense of another. So why not have a paperwork limit? Like, you can have a certain number and length of forms and no further. Any increase in the amount of paperwork must come at the expense of some other paperwork. Any new form means you have to remove some older form. That would have the added benefit of forcing the paperwork producing bodies to think carefully about what forms are the most important.

Of course, this still has the flaw that people can change the paperwork required, which is annoying to keep up with–take for instance the updated NIH Biosketch. Ugh, annoying. But I guess we should be thankful they didn’t make us submit an additional Biosketch! :)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sigma's getting with it on Twitter!

Just got this e-mail from Sigma that feels like some 57 year old in marketing tasked with "engaging the youth through social media" heard about selfies and Twitter from their kids and decided to put it all together to try and "go viral". I really gotta get in touch with my field rep for a T-shirt!

Here's our lab's Sigma Selfie, starring cholesterol and calcium chloride:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

University admissions at Ivy Leagues are unfair: wah-wah-wah

Lots of carping these days about university admissions processes. Steven Pinker had some article, then Scott Aaronson had a blog post, both advocating a greatly increased emphasis on standardized testing, because the Ivy League schools have been turning away academically talented but not “well-rounded” students. Roy Unz (referenced in the Pinker article) provides some evidence that Asians are facing the same quota-based discrimination that Jewish people did in the early 20th century [Note: not sure about many parts of the Unz article, and here's a counter–I find the racial/ethnic overtones in these discussions distasteful, regardless of whether they are right or wrong]. Discrimination is bad, right? Many look to India, with its system of very hard entrance exams to select the cream of the crop into the IIT system and say, why not here?

Yeah. Well, let me let you all in on a little secret: life is not fair. But we are very lucky to live here in the US, where getting rejected from the Ivies is not a death sentence. Aaronson got rejected from a bunch of schools, then went to Cornell (hardly banishment to Siberia, although Ithaca is quite cold), then went on to have a very successful career, getting job offers from many of the same universities that originally rejected him. It’s hard not to detect a not-so-subtle scent of bitterness in his writing on this topic based on his own experience as a 15 year old with perfect SATs, a published paper and spotty grades, and I would say that holding on to such a grudge risks us drawing the wrong lesson from his story. Yes, it is ironic that those schools didn’t take him as an undergraduate. But the lesson is less that the overall system is broken, but more that the system works–it identified his talent, nurtured it and ultimately rewarded him for it.

Those who look elsewhere to places like India have it wrong, also. The IITs are rightly regarded as the crown jewels of Indian education. The problem is that the next tier down is not nearly so strong, thus not nurturing the talents of all those who were just below the cutoff for whatever reason. So all those people who don’t manage to do as well on that one entrance exam have far less access to opportunities than they do here. Despite these exams, India is hardly what one would call a meritocratic society. So again, I would not consider India a source of inspiration.

I understand the allure of something objective like an SAT test. The problem with it is that beyond a certain bar, they just don’t provide much information. There are tons of kids with very high SATs. I can tell you right now that my SATs were not perfect, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that much less "smart" than some of my cohort who did get perfect SATs. I did terribly on the math subject GRE–I’m guessing by far the worst in my entering graduate school class–which almost scuppered my chances of getting into graduate school, but I managed to get a PhD just fine. At the graduate level, it is clear that standardized tests provide essentially no useful predictive information.

I think we’ve all seen the kid with the perfect grades from the top university who flames out in grad school, or the kid from a much less prestigious institution with mixed grades who just nails it. Moreover, as anyone who has worked with underrepresented minorities will tell you, their often low standardized test scores DO NOT reflect their innate abilities. There are probably many reasons for why, but whatever, it’s just a fact. And I think that diversity is a good thing on its own.

So scores are not so useful. The other side of the argument is that the benefits of a highly selective university are immense–a precious resource we must carefully apportion to those most deserving. For instance, Pinker says:
The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college.
Sure, they spend more. So what. I honestly don’t see that all this coddling necessarily helps students do better in life. Also this:
Holding qualifications constant, graduates of a selective university are more likely to graduate on time, will tend to find a more desirable spouse, and will earn 20 percent more than those of less selective universities—every year for the rest of their working lives.
Yes, there is some moderate benefit, holding “qualifications constant”–I guess their vacations can last 20% longer and their dinners can be 20% more expensive on average. The point is that qualifications are NOT constant. The variance within the cohort at a given selective university is enormous, dwarfing this 20 percent average benefit. The fact is that we just don’t know what makes a kid ultimately successful or not. We can go with standardized testing or the current system or some other system based on marshmallow tests or what have you, but ultimately we just have no idea. Unz assembles evidence that Caltech is more meritocratic, but so far there seems to be little evidence that the world is run by our brilliant Caltech-trained overlords.

What to do, then? How about nothing? Quoting Aaronson:
Some people would say: so then what’s the big deal? If Harvard or MIT reject some students that maybe they should have admitted, those students will simply go elsewhere, where—if they’re really that good—they’ll do every bit as well as they would’ve done at the so-called “top” schools. But to me, that’s uncomfortably close to saying: there are millions of people who go on to succeed in life despite childhoods of neglect and poverty. Indeed, some of those people succeed partly because of their rough childhoods, which served as the crucibles of their character and resolve. Ergo, let’s neglect our own children, so that they too can have the privilege of learning from the school of hard knocks just like we did. The fact that many people turn out fine despite unfairness and adversity doesn’t mean that we should inflict unfairness if we can avoid it.
A fair point, but one that ignores a few things. Firstly, going to Cornell instead of Harvard is hardly the same thing as living a childhood of neglect and poverty. Secondly, universities compete. If another university can raise their profile by admitting highly meritorious students wrongly rejected by Harvard, well, then so be it. Those universities will improve and we’ll have more good schools overall.

Which feeds into the next, more important point. As I said, it’s not at all clear to me that we have any idea how to select for “success” or “ability”, especially for kids coming out of high school. As such, we have no idea where to apportion our educational resources. To me, the solution is to have as many resources available as broadly as possible. Rather than focusing all our resources and mental energy into "getting it right" at Harvard and MIT, I think it makes much more sense to spend our time making sure that the educational level is raised at all schools, which will ultimately benefit far more people and society in general. The Pinker/Aaronson view essentially is that this is a “waste” of our resources on those not “deserving” of them based on merit. I would counter first that spending resources on educating anyone will benefit our society overall, and second that all these “merit” metrics are so weakly correlated with whatever the hell it is that we’re supposedly trying to select for that concentrating our resources on the chosen few at elite universities is a very bad idea, regardless of how we select those folks. The goal should be to make opportunities as widely available as possible so that we can catch and nurture those special folks out there who may not particularly distinguish themselves by typical metrics, which I think is the majority, by the way. A quick look at where we pull in graduate students from shows that the US does a reasonably good job at this relative to other places, a fact that I think is related to many of this country’s successes.

As I said before in the context of grad admissions, if you want to figure out who runs the fastest, there are a couple ways of going about it. You can measure foot size and muscle mass and whatever else to try to predict who will run fastest a priori–good luck with that. Or you can just have them all run in a race and see who runs the fastest. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss the next Usain Bolt or Google billionaire, better make the race as big and inclusive as possible.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Greatest molecular biologist of all time?

Serena Williams just won her 18th grand slam title, and while I’m not a super knowledgeable tennis person, I think it’s fair to say that she’s the best female tennis player ever. Of course, in these discussions, it always comes down to what exactly one means by best ever. Is it the one who, at peak form, would have won head to head? Well, in that case, I doubt there’s much contest: despite whatever arguments about tennis racket technology improvement, Serena would likely crush anyone else. Is it the most dominant in their era? Is it the one who defines an era, transforming their sport? (Serena wins on these counts as well, I think.)

“Who is the greatest” is a common (and admittedly silly) pastime that physicists and mathematicians tend to play that has many of the same elements as sports (Newton and Gauss, respectively, if I had to pick). Yet curiously, molecular biology doesn’t have quite as much of this. There are certainly heroes (mythical and real) in the story of molecular biology, but there is much less of the absolute deification that you will find at the math department’s afternoon tea. Why?

I think there’s a couple of reasons, but one of the big ones is that the golden era of molecular biology has come much more recently in history than that of math and physics. And recent history is different than ancient history in one very important respect: there are just WAY more people. This means that it’s just that much harder nowadays for someone to come up with a good idea and develop it all entirely by themselves. In the time of Newton, there were just not a lot of trained scientists around, and even then, Leibniz came up with calculus around the same time. Imagine the same thing today. Let’s say you formulated the basic ideas of calculus. Your idea would travel across the internet instantaneously to a huge number of smart mathematicians and for all you know, all the ramifications would get worked out within a very short period of time, perhaps even on a blog. Indeed, think about how many mathematical results from the old days would be worked out by one person: Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Newton’s laws of motion. Nowadays, mathematical ideas tend to have many names attached, like Gromov-Witten invariants, Chern-Simons theory, etc. Einstein’s general theory of relativity is perhaps an example of this transition: I think I read somewhere that Hilbert actually worked out all the math, but waited for Einstein to work it out out of respect. Similarly, quantum mechanics has so many brilliant names associated with it that we can’t really call it “Dirac theory” or “Feynman theory”. It’s just very hard for any one person to develop an idea completely on their own these days.

This is the era that molecular biology came of age in. As such, there are just so many names associated with the major developments that it’s impossible to ascribe any one big thing to any one person, or even a small set of people. And I think the pace is accelerating even further. For instance, consider CRISPR. It’s clear that it’s something that’s captured the attention of the moment, and I’ve been utterly amazed at how quickly people have adopted and applied it in so many clever contexts seemingly instantaneously.

I think this is actually a wonderful thing about molecular biology and modern science in general. I think the excessive focus on the “genius” deemphasizes that scientific progress is a web of interconnected concepts and findings coming from many sources, and I love thinking about molecular biology in those terms. Although I have to admit that a good old fashioned Newton vs. Einstein debate is a lot of fun!