Friday, October 24, 2014

The eleven stages of academic grief

Have had a spate of bad luck in the lab with several papers getting rejected. Ugh. Been getting used to the following cascade of emotions:

  1. Shock (30 seconds). E-mail from journal! Oh no, subject line says decision. Could be good decision, right? … Oh, not a good decision…
  2. Disbelief (1 minute). Really? Did I get the wrong email or something? Am I really reading this? Where is that link to resubmit? What do you mean there’s no link to resubmit?
  3. Reading the e-mail (2 minutes). Hmm. [Keyword search] “Should be published in this journal” Yes! “Not a big enough advance in the field” No! “Very exciting” Yes! “Hard to get excited about this paper” No!
  4. Anger with reviewers (5 minutes). What are they talking about? We already did that experiment in supp fig 97! Well, if I knew the answer to that, we would have submitted to a better journal! Oh, correlation isn’t the same as causation? Why didn't I think of that? Thank so much for your super wise words of wisdom dear reviewer. May you rot in hell, where you will have eternity to think about our paper, instead of the apparently 17 minutes you spent on this stupid review.
  5. Reviewers, part 2 (7 minutes). I bet that reviewer is [random perceived academic enemy]. Grudge deepening.
  6. Anger with editors (10 minutes). What are they talking about? Why don’t these people get a spine? Do these people even know anything about this field. Or any field. Or anything at all? They must be failed academics. Or just stupid. Or both.
  7. Self doubt, abilities (6 hours). I am a failed scientist. Soon to be a failed academic. Or just stupid. Or both.
  8. The dark path (1 day). Wait, but my paper is much better than this other stupid paper in a higher profile journal. What gives? [You know not to go down this road. But you will.]
  9. Self doubt, career choice (1.5 days). Why am I working so hard? Why didn’t I just go to industry and never have to worry about papers ever again? Why should I be sweating these stupid reviewer comments? Am I still going to be sweating these reviewer comments for the next 30-40 years? Is this really it?
  10. Resignation and acceptance (2 weeks). We will get this paper out in the end. Time to move on. This study is good, it just needs to find the right home. The darkest hour is just before the dawn. There are many fish in the sea. Every cloud has a silver lining. Who knows. Maybe the reviewers even had a point about that one aspect of our paper. Wait a minute… 
  11. Reviewers, part 3 (2 weeks and 30 seconds): $^!# those reviewers! What do they know anyway? What are they talking about? If I ever see [random perceived academic enemy] again… 
So goes the inner monologue. To the outside world, it looks like this:
  1. Revise
  2. Resubmit
  3. Rejected
  4. Revise
  5. Resubmit
  6. Rejected
  7. Revise
  8. Resubmit
  9. Rejected
Sigh… you’d think it would get easier with time. It does, somewhat. But it also doesn’t.

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 trainee, 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! :)