Friday, May 5, 2017

Just another Now-that-I'm-a-PI-I-get-nothing-done day

Just had another one of those typically I-got-nothing-done days. I’m sure most PIs know the feeling: the day is somehow over, and you’re exhausted, and you feel like you’ve got absolutely nothing to show for it. Like many, I've had more of these days than I'd care to count, but this one was almost poetically unproductive, because here I am at the end of the day, literally staring at the same damn sentence I’ve been trying to write since the morning.

Why the case of writer's block? Because I spent today like most other work days: sitting in the lab, getting interrupted a gazillion times, not being able to focus. I mean, I know what I should do to get that sentence written. I could have worked from home, or locked myself in my office, and I know all the productivity rules I violate on a routine basis. But then I thought back on what really happened today…

Arrived, sat down, opened laptop, started looking at that sentence. Talked with Sydney about strategy for her first grant. Then met with Caroline to go over slides for her committee meeting—we came up with a great scheme for presenting the work, including some nice schematics illustrating the main points. Went over some final figure versions from Eduardo, which were greatly improved from the previous version, and also talked about the screens he’s running (some technical problems, but overall promising). And also, Eduardo and I figured out the logic needed for writing that cursed sentence. Somewhere in there, watched Sara hit submit on the final revisions for her first corresponding author paper! Meanwhile, Ian’s RNATag-seq data is looking great, and the first few principal components are showing exactly what we want. Joked around with Lauren about some mistake in the analysis code for her images, and talked about her latest (excellent) idea to dramatically improve the results. Went to lunch with good friend and colleague John Murray, talked about kids and also about a cool new idea we have brewing in the lab; John had a great idea for a trick to make the data even cooler. Chris dragged me into the scope room because the CO2 valve on the live imaging setup was getting warm to the touch, probably because CO2 had been leaking out all over the place because a hose came undone. No problem, I said, should be fine—and glad nobody passed out in the room. Uschi showed me a technical point in her SNP FISH analysis that suggests we can dramatically reduce our false-positive rate, which is awesome (and I’m so proud of all the coding she’s learned!). I filled our cell dewar with liquid nitrogen for a while, looks like it’s fully operational, so can throw away the return box. Sydney pulled me into the scope room to look at this amazing new real-time machine learning image segmentation software that Chris had installed. Paul’s back in med school, but dropped by and we chatted about his residency applications for a bit. While we were chatting, Lauren dropped off half a coffee milkshake I won in a bet. Then off to group meeting, which started with a spirited discussion about how to make sure people make more buffers when we run out, after which Ally showed off the latest genes she’s been imaging with expansion microscopy, and Sareh gave her first lab meeting presentation (yay!) on gene induction (Sara brought snacks). Then collaborators Raj and Parisha stayed for a bit after group meeting to chat about that new idea I’d talked about with John—they love the idea, but brought up a major technical hurdle that we spent a while trying to figure out (I think we’ll solve it, either with brains or brute force). And then, sat down, stared at that one half-finished sentence again, only to see that it was time to bike home to deal with the kids.

So yeah, an objective measure of the day would definitely be, hey, I was supposed to write this one sentence, and I couldn’t even get that done. But all in all, now that I think about it, it was a pretty great day! I think PIs often lament their lack of time to think, reminiscing about the Good Old Days when we had time to just focus on our work with no distractions, that we maybe forget about how lucky we are to have such rich lives filled with interesting people doing interesting things.

That said, that sentence isn’t going to write itself. Hmm. Well, maybe if I wait long enough…

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Quick take on NIH point scale: will this shift budget uncertainty to the NIH?

Just heard about the new NIH point scale, and was puzzling through some of the implications. First, quick summary: NIH, in an effort to split the pie more evenly, is implementing a system in which each grant you have is assigned a point value, and you are capped at 21 points (3 R01 equivalents). Other grants are worth less. The consequences of this are of course vast, and I'm assuming most of this is going to be covered elsewhere. I'll just say that I do think some labs are just plain overfunded, so this will probably help with that. Also, it's clear from the point breakdown that some things are incentivized and disincentivized, which probably has some pluses and minuses.

Anyway, I did start wondering about what life would be like for a big lab working with 3 R01s. One of the realities of running such a lab is budget uncertainty. I remember early on when I started at Penn, a (very successful) senior faculty member took me to lunch and was talking about funding and said, "Jeez, my lab is too big, and I've been thinking about how I got here. Thing is you have a grant expiring and you want to replace it, so you have to submit 3 grants hoping that one will come in, but then maybe you get 2 or even all 3, and now you have to spend the money, and your lab gets too big." Clearly, this is bad, and the new system will really help with that. I guess what will happen is that if you get those 3 grants, then you will only take one of them. And, you may have to give back the rest of the grant you already have so that you don't go over 21. Think about this now from the point of view of the NIH: you're going to have money coming back that you didn't expect, and grants not funded that you thought would be funded. The latter is I suppose easy to deal with (just give it to someone else), but I wouldn't be surprised if the former might cause some budgetary problems. Basically, the fluctuations in funding would shift from the PIs to the NIH. Which I think is on balance a good thing. It makes a lot more sense to have NIH manage a large pool of uncertainty in funding than to have individual scientists try and manage crazy step function changes in funding, which will hopefully allow scientists to have more certainty on how much money to expect moving forward. Nice. But maybe I haven't thought through all the angles here.