Academic Riff Raff.

Academic Riff raff.

The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no 'alternate' career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below...).
The current academic system (like present day academia, it assumes no ‘alternate’ career paths exist). Science Goddesses and Gods leaving us riff raff down below except a rare chosen ones (the rest will be left below…). Yes, I know it kinda looks like XKCD…call it an homage.

The President of the ASBMB had an essay talking about how academic, low quality riff raff (now are in charge of making (poor) funding decisions for who gets grants these days and how that’s a problem. Here’s how I understand it: NIH/NSF/DOE/USDA. A wretched hive of scum and villainy…Reviewers/submitters must be cautious (#SciWars).

Drug Monkey and Dr. Isis (and I presume many more– just look at the comments to ASBMB post too) have very good posts all about it.

As a member of the postdoc riff raff that coincidentally Drug Monkey also addressed a few days after his post cited above (I acknowledge I have not been a very good postdoc, I needed to work harder, get past my own psychological issues better/faster and just produce papers, period- I will submit one this month!). My PI has been better than I have a right to hope for. I have some thoughts below.

So what is it I’ve done in my science career (as I see it)?

I started this blog (the running joke is that it’s about exactly how not to be a postdoc and hopefully guiding myself to a more productive way of thinking– slow process), writing about depression, anxiety, and other things that really seem to plague a lot of academics (some succeed despite/with these things, others, like me…still trying to figure it out because I suck?!). I’ve published as middle author on a few papers, I’ve served on committees for some things, I got the ASPB to adopt a conference hashtag/incorporate twitter at conferences and live tweeted their annual meeting twice (though really, they were probably already thinking along these lines).

A lot of what I’ve done is try to get past my own mental blockage of perfectionism (the bad kind), the fear of judgment, paralyzing anxiety, feeling like I am lesser than every other human on the planet, trying to please other people ahead of myself, adopting a growth mindset (<– Can’t stress this one enough), not doing nice things for myself (maintenance, sure- exercise, eating mostly right, but all in service of trying to be a better scientist), struggling to have a life…get out from under shyness and actually do something in this world (after all, according to everyone I see on the internet, doing things is easy…you just do them…and you’re done). In some ways, it’s remarkable I’ve been as productive as I have. I do blame my brain, but then it’s me…there’s an idea in Buddhism that the first external arrow that hits you causes pain, but after that, everything else you do in reaction to that arrow, you do to yourself– usually not for the best.

Moe Sizlak had a line on ‘The Simpsons’ “I’m better than dirt…well, most kinds of dirt…not that fancy store bought stuff, I can’t compete with that”. A few years ago, I would routinely say that about myself (I know, scientifically, dirt is not insulting and quite fascinating…soil too). That I was an embarrassment of a human being taking up space on the planet someone else could use more productively than I ever could…

And I got close to acting on those feelings. I prayed to get run over by a bus or truck or have a piano fall on my head. Why didn’t I? Well, because there were always people I felt that cared about me and I couldn’t do that to them. Needless to say, great science doesn’t come when you’re in that mindset.

Since that low point, I’ve steadily improved and feel better than ever (I made a cartoon…would never have happened a few years ago)…but still all the success is in my own brain. I don’t have an amazing career (may never have one, eep!), I’m still not particularly good at getting my ideas out there (though I’ve gotten better about speaking out about mental health…that some say is courageous…but I started doing it because I felt I had nothing else to lose by doing so), I feel way behind in every conceivable way possible, and basically otherwise am not enough. I don’t always feel so bad about how I’m doing in the world,

How do we measure success in science?

For me, it has been merely a surviving, not thriving. And I think usually, the first has to come before the latter can occur. And publications is one way, a great computer program, a startup, perhaps even teaching and communicating can count, perhaps this blog counts as helping scientists be better themselves somehow (at least some of them).

That’s my hope (the basics; if you feel like you’re getting depressed, nip it in the bud, fast; if you are depressed, address it; it’s treatable. Adopt a growth mindset of improving over time, be curious). Blogging for me was also about building a writing habit (so is tweeting in a way, though that’s been about finding like-minded, interesting people and networking– Twitter in a lot of ways really has helped me hang on and I’ve met a ton of great people).

This whole thing over whether scientists should or shouldn’t tweet is partly about scientists figuring out how they can stand out more– to have more metrics they can add to their CV (Science, Nature Cell, AND 40,000 Twitter followers! I rule MOAR than the other person with only the first 3!!!!). Because it is about standing out these days in an era when hundreds of qualified candidates go up for every position out there (note, I do not count myself among them…my great accomplishment that doesn’t really help with my career materially- it doesn’t ‘count’– is treating my depression effectively so I can go live life, maybe).

This is partly the income inequality argument our society is dealing with too (see cartoon). Better to be on the PI side of the gap that seems to be widening each year the funding agencies struggle to fund science each year (and of course just pure cash money isn’t the full solution).

One in 10 or 20 of us will get chosen to be a PI for reasons possibly unclear to anyone (why that person?! They may not know exactly themselves, they just know they were and good for them (perhaps the Science Gods and Goddesses bestowing PI status/funding were beneficent that day, or perhaps there’s a higher purpose for that person). The fact that it feels natural to discuss this in religious terms belies just how opaque and mysterious becoming a PI is to me at least (yes, I know, publications, funding, engagement, networking, a startup founded, popularity, amazing idea after amazing idea…but plenty of candidates have those…though not really me).

How to split responsibility for my lack of career? Probably 90% me, 10% the man/the system/whatever, it’s mostly down to me (even my self-flagellation in this post is me being very unhelpful to myself). It’s possible I’ll make a great PI someday…there are diamond in the extreme rough stories I suppose, but probably not. My hope now is to just remain science adjacent. Science is amazing and I do think it’s a golden age for it in a lot of ways, just not particularly good for the actual scientists that practice it.

I like science because I like to think I’m helping someone somehow. I like mentoring undergrads, I like teaching, I like doing the research/coming up with ideas, I like to write (obviously), edit, and explore ideas.

Science is creative. And as a creative field, it is very hard to do, particularly when resources are extremely tight. It also relies more and more on collective creation, many minds coming together to solve a problem. Most PIs and PDs are not trained managers (research matters, people skills…less so, though that too seems to be changing a bit), we learn on the fly, and so the getting great science out of someone is not an easy equation to solve sometimes (both PIs trying to get the best out of their lab personel and PDs getting the best out of their PIs)– in fact the I think there are some things about the structure of science that get in the way of that goal too.

I hope I’ve learned some tricks and tips about managing/interacting with other people that will serve me well in the long run. For now, I need to get back to work…on something. My middling manuscript, perhaps.



Short post 4.

I am doing 5 minute writing exercises this week. Some friends are doing a hangout with me in a few…will try to get 5 minutes in before that happens. 

Today was a long day. This has been a long week. Seeds aren’t germinating in one of my experiments. My fault, grabbed a bad batch of seeds, I think :(. They will be tossed. I need to write. I need to do big things.

I need to embark on a new project for myself because the ones I have are feeling stale and I just need to do something more with life. This can’t be all there is. I keep avoiding this because it frankly sounds daft in my head: ‘yes, I do communicate science, I love it and I get paid to do it sometimes’.

I seem to gravitate towards education, communication, marketing, writing, curiosity, learning, all of that. I saw that happify infographic that went around awhile ago about introversion and I found myself saying yep..all those careers that introverts work well in are ones that appeal to me, I am a scientist (or I play one, at least?).

how does all that daftness translate into a new direction? How do I make time to explore? With experiments this week, it’s not happening. I’m taking less good care of myself than I should this week so far, and that probably isn’t good for me. But I am going after things rather intensely…leavning it all on the field as it were and that feels good.


Short post 2.

This week, I am doing a 5 minute writing exercise each day. The rule: 5 minutes on a timer and I write and publish the result (I have some thought about what to write about beforehand, but everything on page is not edited). Tags, etc. all happen after the 5 minutes is up. 

I don’t work fast usually. This writing exercise is challenging for me to think on the fly. I’m sure it’s good for me somehow, to develop my improv skills.

I suppose I’m training to write 50 cover letters in a short burst, each one customized to teh job I’m applying to. when I can bring myself to do that.

I don’t like that I’m anxious about going for new opportunities. I’m sure everyone is, but for me, I get paralyzed too easily and miss out. That’s been true my whole life and it goes back to my first line here…I don’t work fast. I think, I see implications, I think things through. I’m not sure if that’s a valuable skill how-a-days…for those few people out there who make a living writing long-form, perhaps it’s a virtue.


Breakthrough (science version).

Science is incredible. No it isn’t. Yes, it is.

In a Scientific American blog post, John Horgan (@Horganism) wrote a blog post about why he’s so skeptical of scientists and research findings because so many so-called ‘breakthroughs’ turn out to be less than advertised:

“by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexityanti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.”

In response, Gary Marcus (@GaryMarcus) wrote a defense of science on the New Yorker’s Elements blog saying that it’s not as bleak as Horgan says- there really have been breakthroughs over the last 30 years or so that have lead to very real differences in the world:

 “At the same time, it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong. But science is not just about conclusions, which are occasionally incorrect. It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before. You can both love science and question it. As my father, who passed away earlier this year, taught me, there is no contradiction between the two.”

Horgan focuses more on individual scientists, while Marcus focuses more on science in aggregate, as an enterprise. And I think that that is a key contrast.

There is a real marketing machine behind scientific discoveries, particularly in an environment where there’s fierce competition for funding. Scientists want to hype their work and say it’s worthy of funding. Sometimes scientists are deeply passionate and have a very personal connection to the work they’re promoting- which can be good or bad. If that means coming in with preconceived answers to questions, that is not a good thing in science. Passion might be required for science, or perhaps to go into science, but it isn’t good to fall too in love with your ideas- you could easily be wrong.

There are also scientific ideas/hypotheses/observations that are out there ready to be tested and brought into the fold of human knowledge. These ‘ripe for discovery’ ideas often have several people make the breakthrough nearly concurrently- think Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace or Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray- there are countless other examples. These kinds of things are usually on pretty solid footing and science expands on them as time goes on. If two scientists agree on something having independently applied the scientific method and then even more scientists come along to challenge it and find the core of it still holds up (perhaps with expansion/modification), that is the definition of scientific progress.

Science has seen an uptick in papers that are simply wrong or involve fraud of some kind. Partly, that must be a volume issue. There’s a lot more being published now. Many new legitimate journals to publish science and some not so reputable (e.g.- The “Sasquatch genome”, published in a journal the authors literally purchased to publish it). Some of the uptick is also the increased pressure that scientists are under to publish their work quickly to prove they’re being productive to get funding. As funding tightens in many places the pressure to just get it out there, right or wrong, is heightened (unlimited funding might also be a problem because then the competition of ideas is too lax).

Scientists do need to be accountable to taxpayers who fund most of the work we do. In aggregate, science and tech investment by governments has shown an enormous economic benefit. Government funded science is designed to push frontiers and eventually the ideas make it into the private sector and become the seeds or catalysts for new or existing industries. There’s a popular idea now that any science being funded must pay off in the short term. A lot of scientists I know disagree with that. We’re working the long game. It can take decades for a scientific idea to be vetted and developed enough to be applied somewhere. A lot of times a discovery might be cool, but there is no obvious point to it (astronomy/physics face this a lot I feel- why are we looking at things billions of light years away when we have problems down here on Earth to solve? Yes, the pictures are amazing, but a picture doesn’t feed anyone. Except that most photographers and camera manufacturers have astronomers to thank for current camera technology and the money that generates those pictures is all spent on Earth).

There is obviously a balance to be struck, and science, over time, will self-correct any errors it makes and as Marcus points out, those efforts are increasing. It’s also good to have very skeptical people like Horgan out there, really grilling scientists about their work and asking “Really? What are the caveats/shortcomings/trade offs of this work?” Yes, those lengthy and thorough investigations that scientists and journalists do are time-consuming and potentially expensive, but worth the effort in the long run (which I know people may not care about any more in a world of short term thinking). No scientist or human has a crystal ball to tell us where the next big thing will come from, but it likely comes from a lot of scientists putting their efforts together to get at just how nature does what it does and how we can work with and apply it.

Ever on and on.