Thursday, April 3, 2014

spring musings

So yesterday my city's collective hive brain decided that it is now springtime and everyone took out their bikes and shorts and just made it happen, even though it is only 45 degrees F out. Very strange, this phenomenon.


Vanilla scented air fresheners in public bathrooms only make them more disgusting. Hey building maintenance folks, vanilla does not make the smell of poop better.


Recently I've been feeling like I've chosen the absolute worst field to work in. Don't go into biosensors folks! I'm too engineering to get funding from biologists because they hate change or trying new things and I'm too biology for the engineering folks who think my ideas are too obvious and that these problems must have been solved already or the problem isn't important enough because it's not cancer.


There are two categories of people that get funding in this field. There are nutjobs that can convince others that their ridiculous sensing scheme will somehow work and be useful. They sell the transformative and innovative part, when in reality it is not practical or useful. The other set are the bigwigs that are out of touch with the field and still think that adding carbon nanotubes to their sensors will revolutionize everything. This group tends to blind people with their years of experience and convince them that truly trivial problems aren't solved yet. Or that they can cure cancer if they make their sensors out of a different material. It often means you haven't done a thorough literature search or talked to anyone in the community. Common people, we don't need a more sensitive glucose sensor. Just because you say we do doesn't make it real. Sure you can build it, but after you spend $1 million dollars of NIH money you will find out that 1) the glucose level in your preferred fluid is not correlated at all with blood levels, or 2) it lags so far behind that it is useless for patients. Companies have known this for decades, but they don't publish their results, especially not failed experiments. So yes, you go ahead and try that. You'll find out the truth when you try to commercialize your newly patented worthless technology.


Anyone proposing a reasonable approach to a modestly difficult problem will not get funding. Sorry, it's not transformative. Sorry, you're not curing cancer. No funding for you. Since I'm not a bigwig yet, I will have to go down the path of the nutjobs soon and start proposing things like sensors for measuring gamma radiation emission from cells for early detection of the onset of cancer. Screw anyone that says that all of your signal will be lost in the background of the ridiculous complex surrounding environment. I'll reach that obvious conclusion in 5 years, after my R01 funding ends and I've spent two million dollars.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The widening divide

I cyberstalk a lot of people that I grew up with. I know, I'm a sad person, but it reminds me of where I came from and lets me keep track on where most of my former classmates are at in their lives. They did end up on a wide range of trajectories, but academically the median finished high school and attended some community college. Many left the neighborhood where they grew up for low end suburban lives. From the median and below group, almost everyone is married and had 2-3 kids by the time they reached 30. They work non-white collar jobs. I don't quite know how to define the DMV, bank tellers, department and convenience stores, hair salons, car sales, etc. Some are repairmen. On the high end of the spectrum are the college grads that ended up as nurses, military, corporate sales, and nondescript office positions, with an engineer or two sprinkled in.


What got me reminiscing, was that one of the female people from my past just took their son to Hooters for his 10th birthday, and not because he wanted to. In this demographic, there is little outrage about inequality and sexism. They want manly men, and women that have several kids and only work part time. Most of their Facebook posts are about getting drunk, with highlights including going to sporting events, and vacations to Cancun or the Caribbean. Several of them are republican and vote against their own self interests. They have no problem buying their kids the latest Mily Cyrus album. They cheer when their kids win a fight at school. I want to tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves, but are they really wrong? My old friends would just tell me to fuck off and mind my own business. With education and insulated socialite lives, we train ourselves to suppress our natural instincts. We convince ourselves to feel guilty for being competitive and wanting to win and dominate others. And yet capitalism depends on winning and sex sells. Is being hyper PC and sensitive individuals really in the best interest of human civilization?


My life these days is so very different, and the people I interact with can't even conceive, yet alone relate to the people I grew up with, which are the growing majority of the US. It makes me feel strange and out of place. I would much rather have a beer and talk about the game then drink wine and discuss the latest geopolitical conflict. I do however enjoy my comfortable, elitist life, and take great pride in being able to have a discussion about global politics. A lot of these things I still instinctively get drawn to, even though I know better. For example, I am not a fan of the anti-bullying movement. Bullying is not going away. It is too instinctively ingrained in us as animals. There will always be bullies, and if kids don't learn how to deal with them when they are young, how are they going to interact with them as adults? Cyberbullying between kids is even more ridiculous. So your feelings got hurt. Would it be the end of the world if you simply stopped having an internet presence?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Yay! Work sucks slightly less for the moment!

I think complaining worked. It looks like I'm going to have a new grant funded soon! It's not the NIH though, so a great score doesn't guarantee anything, but the program manager seems enthusiastic. Also, finally managed to wrangle a paper through the system. Of course another one got rejected during that time and I'm swamped with service obligations, but small victories right? The awarding of grants I find is a lot like the tenure process. There is not a good time to celebrate. It can take months to receive the money even after seeing the scores and recommendations. By then you are already praying for the next one to hit. Question for the successful, when do you tell people/colleagues that your grant is going to get funded? When do you celebrate? Or do you not mention it to anyone because it will only make them feel worse for not having any funding? I feel a bit of this at my place since a big chunk of people haven't gotten money in a long while.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Work sucks

I could really use some good news professionally. Annual review time is upon me and 2013 wasn't stellar, mostly because so much of it is still pending. Also, I'm trying to expand my group into some new areas and I can't seem to get any of our new results published. The people in the area I talk to are all very encouraging and don't have any criticism for manuscripts I show them, but then the reviewers keep tearing me a new one. I'm thinking maybe I should just stick to working in the same area for 30 years pushing out mediocre and derivative crap since that seems to seems to be a winning strategy for a bunch of people.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

So How Important is a NSF CAREER Anyway?

For those of you in the engineering area, how much value is there in an NSF CAREER award toward getting you to tenure or not? If I bring in a decent amount of funding, just not a CAREER, will I be ok? Because my normal grants get funded. How much bonus do you get on your third submission? How does the panel know that you are on your last try? Do you just say it somewhere in your proposal?


I think you can guess how I did on my most recent submission. I really think that I'm submitting to the wrong panel because all of the reviews focus on nitpicky details that are not central to the proposal or even uncorrectable flaws. They all loved the instrument I proposed, but dinged me on how I proposed to use it. Wouldn't it be easier to just comment that 'hey, you should really run this and this with the new thing you're developing'? Because it will work for multiple applications and systems, which is why it's a useful thing to develop and you know it. I've learned my lesson, don't send proposals to a bunch of bioengineers that think they know everything about biology when the focus in my mind is on the device, not the application. Especially when you have supporting letters from actual biologists saying that the experiments you chose are important to them and their field. If I send it to electrical engineers though, I have to convince them that this is really new and not derivative of other devices and still hope that they don't have some preconceived notion of what biologists need.


I'm also worried that if I change panels on my next try, the reviewers won't know the history I've gone through already fixing up the proposal on previous submissions and find some other thing to complain about. I'll have to introduce myself to an entire new community and try to guess what they will focus on.  This is the problem of being interdisciplinary. 1 or 2 people in 5 different programs might know my stuff, but I'll never get a panel where most of the people in the room know what I do. It's a double edged sword in my subfield. I can potentially get funding from 3 different divisions and like 10 programs, but only with a strong co-PI that is an expert in those areas. I can't do that with a CAREER grant though.


Finally, there is a major problem with the overworked panel review system and current structure at NSF. 3 reviewers find 1 or 2 reasons why they don't want to fund your proposal, but maybe there are 3 or 4 things that really need to be addressed. You fix those 2 things and they come back on the next round with you should fix this and this because now I bothered reading past the first page. Or you get different reviewers that say, no your "fixed" text is wrong and you should really do what you originally proposed because there is no rebuttal system. It's like working with a senile advisor on a paper. Anyway, that is my rant for today instead of calling the program manager.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hello 2014

It's been a while since I've posted. Mostly because I took a pseudo vacation, gotten sit, worked a bunch on my stuff and reviewing proposals for an upcoming panel. I'm starting to get caught up on critical stuff, but now I'm getting sick again :(


Not much academically interesting stuff has been taking place. My proposals from this summer are still swirling around in an infinite pending vortex. My papers are getting written, rejected, revised, and resubmitted. I'll miss GMP's blog! Anyway, I feel like I've settled into this job finally. I'm not worried about teaching any more. My trainees all have lots of interesting stuff to work on. I'm doing everything I can and don't plan to go any crazier than this. My career is in the hands of the tenure gods and other mythical characters, such as program managers and editors. It's like AA (academics anonymous) says, you have to surrender your life to the higher power and just live in the moment.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

bubble phds looking for postdocs

Like most faculty, I'm pretty regularly bombarded with emails from people looking for graduate student and postdoc positions in my lab. One thing that has really started getting on my nerves are grad students and postdocs looking for a postdoc position in my lab like I just have money to through around. For qualified people, which most of them are not for my research, I usually reply back saying that I don't have funding, but that I would be happy to help them apply for external fellowships to work in my lab. What boggles my mind is the standard reply  that I receive back: great, what are some fellowships that I can apply for? Umm, you are about to get your PhD or already have one, you want to get a postdoc position, and you haven't bothered to look at fellowship options and you can't be bothered to do some research on your own? How about writing me: I'm looking for postdoc positions and I'm planning to apply for such and such fellowship so that I could work in your lab. Would you be willing to be my mentor or be listed as a potential supervisor. I'd be all over that.

When I was applying for postdoc positions, I was told to offer to write fellowship applications when I applied for positions so that I didn't look like some moocher that just wants money. Especially in engineering, where postdoc positions are relatively short 1-2 years normally, the last thing most faculty need is to pay a person to be in there lab that is actively looking for another position, because that is what most engineering postdocs are doing. They are thinking about their future independent research and applying for faculty jobs, not devoting all their time to their current project.

I'm more than happy to help you get your own money, but at least try to make some effort. You are not the hot shit that you think you are where I just absolutely have to hire you to work in my lab. Why aren't faculty telling their students about how to do these things?