Thursday, November 29, 2012

creature comforts

I really really enjoy the fact that, as long as I'm not teaching, I can take off from work in the middle of the day and do whatever I want without worrying about a boss coming to check on me. Of course doing whatever I want is usually limited to writing proposals/papers in a cafe or at home in my pajamas, but still it's these little things in life that make it better. And I'm really, really looking forward to the semester ending to get a few weeks without undergrads constantly judging me and committee meetings. I'll save my rantings about judgemental self-centered undergrads for another post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Communicating with the general public

The stuff I do is most definitely not simple. The work is nowhere nearly as complicated as string theory, but even the simplest devices my group makes require 3-4 different fundamental knowledge areas. This apparently makes my research beyond the grasp of understanding of even reasonably educated people with "science backgrounds." I have a few different one-sentence descriptions of the work, depending on which aspect of a project I happen to be focusing on that week, but if someone then follows up with a how or why question, it almost instantly becomes too complex to answer without a whiteboard and refresher course in either engineering, chemistry, or biology.

All to often, the person I'm speaking with will latch on to one part of what I do and run with it, which is fine if it's just two people chatting. But I cringe when they then turn around and try to describe what I do to someone else. This happens generally for two different reasons. 1) They are in academia and try to explain it to a colleague or 2) they are a reporter and try to explain it to the public. The first situation has more effect on me, as the colleague might work in a related field and get the wrong impression of what I do and then think that I do crappy research or think I'm an expert on this one topic and then turn to me for answers. The second situation perpetuates misinformation to a large audience, which as an educator feels very irresponsible.

I think this is a problem that is commonly faced by researchers that are "inter-" or "multi-" disciplinary. (Is multi better than inter?) One approach that I'm working on is to only talk about one tiny, single disciplinary aspect of the work. This works to an extent, until the person I'm talking with tries to be smart and says something like "hasn't this been done before" or "how is this different from X" which then forces me to start to elaborate and leads to chaos.

When you are able to describe the work in one sentence, the opposite problem sometimes pops up. Difficulties and challenges are disguised. The worst is when they say something along the lines of "oh, that seems easy." Yes, the tiny piece I'm telling you about will not take years to solve.

Condensing cutting edge research to sound bites and Twitter posts is incredibly challenging. I had to submit a 100 word abstract the other day. I'm not long winded by any means, I think 6 page R21s are overkill, and want to shoot myself when DOE proposals list a 25 page limit, but 100 words is just too few too explain how 3 different areas of research come together to create new and useful results.

In my mind, this is what causing the disconnect between academia and everyone else. We're forced to distill the work/results into a headline. "We're curing cancer" "Climate change is real" You can only say things so many different ways in 4-5 words. People start to lump all the research together and get tired of it. "Gee, how many people do we need working on this problem" "I hear about this all the time, why isn't it solved yet."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Acceptable derogatory terms

I don't want to offend good people. Really, I don't. But I really want to offend bad, lazy, incompetent people. What terms can I use to get the message across quickly and efficiently while in a moment of anger? Can we at least make it ok to use the word fuck in an adjective form? (for complete analysis on parts of speech see here) Can we agree that fuck as a work doesn't offend anyone and therefore it will be the official term to express extreme anger (e.g. you fucking incompetent sorry excuse for a human being). I'm open to suggestions.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Marketing and Sales

This year I really feel like some sort of door-to-door salesman. As a TT PI, I feel like a huge part of my job is selling what my lab does. Hi there, my lab is awesome, here are some of the reasons why....(fill in with unabashed egotistical stump speech)

I'm emailing strangers to try to start scientific discussions and collaborations by telling them how awesome our research is and that they just absolutely have to work with us. Making sure people see what we are doing. To try to get on big PI radar screens.

I've been cold calling program managers at various DoD agencies. Please read a paragraph about my work and consider throwing some crumbs my way. Act now, if you don't fund this work, the security of the country will be at stake. My research will help you defeat our enemies.

This requires a fair amount of cojones and agressiveness, qualities generally lacking in engineers. Maybe it's different in other fields. My experience has been that to grow big, you have to be boisterous and animated. You have to be able to entertain site visitors. You almost have to ooze charisma. It takes a certain personality type. It also helps to be tall. Think about the academic big wigs you know. I know many excellent researchers that are quiet and more subdued who do great work and do well in their careers, but they typically don't run super groups (meaning $1 million plus in annual research income, 15 or more group members). The high school quarter backs and team captains run the show here just as much as in the business world.

I don't really have a strong opinion about this system, other than this is the game I have to play. I'm not by nature one of these alpha personalities that lights up a room. I do work hard to be that way though. So far it seems to be working, it is however quite tiring to be this person. Several of my colleagues refuse to partake in this practice. They don't want to bend and mold their research to fit someone else's vision, to travel non-stop and become detached from the day-to-day operations of their labs. Perhaps that is why we aren't a top R1.

Friday, September 7, 2012

interpersonal communication

In the midst of selecting new students for the lab. We have multiple students that described themselves as having good interpersonal communication skills. What would be really great is if they had included their intrapersonal communication skills.

I'm curious if other T/TT folks out there are influenced by how the candidate looks on paper, especially by GPA/GRE scores that might allow them have a better chance of obtaining external graduate fellowships? I haven't been on one of these panels, but from having applied and having seen a small sample of other students apply, it seems that those less important (in my eyes) criteria are heavily weighted in the decisions.

Also, how much do you push/assist your students with these applications? After all they are newbs and (especially in my field) have never even heard much of the terminology of what they are about to embark upon for their Ph.D.s.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Successful Group Journal Clubs

Pro tip:
I don't know about everyone out there, but all of the journal clubs that I was part of during grad school and postdocing were INCREDIBLY BORING! Students would choose obscure papers or interesting papers that were completely unrelated to the research program so no one else bothered to read them, turning journal club into a mandatory show and tell. They would cut and paste the figures and essentially say this paper is good. There was very little discussion. The standard predictable questions were why is this interesting and I don't understand X, please explain. I always felt forced to dig up some paper that other group members haven't read yet, which usually meant it was not related to their or my research and therefore on the most basic level a waste of time. The club would meet weekly or biweekly and feel like a chore that satisfied the professor's need to feel intellectual.

Now as faculty myself, I want to make everyone be intellectual, but I don't want to subject them to a journal club. What I tried recently, partly by accident, was to send all of my grad students one of the manuscripts that I agreed to review. I had each of them write up a review and present it at an inpromptu meeting. It was a great success. Everyone had comments about the paper, some students thought it was good, some thought it had major flaws. We really got into the details. They then sent me all of their comments and my review work for that one paper was done.

Of course there is one catch to this. The manuscript has to be relavent to the group's research. In this case, it was very related and I primed it by saying that the results might affect the students' research projects. Not every manuscript will work. Most of the stuff I get for review is only tangentially related to the field, but at least some of the manuscripts are right there. I look forward to doing this again in the future.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Let's start an engineering Super-PAC

I saw a great commercial recently on TV, where several individuals simply say what they invented. For example, “I invented the text message, I invented Words with Friends, I invented the phone camera, etc.” At the end it turned out to be a commercial for Best Buy trying to get people to buy gadgets. Wouldn't it be great if it had simply ended with the question: “What will you invent today?” We really need to find a way to get people think just a tiny bit about the world around them. How exactly does your cell phone work? Engineers need to form some Super-PACs to lobby on our behalf and run some cool commercials. I don't know if "Got milk" gets people to buy more milk, but everyone knows the commercials at least.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

poor folks

Can the peeps that don't come from upper middle class families/academic/professional degree families please raise their hands? I've been working on some blog posts that I hope to have up soon, but after the last few weeks of conference schmoozing, i'm not particularly enthralled with academic snobbery. Ooh, my entire family are doctors and engineers or lawyers. Academics are some of the worst 1% because they pretend to relate to and empathize with the common man.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Refusing to Review Revisions and Other Musings

Haven't posted in a while because life is about as boring as it can be right now with regards to my career. Classes are finished up. The group is chugging along. Papers are slowly being written. Grant proposals are being written very quickly. The monotony of work as taken hold of me. Took just under 2 years. So this is what my life will be like, assuming I make tenure, until sometime close to death. Yeah, things are different each day at the microscopic level (new committees, new results, disgruntled students, etc.), but the big picture doesn't change unless I decide at some point to jump ship or move up the administrative ladder. So here is a glimpse into todays activities.

What is the etiquette on reviewing revisions? A journal I was reviewing for recently had an explicit question asking if I would be willing to review a revised version of the paper. the question comes right after the recommendation question. In this particular case, I rejected the paper. There was nothing wrong with the paper, it was just very lame work and it had been submitted to one of the top journals in the field. I've always said yes in the past to the question of reviewing a revision, because I'm a good little TT citizen. In this case though, no amount of fixing would make it not lame, and if the devices were used to do an interesting study, it would no longer be the same paper. So I said no. I don't want to give this group hope that this work will be published in this particular journal. I am not against though reading a new version of the paper. Since I always over analyzing everything, now I'm wondering what the underlying meaning is for this question on the review and if it has any special implications for the authors.

Related to this, what is the difference between 'accept with major revisions' and 'reject and resubmit'? Both options are available, along with accept, accept with minor revisions, just reject, and reject but submit to a different journal. This is how I spent my Saturday night.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Zooming along

Thought I would post a quick update. For the last several weeks, I feel like my life has been flying by, like I'm trapped in an indy car going around the track at 200mph. Can't wait for the semester to end to take a quick pit stop and refuel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Someone killed the Scientific Method

While judging a science fair recently, the fair organizer announced that the scientific method is passe and that in a few years, it will not even be a category for judging projects. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard this. I thought that they were joking, but none of the other judges in the room laughed or even looked bewildered. So when was this decision made and what is going to replace it? I tried to Google this and this is the most relevant article that I found:,1976/

I also found a few stories how modeling and simulation were being added to the scientific method to optimize experimental design, but nothing about school districts dropping the scientific method from their science class curriculum. I'm not sure how to search for this properly as I don't know what is replacing the principal principle of scientific inquiry. Education professionals, please enlighten me so that I can modernize my research endeavors. I really really hope that this is just going to be a name change since "the scientific method" supposedly sounds boring and does not inspire kids to become scientists.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Doodle and Monkey

Doodle Polls and Survey Monkey are quickly becoming my most hated websites. What started out as good ideas are now being abused by faculty and staff in trying to find meeting times and input on various topics. Sending me a Doodle Poll with 40 day/time slots is ridiculous, especially if it takes you over a week to actually pick a date. There is no way I'm going to block off 40 slots for 1 potential meeting. Do you really expect me to cross reference my schedule against 40 potential meeting times spread over a whole month?!And if you wait two weeks before chosing a winner, odds are my time is already dedicated to another cause and your poll FAILED. Then there are all the people who already for whatever reason don't bother replying to these things. There should be an option for that in the poll "don't bother me or I don't care or I'm not going no matter what." If you insist on using these sites, I propose to impose limits on these things, say no more than 10 time slots and 3 days to identify the winner, if that.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

working hard / hardly working

Ok. How much do faculty really work? This is me. Most weekends, I'm lucky if I invest one quarter to one half of one day usually. During the week, I usually do 9am to 6pm and then 2-3 hours in the evenings twice a week. When I have a proposal due, I'll spend 3-4 days working 16-18 hours a day. Last year I did 9 proposals as lead/sole PI. I took three weeks of vacation total. That's a lot of hours for almost any job in the world, outside of say doctors, nurses, military, lawyers starting out, and maybe some consultants. The difference, and maybe it's just me, but I think not, I almost never stop thinking about work. At the movies, while watching TV, on the train, I'm thinking about work and all the stuff I have to do and how it never goes away. There's no slow season, there's no hanging up my coat.

And compared to all these other blogs I'm reading, I feel like I'm not spending nearly as much or enough time on this job as all the other TT faculty out there. Talk about Catholic guilt. Why is it that I'm competing against every other professor in the world? And will do it all alone until I retire. In a company, you have co-workers, colleagues, at a startup, you might start alone, but you build and add people. I don't know about medical doctors, do they feel like they are competing against every other doctor out there? There's not really a team for faculty. I try to get my trainees on board, but their hearts aren't in it. They see how much I work and can't wait to graduate and leave academia as far behind as possible. So help me out, are all you TT folks out there really working the kind of hours that you blog?  Can I at least not feel guilty for taking a Saturday off?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Welcome to the 2012 Edition

I missed the boat on creating a year in review blog, but to summarize, all-in-all 2011 was a good year professionally. Good things: one federal and one internal grant funded, group is growing, lab dynamic seems ok, results starting to slowly trickle in, putting together drafts for two papers. Took a real vacation during the recent break. Didn't check my email for a whole week, didn't bring my laptop with me. It was great.

Funny thing though, I feel very guilty telling my colleagues about it and I get the feeling that they are a bit jealous. This self imposed craziness and constant Science is a bit rediculous. Academia is a business and a job these days more than ever and we are not being paid enough to work like slaves. Notice, the administration isn't working nearly as much and yet they get paid significantly more. Us scientists need to calm the fuck down. The world can wait one extra day for the next big scientific breakthrough. I'm taking my vacation and if you don't grant me tenure for that, then you all can go screw yourselves.

Bad things: lost one of my first graduate students, another one didn't work out. What stings the most though are the teacher evaluations I got last semester. My scores dropped significantly and I got several mean comments. This is after I implemented the suggestions from the previous semester to improve the course. I hope this isn't a trend, but I also understand the criticism. Most of the comments had to do with students saying that they could have taught themselves the material and that they want to get more out of the lectures. With the rising cost of education, students are starting to expect more and more from classes. I think even faculty at elite research universities are going to start hearing it, if they aren't already.

2012 is looking busy. I'm teaching a new course this semester so I have to invest a bunch of time into that. I'm a bit jealous of the new hires that were able to negotiate a semester off from teaching. I wonder if I should have stonewalled during negotiations and said that it would be a deal breaker. Got some new ideas for grant proposals, which means the creative juices are flowing. Now the cricky part is getting the preliminary data to support the ideas. Thought about making an animal sacrifice as the reviewer panel for my NIH grant met today.