Monday, December 8, 2014

Semester Ending

My travel for the semester if finally wrapped up and I can start to get caught up on research projects as the fall semester comes to a close. 2014 has been quite a good year. My group published a record number of papers, I've given a bunch of talks at seminars and conferences around the world without anyone saying that my research sucks or pointing out that the work has been done before. I graduated my first PhD student, started a company, and got some new funding. So all in all, shit is going well.

Now I just have to keep doing all this stuff and then some as I become more senior and expectations continue to rise. I don't know if it's the New England winter, but I definitely don't feel as happy and energized as I did a few months ago. One thing weighing me down is a lack of funding. Experimental research and students are expensive. One grant a year doesn't cut it for a decent sized research group.

I'm still waiting to hear back about my NSF CAREER proposal from July. Several of my friends have received their rejection letters, but mine is still pending. My hope grows with each day, but I also remember that in the previous two years I was rejected in February. My proposals usually score well and the NSF kicks out the bottom and funds the top first. So each passing day also probably means I have yet another decent, but not quite fundable proposal. My other annoyance is that my R01 was not placed into the study section that I requested. The CSR convinced me this was for the best, but now I think I should have gone with my gut and stuck with my guns and told them to put me where I asked. I know some of the members of this new panel, but I highly doubt that they know me, whereas just about everyone on the panel I requested knows my work. I'm really curious to see how this plays out, but the panel doesn't meet for a few more months. Tying in with my lower energy, I've had several stories I wanted to post about, but I've been too tired and now I've forgotten most of them. Hopefully a few weeks off from class and meetings will recharge my energy level.

Monday, November 10, 2014


OMG, Doritos flavored Mountain Dew! Just what I need in the midst of my tenure tour and major conference season. That is all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Victory is mine

Not really, but I did manage to submit my R01 just before the Monday deadline. I haven't been very productive so far this week after finishing that marathon stretch, which also included unavoidable teaching, service, and travel.

These days I'm busy traveling for my tenure tour, which is fun, but also tiring. I've also been presenting at conferences, and twice recently I've spoken with speakers from my session, later the same day, who didn't bother attending my talk. They don't even have the decency to sit through 2-3 hours of presentations in the session that they themselves presented in. I really don't understand these people. In my mind there are only two reasons for this 1) they are so busy, they can't even attend a single entire session, which is ridiculous if we've really come to that in our profession, or 2) they don't give a shit what other people in their field are doing. After tenure, I'm going to start asking them which category they are in. I suspect most people would fall into category 2 if they are being honest with themselves.

I really try to listen to the related talks when I attend a conference, otherwise what is the point? Now I do attend some conferences where I don't really go to the talks, but that's because for those I already saw the people present within the last year or so and know what they are doing. If there is someone presenting in my field that I haven't heard before, even if they are new, I try to attend their talk to find out what they are doing. But I always attend the entire session I'm presenting in, unless I have to run to the airport.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Transitioning to NIH applications

I've always worked for people that were NSF/DOD funded and as a result I'm much more familiar with structuring research to satisfy those agencies and writing those types of proposals. I've had actually had very reasonable success at NSF, compared to real and published funding rates, even though each rejection feels like a dagger into my heart. I say real and published because if you look on the NSF site, they often claim about 15-20% funding rates, but this includes supplements, which are for tiny amounts and aren't peer reviewed. Panels I've sat on are routinely in the 5-10% funding range. My stats are 3 for 10 not including supplements, and 5 out of 12 with supplements, which is actually quite good so far if you look at it from that perspective. This also means that I've pretty much used up the charity of NSF. You can't run a decent sized (~6) research group on NSF funding alone, which is what I want to do.

DOD requires building relationships with program managers, which is something I'm working on, but no success there yet, partly because my research is evolving toward medical applications. I've put in a few DOD proposals for open calls, but there you don't get a score so there is no way to tell if you are close or not.

For NIH however, I'm 0 for 4, although I have yet to submit to a standard R01. I've done R21, RFAs, and special things like the "new innovator." I've yet to even get a proposal scored. My NIH funded colleagues aren't sharing their proposals and most of them hide behind the fact that they haven't received new funding since the change from 25 to 12 pages, which happened in early 2010, right before I started my TT position. This is part of the issue of not being at a top place. I've read a few books about NIH writing and looked at the examples on the NIH websites, but I still don't have a great feel for putting together great NIH proposals. Where NSF also helps is that they really try to get new PIs in on panels so you get exposed to a boat-load of proposals, which helps give you a feel for good vs. bad and panels. NIH has a mechanism for bringing in new faculty, but it is at the SRO's discretion and even though I've been actively trying to get on panels, I've yet to get invited. Any advice for how to break into this game? One of my biggest issues is that I'm having trouble drawing the line between what fits as an aim vs. what should be broken off into a separate proposal. My group works on a number of related by separate things. Can each aim attack a problem from a different point of view? Should that be three separate proposals? From the engineering side, you get the added challenge that you are never considered an expert regarding a specific disease or biological system. So when I proposal a set of experiments, based on our unique technology, that would give new insight or help doctors, I always feel like the M.D. and bio Ph.D. people just say what does this engineer know about our niche field, how can he possibly contribute to something we've spent our entire careers studying. Suggestions/help would really be appreciated. I need to start going after R01s and don't want to look like a fool doing it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Monthly Update

So summer is in full swing. That means paper and grant writing for me. For TT engineering faculty this time of year generally means working on the NSF CAREER proposal, unless you are one of the lucky few that already has one. I'm putting in my third and final attempt this year. Fingers crossed. I feel ok about it, but because of the budget, scope of NSF funding areas, and need for integration with teaching activities, I've had to twist and turn the idea a bit so that it fits this mold. Other than that, this is the happiest summer that I've had since starting down the tenure track. I'm trying to savor this time, since I know this fall will be a shit storm. I'll be teaching a new course and traveling extensively as part of my tenure tour. Hopefully I'll be graduating my first PhD student and taking on some new ones to keep growing my lab. Well, back to grant/paper writing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

DrugMonkey's doing it, so maybe I should too?

DrugMonkey, who I read regularly, is trying to unearth his lurkers and/or stalkers. I would also like to learn more about the people who look at my blog so that I can give you more of what you want, beyond my occasional outburst.

1) Tell me about yourself. Who are you? Do you have a background in science? If so, what draws you here as opposed to meatier, more academic fare? And if not, what brought you here and why have you stayed?

2) Have you told anyone else about this blog? Why? Were they folks who are not a scientist?. Ever sent anything to family members or groups of friends who don't understand your career?

3) How did you find me and how do you regularly follow me? To my knowledge, I'm not on Twitter or Facebook. Should I be?

I'll start.
1. I'm at TT at a school that is aspiring to be an R1. My degrees are engineering based and I'm inching ever closer to submitting my tenure package. I'm still not convinced this is the most awesome job ever, but it is way better now than in year 1.

2. I've told a few very close friends about this blog, although no one in my city or at my institution. I don't know if they read it, but it's a way for them to see what I'm up to. I've told some colleagues and perspective TT folks about other blogs to help them with issues that they are facing.

3. I started by searching the googles for blogs when I was first starting out. I found some really great blogs and advice, but also no one with my background. So I started one, to help other shy engineers like me, but mostly to help me vent and feel connected to a community that I still don't have at work or in my town. I don't have my pseudonym on the Twitter or Facebook, mostly because I'm not sure that it would reach any additional peoples. If I hear otherwise, I might set those up.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Getting Tenure Update

I was out conferencing quite a bit this spring and networking with fellow tenure-trackers and the recently tenured. One thing that I noticed, for the good, is that the physical sciences and engineering departments are starting to realize that funding is getting really hard to come by. I spoke with multiple people that made it through the process with only one externally funded grant.

The tide has not turned everywhere yet though. There are some places out there that are considering not tenuring people that have even two funded grants, and I'm not talking about Caltech/MIT type schools. Sure, fit with colleagues and a slew of other factors play into these things, but in general places need to get on the ball, or they will just wither away without young faculty joining their ranks.

The main message is publish, publish, publish. While this is also somewhat out of your control, it is definitely more certain than funding. We'll see how this game turns out. I've heard rumors that journals are starting to look at the person/lab submitting manuscripts as a metric in considering publication to increase their own impact factors. Talk about a system spinning out of control.

Anyway, I'm pretty relatively happy these days. I've had a second external grant funded and publications are trickling out a decent rate. The clock is slowly ticking down toward package submission and right now I'd like time to move a bit faster.

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.