Friday, December 25, 2015

Update: Christmas edition

It's been a while since my last post. Life has been crazy busy. Things are going mostly well though. Learning more about start-up culture, and it is definitely a culture, almost a cult. I like the general high level of energy and excitement of people starting and working for start-ups. Mine is having its ups and downs, but continuing to build moment. A word of advice though to faculty out there: you have to keep a discerning eye regarding what should be commercialized. I've encountered a few loud-mouth professors that think every project they have is a start-up that is ready to go. This is definitely not the case, people! One was sharing how the industrial mentor he was working with was an idiot. According to this professor, the industrial mentor, who had started several successful companies, was the one that didn't know the market or the value of the technology versus the professor who has never held a job in industry. Hilarious!
In other news, my tenure package is moving along smoothly so far. 2015 was productive on the student and publishing side, but not so much on the funding side. I'm looking forward to 2016 and balancing my priorities some more. I've been handed my first real college and university level service commitments. I'm learning to hate administrators and figuring out how to undermine their ridiculous initiatives.
Finals week was insane, but now my grades are in, and I'm drinking away those memories while small children scream and run around me as I visit family. I have a nagging feeling of how I should be doing work, but the start of the spring semester is still a few weeks away and I need to purge before I dive back in.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

We need revolution in the sensor community

A pet peeve of mine is engineers in academia developing technology that has zero practical application. I'm fine when scientists do it and I encourage them to keep doing it, but engineers need to stop. This is particularly a problem among people that develop sensors. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO MAKE MORE SENSIVITE SENSORS THAT HAVE NO SELECTIVITY. After tenure I'm going to start writing perspective articles trashing all of the sensor papers that only measure control samples under ideal conditions. Electrical engineers are the worst offenders. They get their crap published in Science because their technology is filled with buzzwords like graphene, plasmonics, and single-molecule. This type of research is getting more and more expensive and yet provides no return on investment. I have several EE colleagues that are well-funded through the NSF and especially through the DoD to make this crap and then they go around campus asking faculty in other departments if they might have a use for this technology. NO, THERE IS NO PRACTICAL USE FOR YOUR SENSOR THAT MEASURES A 0.0000001% CHANGE OF A PHYSICAL PROPERTY. Sure it can measure the wind generated by a fart three blocks away, but it will only work in outer space. Studying the mating habits of calling ducks is 100000X more practical than what you folks are doing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

2 months later

For those two or three of you that follow my blog, you might have noticed that I tend to blog less when things are going well. Well this isn't the case necessarily this time, I've really just been busy.

I tell people that I've been working on my tenure package, but in reality, that accounts for only 4-5 days. It wasn't a hard task because I've been updating my dossier regularly during the last 5 years. Most of my time went into formatting and complaining about how much crap my university requires in the package. I have over 700 pages in the appendices documenting all the stuff I've done. My colleagues say I'm in good shape and shouldn't worry about tenure. I'm not worried, I've done everything that's expected of a TT professor, although I do feel some inferiority compared to some folks in other departments and schools that raised more money than me, published in more prestigious journals, won more honors and awards. I would say my package is average, not outstanding by any means, which drives me nuts as a competitive person, but I'm not at a top 20 program, so in my mind you can't really expect me to do much more than I did.

The real time sinks were moving into a new house and vacation travel (not really a vacation since I was mostly visiting family that I haven't seen for a long time). It's hard to get anything done while doing things like that. That's normal and part of life, but as a professor I feel this guilt for having a life. I really need to get over that, it's not like I was even getting paid during those 2 months.

Now the semester is back in full swing and all the stuff I've been putting off for the last few months feels like an overwhelming insurmountable task. Everything is due or overdue, which freezes me up like a deer in headlights. I really need to just start churning through things again and it will all be fine. I've always had this problem though, and that is why I'm writing this post instead of working :P

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Translational Research

I haven't talked about it here too much before, but I'm actively working on commercializing some of the technology my lab has developed over the last few years. I've had a hard time getting subsequent funding for some of the projects in my lab after obtaining initial internal and external grants for them. We got a few papers out that the proposed ideas do work, and then I've applied for new grants that build on the things we developed. I had this idea that this is how science works, but the proposals keep getting rejected. Yet people in industry and medicine keep telling me how this is important and they would actually use it. I have IP filed through the university on a lot of these things, and tech transfer has me meet with companies and investors, but they keep saying that it still needs more work to be proven to the point where they would jump in and they want me or one of my students to be involved when they do license it. So after several such interactions, I've decided to just make the jump myself.
Where before I've been struggling to get academic collaborators to try things out and them waiting until a grant gets funded before anything gets done, now I have actual product users testing out our technology because they will actually use it long term if it really works. I've applied for several small business grants over the last few months. I should hear the results fairly soon. The panels for SBIR/STTR reviews include business people, not just academics, so I'm hopeful that the importance of product development and validation isn't lost on them the way it is on many of my colleagues. For example, one of the comments I get in paper and proposal reviews all the time is that making nanochannels is easy and that I'm spending too much time on the device and not enough on the science. And if your only source of information is NanoLetters, then you think that making nanostructures is the easiest thing to do in the world. This one journal alone publishes hundreds of papers on this topic. Yet not one single company makes these structures commercially. Nanoparticles yes, channels no. So obviously there is something challenging about it that needs additional research and development. Anyway, we'll see how my latest move plays out. I'll keep the blog world posted.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Academic Exploitation

I love this comment from NeuroDojo. It sums up my feelings completely, even as I approach the final battle at the gates of tenure.

"There is a myth that being a scientist isn’t a job or a career, but a calling or vocation. The corollary is that people who want to do science must be willing to put with anything. That, my friends, is bull.

As I mentioned on Twitter, it isn’t reasonable to ask people to put up with an indefinite among of crap for an indefinite amount of time to join a profession. People do not have infinite patience, and they shouldn’t be expected to have infinite patience.

Make no mistake: people, particularly young people, will walk away from scientific careers..."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Finding the right fit

I think I might finally be discovering what I like to do. It only took 30+ years. I'm really enjoying my adventure of building a new venture. I'm consistently excited by the work and it moves at a faster pace than academia. It also doesn't have all of the administrative crap. Honestly, I feel like this is what engineering in academia should be, but isn't because truly useful ideas are very rare.

Most of my ideas are mediocre, but I admit it. I have lots of decent ideas for experiments that will advance our knowledge or understanding of a problem, but they won't solve anything. So far, I think I've had 2-3 ideas in my life that I think really have any sort of even minimal chance at changing the world. Insight for it's own sake is awesome, but it is science, not engineering. Most engineers in academia refuse to admit that. We have to keep busy while we struggle to come up with the next great idea, and advancing science is great, but just admit that that is what you are doing. Putting a bow on a turd doesn't make it any better, but professors are great at pontificating broader impacts without any facts to back up their claims. Sure the broader impacts statements are based on sound logic, but they are always, at best, substantiated by other journal papers that are equally based on a very limit world view. The entrepreneurs and successful business people I've been around the last few weeks have no qualms about calling folks out on their bullshit. I love that. Many profs don't, and a few even refuse to accept facts when confronted by people that work in their fields in industry. It was amusing and sad to see them try to argue, it was almost as bad as the anti-vaxers.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A need to gloat

I like the English language. There are so many words with nuanced meanings. My word for today is gloat. I need to do some gloating to make myself feel better. I don't feel like I have anyone I can really gloat to (partly because I was raised with the notion that it's inconsiderate brag about one's successes, stupid catholics and their humbleness) so I'll do it here on the interwebz. The problem with being meek and humble in the professors line of work is that there is then very little to talk about besides complaining, and I don't like constantly being Mr. Negativity. I had a couple proposals rejected this week as everyone can commiserate with, but I also have a lot of successes in the pipeline. With the end of the semester approaching, there is a lot of time that I'm spending informally with my work colleagues at various graduation events, appreciation lunches, etc., and I don't really know what to talk about with them. They're not my friends, and they can't relate to anything in my life. None of them watch South Park or Family Guy, or go to see the Avengers movies, or follow any professional sports. They just have their work and their families. I don't really have much to say about their work, since they work on different things from me and I think some of them are wasting their time on stupid research (they probably think the same about my stuff) and I've never met most of their families. We don't really have many things organized that include families and the few times we tried almost everyone backed out at the last minute (going back on your word/promise/commitment: a whole separate pet peeve of mine).

So that leaves complaining and gloating. We don't have any clear-cut superstar in my department that does every aspect of their job well. I certainly don't either, but I wish we had that person that I could aspire to and gloat to because I know their doing great professionally and won't mind my sharing. Most of my colleagues are hurting on the research funding side even more than me. They also don't publish very much. I think we have 1 person currently that publishes more than me. I have 3 papers currently under review at decent journals, I'm revising 1 for resubmission, and I'm formatting one to submit that we've collected all the data for already. My students have another 3-4 in various stages of the pipeline where they are collecting the data. None of these will go to glamour journals, but it's all decent mid-society level work and I usually get them through without rejections these days. One might argue that I could be trying for higher level journals based on this fact, but I don't like dealing with the time delays and formatting hoops going down the journal ladder. Plus I'm going up for tenure and need to pad the old CV with "accepted" papers. I have a pet side research project that is going pretty well and I'm generally happy with my students. Maybe this isn't really gloating, but it feels like it in my mind, especially given that most of my colleagues can't make these statements.

So that is me right now. Also, what should I talk about with folks? Should I just stand around awkwardly, as is typical of nerdy academics? I think I offended some folks yesterday by complaining that I can't do things anymore with my friends that now have little kids. I guess I can share stories about how cute my pets are, but I think that makes me look weird as well.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Paying for Journal Covers

I've been approached by a journal I publish some of my work in, fairly well respected in the field, large publisher, to submit artwork for the cover. They say that I was selected because of the quality of the research. This makes feel very good and appreciated. Then in small print near the bottom of the email is says that if my artwork is selected, I will have to pay over $1000. How common is this? Is this something that is determined by the publisher or by the individual journal? I've only had request for a cover once before, I got the cover that time and that publisher did not ask for any money.

If this is common, then there is a huge bias for large well funded labs to get even more recognition and highlight how awesome they are based on the fact that they or their department/university have money. I don't have $1000 to pay for open access publication, yet alone for cover art. I asked my chair and the college and they don't have money for this.

It's not Science or Nature, no one gets paper copies of middle of the road journals. So I would be paying $1000 to be listed on the front page of their website for about 2 weeks, and then be able to flaunt my cover art on my group's webpage, suggesting my work is awesome, but really it's that I had money to pay to get the cover. Question 2, is this a worthwhile investment of funds for someone going up for tenure soon?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

April Rollercoaster

We're (my colleagues) noticing a change in our incoming graduate students. They feel more entitled. I'm a huge advocate for improving working conditions for graduate students and postdocs, but there also needs to be a balance, because after all, at least in engineering, this is a major career advancement opportunity for them and they get out of it what they put in. These folks just work less and complain. We've even had students complain to the dean that too much is being expected of them. I'm talking 60 hour weeks, in my mind this is not unreasonable. Has anyone else experienced this with their new graduate students?

Beyond that, things are again getting better in my little world. I've had a particularly productive few weeks.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

March Madness

March has been filled with annoyances and disappointments.

We've recently added a senior person to our department who I respect as a scientist, but can't stand their approach to serving the department. This person came from a very different institution and doesn't have a degree in engineering. They took on several service assignments in exchange for less teaching, which annoyed me off the bat. They assign all of their work to other people (junior faculty or create subcommittees) or do such a bad job that other people take over and do things for them. They don't understand what makes our degree and department unique and constantly question why things aren't done differently instead of asking why things are done the way they are.

The people that have funding buy out so they teach less and then the people that don't have money end up teaching more and have less time to apply for grants. Seams a bit backwards.

I'm a perfectionist, like most academics, so when I had my merit review this year and saw that my scores have gone down even though my output (publications and funding brought in) more than tripled over last year, I got mad to the point of disgruntled. It's affecting my work now. I had a new very small grant funded and a few new papers accepted, and I could care less. The meaningless congratulatory emails of my colleagues don't bring me any joy anymore since I know it barely moves the merit needle and just clutters up my inbox.

I'm really questioning whether my success is limited by my ability or by the environment that I'm in. I've been visiting a lot of other schools lately, and while everyone is strapped, I've yet to meet any other junior faculty with multiple funded grants that were worried they might have to downsize their lab. Yes, there are mid- and lower-tier schools where they teach more than I do, have smaller groups, and lower quality trainees, but their universities aren't putting all of their effort into improving rankings to the point where they hurt the quality of the education. The people I meet on my visits, in general, want to talk about science and get excited about new research ideas. I'm just thinking about new funding opportunities and wondering if the new ideas are fundable.

Friday, February 13, 2015

NIH Help

Fuck a duck, my R01 submission, which was meticulously developed and written, was triaged. It's probably still a few weeks until I get the summary statement. I wasn't expecting to get funded, but I thought it would at least be discussed, particularly given my NI/ESI status. I'm really curious to see what exactly the reviewers didn't agree with.

This leads me to a new dilemma. I really didn't want my proposal reviewed by this particular panel, but a dude from CSR convinced me this was the best move. So now I want to resubmit this proposal and force it into the panel I want. Can I still do this with the NI special resubmission window? Due 4/10. The other panel might be biased by the "not discussed" now though, so maybe it would be better to wait until the next standard window and apply it as a new grant. Thoughts?

I have a completely different project that I'll be submitting for the June window. We'll see how that one fairs.

Also, how many folks out there prescreen their ideas with program managers at the various institutes before submitting grants on the topic? I've heard from a few people that this is done, but I've never met anyone who has actually done this.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Snow days and complaints

Nothing highlights my childish nature more than my complaints about working on snow days. It's totally not fair. I've spent more time working this last week than during holiday breaks. The worst part is that I'm still ridiculously behind. Mostly because I've been stuck writing letters of recommendation for myself. I can churn out letters for students at this point, but 2-3 page letters describing how awesome I am drive me nuts. Of course this is all because other faculty also hate writing LORs and pawn it off by saying I know best what to include. Which of course is also a lie. I haven't won any awards yet, so how am I supposed to know if I'm highlighting the right things? I have to write 4 of them for this stupid award. It's like pulling teeth. I'm really tempted to just start going completely over the top and saying things like "he is god's gift to chemistry" and "I'll be shocked if he doesn't get a Nobel Prize for this work."

In other complaints, the number of requests I'm getting to submit manuscripts to trash journals and to present at sham conferences is starting to get out of control. This is the new spam of academia, and it's so much worse than penis pills because occasionally I get a real invite, so I have to at least open all of this crap and glance at it. At this point I'm deleting immediately any email that starts by addressing me by my full name. These are obviously cut and paste jobs from one of my papers. I've even gotten some that are addressed to my students, because they are the first author, but I'm the corresponding author. These must be just programs sending out automatic emails. The journal names are even starting to sound downright stupid. I got an invite from the journal of microscopic organisms the other day. Today, the world-renowned Ecronicon publishing company wants me to send them a paper in the next 2 weeks. I'm afraid to even click on the link since it'll probably install a virus on my computer.

Is there any money to be made in these things? I understand the usefulness of penis pills, but paying someone hundreds or even thousands of dollars to publish a paper in an unrecognizable journal or to travel to a conference that no one has ever heard of? Beyond the absurdity, who actually has money to do this?


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Depressive side of depression

So I got 2 proposals rejected this week. I handled the first one fine, but 2 back to back like this in a week have sucked the life out of me. I couldn't get out of bed this morning, what's the point, etc. I wish I had gotten these responses months ago, I don't understand why they had to sit on this information for so long, neither was close to being funded. What really has me spiraling out of control is that the reviews really tore into the fundamentals of my research, calling it irrelevant and redundant. So apparently the majority of what my lab does is supposedly pointless and unnecessary.

It's hard to reconcile those assertions against my groups fairly good publication record and the invitations I've been getting to talk at reputable conferences in my field. I'm not sure what to think, but these reviews coming in as my cash reserves are dwindling really have cast doubt on my abilities. All of sudden, I don't know what to do next. What am I supposed to propose? These reviewers attacked the approaches I'm using to do research and questioned the big picture goal of two of the three thrusts in my lab. There's no revising and resubmitting proposals that get reviews like this. Should I shut down those projects that have been going since I started the lab and have made progress?  I think I'll have to if I can't get them funded again soon. If I propose a different technique they'll tell me I don't have expertise. AAahh! This all sucks.

Well, back to editing papers filled with interesting data and mustering enthusiasm to write a young investigator proposal that requires me to describe how awesome I am.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Happy New Year! I'm putting in my tenure package this year and I'm anxious to just get this over. I'm actually starting to get a bit bored with my job. I've sort've hit steady state and now I'm settling into a routine. Think, write, submit, repeat, edit, teach, serve, repeat. Maybe I need to move or change fields.

I'd love to get another grant funded before I go up, but that really isn't in my control and with the ridiculously long turnaround times, I only have a few more months of trying for that anyway. I'm still waiting to hear back about proposals from the summer. Most of my colleagues have heard back, but I haven't yet. This makes me nervous, I'm probably on the border for everything. Where's the stimulus package when you need one?

I got wrangled into a hiring committee and have to go through a hundred applications in the next few weeks. Separately, I've gone through a good chunk of them and I've yet to see a single US born applicant. I'm trying to figure out what this says about the US academic system and the attractiveness of TT jobs in engineering.