Saturday, October 6, 2012

I don't get angry about mass emails, I just pity the fools

There's no question that in spite all the hours we spend dealing with it, email has made work easier. The ability to communicate with someone at your convenience, and have them reply at their convenience is - if it is used properly - a huge timesaver. But we start to stem this advantage this when poorly thought-out or poorly written emails are sent to large numbers of people, say, over 100. If 100 people spend 30 sec reading an email, then nearly an hour of productivity is lost. I'm not saying "never send out a mass email", I'm saying senders should be conscious of the time they are using and spend a few extra minutes making sure that the email has a descriptive subject line and is well-written. Well-written English can be read much faster and can be triaged appropriately, and a good subject line obviously helps with that as well.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Only U.S. Election Post (or why I'm watching Game of Thrones instead of the debates)

The U.S. election is in full swing, and like the two previous elections I've been in the States for, and like so many car accidents, it's hard to look away. I will say this about U.S. politics: it's freaking entertaining. After the emergence of the "forty-seven percent" video, it's so easy to deconstruct the libertarian mindset being advanced by this country-club millionaire and all the country-club millionaires that he represents, that it hardly even seems worth trying.

The problem is that after all the hoopla of the conventions, after all the speculation and the debates and the polls, what's really going to happen? Not in November, but in 2013, and in the next four years. Mitt Romney has been next to silent on what he would do as president, even if he won both the House and Senate. Barack Obama is pretty unlikely to get a House majority or a significant margin in the Senate, and we've already seen the best he could do when he had both: a health care bill so watered down that it may as well have been  a Republican proposal (and was, but let's not even go there).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Information Diet: Some Thoughts

I recently read "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption" by Clay Johnson, on my Kindle. Kindle allows you to immediately post to Facebook when you've finished a book, thus telling the world that you read and what you're reading. You don't necessarily need to say what you thought of the book, but I suppose it's implied that if you made it through the whole thing and chose to share it with the world, then it must be good enough. Indeed, I liked this book, or at least parts of it. It's ironic, however, to finish a book about information obesity and then immediately post about it on Facebook, so I waited a couple of weeks for my thoughts to digest, first.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Talking with undergrads

"That's the sort of thing you should put in your notebook"

"That's the sort of thing you can find on Google"

"That's the sort of thing you should wear gloves for"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Addressing the Alarming Rise in Zombie and Mermaid Sightings (actually, citings)

Drawing by Sean Adams, 
A few weeks ago, the Center for Disease Control was forced to issue a statement that there is no zombie virus. While this might seem an absurd thing for a government agency to say, the whole story is somewhat more convoluted. As I learned from a talk given by science writer Carl Zimmer and posted online, the CDC had posted a story on its website with instructions to prepare people for the zombie apocalypse. The intention was to create greater awareness of disaster preparedness issues so that, by thinking about zombies, people would give some thought to earthquake, hurricane, and disease outbreak-type situations. In other words, a PR stunt. The strategy backfired when rumors started on the web about a real zombie apocalypse, and went viral. At that point, the CDC was tied up in the matter and forced to sound ridiculous.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Don't say the "P" word

By now, nearly everyone who is part of the biomedical workforce has read about the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group's report and its recommendations. The leader of the working group is Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University and my fellow alum, molecular biologist, and Canadian. In the past few years, she has done more than perhaps any other person to improve the plight of trainee scientists.

The report's recommendations are covered in the linked article, so I won't rehash them here. They include: increased postdoc pay and benefits, a reduced biomedical workforce, more graduate students supported by training grants, and education of graduate students and postdocs about alternative careers. 

I want to instead focus on the quotes attributed to Bob Horvitz, Nobel laureate and MIT geneticist. He opposes the recommendations of the report and gives his reasons. Here are two of them from the article:
 "One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do," he said. Taking away that flexibility, he argued, could reduce research productivity.
Followed later by:
But ACD member Horvitz was skeptical. The money to raise postdoc salaries "has to come from somewhere,” he said, and given NIH's current budget woes, it might be impractical to raise postdoc pay. If PIs were forced to make do with fewer (but better paid) postdocs, he argued, lab productivity would probably decline.

Monday, June 4, 2012

It's Not a Game

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that my current desire to change careers is motivated by the career and not by own circumstances, and the problems with me are detailed in previous posts. But still, the current state of the profession doesn't help. It is one thing to work very, very hard to get to that first hint of a great discovery. It's another to work very, very hard to ensure that your science is of exceptional quality, especially when no one's looking that carefully. When this is the case, it's easy to feel like the people winning the game aren't doing so by playing within the rules. A recent commentary in Nature (483:509) alluded to the large number of sloppy mistakes that are creeping into papers. When the goal is to push out publications as quickly as possible, the ugly reality is that the incentives are often in the wrong direction: being sloppy can work to the benefit of the laboratory publishing the paper.

Two high profile examples of this have recently appeared: the finding that the effects of an "anti-aging" gene disappear when the controls are done carefully (Nature 477:482), and the whole debacle surrounding the infamous "arsenic bacteria" story. Now that the refutation of the conclusions of the original paper have been accepted, it's worth taking a step back and recalling that NASA originally pitched this as being relevant to the study of extraterrestrial life. There isn't any bigger splash you could make with the popular press. When the paper was made available and it was clear what it was really about, I think the public was somewhat disappointed. Let's just be clear that this had nothing to do with extraterrestrials. The idea that a living thing using something other than the CHNOPS elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulphur) has anything to do with alien life is frankly confusing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Error bars in Excel

I recently upgraded from Office 2003 to Office 2010 and quickly regretted it. While Microsoft continually makes their programs more visually appealing, very rarely do they add any improvement in functionality, and quite often, things only seem to get worse.

(On a related note, I recently read that Internet Explorer is the only web browser still using a faulty method for interpreting CSS layouts, which is why for the forseeable future, all webpage files will have to begin with an otherwise unnecessary piece of code that does nothing but tell IE to behave properly.)

Anyway, as a scientist, I'm always using error bars. Error bars are a visual way of representing the uncertainty associated with a measurement ... and they are critical for everything we do. No data is meaningful unless one can ascribe an estimate of how close a measured value might be to a true value - a number we can never be totally confident of. So error bars are important. And they keep getting harder and harder to find.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Webpage-building: I definitely dig this

After doing only the very first Dreamweaver tutorial I've already built a webpage (it's for the postdoctoral association that I've recently become President of, but that's another story). It's not beautiful, but it's the first webpage I've written that isn't simple HTML. This was fun: really fun. One thing I discovered is how little Dreamweaver actually does, or rather, that there is a whole range of degrees to which you can lean on it. It's like training wheels. I did most of the work in split screen mode (where you see the page you're creating on one side and the HTML on the other) and found that after a little while, it was easier to simply enter the code myself than use the built-in functions.

The other thing I learned, hardly surprising for a fist attempt, is how important a comp is. For this project, I started with one of the standard layouts, then began modifying the CSS to customize it. Without a plan in mind, the various divs, paddings, borders and margins quickly got out of hand. I'm not sure they all add up in the final website, but it looks OK and it's satisfactory for our current needs. This was mainly a learning experience in any case.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jorge Cham and the Higg's boson

A wonderful new animation appeared today about the Higg's boson and just what is going on at the Large Hadron Collidor. The drawings are by Jorge Cham, of PHD Comics fame (speaking of which, today's comic seems to be about career crises, which suits this blog just fine).

I have always been interested in particle physics, though I have no formal training in it, and this cartoon is a bit of an inspiration that some science training doesn't go amiss when communicating with the public - he seems to have a firm grasp of the science while also creating an informative (and fun) video.

I hope Jorge is making some money with his various endevours; when I saw him speak at Princeton some years ago he definitely had a job other than professional cartoonist. I know his books draw a profit, but really, when your primary audience is grad students and all the content is available online, you can't expect too many sales. His Wikipedia page makes no mention of his "day job", however.

Informing people about science seems to be a new direction for him ... perhaps as his audience moves out of grad school and into the world he'll find an increasing market for scientists wanting to find new ways to communicate with the public.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beginning with Adobe Illustrator

I've avoided a thorough study of Illustrator's many functions up until now because it is, of course, an art program, and visual art was never my forte. In Grade 1, my art teacher had a special conference with my parents to address my inability to draw even the most basic forms, and even by high school concepts like perspective were beyond me.

I was relieved to discover that creating art in Illustrator is not like creating art in the real world. Drawing a perfect circle, for example, is trivial, whereas I doubt if I could do it on paper unaided. Since the first thing you learn is creating shapes without any fill, I started practicing by creating a variety of cell shapes that may come in handy. Creating, for example, a yeast cell with a mother and bud that is symmetrical is not quite as trivial as drawing a circle, but the steps involved are technical (don't require hand-eye coordination), and I quickly figured out a few tricks (e.g., if you want a symmetrical shape, you can worry about getting one side just right, then cut the shape in half and duplicate a reflected version of it). Modifying, recoloring, rotating, shading, even adding a "membrane" (border of a different color) is all trivial once you have the basic shape.

Monday, April 2, 2012

New Directions

I’ll open this post by making three obvious statements, which might appear to be unrelated:

1. I haven’t posted on this blog much. I can see from my history I made three posts in July of 2010, and that it’s been largely dormant since then. This is, I believe, because my blog really lacks a purpose, and has drifted from the purpose I originally intended it to serve.

2. The job market for Ph.D.s right now, especially those who want to continue in academia, is simply terrible.

3. The inevitable change that comes with new parenthood is simply a change of perspective. No matter how many times you are told that it will happen to you, you never quite believe it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Animal Husbandry: An ACOD Story

I never pictured our departure from Princeton this way. After each completing a six-year long Ph.D. program, my wife and I drove out of that quiet little suburb at four o’clock in the morning, the car packed with our final belongings and our cat. It was also black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving, and the strangeness of the world at that time of day was made even stranger by the full parking lots and line-ups at the malls and big-box retail stores. A quiet departure in the night marked the end of one chapter of our lives and the start of another, and that was what should have been occupying my thoughts on that dark drive along New Jersey’s Route 1. But instead my thoughts were almost four thousand kilometers away at a farm just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Just weeks before that early morning drive, my Dad, Ron, had called to say that my Mom, Barb, had suddenly left him after a thirty-year marriage. The news was a complete shock to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that I had spent the previous weekend with them and neither had said a word to me about it. But as the news sunk in, I put the signs together: Ron’s haggard appearance and gloominess, Barb’s negative remarks about Vancouver and its inhabitants, and her long periods in the barn, where – I found out later – she was speaking with the new object of her affection, Martin, on her cell phone. Each for their own reasons, they decided together that that weekend was not the time to tell me or my brother, Aaron, and so I found out by telephone from Ron. Barb was not there.

The next few weeks are clear in my memory, but hazy, somehow, like they took place in another world, removed from space and time. Here I was, trying to wrap up my last days of one life, while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that – in a totally different way – the other home I had left years ago would not be there for me in the future, as I had always thought. Some of our furniture disappeared as we sold it on Craigslist in preparation for the move. As our apartment became increasingly empty, it all began to sink in: my relationship with my mother would never be the same – if I went to visit her, she would with someone other than my Dad. Even living so far away, I had celebrated Christmas with them and Aaron every year of my life. That would never happen again.

The effect of divorce on children is well known and openly discussed. The research has been done, parents agonize over the decision and, if they decide a divorce is necessary, send their kids to counselors if needed and –hopefully – realize that speaking badly about their ex damages the child as well. My wife’s parents divorced when she was a child and I assumed she would have some insight for me on what I was going through and what I could expect. This turned out not to be the case. Adult children of divorce, known as ACOD’s, have a totally different experience. While as adults they are somewhat more emotionally equipped to deal with the fall-out, the change in perspective can be just as jarring. As adults we are often expected to be supportive to one or both parties, and that leads to all manner of messy situations. But the biggest problem is that no one seems to realize how difficult or debilitating it can be. Over my final weeks in Princeton, many friends and people I looked up to (with the best of intentions) gave me different versions of the same advice: your parents have their own lives, it’s between them, it doesn’t involve you. I believed it after a while as it seemed logical enough, and focused on preparing for our departure and on my life and career.

But through all of this doubts nagged at me and occupied my thoughts, sometimes ceaselessly: if my Mom left to live with another man, would she receive alimony payments? How was that fair? What effect would it have on my Dad to know that he was paying for the happiness of two people that had screwed him over? What would happen to my Mom if this new relationship didn’t work out? Who was this man? I thought I knew my Mom well enough to think that she wouldn’t blow everything apart for a loser, but what kind of person knowingly professed undying love for a married woman he barely knew? And did I know my Mom? She had always seemed rational and careful in her decisions, and she worried about money, often needlessly, but always erring on the side of caution. This seemed out of character, to put it mildly.
A family friend explained it this way: her decision was based on emotions, and emotions aren’t rational. You can’t expect them to be. Moreover, they had a shared dream.

I should back up: although my Dad was a University professor and I grew up in the suburbs, my parents had moved to a hobby farm one year before I left for Princeton. My Mom had a veritable menagerie of animals: chickens, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. Her plan was to take all of them with her and start a new life as a “real” farmer with Martin, who lived not on a small hobby farm, but a sprawling sheep farm in a remote region of Manitoba. It has a romantic sound to it, but everyone who knew about the situation thought it was insane. And those “fucking sheep” (as my uncle called them) added to my doubts: she cared for these animals, and she had little options if she wanted to keep them and leave my Dad. It was Martin or nothing. They also had serious implications for my relationship with her: if she wanted to see me, she needed someone to look after them, because I was sure even at this early time that I wouldn’t be traveling to Manitoba.

As we packed up our car and headed out of Princeton, the situation in Vancouver continued to deteriorate. Ron’s clinical depression was obvious to anyone who spent more than about three seconds with him, and he was living in his sister’s basement without any clear plan of where to go. Aaron tried everything he could think of to try to convince Barb to reconsider the way she was making decisions, and then, after a particularly angry outburst, essentially cut off all contact with her. Aunts and uncles and family friends also exchanged angry words – at times it was as though everyone I knew in connection with my family was splitting into opposing camps. Amidst this I left the only other community I had ever called home and moved to Boston in the middle of winter. Not surprisingly, it was then that things got really bad.

* * *

The beginning of a “post-doc” – as my job was called – is a notoriously difficult period in the best of circumstances. One goes from being an expert in one area to a neophyte in another, and after a long graduate program, it can feel like going back to square one. Adjusting to life in Boston was difficult for all manner of additional reasons: the apartment which had seemed close to work was more than a forty minute walk, the transit system which had seemed so impressive was almost intolerably slow, and the free street parking which had attracted us to this particular area of town was basically non-existent. The noisy radiators kept us up at night and the walls were chipping paint. Of course, the weather was cold. It got dark early and light late. After a particularly ill-advised bike ride home from the lab on an evening when it was well below freezing, I chilled my lungs to such an extent that I was coughing up blood. I began to notice that my nose never ran anymore, and I constantly felt pressure behind my cheekbones. My lips never got enough chapstick, and I was constantly drinking water. During my first two months at my new job, I had three separate colds that caused me to miss work. I thought about the years ahead in this city and pictured myself slowly drying out, like a raison.

I was miserably unhappy. While at work, I couldn’t stop watching the clock. I would get home, make dinner, and go to bed, waking up after two or three hours of sleep. Wait until morning, and then do it all over again. I didn’t understand why; during graduate school my day-to-day life had been virtually identical from the way it was now, but my feelings about it couldn’t be more different. I might as well have been punching in.

It was during this period that I talked to Barb face-to-face for the first time. She traveled to visit us a couple of days after her lawyer had sent Ron a cease-and-desist barring him from all contact with her. We went through the motions of sight-seeing in Boston while she tried to explain to me that she was still the same caring and rational person she had always been, and that this was just another chapter that all of us were entering. She said that any meaningful relationship she had had with Ron was years gone, and that Martin had just given her the courage to seek a better life. My thoughts were that that was an awfully convenient way to look at it.

The evening after I took her to the airport to head back to Vancouver, Ron called me. He asked how things had gone and I told him that it had gone OK, figuring that the particulars were none of his business. He then began to insinuate that I wasn’t putting enough pressure on her to reconsider her decisions, the way Aaron had done. I replied that I deeply empathized with him, and I agreed with him that I thought what she was doing was wrong, but that there wasn’t a lot I could do about it that wouldn’t permanently damage my relationship with her. The conversation ended with him saying that he had thought he could count on my support but obviously he was mistaken.

I went to work the next day feeling worse than ever, and - instead of working - drafted an email explaining that if they couldn’t leave me out of the middle of their fight, that I would cut off all contact with both them. In my first serious mistake in handling the situation, I never sent it.

February came, and on the day the Olympics came to Vancouver I turned in my first major grant application. It was a Friday, and I resolved to take the weekend to re-group, and come back in Monday with a changed attitude. Without the grant hanging over my head, things would be different. When Monday came, and everything was the same, something broke inside me. In my second mistake of that year, a few weeks later, I explained to my advisor that although it was nothing to do with him, I had made a mistake in coming to his lab, and I would be leaving at the end of the month.

* * *

I didn’t have much trouble finding another job. I missed an opportunity, though, and I wish that things are turned out differently. I don’t blame my parents for what happened to me. I’m an adult and I know that I’m responsible for my own choices. But I wish Barb had considered that the gravity of her decision would impact the world around her, and not just herself and Ron. I wish that Ron had valued his relationship with my brother and me for its own sake, and not as way to exercise some quantum of control over what was happening to him. The decision to divorce is never an easy one and - whether children are young or grown - there are no easy answers. But I wish that no one assumed that what happened didn’t matter to me because I was grown up and out of the house.

But mostly I wish that I’d taken care of myself first. I should have staked out the grounds of what my role was, no matter how much difficult it might have been for them to hear. I wish I’d had the insight from other ACODs.

As adults, we have one distinct advantage over children of divorce: we can learn from the experience. I sit writing this on a weekend as we await the arrival of our first child. I love the mother of that child, my wife of four years, and my only unchanging friend between the three cities I’ve called home, more than my life, but I’m also old enough to know that romantic love is fleeting, and that holding onto it takes far, far more work than simply falling into it. For our child’s sake I can be sure that it’s worth the effort. A freak October snowstorm reminds us that winter will come again to Boston. A little older and with a little more wisdom, maybe this time will be different.