Archive for: January, 2012

Theorist for Hire

Jan 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

My work is theoretical/computational in nature. In addition to the projects that my group does independently, I collaborate extensively with experimentalists.

An email exchange that happened today reminded me that my experimental collaborators can roughly be divided  into two categories: (1) those who treat me as a fellow scientists and a real collaborator, and (2) those who treat me as hired help (without actually paying me).

Let's start with the non-douchey kind: some of my favorite, long-term collaborators treat me with respect and consider me a fellow scientist whose expertise is an integral part of a project. We brainstorm new ideas together, discuss each project -- both experimental and theoretical parts -- from inception to execution, theory and experiment inform and improve one another, we seek funding together, we write papers together.

Then there is the other kind: those who do experiments on their own and only want me to do theory for them as an afterthought. Usually it goes something like this:
(1) "Our data really sucks or we have no clue what do with it and we fear it's unpublishable without some sort of explanation";
(2) "Our data is good and we want to go for GlamourMag (or tried but failed), so now we want to add theory (or improve the theory we had) to make the paper stronger and more complete and shoot for  GlamourMag"  (N.B. In my field, it is virtually a must to have both experiment and theory if going for a journal like Nature)
(3) "We were going to work with another theory group, but they were slow/unresponsive/whatever so we are desperate to publish and now we come to you"

In each one of these cases, I am expected to produce a theoretical model for their data ASAP (because they are anxious to publish) and of course nobody wonders who on my side is going to do the work, and that perhaps whoever does it may need some ramp-up time, and that during that time they need to eat and pay tuition... Am I supposed to just move a student from another well-funded project in order to do stuff for you last minute? Keep paying the student as I have, while they do something that benefits you not the project that pays them? This violates federal funding requirements.  (In all fairness, a small percentage of people who ask me to do stuff for them offer to support a student, at least in part, while the student does this new side project; this I respect and I try to honor these requests.)

But these pesky funding concerns are irrelevant because I am a magical theory fairy: I effortlessly just look at your graphs and pop a theory model, together with accompanying derivations, code, figures, you name it. Perhaps I should put the following in the header of my research group website:

"GMP Group: Improving the Impact Factor of Your Publications Since 2004"

As I hinted above, what prompted this post is an email I received today. About a year ago, a collaborator from another institution and I agreed that he would do certain experiments and my group would do theory; I had some discretionary funds I was willing to invest in this project so we started working on our part and shared the data as it came in, all the while trying to get some response about what was going on at his end, but he was completely unresponsive. About 6 months ago I said screw it and we (postdoc and I) decided we would just publish the theory on our own. The paper is in final draft stages and we are ready to submit in the coming weeks. Today comes the email basically saying the collaborator was hedging his bets -- he actually was planning the entire time to go with the theory of another group, but they weren't coming through (student graduated and got a job and is MIA) so now he's got all this data and wants to publish, like, tomorrow -- and can we jump on it right away and how soon can we get it done because he's now in a hurry!

I am as blinded by the sheen of GlamourMagz as anybody else, so it would be disingenuous to say I never take part in these "afterthought collaborations" -- I do, if I think the science is worth it, if we can get high impact publications out, and the new problem doesn't take away too much from the student's original funded project. But, for goodness sake, people, please treat your theorist colleagues with respect and courtesy.

12 responses so far


Jan 16 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's no secret that good, lasting relationships are formed between people who have a lot in common -- the same values, similar taste in music or films, the love of  hiking/biking/cooking/dogs/stamp collecting... But let me tell you, there is such a thing as too much in common. My husband and I share one key aspect that has caused us both many sleepless nights over the years: we both have upper respiratory tract issues. I have had sinus problems all my life, and eventually had sinus surgery in 2010. My husband spent his early childhood with numerous middle ear infections, which were handled by giving him aspirin and waiting for the eardrum to burst.

Our shared poor ear-nose history means that we have created three beautiful boys with ear-nose issues. Our first two sons started having recurrent middle ear infections within a month of starting daycare, and ended up having to get tubes. I was really, really hoping third time's the charm and we would avoid ear infections with the third child, but no such luck: sure enough,  the baby (6 mo old now) contracted his first cold after 10 days in daycare, his second after about 25 days in daycare, and that one turned into an ear infection. This was the end of November; three rounds of antibiotics later the ears are still not clear and the fluid is still present in his middle ear. One benefit of having gone through this with two older kids is seeing the writing on the wall early -- after the first round of antibiotics didn't work, I immediately requested referral to see an ENT. We finally got to see the ENT last week, and the baby will have tubes inserted this coming Tuesday.

It is very scary to have a baby go under anesthesia and endure any kind of surgery, but insertion of tubes is the kind of procedure that I feel carries really minimal risks and multiple rewards. I am not a medical doctor, but this will be our third time going for tubes, so I am fairly comfortable with the procedure and the benefits for everyone -- the baby sleeps and eats better, and we avoid: damage to hearing, speech development delays, the need to incessantly take antibiotics (and antibiotic resistance), terrible diaper rashes that can come with prolonged use of antibiotics... If the baby gets an ear infection after tube insertion, it is treated much less invasively -- with antibiotic ear drops that act topically, rather than those administered orally.

The procedure involves myringotomy (making a slit in the eardrum), followed by the removal of fluid from the inner ear by gentle suction, and finally tube placement. In my experience, the surgery takes about 15 min (both sides together). Babies wake up promptly afterwards and are famished (can't eat for hours before the surgery because of anesthesia), take a good nap shortly thereafter, and then they are as good as new. Tubes are supposed to stay in for about 9-12 months and then fall out on their own, but doctors say they can be in from 6 months to 18 months. I seem to recall that, if the tubes are still in after 18 months, they may need to be surgically removed.

Ear infections plague many a family with young kids this time of year. With kids in day care, there is no way to avoid colds; with us, every cold with a young baby is a cause of dread, because it invariably turns into an ear infection. Tubes have been a real life-saver with my kids and, as a mom, I highly recommend them as a way to combat persistent ear infections.





8 responses so far


Jan 13 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I can't speak for all professors everywhere, but I am willing to bet that the following is a universal truth -- a professor's first graduated PhD student remains very special forever. My first graduated PhD student is now happily employed by a national lab. She married a classmate from graduate school (from another research group); her husband is from here, so every year when they come back to visit her in-laws, I get to see her and catch up. It is always a great pleasure.

I met her in my first semester on the tenure track; I was a typical overzealous, overly-demanding newbie teacher who wanted to cover too much material; many students were struggling. She had no background in my area and was taking the course to satisfy a breadth requirement , yet she was catching on extremely quickly, and by the end of the course left everyone in the dust pretty spectacularly. I was quite impressed, and would have loved to have her join my group, but she had already been working with another group for three years.

The semester ended, a few months passed, and she found me to ask if she could switch to my group, because she was unhappy where she was. I can't remember the details why, I think the project was ill-defined or otherwise unappealing. I was thrilled to have her join my group, but at the same time I was absolutely terrified -- I am untenured, what if her advisor decides to somehow retaliate? I was really scared at the thought of running into him (the former advisor) in the hallways, I talked to my chair and my faculty mentors to make sure they knew I hadn't poached her, that she came to me on her own. I never talked to her former advisor, partly because I had never met him (he's an affiliate of the department), and partly because I was clueless about proper etiquette and very scared.

She was the first student who switched to my group. By the end of the year, I had three more who switched -- one came from my alma mater with an MS, two worked with other advisors in my department but wanted to switch. By then I knew better; each time a student wanted to switch to my group, if I thought that was be a good idea I would tell the student to go talk to the soon-to-be-former advisor first, and that I was going to follow up with the advisor in person to make sure everyone is on board and happy...

Over the years, I have had several students switch to my group. The vast majority of them worked out really well and the switch was a good idea for everyone involved. In several cases, the former advisor actually encouraged the switch because it was clear that the skills and inclinations of the student were simply not a good fit for that group, but the student was generally smart and motivated. In one case, the former advisor encouraged the switch because the student wanted to be a professor in his home country, and doing theory is much less costly and much more likely to be sustainable in said country than relying on expensive equipment.

I have also lost students to other groups; one wanted to upgrade schools, two left with an MS and joined another group in which the style of work and the topics addressed were considerably different. I remember being furious when I had to let the first student go after two years of paying him as an RA; there was no doubt in my mind that he could not stay in my group, but I lamented all the money spent (of which I didn't have much at that point).

But, after some experience, it becomes clear that students switching groups is simply a fact of life. Actually, a student switching groups once is a fairly common occurrence in the physical science fields, because there are no rotations that the students can use to test the waters in different groups like they do in the biomedical sciences. As a professor, I have learned that you win some, you lose some: as long as you are not exclusively hemorrhaging students or actively poaching other people's students (I have never seen this happen, but it would be beyond douchey), I think it all comes out a wash. My initial lamenting over money spent was misguided -- sometimes you lose a student you paid, sometimes you gain a student someone else paid.

To the scared students who are unhappy, but terrified about switching groups: in my experience, professors don't generally think it's a sign of your deficiency if you want to switch groups. If your former advisor is a sane and decent person, s/he will let the new advisor know about your strengths and weaknesses, about how you got along, and why things didn't work out. So if you, as a graduate student, are unhappy, and have really tried to make it work in your current group but it just isn't happening, it is OK to consider switching groups. Just think really hard about where you want to land, because you really don't want to switch the second time if you can help it...

A new student started with me this week. He'd been working with a group in a department I am affiliated with, but, after three years and change, things were just not happening. I have known the student through coursework and have been quite impressed with him, so I am happy to have him join my team. His former advisor gave the switch a wholehearted blessing. I have a great project lined up for the student; he seems energized and excited about it. Things are looking pretty good.

8 responses so far

Greetings from the Jungle

Jan 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello, Scientopians!

I usually go by GMP (my full pseudonym is geekmommyprof, but I fear that coming up with that name was not my most creative moment...) and I blog at Academic Jungle.

I am a tenured professor in a physical science STEM field at a large public research university. I work at the interface of physics, materials science, and electronics, and my expertise is in theory and computer simulation of certain properties of physical systems. In my work, the word "nano" features a lot. Theory and simulation are cool -- and I  am not the only one who thinks so.

I started as a tenure-track assistant professor in the fall 2004. I began blogging in early 2010, a little while after I learned that I had been approved for tenure. Therefore, I am tenured but still relatively early in my career, so all the tenure-track battle-scars are fairly fresh. I started blogging out of desire to share whatever wisdom I had about surviving on the tenure track, but in the meanwhile the blog has evolved and now features a mix of academic topics (where interactions with students and colleagues take a prominent place) and more personal ones (married, with kids = boundless blog fodder).

I am looking forward to my two weeks of guest blogging, and many thanks to Arlenna for inviting me to play with the Scientopia kids!



10 responses so far

Thank you and adieu

Jan 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

My time here on the Scientopia Guest Blog is coming to an end, making way for another prolific blogger, Geek Mommy Prof. I have had an absolute blast here the past couple of weeks, and it's all because of you guys, reading and commenting, arguing and laughing. Thank you so much for making the past couple of weeks so much fun, and feel free to visit me anytime. I love guests, and sometimes even turn down the covers with a mint 🙂

3 responses so far

Questions about conferences for a TT newb

Jan 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

At the risk of blogging too much and upsetting certain readers, I'm going to do the unthinkable and post twice in one day.

I asked the following question this afternoon on the Tweets (Twits?) and promptly got the following answers:

I then followed up with Gerty on how many conferences she presented at:

Then the following discussion ensued about whether or not attending/presenting at conferences was really considered service:

Lots of helpful input here, but I'm still on the fence about a couple of conferences on the horizon. There is at least one big meeting in my field that I WILL attend, no matter what. Another two that would be good to attend, since they'll have a lot of the big players, but not so much a requirement, per se. In at least one of those cases, I won't even have time to put an abstract in for a poster because of timing, and it would be rushed with the move and all.

So my questions for the wider audience here are:

1. How many conferences is too many / too few for a first year TT prof?

2. Must you present at all the conferences you attend, or is attendance purely for the sake of networking a good enough reason to go? What is a good balance? And is it silly to submit a poster abstract just for the sake of presenting something?

3. How much of a *requirement* is conference attendance for tenure? In other words, if I haven't been invited to give any talks at this point (since I haven't even arrived at my new job yet), and don't end up getting invited to any this first year, should I really be planning on going to more than 1 or 2 of the most *important* conferences in my field and sub-field?

Maybe this shouldn't be an issue until I arrive at TTU, but Hubby travels for his job, too. So I'm trying to get the probable meetings I'll attend on the calendar now. Part of the two-body lifestyle, I guess.


13 responses so far

A day in the life of Dr. O

Jan 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I was just reading Dr. Isis' latest post about her first day back from maternity leave, and it got me reminiscing. In my first few months as a working mom this past year, I thought I'd never figure out how to get it all done. Pumping, working, sleeping, commuting, dropping off the little one at daycare in the morning - it was all completely overwhelming. Everyone kept telling me we'd eventually settle into a routine, and you know what? We did, and our routine has now become, well, very routine. Especially without pumping interrupting my day. I'm used to it, and I like it. And it's all going to change next month.

In honor of this uprooting, I thought it might be nice to record my post-lactating routine for posterity. You know, a puff piece, which will probably only humor me, for this lovely Guest Blogge. 🙂 Here goes:

5:20 am: Alarm goes off; hit snooze.

5:30 am: Alarm goes off again; Hubby starts getting ready for work while I wander into the living room for some resistance training and a little light cardio with my new workout tape (thanks Mom!).

6:10 am: Workout complete, drink water and a quick cup of coffee as Hubby eats his breakfast and reads from his new Kindle Fire (thanks Mom, and Me).

6:30 am: Hubby heads off to work as I start getting ready.

7:00 am: Scarf down a bowl of cereal before Monkey wakes up.

7:05 am: Monkey wakes. I get him dressed, play a few minutes, then we head out the door.

7:45 am: Drop Monkey off at daycare; head into work.

8:15 am: At work. Unpack laptop and start checking email. Reply to sales rep in Tenure Track Town about installation of Awesome Piece of Equipment. Email future chair to see if my appointment letter has made it through "channels" yet.

9:00 am: Chat with lab tech over coffee while simultaneously reading blogs on Android.

9:15 am: Look over my to do list and prioritize today's "must-happen" items. Catch up on recent literature with Google Reader. Check out a few blogs and get inspired by one. Start writing a blog post of my own, then realize I have actual science to do.

10:30 am: Check results on latest Pain-In-My-Ass (PIMA) experiment - all crap. Write up some suggestions for fixing PIMA experiment in lab notebook, set up cultures for repeating PIMA experiment tomorrow.

12:00 pm: Eat lunch, visit a couple of blog posts that I want to comment on, return call from Monkey's hopeful future daycare in Tenure Track Town to see if he has a spot (he does, finally!!!).

1:00 pm: Work on manuscript; more literature reading; writing; head-banging because I can't get PIMA experiment to work and I NEED IT FOR THIS DAMNED PAPER!!!!!

3:00 pm: Break for Twitter to clear my head. Wander to break room to see if there are any treats - no. Wander to mentor's office for chocolate. Chat with mentor about random science stuff for a while.

4:00 pm: Back in front of manuscript; more literature reading; writing; more head-banging because I can't get PIMA experiment to work and I STILL NEED IT FOR THIS DAMNED PAPER!!!!!!!!!!!!!

5:30 pm: Call Hubby to see how my boys are doing and let him know I'm leaving soon; chat with at Monkey for a few minutes.

5:35 pm: Check to do list to make sure I've done all that I can in the lab for the day.

5:40 pm: Hurriedly finish writing up blog post that I started earlier.

6:00 pm: Head out the door.

6:45 pm: Arrive home. Monkey greets me at the door wearing a pajama shirt, no pants or diapers, and a ski hat, running around in circles and yelling. After laughing my ass off a moment, I carry him into his nursery and Hubby and I put him down for bed.

7:10 pm: Eat dinner with Hubby on the couch -  leftover pulled pork and a nice cucumber/tomato/pesto salad that Hubby made the night before, and a side of yogurt.

8:00 pm: Edit blog post while watching TV and schedule for the next day. Check Google Reader to see if any other blog posts or PubMed articles have been updated on my RSS feeds. Check Twitter. Check Facebook.

9:30 pm: Put computer away and lean back in the recliner.

10:00 pm: Hubby wakes me up to tell me it's time to get in bed.

28 responses so far

How to win friends...

Jan 05 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Evidently not by calling them a Scrooge. Sometimes I think the verbal diarrhea I blog would be better left to Twitter, or the confines of my head, especially if I'm not willing to spend the time making sure the intended message is what my post actually conveys. I intended yesterday's post to be a ranty commentary on individuals who say you can't be successful in academia without working 70 hours a week, regardless of holidays. I'm tired and overwhelmed and insecure about my upcoming transition, and got offended by a brief exchange I overheard in the break room after a sleepless, panic-attack sort of night. I normally blog for self-reflection, but yesterday's post was written hastily. The self-reflection didn't begin until mid-way through the comments on this post, at which point I started wondering how self involved I was, and how many people I've offended the past couple of months by asking "how was your holiday?"

I still don't know exactly where the train went off the track. I have several colleagues who don't celebrate Christmas, yet have asked me how my holiday was or wished me a good holiday. The question is common at my workplace, and I've never thought twice about asking it. VERY few people here work the week between Christmas and New Year's, whether they have the vacation to spare or not, as evidenced by the fact that our MRU turned down the heat last week. I don't mind people working through the holidays, and I don't mind them being upset about it. I don't even mind hearing about it, just the implication that I'm a slacker if I chose not to. And I'm a little more than perplexed by the idea that I shouldn't be asking that question at all, but I can certainly concede that the question may engender bad feelings for some people.

At the same time, I must be doing something wrong if I offended so many. It's likely this was just a really poorly-written post - I'm an amateur blogger and have been known to spew plenty of crap before, and I surely will again. After a good night's sleep and intense morning workout, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a completely-inconsiderate person, but someone who has worked in a fairly relaxed and somewhat privileged scientific environment. Come to think of it, I'm not sure right now what that means for my upcoming transition - other than, with all sincerity, I'll be thinking twice before asking colleagues about their holidays in the future.

3 responses so far

The workplace Scrooge

Jan 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's a common exchange, heard after every winter break, at high-intensity workplaces everywhere. Someone innocently asks a coworker, "And how was your holiday?" to which the inquisitee sharply responds, "I was working." Now maybe it's just my lingering sense of guilt over the fact that I took a longer-than-normal Christmas vacation after a particularly crazy year, but this answer comes across as just plain bitchy.

It's not the fact that you worked through the holidays that bugs me; I've done that plenty of times myself. I wouldn't have a problem with the response, "Oh, it was alright. We stayed in town, and I got some lab work done. Relaxing AND productive is always a nice Christmas gift!" But no, Mr. Scrooge has to get all k3rned-like on everyone's ass instead of participating in a pleasant conversation.

For the record, it's not my fault your MIL was in town for two weeks, chasing you out of your home with her incessant nagging, and it's not my fault you had a million things to do in the lab due to your own inept ability to plan out experiments, and it's not my fault that you didn't feel you could take a break due to that two week vacation you enjoyed this past summer.*

So before you get all high-and-mighty about others' time in the lab, you best check yourself Scrooge. I'm on a mental and emotional high note right now, and I will NOT have it disrupted by your skewed sense of tit-for-tat workplace politics.

*Note added after reading some of the comments below: none of these were meant to be an attack on a specific person. Instead, I actually spent a little bit of time chatting with friends over coffee, about why people might choose to work on a holiday they normally would celebrate, before writing this. My whole-hearted apologies if any of these "reasons", or any other part of this post, offended anybody.

30 responses so far

Focusing on the here and now

Jan 03 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I only have a few weeks left as a postdoc, and I'm as anxious as can be to start my new job as a tenure-track assistant professor (seriously, I still haven't gotten over the thrill and foreignness of that title). The past two weeks away from work have provided a much needed break, even considering the constant buzz of travel, family gatherings, and chasing after our very active toddler. With the new year in play and a new job on the horizon, though, it's time to get back to work.

Probably the toughest part of this transition is keeping myself focused on what's right in front of me here in Postdoc City. I have several small-ish experiments to complete to round out a manuscript that needs to be submitted. I need to finish organizing my postdoc work for my mentor and for my new lab. I need to find Hubby, Monkey and myself a place to live in Tenure-Track Town. We need to pack our condo and storage unit, and we need to finalize moving arrangements. It's a lot to do in a very short period of time, and I need all the focus I can muster.

But then there's all that new, kewl stuff waiting for me out there in Tenure-Track Town. My science. My office. My future Keurig coffee pot in my office. My new iPad. My science. My lab. My future lab minions. My lab equipment. My science. My experiments. My grants. Have I mentioned my science? I'm so scared of fucking up, but I'm also so excited to get started. On my science.

Focus is more important now than ever. I need to finish what I've started in Postdoc City, in order to put myself in the best position possible once I get to Tenure Track Town. It's time to put my head down and my nose to the grindstone. One last postdoctoral push before I take my next steps into professorhood.

18 responses so far

« Newer posts Older posts »