Archive for: May, 2012

The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 9

May 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I wrote before that there are lots of versions of the Moscow Rules out there; so far, I’ve used the ones codified by the International Spy Museum. Today’s post is the exception, because I love the source so much. The idea for this series of posts on the Guest Blog came about because I loved hearing Wendy shout with frustration, “Moscow Rules Number 9!”

And what is rule number 9, according to The Middeman?

Technology will always let you down.

I can kick your ass even without this gun.

I know this to be true, because I do electrophysiology. It is black voodoo magic. Sometimes it works: you have a clear signal of neurons spiking away, happily generating their little action potentials. You come back the next day, haven’t touched a single cable or setting, and you can’t see a damn thing because of all the 60 cycle.

I think my colleagues in molecular biology will also recognize the truth of this. Sandra Porter wrote a couple of posts a few years ago about the problems of using kits versus doing it all from scratch. Here’s one comment from PhysioProf:

In my opinion, kits have a very dark side, in that they allow--and sometimes even encourage--ignorance about what you are actually doing. This makes it very difficult to troubleshoot when things don't work.

And another one from commenter by the handle of quitter:

I've seen it again and again, if people don't really understand what each step is doing they'll make critical mistakes, as even very good kits... aren't idiot proof and often if you don't know the molecular biology it might be inappropriate for your experiment.

Technology fails are hardly limited to the lab, either. As I wrote elsewhere about presentations:

There are two types of speakers: those who have had slide or visual aide disasters and those who haven’t had one yet.

When I was interviewing for the job I had,PowerPoint was not as ubiquitous as it is now. I had my laptop with my slides, but we were having problems getting it to work. Because I knew Moscow Rules number 9 (even if I didn’t know it by that name), I had 35 mm film slides (yes, I’m old) with me, and I was loading them into the carousel when the problem got fixed.

A few months ago, I was invited to give a seminar at another department. I put a lot of work into polishing the figures. I had made a couple of new videos, and embedded them, and checked before the talk to make sure they would display. But I forgot to check the sound. Two of my three videos were silent, but the third had dialogue and nobody could hear it. Technology mocked me. The good news was that the video wasn’t essential.

One of the questions ask my students (and myself) as a measure of how ready they are to give a presentation is,  “Can you do it on the radio?” If Moscow Rules number 9 comes into effect, can you give your talk with no slides, no notes, just with the story that you have inside your head? That’s when you’re ready to give a talk.

A favourite quote of mine from the book Observing Interaction by Bakeman & Gottman:

Although paper can be lost, it almost never malfunctions.

We scientists love our high tech, but it always helps to be ready to go low tech.

During exam week, too.

Has technology let you down? Tell your story in the comments!

External links

Things that go wrong in the lab
Molecular biology in the age of kits
The Zen of Presentations, Part 3: Can you do it on the radio?

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 8

May 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Two things before we get into today’s entry. First, some mood setting spy music. Second, you might want to review Moscow Rules number 3: anyone can be the opposition.

Which brings us to Moscow Rules number 8.

Don’t harass the opposition.

They say you can judge a person by the quality of the opposition. It is no coincidence that best heroes have the best rogue’s galleries. But while we do love a tussle, we also separate our heroes and villains by how they treat the opposition. John Steed defeated his foes with and umbrella, bowler hat, and his wits. No need for clumsy brute force.

A real world example can be found in the arsenic life story. When Rosie Redfield posted her criticisms of the pre-print, a substantial amount of discussion was not about whether the criticisms were in any way flawed, but about decorum and “This sort of language would never be allowed in a peer reviewed journal. Not cricket, wot.” Personally, I thought those objections were overblown, but it shows that people do care about the way criticisms are delivered.

I have two short tips for when you have to criticise someone’s science.

First, always stick to the evidence. It’s not about the person or people, and in particular, it isn’t about you. There are a lot of people in science (and geek culture more generally) who have this great desire to prove just how smart they are. They can’t resist correcting a mistake - and getting in a little dig at the same time. Maybe there are lingering feelings of inadequacy from high school, or maybe they just got rewarded so often for being right that they just can’t pass up the opportunity to have the last word. People can so busy trying to show how clever they are that they overlook how harsh their criticisms can sound.

Second, while criticism is great, you will look even better every time you suggest a positive alternative along with your criticism. If you’re not convinced by the experiment someone did, it is helpful to spell out what you think would convince you. If you think a manuscript is badly written, pick out some of the typos, or suggest rewording.

If I might move from from spies to samurai for a moment, I like this description of the bushido virtue of polite courtesy (礼; rei) (from The Last Samurai DVD):

Samurai have no reason to be cruel. They do not need to prove their strength. A samurai is courteous even to his enemies. Without this outward show of respect, we are nothing more than animals.

Scientists have no reason to be cruel, either.

Related posts

One of Dr. Becca’s all time great posts, on her science enemy. Must read hilarity. The ruler story alone is worth the price of admission. This brought equally awesome responses from DrugMonkey and Scicurious.

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 7

May 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Expectations can be dangerous. How often have you had an experience that you were told or hope was amazing, and you’re looking forward to it, building up the anticipation, and you get there and it’s...


Good, even.

It’s not a bad experience, but yet somehow, you’re left feeling disappointed.

In contrast, what about times you go into something cold, with no expectations at all? When someone drags you into a movie that you haven’t heard of, and it turns out to be good? That’s often an experience that you’ll tell other people about.

Now, I haven’t forgotten this is Moscow Rules for scientists, and I haven’t forgotten your spy music.

Rule 7.

Lull them into a sense of complacency.

The question of self-promotion came up a couple of weeks ago at the Experimental Biology meeting. For a full description and some discussion, read posts by Biochem Belle and Heather Doran. In brief, senior scientist who won big shiny gold medal said self-promotion - like blogging - is the “antithesis of science.”

When I read this, I did a double take. Networking! Impact factor! Presentations! Conferences! Professional scientists devote huge amounts of effort to promoting their own work.

Everything is under control.

Perhaps the key there is “work.” We’ve all met that person who is way into himself - or herself, as the case may be. Someone who only talks to you to let you know they got a grant. Someone who, on the first day of class, not only tells students they’re lucky to have such a good teacher, but al attaches photocopies of their teaching award to the syllabus, and makes their TAs come into class to tell the assembled students what a great teacher their boss is. (That’s a real example, by the way: I know someone who did that.)

The “I am so awesome!” style of self-promotion is smug and annoying. I am not saying, don’t be awesome. I’m not even saying, don’t think you’re awesome. Just don’t broadcast that you think you’re awesome. That sets up dangerous expectations.

It bears considering expectations when you think about how to promote your science. Don’t go around telling people that you’ve got a project that is surely going to end up gracing the cover of your favourite glamour mag. Because that might not happen, and you’ll look dumb if it does.

To put it another way, under promise and over deliver.

Here’s a great example of promising little and delivering more: the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem, a math problem that had remained for over 350 years (from Cipra 1993; slightly edited):

Andrew Wiles had been quietly working on (Fermat’s Last Theorem) since 1986. He was equally quiet when he arrived at the Newton Institute to speak at a conference on number theory, but rumors of a breakthrough were starting to fly among the other participants - in part because Wiles, who normally doesn't ask to give lectures, had asked to give not just one, but three hour-long talks.

Wiles' audience could see from the beginning where his research might be heading. And during his first two lectures, Wiles said nothing about how far he had gotten.

"The excitement was increasing each day," says Rubin. Finally, on Wednesday, Wiles unveiled what Ribet calls "the endgame" and Mazur refers to simply as "quite a piece of magic." There was little need for Wiles to remind his audience of the implications, but he modestly noted that Fermat's Last Theorem was a corollary of his main result. After a moment of silence, the room erupted in applause for the historic announcement.

Now that’s taking out the target in a style that any suave spy would appreciate.


Cipra B. 1993. Fermat's Last Theorem finally yields. Science 261(5117): 32-33. DOI: 10.1126/science.261.5117.32 JSTOR:

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 6

May 07 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Why did I pick today’s Cold War music? Just Cos’.

And because those spies had one of the best cover stories in the genre.

Moscow Rules number 6:

Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.

There is a fine line to walk in developing a science career.

On the one hand, you want people to know you and your research. You want to have a personal brand. Way easier to get speaking invitations, grants, that sort of thing.

We take our tennis very seriously.

This is easier if you have a “thing,” a schtick, or, if you insist on formality, a clearly defined research program. That is, when someone asks, “What do you work on?” - the one you always get at conferences - you have a snappy answer you can deliver in an elevator ride. (The movie Losing Control pokes fun at this question in its preview.)

Some early career scientists try to do this is to make one big seminal finding, use it to land a “glamour mag” publication that gets the press releases and media attention, then spend the rest of a career mining that rich vein of possibility opened up by that initial discovery. This is a high-stakes play (see arsenic life).

But... you do not want to be so committed to a single finding that you do not have opportunity to change and grow. Anyone who’s been in science for a while can probably think of senior researchers who have been working the same set of ideas for years and are unwilling to admit that the field has moved on.

Likewise, you don’t want to be known as a one-trick pony. And this is an easy, easy trap to fall into.

There can be external lures into this pitfall. Sometimes, a set of labs forms a very tightly coordinated and communicative network around a particularly research topic. It becomes very easy for a student to do grad school in one lab, then do a post-doc with the lab down the street (so to speak), while the master’s student from that lab goes to do their doctorate in the lab you’re just leaving.

It can be a bit cliquish. The supervisors from labs might be actively recruiting from each other, and sets of labs like this can end up be very productive and well-funded.

This means that the temptation to just keep working your established preparation is strong. Once you get good at something, there is a tendency to milk it for all its worth.

It's easier to change direction earlier in a career, but that doesn't mean it's easy. I switched disciplines between my undergraduate and graduate careers. I didn't make the transition at all gracefully, but I managed to persist.

More recently, I've had the good fortune to do new kinds of things by working with collaborators.

The important thing is to remember that most of the things you do as a scientist are skills. And skills can be learned. Your abilities are not fixed,

Check this post on science identities at Scientopian Becca’s blog, Fumbling Towards Tenure.

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 5

May 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today is about that most essential talent of spies, and one that scientists also feel they need much of the time. Disguise.

To set the tone for Moscow Rules number 4, could I please have some music, preferably in 5/4 time, from a show that went through more rubber masks than a Hallowe’en shop?

Moscow Rules, number 5.

Go with the flow, blend in.

The Great Paris in disguise

Every spy knows the importance of cover. Scientists should too, since so many of us feel - often a lot - like our cover is going to be blown apart at any second. Because, according to a lot of people, they perpetually live in fear that they are in a Mission: Impossible episode, and that at any second, their PI is going to realize, “That’s not a real face! That’s just a rubber mask!”

It’s called imposter syndrome.

I suspect there are two points in scientific careers when imposter syndrome might feel particularly acute. The first is when you enter grad school. The second, for those who neverlearn, is when you get into that first job, like an assistant professor position or equivalent.

These two times are stress points because there’s no way to know what to expect. As an example of the importance of expectations, one of the factors that predicts how well a student does in university is whether his or her parents went to university.

First generation university have it a little rougher, in part because their parents have been through it, and can let a student know at least a little bit of the territory they face. For someone who has never had anyone in their family in a university, something like “Read the syllabus!” is not an obvious thing to do. But it’s very likely that they can get some inkling of what to expect when a family member has been through that process.

But every graduate student is a first generation graduate student. Even if someone in your family has gone to university, it’s highly unlikely they’ve gone to graduate school. And even if they’ve gone to graduate school, they probably didn’t go to the same one as you. Graduate programs are wildly idiosyncratic in how their expectations and procedures, even across a single campus. And even if someone in your family went to the same program in the grad school, they probably didn’t go so recently that the faculty and procedures are unchanged from their time there.

Meanwhile, most of the faculty have been at this for a while and have internalized their procedures. When something is routine for you, you forget it’s always new to someone.

Of course a new grad student will feel like an imposter.

The same factors come into play when you start that “real job.” It’s unlikely that anyone you know has been hired in the place you are now working. You’re thrown back into that uncomfortable situation of not having clear expectations.

This is where watching your peers can help. See what their experience is like. What are they trying to do, and what are they struggling with? They can give you an idea of how to blend in.

To put it another way, fake it ‘til you make it.

If you want to read more about imposter syndrome, you can do no better than to catch this huge compilation of posts in the Diversity in Science Carnival, hosted by Scicurious.

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 4

May 03 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I realize that presenting a whole series of spy rules can be disheartening. It’s all how you protect yourself against unknown foes, mysterious dangers, the threat of being revealed as an imposter at every turn, and so on, and so on. Let me lighten things up - and let today’s Cold War spy music reflect that.

Rule 4.

Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.

Yes, this rule sounds like typical spy mistrust at first. I want to convince you that it isn’t.

“Don’t look back.” When you’re in a new grad program or post-doc, or even a job, it can be very tempting to convince yourself that things were better at the last place you were at, or to think that you missed some chance or opportunity. I felt this when I was in grad school. I moved to a new city to go to grad school. In doing so, I’d made choices. Some things got left behind that shouldn’t have. I got incredibly distressed.

But none of it had anything to do with the professional situation I was in. That was all good. I think I was able to realize that, and maybe because of that, I was able to keep going. But I could easily see how that level of distress could convince someone it was all a horrible mistake and they should quit.

Similarly, there’s a decent amount of research showing that people who spend a lot of time “in the moment” are happier than those dwelling on the past or fretting about the future.

What’s the opposite of looking back? Looking forward. Think about the future.

“You are never completely alone.” Yes, it can be an isolating to be in research at one time or another. Ultimately, ain’t nobody going to write that thesis or dissertation but you. Sometimes, you might feel like this is you and your supervisor:

Cone of Silence

The Cone of Silence

As Amanda Bower said:

Getting (a) PhD is like getting (a) full-body tattoo. It's permanent, takes a long time, really painful, and people think you’re nuts.

And we don’t like hanging around with people we think are nuts.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to join a community. I’ve benefited tremendously from being online, and the conversation and insights being shared on blogs and twitter and elsewhere. You have a deep, deep well of knowledge out there to tap into. The amount of information available about the grad school experience and career development is phenomenal. I wish I’d had it when I was in grad school.

That I’m guest blogging here, and am working with people to promote SciFund, are just tiny examples of the benefits of joining a community. I feel much less alone by virtue of being part of the online community.

Get friends and get feedback. It will help you stay sane in science. (And elsewhere, too!)

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 3

May 02 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

If you look around for the Moscow Rules on the Internet, you’ll find several versions of them out there. The version I’m using is from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

To set the mood for rule number 3, today’s Cold War music is one of the best explorations of “Who’s side are you on?”

Everyone is potentially under opposition control.

Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to get your paper accepted or your grant funded. Standing between you and your mission objective... peer reviewers.

Not Reviewer #2, either.

If there is anything in professional science that is cloak and dagger stuff, it’s the peer review process. Almost all of it is shrouded in anonymity. Someone you’ve met someone at conferences several times, gone out for drinks with, has always had good things to say about your posters could easily be that maddening Reviewer #2 who wants you to run more experiments, hates your introduction, wants you to redo every figure and recommends your paper be rejected with extreme prejudice. If there’s a plus, it’s at least possible that someone you consider a bit of a prat might be the person fighting for your grant proposal at the review table.

Maybe Maurice Bowra said it best:

Scientists are treacherous allies on committees, for they are apt to change their minds in response to arguments.

Most people have friends: friends who are loyal, who will stick up for them and defend them against attacks. But the first loyalty that scientists feel is rarely to another scientist. A scientist’s first loyalties are usually to things like evidence, data, and analysis. We’re trained to take that stuff fairly seriously. You? You’re way down the list, bub.

In science, a friend might be the one dishing out your harshest criticisms. Be ready for criticism from any source.

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The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 2

May 01 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, my second SciFund project - “Beach of the Goliath Crabs” - launched at RocketHub. I’m excited to be taking part in round 2 of this crowdfunding endeavor, because it is the future of science.

It’s fun, but not easy. Part of putting together a project required making a video. There are a lot of decisions to make about exactly what to say, show, and what music to use. (Speaking of music, here’s today’s vintage Cold War spy music to set the mood.)

I did a full two weekends before #SciFund started. I ended up redoing almost all the sound, and shooting a new section, the next weekend. I did all this extra work because I was following Moscow Rules number 2.

Never go against your gut.

I watched my draft video, and I just knew there were places that were weak. Sometimes, it was as small as how I said one word in a sentence. But could I tell you why it was wrong in an analytic way? Nope. This was gut instinct.

This is a hard lesson for scientists. We are supposed to be analytical. Ken Robinson jokes that professor live in their heads so much that their bodies are just a way to get their heads to meetings.

Four organs of decision-making

Randy Olson talks about this in Don't Be Such a Scientist. In his “four organs” model, the head is your intellect, the heart is the emotion, gut is intuition and humour, and the sex organs, libido and survival instinct. Randy was talking about communication, but the model is also about decision making. What do you decide to do? What are your motivations? Scientists are unusually head-centric. We’re all about facts and data. We go through a long period of training that forces us to think that way. Consequently, we tend to underestimate the pull of the other organs on our decisions.

For all that we pretend that we are proceeding logically in generating our hypotheses and testing them, there's still a huge role for gut instinct in the life of a scientist. If that freaks you out, just think of them as ideas that are insufficiently articulated for immediate verbalization.

For example: When is a project done?

We all talk about doing that one beautiful experiment. But it's rare that you get the “smoking gun” experiment: the one with crystal clear results that definitively tells a single, unified, publishable story. More often, you have a set of interrelated experiments that all get at slightly different angles of the same problem. When do you stop running experiments and write it up for publication?

There’s no simple test to decide when you have “enough” for a paper.

I often think about my projects as having “confidence intervals.” (I use the phrase informally here, not in it’s proper mathematical definition.) When I am examining data, I’ll often notice something that seems to be a pattern. But I’m good at guessing wrong, and so in the early stages, my confidence may be only 50%: I’m imagining things, or it’s real, but it could go either way. I keep running more tests, and if I’m lucky, my confidence interval creeps up past 70%, even to 90%.

I have a few projects where I tell my students, “I’m 90% sure that this is what’s going on, but I don’t want to submit it until I’m 95 or 98% sure this is the case.” I never want to be 100% confidence of a result, because I always want to be ready to change my mind given good data. I always tell students that any scientist who says there is nothing that can change their mind on an issue should have their “Scientist” card taken away from them. (If only we gave them out!)

At what point do you write it up and try to publish? You can’t get infinite data. There is always a point of diminishing returns, where new data leads to less and less new understanding for me. I only have my own gut instinct that what I have will be persuasive to reviewers, editors, and readers.

The few times I’ve thought, “I’m only 90% sure this is the case, but getting that last 5% confidence is going to take a long time, so I’ll have a go and submit the paper anyway,” guess what? Rejected. If something doesn’t convince you, even if you can’t spell out why, it’s probably not going to convince other people.

There are lots of other examples of where you sometimes have to listen to your gut in science. I admit that the “Never” in Moscow Rule #2 does makes me nervous - “never” is is a long time. But sometimes, if something feels wrong, it’s because it is wrong.

External link

Does trusting your gut make you unscientific?

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