Choosing a research question – for science or for the public?

There is increasing pressure and urgency for scientists to be visible and accessible to the public, but also to choose the most important and appealing research in an uncertain funding climate. To whom are scientific researchers beholden in the choice of research studies to perform? To the funding agencies who sponsor us? To the taxpayers who ultimately fund those public institutions? To ourselves to carve a niche and promising career path? Or purely to science, to go where the data and your passions take you?

A recent article in the Atlantic described one extreme – research demonstrating the lack of a link between gluten and heart disease – not because there was any reason to believe that such a link existed, but precisely because there was no evidence that one should, and yet many popular books, diets, and people espoused this idea. The researchers argue that this is how science should work – people of the world have an idea and scientists demonstrate whether there is evidence to support the idea or not.

I strongly support this approach on principle, but I have to wonder if it’s the wisest course of action today. Is it wasteful to spend precious resources on research questions that have no basis and minimal chance of adding to knowledge that will improve the human condition or the world? To be clear, I absolutely support research for the sake of knowledge, and hope it is widely understood that future revolutions will come from today’s explorations for the sake of curiosity, like cell phone capability relied on a foundation of knowledge from Hedy Lamarr’s invention of frequency hopping in the 1940s, which couldn’t be implemented with the technology of the day. But when we’re talking about biomedical research like the study mentioned above, would those resources be better spent on investigation of mechanisms and treatments for real ailments?

Furthermore, using science to disprove a popular misconception doesn’t seem to work, as has been the case for the supposed dangers of vaccines. The translation of information from scientific findings to incorporation into the public mindset and practice must be fixed for this to be effective.

These days I’m just hoping we can maintain a funding level that covers research that runs the gamut, from scientists like me, following the data and trying to help human conditions, to pure exploration, like some of my favorite researchers.

Posted in conflict, funding, hearable message, Public, research | Leave a comment

Attitude Adjustment

So many things in my life are colored by my expectation and attitude. From when I was, I dunno, a middle schooler, my parents would tell me to try to be happier. Smile more, they say; don’t be such a sourpuss. One of my rather large flaws has been to get stuck on a certain thing and not be able to move past it. My partner, bless his soul, has taken the brunt of this often stressful reaction. I don’t know why it is that relationship that means the most in my life that I put to the test the most.

So, every few years, I try to make a resolution to really put that part of my personality under the microscope. For me this time, it involves several things: relationship, being a mother, family, and work. Below I discuss a couple of these things.

With my relationship, things still feel like they are in the adjustment phase after having a child. And, I do feel like I have made some headway in the “being too critical and upset” department. But, unfortunately, I think it is because I simply just don’t have time to worry about anything but eating, sleeping, trying to workout, and the catch up on the day basics. I often don’t have the ability or time anymore to worry about who is going to plan dinner, or take care of the dog. Whoever gets there first, and if it becomes urgent, there is just simply less sleep to be had. So, having to let go of things out of necessity over the last year of being a mother has had an overall positive effect on my relationship because I just don’t have the time to worry about some of the small stuff anymore. I am simply thankful when my partner takes care of something that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed with managing everything.

Work, on the other hand…. there is room for growth here, and I feel like I am going in the opposite direction. When I started at government job a few years ago, it was like heaven compared to being a postdoc in terms of available time for family and pay. And the work is extremely interesting to me. I was so confused about those coworkers who fit the stereotype of government workers – always complaining about how the system is so unfair, and how they are going to rebel by just not working as hard. It was beyond me at why they seemed to make everyone’s life harder (including their own) by being a pain in the ass. Well, here I am a few years later starting to understand. This I find my self stuck in this negative thought process of being inconvenienced and not appreciated, and feeling slighted. However, past me would have been completely understanding of this situation, and laughed off the mishaps of the week as being innocent misunderstandings that have minuscule effects on my life. I have learned to be as informed as I can about govt policies and procedures because no one else is going go to bat for me, except me. But really, my situation is no different now that it was a few years ago, so why am I starting to make mountains out of molehills? I guess because when everyone else is building up all these mountains around me, I feel pressured into building my own mountains. But there is no need to do that. I need to push back against this a a lot harder; shift my attitude.

 

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When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.

Posted in academia, alternative career, biotech, bosses, broken dreams, early career scientist, female scientist, industry vs academia, job search, postdoc, women in science | 3 Comments

March for Science

ScienceMarchPhoto

More umbrellas than signs by the end of the Philly Science March. Impressive how many people stuck around despite the bad weather!

Many of us here at Portrait of a Scientist marched in the March for Science this past weekend. Judging from the numbers across the country, many of you did too. Here are some of our thoughts.

peírama:

I marched because I support science. Not just because that is what I do for a job, but because I know how important it is for the world and humanity. I believe that to be true for all of the scientists who march. You do not have to be a scientist to appreciate the power of science, but being up-close and personal with it does make that easier.

I spent some time  before and after the march tabling for my local women in science group. I was really impressed by the number of people who were excited to sign up to get the newsletter and to attend happy hours. I was also impressed by the number of parents and kids who came by interested in our outreach program. I’m so excited that our group can have an impact on the next generation, not just by making more scientists, but hopefully also making more people who are not scientists as their job, but who are science-literate and appreciate science.

I hope that the march opened some people’s eyes and piqued their interest. I hope that this is not an isolated event but the beginning of a movement, where scientists are more active outside of the lab, both in sharing their science and in getting involved in shaping the future of our country. My sign said: “Resist! Science is Power!”

Danielle Robinson:

I was so impressed with the way my local march organizers handled the organization and run of show. True, I couldn’t really hear the speakers. But that’s because I was running around with a couple of little kids looking at real brains and learning to titrate. I didn’t even get to march with my group (see previous sentence about little kids). Instead I ran into OHSU friends, Science Hack Day friends, OpenCon friends, and made new science friends. Oh, and I saw a lot of great signs!! Like this little guy, these badass witches, these very sick salmon, and – I didn’t catch her – but someone got a great shot an OHSU researcher who is really too busy for this.

While all this was going on, I was in touch with my fellow-fellow* Teon Brooks, who has been tirelessly dealing with organizational challenges and holding calls for 600+ people as the Co-Chair of Partnerships for the Science March DC. He hung with Bill Nye – think he had a pretty good time.

I had a great experience and feel invigorated to continue advocating for science and science education on the local and national level. I met fantastic people at local organizations that I’d like to partner with and had a great time!

*Call for Mozilla Science Fellowship applications is OPEN. Yes, they really reimbursed 6k worth of childcare expenses. It’s been a truly transformational professional experience, I blogged some advice, and I am happy to talk if you’re considering applying, @daniellecrobins.

Megan:

I marched for science in my new city, Philadelphia (though I wish I could have marched with these guys!). Despite the heavy rain, a really diverse group turned out, many carrying signs, wearing lab coats, or dressed in costumes. A man dressed as Ben Franklin served as a reminder that scientific thinkers played a key role in the foundation of this city and country. Kids marched with their parents, and I had my baby in a stroller. 314 Action was represented, urging scientists to run for office, and letting us know about upcoming local political races. However, the overall tone of the march and speakers seemed more pep rally than political. There were even ‘science cheerleaders’, wearing tracksuits and waving pom-poms.

The most memorable moment of the day for me was when one of the speakers at the rally asked the crowd if all the scientists could raise their hands. I raised mine, and was surprised to see that only about 10% of the people there had their hands up. A young boy in front of me said in awe to his dad, “Look at ALL the scientists!” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Look at ALL this support!”

Like a lot of scientists right now, I’m struggling to stay funded, to even maintain my job, stuck in a seemingly never-ending application process for a more permanent position. It’s hard not to get discouraged, and easy to think that what I do doesn’t matter to people– especially because of the current political sentiment in America and the blithe acceptance of ‘alternate facts’ by the governing administration and the public who elected them. But standing there, shivering in Saturday’s rain, were thousands of people who came out in support of what we do, who want to fund research, who believe that science can create a path to a better future, and who are willing to fight for it. It was incredibly affirming.

My own sign read, “Science doesn’t care if you believe. It just is.” I wanted to convey the message that there are objective truths that simply aren’t subject to negotiation. When the oceans rise because of global warming, are politicians going to stand in waders in the rising tide, legislating against it? Will they argue belief systems about evolution with antibiotic resistant microbes?

In Carl Sagan’s words, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” On Saturday, it was wonderful to be surrounded by people who felt the same way.

Posted in March for Science, Resistance | Tagged | 1 Comment

Silent Spring Book Club

We recently read Silent Spring, the classic exposé of the impact of pesticides written by Rachel Carson in 1962. The book details the use of these chemicals, and the severe but overlooked impact on the environment, from widespread destruction of wildlife and domestic animals to the frightening and ubiquitous exposure to humans. Leading up to the March for Science and Earth Day, we thought this was a fitting example of the importance of scientific analysis of public concern, and the value of communicating these ideas and findings with the public.

Silent Spring

What impressed you most about the book?

Megan: What’s not to be impressed about? This book created an irrevocable social awareness of the detrimental effects of careless pesticide use, spawned a coherent fact-based environmentalist movement, and provided the legal and social leverage necessary to create the EPA. David Attenborough said that Silent Spring has probably had the most impact on the scientific world after Origin of Species, and I think he’s right.

Carson did this by creating a concise, clear, and convincing narrative. She doesn’t pander, doesn’t go on self-indulgent tangents, and is neither overly technical nor emotional. Her passion for her country and its natural beauty, however, becomes obvious through the unrelenting accumulation of anecdotal and documented evidence she meticulously catalogues regarding the destruction wreaked upon it by the wanton and widespread use of pesticides. She uses facts instead of rhetorical devices and scare tactics. The amount of gumption, research, persistence, courage, and hard work involved in the production of this book is humbling.

Carson is an inspiration to anyone who aspires to write or communicate about science—and even more so when you remember she was largely excluded from the academic scientific establishment because of her gender.

SweetScience: It is amazing that Carson pulled all this together when, as noted in E.O. Wilson’s afterward, ecology was not a supported science, and conservation biology was not even a thing! It takes a really special mind to be able to synthesize information from seemingly different realms to come to new big ideas; and to be able to then communicate all of the research to capture the hearts and minds of a lay audience is astounding.

What surprised you about the book?

SweetScience: I was shocked at how many times the same mistake was made without any regard for past experiences – states employed programs of mass pesticide use with little reason, destroying life, often in incredibly visible ways, like hundreds of birds and other animals writhing and dying in plain view, and virtually always without success eradicating the intended pest. How could they not have researched this before making the choice?

Megan: I’ve recently heard a lot of people, typically right-wing, crediting Carson for the wholesale ban of DDT. These people also blame her, and the environmentalist movement, for millions of malaria deaths worldwide. So, I was somewhat surprised to read that her position was much more nuanced. She writes: “No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.“ In other words, blanket spraying of DDT leads to insect resistance to DDT. So, if blanket spraying in high concentrations were not conducted (sometimes for agricultural reasons), DDT may have proved a more effective weapon against insect-borne diseases. This is what Rachel Carson was arguing for: the use of powerful chemicals according to scientific, evidence-based, careful practice– as scalpels rather than anvils, as precision tools to cure a specific ill rather than to kill indiscriminately.

Needless Havoc

What questions did the book raise for you?

SweetScience: Since the book was published in 1962 and focuses on events of the preceding decade, I was constantly wondering how much was still true about regulations, which chemicals are commonly used, and especially whether agencies and people ignore the evidence and warnings in choosing to use mass application of pesticides. And then unfortunately that question was partially answered by the EPA’s recent rejection of scientific evidence of chemical harm. I also want to know about the differences in organic farming, especially what pesticides are allowed and how much they have been tested. I really wish there was a modern response/annotation to the book that outlined how things have changed since then.

Megan: Sooo many questions…. As a society, we’re currently facing down threats to our environment and public health, and we’re being led by a political administration with little regard for science, or even facts. How can we most effectively deal with the threat of Zika, while learning from the lessons of Silent Spring? What will the impact of the repeals of EPA regulations under Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt be? What would Rachel Carson do today? What can we do, as citizens and scientists?

Who would you recommend the book to?

SweetScience: I suggested this to someone who cares a lot about preserving the environment and is really worried about the current state of government control on these issues.

Megan: Scott Pruitt.

Also– environmentalists, feminists, scientists, science writers, US historians, politicians, voters, policy-makers, citizens, farmers, teachers…

But mostly Scott Pruitt. I may even mail him a copy.

The Other Road

Here are a few excerpts that resonated with us.

Megan: “For mankind as a whole, a possession infinitely more valuable than individual life is our genetic heritage, our link with past and future. Shaped through long eons of evolution our genes not only make us who we are but hold in their minute beings the future– be it one of promise or threat”.

I just love her writing style: “[Genes] hold in their minute beings the future”… I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about genetics phrased so eloquently!

SweetScience: “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”

The description of the introduction of natural predators to maintain a forest ecosystem in the chapter “The Other Road” really struck me with its final note that “Much of the work of caring for the ant colonies (and the birds’ nesting boxes as well) is assumed by a youth corps from the local school… The costs are exceedingly low; the benefits amount to permanent protection of the forests.” which is really something to aspire to: community understanding and involvement to maintain precious resources.

Posted in Book Club, Environment, female scientist, March for Science, role models, women in science | Leave a comment

A year of saying NO

I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. I realized a couple months ago when I took on a few new things, that I had pointedly avoided taking on anything new or extra for over a year – since before my baby was born.

It’s advice that is often given, especially to women and people of underrepresented groups, who are likely to be asked to do a lot of extra jobs: learn how to say no; don’t wast your time on things that are not going to help advance your career; set limits at the beginning of the year for how many committees you will be on, how many papers you will review, how many conferences you will attend, etc. and then say no to any after that.

And I am guilty of taking on too many of those extra things that you don’t get any career credit for – organizing a symposium, giving a lab tour, etc. When I was pregnant, I never consciously planned to not do any of those things after having a baby, but I wish I had because it worked out brilliantly. It was simply that my home life was my number one priority and I figured out what I had to get done at work each day, and did just that. Here’s what that first year back at work looked like.

Day to day I worked pretty short hours. In the mornings my partner did daycare drop-off so this was my alone time and I usually ended up getting stuff done at home and going in to work later in the morning. Throughout the day I had to pump milk, cutting out ~30 minutes 3x, then 2x per day, and I am still maintaining one session a day. Then I wanted to leave work before rush hour and early enough to get a little bit of non-cranky baby time before baby bedtime. I always thought I could work a little in the evenings, but I was so tired and rarely had anything urgent enough to warrant it that I seldom did anything other than answer emails. I did spend a number of evenings applying for jobs. So that was maybe 5 solid hours of work a day for a big chunk of the year.

Of course I was extremely efficient in those few hours, but while at work I just did the essentials. I ran my experiments, I helped others when needed to keep the lab/experiments running, and I wrote papers. I attended meetings and only the most relevant research or professional development seminars. The only real ‘extras’ I did were serving on a panel and picking back up facilitation of a career development group I had begun before taking my leave, things I really cared about. I did not write any grants. I did not start any new lines of research. I did not join any new groups or committees.

I went to two conferences when my baby was young (with my partner and/or mother there to help take care of the baby), which I had signed up for while pregnant. I did not register for any future conferences, and I did not regret that one bit.

I don’t know exactly what changed after the first year, but things started to fall into place in a way that allowed me to pick up some new things. In part, things got more routine with the baby, but I didn’t consciously think that. At the same time, some appealing opportunities arose – some funding opportunities came up that I didn’t want to pass up; some professional development opportunities seemed important enough for me to commit some time to. So now I’m working just a little bit longer days (still not more than 8 hours including evening work, on average) with less time out for pumping, and doing a few extra things. I feel good!

I basically trimmed the fat from my time, and I don’t think anyone else was really affected. There was one opportunity I felt a little bad about missing that would have allowed me the opportunity to interact a little more closely with several PIs, but I couldn’t work it out with my partner’s schedule. Even including that I felt virtually no work-related guilt the whole year. I attribute this to my actions matching my priorities, something that is easier said than done. An important aspect of this was that my mindset wasn’t hugely different pre-baby – work was always just work to me – so I didn’t have a major shift in priorities or learning how to re-balance them.

What about you? Would a period of saying NO to any extras help you re-prioritize?

Posted in academia, confidence, flexibility, happiness, having it all, letting go, motherhood, no regrets, pause, postdoc, transitions | 1 Comment

Training Wheels

In the time since I wrote my last post, a lot has happened. I was forcibly elevated to fifth year PhD candidate status. Then sixth, though I was writing and had an exit strategy when that happened so I noticed it less. I secured a fellowship I thought I’d love, and now I love it. I angstily completed my PhD training, wrote and defended a dissertation, and filed the final edits two weeks ago. And now I write to you from my rather delightful home office (it’s a dining table). IMG_8757From here on out, I’m unanonymizing myself. Anonymous posting made sense for me when I started writing. (Deep thought: Anonymous posting was training wheels for my writing.) But now it doesn’t seem like I need anonymity to say what’s on my mind. So… Hello! I am Danielle. You can read more about me here, here, here, and check me out on GitHub where I don’t write much code but manage to contribute to a lot of projects anyway.

I am now a mentor. Mentorship – what a mentor is, what the expectations are on either side, and how to communicate well within a mentor-mentee relationship – has been a challenging issue for me over course of my PhD training. I feel excited and uncertain to be a mentor myself. As a part of the Open Leadership Training Series I am mentoring two projects, Why Not Open Science and NeuroTechEDU. Each project is at a different stage of development. On the surface, the projects are smaller than a PhD, however each has the potential to grow and have a big impact on its community. Each is a science related project, albeit with different audiences (academic researchers and anyone interested in DIY projects to learn more about the brain, respectively). I’m not an expert in either survey research or neurotech / hardware hacking. But as it turns out, I don’t need to be as long as I can show up and listen.

We expect a lot from mentors. We want them to support us and help us develop. We want their time and their availability. We want them to listen. We want them to have feedback that feels useful. In academia, not all who serve as official mentors get training in how to mentor or even how to manage a research group.

I’ve had two very positive and productive relationships with academic mentors and two that were less positive and less productive for everyone. Near the end of my PhD – while I was really struggling with my PhD advisor – I am embarrassed to admit how much angst and emotional processing it took to accept that I would never get the kind of support I felt I needed from that particular PhD mentor. Once I accepted that, I saw that I was getting that support from other mentors – faculty in other departments, my program director, my peers, some cool deans, and others in my professional network. I wish I could go back and tell my past self to chill out and appreciate these other mentors rather than spending energy being angry about the PhD advisor. But I guess we need to learn some things the hard way? Now that it’s in the past, it is easier to see some of the reasons why it went wrong. These experiences with mentors –  the good and the less good – have shaped the way I approach mentorship.

I have often lamented that researchers who run labs get no formal mentorship training yet are able to take on PhD students and postdocs. In fact just today, while giving the NINDS Workforce Survey a piece of my mind I snarked, “The ability to write a grant likely does not correlate with the ability to run a group.” And now, I’ve taken my own advice and engaged in a formal mentorship program.

As an Open Leadership Training Series mentor I participated in a mentor training session with Abby Cabunoc Mayes. This half day session was like training wheels for mentoring. We did role playing. We talked about our feelings. We learned how to apply the GROW model in conversation (Goal, Reality, Options, Way Forward). We learned to just listen, ask questions, and let our mentees come to their own conclusions on the options and way forward – without filling up time with our own opinions and ideas.

My new identity as a mentor is about a month old. Participating in the Open Leadership Training Series mentor training, This training has already impacted my communication style. Whenever acronyms designed to help managers come in to play things can get cheesy. But for me, these exercises made my question many of my habits and patterns of communication. I’m inspired by the projects I’m mentoring and feel like I have the support I need to mentor these projects. I’ll keep you posted!

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