I love blogging. I am someone who deals better with externalizing their thoughts (which is, FYI, not entirely an extrovert, although so often confused with). It also helps me keep in touch with the wake dear friends and surrogate family I have left strewn across three continents. And, while we are talking about the vagaries of academia – in that rejection filled world, I love the validation I get from my blog. I love it when people link to my blog to recommend help, when I get new followers, when people at academic conferences tell me that they follow my blog.
However, a few months ago I began to think about the effects of having people in study section read my blog. There is nothing in my blog that I wouldn’t openly discuss in person, and even openly discuss in a work setting. I am happy with, and quite vocal about: my feminism, my social liberalism but fiscal conservatism, that I am a Christian but that I find the decisions to make laws based on someone’s interpretation of the Bible borderline abhorrent, that I am a Mom and that I love being a Mom, that I run and bake and craft and that I suspect Pretty Little Liars may be one of the greatest TV achievements to date (<—- only slightly sarcastic). People who meet me, and invite these conversations will know this. However, they will also (hopefully) know me for my Science and engage with me in intellectual discussions. What is someone in study section thinks ‘Who is this Lekki?” and googles me? I am not sure that the search results I want are what is popping up. I am pretty sure that this (the third image in the search) is not I want associated with my (good?) name:
So, yes, there is some Science and some professional shots, but there are also some very tempting personal stuff for the reviewer stuck on a long journey to NIH. It’s not that I am ashamed or secretive about anything here, it is more that I don’t want this blog forefront in Scientific reviews.
It put me off. But I didn’t know what to do; the idea of deleting my blog was emotionally really difficult. It is a record of my move to the US, the wedding, the birth of my first child. It is also a record of how I have grown and changed over the last years. And my followers! It is not great shakes in the blogging world, and it is not going to earn me any money (nor do I particularly want it to) but I have over 300 followers, which I kinda love. Especially when people I meet go ‘Oh! I read your blog’ (<— best feeling ever!).
But equally, suddenly feeling that my work could be affected by my blog was very paralyzing. It is hard to write when you picture the Chair of your Department scowling over your work (OK, my Chair does not know about this blog. But, you get the picture). So, in some way, the blog had to go. No point in having a blog you don’t write in. So, I have imported my blog to an anonymous blog here:
In a few days, I will delete all my personal posts from this page, and just leave up the work related ones. I decided to do this because I have a number of University websites that link to this blog, and I don’t want to mess up their links (or other with expensive wordpress redirects).
So, with some weird sadness, I will stop blogging here and move over to A Scientists Life. The goal is not to be anonymous there, just not to have direct links to my name so that if you google me, it is not high up in the links (I know it will take Google’s spiders a while to catch up with that, and that is OK).
The new blog is still a work in progress; I have not sorted out the background and pictures, and so on. I also have a long climb ahead of me to build up the same following, so please consider following me if you are interested in my personal stuff (Mum, I’m looking at you). Sam growing up, my fitness efforts, crafts, recipes, random thoughts etc. NB: I have no idea *who* follows me, just the number of people who do. Please continuing following here if you are interested in posts related to academia.
It’s kinda sad, but it is probably the smart thing to do.
About one month ago I had my exit interview with the Dean. Although I have always enjoyed a good relationship with the Dean (who hired me directly, I was not hired through my Department), I found myself growing increasingly nervous. I tried to allay my fears by conducting a Google search on exit interviews, but I could not find much information. I tried to talk myself down, but my fears grew and grew. Thus my the time D-day came, I found myself almost speechless with fear.
I arrived 5 minutes early (it’s not like I was being productive at my desk) and the Dean was running a few minutes late, hurrying across campus from another meeting. The Dean had a new secretary who was in place – a cheerful, bright soul, which was not what I needed at the moment. Feeling sorry for a newbie, I then decided to engage her in friendly ‘how are you settling in chat’ at I sat on the very edge of my seat, feet jiggling 60 miles / hour. Big mistake. My mouth and throat were dry and swallowing was a task akin to getting your first R01 (i.e. something to be worked on for years and only achievable by this every experienced). The secretary offered me a drink – given my issues swallowing I politely declined. Where by ‘politely declined’ I meant screwed my eyes up, uttered a strangled ‘umf’ and shook my head wildly.
The Dean came. She also offered me tea. I probably should have declined (see previous difficulties swallowing) but (probably to delay the inevitable) I agreed. Off we went to the kitchen and the Dean smiled and said “look, I am even washing your cup”. Tricks! Tricks! I was not falling into this trap of false kindness. I pursed my lips and grabbed the cup with a superior air. OK, OK, I smiled and simpered and gently took the cup while feeling bad, but hey, it is the thought that counts.
We sojourned to the Dean’s office and so the ‘interview’ began AKA the ‘why is my school not good enough for you after all we have done for you?’ The Dean appraised me, she raised and eyebrow, and she said “So… I understand why you are leaving”.
I. Was.Not. Expecting. That.
The Dean must have seen my surprise, because she countered “You think there is a better environment for you elsewhere. It is human nature to look around, find the best environment and gravitate towards it. I can’t blame anyone for doing that”. I was really shocked at her kindness and maturity and well… grace. Although I was nothing (relatively) to the School – one small grant, one co-taught course, not many publications, it is still seen as a loss when faculty leave. But what followed with the Dean was an open, honest, and frank discussion of what had worked for me, and what had not. The Dean said many times (in so many words) ‘I am sorry to lose you, when I employed you, I thought you were a great Scientist, and I still think that you are. I wish you would stay at the School’ and it was interesting to hear all about what she was doing, her motives and movements, her plans.
One thing the Dean said which really stuck with me (again, slightly paraphrased) was: “If you think you can do better Science elsewhere, then we have to let you go. We are a Science Institution, we have to support Science”. It was a grounding moment. Something I have been thinking about a lot recently, and may write a post on, is the ‘ego’ in academics, the ‘I’, the ‘me’ and how destructive it is. It was grounding to hear the Dean take the ‘me’ out and just focus on the School’s mission: to do good Science.
Not all my goodbyes were that positive – some, in fact, highly destructive. But I’ll remember my exit interview with the Dean as a wonderful learning / mentorship experience for me, as someone very Junior. Often, when difficult or hurtful / reject-filled situations arise at work, I’ll try to think “what is best for the Science?’.
Pieces on the problems in academia seem to be endless. Forbes were hugely criticized as outdated after they claimed that University Professor was the least stressful job; and the difficulties of academia in the new funding climate were laid bare. Yours truly wondered whether it was unethical to bring the brightest and best students into such a harsh work climate. And now a well known academic blogger has joyfully kissed goodbye to academia and feels ‘liberated and happy’.
It is true that academia has become extremely challenging. For those not in the know, the financial crisis has reduced funding, and when your job relies on securing government funding there is increased uncertainty. The federal funding rate has decreased from 33% to less than 10%. That is, less than 1 in 10 grants gets funded (even less if you are lowly beginner like me), which means that you have to submit four times as many grants. So you spend your time writing unfunded grants, rather than say, doing the Science you love. Yet to stand out, you are supposed to be producing more Science than ever; which is somewhat of a challenge since the Earth, rather cruelly, has not decided to rotate on its axis just a little slower, and so give you more hours to the day.
It’s difficult. I had many comments on my last post (some in private) with people desperately grateful to feel heard and understood. People who spent much of their private time crying. But we’re not leaving now, right (or at least I am not)? So we have to find a way to make it work. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I have changed jobs. In early February, I handed in my resignation. It was a long (5 month), and very difficult decision. I have only been in my current position for 18 months, and I have many, many wonderful things to say about my Department. Clearly there is some fantastic research going on there. There is also a reasonable amount of money, a Chair with an open door, and a collection of kind-hearted people. Saying goodbye to the people who had thrown me a beautiful baby shower just 4 months after meeting me was not a trivial undertaking.
However. As much as there was somewhat of a personal fit, there was not a professional fit. After 18 months, I did not manage to establish a research team with any of my colleagues. Science no longer operates in a vacuum; the image of the mad Professor sitting alone in their laboratory at all hours awaiting their moment of genius does not apply to bad funding climates where one has to be collaborative, with fingers in many pies, conducting safe (fundable) Science.
I think I came in with the wrong attitude. I tried to give my time freely; I sat on committees, gave lectures, organized seminars, never turned a student away. In my work I never turned a project down; I offered myself as free statistical labor and Chaired working groups. I think it is hard to take that this did not work out.
It was actually a very difficult time for me; I take these things hard (too hard I think), and spent a lot of time crying and scared to do anything.
As it happens, I have been working with colleagues at Baylor School of Medicine. I guess it is a better fit there. They really like my Science, and have bent over backwards to try to make my ideas feasible and fundable. There were some amazing and exciting moments in which we would have a discussion about what I thought needed to be done in the behavioral genetics of obesity, but how I felt these ideas were just not practical. I vividly remember my colleague Sheryl coming into a meeting the week after such a Discussion and saying triumphantly ‘I can do it! I can design the study you need!’. And she did. I have written grants with the behavioral group and been blown away by how much support and feedback they have given me, and by how many doors they have opened (even when I was not ‘one of their own’). I loved that after submitting a grant I heard the words ‘So… what is the next project we will work on?’. I see their papers come out and am jealous I did not work on that project. (<- this is always my no. 1 tip for people looking for an academic institution – do you wish you were on the papers coming out of that place?).
So, when they invited me to interview last August (yes, that long ago). I agreed. I was quite surprised when they offered me the position, and even more surprised about their willingness to accommodate my concerns about funding, and the kind of start-up and support I would need. It took a lot of thinking about; the group at Baylor are very successful, well-known people. I really spent a lot of time thinking ‘ummm… why would they want me? And will I be a giant failure in comparison?’. Baylor require substantially more grant funding than UT, even than UAB (although no formal teaching) which, as outlined above, is a difficult thing in today’s financial world.
I discussed things with my School. Ultimately, and it hurts to say this, they did not make an effort to keep me. The words were there, but when I asked if we could have a meeting to discuss my 5-year goals, what I needed to do to get there, and how I could make this path happen I was told ‘No. Just stay if you want to, and go if you don’t’. So, I picked to go to the people who had laid out concrete ways to support to me.
It was phase 2 of a difficult time. My fear had been all along that it would be hard to live up to the academic credentials of the people at Baylor (they are really awesome), and there was some feeling that I would not however, I have been really spoiled in my training so far; have always been told to push myself because I can achieve anything I put my mind to – that I am as capable as everyone as anyone else, and that success goes to the persistent: so persist! I was hugely respected by my PhD mentor Jonna, and given lots of analyses to lead at a young age. I was pushed by my postdoc mentor Donna to follow my dreams and by my postdoc mentor David to reach for the stars and keep trying. I was trusted with opportunities and made to feel good. And ultimately, I do best in an environment in which I have to strive to keep up – I do well if I feel I am not ‘making it’ and thrive in competition.
That is the environment I have chosen to gravitate back to – whether rightly or wrongly. The group at Baylor do demand high productivity, but they also love to see people follow new ideas and try new things. They love thinking about how they can push the boundaries of Science. I have a few collaborations there already and am enjoying working with people who make things happen – who turn ideas into projects.
So, from today, I was a member of The Children’s Nutrition Research Center, at Baylor College or Medicine. I promised myself that if I made the move, I was not going to live in fear of not living up to their standards or getting funding (that part of my life is over, right?). I am so excited to keep my epidemiology going (which is somewhat ‘safe’, and the result of an amazing mentor at UVA – where I would also move in a heartbeat) but also to explore new ways to bring epidemiological approaches to conceptualize and understand our eating behaviors.
And I have a BAD-ASS office, which currently has two fish tanks (one salt water, one freshwater) and a whole tray of plants.
I am excited because I can see productivity on the horizon, collaborations, and new Science. I feel valued and respected, even though these are people that I have so much to learn from. And coming full circle to the title of this post: if you are in academia I encourage you to evaluate yourself and ask: do you have this? Are people excited for you to be a leader in Science? Do they recognize your unique needs and try to meet this? If you want independence: can you see that? if you want to be a part of team rather than a leader: do you have that? My old office mate Claire (very wise young lady) inadvertently prompted this move as well. She said that she and her husband were going to stay in Science until it was ‘wasn’t fun anymore’. Junior academics: are you having fun? I moved to have fun. Nothing is guaranteed anymore, so you might as well enjoy yourself on the way up or out.
The resolution to the problems in academia seems to me to be to find your happy place and stick it out as long as you can. I hope that this is what I have taken a step in this direction.
I was slightly nervous posting about our sleep training. It’s a contentious topic, and I was worried about a backlash. Actually, I did not receive one; knowing that we had actually done it, and were not just considering it, my friends who do think sleep training via our method (some sort of cry-it-out-ish) is not good idea, kindly kept quiet. I appreciate their consideration. Others wrote with encouragement saying “we did that and it was awesome!” which helped me too. But a number of people responded to my comments about cortisol with relief: a ‘thank you for writing that, I had been worried about affecting my child and now I feel better’.
That got me thinking: as Mums (and Dads and Aunts and Uncles and pet cats… OK, not pet cats) we are bombarded with “information” (cough) about how to raise children. And what to eat. And how to have a successful marriage. And when to exercise. It goes on. The internet age has bought stacks of articles, stories and opinions to our fingertips (and many, many pictures of cats).
I am lucky: a large part of my job is to read scientific articles which argue that they conclude X and to work out quite why they don’t actually quite conclude exactly X, so that I can go and do studies to help us actually conclude X with better data. Essentially, my job is to see through the bullshit and interpret actual data accurately. I spent the last semester teaching my student to do just that and she passed her qualifying exam in flying colors. I am not great at a a lot of this whole Science thing, but I am pretty good at that.
So, I think I have an advantage. I can see through all (well… some… I occasionally call my Mum in a panic) the guilt-trips and the misinformation and the scare stories Yes: scare stories. (check out the daily Mail’s list of things that can give you cancer http://www.anorak.co.uk/288298/scare-stories/the-daily-mails-list-of-things-that-give-you-cancer-from-a-to-z.html/).
Personally, I am never going to stop reading the interwebs (I’d have to do way too much work for a start), so I thought I would share some of my tactics for keeping a sane head.
First, I usually try to source the original scientific article. You can usually find them on PubMed or Google Scholar with some clever searches (can take some practice). You will find a link to the article (which you may need to subscribe to a journal to read), but I do the bulk of my assessment off the abstract. But you don’t need it really. Then I go through the following process, which I will illustrate using the ‘sleep it out causes anxiety disorders in children’ study. I use this study only because it was the subject of my most recent obsessive-research bout. You can do it equally with ‘diet coke causes your leg to fall off’ or whatever the latest ‘thing’ is.
Essentially, the study examined a small group of infants who had been left to cry-it-out as sleep training. After 5 days the infants would go to sleep without crying, but their cortisol levels were higher, while the cortisol levels of the mothers were not high. That is all the study says.
Response articles, however, said things like “But there is no doubt that repeated lack of responsiveness to a baby’s cries-even for only five minutes at a time-is potentially damaging to the baby’s mental health. Babies who are left to cry it out alone may fail to develop a basic sense of trust or an understanding of themselves as a causal agent, possibly leading to feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and chronic anxiety later in life”.
I can’t find it now but I did also find an article that said that children left to cry-it-out would, within 5 minutes, “deduce that they are essentially unlovable”.
Holy Moly! Who wants to subject their kids to that?? So, what proces did I use to evaluate these data:
(1) OK, the biggest thing ever: what do the actual Scientists who wrote the study say it means? Not a blogger… not an author… not a media Science writer… not a random Physicist who someone got to comment on the study: what does a Scientist in the same subject say about the data? Preferably, what do the authors of the article say? They say:
“The findings are discussed in relation to understanding the determinants and implications of maternal–infant physiological synchrony in early childhood”
NOTHING about later life. NOTHING about disorders. Not even anything about anxiety. Not even implications for the development of the child. They simply say that mother and child cortisol levels are no longer in sync: they have a ‘physiological asynchrony’.
Already it’s less scary, right? I mean, if I said “do this and your hormones won’t rise and fall in the same rhythm as your child’s” you probably wouldn’t freak out too much.
(2) Then I look at the actual outcome: cortisol. Now let’s look at the claimed outcome: anxiety disorders in later life. Assuming the actual outcome was well measured in this study (and the cortisol was… it’s a good study) can we link the actual outcome with the claimed outcome? NO. Is there any scientific link between infant cortisol at bedtime and later anxiety disorders? Nope. OK, so how about infant cortisol and later anxiety disorders? Errr… nope. OK, we are getting tenuous here, but how about general cortisol (remembering that we have no proof that a temporary nighttime rise in cortisol leads to a general increase in cortisol) and anxiety disorders? Makes sense, right? Well, maybe, but sadly Science does not agree. Some studies support the hypothesis that cortisol (which is linked to acute stressful situations) is associated with anxiety disorders while others,show that within individuals suffering from anxiety “a lower cortisol awakening response… predicted an unfavorable course trajectory”.
So, you may not want your kid to experience cortisol rises. That’s fine. You may think that infant cortisol leads to adult anxiety. That’s also fine. But, know that that is not an evidence-based view.
(3) I check whether the outcome (here: cortisol) has been associated with ONLY the status variable (here cry-it-out training). Well… no. Cortisol is associated with any infant distress. We put our kids through distress all the time (last time I used the example of Sam howling in the car seat when I was on the interstate and couldn’t comfort him). So, cortisol at night is a question of adding something the kid already experiences, not bringing a whole new qualitiative experience.
More importantly: there is no evidence about whether cortisol is experienced by non-cry-it-out training. There is no control group. It is not only possible, but plausible to me, that if you have a kid like Sam who seems to hate the very concept of sleep, any form of sleep training is going to stress him out (this was highlighted to me when he would go ballistic at cuddling on the boppy pillow because it was used at night).
(4) I also look at the general methodology of the study: who was the data collected on? If it is not humans I treat conclusions pertaining to humans extremely skeptically. Is it on a large sample? This was on 25 infants – that is not a lot at all. It is probably what we would call a ‘pilot study’. But, that does not invalidate the conclusions of the study, it just means that we need to see it repeated. It is very possible that with such a small sample size there was some particular characteristic about either the mothers or the children that don’t pertain to you. Has the study been repeated by an independent group? In this case – not yet.
(5) I also consider the point that in most studies where we are looking at potential harm people are not randomized to a group. That is, people choose to follow a certain path / method and perhaps WHY they chose that actually explains the outcome. In the case of the sleep study, we have infants who could not sleep through the night, and mothers who responded to an advert for such (were they at the end of their tether?) and agreed to take part in the study. Would I follow a training plan for my kid at the direction of a Scientist to earn some bucks? No. Would I sleep in a sleep center with my kiddo when he was that young for 5 days? No. So maybe there is something about these mothers who consented to do such that leads to the rise in cortisol.
The clearer example is on breast vs. formula feeding. There are great breast and great formula feeding mothers (I was both, so clearly I am doubly great… that’s Science). But, if you ARE a negligent mother OR you suffer PPD or whatever, you are less likely to go through the hassle of breastfeeding. So, there will be more ‘struggling’ mothers in the formula feeding group. Or, even if you are super fabbie wonderful faultless mother (like moi, naturally) then there may be a reason you formula feed. I didn’t produce enough milk. Possibly because I was separated from my baby so much early on, or because I went back to work so quickly, or because I didn’t have a great post partum diet. Maybe THESE reasons – which aggregate more among formula feeders – and not the formula cause group differences between formula fed and breast milk fed babies (where they exist).
(6) I am wary of ‘evolution’ arguments. Yes: our environment is changing faster than our DNA can evolve (although note: much of who we are is not what the code of our DNA says, but how much it is turned on and off [i.e. are the genes doing anything in our body, or just lying dormant] and that can be changed in as little as 12 hours…). But regardless, our environment has changed, and we have to help our kids fit into it at some point. When and how is up to you.
(7) Sift out sensationalist language. Young Scientists, especially those in behavioral Science, learn early on not to say “we have shown that such and such is the case” but rather “our data support the idea that..” or “we have added to a body of evidence arguing that…”. Internet articles are sneaky-sneaky using a mix of both:
“But there is no doubt (oh no!) that repeated lack of responsiveness to a baby’s cries-even for only five minutes at a time-is potentially (oh… wait..) damaging to the baby’s mental health. Babies who are left to cry it out alone may (only may?) fail to develop” yada yada yada. Don’t focus on the first bit: focus on the uncertainty.
(8) You will KNOW if something is – for sure – bad for your kid. There are no Mummy-wars about whether one should smoke in pregnancy to stay relaxed, or teach your child to skip meals to keep body fat low and prevent child-onset obesity. Or if mothers should drink a butt load of delicious delicious wine to blank out the sound of their infants crying. We know some stuff. The rest? It’s not evidence based. It’s instinct and guesswork.
But yeah, I have my random opinions about my kid – some rational, some not. I am obsessed with the idea that Sam has homemade baby food only until he is 2 – even the organic-in-a-pouch stuff is not “good enough” (I am sure I will reassess when I see the work… but hey, Wes is a SAHD, he’s got to earn his keep 😉 ). I don’t really know why, although if I had to, I could bring out a heap load of scare stories showing you why he MUST have that if he is to be AT ALL healthy and functional later on in life. I would not have had him vaccinated had I been in the UK – even though Science really does not back that stance up. However, I don’t care too much about baby bath products (poison apparently), crying-it-out and disposable diapers. Go figure.
But look – you gotta read the stuff to know what you think about it. I certainly like my friends sending me articles that go contrary to my opinion so I can reevaluate my opinion. David (one of my UAB mentors) once said to me “Be who you are, but be it knowingly”. I say: “Raise your kid in your own way. but do it in an informed manner”. And do it without guilt.
My birthing coach Johanna put it best when I was fretting about sleep training: she asked if I really thought one thing could make up for all the days and nights of unconditional love.
Anyway, if Sam is anything like me, he’ll f- himself up more than I ever could anyway 🙂
Wow, that is very scary. I am 1/6 of the way through my first contract with UT. A good time to look back on what I have done, what I haven’t done, what worked and what did not.
This has got to be the biggie – the main concern, the main activity and the main source of waking up with cold sweats in the middle of the night. My paper record is reasonable for this stage of my career (32 papers; ~22 first-author), and I am tenure-track, which in my case means I have 3 years to get a grant. I have publishing expectations, but not contractual obligations. However, my ability to feed my son depends on grants (and to think I turned down a hard money job…).
It sounds like a long time… it is NOT a long time, especially as the lag between submitting and funding is generally at least 9 months. If you get revisions and decide to resubmit, you are looking at more like 15+ months. My K99 took nearly 2 years as I had to wait until the end of the funding cycle for a decision. Then I lost it… showing how precarious grants can be as well. So, if my next grant took as long to come as my K99, the ‘winning’ grant would have to be submitted within the next 2 months, to keep my contract. Scary.
My aim is to submit one NIH grant every cycle (3 cycles a year) and to hit as many alternatives as possible (foundations / internal UT funding / begging under a bridge). I have no qualms about my funding NOT being from NIH. I understand that that is most prestigious and most beneficial for the departmental (huge indirect , but I am more concerned with just being able to get some Science done. I have the support of my Department Chair & Dean in this.
I got 2 NIH grants in – I actually aimed for 2 in case I missed the February deadline due to the arrival of young Samuel. I got in a K-12, which while using NIH funds, is administered through UT, so I already know that I did not get it. Boo. I also submitted a DP2 (stop sniggering Stella), the new NIH Director’s New Innovator Grant, which takes nearly a full year to review. In addition, I submitted one small pilot grant, through an institution (Baylor College of Medicine) with some colleagues I have made since arriving here (i.e. it is very new collaboration). Waiting to hear (hopefully very soon on this one).
Well… I am glad I was productive. I think 3 grants in a new place, all of which count as data collection grants (not secondary data analysis which are somewhat easier to put together) counts as productive. 2 reflect new collaborations (the pilot grant with Baylor, the K-12 with UT Med school). And I will always believe that when you are junior, just the process of writing and submitting a grant is useful. But, I think I didn’t make the best choices.
My mistake was not going for grants which could be resubmitted. The K-12 I am not resubmitting because my teaching load starts soon, and is not compatible with the training and research demands of the K-12. The DP2 doesn’t have a revise and submit option. Given that last year the finding rate was under 3% for the DP2, and this year they are likely to have more applicants, but the usual NIH cuts, I have actually just written that one off. So, here is the thing: at the end of three rejected grants, I feel like I am back at square 1.
OK, not square 1, because all the benefits apply: I have shaped my intended research program somewhat, I have discovered my passions, improved my writing and learned how to make a budget (I had actually never done one of these before!). I can navigate fairly speedily through the vagaries of UT’s IRB, COI and IRiS (grant submission system) fairly smoothly. So, I guess I am ahead, but not where I would like to be, which is with some comments in hand and a grant ready to resubmit.
One of the problems with the DP2 is that it is an unusual grant format, and we have no templates for the submission, so it took a lot of time, for what I am anticipating being very little payback.
I actually find being 6 months in, and no grant on the horizon terrifying, but I try not to think about it to much, and try to act on it. So, a game plan:
*Keep submitting, submitting, submitting. Recall the American Heart Association at their Early Career Day:
“Grants Don’t Go The Smart” [we are all smart] “Grants Go To The Persistent”.
*Try to get into established groups, and work with established people. I think I was naive before: I thought that I could just come up with a great research idea and pursue it, solo. I am more and more pessimistic that that is possible: I think you have to grow your idea out of a secure base before you can run with it. You may have all the skills necessary, but NIH still want to see small steps in the progression to your idea. I look back and I have won lots of awards, but always, at about the end of a three-year study period. And I always struggled at the beginning. I see getting a grant as less like drawing a picture, and more like growing an orange: you have to plant the seeds in well fertilized soil, nurture them, water them, tend them, watch them grow, and then, then all that is done and the tree is strong, you will get your orange.
I have not given up on some of my grander plans, but I am focussing on smaller more logical research steps and building my other plans more slowly: as I built my behavioral genetics reputation (sadly going – sob – it is my favorite thing) over a 3 year PhD, then I built my lipoprotein work over 3 years. For both of areas, I didn’t feel respected until the end of that period (and nor, looking back, was I remotely competent). So, as I move back into BG and move into cognition and obesity, I am planning to fund myself on other projects, and slowly ‘work-for-free’ producing papers and building a research base.
It’s still scary.
Eh. I really miss writing papers. With 3 grants, networking, having a baby, learning how to be a mentor and so on, I have not done the Science that I loved doing before. My mentor Donna was wise: when I asked to leave UAB she asked for three papers in the three months before I went. She got them 🙂 It left me with a strong and recent publication record on my CV and gave me some wiggle room.
I am running out of wiggle room. I have some ideas, and some manuscript proposals in, and I need to get better at arranging my time.
One of my proudest and most enjoyable achievements at UTSPH has been becoming a mentor. I have had the benefit of wonderful, selfless mentors and I am honored to be able to pass on their gifts to me, to my student. I have spoken to a lot of people, both inside and outside, of UT, about how to be an effective mentor. I am working hard at focusing on the needs and dreams of my student, not just *my* needs. I.e. really working with my student on what she wants, where she wants to be, and what she finds fulfilling, without just giving her the work I need done (in her name, of course). But then I am trying to balance this with keeping her productive. I invested a lot of time with my student identifying her weaknesses and working an individualized program to fulfill them. I hope to always have the time and freedom to do this for people.
I love my Department at UTSPH. I chose a job fairly naively (impulsively? Hastily?). I guess for a first faculty position, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I guess I also didn’t know that (1) I would be a mum and (2) a Mum-Lekki might be looking for something different to a non-Mum Lekki. These are the things I value about my department:
*It is very egalitarian. I don’t see ‘ranks’ among the faculty. Everyone treats everyone else equally and with respect.
*Our Chair cares deeply about his Department. And it shows.
*It is a ‘healthy’ organization to me: everyone seems very happy to help and guide. There is no evidence of backstabbing or competitiveness between members of the Department. People pull together and are kind to each other.
*Many in my Department really value family. And have made (small) allowances for me having a baby. It’s not that they value me less, or expect less of me, just that I have been given some space. I have to hit the same benchmarks, by the same time, but the road there is a bit more flexible.
*Most importantly of all: I have fabulous female role models: women who are enormously successful, but are mothers first-and-foremost. I have loved seeing this.
I write this in the hope that it might inspire people who are job hunting to think beyond pay scale, teaching hours and tenure clocks, and think more about the type of place they want to be, and the type of place and people that would make them happy.
I always wondered what it would be like being faculty, and I think this post sums up the early months: highs and lows, panic, a juggling act, a steep (but wonderful) learning curve, responsibility (so much responsibility!), freedom.
So now… I am looking forward. I have 3 grants this month: An AHA Beginning-Grant-In-Aid and an R21 (familiar mechanisms, good funding rates, and based on my previous work – come on!!) and an internal pilot funding application. I am already working on one R01 to be submitted in June (not sure if I will go as CO-I or CO-PI) and planning another (this time in the area I want to move into, but based within a team). I am also teaching (!) Team teaching (phew) in Summer, and building my own course in – of course – Behavioral Genetics, for the academic year 2013-14. Very exciting.
I am still scared nothing will come of anything, and I’ll be out of a job in June 2015. But hey, that just encourages me to keep trying so that I can say “At least I gave it my all”.
Academics: how do you feel? What do you feel about leaps from postdoc to faculty? What do you think your chances of a grant are.
Everyone: What do you look for in a job?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This is the story of how Samuel Clarke Frazier came into the world 🙂 It ends at that joyous moment, so there is no dwelling or rehashing of the difficult time that followed – just a history of the moments leading up to one of the happiest points in my life. However, it is a birth story. It is graphic. On other blogs I have seen the authors put up birth stories and readers complain that words like ‘cervix’ and ‘discharge’ spoiled their breakfast. Well… expect that and more, if you stick with this post, you may know me VERY well by the end (although note: it is safe for work, and suitable for my students to read and still respect me afterwards).
We left off when the hospital had called. I had been merrily distracted by an awesome ‘shower in a box’ but as soon as the phone rang, all the emotions hit me: fear (perhaps terror), panic, excitement. At that moment, all I could think was ‘I am not ready… I just need another day…’. I answered the call, and the nurse told me that the hospital was not sure they could fit me in that day after all – but she would call and let me know later if it was a possibility. She could call us, but if we had not heard by 9, we could call her.
Ugh. Talk about a mood changer. OK, I might not have felt ‘ready’ but I did not want to delay this. I cried, so Wes got me out of the house to a gorgeous little Italian in Bellaire (where I ate about 3 bites of pizza and boxed the rest) and we got ‘Rock of Ages’ on DVD to distract ourselves. 9 came… no phone call, and at 9.00 and 1 second I dialed the hospital. Come on in they said! Come in for 11. Woo-hoo. That was a difficult hour to kill, but we changed and packed and tidied and faffed and left ridiculously early.
We got to the hospital at 10.50 and were not turned away! This was it… it was happening! Then began wait after wait… waiting for a room, waiting for a nurse, waiting for the cervadil (I am not complaining, I utterly accept that on a labor ward, the woman NOT in labor is the least of their priorities)… the upshot was, it was 2 am (yawn) before the induction began.
Induction part 1: Friday night: Cervadil.
Cervadil is a gel they put on your cervix overnight, to ‘ripen’ it (nice terminology, always reminded of ‘the reaping’ in The Hunger Games). Hopefully it thins the cervix and dilates it, meaning the pitocin has less to do – some women respond so well they go into labor, but that is not the purpose per se. The cervadil basically looks like a long tampon, but a doctor has to insert it (boo). Unfortunately, my doctor (the resident for that night) was very heavy handed – placing it and then pushing, and shoving more. I did get quite bruised, from the heavy-handed insertion, otherwise it would have been utterly painless. Once it was in, it was painless (I couldn’t feel it at all) and time for lights out.
Many hospitals give a sleeping pill at this stage, but I was not offered one (I don’t know if this is because my OB practice is as hands-off / anti-interference as possible, or because I had told them that minimal intervention was my choice) and I did not want one. Slept like a log anyway, until I was woken up at about 6 to see how it had worked.
I was pleased to see my OB, Dr. Boswell, in the morning. We love her, and she did the examination to see how the cervadil had worked. The result? No effacement, no dilation. Nothing. No change. Boo. I was disheartened, but Dr. Boswell was upbeat and said it was just time to start phase 2: round 1 of pitocin.
Stage 2: Saturday morning: Round 1 of pitocin
The turned the pitocin on at about 9. As I had wanted to try to labor without an epidural (even on pitocin) they started, as promised, at the very lowest dose: a 2. I waited, with some fear, for the hugely painful contractions pitocin is supposed to give, but… nothing. So after 30 mins, they upped it to a 4. And I waited… and nothing… this carried on all day, until at 2 pm Dr Boswell came back. She asked how I was feeling, and I gave a very merry “Wonderful! I feel great!” but her response was “Rats. I was hoping you would be in a lot of pain by now”. She didn’t think the pitocin was working – we could see my uterus contracting on the monitor, but no nice rhythmic contractions, nothing that seemed productive. And no pain meant that clearly, nothing was really happening. I asked if getting up and walking would help, but she said, not at this stage. I was welcome to, but resting for actual labor might be better.
So… I waited… and waited.. and we upped the dose every 30-60 mins. When the dose was at a 12 (not very high, it goes up to 20), at about 7 pm, Dr Boswell recommended the pitocin be turned off. You could see that my uterus was contracting constantly, with no break in between, but I could not feel it. I was still spending my time reading, watching TV, texting, Skyping my Mum. Basically: completely ineffective contractions. They checked my cervix: no effacement, maybe a fingertip dilation. Again: basically zilch.
Here, I am very grateful to have been with The Women’s Specialists of Houston. Not only did the doctor leave me alone all day (very few internal examinations… in fact, just one, with an intern who again was extremely heavy handed until she bought tears to my eyes) but many doctor’s would have just upped and upped the pitocin, labelled it a ‘failed induction’ and gone for the C-section. Dr Boswell said that this can occur for a number of reasons and that the game was not up yet. She said that nerves / tiredness / stress / hunger (I had not been allowed to eat before being admitted) can cause pitocin to fail: she wanted me to have a relaxing evening, with a big meal, and a good sleep. She also said that pitocin causes the cells that trigger contractions in response to pitocin to be expressed on the wall of the uterus, therefore they can work better on a second attempt, but you need a rest so your uterus doesn’t get ‘exhausted’ (yes… really). So, feeling doomed to failure I agreed to take a break. At this stage, I began to feel quite depressed about the whole thing: I had really wanted as natural of a labor as possible, and this felt anything but. My body just felt like a passive vessel for medical intervention: I felt nothing, I felt my body was doing nothing. Still, when Dr. Boswell suggested one last intervention to help tomorrow’s pitocin: a foley balloon, I agreed to try it to help avoid a C-section.
Stage 3: Saturday pm: Foley Balloon
A foley balloon is another method of helping dilation, but it is mechanical rather than pharmaceutical. Basically, they insert two balloons into you, one in your uterus between the baby’s head and your cervix, one just outside the uterus resting on the cervix. They fill the balloons with water and hope the pressure mimics the pressure of a baby’s head descending in labor, and so causes your cervix to dilate. Bleugh. I will say, Dr Boswell absolutely gave me the choice of having the balloon or not. She also sad that she would stop at any point when it was uncomfortable, and if we could not fill the balloons with the recommended amount of water without discomfort – we just wouldn’t. She saw no point in discomfort, nor wearing me out more. She is awesome.
The insertion was about as pleasant as it sounds – luckily Dr Boswell is a wonder at doing these procedures and it was just unpleasant / uncomfortable more than anything. At least, that was the physical side, emotionally I felt a bit like I was sick of being prodded and poked and my body not being my own. But hey ho. Dr Boswell saw all my bruising from the heavy handed intern examinations and offered me ice, which was nice, and sympathy, which I think was nicer 🙂
But once it was in, actually, no problem. I could not feel it at all, and ended up like this moments later:
It was weird getting up and going to the bathroom with it in… but otherwise, it really didn’t bother me.
At 6 am (why so early?? Why??) Dr Boswell (phew) came to remove the foley balloon. It was simple and painless – she drained the water and it kinda slipped out. Moment of truth time: had it done anything? Had it made any difference?? YES! I was 4 cm dilated! This is the stage they will often admit you to hospital (if you are not being induced), and evidence that my body might actually respond to something.
Stage 4: Saturday am, Pitocin round 2
So, we were all go on the pitocin. They worked the same way as before: starting low and increasing the dose until it was effective, but not letting it get so high my uterus got exhausted (for real… they actually said this… hence the need for an overnight break and some food). Dr. Boswell came to wish us goodbye 😦 So sad to see her go, but she handed us over to her colleague Dr. Dryden with promises that she was ‘wonderful’ and ‘very experienced’ and had delivered both of Dr. Boswell’s babies. Dr Boswell said not to start the pitocin until the change of nurses shift at 9, so that the nurse can monitor the whole reaction of my uterus, and see it’s responses and patterns. She warned me that the time was probably coming to break my waters, she emphasized that given all the excess fluid, no one, but no one was to break my water except Dr. Dryden, in case of a prolapse. Then Dr. Boswell left for some much needed sleep (she had been at the hospital all Saturday and on call all Saturday night).
Waiting… waiting… by the time the nurses had switched and done their rounds, the pitocin was started at 10… again, I could not feel much, although it did feel a little bit more like rhythmic menstrual cramps. Dr. Dryden came in at 10.30 and determined it was time to break the water. I liked Dr Dryden (and she did a wonderful, wonderful job at the birth and after) but she was quite different to Dr. Boswell – I felt everything was an option and my choice with Dr B.; with Dr. Dryden felt more that things were going to be done her way. But I did like her and felt quite comfortable around her – plus she did the most wonderful job of the actual delivery so am eternally grateful for that. I got a bit antsy when she mentioned breaking my waters – we had been taught in Bradley that this increases the risk of C-section because once your water is broken, if the baby was not out in 24 hours, it was an automatic C-section. Wes asked if this was the case and Dr. D said ‘No, you are absolutely not on any clock’ so we agreed – again, I have a feeling that was going to happen anyway 😉
Dr. D. pronounced me still 4 centimeters and broke my waters. It took all of 2 seconds, I didn’t feel it at all, and then there was just a horrible hot gush. Ugh. Dr. D left, the nurse upped the pit and left Wes and I were left to our own devices. Before the nurse left she mentioned again that she could give me wireless monitoring so I could get up and walk – AS REQUESTED IN MY BIRTH PLAN – but you know when you are in pain and all you want to do is curl up and laze around? Yeah, I was there. All I will say is that breaking the waters is darn effective. Immediately, I began to feel contractions. Painful, but spaced out. I practiced my Bradley relaxation techniques to get through them – they came about every 2 minutes. Whether they are more painful than non-pit contractions I will never know, but I will say that you do get thrown straight into later stages of labor – for example, straight into 2 mins apart, painful contractions, which is often not the case with natural labor.
At about 11, the nurse came in and told me that she had read my birth plan and was here to get me walking. I wasn’t really given a choice, but in a good way. I had given them detailed reasons why I wanted to walk and use the birthing ball (pain relief, good positioning, speeding up labor) so the nurse played hard ball and made Wes walk me up and down the corridors. Again, a highly effective way to get labor kicked up a notch. The contractions got more painful and about a minute apart. Again, although painful, it was bearable as I could get a complete pain-break as these photos taken 30 sec apart show:
I tried the birthing ball, which pre-labor I was convinced would be the best place for me. It hurt more, hurt my tailbone and I practically kicked the thing out of the room. I also, with Wes’ help, tried squatting, which was equally as miserable. Walking it was.
Then I needed the loo. No. 2. Wes told me I would have to buzz for a nurse, but I didn’t see why. I buzzed and the nurse said “wait! Wait for me’ which I tried to do, but she was ages coming. Ages. I was in pain, in labor and I needed to go. I tried to wait, but eventually, I figured I would either go on the floor or in the loo, so I might as well use the loo.
The nurse busted in while I was going (see? Labor is just so not dignified – and yes, I was with it enough to be horribly embarrassed) and chastized me. She told me that needing the loo was often a sign that the baby was coming and she was cross I might have had the baby in the loo. What was I supposed to do? Holding it was not an option!! She had to come quicker if she wanted me to wait! So, she wanted an exam afterwards to see if the baby was coming. So – at 11.15 what amazing progress had I made? 4 cm, maybe 4.5. UGH. Back to labor.
When the nurse left, the contractions got really bad. They just didn’t stop one on top of another. The pain was bad (but I could cope with it):
Then I needed the loo again. Really, like upset tummy needed to go. I buzzed for the nurse and waited and waited and buzzed and begged them to come (I was close to going anyway, but torn between my discomfort and being told off again!), when she came she wanted me to use a bedpan! No freakin’ way! Gross. So, I pointed out that just a few minutes ago I had been 4.5 at most and so really, no baby was going to be falling out of me. She agreed and let me use the bathroom (although she insisted on being in there with me! When I had an upset tummy! Told you: labor is not dignified).
While in there, I had a mental breakdown. The pain was horrific, and I was not progressing. I could deal with this pain, but given that I was dilating 1 cm every 2 hours, and had 5.5 cm to go – not for another 11 hours. Plus, if this was early labor, how bad would transition be? F that, I’ll take the pain relief. So, I asked for the epidural.
It was administered quickly (within 5 mins) and within 10 I had gone from this:
As soon as the epidural had kicked in – about 11.45 the nurse wanted an exam, so they could ascertain in the future whether the epi had caused me to stall. I was annoyed: what was the point? I had been at 4.5 forever, and so finding out I was 5 was not going to help. I acquiesced, a resident Dr was called, and I grumpily let her announce that I was “9.5, maybe more, there was just a lip, and the baby was coming NOW”.
What? What the F-ing F? Some 40 hours to get get 4 cm, then to 9.5 in 40 minutes? So looking back, this:
was transition. We had been taught in Bradley that transition was the most painful time, and the time the women find it most emotionally difficult and cry for the epidural. Our plan had been for Wes to step in at that stage and talk me out of it.. however, we just had no idea we were in transition. We thought it was too soon. I was annoyed that I had an epidural so late: I was moments away from giving birth when I got it, and most of the hard stuff had been done. I could have had a non-epidural (one can hardly call all the cervadil, balloons and pit natural…) birth, but hey ho. While I was annoyed that we had managed this slightly wrong, I was also pleased that I was enjoying this last stage. Plus, most of my fears about an epidural were unfounded: I could feel my legs, I could use my legs and I could certainly feel the contractions.
The nurse took a picture of us as a 2-some, promising to take the same picture but with the baby between us, when he was out (we never got this latter picture as everything went a bit Pete Tong, but hey ho)
Doctors were called, and it was time to push. I declined the mirror and pushed – again, the epidural did not affect my ability to push as I could certainly feel quite a lot. I could tell the nurse when my contractions were coming, and she often had to help me hold off on pushing the urge was so strong, so that I could let the pressure build. Pushing went pretty well, Firework moved quickly – so quickly, they had to chase him with the little monitors.
After about 30-40 mins we could see the head, then poor old FW got stuck 😦 I had been warned about a very narrow pelvis and nothing seemed to get him past it. We tried squat bars, different positions, breaks, laboring down, I even let them get the dratted mirror. After 2 hours of pushing, they called Dr. D. She watched a few contractions and coached me. I actually said “It is OK to use forceps if you need, or cut me” but she didn’t think we needed that yet. She put her hands inside me (owww… just owwww… the epidural seemed to be doing F all at this stage) and said that FW was a slight transverse – he was facing the wrong way (up, not down – ah back labor also explains the yell for the epidural earlier) and slightly sideways. Again, I am grateful I was with the Women’s Specialists, many OB’s would have gone for an emergency C-section at this stage. Not Dr. D. Mindful of my ‘no C-section if possible’ [and now it does seem silly I was so adamant about that] scrawled all over my birth plan, she just turned him manually while he was inside me.
That. Is. The. Most. Pain. I. Have. Ever. Experienced. I swore violently – then apologized. But Dr. D was doing absolutely the right thing, using each contraction and push to slowly stretch me and rotate FW. I began to worry that FW was in danger as his heart rate was dropping, but Dr. D was wonderfully calm. I even said “if you need to do a C-section, do it!” but she said “I don’t need to see him now. I do need to see him soon, but he is OK now” and quietly called some extra pediatricians in. Once Dr D had figured out he was the wrong way and stuck in my weird pelvis it was all quick quick. Another 30 mins or so of pushing, with her help, and my beautiful boy was born:
He was handed straight to me:
and taken off for some checks as he had been stuck for quite a while. All the checks were done in the room, and Wes got to help, although he mostly took photos:
FW had become Sam! The long pushing didn’t affect him at all. He took a while to cry which freaked me out (I got slightly panicked over that) but his apgar scores were 8 and 9 and his lungs, when he decided to use them, were certainly powerful enough 🙂
Sam was little enough that I only had a minor second degree tear which Dr D and an intern stitched up, while Sam was assessed. Sadly, as I was quite ill, I didn’t get Sam back after that 😦 But, that is not this story. This is the story of how the lovely Samuel Clarke Frazier came into the world at 16.32 on November 4th 2012, weighing 6 lb and 15 oz. A wonderful, wonderful day:
As the title quite clearly states: I am now the advisor to a PhD student. Which makes me want to rub my hands together like Burns, and go “mwah ha ha ha”, evilly.
Seriously though, I am very excited, and pleased to be working with a junior Scientist. I was a teacher before academia, and that was out of love not necessity. Of course, I feel the enormous responsibility that comes with this. I chose a fairly ‘risky’ faculty job, in the sense that I knew I would be establishing a research program on my own, not joining a team (although many would point out, that if you are at an R1 institution, this is the point of being tenure-track (being on your own), not non tenure-track (being part of a constructed and supportive team until you build a research program with truly independent goals), and I might agree), but I decided to take the risk: to follow my passion and face failure. Of course in that situation, failure was personal failure. Here, with my student, I cannot bear the thought of failing her. So, I have been thinking long and hard about what I need to do to be an effective mentor.
In addition, I feel like where I am today, is entirely due to the mentorship I had throughout my Science career to date. Whether I am successful or not remains to be seen; but my mentors grew both my Science, and myself as a Scientist. All of my mentors went ‘above and beyond’ to give part of themselves to me, and seemingly with my development as the primary ‘payback’ (I have no horror stories of being abused, my work being ‘stolen’, not getting credit, or ever being held back) . So, not only am I somewhat indebted to Science to do the same (pay-it-forward style), but thinking over why my mentors were so wonderful seems a good place to start in thinking how to be a good mentor myself.
****Quick corollary: I do wish to paint some immensely rosy picture of my Science path to date. This would be unfair to other who are struggling, and need to know about pushing through the hard times. Although I would consider myself utterly blessed to have had the following three mentors, that is not to say I have not fallen out, had frustrated relationships, and cried because of each and every one of them. I suspect it is partly me and my strong personality, and partly because mentorship can be like a parent-child relationship: as the child (here a Scientist) grows up through adolescence (here training) and establishes themselves as an independent entity (I want to pursue my own research in my own way), with independent ideals (I don’t want to do things your way), there will be growing pains, and mistakes on both sides (mostly on that of the child, tiz true), and the break will ultimately be difficult. But it is a great process to go through, and I am grateful my mentors knew that a few temper tantrums were probably par for the course, and let me leap into independence, without any grudges****
My (main) mentors:
Jonna took me on her my PhD. I now count Jonna as a good friend, and amazingly, even though I have taken quite a different path from my PhD, Jonna and I still work together some 3 and a bit years later – I love it! Jonna gave me a lot of wonderful mentorship (in fact I nominated her for a mentorship award, which she won!), but what stands out to me now is:
-Jonna’s commitment to being a teacher. A PhD in England does not require – or have any formal classes. One learns ‘on the job’, as it were. A PhD supervisor’s job is to get you researching and get your thesis written. I am lucky that Jonna went beyond that and decided to teach me to be to be a well-rounded Scientist; a good example was that she went out of her way to teach me to write Scientific reviews. Note: Jonna did not get me to write her reviews for her. Rather, every 3 months, she would (with an editor’s permission) give me a paper she had already reviewed, and get me to review it. She would then share her review, and we would discuss the differences. Even now, I get compliments from the (very rare) editors who really care about their journals, for my review skills. While that is nice (and has opened doors for me): it is just one aspect of how seriously Jonna took the training aspect of being a mentor.
-Jonna was never afraid, and in fact encouraged, me to explore my own ideas. When I wanted to write a paper on the use of actigraph data, which she was not sure was necessary, she still gave me the go ahead. When I wanted to examine whether IQ was not the mediator of the association between ADHD and cognitive performance (a theory Jonna has published data supporting), again she said it was fine and again, I got a paper. But, importantly, I did not pursue these interests outside of my work “with” Jonna: as long as I working hard on Science, Jonna gave me the time. I was lucky.
-Jonna also got me very involved in projects: she would respect my skills and if there was a project I could apply them to, get me involved. This is a great thing for a highly dependent junior Scientist. It allowed me to broaden my research interests, and to gain some confidence. It got me a leg up into my postdoc.
I very much doubt that that is all which Jonna gave to me. But, it stands out: training, space to be creative and confidence and breadth to my research.
It was a great start to my Science career, and I moved onto:
David was the one who whisked me away from Jonna. No, literally. I had a position all lined up at Yale (I think it later went to someone else in my Center a year below, so All’s Well That End’s Well), and in the space of a 20 minute conversation persuaded me to move to Alabama (Alabama! “You have a baby! …In a bar…“). In 3 month’s time. Causing my boyfriend (who I was moving for!) to temporarily break up with me (it’s OK, I broke up with him, finally, 6 weeks’ after the reconciliation. And… lucky that I did 🙂 ).
Aaaanyway, due to the vagaries of me being a UK-citizen and NIH funding, I did not work that closely with David, and much that he taught me was more personal development. However, to ALL his mentor-ees, David gave the following:
-Time. David would spend time with any junior Scientist to help them build their career. Combined with the expertize of how to build a career, this was a great gift.
-Great ethics. Nothing compromised doing what was honest in Science.
-A realistic “tough-love” view of Science. David respected those who pushed their own boundaries: in creativity, in commitment, and in productivity. He wanted to see you give your all. It could be tough, and demanding (at crunch time, weekend plans were always postponable & sleep was always ultimately unnecessary) and wore some people out. But it was realistic, and taught me what is actually necessary to keep climbing, and not stagnate. There were no excuses in David’s eyes for failing to try (he was actually pretty OK with failure): if a problem has a possible solution, he wanted you to be fighting for that solution. This was combined with:
-A belief that everyone could reach for the stars, and get them. David imbued in me the ultimate belief (although it wavers) that shooting for the highest goal was worth it, and achievable. To shed the expectations of what could be done: and just go for what I wanted. Memorably, this was exemplified in him getting me to write a whole K99 (designed for old postdocs ready for faculty), when I had been a postdoc just 8 months, in a new field, with no publications. And you know what? I got it. (And lost it…) but that is another story.
So, I left David with a belief that, with a little luck (but the harder you work, the luckier you are), I could achieve things beyond everyone else’s expectations. His confidence in me, gave me confidence in myself. I hope to pass this onto my students.
As I said, I didn’t get to work much with David, he just generously gave out free time and advice, my academic postdoc mentor was:
-Donna was a perfect counter balance to David. While, yes, one could reach for the stars, Donna was always a reminder that there is – in academia – an established system in place, and you are not above the system. You have to achieve the basics, as well as try for the out there stuff. Donna has real humility: she is above no one in her mind, and works with people and with systems. Donna is the reason why, while pursing grants and crazy ideas at UT, and investing a lot of taking risks (which may not have a pay back) I have also lined up some sensible papers, accrued some academic service, and made contingency plans. If David made me shoot for the stars, Donna gave me the ground to stand on and do it.
-Donna’s humility is.. well humbling and a beautiful thing, but the first thing that I remember from Donna is that she went out of her way to teach me true independence. I fought it – I really did, and complained bitterly that I was “unsupported”. Donna was supportive throughout this, but maintained a firm line: that she wanted me to develop my own independence, not just work under her: working under her, as in being directed every step of the way, would not be good for my ultimate development. And she was right: I made mistakes, I learned from them, I learned rejection and failure wouldn’t kill me, I learned to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” (actually that was advice for David one day when I went in complaining bitterly).
-Of course, the upshot of this was that Donna did not get much out of me for herself: sure, I worked on her data, but my ideas were my own, I developed my own collaborations and papers were probably slower as I worked things out myself. Donna took that sacrifice, because one thing I learned about Donna is that she truly cares about all people: she wants people to find the path that makes them happy: whether this achieves her goals or not. Donna is a carer, and a nurturer, and I always see her like a parent holding their child’s bicycle the first time the training wheels are taken off: kids wobble, but at the end they cycle freely on their own and have that truly triumphant achievement written all over their face: at that point it is all about the child’s achievement, and not the parent’s…
So from Donna, I would like to help my students work within the system, and do well conventionally, while nurturing them and supporting them to a new path, but always remembering, that this endeavor must be selfless. You are there to set your students free to fly, not to have them support you as they go.
So.. quite a lot to live up to. I am so lucky to have had such wonderful support, and so lucky to call all of my mentors true friends (all THREE came to one of my weddings). I hope I can be even a fraction of this to my students. But one thing occurs to me: these are the things that worked for, and helped, *me*. Each student will be a unique individual with their own needs. I am interested in what other things have helped others:
Can anyone help me with: what mentorship skills have you benefited from, that I might use to help others?
Ah ha, the end of my postdoc is (hopefully) in sight. I feel good about it. I arrived naive and somewhat confused on these merry US shores 2 years and 3 months ago, and now I am more confident and focused. Happier. Productive. I can do more genetic STUFF. I consider my postdoc an enormous success, thanks mainly to the wonderful environment of the SSG and Epidemiology Departments at UAB. When I arrived, I could was clutching 11 peer-reviewed publications ( 8 first-author), a single award (Young Investigator Award) and one of the WORST grant submissions ever. My skill set included twin modelling and er…. twin modelling (maybe a Pearson correlation if I tried really hard). I stand now with
-19 publications (14 first -author), 6 more under review and 4 that are utterly complete and with co-authors or publications committees for approval to submit.
-An invited book chapter in review. A ‘waste of time’ according to a lot of academics. But exciting to me!
-6 awards (although I am gutted to have just missed out on another Young Investigator Award and been listed as ‘finalist’ only. Boo American Heart Association. Boo).
-1.5 students (I say .5 because I passed the reigns over to another faculty on one student, when her project developed into something quite out of my area of expertise). The ‘1’ student just had her dissertation accepted for publication in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
-3 grants! (1 nearly funded, and 2 in review). Possibly 2 more to come.
-New skills! I have run candidate gene, gene-gene interaction, pharmacogenetic, gene-environment interaction and epidemiological analysis. I like to think I can run a GWAS with the best of ’em (power calculations for replication samples, based on LD plots?? Bring it on).
So… there is still stuff to go. I have to get those ‘in review’ papers out. I need to do some longitudinal survival analysis and get stuck into some large cohort genetic analysis and a possible Mendelian Randomization analysis. I seriously hope to have done some good epigenetic work before I move on. And it is not like I didn’t make mistakes or at least learn some things the hard way, which is what will make for good posts for Reflections on a Postdoc parts 2+ . But, for just today, I am not looking back, but forward to post-postdoc life – and where my home will be. So far I have interviews at the University of Texas (Austin), St Jude’s Children’s Hospital (Memphis, Tennessee) and University of Alaska at Fairbanks. I am 98% excited beyond belief and 2% terrified out of my tiny little mind. I really should get to writing some job talks, but in the meantime I am thinking:
University of Texas
This is a wonderful opportunity. University of Texas consistently rates as one of the best research Universities in the US. I have a friend who works there, and I am seriously impressed by their Science, kindness and drive, which makes me feel good about the place. The facilities are awesome, and I think the support would be great, meaning I would stand a good chance of getting that still-elusive big grant. Austin is (by all accounts) a fabuloso place to live. And, this position is especially interesting. Rather than recruiting a general faculty member, the Dean is recruiting ‘Public Health Innovators’ — people whose research might change the way we view an aspect of public health, the way we research it, the way we treat people. I love this — it is a very prestigious position, and harks back to why I got into Science: to make real discoveries and to make a difference. In addition, this position comes with initial research support. I.e. cold hard cash, and not just in my bank account. While this doesn’t mean that I would stop applying for grants (oh, I AM going to get one soon) it does mean the progress of my research would not be so contingent on such, and so, I might get to spend a little more time focusing on the actual research and findings. Freedom, basically. I strongly believe that NMR data, and research into epigenetics will change our ability to prevent Type 2 Diabetes and to be offered the chance to pursue this is very exciting.
Basically, Texas seems like a good, solid, respected place where I have a good shot at really focusing on, and developing, a research program, which is my main motivation for moving. On paper, it is probably a clear forerunner. But:
University of Alaska at Fairbanks
UAF is a little different. They are more of a developing and growing department. That has advantages and disadvantages. But, it is certainly exciting, and it is likely I would not be one of several doing what I do, but one. Less immediate support perhaps, but they do have good support networks set up outside Alaska, and I bring with me a wonderful research team, spanning several phenotypes and data types, across several continents. They are keen to really help me get a grant, and the Chair is fascinated by NMR data – always a plus. I can see it as a place where after a while, I could really do something big, like set up my own NMR lab. I love the work at UAF into fatty acids, and dietary biomarkers. The team is small enough there that I hope they would welcome my involvement in these data. And I am fascinated by the differences in insulin resistance between the Alaskan Native population and those of European descent.
UAF immediately want me to have students – I LOVE mentoring students, it is one of my favourite parts of this job, and I have WAY more ideas than I could ever hope to fully write up myself, so this is extremely attractive. I was told, when looking at faculty, to ‘stay in UAB’s league’. It’s good advice, and I suspect that in terms of my type of work, UAF is not considered such. But, in a smaller place, with special grant mechanisms and a staff desperate to grow their department (through you), and desperate to encourage your collaborations, maybe my research would easily be in the league of what I would complete elsewhere – and it is that which I really care about.
As for living in Alaska. Yes, it is cold and (sometimes) very dark, but I don’t see that as an immediate problem. I don’t know why – I have always had a good feeling about this place. As has my (very Southern and warm-temperature loving) husband. So: exciting development opportunities and a chance to do whatever I want with my data and learn new things. That being said…:
St Jude’s Children’s Hospital
Quite a different beast this one. One of the first things I loved was the Chair of the Department. When I sent an initial inquiry he looked up my CV and then worked hard with me to talk about the position. That speaks of a well cared for Department. They are fairly aggressive and perhaps progressive in recruitment — open to someone from a different background, and happy to let me come and not do a job talk initially (I am going to though). I kinda like a Department that will really think out of the box like that. They wanted me to just meet them, and when I said that I might get a K99 and be tied to UAB for the next 2.5 years they said they were happy to think very long term and beyond that point. It just really speaks of a well managed and well cared for department.
Their research is just awesome. And makes a real difference. And, when I spoke to David about the interview he said “Well… people there, their main goal, instead of getting XX money, or expanding their Department into XX numbers tends to be along the lines of “well…. I really think this avenue of research will cut Cancer rates in children by 2% and my goal is to do that within the next 10 years”. It’s a lot of closely knit teams. And lots of hard money, so grants tend to be less important. That gives rise to a lot of job security and so morale tends to be extremely high”.
Focused, dedicated, happy people working to make a serious difference. What is not to love? I am not in love with the idea of living in Memphis, but that’s not a biggie, and I would be able to drive and see Sasha, Liam and Rachel regularly. And Stella. The adjustment would be smaller and so it balances out.
So, thanks be to God that with 3 interviews I no longer feel the need to apply for ‘anything and everything’ and can focus on positions that I really feel I am perfect for. In that vein I now have applications at The University of Iowa, Columbia University, Upenn, and Brown. And fingers crossed that I interview well, and UAF, Texas or St Jude’s are interested, because I can see me being happy and productive at all of them.
Right… off to finalize a paper and get it to (another… yawn) publications committee. Whoop! To all those interested in, and following my ups and downs with academia, check this girl out:
Happy open access week 2011
For those not in the know about open access publishing (and if you are not, you may want to stop reading now unless you have insomnia) it is the idea that Science papers, when published, should be freely available to all. Not, as in the current (albeit changing) system whereby Scientists can publish for free, but to read the article individuals (or their institutions) need an extremely expensive subscription. This has a number of ethical problems, including how fair it is on scientists in developing countries (who do however usually get a vastly reduced subscription cost), and that given that tax payers’ money pays for a large portion of scientific research: shouldn’t it be available to… well… taxpayers?
This video provides a cute, humorous and interesting summary of the situation.
Now, herein lies the rub. I am not sure I fully support 100% open access publishing, whereby the scientist pays to publish their article, and it is freely available to all.
*ducks for cover*
Why am I admitting this? Because I want my young upstart forward thinking friends to correct me. Please: write me angry comments, throw things at me in the streets, steal my first-born. OK, not the latter, but you get the picture. I feel I should really whole-heartedly support open access publishing. Most people whom I really respect do… my mentor David Allison is usually up for a good debate about most topics, but unless I have utterly mistaken his stance (and this does happen): he is unequivocal that open access publishing is, and must be, the way forward.
And I get some of the reasons why. I do. I get the moral arguments above. I get that a lot of Science is ‘held back’ because journals are constantly looking for the newest and brightest Science to up their impact factors – less impactful Science, or worse still: newer, potentially ground-breaking innovative Science is held back so journals can publish the safer, yet newer findings. We miss out on null results and replication, we miss out on high risk high reward data. It is a problem, yes.
PLoS was one of the first publishing houses to address this. The history goes something like: they started with the PloS journals which were very selective. One of the editors noticed they were rejecting a lot of sound, well conducted Science, because it wasn’t high impact enough (i.e. would not be cited enough). So, he started PloS ONE. PLoS ONE would accept all Science, as long as it was methodologically sound, and well presented. To facilitate this, there would be no page limits and no printing charges: everything would be online, and get this: open access. Anyone and everyone could read it. Trust me, it was groundbreaking in itself, at the time. However, this would not be at the expense of good Science: the peer-review process would still be thorough and fair.
As David puts it: the onus became on the reader to judge the utility of the Science, by citing it in their research papers, not on some editor, or some (often postdoc) reviewer. Great papers would be often cited; less great ones, not. And that was OK. Let the scientific community judge the Science, not a handful of nameless individuals.
So, why wouldn’t I support such a thing? Well, it’s not so much that I don’t support it in principle. It is just that I am an old fuddy-duddy (grand ole age of 30 doncha know) and am not sure how it will work. At the moment, there are several journals, organized roughly into subject area, which are ‘tiered’ by their impact factor. Of course, each journal has an editor (s/he who hold the fate of your paper in his/er hands, indeed) and this editor puts in a lot a lot a lot of hours to keep this system going. Why does the editor do it? 2 reasons would be my guess:
1) Cold, hard cash
2) Cache – being the editor of a top rated journal is a great thing on the CV. Even better: taking a journal and improving it.
Now, let’s imagine that, effectively, impact factors go out of the window as we start to publish all sound Science. Who is going to edit a journal? Who is going to review hundreds of reviews and make decisions? There is going to be no benchmark to say “you did a great job” – and, at the moment, editors can comfort the thought that they are selecting and publishing high quality Science. They can say ‘hey – I believed in this high impact paper and got it out there’ I.e. they are advancing the subject they fell in love with so much in the first place. If these papers would get published anyway, as we are publishing all sound Science, what is going to motivate editors?
Then start to think: we would no longer need tiered journals, right? Which would be nice, as people would not have to go through the process of shopping papers around, which can be frustrating and takes months. (Or years in the case of one of my current papers. I never give up). So – just one big journal for obesity then. Or in the case of PloS ONE – no subject areas. So, the submissions are going to exponentially increase – who is going to wade through them?
I guess someone might do it for the money… but then I doubt this is going to be a top PI, right? They could just make more consulting. So will it fall to postdocs / junior faculty who want the minor CV boost it might offer? Then how will they train? Are there not already enough demands on the time of early career scientists, who should be focusing on building up independent research? I personally think the peer review system is suffering from the amount of journals. I understand, anecdotally, that being a reviewer for a journal used to be quite an impressive thing. Then there were way more journals, and way more papers, and so they started involving less experienced scientists and now it really doesn’t mean much to review papers: I review for some 42 journals regularly (yes.. it takes A LOT of time, and this is the one of the banes of being inter-disciplinary). So, high up PI are less likely to want to review, as it means nothing (and I have been told before ‘don’t suggest that person… they are too high up… they don’t review much anymore). In my opinion, the quality of review has gone down. Or at least become more variable. With, it seems, the exception of the highest journals. Come on, admit it: you submit a paper to 3 /4 high- or mid- level journals. They all say ‘this is fundamentally flawed’ and people do (and I was once one of them) think ‘OK, I’ll just stick it here, and get it out’. Because you can, because you need a publication, because you don’t want to waste your time, because you don’t like to be wrong, because you were so invested in it, because your next year’s contract depends on it, because you want a grant, because you want your supervisor to like you. Whatever. Bias in writing doesn’t only come from industry* .
So… I think it is highly plausible that the quality of published Science will go down. And more worryingly, I have some other concerns:
-How will we prevent circular epidemiology? If we are publishing everything, without a judgement on impact, or novelty, will hundreds of unnecessary replications get published? Or ‘This has been done is whites… Hispanics… African-Americans… Africans and Asians… but not those from Honolulu! I have done it specifically on Honolulu-ans! This must be known!”
-I think it will be easier to publish. I think it will be easier for early career scientists to publish, as they can take simpler concepts and bash out papers. So, will this hold them back from examining longer term, more risky, more complex ideas that might not play out, if the average CV has a lot of pubs on?
-Who is going to pay? Individuals? Then where are early career scientists going to get the money? What about papers written ‘off grant’? Yes, you can ask for publication monies in your grant, but what about after the grant when all leftovers have been returned? I was originally all for Universities paying a fee to cover all submissions, but then what about those in developing countries? Waive the fee? Isn’t that what we could do anyway with subscription costs?
I don’t know. I want to be all about Open Access, but I don’t know how it will play out. I am not convinced overall, it is the best model for Science. It is said that Americans leap on new ideas with vigour and passion, and Europeans sit back and watch them unfold, so maybe that it is. Or maybe I need to slapped upside the head by the friends and given a stern talking to (you know who you are). In the meantime, here is a very positive article about the process:
*I am, by the way, very interested in writing about other biases in Science (non industry), such as those laid out above. Contact me if you are interested in working on this.