Friday, April 29, 2011

Sneaking in at the end of the month (#scimom)

I am a scientist and I am a parent. Even more, I am a parent of more than one child, and I don't even have tenure yet! As a student, the received wisdom was that parenthood is incompatible with professorship (unless you are the absentee parent sort). People who wish to attempt otherwise should ONLY do it post-tenure, and of course more than one child shows you like commitment. The path of my life ended up violating all of this received wisdom, and yet I am satisfied and still here.

Being a parent and a scientist has been a great combo for me. My kids have a wonder about them that touches all aspects of my life. In parenting them, I have learned to be patient in explaining things, to expect off-the-wall questions, and to enjoy the awesomeness of our world. I think this has made me a better teacher in my classes.

In my career, being a parent forces me to be more efficient. I can't surf for hours a day, because I can't work between 5 and 8 or 9 pm every evening, so I need to make my work time count. At National Lab, I became much more productive after the arrival of Little Prodigal#1. Even more, having this enforced time away from my work helps me return to it with fresh eyes after the kids are asleep.

Yes, it can be hard to balance kids, work, marriage, and personal time, but how many things in life that are worthwhile are also easy?

Thanks to Gerty-Z for her post on this topic pointing me to the #scimom project started by David Wescott.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Publishing negative results

Recently, I found my way over to the All Results Journal (now available in Biology, Nanotechnology, Physics, and Chemistry flavors, though issues are only available for Chemistry and Biology). In their first editorial, the editors of All. Res. J. Chem. explain that:

We are pleased to introduce you to The All Results Journals: Chem (All Res. J. Chem.). A very particular journal, as it publishes fully indexed chemical articles and reviews that challenge current models, tenets and dogmas. This journal represents the first open access source for chemical research concerning negative results and will be a valuable resource for researchers all over the world, including those who are already experts and those entering the field.

The All Results Journals: Chem immediate goal is to provide scientists with responsible and balanced information in order to avoid unproductive synthetic routes, improve experimental designs and economical decisions. Many journals skew towards only publishing “positive” data; that is, data that successfully proves a hypothesis. The All Results Journals: Chem is the home for negative or “secondary” data: experimental documentation of hypotheses that turn out not to be true, or other experiments that do not lead to an advance of a specific hypothesis but are nevertheless a true rendering of that experiment. For example, if a researcher sets up an organic reaction and a variety of molecules do not react in exactly those conditions, it would be very useful for other researchers to know this (to avoid time and wasting money).

The journal editors are apparently targeting three types of difficult to publish data: experiments that fail, experiments that are incomplete or inconclusive, and experiments that disagree with current mainstream scientific understanding. I am not sure I really see a value here, though maybe I am just getting old and crotchety.

Experiments that fail. When I was a student, I thought publishing failed experiments would be a very valuable resource. With more scientific experience, I realize that many groups will wonder whether it was the experiment or the execution that failed, especially for negative (or inconclusive) results that go against scientific intuition or prior experience on related systems. Publishing this sort of failed experiment MAY help, but may not.

Experiments that are incomplete or inconclusive. Personally, I don't think incomplete or inconclusive experiments really should be published. Yes, there is lots of data languishing in notebooks, but that is at least in part due to lack of motivation and/or time to write the (probably minor impact) results up. Incomplete experiments can be misleading, and inconclusive experiments either need rethinking, better design, better instrumentation, or more data. Both of these situations are likely caused by funding running out or someone who was working on the problem leaving the lab. This leads straight back into lack of time/motivation to write.

Experiments that disagree with current mainstream scientific understanding. I am not sure we need a new journal for this. Shouldn't current journals be eager to publish results that conflict with current understanding (and therefore advance science)? I know that truly new, truly innovative stuff sometimes has a hard time getting published, but still extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence, shouldn't they?

I totally agree that the literature is biased towards positive results. But many negative results are currently available (and more and more frequently searchable) in Masters and PhD theses. It will be a real shame when dissertations become introductory and concluding chapters wrapped around published papers (as is happening more and more). So maybe we do need something new? With the barrier to Web publication low, I certainly admire the editors for giving it a try!

Now the All Results journals may end up being an excellent resource for scientists moving into new areas or pushing the edges, but I have my doubts. The cynic in me thinks that it will mostly be a CV-padding tool for future academics.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Following your bliss vs. getting paid

In a comment, Xombi asked about research you care about vs. putting food on the table. GMP recently also had a post on this topic. As GMP said in her comments, Dr. Sneetch pretty much summed up this issue in a comment--it is a lucky few that can spend most of their time on following their own interests. Everyone else has to spend most of their time on what funding agencies think is important.

Most of the time, I can find interesting aspects to fundable research that I enjoy. This is what keeps the job fun. One thing to keep in mind is that startup funds can seem like freedom to follow your research bliss. I think this is a big mistake. You need to use your startup funds to get evidence that your lab works on RELEVANT and interesting research. The data you generate is the preliminary data for your proposals, and has to show that you are fundable! My strategy was to select target funding agencies/program officers, and shape my starting research to show what I can do in their areas of interest. I picked areas that I am interested in, of course, but fundability has to be a bigger concern than personal interest if I want to keep my lab going.

In a National Lab setting, I found that I could carve out some time to work on my own research interests, especially before I became a PI. As a postdoc, you should have minimal responsibilities in supervision and proposal writing (although if you want to get hired, you need to be somewhat involved in this so you can see how things work). If you work efficiently, you can get your own work done, and then work on side projects. No one will really care if you use National Lab resources as long as it leads to papers/patents/funding. My side projects as a postdoc became the core of proposals (both mine and my PIs--you do need to show your sponsor that you add value after all!).

I don't think that fundable work is in opposition to good work. It is possible to do good, important work that is of interest to funding agencies, and I think this is what most researchers try to do. There is some room to shape the scope of the work after the project is funded, but of course the goals of the program officers need to be kept in mind if you ever want to be renewed/funded by the same agency again! But this shouldn't impact the quality of the science in the end. Just the excitement of the PI.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More on recruiting: grades and research

Recruiting season is winding down, and I have been thinking about GMP's post on the topic from a week or so ago. As I said in my comment, I find prior research experience to be the most important consideration for me. Students with no exposure to research have no real idea what it is like, and can therefore easily not understand what they are getting into in grad school. Also, sometimes people just have really bad hands in the lab, and would be better served with a less hands on group than mine.

In my experience, grades are actually a poor predictor of success (once above a certain minimum threshold of competence). I need to know my students can pass our grad level courses required for their program, and grades are a good predictor for this. I've found that many students with high GPAs are not necessarily good at research. Some of them are profoundly disturbed that there may not be a "correct" answer to their research problem (happened to a friend of mine). Others are good at schoolwork, but not so good at applying that knowledge to the real world. Some are brilliant at everything including research, and these are the ones I want! High GPA does make it easier to get fellowships, so I am happy to attract 4.0 students, of course, but I don't accept students on GPA alone, nor do I use GPA as a filter. My best students right now were closer to 3.0 then 4.0 as undergrads.

I do look for a GPA trending up with time if the GPA is on the low end of our admitted pool. This is often a sign that a student has put it together in terms of figuring out how to work/learn/understand some key concept that eluded them the first time around, but may disqualify them from "better" programs. I don't consider students with a significantly downward trending GPA unless they are super excited about my research and have kick ass research experience and letters. I don't look at GRE scores that much either, other than to make sure they are adequate. I prefer students with good verbal scores, since writing is a big part of what we do, and this is harder to probe in a meeting.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Safety in the lab

We had our first safety inspection, and had only minor violations (yay!). I am a big fan of surprise inspections, since I am much more worried that someone else's stupidity will hurt me than that I/my lab is in violation of the rules. I share lab space with another group, and the difference in attitudes towards safety has created more friction than anything else. I sometime envy my theoretician colleagues who don't need to worry about these issues.

Safety has always been an important lab issue for me, even though neither National Labs nor academia really seem to take it very seriously. In my own labs, I emphasize the importance of reading MSDSs, not working alone, using proper protection, and labeling everything (which are the absolute minimum required to maintain a safe workplace). Having witnessed a number of potentially horrific lab accidents (my worst four: HF spill to the hand, vacuum line explosion, 600 V across the chest while standing on a ladder, CO gas inhalation), I am ready and willing to pull students from the lab if they are a danger to themselves and others.

As a professor, I am ultimately responsible for anything that happens in my lab. This makes me nervous at times, since my students are trained adults who make their own decisions (even if they are dangerous ones). I would be really upset if something happened in my lab, of course, but I would also be really upset if my lab were not in compliance with University rules and I was fined. I try to get my group to make good safety decisions. We have a lab safety officer who checks for rules compliance periodically. We discuss any new safety issues at least once a month in group meeting. I have augmented the standard (inadequate in my opinion) University safety training with additional material on my own. I tell my students to keep in mind that they hold the safety of anyone walking in the lab in their hands. I don't let undergrads work in the lab alone (they have no keys). I also talk about each of the lab accidents I witnessed to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in maintaining safety.

When the HF accident occurred, there was no calcium gluconate available in the lab, even though anyone working with HF should have it. The medics had no idea what to do, and the accident victim was shuttled around local hospitals until someone finally took responsibility for treatment because none of the ERs knew what to do for HF exposure. Fortunately, the exposed student immediately ran for a sink and jammed their hand under the flowing water until the medics arrived. Luckily, there were "only" surface burns going down the arm (in the direction of the rinse water), because it could have been much worse. When the vacuum line blew, everyone in the vicinity had safety glasses on. Even though there were cuts to the face, no one got glass in the eye. When the high voltage incident and CO inhalation occurred, the accident victims were not working alone--someone heard the noise/saw the accident and was able to help right away. I think adding a personal touch helps make lab accidents real, but I do wish I didn't have so many personal experiences.