Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The ultimate lab-killer: repair costs

Inspired by an unfortunate colleague, I am contemplating repairs and how to pay for them. One of the problems associated with our current project-centered approach to funding lab research is in repair costs. It is often not-cost effective (or practical) for an individual group to have the money to pay maintenance contracts. The really expensive equipment is often found in a user facility with user fees that theoretically cover maintenance, even if there are individual groups that would be capable of and willing to run the equipment alone due to this reason. Simple maintenance is actually not that terrible--most of the parts can be covered out the the budget for supplies. The problem comes in when there is an accident or major equipment failure in the lab. There are mechanisms for funding new equipment--wouldn't it be nice if some repair money came along with the instrument grant that was designed to be saved for a rainy day?

Repairs are CERTAINLY cheaper than buying a new machine (most of the time). However, in our project-based funding model, there is no way to really save up for a rainy day, when that rainy day is $15k or more in one shot with no advance notice. We had the same problem at National Lab, and mostly solved it in the the same ways people do at Universities--borrow from the department, borrow from other PIs who are unexpectedly flush, or go in the red (if possible), and pay it out of the supply budget from several projects in the next fiscal year.

At National Lab, it was actually fairly common to "carry over" money by helping out a fellow PI in the final year of your project, and having that PI pay for your salaries or supplies in a future year to pay back the debt (thus moving the money "forward" in time). This was especially common when a postdoc leaves in the last year of a project towards the end of the fiscal year, so there aren't many cost sinks in the ending project to soak up the extra cash (which gets pulled back if unspent in the final year).

Sometimes, I think it might be better to fund research programs and not projects. Then, it might be possible to have a lab savings account where extra cash can be saved for future repairs. That opens up a whole other can of worms (like how to avoid it being even less meritocratic/more "old boy" than the current system is a big one), but it might be better in terms of reducing waste in research spending, since less money would be spent on hoarding supplies that end up useless or on useless equipment just to spend down the budget instead of losing the money.

Research money is so tight these days, with labs unable to support existing personnel, let alone save something on the side for repair costs. It just seems so penny-wise and pound-foolish to keep ignoring this reality. It is in fact, something that keeps me up at night--that my really expensive workhorse instrument will break, effectively shutting my group down until I can scrape up the money to fix it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My new course prep strategy: limit prep time

This semester, I am teaching a grad level course on a topic with overlaps in my research specialty that I have taught before. I have an insane amount of work to do right now, including lots and lots of writing. To help out on time management, I have decided to limit my course prep time to 90 minutes or less for an hour long class.

So far, this seems to be making my course run much better, actually. I selected the papers I am covering last time, so I just need to refamiliarize myself with the details rather than start out digesting new material. I am finding that my course feels less stiff and rehearsed, since I am spending more time on how to convey the content, and less time obsessing over slides and lectures. The students are responding well, and I feel like I am doing a better job this semester of imparting the key ideas. I would never do this with material I didn't know this well, but I am also having a lot more fun, since I feel less constrained in class to stick to a preprepped lecture if the class seems more interested in something else on topic. Who knew that too much time prepping can be as bad as not enough?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Have we come a long way, baby?

The NYT had an article up a few days ago about the progress towards equality of female faculty at MIT. As cackleofrad points out, DrDrA has an amazing response over at her blog.

I don't really have much to add, other than to say 1) I am really tired of women's career issues automatically defaulting to family issues and 2) it is really annoying when the NYT takes a story (in this case, progress in advancing female faculty at MIT) and doesn't point out that this is specific to MIT only. In fact, reading the article quickly, it is possible to come away with the idea that MIT's changes are far more universal than they really are. I am glad things are working out so well for women at MIT. Now that we have our example case, where is the discussion of what things are like everywhere (or even ANYWHERE) else?

I would LOVE to have institutional help for childcare during business-related travel (for a nice discussion of the importance of travel in academic, see GMP's post here). It would warm my heart to know that parents everywhere (outside academia too) had access to paid parental leave. It would be awesome if men were invited to speak about work-life balance.

One thing I did like about the article is the mention of this:

But the primary issue in the report is the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women. In fact, administrators say they have increased the number of women by broadening their searches.

This is something that I and others have been advocating to increase diversity of all kinds in science. I am happy to see acknowledgement that this strategy works without changing the yardstick. Amazing scientists who happen to be from underrepresented groups are out there--the trick is in getting them to apply.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The importance of writing

Why is it that no one ever clearly articulates to young scientists that being able to write clearly and quickly is a key skill? I spend probably half of my time now writing (sometimes more!) and I have never been more grateful for a liberal arts background that included lots of writing (scientific and otherwise).

Of course, like anything else, you only get better with practice. My own first drafts tend to be full of long, difficult to parse sentences that need to be shortened and simplified in subsequent revisions. After years of experience, I know this about myself and can set up my workflow to accomodate. I am trying to get my students to write more so they can figure out their own writing habits BEFORE they have major time pressure on their writing. I am surprised by how much resistance there is to simply getting words on the page. All of them would much, much rather set up Powerpoint summaries than write things up more formally, and don't see why they should change this.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The agony and the ecstacy of traveling

Now that I actually have some results from my new lab to talk about, I have been planning more academic and conference travel. I have a love/hate relationship to traveling. I always come back bursting with research ideas and excited about my work, but as an introvert, I find it HUGELY draining to network and socialize with strangers. The work piles up while I am gone, but I also find out about the things that no one publishes (like all the things that didn't work in a recent publication). It is both really fun and really exhausting to talk science all day long. I actually find small meetings much less initimidating than large ones, even though they can sometimes be cliquish. Now that I am starting up my own lab, I am attending meetings that are new to me, and I don't know many people there. This is a blessing and a curse, because I can't hide out with friends and colleagues.

I was talking to a grad student recently (not one of mine), and I mentioned that I needed to go out and spread the word. The student was really surprised, and said "Can't you just publish it and only go if you really want to?" I was like "No, I need to actually talk to other people who are potential collaborators and more importantly, get people to see how cool my stuff is so they have context when they review my proposals and they think of me when it comes time to invite speakers." I understand where that student was coming from, though, because I used to think the same way. It never occurred to me until I had to recommend seminar speakers myself that people make these lists out of who comes to mind when they are preparing the speaker list, not from looking at journal tables of content.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Happy TT moment!

So I am completely buried in work now, and feeling kind of overwhelmed. Today, I had one of those moments that makes me remember why I wanted to make the move to academia! One of my students came to me a few days ago to tell me that a procedure we did lots of times in the past is no longer working. We tried a few things, but no luck--it wasn't a quick fix or a technique problem.

The student spent a little time looking up some more detailed background information, and then came to me with a plan. The student implemented the plan (which still didn't work), but made a crucial observation of the mode of failure. On the student's own initiative, they implemented a new improved plan which not only solves the problem, it gives us new insight into the process (and makes our soon to be written paper about it that much stronger!) On the first day of the failed process, my student came to me for a fix. Just a few days later, this same student was coming to me to discuss the science behind what we were seeing in the lab, and the implications for our future work. Amazing!

It is so awesome to see my inexperienced students becoming scientists. It is just awesome to see when it all suddenly clicks together for them.