Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"These Are the People Who Actually Did the Work"

Today I heard a fantastic seminar, and as for most science presentations, the professor ended the talk with an acknowledgements slide. "And these are the people who actually did the work..." she said, and spent about ten seconds reading some of their names.

Science is about people. Oh, we pretend it's about molecules and deep-rooted universal truths. But all of that is pie in the sky. What we really have is people, interacting on the day-to-day, performing experiments, discussing results. People.

For the most part these people - the ones actually doing the work - labor in anonymity. They don't get a lot of credit. They don't make money. They may dream of a Science paper. But for the most part, they leave it to their PIs to acknowledge them at the end of a talk.

So here's a turn. From now on, when I give a talk, I'm going to give the acknowledgements slide first. I'm going to introduce the people who did the work. And then I'm going to tell their story, through the data they have generated. Because that's the story that really matters.

People.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why My Progress Report Is Late Again

Well, despite my best efforts, my fellowship progress report is late again this year. I submitted it to grant management a week ago, explaining that it was due in a week in hardcopy form at NIH. When I say I submitted it, I mean I filled out all the 416-9 paperwork myself and sent them something to rubber stamp.

I knew I couldn't just expect them to get that done, so I sent them reminders every day or so this week that it was going to be due soon and please let me know if there was any way I could help get it in on time.

So today, the day before it's due, I get an e-mail from someone in grant management that they were just getting to it today. I say fine, it's due tomorrow in hard copy. A couple hours later she e-mails me saying she didn't have a copy of the files I sent in. Neither does anyone else in the office. Arrrgh.

So now I have to e-mail our program director and say, mea culpa, my sincere apologies, but it appears my progress report is going to be late this year again. And it frustrates me, because all they had to do was take all the paperwork I filled out and send it in to NIH a week ago with a signature on it.

I'm sure there are great grant managers out there. But in an age when science funding is being scrutinized, the public is largely unaware that the NIH essentially fund matches research grants with institutional "overhead" and "indirect costs" provided to the hospitals and universities (for our hospital it's 76 % of the grant). Since we still use the same number of lightbulbs whether or not we get the grant, I suspect that the money is going into someone's pockets.

To be fair, the Obama administration is aware of the problem and even tried to limit overhead expenditures. But eventually the pols caved to pressure by Harvard and MIT, who are, in the words of one economics professor, "taking the government to the cleaners."

Such institutional expenditures need to be scrutinized just as carefully as science funding. If the scientists are the ones filling out all the grant forms, what is the purpose of these administrative offices?

It seems to me that if the money were shifted more toward the scientists, we could solve the funding crisis without increasing NIH expenditures a single penny - or delaying a single grant.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Some Budding Yeast I USED TO GROW

This parody of Goyte was put together by some friends of mine from grad school. Not only is it highly entertaining, but it perfectly captures the way a lot of professors I know are feeling right now. I can hardly think of a more appropriate video with which to reboot Fun Science Friday.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Return of the Samurai Scientist

It's been a few years since I last blogged about science. It's not that I've been silent - since closing this blog, I've started several others, but none of them have been about science. Maybe I felt at the time like no one was listening, or that I was already doing too much of this stuff at work, or that I was selling myself short by giving away my ideas for free. No matter. The Samurai Scientist is back.

A lot has changed since my last post. Science blogging, which was only in its infancy a few years ago, has taken off. Fun science - a mainstay of this blog - has taken off. There is a cottage industry springing up of people who not only like science, but believe in it, and want to help. Which is great. I hope they're ready to deliver, because I have plans for them.

Not everything has been rosy for science in the last few years. We are in the middle of a serious funding crisis. Scientific research is under increasing scrutiny from the public, who don't understand why science matters or even what it is. Within the ranks, a ballooning class of postdocs is growing disillusioned with science, and anxious about their careers. A revolution in information technology is shaking up the landscape of academic research and education - a sector not traditionally known for its willingness to embrace change. All of this has been likened to the writing on the wall for young researchers. 

Every day in the lab, I find myself discussing these issues with fellow scientists. Those conversations have convinced me there are solutions out there. Here, I hope to bring some of those discussions to a larger forum, and do my part to help move our art in the right direction. I hope you will join me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Last Samurai

Out with the old, in with the new. I've graduated, relocated, and switched to working on kidney stem cells. And as much as I've enjoyed writing this blog, it peaked a while back, and now it's time to mix it up a bit.

This blog is dividing - and neither of the daughter cells look exactly like the mother. Science News and Views will continue on Science Consulting, hopefully a communal effort between me and some friends from grad school. Interested in becoming a science consultant yourself? Please join our Facebook Group - we're looking for a few good nerds.

More of a left-brain person? I'm compartmentalizing my more philosophical musings into The Shmlag, a retro blog. While everyone else marches forward, I'm going to try to march backwards through the bustling crowd in search of my inner child. Should be fun.

But first, I want to give Samurai Scientist a proper send-off into the vast binary yonder. I've enjoyed writing this blog over the last year and a half, and hopefully you've enjoyed reading it. I've tried to convey the idea that science doesn't happen in a vacuum. There's a reality to it, a people, a culture, who are actually pretty fun to be around. Once you engage in all that, it enriches your life and becomes part of you.

Research, like life, is surely suffering. It's also purifying, clarifying, and enlightening. If you're going for a Ph.D., it helps to adopt the ethos of a samurai. You must master nature, force her to obey - it's like sorcery. And there are also obstacles you won't be able to overcome. It may be the hardest thing you ever do, but then few things worth doing are easy. The trick, as with everything else, is to stop worrying and enjoy the experiment.

And smile - don't forget to smile.

PhD Comics