Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Time mangagement is killing me

So you may remember a post I put up a month or so ago about how I was going to get back in there and write some grants. Well, that didn't really happen. Despite that fact that the class that I am teaching this qtr takes up much less time, I have been mired in other details (reviewing papers, reviewing grants, writing papers, committees, outreach work, etc.). On the other hand, I have been spending some of that time trying to get a handle on what it is that my group is really about. I think I have figured that out and am working on my first proposal back into the fray. This particular one is expected to have a 2.8% success rate, so I wouldn't exactly say that I am optimistic, but it is very short and I have already written most of it so why not? The problem is that it is so difficult to get grants written amongst my other commitments. I currently have 4 requests to review papers sitting in my inbox, one of which is from prestigious journal I have never reviewed for before and one of which is from journal I do a lot of work for that I would like to appoint me to editorial board...sigh. At least I am going on vacation in a few weeks...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Malignant Gliomas...

So yesterday when I heard about Ted Kennedy, I didn't need the CNN announcer to tell me the prognosis. You see some of our research is related to this terrible disease. (opening the door to my anonymity just a crack...) It is difficult to treat for three reasons. First, it is in the brain. As my neurosurgery collaborator often says, "if it was your leg, we would just amputate it, but we can't do that in the brain." Second, the tumor does not visually look any different from neighboring tissue. The tumor can be visualized on MRI because of the leaky blood vessels present in tumors (which compromise the blood brain barrier). These blood vessels permit imaging agents to enter the tumor, but not other parts of the brain, so the tumor can be seen. Unfortunately, when a surgeon goes in to remove the tumor, the MRI is only mildly helpful to guide them to the tumor location. You see the brain floats in fluid within the skill and is also very soft, so as soon as the skull is opened the brain can shift in position making it difficult to locate the tumor and remove it. Finally, for whatever reason, and there is debate about it, these tumors are fast growing and extremely diffuse. They do not present as a solid mass, but rather as fibrils spread throughout the brain. How do you remove a fibril surgically, especially when you can't even see it?

The reason that I am telling you all this is that for the last month or so I have really been struggling, with what my group "does". I have been thinking a lot about what kind of research we do, what interests me, what seems promising (both from a funding and a scientific perspective), and most importantly where can I make the greatest impact. I have been vacillating among the many different disease and conditions that we can focus on. But, the news yesterday really served as a wake-up call. The work that we are doing is already making a difference, and if we can make even a small impact on a disease that at best gives you a five year survival (there is almost no true survival only life extension), then we will have done a lot.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fermi Lab to Lay off 7%

From Science Mag:
Fermilab Sends Energy Department Final Plan to Lay Off 7% of Staff

Adrian Cho

About 140 scientists, engineers, technicians, and other staff at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will receive pink slips in a 3-day process that could begin as early as next week.

Full story

Does this make anyone else want to cry?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Answer: Time
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

I didn't go to grad school right away. Instead I worked in industry for two years (a long story). When I did go back, I went because I wanted to. I wanted to learn more, and ultimately I wanted to dedicate my life to learning and teaching others. My first semester back I dug very deeply. It wasn't enough to understand the surface of the material, I wanted to understand it at its most fundamental level. As an example, we all know about magnetism from an etch-a-sketch. In college, maybe you learn Maxwell's equations, but did you know that magnetism can only be truly understood as a relativistic effect, and that it was Einstein who first described it fundamentally in his special relativity treatise? This was the kind of learning that I sought.

I am sad to say that I was beaten down after the first month or so. The amount of homework that I had (easily 15-20 hours per class) prohibited this kind of deeper learning. I had to concentrate on simply getting through the material and learning what needed to be learned for the HW and exams. I admit I am still sad about this turn of events, but that is not to say that I didn't learn a lot from grad school, some of it at this deeper level that I am referring to.

Now, I find myself in a similar situation. To get funded, I need to write many grants. The funding rate at most places seems to hover near 10%. Even senior investigators are downsizing their labs, and the situation is the bleakest it has been in years. So, I find that rather than thinking deeply about what my lab is doing, I am pumping out grants as fast as I can.

One of the problems that we are working on is very risky. If successful, we will challenge some major theoretical paradigms. But getting something like this funded is extremely difficult. People either love it or think it is impossible. What I need is time to sit down and hash out the theory so that at least on paper I can answer all the major concerns. And time is the one thing that I don't have.

I think that this, the loss of time to "just think," is the greatest tragedy of the funding situation. I fear that if it is not corrected creativity may be lost altogether.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Here...wherever that is

So I have arrived in town where panel review is taking place and am happy to say that I successfully reviewed all my proposals before they were due. I feel a little cross-eyed (not kidding here), but they are done.

In the process though, I realized that I really, really need to learn to say no.I was updating my CV for a proposal submission and decided to put in my panel reviews. It was then that I realized that I have been on 4 panels since early Dec. Umm...I probably need to concentrate more on funding myself and less on funding others. So I am resolving that I am accepting no new commitments until I get a few grants out the door.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

My Roller Coaster Ride

Who says that being a faculty member isn't fun. Check out my week:

End of last week- my postdoc was doing some really cool experiments that if successful could lead to a Science paper (Egad!). Of course they didn't work. It's not that they didn't work, but rather that we ran into some technical glitches that can be fixed and try again. Of course my postdoc just left to visit his home country for three weeks so I am playing the waiting game. I am deliriously happy in anticipation of my lab's first independent high impact paper.

In my excitement I call government agency program officer to ask if I can send my proposal on this exciting work to agency's announcement X. Program officer says X isn't really a good fit, but is so excited about my work that he literally says "we have to fund you." Program officer sends me helpful documents designed to help me formulate good specific aims for my idea and even offers to help me edit them into a review friendly format and identify a program/subdivision to send them to. I am about to burst with enthusiasm.

Monday- Postdoc emails to tell me that he is having visa issues and may get back a little late. Visa issues? I didn't even know that there was anything going on with his visa, but apparently there is. Not be put off, I attack grad student that postdoc is training and ask if he can do the research independently. Grad student is excited and may be able to do it, but it will definitely be a set back.

Also, I frantically draft aims to send back to program officer. I forward aims to collaborator and postdoc (assuming he even has email) and hope for the best.

Tuesday- I don't know what made me do it, but I am obsessed with the urge to do some book-keeping. I discover that I have 8 months of funding left. Given that all my proposals from Summer and Fall were rejected and it takes almost a year to get money from the time you submit, I begin to panic. I fear lab having massive flame-out. Dear Husband manages to quite me down with ice cream and American Idol and promises of support if I end up unemployed.

Wednesday- I ask collaborator why he hasn't replied to my aims email yet. Program officer is waiting! Collaborator apparently was unaware I expected a reply. We begin a back and forth dialog on project feasibility. Using some back of the envelope calculations that he has recently shown me how to make I determine that *big idea* is not quite as feasible as I thought. It is still possible, but not easy. Also, I discover at meeting of "Center" that others on campus are doing similar (but still different) work. I start to feel that I may not be as wildly creative as I thought.

I go home in a mixed mood only to be told upon arrival that (A) My son was "asked" to leave preschool an hour early for beating up his classmates and (B) our phone and internet service are completely down because someone severed a wire. (B) is a huge problem because I am going to a review panel next W and need to review 8 proposals between now and then and had big review/american idol plans. I am just about to collapse into giant sobs (although alcohol also entered my mind), but husband is supportive and I make it through.

Thursday (Today)- Still waiting for reply from collaborator to my last set of calculations. Argh, want to get something to program manager soon! Still haven't heard from postdoc (since Monday). Grad student is trying to get by as best he can, but in a positive turn, informs me that he has started a manuscript draft! Postdoc #2 also informs me that the data she was collecting for manuscript 1 looks like it is too much and will have to become manuscript #2! Then, I make plans to attend Neil Diamond concert with Best Friend From College (yes, influenced by American Idol). Also, I discover that Company interested in my work wants to move forward, and might give me money. Top it all off with, I made an error and I don't have 8 months of funding left, but 11!

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