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.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Academic Maturity

We talk a lot about maturity of a student and it can be confusing sometimes, but is really important. It is probably the single most important factor when hiring a candidate for a faculty position or choosing graduate students so I thought a nice analogy might help.

Here are some potential answers to the following question by students at various levels.

Professor Asks
Why does a smoog cause a bloot to marf?

First Year Student
What's a smoog?

Second Year Student
I think I read a paper about bloots and marfing, and it might have mentioned smoogs, but I can't recall.

Third Year Student
(Quoting directly from paper) Smoogs cause bloots to marf because the amount of ethylene increases.

Professor with follow-up: But ethylene is always being produced, how does a smoog change marfing potential?

Student: Ummm...not sure. Something to do with the ethylene?

Fourth Year Student
Smoogs cause bloots to marf because the cold of the smoog causes bloot to stop producing chemicals that normally neutralize ethylene. The build-up of ethylene then causes the bloot to marf.

Graduating Student
[thinking I don't care I just want to graduate...but answers...] Yes bloots, otherwise known as bananas, marf, or turn black, because when they are placed in a smoog (refrigerator) enzymes that normally reduce ethylene levels are not made (because of low temperature suppression of metabolic activity). Ethylene then builds up causing the bloots to marf.

Yes, as Jones clearly demonstrates, bloots (bananas) marf (turn brown) in a smoog (refrigerator) because the cold suppresses production of enzymes that normally minimize levels of ethylene. Ethylene causes the skin of the bloot to marf. However, Smith showed that the level of marfing has no affect on flavor, which I find rather interesting.

Immature Faculty Candidate
Professor: I see that you are from Professor Smith's lab and have been researching how smoogs affect bloots. What do you think you would like to study when you arrive here?

Immature Candidate: I would really like to continue my research on how smoogs affect bloots.

Professor: Can you be more specific? What is the first project a student in your lab might do.

Immature Candidate: Well, previously we showed that marfing has no affect on flavor. I would like to see if how quickly the bloot marfs in a smoog affects flavor. And then we might measure the chemicals in bloots that produce flavor and see if they change with marfing.

Mature Faculty Candidate
Professor: I see that you are from Professor Smith's lab and have been researching how smoogs affect bloots. What do you think you would like to study when you arrive here?

Mature Candidate: Well, in my postdoc research I showed that marfing has absolutely no affect on bloot flavor, so I don't think that that will be a fruitful research path. Instead I was thinking of doing something slightly different from my work with Smith. I have read several papers by the groups of Jones, Brown, and Black and I think that frooples might also be affected by smoogs. I would like to investigate whether or not frooples marf in a smoog. I also recognize that marfing may not be the only response to smoog exposure. For example, frooples might shrink in size or become more rigid. This has been theorized by Black's group, but never tested. I hope to investigate that as well.

Faculty Candiate that Will Get Hired
Same as above but adds....I have already spoken to Black, who is on the faculty in the Food Sciences Department and we are eager to collaborate on this problem. Also, I know that since Frooples are grown locally here that I could apply for funding from the Froople Association. I know that their grant deadline is in about 6 months and plan to apply. Finally, although it may seem unrelated, I know that Professor Green here in the Agriculture department researches smoog design and I can imagine some interesting collaborations on how we might prevent marfing of Frooples, should it occur.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post-travel craziness

Well I just got back from a conference and also from my sister's baby shower (check her out at Janus Professor). I went to another university in my state yesterday to meet a potential collaborator, and so after about a week and a half am back at Midwestern R1U. Everytime I travel I get these grandiose ideas about what I am going to do while gone. I never get anywhere close to what I want accomplished, so then I decide that when I get back I must hunker down. Unfortunately, I always forget about the endless stream of students I must meet with when I return whose experiments are in various states of working. To try and avoid some of this I worked at home this morning, which helped, and then met with students for the last three hours straight, but I simply must work my grant proposals or my lab will go under. On the plus side, I got some great family time during my sister's shower and am feeling recharged and ready to go.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Work is sometimes the best part of my day

So, have you ever had one of those days when you are so grateful to be at work because it is actually less work than being at home?

I guess you could say I am going through a rough patch right now. My DH finished his MBA in June and got not one, but three jobs, one full time and two part time. In addition, he is still trying to finish his master's in field of interest. All this means that just when I thought he would be more available to help with things (having finished the MBA and all), he is less so. It's really tough because this is also the most challenging part of my career. I am beginning my third year as an assistant professor. My lab is just starting to produce papers and really good data, but we are also about to run out of money. I am teaching a full course load for the first time this year, including two classes I haven't taught before. And to top it off, my full-time nanny turned in her resignation a week ago. I just wanted to cry that day. I think I have convinced her to work part time for us and have moved my son into full-day preschool (daughter is in 1st grade so no problem there). This places extra schlepping duty on someone as the "afterschool" time is when most of the kids activities take place. Yes the nanny can bring to some things, but really a parent needs to be there for violin or piano lessons as a parent is the one that will practice with the kids later. And of course given that my DH is working like a crazy person, that someone is me. Oh, and I am also the one with the "flexible" schedule so I get to be the one who stays home when someone is sick, or as is the case tomorrow, when there is an unexpected emergency and the nanny can't come.

I find myself getting very stressed out at home and I am kind of snapping at everyone. In contrast, coming to work is a relaxing joy in comparison (except for grant proposal rejection days, those are never good). Well, I am hoping I can ride out this storm a little longer and that DH can get some focus on his commitments so he can get in her and help me a little!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Things I wish I knew about grant writing when I started

1. Submit the same idea (and same grant if possible) to as many agencies as you can to increase chance of funding.

2. If an idea gets rejected but gets decent reviews, don't change the whole idea just fix the things that the reviewers point out.

3. Don't write to what you think will get funded, write to what makes sense scientifically.

4. Do think about the goals of the agency though and try to match your tone and presentation to what is expected.

5. It's probably better to write many grants about few ideas than to write many grants about many ideas.

6. Do your homework. You'd be surprised how many times proposed research has been published by others before the grant even gets submitted.

7. Don't confine yourself to agencies/foundations that you are familiar with. Explore areas outside your "home department" but that are related to your work.

8. Keep it simple stupid. Propose the simplest part of your experiments that will demonstrate proof of concept rather than trying to build a complicated house of cards all dependent on success of aim 1 even if it is flashy and exciting.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Choosing Research Projects for Your Lab

One of the most difficult aspects of starting up a new lab is deciding what to work on. It is tempting to stay with "safe" projects that are likely to work, but it is not these that propel you into the spotlight, or are likely to get the big $$$. On the other hand, working on a risky project may produce great results if you ever get it to work, and if it were easy, someone would already be doing it (and sometimes even if it is hard this is true).

My approach initially was to work on one high risk, high reward project and one "safe" project, hedging my bets. I also had several other, smaller project ideas that I put on the back burner. Some of these were published by other groups, some as time passed proved to be bad ideas after all, and some were and are still good. A few of these ideas I gave to undergraduate researchers as a method to diversify the lab's project portfolio without much risk. It is not catastrophic if an undergraduate fails, versus say a graduate student with a thesis riding on a project. The problem is that undergraduates have limited skills, and more importantly time. They can only take a project so far. So what happens when you have something that is sort of working, that you could give to a grad student, but you haven't written any grants to support it and haven't put much time into it? Do you take away from your main projects to support this side project?

An even more perplexing situation is what happens if a "better" main project comes along while you are still working on the previous one. One of the mistakes that I made starting up was to think that all the ideas I had at that moment, were all the ideas that I might have over the course of the next few years. As time has passed, I have come up with some great things, but I have already dedicated my resources to other projects and it is not fair to tell a student to stop working on one project, which has yet to produce papers or other tangible products, so that they can start working on a different project that is "better." I did try this once with an undergrad with fairly disastrous results. Neither project progressed very far and the "better" project turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought. (Isn't that always the case).

So now, I am being more cautious. You can't really hold resources back. I mean how would you tell a grad student not to work on something while you wait for the next great idea, but you can have them work on small pieces that position them for other potential projects later. I also continue to leverage my summer and undergrad students to try new things. But the real question I continue to face is, at what point do you abandon something that does not appear to be working for something "better" (that may not work either once you get into it)? There is a large emotional cost for the student to do this, but not doing it could be worse. How much "better" does the project need to be? How long do you need to try the thing that is not working before giving up? Hopefully these things will become more clear as time passes, until then, I have to go with my best guess.

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