Archive for: May, 2012


May 31 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

...and the livin's easy...


While I'm super excited that I can now wear my white pants to lab again--which I assure you is a well-reasoned, foolproof fashion choice--it's not like we're all taking 3 hour lunches and playing frisbee in the med campus quad like I did in grad school. All semester long I've been looking forward to the summer so I can actually get some real work done around here. We're doing bona fide experiments now, and generating some preliminary data for my first R01, which I plan to submit in October.

I will say this: it is the absolute best not having to plan a lecture right now. I can go be in the lab with my students, watching their eyes light up the first time they see a Pipet-Aid work; I can chase down vendors, trying to get equipment loose ends tied up; I can log in to eRA commons multiple times daily to check the status of the R21 I submitted last October (currently: pending).

I've also been able to prepare for a couple of speaking engagements, most recently in New York at a School for Extremely Brilliant Children and Teenagers. The  SfEBCaT has a science club, and through a couple of degrees of separation having nothing to do with my professional science connections, I was invited by their youngest member (12!) to come speak. They made a flyer promoting my visit:

I love everything about this.

It's not easy being an Esteemed Real Life Neuroscientist, but I did my best to tell them why I love brains so much, and not a single person fell asleep! On the contrary, they asked me a ton of questions, and not just "what is it like to touch a rat," but genuinely astute and insightful questions about my research, which totally made my day. Let me be the first to say that all hope is not lost re: the future, because these kids rock.

Finally, there is the matter of getting back to wedding planning, which is a truly revealing experience. The words that come out of your mouth/keyboard will make you wonder if you ever really knew yourself/your mother at all. For example:

To my bridesmaid: "The whole dress looked black to me in the pictures, not just the accents. Do you think it looks blue in person?  Maybe see if you can find one that's a little navy-er, but hold on to that one if you can't find something you like better? Sorry about the confusion--I think that in the line that I showed you, their navy was called "midnight," but I really meant navy."

Who am I???

And then there's this gem of an email convo with my mom:

Mom: "Stamps for the engagement party invites are either butterflies, or a wedding cake. What would you like?"
Me: "Butterflies are fine."
Mom: " The main PO did not have the butterfly stamps, just service dogs, so will go back to the [hometown] one tomorrow."
Mom, next day: "They are phasing out the butterflies, and after searching 3 post offices, I could only get 60. So I got the service dogs as the others. They will be fine, I'm sure, kind of cute."

Are you really sure, Mom? I'm worried that maybe the service dog stamps will be a deal breaker for some people. Maybe put those on the envelopes addressed to people we think won't come anyway, just in case.

4 responses so far

The art of the ambiguous conference poster abstract

May 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As many of you are well aware, abstracts for the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in October are due in just over 24 hours. Have you written yours yet? Me neither. Have you done the experiments whose exciting and paradigm-shifting results you intend to describe in this abstract? Oh yes, me too....sort of.

With a five-month lag time between abstract submission and actual face-to-face science talking, it's not at all uncommon for a neuroscientist to find herself at a crossroads come mid-May. Unless you've gotten a solid chunk of sexy data over spring semester (because let's face it--the months between the end of SfN last November through mid January of this year were pretty much a wash), there may be a...loose end or two that needs to be tied up over the summer before you have a poster's worth of data. And tie you shall! Come October you will have a beautiful, compelling story that will have conference-goers surrounding you 4-deep through the entirety of your poster session--even on Wednesday!

But what do you do now, with a deadline looming, and just a smattering of raw data (or worse, merely the outline of an experimental design) to work with? I imagine there are some PIs out there who only let their labs submit abstracts once they've got those shiny <0.05 p values in hand, and that is a completely legitimate, if conservative, way of doing things. On the other hand, you can submit an abstract that I like to think of as a teaser--one that hints at the work that will be presented, whetting the attendees' appetites, but without giving too much away.

I am quite a proponent of the latter approach, and I'll tell you why: very few people read the abstracts. Moreover, those who read them won't remember them. Here is a little story to illustrate that point:

During my penultimate year of grad school, I had a rough patch where I collected basically no data. Nothing worked, not even in a negative way. I was just getting ramped up to start a new direction, when SfN abstract time rolled around. I took a risk and wrote a vague abstract with an even vaguer title that loosely touched on new direction experiments, and crossed my fingers that the new thing would work. Guess what? It didn't! However, I had a completely different thing pan out at the last minute, and  I presented that instead (luckily, vague title was so vague that new data still sort of fit under its umbrella). I had the best poster traffic I've probably ever had in my entire career, and not one single person said, Hey, I thought this poster was supposed to be about X, but this seems to be about Q, WTF BAIT & SWITCH! Did not happen.

But this is not just about not getting "caught." As a scientist, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get people to come listen to you talk about your research, full stop. And at a gigantic meeting like SfN, presenting a poster is by far the best way to make this happen. No abstract, no poster. So submit an abstract, any abstract! Lock that 4-hour slot of time with a 6x4' easel board IN, folks. The absolute worst that could happen is that your lab explodes and you have to withdraw--which, though in theory sounds like you're making a public proclamation that you've Failed at Science, is honestly NBD. Do you actually think people are going to remember when you're applying for faculty jobs or up for tenure that you had a withdrawn poster that one time? No. Nobody cares. Your poster is but one in a long itinerary of things people are going to forget as soon as they get back to their hotel rooms.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an abstract to write.

46 responses so far

Your science identity

May 02 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's mailbag time, folks! This email comes from a post-doc who's just about ready to fly the coop, and when I read the question within, I absolutely had to answer it on the blog. It's one I imagine many, many of you are also thinking about, and that is SO important if you're looking to land a faculty job--how do you create a unique science identity for yourself ?  Our reader writes:

Hi Dr. Becca,

I've enjoyed your blog ever since someone forwarded me a link to your
post about giving a good talk. I've appreciated your insight and
humor, and all of the advice links too (I also love cocktails so your
blog is kind of perfect). I am currently in my second post-doc
position, which isn't uncommon in my field, and plugging along -
trying to do all those things I'm supposed to (get manuscripts
published, writing grants, mentoring students). This past winter, I
had two phone interviews, one of which led to an on-site interview,
for which I am still waiting for final news. So, I feel like I am
competitive for the type of job I want (a teaching/research mix,
primarily working with undergrads). However, I feel like I am still
struggling to form a cohesive scientific "identity" for myself (I
don't know what else to call it). As I've moved from lab to lab, I've
worked in different systems, and although I can see a cohesive
theoretical framework for why I have worked on the questions that I
have, it is still hard to fit them together in a way that makes sense
sometimes. I am also not sure if I should be doing something right
now, as a post-doc, to make things be "mine" more. I feel like I am
putting my all towards the project that is paying my salary (a grant
received before I arrived), and making creative contributions to it,
but I don't know how to start my own thing without spreading myself
too thin.

Anyways, is this something you've given much thought to? I don't worry
about it too much, but then someone will ask me something like "so are
you developing a model system that you will be able to bring with you
when you leave?" or "will you be bringing any grant money with you?"
(at the job interview - my answer was no) that makes me feel terribly

OK, first: my blog is kind of perfect!!!

Second: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! You need a scientific identity. One of the things that not just faculty hiring committees, but also study sections and award selection committees are looking for is that you are an independent investigator who, if given a lab of your own, will be able to start a whole new line (or several lines) of research that is separate from the work of your mentors. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be using the techniques that you learned during your training, or studying the same model system, or even asking related questions. But you must be able to show that you can take what you've learned and do something fresh and new with it.

But how do you go about getting that identity? My experience is that it can happen in a couple of different ways. Most commonly, you have an open and honest conversation with your PI about what ideas you can take with you. In other words, he or she may agree to let your project, or parts of your project go, and it's up to you to build a research program around that. I highly recommend having this conversation sooner rather than later--meaning, before you even start applying for faculty jobs. Your research statement will be the best it can be if it's clear you have a direction and purpose to your work that is yours and yours alone.

Alternately, it may be the case that your project has more or less been  yours from the beginning. In grad school, my thesis project was a little side extension of the primary work that was going on in my lab, and my advisor kept talking about how I was carving a niche for myself, but I was so clueless I didn't really understand why she was pointing this out to me. My post-doctoral work was also a bit of a tangent, and my PI was more than happy to let me run with it. As he often liked to joke when presenting my data at a talk, if I'd known what a monstrous pain in the ass my project would be going in, I never would have done it in the first place (not true, but it really was a painful beast).

The bottom line is this: when people ask you what your research program is, it's not enough to list the projects you're on. Find a common theme in the work you've done, build it up a little, and then mold it--add a little here, trim there, fluff this bit out, etc--until it's yours. This is the fun part! You've been in science a while now, what do you love the most? What questions would you answer tomorrow if you walked into a fully equipped, staffed, and stocked lab? Who do you want to be when you grow up?


18 responses so far