Reflections on a K99/R00 datapoint

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 15 2014

The recent analyses and discussions of gender differences in the K99/R00 transition to R01 rate are reflection provoking: as one of the 2008 K99 cohort datapoints, and (if you hadn't figured it out) a woman, I have recently succeeded in getting an R01 (April 2014). I am navel gazing because I am trying to figure out why I am one of the ones who has an R01 by now. I truly don't know what I have done differently than others in my place, but even having the luxury of thinking that may be a privilege in itself. Although I recently moved, I started out at an institution that, as far as I can tell from the tables, is >100 ranking (although, with no medical center and a hugely physical sciences centered-focus, at a major skewed disadvantage from what I observed in this list compared to peer institutions with med centers). It is also very teaching-focused, but still considered R1. My R01 was applied for from and awarded to that institution. So, let's perform a case study to gather some anecdata--and since I'm also being put up for tenure this year, hey, this information is at hand.

So, did I apply for more grants or R01s than others in my cohort bin? I don't know--I do know that in five years, I submitted five R01 proposals in total (on two distinct projects), a sixth R01-scale/length R33 proposal (but for a non-renewable opportunity), a seventh EUREKA R01, and got fundable scores on two (an R01 and the R33). I submitted a New Innovator award proposal (which I did not get). I submitted three R01-scale NSF CAREER proposals (and didn't get any of them). I submitted five R21 proposals (on four distinct projects) and got two of them, two STTR proposals (on the same project, which is not yet funded) and one DOD pilot project proposal (which I got). I also submitted numerous foundation proposals (at least one or so a year, none of which I got), and 1-2 internal proposals a year, a few of which I got. So if I average all of that together and divide it across five years, yeah: that's at least 3 major to semi-major proposals a year. The R01s were all in the last two years or so. I guess that is a lot, but it sounds like about average to me, based on what many other peers and mentors have described.

Have I "worked harder" than others in my cohort bin? I really don't think so but it seems extremely, cluelessly privileged to say that. I have had some long, intense days, and more than a few nights of staying up until 3 am (but nearly always to work on teaching lectures during teaching season, not grants--the grants happened during the day, I guess they got the special treatment). I've had a baby, my 2nd year on TT, with the luxury of not having to teach the whole following year and being on a hard-money position nevertheless (so an added luxury of not having to stress about how to pay myself). I've struggled with depression, and fairly recently started Wellbutrin (about 2 years or so now), with a lot of lost days and nights to the fog and emptiness prior to that. (it's hard to be creative about anything, or solve any problems, when you just don't feel anything about anything and can't even hold together a non-complex thought with your executive function). Even still I have what seems like a lot of nights when I stay up until 4 am reading my book BECAUSE I WANT TO AND IT MAKES ME FEEL BETTER. I don't usually work on weekends (unless something's REALLY super urgent, like teaching in which I have to stand up in front of a bunch of teenagers who already don't like me and don't like being there and are looking for any excuse...). So, unless it's my imposter syndrome talking, I don't feel like I have worked as hard as I could have or SHOULD have. But maybe that's the lie that paralyzes us into thinking we can't do it. When, apparently, we can, because, here I am.

I have benefited tremendously from mentoring and promotional support. I've managed to hit almost all of the checkboxes in the Drugmonkey/Physioprof list of things to do to give yourself the best chance at NIH success: I've been on a number of NIH review panels (because I had mentors who suggested me to SROs), including the ones that ended up funding my two R21s, my R01, and the R33 with a fundable score. They are totally right: you learn the panel culture, which pitfalls to avoid, and what catches their collective eye--as well as just what works and what doesn't in building a compelling rationale (after you've reviewed a few rounds, it really starts to jump out). I've sent in a lot of proposals, on diverse topics, crashed and burned some on the rocks of one mechanism and subsequently refined them for success at another. Have we had the perfect preliminary data? Hell no! That I can emphatically say. But, I have increasingly learned how to use what we do have, and to spread it around. We've published six papers on which I am corresponding author, and a bunch more where I'm in the middle (because I like helping, and my students have helped too). In my field, that's not a huge amount, but it's okay. My revised R01 proposal that finally got funded was read and critiqued by a mentor who had been on that study section for a long time, and so knew all the points to hit.

And then, also, I am lucky. I am a very fast writer, and pretty fast reader, so I start with an advantage towards being prolific. Maybe this is part of the key. It makes proposals flow more easily and not feel like as much work? These are things I have always had, and that I improved on in college. So maybe that, and the good mentors thing, are my lucky pass that get me through these gates more easily. That's what this reflection comes down to, ultimately: I don't feel like I have done more than others in my bin. I don't feel like I am smarter, or more perfect. I've been scrappy, but also know the feeling of the black dog (with a big disclaimer that I am extremely lucky to have it respond well to drugs that don't mess up the rest of my life). I think I'm regular, normal but lucky.

11 responses so far

Research commercialization: not just for profit

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 20 2013

I read an opinion piece today in The Scientist by a postdoc at Manchester University in the UK, called "Should Science Be For Sale?" The author's opinion seems to be that research commercialization efforts are devaluing science and its pure pursuit, and that increased focus on applied research is harming support for fundamental science. This seems to be a common viewpoint among basic scientists, and I don't think they are correct. There are two reasons why commercializing and applying research out of academic institutions is important:

  1. It increases the economic value of the research enterprise, and yet operates with a different bottom line than in fully for-profit organizations. This means that if properly managed, profits can be turned back around and invested in fundamental research efforts that are otherwise unfundable. Yes, "properly managed" is the operative phrase; but in academic institutions, we as the academic community are a part of the system that governs how the institution is managed. As much as we might grumble and get disgruntled, we have vastly more influence over the structure of our organization than most companies.
  2. It gets the research outcomes from universities to be ACTUALLY USED in the real world--without commercialization, there is no way to distribute the findings into the wider community. New drugs, new devices, new products that come from academic research have to be optimized, they have to be put through the regulatory grinder process, they have to be manufactured and distributed. As distasteful as it might be to a purist, they do have to be marketed in order for enough people to hear about them to create demand.

I'll share the disclaimer that I am working on commercializing the research from my lab. We make things that could potentially be used as diagnostics to report the effectiveness of cancer drugs. We just do not have the resources, nor does our university, to bankroll the regulatory path that will be needed to see these things make it into widespread use. We need to turn this into a commodity that someone who does have those resources available would want to pursue. I don't really care about the profit part--in fact, I'm a pretty big hippie and I think I already make more money than I need. If I ever do end up making a lot of money from this (which is doubtful), I don't know what I'll do with it--maybe I'll invest it back into some fundamental research that isn't so commodifiable. But if we don't get aggressive and push to commercialize this, it will stay buried in the journals and people will keep dying from cancer relapse because their drugs weren't working and they developed resistance, even though there is a way to find that out right at the beginning of starting their treatment.

I don't see some kind of science-killing profit Armageddon coming to our academic system. Yes, our federal funding situation sucks, it sucks big time right now. The research structure (and thus tenure process) of universities in the US has been relying on that funding for so long that it is essentially built around it. The way things are changing, it isn't likely to go back to previous levels any time soon--so that means we all need to adapt. Sometimes economic adaptation means setting up a lemonade stand, sometimes it involves setting out a hat. It'd be great if we could just set out the hat and the public would fill it--but like that would happen (you can see examples in the "crowdfunded science" efforts that usually don't make enough to actually support the costs of a research enterprise). We need to give them something for their money, and that means giving them some things (yes, commodities) that they can use. But this is just, like, my opinion, man, so take it as you will.

TheDude

 

 

 

7 responses so far

DonorsChoose end-of-year challenge: Donation Match!

(by chemicalbilology) May 30 2013

Okay, I am finally getting back here to promote the Scientopia end-of-year DonorsChoose match drive going on:

You can use the promo code SCIENTOPIA (how to use promo codes here) to get a matching donation of up to $100 when you donate to projects on our Giving Page.

 

Please go and help support these projects to give kids access to good science education!

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Missing Milwaukee chemistry student

(by chemicalbilology) May 29 2013

Jessica Benson is a smart, talented, driven woman who worked in my laboratory last summer as a visiting research student. As of May 9th, after a robbery at the bank where she worked, she has been missing. Please, in the outside chance that someone out there might know her and know where she is, spread the word:

http://missingjessicabenson.org/

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NIH: Parental leave longer than 3 months is a "life choice," doesn't count as "real" maternal leave

(by chemicalbilology) Mar 20 2013

Wow, wow wow. A recent comment on my last post:

"From what I'm hearing as I prepare to request EIS extension, they will not even allow me the actual number of months I was on parental leave because it was longer than the typical 3 months. I'm told this constitutes a "life choice" and cannot be considered maternal leave. Isn't that a crazy example of this paternalistic and invasive attitude? Aren't any choices about whether and when to have children or take family/eldercare leave actually "life choices"?

How on earth is the NIH qualified to judge which choices are valid and appropriate?"

Seriously? This is pretty mind boggling. Sure, it comes from one particular contact that one particular commenter has, but it is consistent with experiences of others I have heard from who have asked for eligibility extensions for similar reasons, and it conveys pretty clearly a sense that the NIH has not figured out how to implement policies like this in the spirit in which they should be intended.

We're talking about eligibility to apply under certain categories and taking into account lost productivity, here. We're not talking about expending NIH or institutional resources to cover longer parental leave (which is a different story). We're not talking about giving people extra money because they've been on parental leave longer.

We're also not talking about having spent time going backpacking in the mountains, or working in some other career instead of pursuing the academic track, or just hanging out doing something else for the heck of it. We are indeed talking about life choices, life choices that are often made during this critical eligibility time period of being in postdoctoral training and as an ESI. Life choices that could include taking care of aging parents, something also not unusual in this time period in one's life. Life choices over which everyone (including NIH) has been puzzling about how to better accommodate in the biomedical training process. UMMM HELLO??! Here's the perfect chance to achieve this accommodation, and you're doing the opposite.

NIH, you say this. If you are serious, then please: OWN IT. Be consistent. Establish policies that support it explicitly and please don't leave it up to the interpretation of individual programs or program staff. That just isn't going to catalyze any progress on this issue.

6 responses so far

K99 eligibility limited to 4 years and you better not be out on the job market

(by chemicalbilology) Feb 16 2013

Somehow, the changes announced in this Notice are supposed to help postdocs make a "more timely" transition to independence.

I think the main problem will be that reviewers are already largely biased with the mindset that a certain publication profile is necessary to make someone competitive. Meaning a certain number of papers in a certain "level" of journal. In order for the timing of this process to work, postdocs will need to start applying for the K99 in about year 2, by which time it is very unlikely that anyone but the ultra super productive (which is often aided by the good fortune of having a PI who lets you choose quick-to-paper projects over those that they might WANT you to be working on), or those in big-name labs, will have such a profile. Since reviewers won't have as lengthy of a publication record to go by, they will almost surely fall into the habit they do for every other kind of NIH grant and go instead on other aspects of the CV (and the CV of the mentor), further pushing this towards a "glamour" award. The "rich get richer" situation will be exacerbated, in contrast to what I have always seen as an advantage of the K99 award (that even the not as "fancy"--like myself in a lot of ways, lol--can have a fighting chance).

Also, year 2 is when a lot of people become most competitive for the F32, so it might become a choice between F32 or K99, which seems kind of stupid. Is F32 going to end up as some kind of consolation prize for not being fancy enough for a K99?

Not only that, but this will disproportionately disadvantage women (and men who are primary or co-primary caregivers) who have children during their postdoc years. So far, the longest extension on K99 eligibility that I have heard of anyone getting for family leave is the actual number of weeks/months they were out on parental leave. Anyone who has had a kid knows that the effect on your productivity goes FAR beyond those few weeks/months. If they want to avoid this kind of bias, they will need to get real about extension times--people should get at least a year per kid, just like in the tenure clock stoppage situation.

Lastly, I think it is paternalistic and invasive for Program to be making judgements about someone's need for a K99 award and readiness for the tenure track based on their job application timelines. A large proportion of postdocs go out on the job market before they are truly ready because their PI won't or can't pay them anymore. Making that the postdoc's FAULT by now also telling them they are no longer eligible for one of the best options to win their independence from that PI is just gross and unhelpful. This treats postdocs like they are little kids who say they want dessert now even though they didn't eat their vegetables: "Well then, you must not need any dessert because you must not be hungry." Well, guess what: your reviewers are scoring highest the people who already look ready for an independent position. So you're going to have to figure out how to get them to change their mindsets--something that so far, nobody has figured out how to do very effectively. How is that going to be reconciled with the new rule that:

"Individuals who are close to achieving an independent faculty position, and cannot make a strong case for needing a minimum of 12 months of additional mentored training, are not ideal candidates for this award"?

I wonder if they have even thought about this. I also wonder if these changes are based on any actual metrics about applicants and awardees, or just some vague, poorly thought-out knee jerk idea to make postdoc-hood shorter. If you can show me Jeremy Berg-style data demonstrating that there will be some benefit to candidates, fine--but it just doesn't look like this is going to be a good thing.

25 responses so far

Why academia is still hemorrhaging women in this day and age

(by chemicalbilology) Feb 09 2013

I just read a comment from an anonymous person on this post at Academic Jungle:

"This post really hit home for me. I am an early career PI (3 yrs in) at a soft money institution and am currently facing the (very real) prospect of having to close my lab, due to a combination of a major institutional financial crisis and the horrific federal funding situation. I have a young (<1 yr) baby and work 90 min from home. I rent a small apt in the town where I work and during the week I am a single parent to my daughter so deal with absolutely everything related to her needs, daycare, doctors, etc etc. I also manage our "real" household and do all the finances and other boring organizational crap. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to salvage my career, get papers out, apply for jobs elsewhere, write as many grants as possible, try not to drop the ball for people in my lab. Husband is also working very hard and is sensitive to any criticism that he's not doing his part because he feels like working hard is what he can do to provide for our daughter's future. What's happening though is that his career is doing OK while mine is collapsing. I have the academic pedigree but now I'm getting the lack of productivity critiques...gee...I wonder why that might be considering birth and 3 mo of maternity leave. No body cares why the papers haven't come out, just that they haven't. I absolutely feel like I've failed to live up to both what I expected and what other people expected of me."

This--this is why it's such a struggle to keep women in the leadership ranks of academia. This is very similar to my experience in many ways, although my husband made a career change recently, so that he could move to the town where I work and was living with our daughter, to make this easier for me. These situations are the practical reality for many women at assistant professor age, and disproportionately, the women end up taking the career hit because of so many social pressures (direct, indirect, conscious, unconscious, from spouse, from family, from friends, from wider culture) while colleagues look on disappointedly as if they can't do anything about it.

Well, we as colleagues CAN do something about it. We can actively work on changing our mindset about what "counts" as productivity in a given amount of time based on extenuating factors. We can start putting our attitude money where our policy mouths are regarding flexibility in the tenure clock--get out of the rut of thinking that the productivity allowance ONLY counts at the year you're supposed to come up for tenure, and actively recognize that it is a continuous process of a slower rate (driven by the higher activation energy of producing without the catalyst of an "easy" lifestyle with either no family involved or a spouse who organizes it all). It's going to take all of us (including BOTH the oldsters AND youngsters) changing our perceptions, dialogue and defensive reactions when challenged about it.

The current model of how academic performance is evaluated is a construct of what our own internal culture has decided is important, and it is based on a system that grew out of the old Victorian model of the footloose and fancy-free affluent young man trying to "make his way in the world" by spending years and years at the university putzing around. The values of that system were defined by that dude's ability to live and breathe the lab, the pub, and his smoking lounge. Let's get over it, wake up to our different culture, and work on adjusting the way we measure success to take a whole picture into account.

WE (us all scientists and faculty) are the only ones who can start this, and it's our responsibility to change the way we think.

11 responses so far

Two-way anonymized NIH peer review? Best comment evar!

(by chemicalbilology) Dec 13 2012

LULZ, the first comment on this article about potentially making applicants anonymous for certain levels of NIH review is so stereotypically hilarious. He even named HIMSELF "oldguy!"

"This moves reviews exactly in the wrong direction.  It rewards creative writing and disregards training and accomplishments.  The current short grant format does not allow enough preliminary data to provide assurances tot he reviewer that the applicant can do the work now.  At least now when an X-ray crystallographer says they will do a structure you can check and see if they have done a structure.  Without a track record anyone can propose to do anything as long as its published that someone has done it.

Having worked in Europe and the US the lab based funding is much better fro young scientists.  While they can't grow and empire, they can work.  Here in the US we are willing to through away years of training.

Larry Tabek gave us 12 pages and no A2.  His track record is not so good."

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Myriad, Mayo and Prometheus: the line between "law of nature" and invention

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 22 2012

Some very interesting litigation has been going down this year, somewhat under the radar for most of us, regarding the patentability of biological products and processes that could have huge implications for both the biotech industry and academic research labs hoping to commercialize their findings.

Earlier this spring, what would look to most people (and even most scientists) as a very dry case made its way up to the Supreme Court. The case was brought by Mayo Clinic (via their laboratory group Mayo Collaborative Services) against Prometheus, a medical diagnostics company. Prometheus own(ed?)(s?) the patent on a certain test offered by the laboratory. This test involved detecting the levels of a certain drug metabolite in order to monitor dosage/predict side effects/etc., and correlate those levels to the health of the patient (i.e. efficacy). Basic pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics (PK/PD) type information--thousands upon thousands of people get a similar kind of testing for their coumadin/warfarin levels all the time, This is mainly because there are certain polymorphisms in a couple of enzymes (VKORC1 and CYP2C9) that affect the metabolism and thus blood levels of warfarin in some patients, and if the balance isn't right (and the effective dose ends up too high) the patient's blood won't be able to clot at all, which is a bad thing, obviously. If it's the other way around, the patient won't get enough of the thinning effect and will not get the intended benefit. So everyone who starts on warfarin has to get their prothrombin time and "international normalized ratio" (PT/INR i.e. measures of clotting) regularly checked to make sure the dose is having the intended effect; doctors adjust based on the outcomes of these tests as necessary.

So, Prometheus developed a test for a certain drug metabolite in a certain disease (unrelated to warfarin, that was just a handy example) that was a little more direct: it measured the actual level of the metabolite in the blood rather than a downstream effect of that level. (you could do this for warfarin too, but it's probably a lot cheaper to do the PT/INR test) They also established a correlation between those levels and the outcomes, and patented the whole system. They sold a kit, that made this test simple, to the Mayo labs, and Mayo Labs bought it and used it regularly. Then at some point, somebody at Mayo Labs said, "Hang on, if this is just measuring the level of this metabolite using a machine we already have, let's just put together our own reagents off the shelf and run it without paying all this money for this expensive kit." (something research labs may or may not do all the time... ahem...) As you might expect, Prometheus wasn't very happy about this and it all culminated in some intellectual property litigation. You know, just a little argument that ended up... before the Supreme Court.

Teh SCOTUS' decision ruled, in way-shortened summary, that because a drug metabolite is produced by the body, it is a "law of nature" and is thus unpatentable. This result sent waves through the intellectual property law community because if a diagnostic for drug levels is considered a "law of nature," WHAT ELSE is now going to be challenged as unpatentable?? The entire freaking biotech industry??!

Think, in particular, the ongoing fight about Myriad Genetics' test for BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations. Someone else certainly did. Last week, in an update to this law of nature drama, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Myriad, that because the DNA constructs covered under their patents are cDNAs and other pieces of cloned out material, they are not "natural" and thus don't fall under the "law of nature" definition. This is a key result: it means that the issue isn't necessarily so sweeping and cut and dried as it looked from the opinion that came out of ye olde SCOTUS... and may ultimately end up back there via this Myriad case.

But overall, this whole discussion may end up having the effect that was speculated to be part of the SCOTUS' plan for their dramatic ruling: to better define what constitutes "natural" in the 21st century, where modern biotechnology can generate whole artificial genomes, and exome sequencing (heck, even the cheap kind of sequencing, or good old fashioned GC/MS metabolomics) can help predict who is at risk of a given disease and/or will benefit from a given drug; and to force the biotech world to figure out which and how molecular parts are owned by the individual who produced them (either in their body or from their mind). And us in academia, we better pay attention--because these are our discoveries out there, too, and if we want them to ever see the light of day, somebody is going to have to help us make products out of them. That's pretty hard to make happen without viable intellectual property in place.

8 responses so far

United Airlines loses an unaccompanied minor and doesn't give a crap

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 14 2012

Whoa, this is so whacked out I had to post about it. United Airlines basically lost and ignored a 10 year old for whom they were responsible as an unaccompanied minor traveling with them. The only way it got figured out was through some of their employees breaking the corporate "rules" to do things they weren't supposed to do and help her. You really need to read the full story here:

United Airlines lost my friends' 10 year old daughter and didn't care (Bob Sutton)

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