Thoughts on an 84-mile each way commute

A long commute isn't so bad. There is so much time to think. In the good old Midwest the roads are so straight you don't have to think about turning your steering wheel, so your mind can wander. I have an almost daily chance to update my strategic plan in relation to the events of the week. So far, I have planned out my 3-month goal for my first manuscript here, my 9-month goal for the next one, thought through the potential projects for all of my current rotation students and how they would interact/distinguish from each other, practiced my lectures a few times through, and created and forgotten several brilliant ideas for our research directions. I remember most of them though.

Having lived in the city for so long, it is incredibly pleasant to be in the country. I get to watch the sunrise over the fields every day, and I feel the passage of the time through the gradual color changes in the trees along the multiple river banks I drive through. I have made friends with the various animals at the little farms I pass each morning: Hello baby horse! Hello piggies that sleep in a pile in a shed! Hello llamas that hang out by the rock! Hello paddock of goats climbing and coating every available surface! They make me a little bit happy every day. And overall, I am just so incredibly happy to be where I am right now, I can sacrifice that three hours a day that I lose to the car and try to take advantage of it as a recalibration time.

It is beautiful here, I am a country girl at heart I guess. I like the quiet and the nature, and today, all is right with the world. Ask me again next grant deadline and I might have a different answer for you, however.

Riddle me this

In the context of a conversation I have been having elsewhere (and by the way any family who read this: it's not our family e-list, it's a different debate), I thought I would open up this idea to you smart people. I am arguing with someone who thinks rich people should be allowed to get richer, and some welfare debates blah blah blah. My response is that...

"I just don't believe that the majority of people on welfare "don't really need it" or are "just lazy."

Where are the studies and statistics that can show the relative distribution of need vs. exploitation in the welfare system? If you know of some, please by all means post them. Personally, all I have heard of are anecdotal examples and all of those that *I* know are people who really did need the support (e.g. a friend of mine with cystic fibrosis who can't work, e.g. my cousin who has cancer, e.g. the really smart undergrad who works her butt off for me and has a kid so she needs medicaid, e.g. my other cousin who also went to college with two young children as a single mom and needed help to support her through college so she could go on to start her own business as a midwife which is how she contributes to society now, or e.g. the soldiers who came back from Iraq and have trouble getting a job and need mental health care because they're all fucked up).

So, if "WAY too many people take advantage of it," who and where are those people and what percentage of the total do they represent? And in a cost/risk-benefit analysis, is their percentage IN THE NUMBERS big enough to trade the good it does for the rest for? People need to get beyond this perception bias that it's all about crack whores exploiting the taxpayer, and take a realistic look at the statistical profiles of welfare users.

And also, I don't understand this idea that "redistributing the wealth" is some how PENALIZING the super-rich. The only way they GOT to be that rich was by being able to use the infrastructure provided by this country, and exploit holes and loopholes in a financial system that allowed them to accumulate more and more and more profit in their investments at the expense of industrial sustainability--profit that for the last 10 years has been completely inflated and pretend and empty, built on the backs of lies and bad auditors. It was a cancer on the financial system--their money is like tumor tissue. YOU CAN'T LOSE WHAT NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOURS IN THE FIRST PLACE. This is the money that was supposed to belong to the families who worked in America whose jobs were taken away to China and India so that these rich people could get higher profits on their products and services, and that should have been invested into making housing ACTUALLY affordable instead of this fakeass cheat-version of affordable that screwed this all up.

Between the two of us, my husband and I make pretty well into six figures now. We are more than comfortable, we are pretty well-off with solid investment plans and can buy just about anything we want for fun almost anytime we want, and we still won't be "punished" by the 'redistribution of wealth' plan. So the people who they are talking about getting punished are the people far beyond what most people would consider normal, or necessary even to have a very good life with lots of luxuries. This is NOT money they get from hard work, it is money they get from growing money out of money in a financial system that just demonstrated itself to be so rotten that its bottom fell out.

The money that gets redistributed will end up back in regular peoples' savings accounts, their retirement plans, and what they spend into the economy, so the "lose the rich people and lose the economy" argument is completely bogus."

Razzafracking Comrade Physioprof

Insists on continuing to tag me for these fricking memes. I HATE MEMES. Don't you know I am too contrarian for this crapola?


Well, here goes:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.

2. Post the rules on your blog.

3. Write six random things about yourself.

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.

5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

1) I have performed as a dancer on stage with Weird Al Yankovic in front of more than 10,000 people.

2) I am totally repulsed by unidentifiable animal product food, but I can eat burnt hot dogs.

3) When I was a teenager, like 13-14, I used to spend hours making little tiny to-scale saddles and bridles for my model horses which I would then sell via BBS forums.

4) I have a Charles Rennie Mackintosh tattoo.

5) I have about an album's worth of songs either partially or fully written and some even recorded, that I will probably never do anything with besides sing to myself in the car during my ridiculously long commute.

6) If I didn't pluck my eyebrows, I would have a unibrow.

Well, there aren't very many people for me to tag--I doubt I will get to six. But I'll list okham, kigarwoods, ethidiumbromide and nat blair to start. OOH UPDATE: I figured out I can ad dmy cousin and her husband to this tag: Reuben Sandwich and Jackalope Ranch.

On not knowing precisely how to do the work that is being done in one's lab

Post-docs and grad students (which I was JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO folks, before you get up in arms about how "the (wo)MAN is just trying to keep us down and just doesn't UNDERSTAND US") tend to have this feeling that their work somehow should not belong to their PI, or anyone else but them as the person who PERFORMS the experiments. This was just brought up in all the discussions surrounding Chalfie's being left out of the Nobel group for GFP, and gets vented about a LOT in the science blogosphere, since this is a place that grad students and postdocs can come and let out their frustrations without the danger of repurcussions or those uncomfortable interpersonal experiences that would ensue from trying to bring these up in person with your PI.

But thinking that the beauty of science and discovery is all about some individual striving to do something only they can do, with some cartoon, superhero version of intellectual 'purity,' is just deluded, self-important and pretend. If wishes were horses and great scientific breakthroughs could be achieved through THOUGHT experiments, then maybe that could happen in a vacuum universe. But the reality is none of us ever do anything on our own. Not even our own thinking. Even our private thinking and problem-solving skills are shaped, molded, influenced and ultimately built upon frameworks created through our interactions with other people: ESPECIALLY those mentors and advisors and teachers who have been particularly important to our lives. So, no: nothing you ever do is TRULY your own work and your own creation. That's just the fundamental bottom line of being a social organism.

Aside from that esoterii (did I make that word up?), there's the issue of infrastructure and teamwork. Yeah, see, the thing you come to understand once it is YOU in charge of stewarding the multi-millions of dollars that are required to keep a lab in operation is that GUESS WHAT: everybody has a distinct role, and nobody's jobs should overlap too much otherwise it gets redundant and wasteful of resources. Sure, I could stand at a bench next to my post-doc and we could each run parts of the overall experiment, or we could act as eachother's reproducibility checks and each do a set of replicates. And then I would know intimately what it took to produce the data that we used to support our work.

I could also go back to take classes and/or work on and learn myself all the various techniques and special skillsets that come in, either from those people or from someone else, and become an expert in every single action and strategy ever performed or taken in my lab. I could metaphysically absorb more and more and more and more information and skills and expertise until I expanded into a giant. But then what would they do in my lab? If I already knew how to do everything, why would I hire anyone else? Why not just do it all myself?

Because being the PI of a lab isn't about knowing how to do everything in the world. It's not about becoming the intimate expert on threads of detail. It's about leading a team, finding people to fill knowledge and skill gaps and managing them in a way that best combines their skills with the resources around them to produce emergent creative phenomena. It's about not redundantifying who does and knows what, so that each person's time and skills can be best used to move the whole group forward towards: 1. finding things out, and 2. making sure you can afford to keep finding things out. While I must say that I am quite vain about my abilities to understand just about anything (and I have lots of practice--if you saw my publication record you might scratch your head with how random and varied it looks)--I recognize that it is NOT NECESSARY for me to be able to run the experiments for a given thing in order to use that expertise in my research. Not necessary, and not efficient: it would be a waste of taxpayer money and lab resources for me to duplicate the skills of people on my team.

I could not have articulated this three months ago. I never had a problem acknowledging the contributions of my PIs and mentors and always automatically considered them a part of my work, anyway. But before I started managing this amount of resources, and became responsible for putting together and shepherding a team of people using those resources, it just wasn't as clear. And, don't think I don't understand the situation of having a bad mentor, a selfish or inept PI. I know that just as well as the next girl from experience, too. But I can see the difference between the POINT of PI-ship and the bad apples. And if you are unable to see the forest because of all the frustration you have with the trees in your way, try taking a step back to remember that you could not have gotten into the woods without support from SOMEWHERE (there's no such thing as a free lunch or a free thought) and you won't be able to get OUT of the woods without depersonalizing things and seeing where you and others fit along the path. And you won't be very good at making paths until you can see how they have been made for you.

Not much to say this week

I haven't had much to say this week. Which isn't true, I just haven't had the mental wherewithal to come up with good ways to say what I have to say. In general, I feel like my head is finally above water after these first two months of crazy town. It's not like any of this is any less crazy, but it doesn't make me feel like I am gonna get a house dropped on me any minute any more.

I have three, THREE rotation students starting next week! And a postdoc starting the week after that. And another postdoc for whom I'm preparing an offer letter, who wants to start in January. This is to add onto my already six-person-strong group, HAH. Although four of them are undergrads, some of those four have been extremely helpful and productive so far. All of my undergrads are wonderful, and each contributes their own unique thing to the lab--but the three ladies in particular have been incredibly competent and independent, and have shown their funny and endearing personalities right away. They are also work-study-cheap to free, which makes them such a lucky addition to the early stages of things here.

I absolutely love the idea of having a big group--I'm pretty good at mental multi-tasking and I have a nearly razor-sharp memory for project details so I haven't had a problem with THAT kind of scatterbrainedness in the past. Hopefully that will hold out once these people and their projects get more sophisticated and varied. I look forward to the day when somebody in my lab publishes a paper where I only have the faintest clue what it was actually about, where I have to read their manuscript drafts to fully understand the awesomely in-depth work they have done on our communal topic. That's when I'll know I've REALLY made it.

One semi-serious worry though: during my budget discussions to decide what I could afford to pay the second postdoc, we saw that some really funky, fishy-looking stuff seems to be going on with my start-up accounts. My business manager thought I couldn't afford another person--which sounded awfully funny to me since I have been keeping an informal tally of my expenditures and should be WAY fine, like completely more than fine, so I was like, "ummm, huh?" So we looked a little closer at my start-up accounts.

For one, there was a strangely innaccurate total amount originally deposited into them... My offer letter said that a certain portion would be there initially and another certain amount would be added in July 2009. There was also an agreement that the second certain amount would be coming from the Cancer Center here, and that all got worked out just fine after I got here. I sort of assumed that Cancer Center amount referred to the July-designated chunk... if so, then I should have had the other first certain amount deposited in total at the beginning. However that amount is NOT the total of my dedicated start-up, but NOR is it the first certain amount minus the second certain amount minus the Cancer Center portion. SO..... the upshot is, HUH? And since all of our accounting is being done via this fuzzzugging RIDONKULOUSLY BAD new SAP system, it is godawfulfrizzicking impossible to follow the money trail and find out WTF is going on.

For two, while trolling through that trainwreck of an accounting system, trying various kinds of searches in an attempt to get the information altogether (which we find, is actually not possible with this craptastic software), we did find some lists of debits from my accounts that have weird doublings-up, with different order numbers but the same dollar amounts, and no apparent description of why. We also found that when we search one way with MY account number, my colleague's name comes up--it labels the account "So-and-so Resrch Incent" where that So-and-so is the other person that was hired on the same time as I was. Aaaaand our start-up amounts were a bit different... which could be why my business office helpers seem to think tht I am running out of money when there is no way I should be already based on the accounting I have been keeping for myself... so....... something weird is going on and I'm going to have to get to the bottom of it. What a pain in the ass.

I hate memes but Physioprof is MAKING me do this.

Can You Remember The Day That You Officially Became An Atheist?

First of all, I wouldn't necessarily call myself an "atheist" in what has come to be the colloquial use of the word (which is more towards 'anti-theist' than atheist). More in the sense of being a-theist, the same way that molecules that do not rotate waves of light are a-chiral. 'It' or 'higher power' just are not a part of my modus operandi or philosophy of myself or the world. The universe IS what it is, and how it is constructed and how the parts relate and connect. I have no inner drive to anthropomorphize it. Our feelings and emotions are all created by complex chemical interactions, and I don't need to ascribe any meaning to that other than that it is pretty cool you can get such emergent behaviors and outcomes out of the same set of chemicals and biomolecules.

So, nope. I do not remember the day I fully arrived at thinking this way. It was a gradual realization that it was not necessary for there to be anybody out there, and that even if there was something/somebody, it didn't need to care about us and vice versa. It's irrelevant. And all the usual excuses for why there "must" be some "purpose" (so we have a reason to be good people and not eat each other, so we have a reason to help poor people out, so we have a reason to get up in the morning, so we have a reason not to sleep with each others' wives and husbands) are BS. Those are things that make sense for the overall social functioning of a group of organisms with our complexity and unless we are too dumb to realize the direct survival benefits (and unless we are just fundamentally selfish and/or broken), there is no NEED for some construct telling us to do them OR ELSE. But then, I suppose that illustrates the need for the construct: most people cannot handle the idea of there being nothing other than what IS. Me, I'm fine with that realization.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?


How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

I don't remember the precise 'last time,' but I was an active member of a Baptist Evangelical church and youth group in high school. And I remember really believing it all at the time--aside from always having a level of discomfort with circular arguments, and never believing that homosexuals were going to go to hell (and never quite believing in hell at all really), I did think at the time there was something there that I was talking too. I always did have a sneaking feeling that who/whatever *I* was talking to was not the same as who *they* thought they were talking to, since the one I talked to would never be burning the non-believers in hell because that was just unfair given the power differential and lack of direct evidence.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Nope. Puzzlement, however, perhaps did. I just didn't understand why anyone would WANT to believe the modern interpretation of the traditional materials. I studied quite a lot of theology and Christian history in college, since I went to a Catholic liberal arts university. And the more I studied where all these ideas and constructs came from, what they ACTUALLY said, how they were compiled, published and disseminated, the more I was confused about WHY people would want to cling to them as a way of feeling comfortable in the world. Seriously, most of that shit makes God look like a crazy, mercurial, arbitrary asshole who just does things to people to make his points without any fairness or TRUE judgement about his decisions (like a few PIs I know...). And there, the excuses are usually that it's because 'his ways are mysterious' or some crap. But frankly, any 'higher power' that treats us as if we are too stupid to understand its decisions so that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants is just a hypocrite. And I am confused and baffled to think that people WANT that, but there you go: they either don't think about those parts of what they are professing to believe, or they make excuses for it, because having someone/something else to blame and fall back on for their actions and decisions (good and bad) makes life easier for them.

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Huh? Why is that "a good one?"

Do you want to be wrong?

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I am wrong, or if I want to be wrong, or what. Things work the way they work, they are beautiful that way and we don't even know the 0.0000000000000000000001% of it. It's cool the way it is, and my opinion about it makes not one iota of a difference to the operations of it all. (Unless that physics question about whether when you look at a particle you affect it is more apropos than we realize--maybe I'm making a bubble universe right now just by describing aspects of how I think the universe works...)

First peptide synthesis!!

We started our first synthesis today with our synthesizer! We took a picture for posterity:

My lab manager set it all up and one of my undergrads was there, so we dragged her in too.

Since I bought enough high-grade TFA for the next ten years (12 x 4L bottles because the price was better by the case!) we decided we'll have a party when we use up the last bottle called the "Last Bottle of TFA Party" and we'll get this old picture out and reminisce about the old days in the lab.

While I'm in a celebratory mood I also wanted to show you all what I decided to do about Marc Jacobs not selling my original 11-year-pine-for bag anymore. I decided to use my 'personal funds' part of my first paycheck to get a different, but equally beautiful one instead! I LOVE it! It has made me incredibly happy so far, so I guess money can buy happiness sometimes:


I sent all my parts to my grants administrator, and she's getting it all put together to go through our internal process before submission by the sponsored programs office on Thursday. Yay!

It's just a little R21, but it has inspired the beginning of a mutually agreeable, constructive collaboration with another professor in my department and helped focus the plans of the grad student who is looking to join my lab after trying things out this fall. I'm really proud of how it went from being an outlined idea of hers into something that fits very well into the development of my research program and takes suitably small, feasible steps while retaining some pretty fancy-pants innovation. We even had a little bit of preliminary data that came from our first few experiments here over the last couple of weeks.

First one from new lab! Since the K99 doesn't really count as "new lab." I have to say, I truly enjoy the grant writing process even with all the technical frustrations and the hassle of fitting in the time to work on it with everything else. It's definitely the kind of stress and focus that gets me fired up to kick ass. I think I'm in the right job.