When is a lot of variability too much? How precisely, quantitatively reproducible should biological signaling activation be? If you have different populations of the same cell line, treated all the same way, does it make sense if they still show about 20-40% variance in their response over the course of a bunch of replicates?

How do I know when it's us and our hands, or when it's just the fundamental variability of biology???

UPDATE: Thank gawd for sisters who understand ANOVA.


During the reference cleanup for a manuscript, I hate finding brand new papers that do something extremely similar to what I am writing up!!!!! DAMMIT!

I mean, I guess it's better than finding a really old paper that shows you are a dumbass. But it still sucks majorly to find out that you can't claim to be the first people who have done something.

Why I couldn't drink at the winery tour...

So, about 9 weeks ago, my husband and I saw this:

At that point, even though that second pink line on the one test was pretty faint, our N of 2 was positive even though I was only at about 5 weeks along. Subsequent replicates later in the week were even more conclusive. So, now we are at a total of 14 weeks and so far so good. I have felt pretty crappy for some of the last two months, but am starting to feel a lot better. My lab is all excited and ready to pitch in for the team effort to make this work. I just told my department head today and he was very happy for me and supportive and thinks there's no doubt I'll be able to keep it together. My institution has lots of nice policies in place to make this easier for me to manage, including a one-year turning off of the tenure clock for every time it happens (whether you're the dad or the mom).

My official due date is Christmas day. I'm spending this summer and fall getting my lab all trained in and relatively independent (they are showing great signs of this already), getting a few manuscripts submitted and applying for an NSF CAREER award and an R01. Oh, and I'll be teaching my 2nd time around while ~7-9 months pregnant. LOL. I wonder what kinds of evaluation comments I'll get this year.

So, here we go! Now I'll have yet another aspect of young woman PI-hood to blog about. Let's hope I can make it work!

Some pros and cons of the tenure track

As many bloggers talk about a lot, the tenure track, dream job, pyramid scheme of academia is NOT all that starry-eyed grad school applicants chalk it up to be. This is a highly competitive, high-pressure, intensive and sometimes very unfair world. It can be soul-destroying to try to crack into, and only a small percentage of people who want to try it get the opportunity. It's not NECESSARILY a happy place where pottering about on what you love will result in an unassailable job for life with summers off and a four day week. If you're extremely lucky or shrewd, you can turn it into that, but a positive trajectory on the tenure track is NOT a given for ANYONE.

I got myself into this job knowing exactly what the risks and benefits were. I might not have known exactly how I would DO the job, or exactly what the daily function of a TT assistant professor would entail, but I certainly harbored no illusions about what would be expected of me. I also knew full well that it was MY RESPONSIBILITY to figure these things out, that nobody was going to hold my hand and make sure I kept up. I am expected to know what level of grants/publications/teaching excellence will be considered 'enough,' even without any documentation or policy or handbook or helper to describe it in any detail. The job description is intentionally vague: "they," the department and the university, don't want to be too specific for a number of reasons. A lot of tenured faculty resent the idea of getting bean-counted, so they don't want someone devising metrics by which to check off their productivity and progress--and if they made something like that for the TT'ers, then they themselves might have to be compared to see where they measure up. More importantly, the university doesn't want to put itself in a position where denying someone tenure can be tracked back to positive metrics and result in a lawsuit.

So, yeah--it sucks that you never quite know what is expected of you and nobody is going to tell you one way or another if you are measuring up or not. Until tenure, you are an at-will employee, which can be a precarious situation. You can get kicked off the track before you even get up for tenure through non-renewal of contract: at a lot of places (maybe all?) if your trajectory is not promising enough by year 3, your bosses can decide not to renew your contract beyond your 4th year--meaning you never even get a chance to go up against the tenure and promotion committee. It's a luxury to land in a department with high quality mentorship, colleagues who actively participate in helping you succeed from day one, and a department head who does his/her best to guide you frankly and pragmatically and/or who gives you USEFUL feedback at years 1 and 2 that helps make sure you don't get stuck in a non-renewal situation your 3rd year. (For the record, I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have this luxury! My environment is awesome!)

But on the other hand, getting a notice of non-renewal of contract in your 3rd year means you still have a whole year before your contract runs out. A whole year! You can keep doing what you've been doing, wrap things up, apply for other jobs, and all the while keep getting paid according to your original contract. How many other jobs give you that kind of leeway? Most industry jobs have at-will contracts, and when they decide to terminate your position or lay you off for whatever reason, you have about 30 minutes to clean out your desk and head home. Normally there's some severance involved, but only if you are being terminated for some reason beyond your control. Not performing up to expectations (which at least are usually bean-counted and documented a little more thoroughly in industry and government vs. academia), I am guessing, would not be considered 'beyond your control,' so you usually do not get severance etc. Also, while some benevolent companies provide mentorship and support for their employees to work their way up the system, it's certainly no MORE common than in academic departments and I'd wager a guess that it is LESS common.

So at the end of the day, tenure track assistant professors actually have it pretty good. Even if we have to get $1,000,000,000 in grants and 250 papers in 5 years all while living in our offices, eating out of vending machines and climbing uphill in the snow with no shoes on every day... we still have the sole responsibility and opportunity to control our own trajectory for success as best we can, and not many other people in the world can say that.

Eeeek, a quandary

Hmm. What do you do when you realize (based on your own work and some deduction related to part of the molecule described) that something someone showed in a talk and published in a paper is extremely likely to be completely artifactual?

It's a minor issue, and unlikely to be field-defining or anything, so it's not like some major dogma needs to be unseated here. But the poor scientists who are working on this will likely continue to study this artifact, and it makes me sad because they are very nice people who are genuinely excited about this thing they think it novel and useful.

I mean, maybe it's not an artifact--we'd have to do the experiment to find out. But if it is...

This sucks.

Conference lonely

It's amazing the confidence and comfort that a speaking slot and a sister can provide for a better conference experience. At the last conference I attended, I had such a good time and met/talked substantially to a number of great people in the society leadership, had fun giving my talk and asked lots of questions. The conference I am at right now is just feeling really lonely. Even though I know more people here than at the last one, none of them are more than relatively passing acquaintances other than a few folks from my postdoc lab (whom it has been very nice to see and talk to! but I do miss rooming with my sistah). Former postdoc PI is very famous in this field, and is here getting an award, and a bunch of his other previous postdocs/students are here too. You'd think that would feel homey, but I just don't feel like a part of that group yet. Maybe I need more CNS papers to fit in? Or just time to get to know these people? Hanging out at the bar or something? Asking more questions in talks so they wonder who I am?

However, speaker and PI wise, this is a very dudely conference. I have counted only about 10% female speakers, even though there are plenty of female grad students and postdocs around and at least a few more female PIs proportionately compared to the number they have chosen to speak. I've had some nice conversations, but it's not an environment where I can just say "Hey let's grab a beer!" to these dudes I do not know. Questions after talks are not very user-friendly, either--the whole conference is being held in this big auditorium and if you have a question you have to flag down someone who runs over to you with a microphone. It makes me an awful lot less likely to get up to ask a question if I know I will have to make a huge deal out of it, waving my arms all over the place, and then still not even get to ask it anyway because most of the mic runners are going to the older dudes in the front seats.

Is this a uniquely young-female-prof problem to have, or do the young-guy-profs have the same uncomfortable fear of having attempts at networking make you appear like some kind of groupie? Is this some kind of imposter syndrome on my part, or is it a legitimate reaction to a closed social atmosphere amongst this group? There are a bunch of events for the "elites," with award dinners etc., and events for the young'uns, with student/postdoc only parties and stuff, but nothing for us tweeners. I guess I just feel like I fall through the cracks here. Maybe I am just jealous that I don't get to give a talk.

Maybe I need to get more involved in this society and start a Women in Such-and-Such Science group, and we can have our own private beer parties with NO BOYS ALLOWED!!

Covers meme (late again!)

I wasn't tagged for this by anyone and was gonna contrarian out, but then I was reminded of these three covers that are possibly my most favorite covers of all time--and indeed three of my favorite songs in these versions. I wasn't particularly fond of any of the originals, which is what makes these even better covers to me. Y'all will probably think they are weird, but I love them! All are by the Moog Cookbook.

Basket Case/Greenday:

Buddy Holly/Weezer:

Black Hole Sun/Soundgarden:

First year in review (a little late)

So I missed the blogular deadline for discussing my first year of professorhood by a few weeks compared to my cohort. My excuse is that I have been very bogged down in all the things that have piled up from the completion of this year. I won't do a bullet list this time, but instead be more philosophical about where I am at (and where my lab is getting to).

On the upside, I got a very positive review from my chair, who said the primary committee doesn't have any major concerns about me so far and encourage me to go for "the big money" since it looks like my research has been fundable on a national level so far. On the downside, I am getting anxious about our pace: with the amount of money and people we have, we should be producing publishable data a lot faster than we are.

The main thing I feel now is that the log phase of growth is over. We had a banging start, flying out of the gates and getting set up, staffed and producing data within about 2.5-3 months of my start date. We quickly whirlwinded our way to functional and by the end of the first semester things were looking very optimistic. We started writing our first manuscript in about January, and supposedly only had to complete "a few more experiments" to have it submission-ready.

That's when the plateau kicked in. Plagues of variability, experimental snags, reagents that suddenly didn't work anymore (one after another after another), instrument issues, thing after thing. After all that progress, we started spinning our wheels in the dirt churning through repeated experiments that each had some little different problem, never completed all the way through, rarely with all the right controls until finally in the last month and a half. By then, it was time for my first postdoc to move on to her new lab (she was only temporary here while waiting for her future start date) and now the data-generating torch on that project needs to be passed. I'm holding it right now, and it looks like I will be wrapping this up because everyone else has their own project/trajectory/focus and the re-training time would just not be worth it.

Progress on our other projects has been medium/slow. One of them moved quickly at first, but now is suffering from the travails of interdisciplinary collaboration, where rarely is everyone on the same page and a lot of going around in circles usually needs to happen before everybody "gets" it.

So, this semester, which was supposed to be so productive since I was not teaching, has turned out to feel like treading water. Or like being stuck in one of those bad dreams where you need to run but your legs just won't work. The pressure of getting a paper submitted in 2009 and to get our novel idea out there with our name on it is really weighing on me, and we're in the phase of this process where you just have to keep pushing through the crap and struggle to wrangle it into something worthwhile.

I hope our summer is more promising.