Tale of woe #356

Wow, there is nothing like a multi-year-ago-pre-scoop to fire up a blinding case of imposter syndrome even in the most confident researcher. Remember when I found out about getting scooped on one of our proof-of-concept manuscripts a little while ago? And I said oh well, "at least I guess it's better than finding a really old paper that shows you are a dumbass." Well, yeah--I'm a dumbass.

I just got a rejection email from a relatively high impact journal for a different paper we submitted on a different proof-of-concept. This proof-of-concept is the basis for my K99/R00 project (which, luckily, expands upon it dramatically, which I guess was why it was fundable). In the review, the referee said that the work was good but someone had already done it before. They gave me the reference. From 2004. 2004. In the world of technology development, that is last fricking century. I was but a baby chemist starting a postdoc and just learning what enzymes even DO at that point.

Sure, we had two potential novel and exciting aspects--but only mentioned as the next extension, not actually demonstrated yet for various reasons. One of which is that reagent I complained about before that lost 1000-fold sensitivity in the new lot, and for which there is no good replacement product. So, as I correctly stressed about, not being able to show that part of the method sufficiently was a big deal.

But the worst part is, HOW, in all my literature scouring for my K99 project, how did I miss that paper? Were the keywords just totally wacked out? Was the title somehow not close enough to what I was searching for? (It sure as hell looks like it is). I do not understand what my problem was, that I never saw this until now. I'm also weirded out that nobody else I have talked to, in the three years since conceiving of and starting to present about this project in various forums, has mentioned this pre-empt on a crucial aspect of the technology. Could it be true that nobody else knew either besides this reviewer??? No, of course not. It's in a good journal. It's from a good research group. SO WHY DIDN'T I SEE THIS BEFORE TRYING TO SUBMIT A MANUSCRIPT THAT SAYS THE SAME DAMN THING?

This is the stress of publishing in the technology development world. In chemistry, reviewers can give you trouble because they didn't understand what you did or the impact of it. In biology, reviewers will argue with you about your interpretation of your data, insisting you do 16 more controls and change the fundamental scope of your project. In technology development, people will point out to you that somebody already f'ing did what you are trying to report.

And in chemical biology, you get all f'ing THREE of those things pressing in on your impact and ability to publish. That tool who said chemical biology was easy for the "special people" can go suck it.

Being a hypersensitive hypochondriac is useful for something

I am super-neurotic about noticing little pains/weird feelings/bumps/whatever around my body. To the point where it irritates the heck out of my family since they are always having to listen to me talk about what new nerve pain I have going on from my herniated disc, etc.

But it's very useful when trying to start feeling baby movements: I was able to feel the first ones at about 14-15 weeks.My doctor was like "Aw, it probably isn't that...you're probably just feeling gas" but I'm now 18 weeks, and it's stronger, and I definitely know that's what it is now, and what it was before. It's pretty cool. 🙂

Testing graduate students

In our department, we don't have one big prelim exam that tests our graduate students on what they've learned in their first year or two of grad school. We space it all out over the course of their first year and a half in "cume" exams, on which they need to get a certain number of points in a certain number of tries in order to pass. They also have to do an original proposal, grant application style with an oral defense. I like this way, the stress is more balanced throughout the year rather than all pinned on one day, and it fits a broader range of learning and performance styles.

I have to give my first cume this fall, and I'm totally scared. I have to come up with a current, compelling set of questions on a current research article in a certain topic area that will balance the rigor of what we expect grad students to be able to figure out against what they are capable of handling. I have a few past exams to look at, but they're pretty different from the kind of thing I was planning to do--mostly because I'm forging a slightly different research focus path than most of my colleagues have done, and also, I haven't gotten involved in teaching any of the graduate courses yet so I don't have the same frame of reference for what they are expected to know. There aren't any strict guidelines on what and how you have to write these, so I will be exercising some creative license and hopefully won't bomb it.

As with many of these first-timer responsibilities, I feel like it's more of a test for me than for them!

Women in biomedical research

Female Science Professor has a post up about this report on the status of women in the academic faculty workforce in a bunch of branches of science, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering and physics. The upshot of the report was that:

Although women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in math, science, and engineering at major research universities, those who do apply are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than those for men... ...women are underrepresented among those considered for tenure, but those who are considered receive tenure at the same or higher rates than men.

HOWEVER, and this is pretty interesting, those trends do not hold true for BIOLOGY. There were a number of other issues discussed in the article that apply to all the disciplines. Particularly that women are significantly less likely to be considered for tenure across all disciplines, which is problematic in itself. However, I want to focus your attention on the one that SUPPOSEDLY tends to attract more women. Despite the dogma that biology is less of a "hard science," and that there should be plenty of women in biology compared to those other STEM fields listed, the truth is that women in biological (and I think we can probably extrapolate/interpolate here biomedical) research end up with the short end of the stick, compared to men of equal rank, on a couple of key issues:

  • Staying in the pool: "while women received 45 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology awarded by research-intensive universities from 1999 to 2003, they accounted for only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions at those schools." In other words, even though biology attracts more female students, it ends up losing proportionately more of them out of the pipeline.
  • Funding: "male faculty had significantly more funding than female faculty in biology; in other disciplines, the differences were not significant." As FSP suggested, maybe this is because the NIH has a bad history of unequal treatment by study sections vs. the NSF.

Both of these are pretty critical to building a bigger representation of women in the biological/biomedical sciences. You gotta feel like it is even worth APPLYING for the job in the first place, you gotta apply and get hired to one that is tenure-track, and once you're there you need to get funded to to make it past your first few years of annual review and be allowed to even submit a tenure packet. Apparently, if we can make it to that stage, then things aren't so skewed, since the report says that of those considered for tenure women are just as likely to get it as men.

So, biology, in other words, you still look like you suck pretty bad with respects to increasing the representation of women among your higher academic leadership ranks. Here you were thinking that you couldn't possibly look as bad as MATH or PHYSICS for goodness' sake, so you were fine and didn't need to worry about it. Well, guess what: you were wrong. You're now the main embarrassment on this front, and you need to get with the program.

First graduate from the lab

So, my first M.S. student successfully defended her thesis today. She worked very hard and made some major progress on her abilities in the lab and writing department, and had a nice package of results with which to complete her MS degree. Her ideas and preliminary work have set the basis for a new direction for our group that got us a one-year internal pilot grant, and could turn out to be an interesting and fruitful direction for our technology. I'm really proud of her.

I also learned a lot about my role as a committee chair before and during a defense. Apparently I CAN jump in and guide the discussion, but I wasn't aware of that and kept my mouth shut at some points where I could have clarified or reworded the questions to help her understand what she was being asked, so our discussion got a little long and drawn out on some more general issues. Fortunately my two faculty mentors were on the committee, so they were able to give me some guidance on it afterwards for next time I have to help run someone's defense (hopefully not for a few more years once my going-into-second-year Ph.D. students get to that point!).