IRBs like crazy!

I am becoming a total pro at whipping up an IRB exemption application. I am now approved for three and on my way to a fourth. Once you get the hang of it it's really not so bad, and the research I am proposing is all unharmful, uses either educational data I already have access to or samples from tissue banks, from companies with pre-existing protocols, or that will otherwise be discarded.

We're working on getting one of our technologies tested out in some patient material, so we needed to get access to stuff. Since my institution does not have a medical school, that proved to be a lot trickier than I originally thought it would be. It turns out that custom patient sample collection protocols for somewhat obscure diseases COST A FRICKING BOATLOAD! You can't get samples without money, and typically cannot get money without pilot data, which requires samples of course. So we were caught in this circle of complication. Luckily, we found a company that has reasonable prices on fresh sample collection and can get us the material we need under the conditions we require. I am able to spend my start up money on things like that, and will be applying for grants to fund bigger translational projects as soon as we get some data from the pilots. But essentially, it has taken a YEAR to get to the point where we will have samples to test on. WHEW!

My other IRBs are for educational studies. I'm trying to maximize my ability to demonstrate scholarly productivity even while spending some time trying to improve my teaching and provide research opportunities to kids. As part of my CAREER award proposal (submitted this past July), I am working with two organizations, on-campus and an off-campus, to provide high school student research lab experiences in the summer. I IRB'd it up to actually do some analysis on the outcomes (perceptual confidence-wise and demonstrable career-path-wise) for the students who join the program. The other one is to try out a new technology in the class that I teach with another professor and to study whether it helps the students do better or not. For both of these, I plan on trying to get a publication out of it to get my added value and combine efforts. In our School, just being a good teacher doesn't necessarily help you much for tenure but publishing on educational research does (as long as it is only a small part of an overall well-established research program).

So after not even knowing that IRB existed a year or so ago, I am now a professional human subjects researcher. Yippee!

What's a henweigh? About a KILOGRAM??

Ok, this story on NPR this morning about the weight of the kilogram had me thinking that analytical people just need to take some lessons from general chemistry and significant figures.

I mean, seriously, everyone's freaking out because "THE" kilogram no longer weighs exactly the same as its copies, and flapping their hands about dramatically that they don't know whether the kilogram "ITSELF" has changed in weight, or if the copies have changed.

When I was taking Gen Chem, then Organic, and then teaching these things to others in subsequent years, I came to accept that all numerical amounts in calculations (even in P-Chem) are only relevant to within certain significant figures because our means of interacting with those amounts are fundamentally limited. Limited by both technical possibility and effect on observed outcome. There may be theoretical applications in which we need to define certain constants, certain amounts, to more precise figures and sometimes those theories get tested, but even then the results are always measured in replicate and determined within a given error.

Similarly, how about if we just accept that there's a certain range of weights out to the Nth decimal place that correspond to "a kilogram" and that there is a margin of standard error, represented by its deviation among "THE" kilogram and all its certified copies? Is it really that big of a deal to know the cosmically most precise, TRUE nature of the kilogram for use in practice? Given the following:

  • a) it's something we made up
  • b) no balance in the world is capable of measuring anything to its exactitude*
  • c) no application in which someone would need to weight out some amount of something for use or characterization would likely ever need to be THAT close


  • d) even if the application wanted to be that precise, the readout/outcome would likely NOT be precisely enough reproducible, for the very same reasons that make "THE" kilogram so hard to measure in the first place

Can't we just accept that we mortal, biological beings cannot manifest the abstract so pedantically and with such theoretical precision? Can't we just let the kilogram be like Plato's ideal, and be comfortable with our ability to represent it as closely as we are reasonably capable? Do we seriously need to go to such lengths as working for about 12 years to get it measured on a Watt balance*, or relate a material construct of it to a physical, mathematical constant? I love NIST, but this is one enterprise that boggles my mind.

*The Watt balance at NIST is barely even stable enough to do this, and also THEY HAVE A RACCOON PROBLEM! Unless I totally misheard the radio story, raccoons get into their rafters and chew up stuff that falls into some of the rooms in the place that houses the Watt balance. I'm sure they work hard not to let their raccoon problem affect their balance, but it just highlights my point that the world, reality and our interactions with them are heterogenous things, so why can't we accept that maybe so is our ability to actually manifest a theoretical amount?

Lab supply company corruption!

The student who does the ordering in my lab just had a really weird experience. She was outside talking on her phone and passed by one of the sales reps from whom we buy some of our supplies. He called her over and asked who she was talking to--she said she was helping someone with directions who didn't know where to park on campus. He said he would give her his temporary parking pass if she would order more stuff from him! She felt a little taken aback and said it wasn't her money, is was Dr. Arlenna's money and Dr. Arlenna knows what she likes in her products. He said something to the effect of "Sure, but you could still make some choices that would get me more orders, and then you could get this parking pass for your friend..." My student then looked at him funny, said "No thanks," and walked away.

What a strange little version of corruption! And good on my student for not caving to the attempted bribe! I don't think you should offer personal favors to lab managers to get more business--promos, better prices, that's one thing. But what's it gonna be next: dinner out? A vacation to the Bahamas (lol)? Where does he think we are, here, Illinois?


I just spent last week in my postdoc city helping teach a workshop that I co-organized last year with one of my bestest friends and colleagues. It was really nice--the participants were engaged, the visiting speakers were cool, it was nice to catch up with folks, and one of my students got to go for free and learn all about how to do a new kind of science for her. It was also good practice to get me reacquainted with lecturing for the upcoming semester--we start in a couple of weeks and I have my big teaching assignment again.

I don't know if it is the psuedo-"vacation," or the second trimester, but something is helping to make me feel sharp, with-it and like I have my stuff together for this fall. Even with all the more and more things piling on, I can see them all falling into their timeslots and it's feeling doable. FOR NOW that is.

Soon, in the next couple of weeks, I will finally post my follow-up to that grad recruitment survey that I did a little while ago. I got an awesome amount of response from so many people, both on the post itself and through email, and I am looking forward to summarizing things for you all who were interested.

And one more thing: I finally need new pants, because I just can't wear my normal ones anymore, and I found some decent maternity clothes! Gap Maternity actually has nice pants that FIT and aren't like potato sacks with stretchy tops. The whole Motherhood Maternity/Mimi/Pea in the Pod franchise seems to be a big scam--their fabrics are yucky (even at the expensive version) and their pants only come in three sizes, S, M and L, so you end up having to compromise on fit and feeling puffy and fat. When you could be feeling totally stylish and cute if they weren't so floppy. The only thing worth buying from that company is the maternity-adapted designer jeans. A pair of 7 for all mankind jeans that I can wear and feel hot in all fall and winter as my belly grows and grows was WORTH the huge pile of money I had to lay down for them.