Sunday, 20 December 2015

The walls are in our heads

We had a seminar the other day on optogenetics given by one of the junior faculty in the neuro side of our department. Those of us in the biomechanics side of things are increasingly interested in the sensorimotor processing necessary to regulate the complex musculoskeletal behaviors we observe. Like good physiologists, we want to be able to disrupt the systems to see how they respond. And the prospect of being able to alter sensory and motor signals reversibly and quickly is particularly intriguing. So we had a chat about it.
Talking with the neuro people is a stark reminder of disciplinary boundaries. Our basic questions overlap on the matter of animal behavior, yet diverge in where we focus our explanatory efforts. To caricature, we examine behavior and musculoskeletal systems, and treat the brain as a black box, and the neuroscientists examine behavior and the brain, and treat the musculoskeletal system as a black box. So things we take for granted, they often are unclear on, and vice versa.
As we were discussing the background of optogenetics, the names of Chlamydomonas and Volvox, the green algae from whose genome the photosensitive ion channel genes have been extracted, came up. Because of my dillettantish path through biology, I have fair amount of botany, and a lot of taxonomy, in my knapsack. And that same wandering path included a pretty extensive flirtation with both cellular physiology, and neuroscience as an undergrad.  As we discussed the various components of optogenetics, the light gated ion channels, the promoter sequences, the virus delivery vector, different questions popped into my head. Why did the algae have light gated voltage channels (I'm assuming some sort of phototactic behavior)? Where transposon sequences used to insert the genes into the neurone genomes, so that they would be replicated along with chromosomes, or were they left as free floating strands of DNA? Of course, in our group of mammalian biomechanists and neuroscientists, no one really knew the answers to those questions. And to be honest, they probably couldn't have pulled Volvox out of a eukaryote line up.
I often quip that huge amounts of knowledge about Mus musculus is held by people who don't give a damn about mice. Likewise, many of the people who know about Xenopus development probably know very little about frogs. Model organisms, translational focus and systems based thinking lead to extensive study of organisms that is oddly divorced from an understanding of the organism qua organism. Evolutionary biologists do this too. Systematists famously know little about the biological uses of the various structures they use to construct cladograms. In fact there was a time when such knowledge was considered harmful to establishing relationships, and systematists proudly touted their lack of knowledge about organism function. And molecular biologists have often been not much better regarding the organisms whose genomes they code.
And yet, here, with optogenetics, we have a technology that is born of in depth knowledge of the physiology of single celled algae, the reproductive chemistry of viruses, and the control of genetic expression at the cellular level in mammalian neurons. None of these things are trivial. All of them are products of long research programs within subfields of biology. (The discovery and understanding of transcription factors alone was a huge revolution in cellular genetics, and the histroy of our understanding of viruses and single celled algae is equally fascinating).
It is true that discplines are necessary to provide depth of understanding. It is also true, as Michael Hendricks recently pointed out, that interdisciplinary research assumes the existence of robust, vibrant, INTERESTING disciplines. But for this interdisciplinaryness to occur, there must be people with enough curiosity about what is going on in the neighboring silo to, well, see a possibility for coupling viral vector technologies with voltage gated channels from algae. And when the results of interdisciplinary research become ubiquitous within a field, there are potential risks in remaining ignorant about those aspects of your technique that come from a different scientific history and background.
Without a minimum of curiosity about what's going on in the silo next door, interdisciplinary breakthroughs are impossible. And without a minimum of curiosity about interdisciplinary breakthroughs, our understanding of things we do in our own fields is more black box that we might like.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


I was in New York yesterday evening to see Sylvie Guillem's farewell performance. Guillem is one of the great dancer of the past thirty years. Her career has been remarkable both for its brilliance, and for the determination she has shown in charting her own path as a dancer and performer. She has danced as a star in all the great ballets, but has devoted most of the past decade to contemporary ballet. Her work is breathtaking in its scope and originality.
Guillem has just turned fifty, and, with the same clarity of purpose that has marked all her career decisions, has decided to stop dancing. Yet she is not showing any decline in skill. Her performance yesterday was a masterpiece of virtuosity, her technique unparalleled, her famously athletic body still dazzling in the shapes it achieves, seemingly without effort.
As she writes herself in the program notes: "Why stop? Very simply, because I want to end while I am still happy doing what I do with pride and passion."
Performance relies on the body and the mind, and depends on the faculties of both. All performers live in anxiety of the failure of their tools: the body slows down, the muscles become less strong, the voice breaks. The mind fails. Dancers and opera singers are particularly aware of this, yet it affects all performers. A pianist known in her youth for extreme virtuosity may find as she ages that her playing must change. The fingers are less strong, the tendons tighter, and the spectacular brio of youth is gone. Yet the pianist is not necessarily done: a new maturity of playing, a new voice can emerge, as the performance changes to adapt to the new reality of the body. I remember hearing two recordings of the great violinist Heifetz playing the same concerto, once in his thirties, once on his final concert in his 80s. There was a noticeable difference in the playing. The youthful performance was brilliant and assured, yet the performance at 80, slower, perhaps a little more tremulous, had found a new depth of lyrical expression to the music. Perhaps, when virtuosity is insufficient, the performer must find new richness in the work.
Guillem's choices of pieces yesterday reflected this. They highlighted precision, athleticism, and shear physical expressiveness of her dancer' body. In the first piece, choreographed for her by Akram Khan, she crawled onto stage, and then reproduced her career before our eyes: her body growing expressing ever more technique. She explored the meaning of performance for her, and in doing so, entered a strange, uncanny space. Her human body became inhuman, the years of practice and the natural talent allowing to explore spaces that our bodies cannot enter. I watched as she lay on the floor in a posture that highlighted her over extended elbows and hyper flexible hips, and it was a strange thing. Virtuosity is other worldly. Yet the concern with the meaning of years of practice was a concern of maturity, of the artist wondering what it is they have done. Her other two pieces of the first half, where she danced with other dancers, seemed to me tinged with anxiety about the difficulties of collaboration. In one, Guillem appeared only for the briefest instant to disturb an exquisite, tense pas de deux between two male dancers, who kept coming into and out of phase with each other, ending sequences of steps in the same pose, but taking different paths to get there, and then sometimes seeming to attack each other. Was this a meditation on the frustrations of collaboration, and perhaps, the dangers of assuming one's centrality on the stage, and ignoring all that has gone on before you entered? In another piece, she performed a frantic duet with another female dancer while a dazzling light pattern redefined the shape of the stage constantly. Sometimes the dancers tracked the shifting lights, sometimes they didn't, yet always they moved as pair. Was this about succession and legacy?
In the final piece, entitled simply "bye", Guillem danced alone. This almost seemed a private dance (obviously it was not). And when she was done, she simply walked into a crowd, and vanished.
Guillem called the show "life in progress". That title acknowledges many things: that her life is not over because she has ceased dancing, and so by extension, that her life is not co extensive with her dancing (after all, she was once not a dancer, and existed as such). As scientists and academics, we too need to ask how long we wish to perform, and recognize that our life is not co-extensive with our work. And we too can think about how our performance changes as youthful virtuosity gives way to the techne gained through maturity.
Like performers, there is little reason to do academic science if we are not happy doing it with pride and passion. And like performers, deciding to end doing science does not mean deciding to end living.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Notes of a prodigal paleontologist

I am at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in Dallas, Texas. I haven't been to this meeting in two years, during which I've done very little paleontology, and in fact rather little evolutionary work. The last time I came, I was presenting the final part of my dissertation work. That presentation was on the results of four years of solid, focused work. This year, I presented the results of a side project collaboration which I am not leading (I'm the methods guy). The feeling was very different.
SVP was my main professional academic meeting throughout grad school. It was the first meeting I attended, the first meeting I presented at. I have good friends, colleagues and mentors here. In many ways, it still feels like home. My dissertation project was inspired largely by a single talk I saw at SVP Cleveland seven years ago. By the end of my time in graduate school, I almost felt I was beginning to get a certain reputation as a methods person. At the very least, the other paleontologists in that sub community knew of me.
But for the past two years, I've been doing something completely different, and attending different meetings, where I know far fewer people, and am known by almost none. I'm somewhat out of the loop on the paleo literature, having had to devote my reading efforts to understanding the literature of swallowing physiology and dysphagia. The abstract I put together for the meeting was on a completely different paleontological problem to what my dissertation was on (using the same methods). My co-author was the dinosaur footprints expert. I would be presenting to his peers. And I also wondered (giving my growing interest in comparative physiology and neural mechanism of muscular function) whether I would still be interested and excited by the meeting. And whether people here would still be interested and excited by me.
SVP is a surprisingly eclectic meeting, certainly I think more so than people not in the society might think. As paleontology has become more and more focused on understanding the biology of extinct animals over the past half century, the amount of comparative functional morphology at the meetings has increased. The advent of tree based methods for reconstructing evolutionary history has meant that many questions that were once the purview of fossil analysis can now be approached by looking only, or mostly, at living animals. Thirty years ago, these innovations resulted in virulent fights in the paleo community. Now, a quiet synthesis has occurred, and no one is surprised to see a talk discussing comparative gestation times in extant mammals follow the description of a new fossil. The first day, I struggled a little to find my feet. Much like when I return to France after a long break, the thoughts and ideas seemed to come from far away, and I wasn't entirely sure I could engage with anything. As the week wore on however, the language came back, as did the excitement. What's more, my new research was causing me to look for new things in the meeting. The paleoneurology (yes, it's a thing) and ontogeny talks were now on my radar. And I found (always a good sign), that many abstracts had ideas that paralleled some of my thinking, both on the questions from my dissertation, and on my new questions.
On the very first day, I saw a talk by one of the big guys in understanding early mammalian evolution. He was discussing the evolution of the unique mammalian nasal respiratory tract, and talking about the complex integration of smell, taste, chewing and respiration in mammals. Immediately I began tying in what he was saying with my thoughts on the neurophysiology of swallowing, and in particular how the mammalian oropharynx goes through a major neurological, behavioral and anatomical transition at infant weaning. After, I went to talk to him, and he seemed interested enough in my ideas, that were not coming from the study of fossils, but from my experimental work, that he wanted to know more. It was a reminder that I still belong here.
This morning, the last day of the conference, there was an entire symposium dedicated to the methodology I became an expert in as a paleontologist (an aspect of which had formed the basis of my own talk). I watched as several people, whose work I had always admired as a graduate student, got up and gave more talks. Talks I found compelling, novel and exciting. I now have new ideas I'd like to explore in my old data, and I'm reminded why I did this thing in the first place.
I came to this meeting unsure of what I would find, and more out of a desire not to abandon my identity as a paleontologist. I'm leaving reinvigorated, my ideas about the evolution of mammalian oropharyngeal function clarified, and new ideas of how I could link what I do to the fossil record emerging.
As I work on my transition to independence as a researcher, I'm glad to find that I'm still energised by the work and ideas of my earliest mentors, and that I in turn can energise them with what I'm doing as an experimental biologist. My path to this point makes more sense to me now, and I'm glad to know I still belong at this meeting, even as I make a place for myself at others.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Coming to America

Why did I move to America? Because I'd always wanted to. Even when applying to undergrad, I did a cursory search of Harvard's website (this will immediately tell you something of what I thought about America, but no matter). I ruled it out as too expensive (and I resented the idea of having to take an extra exam), but I probably gave it more serious consideration than I did French university, and I'm a French citizen.
It is difficult, I think, for Americans, particularly the academically inclined, liberal kind, to truly understand the hypnotic fascination that America (before 9/11 in particular) could have on Europeans. Your cinema and television exported a culture of sophisticated glamour. Even the world of your cheesy soap operas (Baywatch, Sunset Beach, Dawson's creek, The OC) were so much more exciting than the dour drama of our British offerings. America seemed alive, and huge, and beautiful.
To put it this way: there was only ever one trip I wanted really to take, and that was to the statue of Liberty. By the time I had moved to America, I had already been here five times. The first ever trip I took to America in 1993 was the fulfillment of an already years long dream, and I didn't even get to go to Disneyworld. The statue of Liberty was enough.
And so, when I decided to go to grad school, I decided I would try to do so in America. I had no excellent reason beyond "why not fulfill two dreams in one?" I would become a paleontologist, and I would move to America. Both things I had wanted to do since I was less than ten.
But fulfilling childish dreams as a adult has costs. I suspected, applying for grad school in my early 20s, that things might end up more complicated than a five year jaunt across the Atlantic. One does not with impunity embark on a major life change in one's early twenties.
It is now 8 years since I first came to the US, and I have been here 7 of those last 8 years. I am now married to an American man. I have paid taxes in the US for more years than I have in England (even though I am ineligible to vote). I know the history, geography and culture of this country as well as I know that of France and England, and as well as many Americans. Yet I am not an American. I am a French and English man, here by choice and circumstance.
Many academics get used to international moves. Yet I get the impression that few choose those moves. I chose mine: I applied for PhDs in the US. And I knew what I was risking. Yet I did not know perhaps how much. This week I was applying for jobs back home. My husband and I have only the vaguest idea of how we would mesh his career goals with me moving back the UK. As much as part of me yearns to be closer to my friends and family, in some ways, that seems almost more complicated than staying here and flying home once a year or so. Yet what shocked me more was that I had no idea HOW to apply for a job in Britain. All my tacit knowledge in reading job apps, all my professional skills, all my wordsmithing were tailored to the American job market. Faced with a British job application, I was stumped.
I should not be surprised by this. I am the second generation in my family to drift between countries and cultures. My mother moved from France to England in 1973, and has lived as a French expat in London since then, awkwardly balanced between a culture she no longer entirely understands, and a culture she has never entirely understood. My siblings, I, and many of our friends are a syncretic mish mash, knowing the work practices of the English and the social practices of the French and only truly feeling comfortable when surrounded by other binationals who get the feeling of never quite fitting in. And I've added America to that mix. It is my home, yet I am not at home here.
This weekend, I spoke with my mother, as I do every week. We talked about my career goals, and about my husband and I. As I told about jobs in the UK I was applying for, to convince her I cared and was not a bad son, she asked me what my husband would do if I moved back to the UK. I answered that for his career, we would probably be apart a couple more years. Without hesitating, my mother told me that she would travel to see me wherever I was in the world, and that I should think about my husband and I as a couple when making career choices. She lifted a great weight from my shoulders, at the cost of not calling her youngest son home.
I have been true to myself in the geographical choices I have made (well, apart from Ohio. Ohio was not part of the plan). I have no regrets. But the life of the voluntary expat comes with costs, all the more complicated to weigh and measure in that they are in part self inflicted. I was not forced to come to America. What does that say about my attachment to my family? And if I refuse to consider myself American, then how do I deal with having my professional and family life here? Expatriation bears a toll, and as more academics become more international, more of us bear those secret bruises.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Return on investment, limited ressources and impossible hedges: the postdoc job search

I submitted my first job application for a faculty position last week. It's the first of around 30 opening I currently have listed. The application package (the American Standard: CV, cover letter, research statement, statement of teaching philosophy), took about a week or two to craft. I looked back over old letters I had written three years ago (for which I had already studied the internet intensely), judged them poor, rewrote them. I solicited, and got very good, feedback from my PI and two other professors in the department who know me. One is an associate professor, mid career, established in his field. The other is a pre-tenure, but very successful, assistant professor. The job itself was a neurophysiology position at a research school with a significant budget. And so all the materials will have to be recrafted for the more teaching focused schools, or the anatomy departments, or the more evolutionary and paleontological positions.
While I am working on these job packets, I am hard at work keeping the analysis and writing momentum we have developed in the group. I submitted my second first author paper from my postdoc for review last week, and next week I will take three days to finally revise and resubmit my third dissertation paper (which has been sitting on my hard drive for a year at this point). We have just finished a run of animal experiments, and there are at least two more first author papers (and several middle authors where I will be called upon for analysis) sketched out that could be ready by january.
My PI came and talked to me a couple of days ago. The R01 I'm on is in its final year, and we have not yet had a renewal. She informed me that my position is funded for certain until January 2017. If she gets refunded, the pressure is off. If not, I think that a few favours can be called in to complete that year, but no guarantees. To all intents and purposes, it is in my best interests to get a job this year, after two years in the postdoc.
Academic job applications are laborious, more so than private sector ones. More information is requested, the process is more drawn out, a greater research investment is expected at every stage of the process. And yet all that work is ancillary. Or, more specifically, it is icing. Grant, publications, research: those are the hard substrate you need for the crafting of the job documents to be even worth the effort. All these things take time, huge amounts of time. As a graduate student, or a postdoc, especially in a one grant lab like mine, time can suddenly become an exceptionally rare commodity. Like at the end of graduate school, I am on a timer if I don't want to face a serious gap in income. I have to maximize the ROI on the time I have. And knowing where to maximize that ROI is... non trivial. Obviously, more papers is better. But at this point, most papers I submit now will not be in press by the time applications close on most of the jobs I have lined up. Is a big list of in reviews worth it? How much is it worth relative to getting half a dozen more jobs applications out? After all, publication from the lab will help my PI's grant efforts, which also are of concern to me at this point.
I was in a similar bind at the end of grad school: I had no publications, my dissertation was unfinished, and I had no job lined up, a year away from cessation of funding and the end of my F1 visa. How to maximise my time? In the end, I wasted a few months on job applications: I got the very firm message that an ABD grad student with no pubs was not a hirable commodity. So I finished the dissertation, and headed back to the UK to live with my mother. I spent a year unemployed, applying for jobs and getting my first two papers out. It was not ideal, and owing to life circumstances not a scenario I can afford to repeat.
Which brings me to my next point in this rambling post. I have to prepare for the eventuality that I won't get a faculty position. With the current data on postdoc placement rates, all graduate students and postdocs need to hedge against not making it in academia. Yet what constitutes a good hedge? From my experience outside academia (which was before the recession), I know that field moves without experience are difficult. Again, you need to invest either capital (ie a nest egg to tide you over, difficult on a postdoc salary) or time to build useful contacts and experience. Time, which as I have mentioned, is a limited commodity when on a fixed term appointment.
I maintain that the challenges faced by people like me are not unique in kind to academia. Fixed term gigs, low starting salaries, competition for permanent positions, the open ended nature of projects that can expand to fill all available time, the constant need to re-invent yourself,  even the need to be highly mobile, can be found in so many other industries where young graduates now end up (law, medicine, consulting, finance, tech, game development). But the degree, and specific combinations of these factors, combined with an idiosyncratic job application process that is mostly useless for getting jobs outside of academia, do present unique challenges that can hamstring young people in academic science trying to keep their lives together. And the combination of lack of capital and lack of time means that efficiently hedging for the high likelihood of having to operate a career move is a unique challenge. On this, young academics are in need of mentoring.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Why I read the introduction and discussion of papers

Over the past year, I've heard several times the sentiment that introductions and discussions of papers are not worth the .pdf memory they take up. Most recently, it took the form of the following cartoon passed around twitter.

Embedded image permalink
Cartoon by Anthony Crocco
But I've had this discussion in person too, with assistant professors in our department. And I just don't get it. To me, a paper without the introduction and the discussion is almost literally nonsensical.
The intro, discussion, and conclusion have value because I don't view them as opinion, but as argument. The introduction should set up WHY the problem is interesting to the field, and why the approach chosen is relevant. This isn't just set up. It tells me a number of useful things: whether the person knows what they are doing with regard to the broader intellectual climate they are working in for one, but also, their thoughts on why the problem is important may not be my own. Their thinking, as detailed in the introduction, may modify, interrogate, change my own. And their thoughts about why the work is worth doing will guide 1) how they did it, and 2) what they intended to get out of it (which is important, because that set up will color how they present BOTH the methods and the results).
What is written in a paper is never just a simple narrative of the work done and the results obtained. That is a stylistic conceit. So knowing the set up is essential for critically assessing the "objective" parts (which are not so objective).
But it is the dismissal of the discussion that makes me saddest. The implication that the discussion can be discarded means that what the authors think of their results is irrelevant. There may be fields (particle physics perhaps) where the results are entirely unambiguous. I have yet to encounter a biological problem in which that is the case. Moreover, the non linear hierarchical interaction of biological systems (from molecules to cells to organs to organisms to behavior to ecology to evolution) mean that from an integrated biology perspective, I want to know about potential implications of the resultsfor connected elements of the biological hierarchy of organization. Again, a well crafted discussion is an argument, and a source of ways forward, not the spewing of opinion.
But perhaps what makes me saddest about the sentiment expressed in that cartoon is the solipsistic vision of science it produces. A focus on methods and results discounts the intellectual work, the scholarship done by your peers. It views others' work solely in light of how it might relate to one's own, and assumes that modes of thought about scientific problems are already so fixed, that nothing new will ever be found under the sun. This is not my experience of science.
In my field (evolutionary biology), one of the most important events that ever occurred was the Modern Synthesis. Over the course of ten to fifteen years, a disparate group of biologists came together to generate the modern understanding of evolution by natural selection, rooted in population genetics. The modern synthesis involved no ground breaking discoveries, and happened before we even properly understood the molecular mechanisms of heredity. The modern synthesis was the result of years of discussion and argument, culminating in, not a series of papers detailing new methods and new techniques, but in a series of books detailing a new way of thinking about biology. Crucially, it involved biologists from other fields understanding each other's work, despite being unfamiliar with each other's methods. If Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky, Huxley, and Stebbins had only engaged with their colleagues work through the schema of that cartoon, the modern synthesis would have been impossible.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


I am currently writing a manuscript. It's the second first author manuscript to come from my postdoctoral work (a little under two years in), and hopefully it will be sent out for review in the next couple of weeks. Currently, my PI and I are sending it back and forth, querying the writing, clarifying the main points, realising (for me at least) some pretty large gaps in my knowledge of the litterature. But, at no point since I wrote the first draft have either my PI or I thought anything other than "this is a good manuscript, we just need to make it even better".
This is in many ways the paper I came here to write. It's the paper that shows that I understand how to do biological kinematics, that is how to study the movement of biological structures as organisms use them. As I've mentioned elsewhere, my background (which now seems quite far off) is in ecomorphology as applied to the fossil record. I correlated variation in mammalian bone morphology with known variation in broad categorical behavioral and ecological variables. But these broad classifications don't tell you about function, and so about the behavioral phenotype on which selection is acting. So I took this postdoc in part to learn how to ask those questions.
And here I am, writing a paper that does just that, yet also so much more than I had anticipated. The study we did was an experimental manipulation to see how a nerve lesion affected the movement of the tongue and oro-pharynx in our animal model. The work replicates a relatively frequent iatrogenic injury in premature human infants, and so it is clinically relevant. But the direction we have taken with this paper is so much more than that. We're using the changes we observe to make inference about the neurological control of these oro pharyngeal structures. My head has, for the past few weeks, been full of discussion of central pattern generators, afferent and efferent pathways.
With this paper, I feel like I have grown immensely as a scientist. I have become the integrative biologist I've always wanted to be. I'm not doing it in this paper yet, but I feel ready to connect my paleontological work and knowledge of mammalian evolution with my understanding of experimental organismal physiology.
I have an idea of the direction I want to head in as a paleontologist, as a evolutionary biologist, as a mammalian physiologist. And it's so much more than I thought it would be when I started this project hoping to learn about kinematics.
I'm heading out onto the job market this year. And my research statement will be nothing like the one I wrote three years ago when I was finishing my PhD. I think it will be so much more interesting. And I hope others will too.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Familiar and Strange

I spent this weekend camping in the mountains of Virginia, near Goshen pass. It had been too long since I'd been in mountains. I saw the Milky Way one night (something which, having grown up in a city with some of the worst light pollution on the planet, still blows my mind). We swam in rivers, and hiked up to overlooks. The scenery was spectacular, and deeply rejuvenating. We stayed in the local recreational area, and camped by a river. The nearest town was twenty minutes drive away. The nearest grocery store nearly an hour. We chopped wood and built fire, bathed in the river (using biodegradable soap). And wherever we looked when in the mountains, we saw only wilderness as far as the eye could see. An endless thick forest rolling out over the valleys and mountains.
The mountains of Virginia

Although I grew up in a big city, I spent most of my holidays around mountains: the Vosges of Alsace, the Pennines of the Lake District, the Jura around Lake Geneva, the Alps of Tessino and Aosta. I've spent countless hours running through steep mountain side meadows, and hiking winding paths to spectacular overlooks, with views stretching out for hundreds of miles.
A few years ago, I was able to take my now husband to the small village in Alsace where I spent part of almost every summer holiday. My great grandmother lived there, and four generations of my mother's family has been there now. The Vosges mountains are old mountains, reaching their maximum height at about 1000m. Yet, because of the Ice Age, the valleys are glacial: flat bottomed and steep sided. This is hiking country, and has been in a semi organised fashion for over a hundred years. And so the paths that run from the village to the mountaintops are well known to me.
I took my husband on a mammoth 9 hour hike along these paths that four generations of my family have walked along. Paths that my aunt and cousins and siblings and mother know well. As we climbed up the steep walls of the valley, we passed from the forests to the high meadows, to this day still used as grazing pasture for the cattle that make the cheese for which the valley is famous. In those pastures, farms provide, as they have done for a century, rustic lunches for the hikers. Because this is France, these rustic lunches are delicious, fresh, and come with wine.  Because this is Alsace, the wine is white, and the lunches are enormous. But they go a long way towards making 9 hour hikes bearable.
When you stand on the top of the Hohneck, the highest point of the hike, you look out over similar geology to what you see in the Appalachians: rolling hills, deep valleys. But the geography is totally different.
The view from the Hohneck
Here the land is patchwork. There are forests yes, but they are cut up by pastures, and the valley floor is cleared of trees, and dotted with villages. And all around the mountainsides, small farms, or old shepard's huts, or the odd old country house, are visible. Even after walking up nearly 500m, the land is still human.
Even in the most remote of Alpine valleys in Switzerland or Austria, one will see these marks of humans on the land. What is more, the landscape of Alsace is in some ways more ancient than that of Virginia: much of the Appalachians was once clear logged for wood and farmland. That is why Appalachian forests do not have millenial oaks like European ones do. But with the westward expansion, men moved on, and the forest grew back. In my overcrowded, ancient continent, people stayed.
The Appalachians, and the Vosges, are both rejuvenating to me. But when I stand on those mountaintops and gaze out at the landscape before me, on is familiar, and one is still a reminder that I am not at home. After seven years, even in those places I like most, I am still a stranger here. And, like all expats, I wonder that if I cease to be a stranger here, then that place where generations of my family have walked will cease to be home.
If I have children, will I show them the path up from their great great grandmother's house, through the valley their grandmother, uncles, aunts, father, and cousins played in, up to the mountaintop that looks over a landscape that their family has lived in for over a century? Or will I show them the endless rolling woods that their father discovered with their other father, that have almost no mark of man on them?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

An apology, and understanding

I was an ass on twitter last night. PIs and postdocs were shouting about the overtime threshold change, and I jumped in, riled up and angry and not paying enough attention to what was being said, so sure I was of what I was saying. I apologize.
I was made to realize (by someone with great patience) that much of the PI ambivalence to this announcement boils down to it adding yet another financial burden on labs whose margin of operation is already so thin as to be invisible. And so, once again, all our great science problems come back to the question of funding.
PI are, everywhere, trying to square an impossible circle, that keeps getting more complicated. And as much as we may think we understand, we postdocs are not squaring that circle. That burden is the PIs.
I still think this rule change is a rare victory for American workers' rights, after decades of seeing them eroded. I still think that the segue through the discussion of a postdoc's worth this weekend was unecessary, beside the point, and vicious. I still think that in the aggregate, this reform will be for the best. The key word there is aggregate.
But I am also reminded that any new law put forward without adequate funding may quickly become little more than window dressing. And that when it comes to its impact on workers paid by the public dollar, that may be what this law becomes.
In the immediate term, if the reform goes through as intended, I suspect HR memos will be sent, and PIs will watch their postdocs comings and goings a little closer. Maybe fewer marathon experiments will be scheduled back to back. Maybe fewer hours will be worked. Maybe this will actually be good for the long hours culture in academia (though I hear the overtime exempt PIs laugh darkly at this).
But what this ugky episode reminds us most, is that no matter how you cut, no matter what you reform, there isn't enough money for all the people in science right now. And until that's addressed, all reforms like these will have similar responses I fear.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

This isn't about you

I've been trying of late not to blog based on twitter interactions so much, because I think I talk enough on twitter that I don't need to repeat myself on here. But the past few days discussion about the overtime directive has me feeling the need to expand on my thoughts slightly.
To recap, the Obama administration is directing the department of labor to raise the threshold for overtime exemption from $23,660 dollars a year to $50,000 dollars a year, on the basis that that threshold no longer reflects the intent of the law as was written.
Justin Kiggins over at the Spectroscope blogged about whether this would apply to postdocs, who are currently paid $42,000 and $56,000 on the NRSA pay scale set by NIH (I believe that the level are slightly less for NSF postdocs, but I have been unable to find clear figures). Thus, postdocs with less than 4 years postdoctoral experience may be concerned by this change (after 4 years NRSA pay scale reaches the new threshold). This was a reasonable point to make. And then all hell broke loose on twitter.
Initially, most postdocs were incredulous that such a thing as "overtime" could even apply to them. Even today, scientists on twitter are arguing that scientists are overtime exempt, pointing to the very directive that is subject to change. Others argued that fellows are already exempt from many of these labor laws. Which is true, but many postdocs are not fellows in a employment sense: if you are paid our of a PI grant such as a R01 and receive a W-2 with witholdings, you are, to all intents and purposes, an employee of the institutions at which you work (this is also why you are illegible for employee benefits, 403bs and such). Most postdocs were convinced that universities and NIH would do everything they could to find ways around this. Which is probably true, that is how labor reform goes. More disturbing to me was how many were convinced that it shouldn't apply to them. Arguments raged that our work could not be quantified (yes it can), that what we did didn't count as work anyway (yes it does), that we didin't fill time cards (indeed, because the current law does not require it). Anything but the status quo seemed unimaginable, and the very idea that may be a limitation of working hours inconceivable.
The response to the possibility that labor laws might apply here
And then the PIs got involved, and it turned into a standard discussion of what postdocs are owed, what they worth, how we are entitled. We were called "giddy", despite having greeted this entire discussion with (in my view) excessive skepticism. We were warned darkly about what this might do to our employment prospects (by the very people who ordinarily would say that lowering the number of postdocs would be a good thing).
And here is where I lost it.
Because this reform is not about postdocs. As Kiggins pointed out, postdocs represent less than 1% of the people who may be affected. This reform is about bar, restaurant and store managers on $24,000 how work 60 hr weeks. This reform is about how nearly 9/10th of US earners are exempted under current legislation (back of an envelope calculations from here). This is about how, as the reaction of US postdoc shows, no one in this country actually believes in labor law anymore. No one believes that they can be protected from overwork, that pay should be proportional to hours worked as well as talent. No one even believes in the benefits their employer gives them. I have yet to meet a single person at my workplace who takes our (generous) 20 day vacation allowance. And trust me, it's not just because they love their work. I've spent enough time with Americans to know how they are socialized to view vacation as a professional liability.
And yes, laws like this have complex and difficult ramifications for small and medium enterprises. If PIs think finding an extra 6 grand for a postdoc will be hard, think of the restaurant manager trying to calculate whether or not to hire a second manager at 24K, pay the existing manager overtime, or bump her salary to the new threshold.
But when we argue about whether we should be exempt, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavour. We're making an argument that will be used by every boss in every sector against people paid far less and with worse career prospects. 
So, PIs, postdocs: this rule is not about you. It is about fair labor compensation for all workers in the US, of which you happen to be a part. A little less onanistic navel gazing would suit you well at this point.
In 2000, France passed a law mandating a 35h working week for all salaried workers, with further limits on annual amounts of overtime worked. It was cumbersome and stupid, difficult to implement and the subject of much ridicule. But I would much rather come from that tradition then one that is so willing to believe its only right is to work more for less. 
(As an aside, the current salary cap is low enough that most lab techs are also overtime exempt. Have you asked your tech how many hours she works lately?)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The value of capable

Today was a tough day in the lab. Supertech and I are flying solo (PI is away), and we are running two weeks of experiments using a rather expensive, and rather delicate, piece of custom built equipment. The experiments are supposed to be straightforward. As today showed, "supposed" is the operative word here.
It should be noted that supertech and I (well, mostly supertech. I just help) are pretty anal about planning experiments. We put a lot of thought into how the experiments are going to run, and we test as much as we can beforehand. The reason for this is that once experiments start, there is no time to think. Baby animals are screaming to be fed, multiple multi hour surgeries need to be done, and we need to make sure that people don't get irradiated by the high powered fluoroscopes (there are two). The simple act of getting through experiments drains brains and nerves.
But even with the best laid plans, things go wrong. Not everything can be anticipated. Which lead to today, when our expensive piece of machinery (basically, a series of precise electronically controlled pumps) stopped working. With four screaming hungry pigs in the room.
As in turned out, a crucial piece of information had been left out when discussing the design of the system (before I or Supertech joined the lab). Why? Who knows. The same reason that, with hindsight, really obvious things are missed from experimental planning. Essentially, the pumps got fouled up by the radio opaque particulates in the liquid we pump. Two weeks of experiments and four animals were at stake.
Supertech and I then went into super capable mode. We troubleshooted the system every way we knew. I called the manufacturer, and confirmed what the issue was. We found a way to clean the pumps, and then started to work on solving the problem that our fluid had particles that were too large. Within an hour we had three possible solutions. Within two hours we had started to put in place all three. By seven pm this evening, Supertech and her husband had built a high volume filtering system that would remove the large particles from our suspension (we'd already by this point checked that this kept the solution radio opaque). Tomorrow experiments will resume, and we will only be one day behind.
As a lab team, supertech and I are capable. We can deal on the fly with most crises. When something goes wrong, within half an hour we have a plan, within a hour we're putting it in place. We brainstorm, prioritize, call people and get things fixed. She's better than I am, but I pull my weight. I don't think we've lost much more than a week on any experimental schedule, and that was due to unforeseen animal death. We have stayed overnight in the lab to care for sickly animals. We've harassed suppliers to get things overnighted. We've become conversant in technical topics we knew nothing about. We get things done.
For the science, this is great. For the animals, this is essential. But for us... I worry. I worry that capability, the ability to creatively solve problems on the fly, and to put in the effort to do it, doesn't always reap the rewards equivalent to its cost in hours and stress. I don't mean to impugn our PI. She treats us exceptionally well, recognizes our efforts, and has rewarded us with substantial autonomy and authority on the running of the lab. I mean rather, that the labor market since Taylor and Ford has been structured so as not to rely on the capable worker. To a manufacturer, the added value of a capable line worker is marginal compared to a merely adequate one. And in science, techs and postdocs (and graduate students) are somewhat like manufacturing labor. Yes, a good postdoc adds value to the lab, but how much value relative to a merely adequate one?
Many of my smart, capable friends in other jobs hide their capability, revealing it only to those they trust not to exploit it. Capable people need to learn to say no, because they get asked to do more than most, and all of the difficult, non rote tasks. And problem solving is tiring work.
I like being capable. I like not being helpless in the face of problems. But I worry that capability is a liability, because it becomes assumed, and because its value to the beneficiaries is less than its cost to those who do the capable work.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Other skills

I grew up in a large apartment in the center of London. We had no outdoor space, and no spaces that weren't used as everyday rooms (no sheds, garages, basements, attics). In fact, the only non essential room we had was my mother's study and library, which is probably relevant to the content of this post. My mother was a high school teacher, my father a civil servant. As a result, I never had much occasion to dabble in practical, manual skills like gardening, or DIY, or car maintenance. There was neither the space, nor the people to teach me.
I should add that I wasn't raised to be contemptuous of manual work. My mother's father was a master craftsman, specialized in tin roofing, and everyone in her family were the kind of people who could build a house from scratch, or plant a vegetable garden the size of a field. The kind of people who did, in fact, because they could never find a contractor who would meet their standards. (One of my mother's aunts, in her late 80s when I knew her, still hoed her vegetable garden by hand because she felt the hoeing machine her son rented for her left too big clods of dirt in the soil). My mother had learnt all these skills, as well as all the other skills of needlework that women in the family were taught. But, through a combination of moving to the city and lack of aptitude, she never developed them like her siblings did. What she kept, however, was an appreciation of good craftsmanship, which she used when guiding the remodeling of our house in London.
I've often felt, as I've become older and more independent, that my lack of practical skills was a mild hindrance. Abstractly, I worry about having no skills to help in a zombie apocalypse. Concretely, day to day, I feel vulnerable to things going wrong (plumbing leaks, car troubles), and I feel that I pay for tasks I ought not to (trouser alterations). It would be easy to run with the idea that I am "intellectual" and not practically minded. But such dichotomies are dangerous and patronizing. And besides, I have spent the past year developing into a rather good surgeon. Surely that suggests I am more practical, and better with my hands, than I might think.
It was the process of buying a car for the first time about a year ago that really reminded me of my lack of practical DIY skills. For financial reasons, I decided to buy a car from a private seller rather than a dealership, and the cars I was looking at were old. I quickly realized that I felt completely out of my depth as I opened bonnets to stare at engines I knew nothing about, and took cars on test drives without really understanding what I was looking for. In the end, I picked the wrong car of two that I saw, because I couldn't tell the difference between cosmetic rust, and a concerning engine.
Last weekend, I took my truck on my first solo roadtrip from Ohio to Virginia and back. On the last day, I was about to leave my friend's house in southern Maryland when he noticed a leak that I had been ignoring (on the basis it was an old car). He pointed out to me that my rear differential was leaking a lot of fluid, and that there was a fair chance I wouldn't make it back to Ohio if I didn't get it looked at. I managed to find a garage to patch my differential cover, and made it back to Ohio, but the experience unsettled me. Without my friend, I would likely have been, best case scenario, stranded on a highway roadside with a totaled truck. My lack of knowledge had nearly cost me dearly.
So this weekend, I got another friend, who's been rebuilding cars since he was teenager, to come and look at my truck and walk me through the basics of car maintenance. We drove it and listened to the engine, and discussed various ideas of what might be wrong (the gears were shifting oddly and I was losing power going up hill). We checked fluid levels, and he crawled under and looked at the other leak (water from the AC, he thinks). We changed the sparkplugs, which improved things, suggesting that a cylinder malfunction was the major reason for my engine issues.
I spent the rest of the weekend gardening, planting flowers on our deck for the second year running. There's a clematis and a rose bush out there that I protected through the harsh winter. They've bounced back well. I feel like I've learnt something.
I will never, like my uncle and grandfather, be able to do everything around a house. I will probably never be able to plaster or tile, or take apart and rebuild an engine. But my lack of practical knowledge and skills is not a destiny. It is a choice, and something I can change, until I reach a level of knowledge that removes the anxiety of being at the mercy of things I don't understand and cannot help.
My stitching is terrible though, so I may still have to pay to get my pants hemmed.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Why I'm excited about the opah

Last week, a new paper in Science (Wegner et al. 2015) announced that they had discovered whole body endothermy (that is, the ability to generate metabolic heat to keep the temperature of the internal organs above ambient temperature) in a pelagic bony fish. This fact is intrinsically cool, but as a mammalian paleontologist who is interested in the evolution of mammalian physiology, I was immediately intrigued and excited to know more.
Everyone knows that mammals and birds are "warm blooded", that is that they maintain a stable body temperature that is above that of the environment. Usually, they are described this way to distinguish them from lizards, snakes, crocodiles, amphibians and fish, collectively referred to as "cold blooded". But the details of heat physiology are much more complex than this simplistic dichotomy. At the most fundamental level, there are two different, and related axes of variation along which animals can be placed to describe their body temperature physiology.
One axis separates animals that maintain a constant body temperature (known as homeotherms) from animals that do not (known as poikilotherms,  a personal favorite word of mine). The other axis separates endotherms, that is animals that use the heat generated by internal metabolic processes (such as muscle contraction) to warm their internal organs, versus ectotherms, that use environmental sources (most often the sun, but sometimes other sources such as hot springs) to heat themselves.
Now here's what's really fascinating. If you imagine a plot with these two axis, you will find organisms all over it. You will find ectotherms that are excellent homeotherms, and endotherms that are highly poikilothermic (many tropical marsupials fall in this category). What is more, most animals can occupy, depending on the environment they're in and the specifics of their physiology, multiple positions in this space.
Of particular interest to this debate are the many ocean going, highly active predatory fish that have evolved varying degrees of facultative endothermy. These are animals (such as tuna and sharks), that use a specific arrangement of blood vessels called a counter current exchanger to trap the heat generate by muscle activity in their swimming muscles, thus allowing them to keep those muscles at the best temperature for efficient function in cold water. The limitation of this strategy, however, is that eventually the heart cools down, slowing down its pumping rate and starving the muscles of oxygen.
Which is where the opah comes in. It flips the script on what other facultative endotherms do, and places the counter current exchanger in the gills (I urge to go and look at the paper now; the pictures of those gill counter current exchangers are breathtaking). As the gills are in direct contact with water, they are a major site of heat loss. Mammals and birds have similar problem in the respiratory system, and have independently evolved highly vascularised nasal turbinates which also use vascular counter current exchange to trap heat inside the body cavity during exhalation. By placing the counter current exchangers in its gills, the opah (if physicists will forgive me this inaccurate metaphor) traps the cold outside its body (thus brilliantly illustrating Claude Bernard's definition of homeostasis). Furthermore, evidence suggests that the opah may use its pectoral fin muscles purely to generate heat, rather than to aid in locomotion, thus fulfilling the strictest definition of endothermy (that is, the use of metabolic energy purely for the generation of heat). Finally, the opah has developed significant insulation the form of fat, so as to prevent heat loss through the skin. The upshot of all this is that the opah's internal organs, including its heart, remain considerably warmer than the surrounding water.
So it seems pretty clear the opah is probably a homeothermic endotherm, and probably a pretty good one. It is always exciting to see a completely unexpected organism have converged on an evolutionary solution that we thought only another organism had achieved. But what really got me excited was the discussion of why the opah might have evolved this form of life. Namely, facultative endotherms like tuna must eventually leave cold deep waters (which are rich in fish) for sun-warmed surface waters when their hearts cool down. The opah, through its metabolically expensive endothermy, can remain in those waters permanently. Why is this exciting? Because the exploitation of a cold environment is exactly the scenario that has been advanced for the evolution of endothermy in mammals. Namely, it has been suggested that mammalian endothermy allowed triassic mammals to hunt at night, when other, ectothermic amniotes would be sluggish. In the opah, we have validation of the hypothesis that endothermy can evolve so that a thermally constrained niche can be exploited.
Biology training is becoming increasingly narrow, yet also increasingly broad. We study systems in limited model organisms, and then expand the mechanisms across groups without consideration of the ecological, and evolutionary specificities that have made these organisms what they are. But if our evolutionary scenarios make sense, then we should expect them to be repeated: the biological equivalent of the old maxim that the same causes produce the same effects. In the opah, we find, unexpectedly, confirmation of our hypotheses on the ecological situations that underpin the evolution of endothermy. In the study of the opah's evolution, we may gain insight into the variety of thermoregulatory solutions that accompany such trends. Comparative physiology, broadly studied and understood, is full of unsuspected explanatory power.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Lines: on the experience of Baltimore

This is not a post about current events. I am not the voice you should be listening to for that. There are many excellent authors and social media activists of color (I suggest Sean Reed, Shaun King and DNLee as excellent places to start) who can provide a better view on the struggles that urban people of color face in the US and in academia.

This is a post about experiencing Baltimore the way most white academics will experience it: as an outsider dropping into one of the city's elite universities. It is a post about understanding how the social and geographic spaces of the city are structured to make you see only a tiny part of it, and to make you believe that part is most of the city. It is a post about how the stories about the rest of the city are controlled. It is a post about complicity in a system that wants to maintain the narrative that the salvation of Baltimore has to come in spite of the people that live there, not because of them. It is a post about the difficult feelings that those of us who came to love this most unloved of cities carry with us about that place, and about our place in it.
It is a post that does not always present me in the best light. It is a post that does not present Baltimore's elite universities in the best light. But if this week's events have shown anything, it is that we cannot, should not, accept narratives about Baltimore's institutions that paint them in a good light. Because what is left out of those paintings is odious. 

I moved to Baltimore to do my PhD at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 2007. Before I have even left the UK, I was being warned about the city. "Have you seen the Wire?" was to become a refrain I would hear continuously over the next five years. When flat hunting, (as I wouldn't have a car), I limited my search to place within walking distance of the Hopkins shuttle route. But even then, there were caveats: "not North Avenue", "Don't live near the medical school". I was being taught the rudiments of the geography of Hopkins Baltimore.
When I got to my little apartment in Mount Vernon, next to a hip sushi restaurant and on the same block as the city's two main gay bars, I found I could see the medical school from my apartment. The first day I headed to work, I couldn't figure out where to get the shuttle. So I walked to campus. Down monument street. Under I 83 (through a fenced in parking lot, as there was no path). Past what I would later learn was the infamous Downtown Baltimore Supermax. Past abandoned buildings, school playing fields, housing projects, emergency clinics and bailbondsmen. Towards Hopkins medical school. I was uncomfortable. My years of living in London told me this wasn't an entirely safe neighborhood. And, to be honest, I had never encountered that level of dilapidation and poverty in London. But I made it to work. I found my department. And I was instantly told not to tell anyone I had walked to work, or they would freak out. And certainly never to do it again. You'd have thought I had walked through a mine field.
As the semester wore on, I began to notice other lines. Such as that no one at Hopkins knew how the city buses worked. We all used the Hopkins shuttles and went only were they went. Or we drove. I began to notice that the people behind the reception desks, or the people cleaning the office, pushing the carts, doing security, were black. And the people in the offices white. I began to wonder about riding a shuttle emblazoned with the Hopkins logo through deprived East Baltimore towards the Campus. I noticed that the words Kennedy and Krieger were lit up at night on the tallest building on campus, in the middle of the poorly lit streets of east Baltimore. I noticed, when I finally took a city bus to the party district of Fells Point, that everyone on the streets was black until you got to three blocks from the waterfront. Then suddenly, lily white.

The narratives that students and faculty told about Baltimore were stories of fear. There is almost a hazing of new arrivals. You're told where not to walk, where not to go. You're told where is not safe after dark. You're told of all the muggings and the murders (even if, when you finally look up the statistics, you realise that affluent whites are not at all the victims of Baltimore's crime problem). And it seeps into your skin.

When my mother came to visit, I got her a map. I drew lines on it, delineating a small area from Mount Vernon to the inner harbor. "Don't go north of here (north avenue), South of here (Federal hill), West of here (Lexington market), East of here (I 83)". I had learnt the geography of Baltimore quite well. Better, in fact, than I knew

A few months after I arrived, I missed the bus again. I tried once more to walk to work. Nothing had happened to me in all my time in the city. But as I reached I 83, my anxiety reached epic levels. I began to  have difficulty putting one foot in front of the other. Every inch of my being screamed for me to turn back, and head to the safety of the shuttle. I did.

That moment was a turning point. I realized that if I was going to live in the city, I had to fight the narrative I was being given. I moved closer to campus, and got to know the nice bits of East Baltimore better. But there were still lines. I never went North of Campus. I never went West of MLK.

A few years into my graduate program, I stood on the roof of one of the Hopkins parking lots and looked north. When I had gotten to Baltimore, the abandoned housing had reached up to that building. Now there were two blocks of bare ground in every direction. New lines being drawn in the cities divided geography.

I grew to love Baltimore. I met my husband and some of my best friends there. But in five years living in that city, three of which were within a bock of the Caroline Street projects, and two local schools, I never made friends with any of the city's African American residents. The bars and restaurants and cultural institutions that I love so much catered to that semi transient, mostly white, population that moved there for school or work, and left when they had kids.

And here's the thing: the city that people like us lived in is nothing like the city that most of Baltimore's population live in. Yet ours is deemed "economically important". And I know full well that that economic importance is used to justify the police activities in Baltimore. After all, how will Hopkins and UMD attract top talent to a city without a couple of craft cocktail bars?

And we can't accept that. My lifestyle in Baltimore ought not, must not be used to justify the violent oppression of those whom the city has ignored and mistreated. Fixing Baltimore must primarily fix the city for the majority of its population. Those of us who've lived there must recognise that, and put our experience of Baltimore aside. When we tell people about how hip and cool Fells Point and Canton are, when we talk about all the festivals, when we discuss the city as though the tiny portion of it we know is all the city, we are complicit in a narrative that wants to erase the reality of the city for most of its population. And that erasure, as we have seen, is more than rhetorical.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

When having enough is not enough: the financial challenges of being a postdoc

My job just before I started my PhD paid 19,500 British Pounds per annum (that's about 39,000 USD in 2007 dollars, which inflation adjusted would be about 44,150 USD in 2015 dollars). My graduate student stipend was 27,000 USD a year. And yet, I probably lived more comfortably, and certainly more independently in graduate school than I did back in London on that nominally higher salary (cost of living in the most expensive city on earth and all). My current salary still has not quite reached the inflation adjusted dollar value of my previous salary. Yet, day to day, in a two income household with no dependents in an inexpensive part of the country, I live well enough. Certainly it would be disingenuous of me to claim poverty when you look at some of the things I have spent money on in the past few months. As I write this, I should also add that I am pretty much in the Rolls-Royce of postdoc scenarios financially. I'm funded out of my PI's R01, with full staff benefits. Also, as result of having done my undergrad in Europe, I have almost no student debt. And, as a result of my mother's generosity, I have no structural debt at all and never have had. It would not take much (a kid, a more expensive part of the country, a large amount of debt to service) to shift me into a position that would be financially much harder.
Which leads me to my main point: I could probably live quite comfortably for a long time on this salary. I could build up a retirement, maybe make some investments. All good. But that is not a scenario I can contemplate. Because my employment is of fixed term, and I am always facing the knowledge of the imminent cessation of income. It is this combination of limited, low-ish income and limited term contracts that is the particular financial difficulty of the pre-faculty (and let's be honest, pre tenure) phase of academia.
I saved throughout graduate school, a fair amount. But those savings were devoured by the process of having to finish my dissertation after my funding ran out. Even had I secured a job, in all likelihood moving costs alone would have demolished my savings. And postdocs employers do not usually pay moving fees (for my current postdoc I was lucky: my PI paid for my flight from the UK, because she is wonderful). Further, had it not been for the opportunity to live back at home (which comes with its own personal costs), I'm not sure what I would have done financially. Certainly, I would have given up looking for a postdoc sooner than I did.
The problem is that grad school stipends and postdoc salaries are, quite simply, too low to put together a nest egg sufficiently large to insure against the periodic cessation of income, or to weather any prolonged period of unemployment.  Thus, for most of us, when our graduate stipends or our postdoc grant salaries are coming to an end, there is significant pressure to simply secure a source of income as soon as possible.
Which brings me to my next point: there's a lot of discussion about people taking postdocs who aren't committed to science. Or talking about how you should only do a postdoc if you really want to. It's bollocks. The main reason, when you reach the end of your phd and are staring at your paltry savings to have a postdoc lined up is so you can get paid. It pays more than grad school, and it buys you time.
Yes, career transitioning would be better for many. But career transition is a hedge, especially in this job market. It requires that you invest either time, or money, both things that are in short supply at the end of your PhD.
So if you need a postdoc to keep paying the bills, take it, it's a honorable thing to do for you. And try to build a nest egg big enough so that you can get out of there if that's what you decide to do.
As a postcript: this problem, the problem of the financial costs of fixed term entry level jobs, is one that is well documented in one of my home countries, France, where all entry level jobs are fixed term CDD and people coast from CDD to CDD until they land a CDI. This has huge financial consequences on young people, from the impossibility of getting a mortgage, to financial dependency on parents as garantors of all loans, to requirements to move around France, to inability to build up savings or retirement benefits. The precarity of fixed term employment is real.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Fallingwater: on excellence and mediocrity

Coming back from a weekend with friends two weeks ago I had the opportunity to fulfill a long time wish: I managed to visit Fallingwater. I've been in love with Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece of integrated design since I first found out about it. Finally, I was about to see it in person. It provoked the same response in me that the Taj Mahal did: no matter how many photographs of it I'd seen, the experience of being in its presence was overwhelming. Much like the Taj, Fallingwater is exquisite craft expressing conceptual genius at almost every level of analysis.

As we left Fallingwater, we drove through miles of countryside scattered with new builds. Within minutes of one of the most inspiring houses ever built, we were back in standard, prefabricated MacMansions that stuck out on hills, with terraces and balconies jutting out at odd angles. It was disappointing. So little of Lloyd Wright's careful thought about the integration of architecture and landscape, about the use of light and space, heck even about using cantilevered concrete rather than wooden post and plasterboard to deal with steep inclines, has made it into the bulk of modern architecture. 
Going further, if we look at the glass-and-steel monoliths that increasingly dot cities and university campuses, which of them really display anything like the intricate thought of Fallingwater, or the Guggenheim in New York? I remember in London, before I left, my first encounter with the base of the Shard. I was wondering how the architect has sought to integrate this glass and steel behemoth with the ramshackle brick buildings around it? The answer: not at all. The glass and steel cladding simply descended into a canopied atrium, as if the starship of a spectacularly aesthetically unsophisticated alien species had crash landed on south London. 
When confronted the reality of how little brilliance like Fallingwater affects day to day construction, how little careful ideas about the spaces we live in seems to have affected the practice of how and what we build, one is tempted to get depressed. And I would hazard that similar things happen in science. How often do we get frustrated that ideas that were soundly and brilliantly rejected years ago continue to have a zombie life in the literature? How often do we complain that the nuance and subtlety in the source materials of innovative ideas is lost in the work of those who pursue those ideas? My recent experience at the clinical meeting highlighted how little people were thinking about new ideas and new directions, and how much time was being devoted to flogging dead horses. And in my old field of paleontology, many of the scientist doing the most interesting and subtle work get ignored in favor of self promoters doing the same old thing, with newer analyses tacked on for flashiness (much like modern house building in fact). 
If in architecture, as in science, brilliant, thoughtful ideas and approaches get so diluted in the mass, how do we, as individuals, keep doing good work? The best I can come up with is to think critically about the bad stuff, regularly engage with the good, and shoot for an architect designed house. 
I am not Frank Lloyd Wright of experimental biology, evolutionary biology or paleontology. But I have had the good fortune to work with people who think about science like he thought about buildings: carefully, yet radically, questioning all the tools we use, how we use them, and our approaches. And ultimately, the reward of working like that is to assemble something complete, integrated, beautiful, inspiring, and good.  

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Defying gravity, finding balance

I'm just done with a three day meeting in Chicago. It's been thought provoking, and has jump started my thinking about the next phase of my life and career. This postdoc, wonderful and intellectually enriching as it is, won't last forever. And if there's one thing my PhD taught me the hard way, it's that you can never start planning too early for the next move.
This conference was unlike any I've been to before. It was a clinical research conference at which Ph.D.s probably were a minority. Most of the paper presentations consisted of retrospective analysis of patient case studies, and one of the major keynotes was essentially grand rounds. The neurophysiology lectures were few, and only two labs presented work on animal models. My PI left frustrated at the state of the basic science in the field. I left... unenergised. I took notes on maybe three talks, and these are people whose work I'm already aware of. This meeting was also the first one I've ever been to where every session ended with several minutes of rambling interventions by questioners from the audience that added almost nothing to the presentation. In my own talk (generally well received) the dominant question was simply an attempt to invalidate the clinical relevance of the research based on something that, well (yes I'm biased) totally missed the forest for the trees.
I'm from a basic science background in a field with relatively little translational potential. Yes, people turn to paleo to understand the potential effects of climate change on faunal transitions, but the immediate applications of such knowledge are limited. And although I will defend with every inch of my being the notion that any useful knowledge on human biology cannot be derived without some understanding of mammalian evolution, again, there are several steps between this, and clinical research. I have, from the beginning, been somewhat apprehensive about working in a more clinical focus. At 18 and again at 21 I turned down the opportunity to become a physician to pursue science. I don't think like a physician. There is mutual frustration in the clinician/basic science researcher relationship, as there is between any two groups with a narrow area of collaborative interest but broadly different focuses and approaches. And I have a lot of sympathy for the clinical perspective. We may harp on about lack of mechanistic and physiological understanding of the symptoms we're studying, but clinicians still have patients that need care here and now and cannot wait for a new, physiology driven paradigm to emerge. Yet, to me, the frustration remains, and I have to decide if the potential benefits (increased opportunities for research and funding yes, but also the knowledge my research has a measurable impact on people's wellbeing) are worth coming to terms with that frustration, and learning to build a dialogue with the clinicians willing to take the field forward. Professionally, this postdoc is a crossroads with two very different paths out of it, and this meeting has re-emphasised that some commitment on my part will become necessary soon.
Related was my reaction to being back in a big city. I am a city boy at heart, and after over a year in rural North East Ohio the effect of being in Chicago was electric. Riding the blue line from O'Hare was exciting enough, but walking through downtown Chicago to the hotel, my heart rate doubled, my pace accelerated. For the next three days I was like a kid in a candy store. I went shopping with pleasure for the first time since I left London. We explored secret hipster bars and sang karaoke and went to wonderful, innovative restaurants. I miss that, so much. I miss there being a world of excitement and delight and pleasure on my doorstep. And so I am reminded that, next time I move, I don't want to end up at another great job in a place that bores me. And yes, I know that sounds snobbish and privileged. And I am aware that living in a place like Chicago is challenging on an academic salary (I turned down a postdoc there in part for that reason). But I am also now sure of what I want in terms of quality of life from where I live. It will be difficult to get a professor gig I enjoy. It will be harder still to get it in a place I enjoy. But for myself, I need to try and do both. And if I can't do both, I will have to choose (or, as my mother would put it, life is more likely to choose for me). On the one hand, compromise and choices from imperfect options are the essence of life. On the other, life is lived only once, and I intend to get as much out of it as I can. It's a dynamic, unstable equilibrium at best, but I am still young enough that I want to at least try to have it all.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Human assets

I have a lot a of friends who are academics, but I think that, on balance, most of my friends are not. I like this. It allows me to escape from the navel gazing that permeates many academic discussions. It allows me to put the problems of junior scientists in perspective, to learn that they are, in the words of Elrond to Gimli, "only part of the troubles of the world". This does not mean that I don't think that junior academics have problems, far from it. It merely reminds me that our problems are similar to those in other careers, and (more often than not) have similar root causes.
My brother recently got a new job. He works in strategic marketing, that is, the data driven part of marketing, not the shiny ads bit. He aggregates and crunches data concerning the products his company sells, and makes recommendation on where the company should be targeting its existing products, and where it should be focusing new product development.
For the past several years, he's worked for a major multinational whose entire product line exists in a mature market, that is a market where almost all possible consumers already buy either the company's product or a rival's similar one. In a mature market, growth is marginal, innovation is incremental, and strategy primarily trench warfare. My brother hated it. It played to none of his strengths, and the company had no interest in branching out into new markets. Thankfully, he recently switched to a company that is positioned in a non market leader position in a dynamic, changing market. A company that hired him precisely because he is excellent at 6,000 ft, broad picture of things strategy recommendations backed by a thorough understanding of the data.
A comment from my brother's exit interview with company number one struck me when talking about this. His soon to be ex-boss said to him "you've been under used and poorly used". To me, that seemed an explicit recognition that his talents were ill suited to the company yes, but also that the company had failed to find a way to make use of what it recognised as potential assets. What a waste. While we can probably justify this from an actuarial perspective, one cannot help but feel that, well, it is a sub-optimal way to deal with resources, and a pretty shitty way to deal with people.
This problem, "under used and poorly used" is surely one that affects academia. And there is no such thing as a mature market in academia. We should always be able to make use of the assets people bring to our labs. We can always develop our products into new markets. Heck, in the current funding environment, spinning out new products is all we do. What is more, academia, I think, has the potential to forge a different way of managing human assets because, historically, mentorship is built into the very structure of the profession. I know that it often, in this day and age, doesn't seem that way, and I know that many people fail to live up to that ideal.  But the American research university is based on the XIXth century German research university model. And mentorship, the nurturing and guiding of talented young scientists, was and remains a key ingredient in that vision.
That norm of mentoring is an important one, and one that can inject humanity and compassion in what can often be difficult times (especially for ECRs). But, I think that today, we need to reconsider what constitutes good mentoring. It is, I think, no longer merely about developing the student or postdoc as a scientist. It is about being honest with them about the job market and expectations. It is about guiding them, or pointing them towards others who may guide them, if they decide to transition out of academia. It is about using your status to advocate on their behalf. It is about supporting them when they advocate for themselves. If mentorship as a value in science as a social endeavor is to remain meaningful, then it requires that mentors engage at least somewhat with the reality of what their trainees face. A discussion about what mentorship means in this context is long overdue.
There has been much talk on the internet lately of the ubiquity and unavoidability of cost benefit analysis in life, particularly as they relate to the difficult choices of young scientists, and the older scientists who sometimes support them. My brother's situation at his old company may have been the result of such a cost benefit analysis: developing him as asset would have been too expensive to be worth it. In the midst of such discussions, it is worth remembering that cost benefit analysis is not the only decision making framework which exists. In fact, it has often been explicitly rejected in determining how we should interact with other people. Kant's categorical imperative (always treat another human as an end in itself, not as the means to an end), for example, argues that utilitarian analysis of human interactions is unethical. The 'golden rule' (treat others as you would they would treat you) similarly cannot be reduced to cost benefit analysis. In the tension between cost benefit analysis of human assets, and the necessary human interactions of work, lies the difficult path of academic mentorship.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Telling stories about the real world

Science is very good, on the whole, at what it does: establishing predictable facts about the natural world. It's probably fair to say that modern science, in so far as there is such a thing, is better at this than pretty much any other system that humans have ever devised. As scientists, we are often tempted to take other areas of human knowledge gathering to task for not behaving enough like science in their attitude to establishing facts about the world. We berate and bemoan the lack or misuse of evidence. We pour (sometimes deserved) scorn on the apparent flimsiness of other enterprises. In two very interesting posts, drugmonkey discusses why journalism and law can be so unappealing to the scientifically trained. I don't disagree with everything he says, and I think that certainly parts of both could stand to be held to more scientific standards of evidence.
And yet, I am always a little cautious about yelling "be more scientific" at people. Scientists as a whole have a bad a case of epistemological "PC gaming master race" syndrome (if I ever make a nerdier analogy, shoot me).  We are convinced of the innate superiority of our means of knowing what we know. This view is hubris. On the one hand, as has been shown time and again by historians, philosophers and sociologists of science, it is remarkably difficult to pin down, at any time in history, a single definition of what constitutes the scientific method. What's more, efforts to do so have often lead to awkward situations, such as Karl Popper's continuous flip flopping over whether evolution by natural selection could be considered scientific. (One of the many reasons I dislike Karl Popper). On the other, there are entire areas of enquiry in which applying the many commonly accepted facets of the "scientific method" (hypothesis testing by experiment, replication) is difficult, impossible, or wrong headed. And no, I'm not talking about your position on omnipotent beings awkwardly obsessed with judging humans. I'm talking about the two things that are (not coincidentally) crucial in both journalism and courts of law: the reconstruction of historical events and  the determination of people's internal states.
Wait, I here you cry, are you claiming history is not a science? Well, no. What I am claiming (and the philosopher Anton Schopenhauer got there first) is that one cannot apply an experimental framework to individual point event in the past, and furthermore that the range of applicability of hypothetico-deductive methods is much more limited. And when attempting to ascertain the truth behind a single event, in the past, never to be repeated (such as a current event, or a crime), what are we left with? Testimony, correlation, hearsay. Also known as a case. Also known as a story. Neither Baconian empiricism, nor hypothetico-deductivism, nor Popperian faslificationism, will help us here. At best, they will allow us to evaluate some (though by no means all) the evidence. In essence, the repeatable experiment is a tool for erasing the singular nature of point events (and it is much more difficult to do then often presented).
This exact problem is one that plagues my original discipline of paleontology. Paleontology is, in many ways, history writ large. Except it is not writ, more sort of left lying around. Many of the events we would like to understand are unobservable, their consequence inferred from disparate sources of evidence observed in the here and now. And the paleontological literature is rife with people grappling with the problem of just how scientific this endeavor is. And they run the gamut, from people twisting Popper's theory into an unrecognizable pretzel to accommodate paleontological historicity, to people consigning vast tracts of what is normally considered part of paleo to the dustbin of unscientific speculation. Neither approach is satisfying, and both end up running into absurdity and intellectual sterility. Paleontology is largely historical, as such the best we can do is marshal evidence for competing narratives, and go with the most plausible. Some of that evidence will fit with more prescriptive definitions of the scientific method, most (and I count most cases of fossil discovery in this category) will not.
As for the reconstruction of the internal states of a person at a given time and place, science isn't even close to figuring that one out. Yet we, as humans, are always in the business of trying to figure out what's going on in another person's head. And, in the West at least, it is literature that has grappled most directly with this problem, through what one could describe as thought experiments, but that we usually call novels. As the philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote:

"That is why literature is such an important part of our lives - why the notion that it is less important than science is so mistaken, Shakespeare and Tolstoy help us to understand the self-destructive psychology of despotism. Flaubert and Racine illuminate the self-destructive side of love. What we need to grasp in such cases is not the simple fact that people are acting against their interests. We know that; it stands out a mile. We need to understand, beyond this, what kind of gratification they are getting in acting this way."

Ironically, two of the authors who most thoroughly embraces this task of literature, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust, both believed that their novels were eminently empirical and yes, scientific.
Abandoning the notion that a one-size-fits-all epistemological framework derived from the physical sciences can be applied across all areas of possible human knowledge is not the same as saying "anything goes". Rather, it is a requirement that we be more rigorous, more critical, more demanding of the evidence and narratives presented to us given the constraints of what it is we are trying to understand and know. Indeed, the uncritical acceptance of a superficially science-y framework can be as dangerous for critical thought as any narrative-based understanding of the world (this is what Richard Feynman described as cargo cult science). We should have more that one tool in our epistemological kit. The world of things that are knowable is complex enough to need them.

PS: While researching this post, I found this delightful Schopenhauer quote we can probably all agree on:
"Newspapers are the second hand of history. This hand, however, is usually not only of inferior metal to the other hands, it also seldom works properly."

Monday, 16 February 2015

Silent Ivories

My mother has always had a piano. Playing the piano is central to her idea of herself. The only thing other than a house she has ever taken a loan for is the upright Steinway in our living room. Having "time to play the piano" is a measure of how much control she has over her life. It is, to use modern parlance, her measure of self care. Yet, interestingly, the piano is not relaxing for her in the way that a movie or a book might be. She is always challenging herself to play harder pieces, to get better. It requires effort and energy: more of a discipline than a hobby. And when my mother does not have energy for the piano, then she knows that something else in her life is taking too much of her time.
My relationship to the piano is very different. Its presence and sound are comforting to me, yet I never really played. My instrument was the violin, and our relationship is estranged at best. I have dabbled in playing the piano (over the course of a decade I have taught myself the first two movements of the Moonlight sonata), and whenever I am back home I find time to refresh my memory.
During the year between ending my PhD and starting my postdoc, when I was unemployed and living back with my mother, I started playing the piano more seriously. At my mother's prompting, I took lessons with her piano teacher. I improved noticeably. I began to think of other pieces I would like to learn. And so, when I moved to Ohio, concerned I would be bored, I resolve to buy myself a piano.
I found a good electronic piano on Craigslist, one that was highly rated for its sound. In fact, it is based on sampling a Steinway concert grand. I set it up in our spare room, and got sheet music for the Moonlight (no point in losing the benefit of all that practice) and the next piece I'd resolved to learn, a piece of Tchaikovsky incidental music from his Seasons series. After almost a year, I can play 8 bars. I play the piano maybe a couple of times a month.
On occasion, I feel guilty about this. I enjoy the piano, and I want, on some level, to learn these pieces, and ultimately, one day, to master the third movement of the Moonlight sonata, which is currently far beyond my technical skill. And, of course, I compare myself with my mother, who throughout her always busy, sometimes hectic life has always been able to practice several hours a week. It would be easy to blame science, and its tendency to expand to fill all available space. It would be easy to argue that I could cut out more mindless pursuits (like twitter, or browsing the internet, or playing video games, or watching TV). Certainly, my upbringing was Protestant enough that I must always wonder if I am making the best use of the time allotted to me. And certainly the pressures of being an early career researcher don't help.
But I think also, part of the problem lies in being honest about what is important to us. As I was talking to colleagues over the weekend about the compatibility of science with time consuming hobbies, I came to a realisation. I have decided what matters to me: my work, my fiance, my friends and family, and exercising so that I can enjoy the outdoors in the summer. These are the things, when I look at how I spend my time, that I make time for. It is not worth feeling guilty that I do not play the piano enough. It is simply not important enough to me to make the cut. And conversely, it is clearly important enough to my mother that she will make time for it in the face of other pressures.
Life is difficult enough, and there are enough pressures and demands on our time as scientists, that we should not burden ourselves with feeling obligations towards activities that we do not in fact value that much. Embrace the things you care about, and make time for them. That choice is personal, and yours, and your choices are valid.
Maybe in ten years time I will have deciphered the Tchaikovsky piece. If that is the time it takes, then that is the time it takes. In the meantime, I will enjoy my fiance's company, invite my friends to dinner, and plan for a summer of camping trips in the Appalachian mountains.