Random thoughts at the close of the semester

My lab’s productivity has gone into the shitter since the pandemic started compared to previous years. I was wanting to slow down the pace of my research to focus on some areas that I find more interesting but I didn’t want it to come to a crawl. Then when the move was announced research with critical collaborators here were prioritized, while research that would continue self-sufficient in the new lab was deprioritized. It just so happens that the research with local collaborators were the ones I wanted to taper off of. But better to leave on better grounds. That being said I’m already hearing grumbling about how pissed off the locals here are. And they’re even starting to shun me a little. Screw ‘em. Some of the toxic behaviors are the reason I was looking for a new school.

Finals are this week which means I can focus 100% on the move. I’ve been connecting with new collaborators there over Teams in addition to scheduling equipment setups and lab changes. Luckily, I have a great lab tech here who’s able to arrange a lot of this. She’s not making the move but she’s in it until the end since she already has a job lined up in industry starting a couple months from now that I connected her with. She will be greatly missed.

One thing I can’t quite get a good handle on is how to get the ramp up going as quickly as possible. I didn’t submit anything this last grant cycle but want to have some really strong material for the next. And given the slowing because of the pandemic and the move my concern is jump starting the vehicle will take more than just getting equipment set up. I don’t want to rush students that just made a cross-country move to get moving quickly, but the vehicle is idling and I want to slam on that accelerator. My plan is to get animal tests scheduled to force them to get going quickly since they have a deadline. My two very motivated students won’t need this push and they’re already coordinating with facilities in the new school, but my less motivated ones (including a sluggish postdoc) will need the push.

We’re also going to an area with fewer covid restrictions so I’m looking forward to strapping the young one to my back and getting outside!

Goodbye hello

The last couple of years my department has seen an outflux of good faculty and a (semi-related) massive amount of unnecessary cost-cutting. There have been a lot of reasons for leaving, but poor leadership, focus, and initiatives have driven good faculty to just say ‘’screw it” and leave. Most have gone to industry where the pay is high and the hours are better, but others have taken this as an opportunity to swap schools. The vibe on campus is definitely different now than it was when I started, and I’m not liking the way things are headed. I know things can change based on the next set of leadership that comes through, but what doesn’t bode well is that the state overall (and the populous within it) is demonstrating to us that higher education (and education overall) is less important. This is not great for me as a university employee and my little one as they will have to enter this failing school system at some point. It makes me less optimistic about the future here.

So I started putting feelers out for areas I can transfer to that align well with how I think a school and state should be run. Four months ago, a school in a very nice area of the country with a highly educated populous and a vision for an education focus approached me about an open position. This is in a state that has had a track-record of caring about universities from more than a sports perspective and a school that is established, but a department that is still establishing themselves. And the city itself has a lot of activities that mesh well with everything we do in our spare time. After a little back-and-forth about start-up, salary, and the service they’re asking from me (leading a new institute they started that I’m pretty well suited to lead), we agreed on a package that is pleasant enough for me to leave my current position. We set up my SO with a wonderful position that will allow them to work on exactly what they have been wanting to work on, as well.

I’m graduating three students in May, and I let the remaining students know that I would be transferring in September and negotiated relocation packages for all four of them that wanted to come. So far, they all seem to be okay with relocating, and I feel like kind of an asshole for springing this on them, but I think this is the better move both professionally and personally. The new school also has some amazing core and testing facilities and collaborators that will make my next grants very shiny.

When I told my department head they put together a competitive counteroffer, but I just don’t believe in the path that my state and university has set us on. The new department has some growing to do and I’m looking forward to arguing about how to grow properly. During my campus visit it was a foreign experience to be surrounded by optimistic faculty that have exciting ideas and energy to match. I’m pretty excited about this, and looking forward to the change. I never thought I would be making this move so soon, and this seems a little rash for what is most likely a temporary situation, but this new school actually does seem greener.

End of the year

I just turned in my grades for a freaking crazy semester. Everything about this semester was crazy. And depressing. There have been highlights (mainly around the new family life) and lowlights (mainly around my department getting on every one of my nerves). My lab hasn’t ground to a halt, but the productivity has been slow enough where I’m going to miss a grant cycle. I’m not so upset about it because I wanted to slow down a little anyway, but this is maybe too much.

I collaborate with several physicians in my neighboring medical center. The same medical center that has been getting overwhelmed to a crazy degree with sick patients. A month ago they cut off all research there that doesn’t involve cells, animals, etc. We have animal models there, but our last one was sacrificed last month. Fixed tissue from the animal was saved there, which we can’t access now. Couple this with all kinds of special restrictions for who can be in the lab and the scheduling involved and I just decided this isn’t worth it. So I told all the students that if they want to come in, I will do all the scheduling, but otherwise I highly advised them to go home, stay home, avoid gatherings, and not to come back until the 11th. If they want to chat science (or anything else) with me, I’m always here for them, but I want to shut this stuff down and give everyone some time to catch up on hobbies, distance time with friends, and personal health.  

I usually have a Christmas BBQ for the students that don’t go home and/or want some free food. I will miss that. Likewise, Christmas season usually has an air of happiness around it, and this season has been drab, to say the least. Taking time off might not bring back the pep in the Christmas season, but it at least gives some time to clear the mind. Like a lot of us, there’s been a lot on my mind, the schedule has been crazy with added teaching duties, and trying to navigate an ever-changing set of rules has been wearing a lot of us down. I hope everyone out there gets a chance to take a lot of time off to focus on the things that matter the most to them. I will be doing a little grant planning, taking the family out on drives to secluded hikes with my SO and the lil one, reading, catching up on hobbies, and sleeping as much as I’m allowed to. Have a great break, and to all a good night!

Corporate student scholarships

A couple years ago I set up a channel between my department (and my affiliated departments) and a few different companies I used to work with (and the one I worked for) to recruit underrepresented students from my school. The companies get to use the students’ faces and stories to pitch that they’re a diverse and forward-thinking company (and if they hire them they get a kick-ass student!) and the students get work in the summer and contacts in the field. With two companies, I worked with them to set up a scholarship fund. So the companies pay for a handful of students’ tuitions and they just have to keep up grades and work in a lab. I’ve been pretty proud of this, and the students love it. We’ll have lunches and/or dinners with the sponsors too when they come through town. Ultimately, the majority of students that graduate head over to industry, and since I have the contacts this became a must-do for me in my service. It’s kind of like REU, but with more money and industry-focused.

Today in a cross-departmental strategy meeting with some faculty and department heads I was asked to talk about ways to expand these programs to other departments. I started mentioning what needs to be done and I even offered to shepherd this through for the year just to be nice. There were two faculty members, one from my department and one from an unrelated department, that were vehemently against it. They cited the over-intrusion of industry into our ‘pure’ academic environment. Firstly, we’re not so pure. Secondly, they’re not infiltrating our research unless we let them. This is just a program to help place students. AND take the financial burden off of the students that we are trying to recruit. We need to help our underrepresented students as much as we can. Somehow they think that the companies will own our school? Unlike the Major-Computer-Company Computing lab we have in our building? I agree that if industry seeps too much into our research that it can muddle things. But this is specifically for the students with no overlap other than the research-bound scholarships. But the companies don’t get to pick the research the students do. These companies are investing in the students, that’s it.

Look, I don’t trust corporations. I play very carefully around them and always operate like they’re just waiting for the opportunity to stab me in the back if it means their stock will climb by 0.01%. Part of the reason I left the corporate life was because I thought it was soul-draining. But as educators, we need to prepare and entice students, especially underrepresented ones to enter the field. And for those having difficultly making ends meet, we need to help them if we can.

Positivity

We had in-person class today. For some reason a few of the students decided to wear some political gear. I don’t care if the students want to wear some gear so long as we keep any arguing outside of the classroom. The classroom is for science. That is not what happened. As I was walking into class to disinfect before letting the students in I could hear some arguing. So I told them that shit stops when they pass through my doors. It did not. There was a snarky comment when I asked for input on a biological problem and it blew up. I raised my voice for the very first time in the classroom and ended class. I had everyone leave except the troublesome students and had a freaking grade-school discussion about civility.

There’s been an air of anger and negativity since the semester started. Normally, I enjoy the energy on campus, the weather turning, and students rallying around each other for whatever sport or whatever is happening. Since the semester started there’s like a gray cloud over campus. There seems like there’s no sense of community. The pandemic, protests, and now the political atmosphere are really bringing out the worst in people and everyone seems negative and unempathetic all the time. Most conversations I have with people are negative, and I have to really try to get a rousing fun conversation going. Even my students seem a little gloomy.

So I’ve been making it a very active point to be positive. Maybe to a fault, but I don’t care. I’ll tell stupid jokes and talk about ANYTHING other than the pandemic and politics. In class I’ve been even wearing silly clothing. I’ve been throwing out so many compliments that HR is probably going to be called at some point. I don’t need to live in some kind of rose-colored world, but I want a balance.

I took my little one on a short outing (they will be backpacking as soon as they’re old enough) to a forest area I like where I can listen to the water, read a book, and have a nice cup of tea. It was a nice little pause on the gloom that everyone has been exuding. I know that it’s naïve of me to think everything will be okay, but I don’t like always being on and worrying or complaining. I’ll do my part (as I hope everyone will) in the polls, I’ll minimize my footprint on the planet (as I hope everyone will), and I’ll appreciate the time I spend with my friends and the family members I like. I know I’m maybe naïve to think this way, but there’s only so much more room for gray hair on my head.

I’m not okay with this extra teaching

So I mentioned before how I’m teaching an extra class I’ve never taught. So that means two classes this semester. I’m used to doing one class with the exception of my second year when I chose to use start-up money for my lab instead of buying out of teaching. But I was prepared for that. And I didn’t have to freaking disinfect my whole area before and after class. I’ve decided that I can’t do homework assignments for two classes so I’m trying an optional option for homework. I’ll post optional homework that I don’t grade, and I post the solutions online. And I’m limiting each class to 2 exams/class and only a handful of quizzes. Luckily, we’ve submitted some bigger manuscripts this past summer and we’re in the early stages of the next slew of papers because I don’t have time to edit manuscripts from my students with this higher course load plus manage and prepare for the next grant cycle. I have a couple big renewals coming up and can’t miss the boat on these. Especially since I’m intentionally not pursuing industry funding for the next year-plus. Luckily, I set up in my office with a small play/sleep space for the little one to at least ease my parenting load. I know this isn’t an uncommon occurrence for many faculty out there, but the last-second nature of the class is what’s tripping me up.

So then, in the midst of my panicking, our dean has announced that he wants to pull the postings for the adjuncts and the lecturers for the next semester and put it on us to teach extra. He is saying that we can’t be interviewing people during this pandemic. I call bullshit. I talked to my department head and said I don’t mind picking up slack this semester and next, but I will pull industry funding to buy out my teaching if I have to. And where will the department be then? When I was hired I was shown that it is very rare for faculty to have to teach more than two classes a year if they’re showing an active research program. I’m afraid that they are using this shortage to test the waters of a leaner faculty headcount. This dean came in from some federal agency and they were praised for their lean operation. The best I can do here is threaten a buy-out. But in the meantime, I’ll suck it up, create new lecture material and be a good little soldier for the school. The students deserve a good education and the public that fund my research deserve a dedicated researcher. We’re all used to balancing things, but if there’s a change to the status quo that we’re used to then the school, flush with funds to hire more teachers, needs to improve things. I’ll take a hit if we’re low on cash or if things change last-second (which they did). But I’m not okay with making this the norm.

Tidbits about learning less

One thing I have heard on more than one occasion from industry folks that have PhDs is that they feel like they’ve gotten dumber since entering industry. This is a reflection I had at more than one point in my industry career and something I can offer some sage wisdom about. This is just my experience, so I’m hoping it will be useful.

Big industry is built for one singular purpose: make money. While they might say that they have altruistic behaviors, I’ve been in many an upper management meeting and money is the most commonly discussed topic. This is why the EPA or FDA have to step in – while I believe that corporations might sometimes be too regulated, it’s because they have to be. They can’t be trusted when their sole motivation is money. Again, I’ve been there and the other nice stuff are byproducts of the profit-motive. This brings about my first point: your company is only interested in your science if you can turn it into a profit. And once you show some interesting science they will want to squeeze all the money from your inventions that they can. Because of this, you begin to overly focus on one small thing and you aren’t picking up other knowledge. What I did about this was switch groups. If you find that you’re not challenged intellectually then move.

In academia there are seminars all the time in all kinds of random topics. Down the hall from you there were people in a variety of fields that are usually down with chatting science. Likewise, you’re free to talk as much science as you want to. In industry I didn’t really have that much freedom to talk about what I was working on. It was usually secret (again, because of money) and most people were really out to do their best to climb that ladder and cash in. So I had to play it close to the vest, which meant a lack of scholarly feedback. The feedback was market-driven. Now, I did have a crazy research budget and I trusted in my own abilities, but without my peers to give me scientific feedback I could see having the feeling of getting dumber. I set up key collaborations to get this level of interaction. In this case I learned a lot, but after five years of doing this, I still felt like I wasn’t learning enough and that’s what I dipped.

Do you remember just reading paper after paper to get the handle of something? Just absorbing the information like a sponge. I never had time for that in industry. I would read a publication here or there to get a general idea of something I was trying to understand, but then I had to apply it immediately. If you want to learn new stuff, then talk to you old PI and see if you can become a journal reviewer. This will force you to read and stay involved in the community.

Ultimately, I think it doesn’t come down to getting dumber, but just not learning as much. The academic environment was built for scholarly activity so it makes sense that the greatest acquisition of information happens here. But there are skills that I had to learn in industry like what doctors actually want to use (I’m in the medical field) and how to build tangible things. My professors would all teach me how to build stuff, but there really is nothing like ‘real-life’ experience. Honestly, if we had faculty from industry that taught us industry-related things then I probably wouldn’t have learned as much from industry and left sooner. That being said, I loved my time there, but I’m incredibly happy that I left. And if you feel like you’re not intellectually challenged then find something else or just be happy being overpaid in industry to not learn.

A rant about reviewing manuscripts

I’ve reviewed two papers in the last few weeks from relatively respectable journals. One is a second revision after the first major revision, and one is new to me. But both are unsuitable for anything submitted to any journal. For the revision, the first review I had nine pages of comments, reviewer 1 had 2 pages, and reviewer 3 opted to accept with no revisions. I found a myriad of spelling and grammar errors. The science was okay, but there was no viable discussion about the usefulness or comparisons to other work, weaknesses of the study, or even properly labeled figures. This is a paper that would have gotten a failing grade in any class taught by anyone. How did the other reviewers not pick things up? Were they intending on someone else picking this shit up? Then now on the second review I realized that I even missed a glaring mistake in an equation they used resulting in invalid results. They will have to redo a lot of their analysis and I’m certain the other reviewers will not pick this up.

These kind of lackluster reviews and horrible science that some PI thought suitable to submit to a major journal make me weep for academic science. We need to start actively calling out this shit and editors need to realize when reviewers are phoning it in. We have enough people questioning our science, why give them more reasons? We are all busy, and we are all stretched thin. If you can’t give a thorough review, then don’t offer to review a paper. That’s it for this rant.

Open note tests

Since the day I started teaching I decided I would make tests completely open-note. I try and design my exams and quizzes to test how you can apply knowledge rather than how many equations you can pack into your brain. Or sometimes I would straight-up leave the equations on an extra sheet. I have nothing against profs requiring memorization since in the field they will sometimes have to apply their knowledge without access to Google, but for me I learned the equations fluidically: they just committed to memory after I used them enough. This is kind of the same reason I’m against multiple choice tests. Multiple choice doesn’t test knowledge. I know not everyone thinks like me, but I do prefer prioritizing comprehension over memorization. With the university deciding now on split classrooms between online and in-person (the students are having split shifts), students will treat them like open note tests anyway. Tests will be 100% administered at home.

The university wants me to use some software that allegedly uses AI to determine if students are cheating by looking at eyes darting around or something and records their screen. I really don’t like this invasion of privacy for my students. So I’m actively fighting against using it and I’ve been told now twice that I’ve been speaking out of turn. I know that if I were a student I wouldn’t want my screen being recorded and my camera on and tracking my face movements. I don’t know who this company is paying off in my administration, but it always bewilders me when these admins or some teachers can’t think of what the students might think. Why are we treating these students like they’re all just not cheating because they’re being watched? I trust that the students I’ve trained personally are ethical students and researchers because I instill these principles. And rather than watching them all the time and letting ‘AI’ determine if they’re cheating, why don’t we make the tests uncheatable? And this can work in non-math-based courses: I’ve made exams that test biological principles that require a thorough understanding of the topics. Or make the tests so dense that the students don’t have time to look things up. Watching them take a test in their personal home doesn’t seem like the answer to me.

Departed faculty

In the past few months I’ve had four close collaborators leave. Three went to industry to get fat paychecks and the last went to a different teaching hospital. So I will still be working with the last one, but without being able to walk to the next building, our partnership will slow down by a good bit. Of the other three, two are replaceable and the last will be tough to replace because they made me physical objects that I combined with my research. I will be missing a big swath of devices necessary to complete one of the three aims I’m preparing for the next big NIH deadline. So I’m scrambling to find another researcher somewhere in the country that can set me up because I’m definitely not in-the-know enough to make these microdevices myself. I found a sort-of foundry that can make these, but they’re relatively unproven and I don’t want to throw grant money their way and get them on my grants unless they can prove themselves. I have one month to get their stuff working with my stuff, and considering the pace of research right now that is going to be a tall order.

I understand people leaving: industry pays very well, research funding has been at very low levels, and our teaching loads have gone up. I just wish I would get a little more of a heads-up. The researcher I need the most let us know two months ago: right before the semester started. On top of this sudden shortage of faculty for research, we’ve had a big influx of students in the push of our department to get larger. So a few us of have an extra class. The department has put a call out for some lecturers for next semester since we won’t be able to fill these openings in time.

I can’t blame these folks for making this move and also for the timing, but it would have been nice to at least have an off-the-record heads-up that they would be gone with maybe some transfer of protocol. I maybe should have seen the writing on the wall because the three that all went to industry didn’t have any grad students or post-docs and just did bits of research when they could since their funding had dried up a couple years ago. That’s always been a fear of mine: losing funding then becoming irrelevant and having to scoot back over to industry. But right now I just need to focus on developing course material for a class I’ve never taught before.