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.

Hybrid teaching

Next semester I return to the classroom from what was supposed to be just some time for child-rearing. There is a daycare center on campus, but what my SO and I have opted for is a combination of on and off days on campus, setting up a nice play and sleep area in my office, and my faculty mentor graciously agreeing to babysit if I have the little one and need to teach or have a meeting.

I’ve very nervous about returning to campus. The lab has been fully active, but we’re implementing split shifts for the students including weekends so animal and cell experiments can continue without any deaths occurring. Everyone that has computational work or is writing stays home all the time. Any students that aren’t comfortable coming in, I’ve switched to projects they can do from home at the expense of a slight delay to their graduations. I don’t have any in-person meetings, including with my students, and with Teams this has all been not so bad. For teaching though my school has opted for a hybrid classroom for classes that have a lab portion. Two students (of the typical four-person groups) come in and run the experiment with the other students on Teams. They work together on post-processing. Then the other two come in and the first two stay home. I’m here the whole time. Classroom instruction, at least for now, is 100% online. I don’t mind it so much, though it is a little distracting.

This year I was going to take a break from grant applications because of the little one and post-tenure I want to delve into some higher risk ideas. So the lack of students in the lab isn’t really hurting me so much. And the paranoia about getting sick is kind of in the back of my mind anyway so, when combined with a lack of sleep, I’m having trouble focusing on grants so this is, timing-wise, kind of working out.

Students asking me about industry

Within the department I’m the one to whom the students go to for an insight into industry. I obviously spent a lot of time there and have seen it from a bunch of different angles (at least within the biomedical field). Every conversation has roughly the same questions with a few more specific ones. I really don’t mind giving my honest opinions, but I have gotten to the point where I’ve considered pre-recording my answers like some sort of God-awful flipped classroom. So I thought a post would be a nice way to sum things up.

Outside of the tower, I have worked at a National Lab (after my MS), another government agency (after my BS), and industry (after the PhD) for an absolutely ginormous company. Ranked by the level of fun and scientific challenge I would rank them agency, Lab, industry. Based on the satisfaction with my bank account it would obviously be industry, agency, Lab. In industry I typically worked 60 hours in the lab and another 10 at home/out-and-about. The agency and Lab were roughly 50 hour jobs. My first few years here in academics surpassed 70 hours weekly, but closer to tenure it was roughly 50 hours.

To students who are curious, my starting salary was higher than my advisor’s (a full professor at a mid-level R1), but not by a bunch. Five years in I was double his salary. This is more than the average. Friends from my old lab who were out for roughly the same amount of time as me weren’t climbing the corporate ladder as steadily as I was. I took a more than 50% pay cut when moving from industry to academia. This didn’t really have an impact on my lifestyle, but definitely my future-planning has taken a turn. So if money is important then this needs to be considered.

I hate being told what to do from a research or time perspective. This was one of my biggest factors in making the leap. I started out in a regular research position (more on that later), and eventually came to run the group. Even when I was running the group, I had little say in what we could focus on. I was able to branch out here and there, but I wasn’t working on my projects. I was working on the company’s. If you’re okay with going with the flow and you’re not attached to answering specific scientific questions then this won’t matter to you.

It was nice to rarely worry about money. This is one of the things I miss the most. I had a seemingly infinitely deep purse, like Hermione’s in Harry Potter. If dealing with keeping research funded is your biggest gripe about academics then industry would be a good fit.

Most folks come in at a early-mid career level. Where I was, the PhD means you come in with a little more credibility than five years of just work experience. If you want to be a soulless goon in management then the PhD is useful, but the work experience and connections are better.

The politics are crazy in academics, but I found the politics in industry far worse. When money is involved and you have personalities not so interested in science there are cruel moves and backstabbings. In general, I have found the academic community rather receptive. There have been moments of frustration and disrespect, but nothing has been outright cruel. In industry, science is regularly thrown aside to make room for personal interest and profit-margins. You just have to be okay with playing that game and using logic and science to guide your decisions but using politics and profit to champion your ideas.

So for me, I’m relatively sensitive, morally focused on what’s right, have strong personal scientific interests, and I don’t mind fighting for funding. It was right for me at that moment. I do miss the money and having a more direct impact on patients, but the negatives were just too much. It’s just about what’s right for you.

Setting up at the lab again

I’ve been notified by my school that everyone will be returning in August. Which is good for me because we’ve been on a max-two people in the lab at a given moment. My students have been good at taking shifts, taking care of each other’s animals and cells, and staying relatively productive through all of this. I’m proud of them. And considering that I’ve been out most of the time, I’m doubly proud of them. I’m happy with this bunch because the productive and good students have positively influenced the newest batch. They have good work hours, good receptivity to outside input, and seem generally well motivated. It’s interesting how the group mentalities work with a bad student bringing everyone down, but how a couple good ones really perking up the whole joint.

I’m also happy that we will be returning because I am teaching a very group-project and lab-heavy based class. And I had no freaking clue how to do this over Teams. But now I don’t have to think about it. I just get to continue with the lesson plan I started a couple months ago. I miss the energy on campus at the start of a new semester and also the bustle of my lab. I’m shopping around for in-office childcare options like cribs and play areas. I also found (what I hope is a joke setup) a way to store a baby in a desk drawer. One thing I normally do while working is play music. I don’t think I’ll be doing that during sleep time. And I have become accustomed to napping while the little one sleeps. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do as much of that come August.

Stars

Before I went into the biomedical field for my PhD I was a physicist at a national laboratory doing space-based research. I got into physics in the first place because I loved space. In my home country there wasn’t that much light pollution; so I could stare at the stars and imagine what it’s like out there. And also realize how little each person is. I would read up on everything space related I could get my hands on. And being a part of projects that touched the edge of our planet made me feel great.

My youth also sparked a general interest in nearly everything scientific. From the way-outside-of-my-field to the publications that my academic and industry competitors put out. And in a lot of my service I focus on getting people interested in science. Right now, people seem to be most interested in one aspect of science: microbiology. But there’s so much more. And if we can get people interested in science and listening to people with the knowledge, maybe our great world can get even greater. I love the idea of looking up to scientists the way I look up in to the sky: with admiration and a realization of what’s important in life. And if scientists were treated with the respect of the people on ‘insert celebrity gawking show here’, then the world be better. I’m convinced of it. And it’s sad when things like my adopted country launching astronauts into space is barely passed over in the news. Everyone I talked to about this leading up to the launch had no clue that we were about to do something amazing. I know people don’t care about this stuff anymore, but people need to.

Tomorrow, Crew Dragon Demo-2 gets another shot at an absolutely incredible feat. And if the news doesn’t care to cover it, then I’m yelling to anyone that will listen.

I meant to post this weeks ago but forgot to hit Publish…

I’ve always been good at keeping myself busy. In my personal life I’ve always had more things to do than time to do it. Since my progeny started to have some regularity to sleep, I started to have a little bit of time to do other things. And since we haven’t been able to get out much between the parental leave and stay-at-home orders I have become even better at keeping myself occupied on the personal front. A large portion of this is TV, books, and podcasts below that I’ve partook in the past few months.

Podcasts that have preserved my sanity:

No Such Thing as a Fish

Snap Judgment

Infinite Monkey Cage

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

99% Invisible

 

Books:

Feathers

Disappearing Sppon

Your Inner Fish

Unthinkable

Drug Hunters

 

TV that has preserved my sanity:

Devs

The Sinner

Bob’s Burgers

Killing Eve

 

I honestly haven’t had as much to write about because I’m not doing as many committee meetings or lab work since we’ve been having to stagger the people in the lab and we’re heavy on lab and not computational work right now (we go through cycles)

Other than that, the two summer conferences I usually attend have been canceled. I’m a co-chair for one so that’s a lot of work gone to waste. But we’re having it remotely. I had been doing some travel for work before all these restrictions hit, which I welcomed because I was cooped up so much. I’ve been putting together some decent stories for the next round of grant deadlines and they are corresponding well with students graduating. So hopefully I can bring in some fresh minds with semi-fresh grant topics to keep myself excited. My plan is to start anew and keep my the amount of students down. Now that I’m not trying to hit tenure with a wicked amount of students and papers I can focus in a little more on some high-risk ideas. So long as we’re allowed to step back into the lab.

I hope everyone is listening to the proper authorities and staying sane!

Multiple choice

I’ve resumed a lot of committee duties and one thing I’ve been pushing for the last couple years is more TAs (we have the money) and fewer multiple-choice questions on tests. The argument is always that if we had free form answer there aren’t enough people to grade for the larger early career classes. Hence the need for more TAs. They might be correct because the most I’ve had in a class is ~80 with one TA. I haven’t had any of the 100+. That being said (and typed), I always have free form answer because I feel that best exams test the student’s knowledge. Multiple choice (especially when things are written intentionally to trick the students, like swapping a letter or using quadruple negatives in a sentence) tests will test what a student doesn’t know. I hated them as a student (bear in mind that I did very well on them), and I hate them as a professor. I see it as lazy. I brought this up, and was met with a lot of contention and excuses. And I understand all the points, but part of our job is education in the classroom. We all have busy personal and lab lives that we have to juggle with these teaching loads, but we shouldn’t be just caring about a grade number and trying to trick students into getting questions wrong. We should teach them well, test them for what they know, and assign scores accordingly. I’m all for trick questions, but I’m also for partial credit. If someone set the boundary conditions properly, but I inserted a trick unit mix-up and they screwed up they deserve a lot of credit. A multiple-choice test (unless broken down properly) would give them zero.

One person advocated for a problem broken down into multiple parts, then each part have a multiple-choice questions associated. So, outlining the problem gets a question, BCs get a question, math gets a question, solving then discussion both get questions. Then if they got the question wrong we reevaluate for partial credit. This kind of works, but still doesn’t fully test the students’ knowledge. In addition, this doesn’t work for classes that are, say, more biology-focused. There’s not as much critical thinking in these types of classes (which I do have to teach). In these, I still test them long-form, and I can really tell if a student understands something or not.

I know I’ve made a few enemies and will continue to make more with this campaigning. But I really do think multiple-choice tests are lazy. I will always make time for the students. The same goes for Chalkboard, which I’m forced to use, and which I only use to disseminate documents to my students. Everyone is busy, but students ultimately come first. I would feel bad failing a student for knowing a topic, but unable to decipher the convoluted ways I have to phrase questions to trick them. It’s lazy tests only what students don’t know, and I’m not changing my mind about this.

Babybatical

The holiday season has been over for a good bit of time, and I feel like I’ve finally recovered. I had to host a few people that made pilgrimage to see my little one, and some were great guests and some got in the way. Overall, it was a good holiday season with a decent amount of relaxation. We just took down the decorations (a pseudo-Queen’s Chistmas?). I have no teaching duties again this semester, so the last semester and this one I’ve termed as my babybatical. My SO has been able to shoulder some load so I can at least stay reasonably involved in my research from both an external and internal standpoint. I didn’t want to show my face too soon or I thought people would think that I’m a bad parent, but if I didn’t show up at all I felt like people would think I’m a bad researcher. I know that’s totally messed up, but I sometimes buckle under pressure that I most definitely put on myself. So I did some outside appearances, and have been keeping on my lab relatively well. I do feel grimy for thinking this way though.

I know my students’ hours have dropped off during the babybatical, but I’m still holding them responsible for a certain amount of progress. I suppose that my constant bothering them has allowed them to focus. Though sometimes they’re focusing in the wrong direction and I notice that the course correction is more difficult when I’m not on them more. It has been nice to not have teaching duties, but given the complete lack of sleep and constant attention to the baby, though rewarding so far, it’s incredibly tiresome. I don’t think I want to go through this again; I’ll gladly teach.

With my sole work focus being research, during moments of lucidness I have been able to start on a couple new grant ideas. I love my time with industry, and it’s a major part of what I’m doing, but my projects are at a point where it’s a little more on the basic research side of things rather than applied. I also want to wean off of industry because the heavy leaning worked well when establishing my lab and while every company out there was pouring money into new technology. There’s been less technology investment from talking to my industry funding sources so it is coming at an ‘ideal’ time. And this babybatical has given me the chance to reorganize.