Attachment and panic

I’ve never been one for attachment to physical things or buildings or houses, but closing the doors on a lab I’m very proud of was tough. I know it was the right move for my family and my research interests, but it was still kind of emotional to close the door for the last time. As we drove the many many many miles to our new home I was nervous the entire time while second- and third-guessing myself. I keep wondering if I only had whatever success I had because the program supported me. And going to a new interdisciplinary program with a lot of young faculty with aggressive research timeline to compete with (even though there are better collaborators) might make it tough to stand-out and get the best students.

I keep focusing on getting the right students because I keep thinking back to when I was taking the last couple years away from the lab for various reasons and my more prolific students were able to run with ideas and I was able to build off their work. More like a working partnership. Whereas my less prolific students were essentially useless without my hand holding. I don’t anticipate being away as much now, so I’m fine with hand-holding but I do prefer to hand-hold with my first and second year students; not my senior students.

On the emotional front, I don’t miss a lot of the school-related stuff since the school and program (and the state overall) were changing in really negative ways. But I just feel nervous almost like starting anew. When I first arrived at my old school I had to build a reputation, build respect, and learn to navigate the BS. I’ll have to do that again, though I’ll have my own large shoes to fill. I’m certain I could do it, but I don’t want to fade into obscurity shortly after rising nicely at the old school. My SO was saying to treat this experience differently. Paraphrasing: don’t try to rise, just be you. I need to learn to panic less.

Rapid fire recruiting

I flew to my new digs to give a rapid-fire talk that faculty who are looking for students give to incoming first-year graduate students (with whatever undergrads sprinkled in). It’s essentially a recruiting talk. I got 5 minutes to let everyone know what I do and what they could be doing. Without a reputation or a set up lab to show the students I definitely felt like I had less ammunition. I have two slots I’d like to fill in the next year for PhD students and I don’t think I got any bites. I also feel like I had less ammunition because every other speaker went over their five minutes. That’s always been a pet-peeve of mine when people go over. It’s disrespectful to other speakers and the students. And every moderator claims they are going to police it strictly, but it’s all BS.

One of my biggest pieces of ammunition at recruiting talks is always my industry work (current and past) and my connections (current and past). Most students enter industry so having a direct channel (not that high-demand PhD students need it) is a big advantage for recruiting students. Though I’ve noticed it matters more for recruiting undergrads than grad students. And I’m not really looking for undergrads right now (though I’ll always find work for them otherwise).

I never saw an event like this in my old school where students that have committed are flown in to look at housing, get tours, talk to faculty, etc. when the summer begins. It makes sense because students can get a jump start on their research and get settled before classes begin. I noticed that it only had untenured faculty, too. I felt out of place presenting when I have a relatively well established research program. Though it definitely didn’t seem like it given the less time I spoke and having minimal lab to show the students. Here’s to hoping that my hand-waving was enough to get new students on board. I wanted to originally pay to bring a current student out to chat it up with incoming ones to hype my lab but the timing didn’t work out and I’m afraid I’m not attractive enough without fancy stuff to show off.

As an aside, I’m already getting nice vibes from a lot of collaborators I have in mind. I found some good food and hikes around and with a milder climate than my last location I’m looking forward to embarking. Just need some students to help on the work-front…

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!

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!

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!