Enough is enough! How much is enough?

Here’s a quick poll for you readers who are in academia or have been. In your university, how much work does a PhD student need to do before he or she is allowed to graduate? Do you need a set number of papers, do they have to be published or is a bunch of unpublishable data sufficient? Is this something fixed or is it determined on an ad hoc basis? Should there be a set criteria for number of publications? Whatever you can eke out in five years? Do you agree or disagree with your institutions policy? Please mention what stage you are in your career in your comments.

Now, órale, discuss…

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Calaveras 4.0

In México, November 2 is Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. One venerable tradition is to write little obituaries for living people you know with a little skeleton of themselves, or a sugar skull with their name to accompany it. Newspapers will write funny obituaries, usually in verse of politicians and other public figures. These fake obits are known as “Calaveras”. For the last couple of years, I’ve written some calaveras of a few fellow science bloggers and then of a few more. To continue the tradition I’m happy to present a new set of calavers of some fellow bloggers I’ve had the pleasure to interact with in the previous year. Enjoy!


Dr. 24 hours has now left the station,

His long blog posts were a confessional sensation,

We’ll miss him on Twitter where his selfies were a big hitter,

But at least he’ll stop giving out perhaps too much information.


We will all miss poor Biochembelle,

Online, hers was one of the more sensible voices,

Yet she’s likely still down that well,

Pondering her suddenly limited career choices.


Nobody could repair the Genomic Repairman,

His DNA got unmethylated,

His histones deacetylated,

But strangest of all, his PhD thesis ended up written in German!

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Life on the margins

So I’ve done all the formatting tips and tricks: 11 pt Arial, 12 pt line spacing, half inch margins, hyphenate, and the damn Specific Aims are still 6 lines too long. Yep you guessed it, it’s grant writing time!! It’s time to start removing superfluous sentences and excess verbiage. Yet the message still has to come across clearly, and not sound like it was written by some soulless robot. The main points have to be crystal clear, guiding the reviewer through your message, not leaving the slightest doubt in his or her mind that your grant is the coolest thing since Kool-Aid and that they can’t wait to defend it tooth and claw from the other bloodthirsty dawgs at study-section. That your grant is sooo hip and exciting, that funding it would be a blow to evildoers worldwide.

Back when I was in college I took a bunch of courses from a certain trendy department in my school. One standard that was applied for courses from this department was that all class assignments had to fit into one single-spaced page, with half inch margins and 10-point font. Apparently they claimed that this was a way for us to crystallize our understanding of the difficult concepts discussed in class. To cut the verbiage and random regurgitation of buzzwords and catchphrases. Basically to make you get to the point, and get to it quickly before the professor got bored and gave you a C. Of course, back then we thought it was just collusion on the part of lazy professors that didn’t feel like reading our brilliant expositions on Roland Barthes, Derrida and the jouissance of deconstructing Victorian novels in light of Lacanian poststructuralist theory. I certainly wouldn’t. Yet, I remember getting upset that one page wasn’t enough to get all my original and groundbreaking ideas out there. That learning to fit stuff into one page was a pointless exercise, because when else would I ever, ever need to do this again?

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How exotic!

A few months ago I was contacted by the alumni magazine of my university, saying they were planning a feature of a neuroscience center I’m part of and wanted to spotlight the research of a few investigators, including me. I was quite excited since this would be a good chance to give some good exposure to our research to a wide and general audience. It was also cool, since I also happen to be an alumni from my current university. So I met with the staff writer working on the piece to explain to him what our research is about, why it is cool and interesting. This was followed up with several emails clarifying some of the science, sending more material, etc. Last week, I get an email from the writer saying that he had a final version he wanted me to look over for ‘fact checking’. When I opened it up I was faced with this opening paragraph:

Namnezia studies small creatures. A neuroscientist by training, he grew up in Mexico and still speaks with an accent. His office, on the floor below Monkeyprof’s—fitting because Namnezia studies lower order animals—is decorated with the Mexican masks he collected as a child.

Really?!? Is this what he took away from all of our conversations and emails? I’m really having a hard time pinpointing exactly why this paragraph makes me so upset. Maybe the fact that for him, he couldn’t get past the fact that I’m Mexican. And what’s weird is that for the most part, I don’t even HAVE a fucking accent, except a little when I’m tired or drunk. Maybe I was tired or drunk when I met with him, I don’t know. But more likely, when he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mexico, the dude was thinking “Well, he doesn’t really look Mexican” and then somehow convinced himself that, in order for his limited little world to make sense, at least I had to have some sort of accent. And then he stopped listening to anything else I had to say. And I know he stopped listening, because the rest of the article made no sense science-wise. It was full of bad analogies and trivializing ‘fun-facts’, written in some sort of ‘breezy casual style’ that failed on so many levels.

I guess what annoyed me is that in the end, what defined me for him was not my (I think) cool science, but the exoticness of a swarthy Mexican scientist, in an office full of masks, and a thick Speedy-Gonzalez accent. I realize he is trying to go for some sort of human interest angle, but I would’ve much rather he had written about my taxidermied chicken. And the dude doesn’t realize the implicit bias he is bringing to his writing. I complained, but received no response, because he probably cannot fathom why what he wrote would be offensive and otherizing to any minority scientist.

So if he wants exotic, I’ll give him fucking exotic. I’m am therefore planning on proposing the following opening paragraph:

The smell of cheap tequila permeated the lab, a sombrero lazily lying on the benchtop. The melancholy violins of mariachi music playing from a scrappy AM radio. ‘¡Hijo de la Chingada!’ exclaimed Dr. Namezia as he broke his patch pipette on his recording dish. He looked up from the microscope, twirling his long moustachios and adjusting his zarape. ‘Welcome to mi laboratorio, señor journalist!’

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Grant me some science

I’ve been spending the last few weeks teaching in an intensive summer course in my field. This involves spending long hours in the lab teaching teaching eager grads and postdocs how to do the latest techniques, and every time I do this I’m reminded of how fun it is to do labwork. So far we’ve tested some new ideas, some better than others, and I’ve come up with a bunch of cool follow-up experiments to do at home. Unfortunately, I doubt that I’ll actually get around to doing those cool experiments, since at home I don’t really get much of a chance to spend time in the lab. What do I do? I write grants mostly. Which is silly, because a job that nowdays requires you to spend 75% of your time writing something that has a 90% likelihood of going unfunded is basically a waste of time. Time which could be better spent actually DOING science, writing papers and actually learning something.
So how can we improve this? I can’t really write faster than I do now, I’m quite saturated on that front. Funding isn’t going to get better and a systemic fix is unlikely to happen soon. Crowdfunding one’s science is just a silly idea that’s not sustainable in the long run for supporting a lab and staff, and which anyway would also take a huge amount of time. So what’s left is to improve the efficiency of the grant submission and writing process. How? Hire someone to write the grants! Although I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who’s used one, allegedly these people exist. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sit with someone for a couple of hours and outline some experiments and point them to relevant background material and then they go and write the thing for you? The ideas would still be yours, just the actual writing is done by someone who is a trained writer, who can put things much more clearly and eloquently than you can. Someone who can make your science sound exciting! And I don’t want someone who will read and edit my grant, this takes twice the time. I want someone to just write the damn thing and hand me a polished draft. This would ideally be a person with a PhD in science and some sort of writing degree or professional training. And I think University grant offices should pay for these people’s services. It’s to their benefits that PI’s send higher quality grants AND also have time to do high-quality science. Rather than playing the mostly bureaucratic and sometimes obstructive roles in the grant submission process, grants offices could become hotbeds of creativity, productively cranking out grant after high-quality grant proposal.
But of course that’s just a pipe, dream. I should stop procrastinating and go back to working on my grant. It’s due on Tuesday.

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Stacks on shelves

OK, listen up kids! If you are taking something from a shelf and there’s other stuff on top of it, the best way to do this is to first remove the stuff on top, take what you need and put the stuff you don’t need back where it was. This is superior to simply yanking out what you need and letting all the other stuff spill all over the floor and then walking away. This useful bit of knowledge can apply to lots of things, including books, clothes in your drawers, dog food, toys, dishes and snacks! So now you know. You may now go about your business (after you pick up the friggin’ mess you made in your bedrooms).

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Come in, we’re open!

A lot of the push from the open access (OA) movement is to make federally-funded scientific research freely available to the wider public. This of course is a laudable goal, especially since this research is the fruit of taxpayer money. What I decided to do is to ask myself the question, what if I wanted to access the latest biomedical research but was not affiliated with a university or medical center? What would I have access to? For the last five years or so, the NIH has required that any research that is published as a result of NIH grants be uploaded into a freely accessible database called PubMed Central. This is in fact done automatically by several journals upon acceptance of a paper, such that PMC now has over 2.7 million articles freely available. The one catch, which seems to be more of an issue for some people and not for others, is that in many cases this material is not made available on PMC until after 6-12 months post publication. In fact many top journals are following the trend of offering their archives for free for articles that are 6+ months old. Obviously, open access journals make their stuff available immediately, but these represent a small portion of overall scientific publications. Likewise, many publishers will make their articles available for free for patients researching a given condition.

So, what if you wanted to see what was published in the latest issue of Cell, or of the Journal of Neuroscience and don’t want to wait 6 months, what are your options? For one, you could always try a library! Yes those still exist! I decided to check what kinds of resources would be available in several US cities for the general public and found quite a bit. For example, if you live in Boston, and you are a member of the Boston Public Library, you can have free physical access to the Harvard Medical School Library, which means that you can access electronic resources and therefore ay journals the library subscribes to. If you live in New York, the New York Public Library offers electronic access to hundreds of scientific and medical journals. In DC, the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda also offers free access to thousands of online medical journals. OK, but what if you don’t live in one of these major cities? Many public universities and medical schools provide free or paid access to their libraries for research purposes, as do many private universities.

We are all so used to being able to access all the information all the time from our living rooms while sitting around in our underwear eating cheese doodles. But in fact if you actually get to a library you will find that you can find and access almost everything you are looking for, even if it’s behind a paywall. Ideally, yes, all information should be free all the time, but in reality things aren’t quite as bad as some would lead us to think.


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