Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mid-tenure crisis

I have a confession to make. About a year ago I had managed to put myself in a position that should be avoided at all costs. In regards to my research program, I had become...


This is a bad, bad thing that no PI should ever do. I had been cruising along for about 7-8 years working away on a system, publishing a decent number of decent papers that garnered decent citations. Then about a year ago I was sitting on a bus going from Forsaken Conference Site in New England to the Boston airport. Sitting next to me was my good friend Rising Star Theoretician. RST turned to me and said, in more or less these words, "Your research program is going nowhere and you're in danger of becoming irrelevant." This was neither easy to hear, nor easy for RST to say. But he was right. Deep down I had known this for at least two years, but things were trundling along okay, so there was no immediate incentive to do anything about it. RST reminded me that there is always incentive to tend to the future of your research program. Having a future research program is the incentive.* I will always be in debt to RST for giving me a verbal kick in the pants.

I got lucky twice here. The first time was with RST's pep talk. The second time was a few months after that. I had just read a paper written by Benevolent Bioscientist, someone who had co-founded the field I was hoping to develop my new research program in. For reasons that are still unclear to me, BB had befriended me about a year previously and so I now knew him quite well. Anyway, the predictions he had made in this paper struck a chord. THIS was where I was headed. Or at least, some part of it. So I called BB to chat about his paper and the many opportunities it offered. BB told me I should work on protein X (one of the opportunities outlined in his paper). He said "I've been meaning to work on X for 10-15 years now and, to be honest, I don't think I'm ever going to get around to it. You should do it. Let me know how I can help." I knew protein X was important and I knew this was a generous offer. What I didn't quite grasp at the time was how important protein X is, and consequently how generous a gift this was. Protein X is a key player in not just one, not just two, but numerous disease states, including mental, cardiac and immune system disorders. And it's not understood at the molecular level. Protein X is an untapped goldmine that will lead to publications that are much more than "decent." And will lead me to NIH funding (I'm NSF-funded because of the nature of my previous work).

So here we are about a year after RST's pep talk. The old research program is (in hindsight predictably) rapidly dying. I have about one more decent publication I can squeeze out of that work. The all new research program based on protein X is still in its infancy, but it's growing stronger each day. Working on protein X has meant learning a whole new set of skills (I didn't train as a protein chemist), but fortunately I'm surrounded by colleagues who are willing to help. The timing is unfortunate (purely my own fault). I had to submit a renewal of my NSF grant in mid July. Obviously it had to be on protein X (there's plenty of basic science regarding X). It's not clear I had quite enough preliminary data (protein X is difficult to make because of its interesting properties), so I may be facing a funding gap for the first time.** But I'm having a blast in the lab. In fact, I'm more enthusiastic about my research than I have been in years. Staring from scratch again has been, and continues to be, hard. But I'm having fun.

* Have a written five year plan. It sounds dorky, but it works, and it should cover all aspects of your academic career. Read it and update it often. Never let your plan fall below the five year mark. If you can't see where your research might be five years from now, start developing a new research project with long term potential. Now.

** I'm working hard to avoid this. I will put in the two page update in the Fall, although I'm well aware those don't buy you much. More importantly I'll be presenting our data on protein X at a small meeting in early October. A number of the review panel members will be there, as will at least two of the people I suggested as reviewers (NSF does use reviewer suggestions - you'd be a fool not to provide some). With the exception of a much-needed two week vacation, since July I've been busting my guts making protein X and doing experiments. Come the end of September I will have the data. I hope.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm a such a geek...

Scientists for Better PCR

My favorite lines:

"PCR when you need to find out who your Daddy is... (Who's your Daddy.)"

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bad Science

I'm back from vacation. It's amazing what lying on a beach watching the waves can do for your mental health. Not to mention the restorative effects of good food and libations. I have colleagues who firmly believe that if you wish to be successful you cannot afford to take vacations. I counter with if you wish to stay sane and productive, how can you afford not to take vacations?

While enjoying the beach I managed to finish reading Gary Taubes' Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion which was published way back in 1993. Remember the whole cold fusion debacle? In 1989 Stan Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah announced via a press conference that they had observed nuclear fusion at room temperature in what amounted to little more than a sophisticated test tube. Taubes, a science journalist who publishes in places like Science, wrote this book about the whole affair including the work of many groups who tried to replicate the cold fusion experiment. It's a fascinating read. I was absolutely astounded by the shear volume of bad science that resulted from the Pons and Fleischmann announcement. A surprisingly large number of scientists who should have known better claimed to have observed cold fusion in some form or another without having performed any controls. And furthermore, no one was able to reproduce the effect consistently. In many cases they couldn't reproduce their results at all... Cold fusion clearly was complete nonsense and perhaps even constituted fraud on the part of some of its proponents. I would recommend people read this book, especially science students. It is a wonderful description of how science should not be done.

At one point in his book Taubes ponders why scientists tend to react so violently to bad/fraudulent science. The answer is quite simple really. We all need to trust the results of other scientists. Science is built upon science. We have neither the time nor resources to replicate all the experiments that our own work is built upon. Sure, experiments that appear to point to amazing breakthroughs or are counter to current dogma will be replicated (or at least people will attempt to do so). But the vast majority of the data published by scientists is assumed to be good data. So we get really, really pissed off when it's not.

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the cold fusion field is still alive...