The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Surfacing April 5, 2015

Filed under: academia,grad school,medschool — excitablescientist @ 10:27 pm

For a while, I’ve been meaning to write about what an incredible change medical school has been, but I struggle to find words for the overwhelming gratitude I feel for it daily. It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

It’s also hard to write about this without showing contempt of the many wonderful aspects of grad student life generally and the lab I work in specifically. But after being introduced to a field that places primary value on relationships and caring service for people and communities, I can’t see myself continuing my career in a field that is guided by the singular goal of individual achievement – defined by outcompeting your peers – any more than I can see myself becoming an Olympic athlete.

Despite being in the most supportive research environment I could imagine, I found the competitiveness of academic science soul-destroying, and didn’t fully realize the extent of it until this year. From talking to scientist colleagues in other fields, it seems that cancer research is particularly known for this. I still find it puzzling, given that nearly all the people I’ve worked with have been very collegial and collaborative and willing to share their expertise. But I don’t really want to talk about how this plays out for other people because those aren’t my stories to tell. I want to talk about the effect it had on me.

Having a publication accepted or advancing through the selection cycles of a scholarship competition felt really, really good. Maybe too good. Kind of addictive. I derived a good portion of my sense of self-worth by how I ranked against other applicants – not by how I treated people or based on how useful my work was likely to be to anyone except my own career. I also got a sinking feeling when people I perceived as rivals experienced similar success. I knew something was wrong when I realized I was envious even of my friends. These aren’t things I’m proud to admit, but they’re real and not altogether unanticipated consequences of the system of incentives set up for scientists today.

I was also getting really tired of the siloed thinking that so often permeates highly specialized fields, and of hearing that so many injustices staring us in the face “aren’t our problem” and having the conversation end there. While people have argued that scientists aren’t valued enough, the billions of dollars in research funding we receive, with almost no strings attached, testifies to the political clout we wield. And we don’t hesitate to use it to our own benefit, but we could do so much more. I would argue the least biomedical researchers can do is acknowledge the limitations of our own work and use the influence we have to amplify voices that are preferentially unheard (for example, those calling for dismantling systems of oppression as a way to support flourishing population health). Dr. Ruha Benjamin has some brilliant thoughts on how this might be achieved.

Last summer I attended a conference talk where a highly influential scientist in my field suggested that at least some of us in the audience should spend the rest of our lives on highly technical investigations of a rare type of cancer where the researcher:patient ratio is already close to 1:1. I felt like I was on another planet. While writing this post, a friend (who, obvs, knows me well) sent along a very relevant quote from Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, which is very reminiscent of the thoughts that were running through my head then:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

I’ve got a long way to finishing my PhD, and who knows how I’ll feel in the 7+ years it’ll take to finish med school. But for now, I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than this description of family medicine by a particularly inspiring doctor who spoke to us a few weeks ago:

You see patients get better and walk with them along their journey.


Garibaldi Park, Skwxwú7mesh and Lil’wat traditional territory


Best Among Equals? February 23, 2014

Filed under: academia,things i'm probably not qualified to comment on — excitablescientist @ 10:17 pm

A recent news article in Science suggests that peer review of grants submitted to the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) does not reliably predict the projects likely to have the greatest impact.  This conclusion was reached after a systematic study of proposals submitted to NHLBI beween 2001 and 2008 found no correlation between the ‘priority scores’ of funded projects and the number of citations and publications those projects generated.  A similar study used an alternate metric, time to publication (the rationale being that more significant studies would be published faster, I guess) of NIH-funded clinical trials, and again found no correlation.


One could argue that all the aforementioned criteria are inadequate measures of scientific impact, and it’s certainly not hard to think of others, including the impact factor of journals the research was ultimately published in, its contribution to translational initiatives, and extent of dissemination of the resulting products.  It’s also impossible to rule out the possibility that projects which were ultimately funded had a greater impact than those which weren’t (had they been funded).


But to me, the simplest and most obvious explanation for the study findings is that there is a threshold past which all projects have similarly high merits, and any differences between the priority scores of studies which exceed the threshold are stochastic and meaningless.  If that threshold is less stringent than the priority score cutoff for funding, a comparison of priority scores of funded proposals would have no discriminating power, consistent with the studies above.  Taking this a step further, one could hypothesize that some of the higher-scoring but not funded projects would have had, on average, similar impact to those which were ultimately successful in securing funds.


A fun experiment which will never happen would be to compare outcomes (based on a variety of metrics) from research proposals selected based on priority scores being in the 90th percentile or higher (comparable to current R01 paylines at NHLBI), versus ones selected at random from the top, say, 50% of proposals.  Of course, the idea of randomly deciding which projects (above a certain threshold) to fund would be unpalatable to most if not all scientists, but I’m not convinced that it would be functionally very different to the status quo.


Committee meeting v. 1.0 November 28, 2013

Filed under: academia,grad school — excitablescientist @ 9:13 pm

So, my first supervisory committee meeting came and went, and what a humbling experience it has been.  I generally don’t shy away from scientific discussions – the more heated, the better.  Nothing excites me more than a good round of intellectual sparring.  But giving a formal presentation is like kryptonite to the part of my brain responsible for articulating thoughts.  I have no innate public speaking skills, never practice talks as much as I should (or at all), and, unsurprisingly, consistently emerge as a bumbling, nervous mess.  It turns out that talking about your research within the familiar environment of your own lab (even when everyone is constantly challenging your ideas), and presenting the same to a group of faculty members, are two almost completely unrelated experiences.  I had made the naive assumption that comfort with the former would prepare me for the latter, with predictable consequences.


I think the actual content of my presentation was OK, but the delivery was kind of a disaster.  Yet my committee members were nothing but supportive and encouraging.  Their subtle cues were so powerful in making me feel at ease (as much as I was going to get), and their approach is definitely one I will strive to emulate in the future.  I also got very useful feedback from my advisor after the meeting – she emphasized that this is all part of the learning process that everyone goes through, and some learning only comes from experience and some of those experiences can be painful.  It’s reassuring to know that mistakes made in the process of learning are not only forgiven, but expected.


All in all, it was a nerve-wracking and exhausting endeavour, but one that has provided a much-needed dose of humility.  I look forward to many more such experiences that take me outside of my comfort zone and serve as reminders of all the learning that lies ahead.


“That something is everywhere and always amiss is part of the very stuff of creation. […] We could have planned things more mercifully, perhaps, but our plan would never get off the drawing board until we agreed to the very compromising terms that are the only ones that being offers.” – Annie Dillard


Flashback October 24, 2013

Filed under: academia,grad school,inspirations,undergrad,volunteering — excitablescientist @ 11:44 pm

Today I had a chance to see a couple of old pals from a very special volunteer group, prompting several flashbacks to 2008, a pivotal year in my life highlighted by joining this group and meeting individuals who would become the most influential role models I’ve had to date – all while being graduate students in the midst of trying to figure out their own life and career paths.  I remember being in awe of how knowledgeable, articulate, cool they were, and wanting to follow in their footsteps; now I’m a grad student myself and making goodness knows what impression on the younger generations.  In any case, for me, being in the company of motivated, idealistic, passionate and inspiring colleagues is far and away the biggest perk of being a member of the university community.  Academia is a slightly strange world and suffers from no shortage of systemic flaws, but on good days and to those granted the privilege of being part of it, it really is the land of milk and honey.


On Paywalls and Privilege July 6, 2013

Filed under: academia,access,grad school,publishing — excitablescientist @ 8:55 pm

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with a superb colleague who recently had an article published in a high-impact journal, on which I was a co-author.  I feel so lucky to have been part of this process; it has been an awesome learning experience and has laid the foundation for what I think will become my PhD project. I’ve also learned so much about the politics and logistics of getting a paper published (mainly by observing the negotiations with editors and reviewers), something I think a lot of grad students don’t experience until much later in the game.


It does, of course, feel pretty cool to be published in a GlamourMag family journal.  One of my best friends, from the same country as me but currently working abroad, got very excited about this and posted a link to the article on a social media site.  Very soon afterwards, I read a comment by a mutual acquaintance that gave me pause: “Well done, but we can’t even open the paper to read it. Thanks, home country!”.  It was a sudden and stark reminder of the unequal distribution of scientific resources globally, and of my own position of privilege as a grad student in a well-funded lab in the West.  I can’t imagine how demoralizing it would be to be constantly treated as a second-class scientist by paywalls still in place at most major journals.  There are ways to get an article even if your institution doesn’t have a subscription to the journal – e.g. by e-mailing the corresponding author – but this is akin to having to go to the food bank instead of living in a society which has systems in place for all of its citizens to meet basic needs in a dignified manner.  It’s pretty clear to me that scientists in what’s now known as the Global South (not restricted to the southern hemisphere) work harder and smarter with fewer resources for less recognition.


Most e-mail interactions I’ve had with professors at other universities have been in the context of collaborations, sharing results, planning meetings- all joyful occasions, in which I have felt our groups have been on equal footing.  I imagine my self-esteem would be greatly reduced if the majority of my interactions with other profs were e-mail requests for their articles, highlighting my position as a grad student in an underresourced setting, implying the inadequacy of the setting, and probably of me.  I have probably 300 papers from closed access journals in my library, and have skimmed through probably double or triple that number in the past year.  If I didn’t have access to journals through my institution, that would necessitate sending thousands of e-mails requesting paper reprints: a colossal waste of everyone’s time.  In reality, I probably wouldn’t bother, and would base decisions of what to read based on what I can access, instead of on the quality of the science.


Much has been written about the ability of open access to facilitate knowledge exchange and therefore new discoveries, and of the cost of paywalls in terms of diminished productivity if people can’t access and therefore cannot build on what’s already been published.  I’ve long accepted that paywalls slow the pace of research at institutions that cannot afford to subscribe to major journals.  What I hadn’t thought about until now, and am finding more personally compelling, is the effect on individual researcher productivity and probably morale.  As any PhD student knows, working in biomedical research can be demoralizing enough owing to the high failure rate of experiments in the best of environments, without having to jump through hoops to even be able to read articles- something too many of us take for granted.


An increasing number of scientists and journals are making open access publishing a priority.  I’m ashamed to admit I’m not one of them, at least not in this particular instance.  I’m determined to push for the OA option on “my” future papers, but I didn’t have the guts to do it for a study I didn’t lead.  It would have been expensive, and probably would have been yet another uphill battle against the status quo.  That’s still no excuse for not trying.  And it’s a little bittersweet to think that many of my friends and family might be proud of me for publishing in a high-impact journal – if only they could read it.


Unequal recognition for equal work? May 16, 2013

Filed under: academia,publishing — excitablescientist @ 11:05 pm

One issue that’s been on my mind recently is the process for deciding who gets to be acknowledged as a co-author on a research paper. It puzzles me that recognition of individuals’ contributions to a research project seems to vary according to their occupation and career stage.


I think the general consensus in my field is that for someone to be a co-author, they would have had to contribute intellectual input (through study design, data analysis or interpretation) in addition to performing experiments. This is sometimes used as justification for not including technicians, who usually don’t participate in the planning, analysis and writing stages. However, many PIs will include undergraduate students, who also usually don’t make substantive intellectual contributions, on the grounds that they need authorship for career advancement (particularly if they have expressed a desire to continue in research).


I think it is awesome that PI’s will recognize the contributions of their undergrads — and I know that many of them do this because they know it helps their grad school applications, future careers, etc. I have little doubt that this practice is well-intentioned and that it encourages and motivates young people to continue along the research path. Personally, I was chuffed to have an nth author paper freshly out of undergrad, and it certainly boosted my confidence when I was applying to grad programs. However, from what I can tell, undergraduates and technicians do the same kinds of work (the latter perhaps more efficiently and competently), so it’s unclear to me why this work is recognized with authorship for one group but not the other.


There is increasing, though not yet universal, acceptance of the notion that equal work deserves equal pay and recognition, regardless of an individual’s gender or race. So why would career stage have any bearing on authorship decisions? I can’t speak for everyone, but publications are certainly a big deal to me (even landing in the acknowledgements section of a friend’s paper gave me a warm fuzzy feeling), and I would be upset if I was not made an author on something to which I had contributed as much as, if not more, than others who were included. I would be tempted to conclude that my work was not as valued, and this is problematic. Decisions on authorship should be made in a fair and transparent manner; this benefits everyone involved and sets a good precedent in a world still striving to realize the ideals of employment equity.


Does anyone else have strong opinions on this topic, or can offer new angles that I may have missed? How do you decide who to include as a co-author?


Let’s Please Disagree January 26, 2012

Filed under: academia,grad school,things i love,volunteering — excitablescientist @ 10:32 pm

One of the many things I like about my current lab are the lively debates.  I like this aspect partly because it suits my personality and it’s fun, and conveniently enough, most people agree that having good critical thinking and debating skills is useful to budding scientists in a professional context as well.


I like that no scientific discussions are taboo in the lab – and can think of one anecdote that illustrates this concept well.  I had asked a lab mate about whether anyone has shown conclusively whether phenomenon X is a result of mechanism A or B, and he got super animated – launching into an explanation about how our PI has drawn conclusions from a particular dataset in favour of explanation B (and considers the matter closed) – BUT, the experiment had caveats, and so he (my lab mate) still thinks it’s an open question.


Being able to say “I disagree with the boss and here’s why” – to question one’s supervisor’s ideas without fear of repercussion is, to me, beyond awesome, and makes me feel very lucky to be where I am now.  I come from a culture which strongly values conforming to authority, and this change, though not new, is still very refreshing.  I like that there are no absolute authority figures in science, and that ideas are debated mostly based on their own merit, rather than the age/gender/career level of the person voicing them.


I was equally pleased when, at a recent meeting of a volunteer organization I help to lead, several people candidly and constructively told me ways in which I could help run things more efficiently.  I’m exceedingly glad that the rest of the team feels comfortable enough (or perhaps frustrated enough) with me to be open about the things that need to change on my end.  To me, that’s a sign of respect.  I would never criticize someone if I didn’t think they had the capacity to change for the better.


I think it is a sign of great collegiality and healthy working relationships when people are able to passionately disagree with, and offer constructive criticism to, each other without hurt feelings.  We’ll add that to the list of many things I do adore about the academe.