Month: July 2017

Notes from the Road

I spent 6 nights in First City, First Hotel Chain, in room 1133.

I just arrived in Second City, Second Hotel Chain, and was given a key to room number … 1133.

Uncanny, right?

DH jokes that I should place a bet on something at 11:33. ūüôā


Today’s drive wasn’t very long, only about 4 hours, and was quite enjoyable.

When I drive, I listen to the local radio. I listen to a station I like until I get out of range, then find the next one that’s not staticky. No matter where you are, you can always find a classic-rock station, an adult-hits station (extra gooey and fairly dated pop), and a top-40 station. You can usually find a country-music station, a religious-talk-show station, a classical-music station, and a Spanish-language station. (This¬†paragraph might have exhausted my allotment of hyphens for the month of July.)

I always prefer radio to my own music — I like to be surprised.


There’s a gym on my floor, with lots ¬†of treadmills, and free fruit and water. Yes! And yum!


Second City is surprisingly beautiful, in a tough, gritty kind of way. I love the skyline — the hills, the skyscrapers.

How to Be an Asshole to Fellow Immigrants

At this conference, I met a couple (a scientist husband and a homemaker wife) who’ve lived in North America for about 40 years. They are originally from a big country in Europe, and are not only very proud of their origins, but maintain ties that are so strong that one wonders why they ever bothered emigrating at all, when they go back to the Old Country every chance they get. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which is typical in showcasing how obnoxious immigrants can be to other immigrants, especially when the way you do immigration deviates from “the one true way,” which is of course their way. (Italics refer to what I am thinking but of course wouldn’t say, because I am a well-socialized adult and don’t have the foot-in-mouth disease.)

Wife: What’s your name?

Me (pointing to my name tag): My name is <How I Pronounce My Name in the US>.

Wife: Oh, you are <How the Name is Spelled>! Your name is not <How I Pronounce My Name in the US>; your name is <How the Name is Spelled>.

My name is what I say my name is. Who the fuck do you think you are to lecture me on what my name is? 

Me, out loud: Actually, I have been in the States for nearly half my life now, and <How I Pronounce My Name in the US> is what my children would say my name is, so that is in fact my name.

Later on, I talked with the husband, as he sat next to me. It is worth noting that the couple both have very thick accents and less-than-perfect grammar in the English language despite having lived in North America as long as they have.

Husband: So do you go back home often?

Me: Well, my kids were born here, so this is really my home.

Husband: No, your kids’ home is where you are.

Go fuck yourself. 

Me: No, I don’t go to Godforsakia often.

Husband: Why? Don’t you have family there?

Me: Some, but after you have been gone a while, things change. People move on.

Husband: But don’t you take your kids there to learn the language?

Me: My kids speak only English.

Husband (eyes open wide, about to fall out of head): But why? It’s so important to learn multiple languages! It helps with brain development!

My kids’ brains are just fine, and it’s perfectly possible to learn foreign languages later in life. Not everything needs to be shoved down kids’ throats starting in infancy. In fact, the native language is critical to one’s identity. I don’t want my kids to think of themselves as anything other than Americans; I don’t want them to think of themselves as Godforsakian-Americans. They don’t need the immigrant bullshit. The immigrant bullshit stops with my husband and me. If the kids wish to learn my native tongue or any other language, I will be happy to help, but I am not forcing anyone to learn a language of a tiny country, which they would have no one to speak with.¬†

Me, out loud: Mhm.

Husband: Our kids and even our grandkids speak our native tongue! We all go to Old Country whenever we can! We love it there, it’s wonderful! (Follows up with an elaborate description of ¬†a party in his mother’s garden, with kids and pets prancing and speaking in the Old Country tongue.)

So why did you leave then? Seriously, why?  I will never understand the people who emigrated decades ago, but would apparently still rather be in the country of origin than wherever they landed. 

Husband: So have you already been on vacation or are you just going?

This is the US, how much vacation do you think we get? Besides, I like working. One of the things I like about the US, as unhealthy as is may seem, is its workaholism. The US crazy matches my crazy.

Me: We’ll have a weeklong vacation in August. We’re going to <Vacationing Spot>.

Husband: Only a week? My grandkids will be with me for two weeks here and then another two weeks there.

Me: That’s nice.

Husband: So who takes care of your kids in the summer?

Woodland fuckin’ fairies.¬†

Me: They go to various summer camps.

Husband, clearly disappointed with my childrearing choices: Oh, they go to camps…

Honestly, I would have much rather talked about science and tried to stir the conversation that way a few times, but he only seemed to want to talk about Old Country, my relationship to Godforsakia, or childrearing. Soon I turned to the person on my other side and talked with him instead the rest of the evening.

Out of Your Mind

A colleague and I chatted today, and it seems we each have a student with the following characteristics: very talented, very hard working — to the exclusion of all else, very sensitive to criticism, and extremely anxious about the external recognition of their work (e.g., constantly comparing self to peers in terms of the number of publications or frequently checking citation numbers and obsessing why the citations aren’t picking up even though the paper just came out).

I think every successful scientist has all of these traits to some degree, especially the first two. The question is whether too much work or too much reliance on external recognition make you so miserable that you can no longer do science or simply enjoy life.

The answer is to find a way to get out of your own head. With experience, people find ways to balance the crazy aspects of the career that can be all-consuming with being a whole human being with a complex web of dreams, needs, and desires.

How can you help someone who relies on you for advice to find a good outlet, a good way to relieve the pressure inside their own mind?

Most people will recommend exercise. I agree that exercise can be an excellent outlet, but not all exercise is for everyone; even activities that seem to be hailed as panacea, like running, are really not. People need to find something they really like to do, and I am not surprised that many people cannot. I, for example, really dislike running. Going to the gym to lift weights, run on the treadmill, or use the elliptical are not my cup of tea — I am going to cheat if I am left to my own devices, because I am actually lazy and don’t want to do the hard work and sweat. I would love to play volleyball, which is what I used to do when I was young, but given my age and the size of my posterior, I think that me playing volleyball right now would be a recipe for a serious injury. That’s an issue with many types of really fun exercise — you actually have to be in a pretty good shape to do it without hurting yourself. I am fortunate to have found kickboxing, which provides the social component that makes it fun, a coach to keep us all on track, and a glorious de-stressing aspect that comes from punching and kicking that bag. But I understand very well that it can be exceedingly hard to find a type of exercise that is both safe to do while you’re still out of shape and engrossing enough to provide a real outlet.

I have been blogging for years now, and it’s a valuable release valve for me, but I know it’s not for everyone.¬†I also like to draw, but I am not good enough, nor do I have the command of various media that might make art a better outlet. Perhaps I should explore further.

I binge-watch TV and movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and it takes 2-3 days of binging to realize that my brain is completely blissfully empty of whatever was bothering me.

I love driving and do sometimes just drive around, but doing so for 5 hours would likely lead to my family worrying about what had happened to me, so I don’t really do it to the extent to which I think I would need to in order to make driving an effective de-stressor.

When I talked with my student last about how stressed out he was, I tried to probe what he liked to do when he was young in order to encourage him to take up those activities again. It turned out he had been in the programs for talented kids in his home country since such an early age that he’d basically had no free time or hobbies. He had played an instrument for years, which I suggested he pick up again. We also talked about sailing and fishing, which seemed appealing to him. Various additional recommendations of sports or art forms didn’t seem to click, and neither did suggestions of hanging out more with friends.

Dear readers, how do you get out of your own head? What would you suggest to someone who is clearly suffering both personally and professionally from a lack of an effective or enjoyable outlet?

Get the hell out of Dodge!

I did, eventually, after nearly 12 hours.
This sexy rental-car beast — a 2017 Dodge Charger — and I traveled roughly 700 miles today across six states, and I feel way better than I would if I had flown instead: my legs were not cramped so my knees are not angrily throbbing now, and my love for fellow humans has been in no way diminished by the experience. I am physically tired but mentally refreshed in way an introvert can be after having spent blissful 12 hours talking to no one, taking in the vast open ¬†road, and listening to music.

This post was written on the phone. It’s painful.

For non-US readers, “get the hell out of Dodge” is an expression meaning scram.

On Boundaries in Research Groups

This is a posts that I kept remembering to sit down and write, only to forget yet again. I was reminded of it as I read this post by mathbionerd, to which I arrived somehow by tracking the good news that Dr Becca of Scientopia and Twitter fame had indeed been approved for tenure — congrats to Dr Becca!

The post is about boundaries between the PI and the graduate students/postdocs in a research group.

I have junior colleagues who meet with students at all hours, so 6-11 pm or weekends are not off limits.
Many PIs seem to have their group over for barbecue or holiday celebrations. Some PI take their groups to camping trips. Recently, I found out that the members of one research group are all expected to participate in certain 5k races, which really didn’t sit well with me.

In my view, any activity that is organized by the PI is not truly voluntary for students. There is always a power differential, and a student may feel like they have to attend even though they rather wouldn’t. For instance, late afternoon/evening/weekend meetings with the PI would have been a deal breaker for me in grad school as I had a kid in daycare; mandatory participation in activities like running 5k races isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or withing everyone’s physical abilities, and seems unfair to expect people to do.

Therefore, my students know (we have a document on the group website delineating what I expect and what they can expect from me) that I will not require their presence outside of 9-5 M-F. No late meetings or weekend meetings. When someone is about to leave the group, we go out to lunch during the week, somewhere close to work and I pay for everyone. I occasionally order pizza for the group for minor celebrations (again, during the week, and I pay). No one from my group has ever been to my house and I don’t see why that would be necessary. I don’t want to put the students in a situation where they have to do something they don’t want to because they think I might be upset if they refuse, even if I most definitely wouldn’t be. Our relationship is professional and as such benefits from solid boundaries between personal time and work time.

I would be delighted if my students all hung out without me, and I think there are some nice friendships in the group, but it’s all student-led and I have nothing to do with it. Maybe bonding experiences, like group barbecues and hikes and races, do really contribute to bonding, but this potential benefit is overshadowed (for me) by not wanting to impose on the group member’s personal time. Also, I certainly don’t expect them to spend their own money on the activities I require and they aren’t 100% free to refuse, such as the aforementioned lunches to say farewell to a group member.

I know that, once people join the “real world” they will likely have company retreats and perhaps intrusive managers who won’t respect personal time, which I think is all the more reason for me to be nonintrusive.

Dear readers, what is your attitude on group activities or other meetings requiring one’s presence outside of regular work hours?

Abandoned Manuscripts

A few weeks ago, a colleague’s postdoc sent out a draft of a paper for comments. I looked at the paper and thought, “Wait, haven’t we published everything we had on this topic years ago?” To put things in context, I had an undergrad honors student working on the theory part of this project. Since the last publication, the undergrad had graduated, attended graduate school elsewhere, and is about to defend his PhD. So yes, it’s been a while.

Honestly, I almost completely forgot about this project; I certainly don’t recall any of the details. I would first have to go reread what we’d published before I can intelligently comment on this new draft.

Which really brings me to the topic of today’s post: When are you really done with a project? And how do you decide if an abandoned manuscript deserves resuscitation or if it’s best left to die?

I know people who more-or-less work on the same problem, or within the same narrow field, their entire careers. This approach doesn’t generally bode well for funding prospects in many fields in the US, but I admit that some who’ve pursued this strategy have been funded and productive on account of being the highest authority in the niche.

Most people do switch topics, or, more precisely, they slowly drift away from an old focus and toward a new one. As they do so, they might maintain some activity in the original area.¬†I personally like to make more of a clean break after I’ve said what I had to say. At any point in time, I run several fairly disparate research thrusts; each will be active for maybe 2-3 grant cycles, which is usually enough for some nice results and papers and about as long as my interest can hold before I itch to do something else, after which I move on while downsizing and often completely shutting down the work on the old thrust. This does result in always feeling like an outsider in a new field — scary, but also invigorating.

I focus on getting papers out as fast as possible and don’t really have a history of sitting on manuscripts for no reason.¬†However, I admit I currently have two papers that are semi-abandoned.

One I simply can’t bring myself to submit, because my gut tells me there is something wrong with it and I don’t want us to look foolish. The paper disputes the work of another group, which is led by an excellent scientist. Our argument is that the other group missed something fairly basic, and I honestly can’t believe that they did; instead, I fear it’s us who might be in the wrong and that the issue is far more subtle than it seems at first (my former student insists that it is that simple), but I just haven’t been able to devote to this problem the time and attention it deserves in order to convince myself one way or another.

The other paper that I have on the back burner was going to come out of a former student’s Master’s degree work; the student was supported during the study by their employer, a national lab. (The student was completely disinterested in getting a paper out of the work and only wanted a degree; I ¬†generally expect one paper at the level of a Master’s, but it’s not a formal degree requirement.) This paper would be a very small contribution, but would have a head and tail and a clear pitch, and I think it might review well in a suitable minor publication venue. The question is whether writing up this little nugget and the hassle of getting the approval to submit from the national lab are worth my¬†time, when the contribution is incremental and well below the standard of novelty I like to set for my group.

Other than these two, everything else I have in the pipeline is quite fresh.

The colleague whose postdoc sent me that manuscript is not a procrastinator; he’s usually good about submitting papers, but does seem to have a number that are five-to-ten-years old yet haven’t seen the light of day. I was really surprised that we had anything left unpublished on that particular topic, and it’s interesting that this work is being resurrected right now.

Dear readers, do you have any unpublished manuscripts that have been in purgatory for far too long? If yes, why do you think they never got their chance at submission? How long has it been since the first draft? Do you think they will ever be submitted? When do you think a manuscript is officially past its expiration date (assuming no one’s scooped you)?


This is a true story.

Submitted a white paper (i.e., a preproposal). Received reviews for what could not have possibly been my project.
Me: “Uhm, I don’t think these are for my white paper…”
Program director: “Oops!”
Still awaiting the right reviews.

Dear readers, please share your hard-to-believe stories from the grant-seeking trenches in the comments.