science

Funding Acknowledgements

Here’s a pretty common scenario in regards to coauthorship on papers from my group. Student A works on a certain project for which I have funding from a federal agency, grant GR1. I, Prof X, also draw some salary support from that grant, so you can say that I am funded for my work on said project by that salary on GR1. But, in addition to Student A and myself, there’s also Student B who does something else and is funded by grant GR2, but has given some code to Student A and has spent a fair bit of time training and troubleshooting with Student A by virtue of having related expertise and broad interests. Also, we have Postdoc, who again has his own projects, but has on many occasions shot the breeze with Student A and has contributed some key insights, again because they have related expertise. Postdoc is funded by GR3.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that everyone here should be a coauthor, and usually the author list will be: Student A, Postdoc, Student B, and Prof. X (or Postdoc and Student B change places, depending on who was actually more instrumental in the paper coming together).

Now comes the tricky part. How do you acknowledge the funding?

The reason I am asking is that there seems to be quite a tightening in the federal oversight to ensure there is no duplication of work, and several program managers have communicated that people have recently gotten into legal trouble for seemingly (or actually) getting money for the same work twice. As a result, program managers are being very specific in terms of how the acknolwedgements on grants are supposed to be written in order to avoid ambiguity.

In the case of the paper above, this is what I would write. “This work was primarily supported by Agency 1, grant GR1 (Student A and Prof. X). Partial support was provided by Agency 2, grant GR2 (Postdoc) and Agency 3, grant GR3 (Student B).” Apparently, this way of acknowledging funding is borderline OK, so I hear, so I am legally likely fine, but instead of separating by who is funded by what, they would much prefer it if we delineated by the work done under each funding string rather than the persons funded.

This is what really bothers me in regards to the type of the work I do. Maybe it’s not quite so dire in lab work, or I could be imagining, but in experimental work people can actually perform parts of complicated experiments for one another, so you could say “transmission-electron microscopy was funded by grant 11, crystal growth was funded by grant 22,” because the student who’s an expert in crystal growth of that particular compound grows materials for everyone and is funded by 22, while the transmission-electron microscopy whiz is funded by grant 11. But when you do theory and computation, all the actual work is done by you. It’s not like anyone will sit down and write a thousand lines of code just for you. They may give you chunks of their code if appropriate, but how do you acknowledge that? Maybe I should write “the work on adaptive meshing for Complicated Partial Differential Equation was funded by grant 33,” when all that means is that Student B gave his routine to Student A and spent some time discussing how it would be implemented for Student A’s project. Also, we talk and draw on the board and look at figures a lot. When you do theory and especially computation, literally nothing can happen unless you really, really know what you are doing — there is no simulation unless you actually write the code; there is no physical system to probe, you first have to (reliably!) create it on a computer, only then can you play with it — so it is absolutely critical to read and talk and scrutinize and brainstorm and test and test and test… And finally build some intuition. If talking with someone has helped you dramatically to build your intuition, and they have contributed key insights into your project, how do you acknowledge that? “Coming up with the explanation following Figs. 2-4 was funded in part by grant GR2?” “The work that led to us all finally understanding why that curve had a crossover was funded by 44?”
(And don’t even get me started on having short papers and having to devote a whole paragraph to elaborate acknowledgements.)

Now, you could ask — why aren’t your postdoc and Student B actually compensated for their time spent on this project from the grant that funds it, GR1?
Because I have better things to do than track every second of every group member’s mental activity. Also, it’s completely insane and at odds with how science is done. My group members each have their own projects to which they devote most of their time, and those projects have funds associate with them, which are acknowledged as primary support on papers where the appropriate group member is first author. But they should be able to talk to whomever they like, and they should definitely be able to talk as much as they want about work with their fellow group members. That’s what team science is all about — we are smarter and more productive when we work together.

I don’t know, maybe there are people who double- or triple-dip. I certainly don’t and I think most people don’t. I really don’t see how I would even get funded for work with too much overlap anyway, there are multiple points during peer review to make sure that doesn’t happen; we certainly scrutinize overlap during NSF panels. It really irks me that now I have to think about creative ways to convince some new layers of federal bureaucracy that we are not abusing their funds, lest we get into legal trouble.

Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?

Unprepared

The semester started last week. I am again teaching a junior/senior elective for majors and it looks like it might be a rough semester.

The course I am teaching follows a basic, required course in the major. I find the students are poorly prepared, more poorly than the class I had last semester. The students  are quiet and look positively terrified. I know it takes a little while for people to warm up and start answering my in-class questions, so that will come with time. But I am being quite alarmed by all the things that they say they have never seen before, because, if that’s true, then I have to significantly rethink the class. Sure, I suppose they might be fibbing, but I do believe think most of them have simply never seen  the material or, if they have, then it really didn’t stick at all and they genuinely don’t remember it.

Last week and this week, we are reviewing the material from the previous course, and it’s going very slowly. I may have to take more time simply to get them up to where they would actually need to be, which means cutting out some of the new stuff.

Also, the lack of facility with math always rears its ugly head, but at least that’s not particularly surprising. Any physical science field that requires a lot of physics has to be taught math really rigorously, and the math department does a very good job. The problem is that, owing to a recent idiotic progressive change in the curriculum for our major,  which is supposed to give the students more flexibility to  freely choose easy courses outside of the major customize their program of study,  some important formerly required math courses have now become electives (e.g. how can linear algebra and differential equations not be required just fuckin’ blows my mind) and now many students elect not to take them. Also, many of the required math courses are mismatched in timing with the relevant courses in the major.

Perhaps more importantly, on top of pure math, the next  layer is often missing, and that is the layer where the students are taught physics while using the math tools. This is where they should simultaneously be taught how to build their intuition about the physics with the help of math (math is your friend, people!!!)  and how to better understand the ability of math to capture the physical world. What  we need are slower-paced calculus-based physics courses and less jam-packed syllabi  in the lower-level courses for our major. The way physics for non-physicists courses are taught right now is woefully inefficient: there is too much material in each one of these courses, everything is only touched upon, and the kids retain absolutely nothing. It’s a complete waste of time. Considering that many students haven’t had physics as a standalone subject until college, maybe I shouldn’t lament but should be in awe that the kids have as much proficiency as they do.

People say that we discourage our physical science majors by throwing so much math and physics and chemistry at them when they join the university. That it’s boring and kills their natural creativity and that we should get them more chances to design right away and whatnot. First, if you are going to be a professional scientist or engineer, you need to know that stuff. There is no way around it. You cannot do/create/design anything new and have it work without being able to recognize whether or not it violates the basic laws of nature. So there is no doubt in my mind that a solid foundation in basic math, physics, and chemistry is the core of physical science education. I don’t know how we make it less boring and more appealing — I thought all of it was fascinating to begin with. There are freshman design courses sprouting all around the country, many with a humanistic component, where kids are taught to interface with the communities and solve actual existing problems.  I think that is great and helps motivate a lot of kids, but we can’t forget that in order to be independent scientists and engineers we have to give them a lot of basic science tools — sure, it’s cool to make a product for someone in the community as a freshman, but don’t forget that there was an instructor there to catch the (often obvious) fallacies in the many iterations of the design. For most kids, we are not stifling their unique unadultarated genius with these basic courses; we are giving them the tools so they would be able to work independently to express their creative ideas once they have their diploma in hand.

But perhaps what would help more than anything is somehow magically undoing the years of programming in middle and high school that tell kids math is stupid and boring and useless, and that only hopeless nerds like science and engineering…

Name That Kingpin!

I loved the show Breaking Bad.  Walter White teaches high-school chemistry and discovers  he has lung cancer. Walter is a brilliant chemist, who made some financially imprudent moves in his early days and got cheated out of the subsequently multibillion-dollar company he had founded with two peers. Out of money and fearing for his family’s future upon his death, he takes up cooking meth with a small-time crook and former student Jesse Pinkman. Walter develops a recipe for ultrahigh-purity blue meth, which becomes a hit with the users and crooked distributors alike. Through the seasons, we see Walter become increasingly more vicious as he rises through the drug distribution ranks in the American southwest.

Among the criminals, Walter White is known as Heisenberg. By the end of season 5, the name Heisenberg makes sweaty New Mexico crooks tremble  with fear. Walter is a scientist and chooses this alias because of Werner Heisenberg, a famous German theoretical physicist, well-known for this work on the uncertainty relationships in quantum mechanics and on ferromagnetism.

But why Heisenberg, why was this particular scientist’s name chosen for the show? I googled a little, and there is some inconclusive evidence that the name Heisenberg may be because Walter cannot be both good and bad at the same time, or because he and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman are two sides of the same coin, or some such thing hinting at the uncertainty relationships.  To this I say: whatever… Heisenberg is a great-sounding name for a nerd turned drug lord. It’s got the “zen” and “berg” sounds, which together make a name both strong and ominous.

This got me thinking: If you happen to know a scientist who it thinking of starting an undercover illicit operation among hardened criminals and is in desperate need of a moniker that will pay homage to his/her geeky side while being sufficiently scary to keep said criminals from cutting his/her throat, what kind of name would you recommend? To that end, I decided to look into the names of famous scientists of different stripes, where by famous I mean “when I google ‘famous field-of-science-ist’  I get some options with pics that Google calls ‘ scientists frequently mentioned on the web’. ” Click to enlarge:

Scientists1

Scientists2_Page_2

Scientists2_Page_3

Here are some from the lists above that I think have a kingpin-like quality, mainly because I can imagine Walter White in glasses and his gone-bad hat utter “My name is such-and-such”and sound kind of tough and scary: Heisenberg, Wigner, Berzelius, Avogadro, Bunsen, Copernicus, Gauss, Riemann, Leibnitz, Galois, Fibonacci. (There are also some  good names that are missing above, such as Landau.)

My name is Avogadro… Fear me!

What do you think, which ones among the famous scientist names could be effective as aliases for a scary movie drug lord?