Monday, November 8, 2010

Where I have been -or- Learning to love your reviewers

So yeah.  Submitted manuscript in late July.  1 day under 6 weeks later, we get reviewer comments (I think you can guess the review deadline for this journal).  Good news: they didn't reject it and there are improvements to be made.  Bad news: I immediately wanted to stab reviewer #2.

Reviewer #1 asked for, by far, the most time-consuming experiment (in addition to several other things that could be addressed entirely in writing).  But, Reviewer #1 was very positive about the findings, the experiments and the impact.  Even though s/he asked for the big guns, I was happy to address them because A) the reviewer likes my science and that's always a nice ego stroke and B) they are, logically, the next step of my project.  It was an insightful review, and I appreciated both the comments and the professionality.

Reviewer #2 sounded like s/he just returned from a colonoscopy.  Said some pretty unflattering things about the novelty of my work that, frankly, sounded as if they came from someone completely unfamiliar with the field.  Asked for some nit-picky redos.  Asked some questions that made me wonder if s/he even read the text or attended a science class, like, ever.  Asked for a particular pet method that is less accurate than the one I used for a particular experiment (yeah, you bet we argued that one).  Didn't like my controls and asked for ones that I personally think are less informative.  So, of course, I immediately decided the person was an idiot.  But now, in my wisened 2.5 months out from receiving the decision and having resubmitted earlier today, my attitude has changed slightly.  I still disagree about the usefulness of the particular control, but I did it, and I am glad I did it.  Because the experiment should have been straightforward, but it hit some kinks.  These kinks were unrelated to the validity of my conclusions, however they did relate to the efficiency of my method.  This forced me to re-evaluate a few early steps of my protocol and when I got the final readout, it was obvious that this new and improved method made my data much cleaner than they had been before, so I went back and redid all the experiments done on this particular protocol and got prettier results.  So even if I don't think the particular control I performed to please the reviewer improved my paper in an appreciable way, the comment still did improve my paper immensely.

And about those questions I deemed dumb?  When I sat down to answer them, it forced me to really, really think about my field as a whole.  About the validity of using cancer cell lines and mouse models to study human cancers; I thought this had been pretty damn obvious since the cancer I study happens in the brains of toddlers.  But being forced to put it down in writing in a way that both was supported by published evidence and not snarky made me a better scientist, if only in a small way.  It challenged me to question my assumptions and to be able to defend what is generally unquestioned.

So now, looking back, even though I still think Reviewer #2 is a cranky jerk, I am now starting to think that rather than being stupid, s/he was stupid like a fox.  In a way, at this point, I appreciate Reviewer #2 more than the nice Reviewer #1 (not that I am asking future reviewers to be mean to me!).   While I need the enthusiasm of people like Reviewer #1 if I ever hope to be published, ultimately, the comments from Reviewer #2 improved my science more, both in the short term and the long term.  That's really what it's all about, isn't it?

Friday, September 3, 2010

O PI Where Art Thou

Trying to talk to my PI all day about exciting new data (last set of ChIP PCR finally worked!  Figure complete!  Hooray, lower annealing temp and Q Solution!) and hoping for advice on job search.

Always in a conversation with someone else.

Keep checking on office.

On phone.

Check again.

Left early for holiday weekend.


The big question: Will I still remember what I wanted to talk about on Tuesday?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Improving Your Scientific Communication: Presentations

I believe firmly in the philosophy that one is an eternal student, always learning, and one should therefore always be open to improvement.  This is particularly true of presenting your data to the scientific community.  After all, your data may be awesome, but if it's presented shittily, it will be less well received, or maybe even looked over.  Some of my student colleagues may disagree - they think that their presentations are "good enough" and the data will stand for itself.  Bollux!  I, for one, am not going to stand at a poster for 20 minutes trying to puzzle out which band is which and wonder what the hypothesis even is, if the poster is not clear.  Furthermore, a good presentation will jump out and grab viewers by the gonads, exciting them in your work and further engaging them in your science.  A poster that is boring or hard to follow won't get stopped at as much, and a presentation that is bland or overly complex won't elicit the types of engaging questions the presenter might want - after all, who wants to spend their 5 alloted minutes for questioning rehashing their presentation?

I also wonder how many scientists have any sort of formal training in oral or poster presentations.  I am willing to bet the large majority does not, and instead relies on apprenticeship to gain presenting skills.  This is great if your mentors are good presenters, but this is terrible if your mentors are horseshit presenters.  I'd argue that even if your mentors were good presenters, there are still improvements that can be made.  First, your mentor's style, while it can inform yours, can't be your style; you need to find your own voice, early and often. Second, I have noticed many faculty present in the style that was popular when they were in school or doing their postdocs, leading to an overwhelming amount of comic sans, complexly arrowed diagrams, too much text, and design that is incredibly red-green colorblindess unfriendly.  Hell, I first learned to do my presentations in the late 90's-early 00's and am guilty of many of these mistakes.  Relying on outdated methods/styles should be avoided at all costs, as it reflects complacency and a lack of refinement of personal skills.

In my quest for presentation skill knowledge, I recently came across two incredibly helpful blogs: Better Posters and PowerPoint Ninja, both of which have gads of presentation style pointers as well as technical advice.  Aside from my #1 rule of thumb - never say in text what you can say with graphics* - there isn't really much more advice I can add to the subject than has been covered there, so my advice is to get your ass over to those blogs and play around for a few hours.  They're pure awesomeness.

Discovered via Ambivalent Academic.

*Let's be real: NO ONE reads the text after the section/slide title. You can test this by inserting jokes into your poster figure legends (or, as a student colleague did, into the footnotes of your thesis - only her student reviewers noticed).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The horse says, doctorate denied!

If you're contemplating grad school, or perhaps preparing for your thesis defense as I am, this episode of Futurama is obligatory viewing. (Note to self: do not show up to thesis defense sans clothes).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Getting Thesis Committes to Work for the Student: A Modest Proposal by a Student who's Been There and Back Again

I have often said that I like to live my life in clusterfuck: the week I got married, I decided to adopt my first pet and buy my first car; in a 2 year period I started grad school, bought a house, and bought a business.  You get the idea.  But lately, I'm starting to think maybe I just live my life in coincidence.  I have recently become part of a coalition of grad students at my institution fighting to get the school to take our career development seriously.  It hasn't been an easy fight, but we also have our allies among the faculty.  Our idea is to get some sort of centralized aid for students to learn about their options as scientists, to improve their scientific communications, to connect with potential employers/mentors, to learn what steps they can start taking to make themselves attractive for future grants, institutions, etc.  Students weren't being asked to review papers or grants, or encouraged to network at meetings, or guided with how to get a PI position, and worse, they were well aware of the bottleneck in positions as one climbs the academic ladder.  So, because a coalition of students doesn't necessarily have the power to force PIs to help their mentees with their careers, some students and myself have been working on an end run-around, to get our fellow students the development they need from the school if they can't get it from their mentors.

Now, one might say - and many have - that this is the job of the thesis mentor and, to a lesser extent, the committee members.  Well the problem is, to be perfectly frank, the mentors just aren't cutting it, and committees don't care*. 

Friday, July 16, 2010


QR is in manuscript writing hell!  Including delays caused by: a computer virus, my mentor moving, jury duty, and weddings!

Hoping for a return to normalcy soon.  So I can do super fun things like try to find a job and write a thesis chapter by the end of the month.

You wish you were me.  Admit it.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Although the ruling has its limitations, we're one step closer.

Meanwhile, I'm proud to say I've learned my own state representative has introduced a bill to remove gender-specificity from state marriage laws.

Today's a good day!

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Queen Random Cancer Institute

If I were Queen of the Universe and not just Queen of my house, I would create the ultimate cancer institute, hereby dubbed the Queen Random Cancer Institute (QRCI).  The QRCI's mission would focus broadly on cancer research (basic, translational and clinical - maybe a little more basic because it is dear to my heart) with an emphasis on training and education, and would be located, hmm, just outside a major city so there's somewhere fun to go, clinics and institutions for collaborations, but housing costs don't bleed trainees dry.  Maybe outside Seattle?  I do love Seattle.  The QRCI would be well funded (I think maybe suddenly becoming the richest person on the planet so I can fund this cool place) and would feature the following scientific resources:
  • Core facilities: DNA synthesis, Microscopy (and I'd hire people whose only job is making sure the confocals are CLEAN), Spectrometry, Mouse Husbandry and Genetics, Flow Cytommetry,  Tissue Processing, Model Organisms (pick your favorite - we'll have a core!) I'm sure there's more that I'm forgetting at the moment.
  • PIs, trainees and students would have free access to and be encouraged to use consultants for grant writing, manuscript writing, scientific librarians and statistical analysis.
  • Collaboration would be encouraged across basic, translational and clinical research through interdepartmental funding initiatives, in-house conferences and interdepartmental seminars.
  • A tissue bank of patient samples, obtained with express consent. 

Not forgetting the most important resource in research - the people! - the QRCI would have the following employee benefits:
  • Employees would enjoy free lunches at the cafeteria - and they'd be GOOD.  Healthy options would not be limited to salad.
  • Free on-site gym for employees.
  • Grad student stipends and benefits would be fully paid for by the institution, and would be set at NIH+25%.
  • Students would get the same benefits as employees. 
  • 50% of postdoc stipends and benefits would be paid for by the institution and would be set at NIH+25%.
  • Career development training would be available and encouraged throughout the scientific career from just out of undergrad tech to established PI, including scientific skills, help identifying how to obtain jobs and career goals, leadership, lab management, and scientific communication.
  • Comprehensive health care including vision and dental.
  • 6 months paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child.
  • On-site subsidized daycare for ALL employees, trainees and students including private nursing suites.
  • Help for spouses of employees/trainees/students to find jobs.
  • Help for employees/trainees/students to find housing if they have to relocate to join the QRCI.

Finally, the QRCI would also be focused on outreach:
  • Realistically prorated healthcare for clinic patients including free clinics.
  • Employees, trainees and students will be expected to volunteer in the community for a minimum 2 weeks a year (this can be spread out for a total of 80 hours/year).  Their normal salary/stipend will persist during this 2 weeks, with an option to volunteer more for a total of 120 hours of salary for volunteering.  The institute will help arrange volunteer opportunities with the local community.
  • Public education - I'm not sure how to go about this, but I'd like a public education campaign focused on promoting science education for all ages with a focus on life sciences and cancer treatment.

This post is a part of Scientiae's July installation: Fantasy Institute.

    Sunday, June 20, 2010

    Bisexuality and Heterosexual Privilege

    Happy Pride Month!  For once I remember an awareness day/week/month ON TIME!  Wooohoo!  Yeah I realize I totally missed SAAM this year :/  I'll try to make up for that somehow.

    But anyway!  Back on topic!  Today, folks, we're going to talk about the intersection of biinvisibility and heterosexual privilege*  You see, sometimes bisexuals pose a weirdness to LG safe spaces, because some of us - many of us - are in dual-sex relationships and appear to the world at large as heterosexual.  We are told that in order to participate, we have to acknowledge our straight privilege.  I think with bisexual activism in the 00's this has gotten much better, and we have been much more accepted in the LGBT community, but I still hear it from time to time and every time I feel like I have no place to call home.

    It's true; as a bisexual woman in a dual-sex relationship, I tacitly and explicitly receive the benefits of much of straight privilege.  I could marry the person I loved (er, still love, not like that part is in the past), giving me a huge amount of legal privilege.  Because most people assume I am straight, I don't have to face the daily challenges to my sanity that a person in a same-sex relationship faces.  I get it: I understand how when I am bestowed, and/or take advantage of (depending on the situation), straight privilege, I appear as not capable of contributing to safe spaces because I am benefitting from a system that oppresses homosexuals.

    But it isn't as simple as receiving and taking advantage of heterosexual privilege: "We don't have to take it, we're given it by default, and we can't give it up -- at least, not all of it."  When I benefit from heterosexual privilege, I am also benefiting from a system that is oppressive to bisexuals, a system that is ultimately oppressive to myself.  In order to receive most of the benefits of heterosexual privilege, we have to be closeted.  In fact, I can't count the number of times that my sexuality has been brushed off because I am in a dual-sex relationship: even when I speak up, even when I make my sexuality blatantly apparent, I am shoved back into the closet without my assent (although usually not without a few perfunctory offensive questions about the nature of my relationship first, of course).  So many people who I've told of my bisexuality manage to deal with it by shoving it aside and pretending I'm straight, because it is easier for them to do so than to deal with their own biphobia and homophobia, because if a bisexual person is in a dual-sex relationship, we're seen as passing for straight**.

    Friday, June 4, 2010


    I just got the official committee OK to go ahead and start writing my dissertation.


    Now to find a postdoc.....

    Sunday, May 30, 2010

    Bronte-Saurus! RAWR

    This prettymuch made my week.


    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Ways to set off my bullshit meter in less than 5 seconds

    Sending me, a student, an email addressed to Dr. Queenrandom with the opening phrase "Due to your stature in the oncology field...."

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    Permanent Spousal Record: Recent Conversations

    The Inexplicable
    LB: "I should have figured you'd be into kyaking; lesbians love kyaking."*

    The Dastardly
    Setting: QR is diligently, distractedly writing a manuscript on the couch whilst LB watches a hockey game.
    LB:  "Can I have your Cookie Dough Ice Cream in the freezer?"
    QR: "Yeah sure whatever....." commence 10 second pause while I tippity-type away... "Wait...What?  NO!"

    We Love Each Other, I Swear
    In response to me sending him this ecard:

    He sent me this one:

    Would that it were not so true.

    *Said completely without a sense of irony.  I'm glad my husband is comfortable enough with my sexuality to make seminonsensical jokes about it.

    Monday, May 10, 2010

    Spring Cleaning

    I thought I would be much less busy when I got back from a week long conference.*

    I thought horribly wrong.

    I am now Filled! With! Ideas!  in addition to having to finish up long-planned experiments and write my manuscript.  Oh and put together a journal club presentation, help plan and implement a career development series for the fellow's association, spend a day escorting around an invited speaker, and other various seminars.  April has been a bitch and May doesn't look much better.  I might not get any relief until my fucking cherished civil service of jury duty in July (apparently "I'm writing a goddamn dissertation and trying to find a job you fuckwits" is not a valid excuse for getting out of jury duty).

    I'm also trying to fill out all the forms to transfer labs - my mentor is changing institutions and the plan is for me to go to a similar lab here to finish up the last few months of my training - and making sure supplies & such are in order for me to do so without too much disruption to my research.

    To give you an idea of how busy I am, witness the current shameful, shameful state of my lab desk, which is the worst it has been....ever in my life:

    Thursday, April 15, 2010


    Queenrandom is leaving for her VBICM shortly and is pretty nervous about her talk, although the nice doctor gave her some shiny drugs that calm her nerves and cause her to write in the third person.  The conference is rather long so she doubts she can get any substantive posts written in the next week or so, after which regular Random Sample programming will resume.

    Think happy good presentation thoughts for me!

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    Feelings of Fraud and Inadequacy in Grad School

    I keep starting to write this post and then stopping.  This subject is very difficult to write about; it's very personal and one of my deepest professional insecurities, and I don't think I'm alone.  You see, I was talking with a couple of fellow grad students not too long ago, one senior student like myself, and a fellow a few years younger than us.  We were discussing data quality and publication, and I admitted that sometimes I feel like a fraud - sometimes I think my good data is all in my head, I'm imagining it, and someday soon some experiment is going to unravel my entire body of work.  The other old salt agreed with me, while the young pup exclaimed "What, you mean those feelings don't go away with success?!?"  All three of us were affected by classic impostor syndrome.  I read that women are more often affected by men, although anecdotally I was the only woman in that conversation.  I wonder if this is more common among certain fields or regions.

    What I find even weirder is that as I achieve higher levels of success with my project, these feelings seem to intensify - the more I participate in the scientific field, the more chances there are that people will discover what an idiot I really am. 

    Saturday, March 6, 2010

    Winter Wonderland

     I meant to post this photo a while ago.  I snapped it one saturday afternoon when walking home from work.

    Wednesday, March 3, 2010

    We do meat substitute right

    The Olympics are the ultimate junk TV.  I sit in front of them, mindless, for hours, pretending to know something about the hammer, Salchows, and backside rodeos*.  They keep me up late at night, cheering for the good ole USA.  But also?  They have a lot of commercials.  A LOT.  And I noticed a new commercial for KFC promoting their new boneless fillet, which they promised would be


    Meatier? What in the everliving fuck was there besides meat in their "chicken" before this fillet?  Sawdust, crayon shavings and glue?  How the hell can one meat be meatier than another meat?  They sell plain fucking chicken, for chrissake, it's right there in the name!  I NEED ANSWERS, PEOPLE!  I...I think I need to go take a shower now, I feel unclean.

    *Not, as I learned, a gay porn maneuver.  Heh.  MANeuver.

    Friday, February 26, 2010

    This is the funniest thing I've read all week.

    Sardines.  A comic by my friend's twins.  Go read it.

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    You want to eat dinner at my house tonight.

    I made some freaking awesome butternut squash soup.  Behold!

    OK so my blackberry photography skillz could use some work.  But that stuff is mad delicious.  I took some liberties with a recipe I found from Michael Chiarello, who is a celebrity chef LB and I like to keep an eye on.  Here's my version (it's super easy):

    Monday, February 22, 2010

    I'm so dead

    Is your cat plotting to kill you?

    Considering I have two, I think they're conspiring against me.  I did first grow suspicious when Milo distracted me with his cuteness, then Max made a flying leap in front of me, almost as if to trip me down the stairs.  Hmmmmmmm.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Go Megashark!


    Via (plus video proof)

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Senior Grad Student Invisibility

    When I was a wee baby grad student, I noticed that the vast majority of students that showed up for journal clubs, workshops, seminars and social events were third year or under.  "How terrible!" I thought, "When I'm a senior grad student I'll be sure to participate!"

    Now, as a senior grad student, I find myself showing up to less and less of the grad school functions.  First to go were the unnecessary social events.  Then the seminars.  Workshops became spotty, though I still try to attend journal clubs (and my institution is fond of nannying us taking attendance).  Increasingly I justify this absence to myself with "This is a waste of my time!  I could be at the bench!" or "I have too much to do today!" or "The kids these days suck at presenting a journal article!"  My favorite justification for the social functions is "Bah!  Kids!  I'm too old for this crap!"  (I have grumpy old man syndrome at 28, and female).

    Now, some of this is certainly just excuses (although the kids these days do put on a terrible presentation, but I should probably show up to heckle give constructive criticism). But I did fail to realize in my early career just how time-consuming full-time bench work is.  If there's a seminar at 11, but I have to submit a 6-hour stain to flow lab by 2PM, well chances are the seminar will get skipped.  As a young grad student in classes, your eyes are constantly on the clock so you can maximize your lab:class time ratio.  I also failed to realize how one can lose track of time during a busy workday when you get in the groove.  "Crap!  It's 5?  I'm going to miss the bus!  I swear I looked at the clock an hour ago and it said it was noon!  CLOCK, BANE OF MY EXISTENCE, YOU LIE LIKE A LYING DOG!"

    Hoo, back it up there QR, breathe.


    I get the feeling a research career is like this; early on, you have a lot of time for non-bench stuff, so you go to more non-bench stuff.  Then you get busy at the bench and forget that the world around you exists.  Then you get tied to a computer paper or grant-writing and get bored out of your mind with the constant streams of text so you show up to seminars and heckle constructively criticize baby grad students with terrible presentations.  I'm hoping to move to this third stage quite soon, provided the luciferin cooperates.  Mwuahahahahahahahahahahaha!

    Monday, February 8, 2010

    Hindsight -or- Choosing a Research Mentor

    The single most important choice of graduate school is choosing your adviser/research mentor. Your adviser affects nearly all aspects of your career:
    • Science - Not only will your choice in mentor shape what projects you work on, but part of the job of the mentor is to train you in both scientific thought and methods. A good mentor will be able to train you to recognize the difference between good research and bad, when to stick with something or give it up, when to publish, and how to produce quality data.
    • Continuity of Research - Your mentor will provide partial or total funding for your project through her grants, depending on institutional policies. It is critical you have the funds available to complete your thesis project; without them, there is no project!
    • Writing - Your mentor will also guide you to learn scientific writing for meeting abstracts, thesis preparation and publication. It is crucial to learn good written communication skills; they are the bread and butter of science. Without quality publications, your hope for getting a J-O-B is practically nil. A good mentor will produce easy to understand, quality publications and help you to refine your own writing skills.
    • Visibility - Related to the above, your mentor can determine how seriously your communications are taken, and whether they are even in existence. A good mentor will encourage your participation in national meetings and timely publication. Your mentor can provide you with contacts to people who work in your field of interest and can advise you on which academic societies are worth your time (and money!)
    • Leadership - Your mentor also serves as a model for how you might run a lab in the future. She may also provide you with leadership opportunities within the lab so you can start to develop your own style. Leadership styles differ greatly; try to pick a mentor who is similar to the style you would like to emulate, but not exactly the same. You might learn something from the differences!
    • Graduation - Your adviser should always have your graduation in mind. A good mentor will make sure you stayed in school long enough to get the skills necessary to do a postdoc, but not so long that they're taking advantage of cheap labor. They will press you to make progress, without demanding too much or allowing you to fizzle out and get a terminal Master's.
    Given how very important your Ph.D. adviser is to your future career, choosing one can be very daunting. You might ask yourself, how do I rank potential advisers? Funding? Science? Personality? Success graduating students and placing postdocs? These are all important; only you can decide which is the most important for you, given your situation. For me, all the mentors I rotated with had interesting science with established projects, so I could eliminate that from my final decision making process. I made my initial decision based on appearance of funding (more on that) and leadership style.

    But as you may be aware, I encountered some bumpsLots of bumps.  I chose my first mentor poorly and had to switch labs. My purpose, chickadees, is to prevent future baby Ph.D. students from choosing poorly.  Given my methodical mentor-choosing process, where did I go wrong?

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    Time for Change

    Sometimes what we start to do doesn't end up matching what we need to do. When I started this blog, I didn't really have a clear goal or mode in mind...I just thought, "Hey, this will be where I put my thoughts down lalalalalala!" This led to me getting distracted and not posting.

    I have recently put a lot of thought into what I want this blog to be. I would like to focus more on science and social justice - things which are very important in my personal life, but that I have been ignoring here (don't worry, you'll still get my self-depricating sarcasm and animal stories, for suresies). To that end, I need to do three things. First, I'll need to overhaul this blog. There will be arcives, for sure, but I have reorganized them a bit. And with new content there must be a new look! The second, and much harder one, is I need to break out of my shell. I need to stop being afraid of criticism. The third is to fully commit to regular posting, at least once a week. I'm scheduling it!