Monday, October 27, 2008

Six things that make you go...hum

Well, i'm on the road again (the life of a vagrant ecologist) and like clockwork one of the meme things is passing around. I've been watching it pass through the circle of blogs I read like a nasty cold and I thought perhaps I had escaped this one since I've been out of contact, but no.....thank you, Dr Dr A, for making sure I "didn't feel left out". Very....kind. Oh well, I was going to write about this quite intriguing dream I had about PhysioProf the other night (no, Isis, it did not consist of PhysioProf washing your feet in lavender water as he worshipped you for the true goddess you are) , but maybe I'll remember it when I get a chance to write another blog entry next week.

Here are the rules:

  • Link to the person who tagged you.
  • Write six random things about yourself.
  • Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
  • Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  • Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

1) When River Tam was a little girl, she had an invisible friend named "Little Girl", who had no problems telling River's mother when she didn't like what River's mother was doing.

2) River Tam used to go around every Spring, saving all the caterpillars by collecting them and putting them in the mailbox with handfuls of grass. River's mother kindly asked her to stop by pointing out that this was really freaking out the mail man.

3) Art museums are crack to River: addictive and exhilarating, she goes out of her way to find them, and they are a major drain on her productivity.

4) River's goal is to visit every continent except Antarctica (for an explanation of this see #5); she has currently visited 3 of them.

5) River thinks that winter is proof that God exists and hates us.

6) River's college minor is listed as Physics/Math/Chemistry...she has no idea why.

Holy crap, I have to spread this cold to SIX people? Let's about Fia, Nat, Cath@vwxynot (my chaos twin), and...ah screw it. I have no patience for coming up with six people who have not already received this! Enjoy!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Goddess Isis v. Professor Chaos: the case of blog infringement

I have recently gotten into a bit of trouble for my use of Isis-esque pictorial references in my recent blog posts:

PS: Let's try to keep this obvious imitation to a minimum, though. You can't be stealing Dr. Isis's schtick or you may make it on to the list of people I call "bullshit" on.

I understand the Goddess' ire. And I am willing to be tried by a court of my blogging peers. So let me take the stand and present my case:

Am I guilty for imitating Dr Isis through the use of images? Yes. I will not lie,  your honors.

But I think the fabulously shod Dr. Isis is missing something important: When you revolutionize a field, is it then fair - nay, it is right! -  to ask others not to emulate you? I would argue that I am not alone in perceiving the superior aspects for communication illustrated by Dr Isis' brilliant and witty use of images. I believe it has really resonated with some of us as being a powerful way to communicate. I call to the stand:

FIA, CandidEngineer, even the beloved DrugMonkey

One might wonder why the use of funny pictures seems to work and why I cannot seem to resist using them now that I've seen it done by a master. My defense is feeble, but I lay may case before the court:

I love academia and I love being a scientist. I would not choose any other job for myself. But I do see things that I find...illogical. My desire is to discuss these things that I do not understand (or frankly worry me) in a way that at the same time conveys my love of what I do. I think from my earliest posts it is clear that humor has been my way of doing this. The use of images to help convey the humor when sometimes it is hard to write something funny is frankly what I consider the deeply and fundamentally brilliant aspect to Dr. Isis' style. In some ways, she is our equivalent to Jon Stewart. When the nightly news makes you want to throw yourself off the nearest building, Jon Stewart can wrap the same essence into something that makes us laugh and think at the same time.

Of course, Jon Stewart does not act alone. He has a nice foil and colleague in Stephen Colbert - who also uses humor to discuss things that would make us want to cry otherwise. Since the Colbert character was taken from the Jon Stewart show, perhaps there is an analogy we could discuss here. Perhaps, Dear Isis and members of the jury, you will allow me to play Stephen Colbert to Isis' Jon Stewart. Now, I imagine that Stephen Colbert pays some sort of royalties or has some other financial arrangement with Stewart, and I am happy to pay the Goddess royalties from every blog where I use images. Unfortunately, my blog royalties look kinda like my grant dollars:


With that, I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If I had a million dollars, I'd be...

I was going to write "a NIH* funded biomedical researcher", but it turns out that it would need to be more like "If I had $2.69-3.38 million..."


Figure 1. How I imagine biomedical researchers like Dr. Isis examine their grant monies. I need not remind everyone that Dr. Isis, of course, is way hotter*.

Before my ecology compatriots have brain hemorrhages and have to explain to their colleagues why blood is suddenly coming out of their ears, these grant amounts are not annual amounts but are probably the total award for the entire grant duration (yes, I know, ecology peeps, this is still beyond our comprehension, but hang with me....). For the edification of the non-NIHers who read my blog: NIH's website indicates that the R01*  can be up to $250k per year or more*  (this is the amount that goes directly to the researcher, the university F&A* goes on top of that) for 1-5 years.

To understand why I find this so deeply fascinating, you have to understand the differences between NSF funding in my field and NIH funding. To illustrate, I found a table on NSF's website with some basic funding rate information (there is also a report that makes very interesting reading as well). I have provided below the 2007 information for a few programs in DEB*:

Organization Mean Grant Duration (years) Median Annual Size
Division of Environmental Biology 2.73 $87,439
    Ecology 2.51 $24,995
    Ecosystem Studies 2.43 $73,741
    Population Dynamics 2.37 $66,833

I would like to point out that these amounts probably include F&A, because that's how we NSFers roll. (For those of you checking up on me, I reported the program figures and not the cluster figures because I think the clusters include CAREER, OPUS, and LTREB grants which have different budget and funding criteria than normal grants).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I suspect that these numbers are on the low side (and the funding rates on the NSF website are on the high side) as they probably include all funded proposals through those programs - including workshop and conference proposals, dissertation improvement grants (DIGs), and Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGERs). When I went through the Ecology program awards, attempting to weed out those types of grants, the average I got was closer $63,482/ year for an average of 3.6 years (though I have to admit my calculation is based on a small sample size....I am an untenured assistant professor after all and shockingly this is not what they will give me tenure for). If you assume 50% F&A on average, then the average net per grant annual research fund for an individual researcher in ecology is more like $42,000. This is a  far cry from the $250,000/year net research dollars of our NIH colleagues.

image Figure 2. How most ecologists examine their grant money.




My hope right now is that a few of my biomedical/cellular/molecular/neurophys peeps blink at our numbers like I did at theirs. I do not begrudge them their superior funds (I have to admit that I see the use of MRIs and not bleeding people with leeches as huge advancements that benefit me personally). My intent with this post is education. When NIH and NSF funded researchers coexist within the same department (as happens in Departments of Biology and even Departments of Ecology and Evolution thanks to the genomics revolution), sometimes things can get....weird*. We have different cultures, different research programs, different graduate student training goals, different philosophies for authorship. I think this is great. Each science has developed its own approach to facing the challenges of its discipline. The problems arise when these different cultures are forced to coexist within a department. My favorite quote from this bizarre little culture war was to the effect that ecologists were departmental parasites because "the NIH money we bring in runs this department". I obviously cannot argue with the money part of that statement, but does that mean there is really no need for ecology as was not so subtly implied? It is apparently a sentiment that has played out more than once as I know of more than one Department of Ecology and Evolution has been created because things got so bad that the university would otherwise completely lose ecology and evolution.


Figure 3. How ecologists and cellular/molecular researchers often get along.

One of the things I would like to do (hopefully with humor and grace) is to take advantage of the blogosphere to help communicate across this divide. I have been using DrugMonkey as a training ground, learning how this other culture operates and helping me to understand why my cellular/molecular colleagues sometimes yell at me. Perhaps I can return the favor (minus the yelling) for someone out there in a Biology Department who is fascinated by their bizarre hippie-esque, Teva-wearing brethren who can apparently survive scientifically on research funding scraps and still occasionally get papers into GlamourMags (no blind acorn jokes, please). In my Gulliver's Travels through the blogosphere, I have found that while many things are different across the sciences, we also have many things in common. Perhaps you will too...


*NIH: I think most of us know what this is, but I thought I would take this opportunity to draw your attention to the glossary I've constructed at the bottom of the post. For most ecologists, all you need to know of NIH is that it is inconceivably better funded than NSF and is generally (with exceptions) not interested in us.

*General Disarray came in this morning, saw the pictures in my draft and said, "Isis is going to be SOOOOOO mad." I am hoping that this blatant flattery will assuage the wrath of the gods.

*Ro1: the NIH folks have a variety of different grant types referred to with such intimidating names as R01s, A2s, and R21s. Ro1 is their main grant type. In ecology, we just call them...grants. Though, to be fair, we too have special names for some types of grants. We just seem to prefer cute acronyms (DIG, SGER - pronounced Suger, CAREER, OPUS)

*250,000k/year: okay this doesn't need defining, per se, but the NIH budget issues are quite foreign to us NSFer's so deserve a little discussion. My understanding from discussions over at DrugMonkey and BlueLabCoats is that $250,000 is the funding limit beyond which you actually need to justify your budget.

*F&A (facilities and administration). Also referred to as "Indirect Costs", the "University Tax", and "my money that goes to our crappy athletics department". This is the cut from a grant that goes to the university to reimburse them for research related expenses. Institutes I have been at were around 50%, but I have heard rumors of rates much much higher.

*DEB: Division of Environmental Biology. One of several divisions within the Directorate of Biology. Most ecology proposals will go through some program within this Division.

*weird is obviously not a technical term per se, but by weird I actually mean unpleasant, ugly or "not good".

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

So, you want to date my academic daughter

Ever since my conversation about the case of the disappearing women, I have had one thought going through my head: I am a very lucky woman. To General Disarray's amusement, this thought is often followed with me telling him how lucky I am to have married him. (Right after the fateful conversation, I think I was telling him this every hour on the hour. I've pared that back a little since then - it was starting to impinge on my strong, independent woman image).

Not everybody can have such amazing luck, and I have begun watching my talented female graduate students and wondering...what if they end up with jackasses? Every time boys come sniffing around, I wonder....are you good enough for my students? I've contemplated a variety of ways to protect my students. My first idea was to padlock the lab and keep my students cloistered from the world. This had the advantage of also reducing a variety of distractions and focusing them on their work. Unfortunately, the lab does not have a toilet and the firemarshal told me it was a safety hazard (General Disarray also may have mentioned something about 'kidnapping'...I figured that meant he would also not be supportive of the chastity belt idea). So, ixnay on the Cloister of the Pure and Promising Sisters of Ecology.

I also contemplated installing Homeland Security's facial recognition software that would discern between male and female faces and trigger a Tazer whenever any male attempted to enter the lab.


Figure 1. New motto of the Tam Lab

This has the advantage of allowing my students to go to the restroom. Unfortunately, there are men in the lab... I suspect I may lose a few male students this way. I also suspect that General Disarray would have a few stern words if he  got Tazed every time he walked through the door.

I've also thought about hanging out in the lab throwing knives at the walls - this would give my students the "crazy dad" protection (though in this case it's the crazy academic mom). Unfortunately, weapons are frowned upon on college campuses and flinging plastic knives at walls doesn't have the same effect.  Besides, the really nice building maintenance man told me bad things might start happening to my office if I put holes in his walls.


Figure 2. River Tam action figure with the bodies of her student's suitors at her feet.

So, here I am, completely stymied about how to protect my students and stay out of jail. I guess I'll just have to treat them like they're adults and hope everything turns out okay. In the meantime, I'm practicing a really mean evil eye....


Figure 3. River Tam giving the untazed, undeadified suitors the evil eye.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Uh, because I do research?

I realized the other day that I have started cringing whenever one of my colleagues here at Confused U asks me a particular question. In fact, I have started reacting rather bizarrely in response to this question. It doesn't always play out badly, but it has happened enough lately, that it is causing me some mental angst. To avoid this question, I now deploy my extrasensory conversational detectors and when I sense said question is coming, I perform the conversational equivalent of "Wow, is that Charles Darwin flying through the air with a flock of angels? Oh my, look at the time. Gotta go."

You might be wondering what awful and intrusive question I am apparently being asked. Well, my friends, here it is: "How's your semester going?"

Right about now, I am sure you are quite puzzled. Perhaps I respond badly because my semester is a tragic disaster that I would prefer not to discuss. Perhaps I'm flinchy about accidentally telling my colleagues I'm on the job market. Perhaps I'm an antisocial hermit who hates talking to people. Okay that last one is true, but beside the point. No, the truth is I answer them honestly and the response I frequently receive has begun to agitate me. Here's the conversation:

Random Colleague: Hey River, how's your semester going? You look a little harried.

Me: What? Oh! It's going well (swilling coffee from cup super-glued to my hand),  I'm just really busy right now.

This is when will I know if the conversation is not going to go well. If it is going to go well, then the response to my statement is:

Random Colleague: Ah, yes, I understand. (nods sagely) What all you got going right now?

If it's going to go badly, the response is:

Random Colleague: Ah, yes, I understand. (nods sagely) What class are you teaching this semester?

And then the spiral begins....

Me: Oh, I'm not teaching this semester.

Random Colleague: Oh...(with that puzzled look and tone that says so clearly..."I think you just had seizure because your words make no sense to me")..."uh, so why are you so busy?"

This is where the conversation starts to go really bad. You see, I am lucky in that I have arranged my teaching responsibilities so that I do most of my classroom teaching in one semester, which is not this one. Since I'm currently trying to submit two new manuscripts, revise two other manuscripts for resubmission, apply for jobs, have at least 1 proposal that I need to work on, am actively supervising my very bright and active students, and am on more student committees than I can count on two hands (all of whom seem to be taking their comprehensive exams this semester). Call me crazy, but I feel that I am well-justified to say I am....busy.

And this is when things get awkward, because we blink at each other in shock for a couple of seconds, like we're seeing each other for the first time. On my side, I cannot comprehend how you cannot be insanely busy even if your semester is "only" research, especially since next semester will be primarily sucked up with teaching responsibilities. On their side, it is clear to me that they cannot comprehend how a semester can be considered busy unless one is teaching. Since many of them have the same teaching arrangement I do, it always causes me to wonder why their research semester isn't busy too...

So now I find it much less awkward  if the conversation goes thusly:

Random Colleague: Hey River, how's your semester going? You look a little harried.

Me: What? Oh! It's going well,  (swilling coffee) oh wow, was that a big ball of flame coming from your lab? Well, look at the time! Gotta go!

Friday, October 3, 2008

When five things need to be submitted NOW... end up with a slightly crazed week. Turns out when you have 4 papers and 1 job application trying to go out the door at once, you end up with a jammed door.  I did get the first application in - thanks to those who gave feedback to my earlier post (Especially DrDrA, I have to admit I checked out your advice and packets links quite a bit). We did in the end decide not to mention our status even though we were told by friends that the department I was applying to was "really into" the concept. We decided that no one was probably ever thrown out of the applicant pool for NOT being part of an academic couple, but we knew people who were tossed out because they were. After a day where I tried to work on everything at once (not a good approach for mole whacking or science, it turns out), I am back to a more sane approach of prioritizing manuscripts according to deadlines. Hopefully, by the end of next week I will be able to report all 4 papers being submitted!

In the meantime, I mainly wanted to take this opportunity to highlight for my ecology friends. The ScienceBlogs folks are running a donation challenge. is an organization that matches up teachers who need money for learning activities in their classrooms with people like us who may have some dollars to spare (at least for a little while!). Many of the activities the ScienceBloggers have highlighted are related to their disciplines and the ecology/environmental sciences are a little underrepresented. I'm all for more microscopes and all, but when I was a child what really sang to me was the more outdoorsy/organismal activities. If you're looking to invest in either creating future ecologists or at least a populace that understands why we're just as cool as our biomedical brethren, I've highlighted a few options:

If you want to donate through the ScienceBlog challenge, the following blogs chosen some ecology/organismal options (sorry DrugMonkey...):

Bioephemera (insects and trees)

Thus Spake Zuska (insect specimens)

Adventures in Ethics and Science (insect specimens, frog dissection)

Gene Thugz (soil/plant interactions)

Blog Around the Clock (coastal ecology, animal life cycles)

Zooillogix (forest ecology, animal life cycles)

The World's Fair (river ecology)

In addition, here are some alternatives that I think may not be represented in the ScienceBlogs challenge:

Trophic ecology (owl pellets!!!! How cool!)

Aquatic ecology (using cordless microscopes to go out and study aquatic organisms)

Field ecology (training students to design field studies)

Marine ecology (salt water tank for grade 6-8 marine biology class)