Category Archives: Working in science

When your research keeps being overlooked

Twice in the past two days I’ve read sentences similar to this one implying that increased levels of the protein that shall be referred to as ‘X’ to avoid getting too specialized, is protective in models of Parkinson’s disease (PD):

“X mRNA levels are reduced in a number of neurodegenerative diseases …. since increased levels ameliorate behavioral defects and neuropathology of Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis”. 

The thing is that two papers published in 2012 showed that increased levels of X did not ameliorate the neuropathology of PD and actually caused some PD-like symptoms in model animals, like depletion of dopamine (that’s a big one). I was the first author of one of these papers and Carine Ciron from the EPFL was the other (1). Neither of these papers were cited in either article that referred to increased ‘X’ being protective against PD.

The issue is possibly clouded by one paper demonstrating that normalization of X levels rescued striatal pathology in a knockout model (2) and another showing that transgenic mice overexpressing X (without characterization of the level of expression) displayed increased resistance to the PD-inducing toxin MPTP (3).

In another example, I also recently read a review article where the authors mentioned all of the supporting evidence for increased levels of another protein (Y?) after exercise in humans and cited none of the studies demonstrating that this protein wasn’t increased after exercise.

This process of selective citation then becomes self-reinforcing as readers of those articles assume that the authors have done a good job in citing the literature and then often go on to cite the same papers without further thought or research.

There are a number of possible reasons why certain citations are left out. Journals have space limitations and that in many cases it is not possible to cite all of the relevant literature, however at the moment there are there are very few papers in either the X or Y field.

Also, people can be biased towards the literature that supports their theories (and the current trend for ‘hypothesis-driven’ rather than ‘exploratory’ research may have a hand in this) but as scientists we have a duty to be objective, present all aspects, and to not get too attached to our pet hypotheses.

Finally, sometimes people just lose track of the current literature, or a paper flies under the radar due to inappropriate cataloging or lack of promotion by the authors. However, with services such as Google Scholar, Pubcrawler and Citeulike that will deliver the relevant citations to your inbox or a daily, weekly or monthly basis, not citing the most relevant literature can come across as lazy or biased.




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Well this is a sausage-fest

The Harvard newsletter has just published an article congratulating those faculty and alumni who have been admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. This is a huge achievement and possibly the highest US accolade for scientists. I have no doubt that each new member is highly deserving of admission, but there’s not a single woman among the new members. Is this a Harvard problem or a NAS problem?

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Do women take on too much lab work?

This week I had my Faculty ‘Annual’ Review. The main outcome was that I was falling behind in publications because I was spending too much time at the bench. This may sound paradoxical but it is pretty much guaranteed that the work that I’m doing at the bench right now; cloning a viral construct and packaging biomarker samples for my mentor (yeeeeah) are not likely to lead to a 2014 paper. Whereas I have a paper that is 80% written that just needs a few final experiments. However, I cannot get to that paper because this vector needs to cloned ASAP so that my mentor can present results to the funding agency in September.

The irony is that I didn’t need to be told that I was doing too much bench work. Many times I’ve gazed from the bench with envy at my mentor’s postdoc (who seems to only do experiments that generate direct data for papers) sitting at his desk leisurely putting together figures for a paper or catching up on the literature. Part of this is our different skill set. He has no molecular biology experience and only works with already established transgenic lines, so he doesn’t have to create resources. My projects are rather labor-intensive and amongst other things require the generation of new viral constructs and stereotaxic surgery to administer them.

The funny thing is, when I look around the surgery suite at others performing similar injections, the collection of murine surgeons is overwhelmingly female. On the whole, the men of our department seem to wangle it so that one or two (female) technicians perform the majority of their surgeries. This isn’t just limited to those of us on the lower rungs; I regularly see women with their own lab staff in the surgery suite, whereas the guys in this department seem to abandon bench work for good as soon as that first RO1 or even K award is granted.

Why is this? Are women control freaks? I will admit that yes, I can be. I was badly burnt during my PhD when I sent off a construct to generate a transgenic mouse to an outside company and they sent me back WT mice. The few weeks to figure out that no, the transgene was not present was nothing compared to the lag time waiting for the company to ‘generate’ and then actually generate the mice. So, I am now reluctant to send things out if they can be generated in house, unless they are in the hands of a trusted collaborator. Also, while here in Boston I had some difficulties with one tech who was not a native English speaker. Miscommunication, or having to type out simple but comprehensive instructions, often led me to think that it was just quicker to do it myself – something that I think most people have experienced for a whole host of reasons. Yet, the majority of the time I don’t have trouble trusting the people that I work with to complete the task successfully and most of the time I am more than happy to delegate. So, control freaks? Maybe some of us, under certain circumstances.

How about wangling our way out of bench work? (If we can convince our inner control freak!). Well, it is no secret that on the whole women can be crappy negotiators in the workplace when it comes to salary ( or but we’re not that bad at negotiation aside from a concern about social backlash ( Interestingly, the work cited in that last link (also here: and here:, indicated that observers are more likely to form negative impressions of a self–advocating negotiator if the negotiator is female rather than male. So maybe women are on the whole more reluctant to negotiate themselves out of bench work for fear of forming a bad impression? 

For whatever reason, it is important to carve out time so that grants are written properly and papers published. I’ve since negotiated with my mentor to put another cloning experiment on the back burner until my semi-complete paper is submitted. This is a step forward but it really only came about because of the annual review and I realize that it was long overdue.


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I have been constantly writing grants now for about a year. I’m pretty sick of it but I need to keep going until I’ve established a secure funding program that will give me more flexibility in my work. I’m in a department with no hard money so there is no alternative.

At times like this when motivation is low it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the process. This morning I enjoyed watching this video made by film-maker Tiffany Schlain about the creative process. Everything in it is applicable to the process of writing grants.

One stage of the process that I’ve come to realize is essential to me is stage 6: “just step away’. Even if I just leave the draft of an application alone for one day when I come back to it I see it through fresh eyes and realize which parts aren’t clear and how to edit out the parts that I now realize are crap.

Unfortunately, until recently I never factored this break time into my schedule for grant writing (a schedule that at its worst has consisted of “sh*t I’ve got to write this application in a weekend!”) and usually ended up giving it to a mentor to look over before I’d really looked it over myself. Of course, this leads to a drop in the quality of feedback as they’re picking up on all of the blatant issues that I would have seen myself if I’d allowed myself the break from the application.

I’m getting better at it now. Ideally, I give myself a few days away from an application but at the worst leaving a rough draft alone for a night is has worked out better than pushing further with it that night. If it’s not working, give yourself a break.

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Millennials and the generation gap in education.

Recently I finished tutoring small a group of second-year medical students for a compulsory neurobiology course. I found my tutor group to be highly engaged and motivated, as well as wonderfully smart. I had little problem encouraging the students to do more than what was required for them.

I quickly realized that I was among the younger tutors on the course. There were 3 or 4 clinicians of 65+, 6 to 8 clinicians and scientists in the 40 to 65 age range and three of us in the 30 to 40 age group. Having had such a positive experience with my group, I was surprised to hear words such as ‘entitled’ and ‘millennial’ crop up in tutor meetings. The main complaint seemed to be that the students did not want to do the work that was expected of them.

At this point I should mention that the tutorials were largely student-lead, with the students expected to take responsibility for their own learning and for disseminating information to peers in their group, and that this was the first time that the students had encountered this type of tutorial.

I think that the perception of entitlement and unwillingness may be have actually been a reflection of the uncertainty that the student’s felt in moving forward with the work. For the current generation education has been incredibly goal-orientated. You study for the test, you pass the test, and most often you forget what you learnt for the test. This is possibly a symptom of the vast amount of information students are expected to learn. Back when I was an undergrad we didn’t have the internet to utilize when searching for information. I spent a lot of time in the stacks of the library when I was writing my senior thesis, it was understood that time would be spent searching for information. Now, peer-reviewed original sources are only a few clicks away and the students are expected to know much more than previously. As there is so much to learn, intellectual curiosity is in danger of falling by the wayside.

It’s also hard for students to pursue intellectual curiosity in their own time as they have little time that isn’t spent studying and, in order to get ahead, they’re often taking on more practical activities related to their chosen profession. Maybe this is just the way it is for medical students, they need to be armed with the necessary knowledge before they go onto the wards (even though they’ll have the whole encyclopedia of medical knowledge on the device in the pocket of their white coat) so the alternative for the intellectually curious may be the PhD. Also, once qualified and finished with residency the intellectually curious will be able to pursue their interests should these entitled millennials not be too burnt out by then.

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Choosing a postdoc lab

How to choose a postdoc lab? There are a lot of guides on the web to advise you. I’ve written this one from the perspective of getting your NEXT job.

1. Never think that you don’t have a choice and that “maybe this is the best I can get”. As a freshly-minted PhD you will never be more appealing to a PI than you are now. You’re cheap, and if you’re continuing with research training after finishing your PhD then you’re still enthusiastic. Postdocs are getting longer and transitions between postdoc positions happen, but are more difficult as money gets tighter.  You could be in your postdoc for as long, or longer than you were in your PhD lab. Cast your net broadly and choose wisely. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t worry, you will get other offers.

2. Choose a big name lab with a secure PI. This is purely observational, but every person I know who has gone on to start independent labs at the Assistant/Associate Professor level all come from big name labs. As yet I know of no-one who has come from a mid-level or small PI who has gone on to independence in a top-tier academic institution. If anyone knows of anyone who has done this then I’d love to hear about it.

Also, having a well-established PI means that they’re more likely to suggest that you apply for that dinky little pilot project foundation grant in your name since it will bolster your resume but is almost pointless for them. In short, you want to be assisted by your PI and not competing with them for the small stuff.

3. Get trained in a hot and sexy technique. You need to be a couple of years ahead of the curve here. On the occasions when institutions actually advertise faculty positions they more often ask for someone with a particular technique rather than a particular area of interest. You can see this in the ads for junior faculty on the job websites. Departments are always looking for people to do the things that their current faculty can’t, you will find it much easier to get a job at the end of your postdoc if you are that person.

4. Get your own grant and choose a very well-funded lab. Postdocs have little to no job security, you need to be in a place where you aren’t constantly in fear of losing your job. It is difficult to push for the non-bench related aspects of training anyway, it’s even harder when you feel as though you’re constantly just hanging on to your place in the lab.

5. Choose a lab with some hard money. Hard money pays for equipment, technicians and travel. You can have the best postdoc grant in the world but your research will be so much more productive if you’re in an environment with a good infrastructure.

6. Choose a lab in a department where the PIs have overlapping interests. Your
research will become tedious and stale if you’re not presenting and receiving useful feedback on a regular basis. If you’re in a department with disparate research interests then it’s likely that people aren’t going to be interested enough in what you’re doing to really listen and respond. A dynamic environment, even if competitive, is also more motivating than one where no-one has much interest in what anyone else is doing.

Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There’s also other things to consider that apply to evaluating any job. What’s the atmosphere like? Does the boss play favorites? What is the work ethos of the people around me? Can I survive on this salary? However, I hope that this list may have introduced some things to consider in the context of your longer-term career prospects.

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