Tag Archives: research

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.

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3313800/

2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867406012281

3. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00018-011-0850-z

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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 (www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/04/03/why-american-women-lose-negotiation-linked-in-career/ or www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/your-money/moving-past-gender-barriers-to-negotiate-a-raise.html?_r=0) but we’re not that bad at negotiation aside from a concern about social backlash (www8.gsb.columbia.edu/newsroom/newsn/1823/role-of-gender-in-workplace-negotiations#.U1qPiVVdU1Y). Interestingly, the work cited in that last link (also here: psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/98/2/256/ and here: www8.gsb.columbia.edu/programs-admissions/sites/programs-admissions/files/abstracts/Emily_Amanatullah_Dissertation.pdf), 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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