“I’d like to talk to you about your child…”

Yesterday I picked seven-year-old TD up from summer camp and was greeted by a counselor who gave me the following report…

Um, I’d like to talk to you about TD today. We had to talk to her because apparently she and a friend were spelling out bad words in the pool. I think it was the B word, the “F word,” the “S word, ” and the “H word.”

To which I felt the urge to query

Did she at least spell them correctly?

Those -tch and -ck words can be tricky, after all! If she got those right, she must be retaining something from first grade over the summer!

Way to make your mama proud, TD!

spelling

Scientist, Get Ye to the Clinic?

This morning I was sailing through the Twitterverse and saw a thread of tweets that caught my eye. I’ve been thinking about it all day. That usually means I need to write something.

I really had a lot of feels about it, both because I wholeheartedly agreed with it and also felt uneasy about it.

The feelings of unease came from my recent forays into cancer research. I began collaborating with Strange a few years ago because I was inspired by his stories. He’d talk about the gaps in our knowledge that translate to gaps in patient care. As an outsider, I felt like I might be able to look at some of these problems with a fresh perspective and add something new. It’s been a very satisfying journey, both intellectually and from the perspective that I can see that my work is going to help people. I’ve reached a point in my career where that’s really important to me.

I’ve always done clinical research and I have always tried to understand the actual mechanics of patient care. As a postdoc, my primary mentor was a pediatric intensivist and I would go to the pediatric ICU whenever I could. As a faculty member, I attend clinical research conferences and conferences where patient care is discussed. I manage a program in our cancer center to bank patient samples and clinical data, and I have spoken to patient groups about our work. All of this has been important in giving my work perspective and motivation. I don’t know if I would have been as successful as I have been without having been given the opportunities to see how the sausage is made. But, that’s me and what I find motivating.

sausage iron

So, where does the uneasiness come from? It comes from the fact that different things motivate different people. There’s a reason many become scientists and not “real doctors”…or “physicians,” as Strange likes to remind me. Patient care is about more than physiology and pharmacy.  Patients engage the medical system, not as bags of molecules, base pairs, and phosphorylation signals, but as sentient people who may be in the middle of the most challenging ordeal that they’ll ever face. They have complicated social situations, and emotions and fears, and people who practice medicine are more than mechanics. They deal with the social, physiological, and psychological in each interaction. As scientists, most of us are only trained in a single dimension. We may have the tools to understand the biochemistry, but not necessarily to deal with the mark that these interactions would leave on us.

I’ve been fortunate that my training has contained clinical elements and that I am now able to translate these into a clinical program, but that doesn’t mean even simple patient interactions are easy.  Several months ago, a physician colleague contacted me about an unusual cancer patient situation to see if I could offer insight based on the physiology. I felt proud that I could say, “I think this is a classic presentation of blah, blah, blabbity blah, blah of the lungs” and I turned out to be correct.

lungs.gif

I thought it was such an interesting problem that I contacted other colleagues to write a case report with me, to explain the physiology to other clinicians who might encounter the problem.  I went through our IRB and then contacted the patient’s wife to facilitate consent. She was amazing.  She and her husband were enthusiastic that his ordeal could be used to help future patients. Through this case study, I’ve remained connected to her…and, therefore, had a front-row seat to her husband’s extremely prolonged hospital stay, worsening of his condition, increasing intensity of intervention, and eventual death.  I’ve had access to her grieving. It left a mark on my heart and I cried when she lost her husband. While I am very happy to be doing patient-centered research, I don’t know that it’s crucial to have made a personal connection with an individual or walked with someone’s pain to be a good researcher. As an outsider to the healthcare system, one doesn’t necessarily have access to the training and resources that clinical colleagues have to deal with experiencing that pain.

The real source of the uneasiness is, after thinking through my own experiences and writing too long of a post, if interacting with patients in the clinic is important for scientists to gain perspective into what patients are experiencing, what tools do we need to give those scientists to deal with the impact of what they experience?

I might be rambling at this point. So, back to the original tweet where the lovely poster advocated for a “Bring a cancer scientist to treatment day”. Patient advocates, stories, and groups give us incredible perspectives, but that’s different than seeing someone receiving treatment in the clinic.  There is a very important role for patients in setting research priorities, but I think there are reasons that some people choose the bench and not the bedside in order to do their helping.  It’s ok to want that “in the moment” perspective if it drives your research. And, it’s ok not to want it.

I really empathized with the poster’s thought that scientists should understand what patients go through in their treatment and I hope that we can keep working with patients to open multiple avenues for patients to become involved in our research and share their experiences. I think the entire enterprise will benefit if we each do a better job of engaging patients, and that’s the real call I heard from people who replied to the thread.

We can always do a better job of communicating with patients about what we’re accomplishing. That’s something I’m working on myself.  The enterprise will benefit if some of us are engaging our clinical colleagues more. The enterprise will benefit if we’re working with patients to lobby congress. Some people will benefit from direct clinical, patient interaction and we should be supportive of that by making sure researchers and patients have the resources they need to facilitate these interactions. Patients should be involved in setting research priorities and helping us identify gaps in our work that are important to them. Different scientists are going to be better suited to work in each of these spheres, but I have no doubt that the biggest advances come when we work together.

 

Honoring the One Who Came Before Me, Led Me, and Loved Me…

me and marilyn.jpgTonight’s blog post comes from a place of pure and unequivocal sadness. I learned from a dear colleague that my friend and mentor Marilyn Merker passed away last week.

I can’t tell you how heartbroken I am. A piece of me will never be right. The only way I can think of to deal with incredible sadness is to tell you about Marilyn and why she was so incredibly special to me. I met Marilyn a decade ago as a newly minted postdoc, attending the Experimental Biology meeting alone for the first time. Another mentor recruited me to take over as the trainee representative for our section (the Respiration Section). I had only been to this meeting twice, and previously as a member of a different society. I had no idea what I was doing.

The next morning, I attended my first committee meeting and Marilyn was in charge. I was warned in advance by the person who had recruited me, “When Marilyn is in charge, you get two minutes to speak because she keeps everything running on time.”  I was in such awe of this woman who commanded so much authority, I have no idea what I said. I remember ending it with a “Yes, ma’am” because I was intimidated by the strong woman in front of me who was clearly running the show.

I saw Marilyn later in the meeting, and she asked me whether I would be coming to the banquet. I had no idea what she was talking about.  There was a banquet? She reached into her purse and handed me a ticket and several free drink coupons. I learned later that this was how she built so much goodwill in our group.  She invited anyone who was interested and made them feel included.  She bought dozens of extra tickets out of her own pocket and handed them out. She bought so many drinks. When I later asked her about her views on committees, she told me she would welcome anyone who showed up and did the work. I now realize the wisdom of her ways. I knew immediately that she was a force, but came to appreciate her community-building efforts.

But, none of that is as important as the friendship I built with her. A senior professor and clueless trainee scientist. We were an odd pairing. After that first meeting, she sought me out. We built an event at the meeting and, as time passed, built a friendship. She shared so openly of herself. She taught me everything she knew about women and science and politics and frequently laughed at what she had accomplished despite having to learn it all along the way. She was one of the few women who climbed the ladder and helped those behind her climb it too.

We moved from seeing each other at meetings to talking regularly by phone and email. Whenever I ran into a roadblock, she was the first person I called. I loved calling her because, every time I called, she answered the phone already in uproarious laughter. Her infectious laugh made me laugh and, after that, whatever I was calling about seemed trivial.  We came to seek each other out at meetings, sharing cocktails and commiserating over life and love. Every interaction restored my soul.

I knew Marilyn talked to her children several times a week and she bragged about them Baby TDevery time I saw her. I called her for advice when I was pregnant with my daughter and invited her to my baby shower. At my baby shower, as I held TD in my arms, she told me, “Brace yourself. My daughter told me as a teenager, ‘I hate you and I don’t even know why.’  Survive those early years and they become human.” She was right. No one can lift me up and break my heart like my daughter. We had an agreement that we would someday write a book called “Daughters are assholes and other life lessons.”  We laughed over planning the chapters.

I went to her whenever I needed advice on how to manage children and my career. She was one of my two most important mentors. I feel like so much of the advice I have given was hers to begin with. When I started thinking about a third child she said, “Whatever the hell for? What are you trying to get? There is no third kind!” She was right. I didn’t want another child. I wanted to fill the hole that was in my heart.

She wrote me a letter for my first faculty position. She listened to me cry when I went through my divorce, and eventually gave her blessing for my marriage to Strange.  She came to visit me and had me as a guest in her home.  We ate watermelon soup and drank chardonnay. She said to me once that, if she had to do it all over again, she would have wanted me to be her mother. I think she was humorously acknowledging that, over the years, she had become so much more than a mentor to me. She had become a mother to me and I loved her so much.  The loss of her hurts as deeply as when I lost my mother and tonight I am not ok.

One summer I decided to run the Chicago half marathon and I stayed at her house the night before. I told her my plans to run the next morning. She told me, “That’s a stupid idea” and then ushered me out the door to walk around the neighborhood. We talked about life and love, and how she wished she knew she was supposed to ask for tenure when she was younger. None of the men around her had told her what was important.  Her grant was running out and her university was going to force her into emeritus status. I could feel that it was not her time, but she shared with me a piece of advice that has become the guiding principle of my life. It’s the most important piece of advice anyone has ever given me. She said that her mother had once taught her, “It’s hardest to give love and money to the people that need it the most.” I remind myself of that at least once a day. More than anyone I have ever met, she loved with her whole heart.

She went silent over the last 6 months, and I suppose I knew something was going on. I didn’t know she was sick and she didn’t offer up the information.  So, tonight’s news comes as a shock and is a devastating loss.

I’m not sure how to process things yet and ending this post feels like acknowledging the truth. I’ll never answer the phone again to hear her hysterical laughter. I can’t ask her what to do when my children hate me, or when my grant doesn’t get discussed. She was one of the most important women in my life and her loss has caused irreparable damage to my heart.

 

Thoughts on Why #MeToo at #ExpBio is So Important

This year I have been glad to return to my usual meeting stomping ground, Experimental Biology. I have been an American Physiological Society member, one of the societies present at the meeting, for 12 years and can say without a doubt that the society has been transformative for my career. I have made so many good connections with people who are genuinely kind, have looked out for me, and have advanced my career. I’ve had great women mentors. They’re good people who I think want to make science and society better, and they have always had a strong commitment to trainees.

But, I wrote the other day that even from a society with a strong commitment to junior scientist development, there are too many symposia on diversity and inclusion that are targeted at trainees. Teaching trainees how to fit in and navigate academic culture. How to deal with uncomfortable situations, act professionally, manage career and life. Trainees attend, but there’s only ever a smattering of senior faculty. There aren’t enough talks aimed at faculty and senior members, teaching them about the challenges that young women face, the prevalence of sexual misconduct, and ways that we can make science a more hospitable place.

But this year, friend of the blog and boot lover @mclneuro came to Experimental Biology to share her experience. I arrived after her talk, but did as I usually do when I get to the meeting – I went to the lobby bar to see who I could find. It warmed my cold, cold heart when @mclneuro was the first person I saw, holding court among the people that had attended her talk. We met, hugged for about 10 minutes, and she said some incredibly kind things and I was my typically socially awkward self in response. That’s when I really noticed that the people sitting around her were my colleagues. People I have known for at least a decade and interact with every year, but with whom I had never really had a conversation about sexual harassment, discrimination, and misconduct.  

And these people were seriously engaged. They listened to stories and asked how they could help. We talked about the different barriers that exist for the advancement of women – everything from rape and sexual abuse to the insidious bias that permeates so many corners of academia. It made me emotional to hear my colleagues talking and listening, and sincerely wanting to be part of the solution.  The thing is, it took a talk and a visit from an outsider to bring these people together

I am so sorry for the path that @mclneuro has been forced to walk, but I am so proud of her for being a warrior and using her experiences to make science better. It’s not easy to share your pain publicly and to put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable.

I’ve been asked many times since I started blogging in 2008, “Why do you write about your life? Why put your struggles on display?” and my answer is always because the community needs to see it. Others may find value in seeing how others are dealing with the struggles we all face, and at the very least to know that they’re not alone.  There are no words for how heartbroken I am for the struggles @mclneuro has had to share, but I’m grateful that she came into my community and opened so many of the eyes around me. She’s important and the work she’s doing is important.  I am eternally thankful to her for coming to us and hope that other groups will see the wisdom in listening to her story. As @mclneuro might agree, it’s time to stop suffering in silence and time for our colleagues to wake the fuck up.

More Thoughts on Policing Women and Bad Behavers

I spent a lot of time thinking about yesterday’s post where a conference presenter offered fashion and presentation tips to young women in an astroscience symposium. Even in the shower this morning. All I could think about was that silly slide. And then I got soap in my eyes and cursed the world.

Here’s the thing that still gets under my skin. We (as the expanse of academia, not as an individual or smaller group) spend a lot of time teaching under-represented groups to conform. I do think that there is value in teaching people about the inside baseball of the institution to allow them to be strategic in their decisions. As a first generation student, there have been plenty of times that academic culture has felt foreign to me.  But, there’s a difference between informing young professionals about the norms and mores of a culture and prescribing behaviors. It’s a further leap over the line when we imply that there is a prescription for behavior that will lead to success. As I mentioned yesterday, there are plenty of data to suggest that underrepresented groups are treated differently than the majority culture, regardless of how they behave.

And that got me to thinking. How many times have I seen sessions at national conferencegiphys aimed at young women and under-represented scientists about how to behave, dress, balance family, present, network, etc.

About a fucktillion. I’ve even participated in some of them.  If career progression was influenced by the quantity of professionally styled, workplace appropriate cardigans, I’d be chancellor by now.

How many sessions have I seen targeted at university leadership about how to create a welcoming and diverse culture, encouraging them to explore whether the norms are helpful or harmful?

None. Ever. It’s like a unicorn. You can tell me they exist, but I can’t tell you that I remember seeing a single one.

So, maybe I’d be a little more tolerant of our continued brow beating of young scientists if I had any sense that there was a push at the national level to get disciplines to look meaningfully at their own navels. That people weren’t just trying to pound square pegs into round holes in order to keep their own environments peaceful. In that case, the square pegs just gotta keep looking for square holes.

As we advance, we must double down on our commitment to integrity and the value of the individual.

It continues to be a trope that science and behavior are not connected. Friend of the blog and the Queen of the #MeTooSTEM movement @McLNeuo posted the following comment from National Academy of Sciences member Robert Weinberg on the potential expulsion of NAS members found guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct:

Weinberg response

Last night, I wrote in reply… 

I don’t understand how you can untangle the quality of a person’s character from the quality of a person’s science. The scientific method itself is a code of conduct. It seems plausible that someone who doesn’t value the dignity and integrity of a person wouldn’t value the dignity and integrity of the scientific process.

P’shaw, you say? Well, it appears ole Bob Weinberg has contributed data in support of my hypothesis…

 

 

So, what’s the point of this Tuesday afternoon rambling?

It’s great that organizations like NIH and NAS are taking sexual harassment seriously, but the problems of bias and discrimination are insidious and can be more subtle.  Scientific societies and national-level endeavors put an enormous amount of resources into training young scientists to fit into the academic mold, but how much effort is there into training leaders to recognize their own biases, and biases within their institution? How are national level groups working with these leaders to offer tools to combat these problems? Not simply through symposia at meetings where information is received passively, but through working groups where the stakeholders and participants are identified and report back to the community (for example, these guys).

As I get ready to head to the Experimental Biology meeting at the end of the week, I’m hoping that future meetings will include more opportunities to create cultures of inclusion and integrity and the departmental and institutional level.

Thank Heavens We’re Still Policing Women’s Wardrobes in the Name of Science

When I started blogging nearly 11 years ago, I would post a “Shoe of the Week” because…well…I love shoes. I love shoes and makeup and cardigans and jewelry and all sorts of other clothing. Except pants. Pant are dumb. The mid-aughts were a tough time for me, as women’s shoes became dominated by platforms and 5″ heels, and open-toed boots, but I waited patiently for the fashion world to come back to its senses.  I’m glad we’re back to a more rational time.

10109820_ornately_airy_mary_jane_heel_pink_ALT02


For example, these are beautiful. (Source)

I figured of all the controversial stuff I ever wrote, shaking my fist at the tomfoolerly of academic culture, the shoes would be least among them. I was, of course, younger and far more naïve. Some folks loved the shoes. Some folks thought I was a tool of the patriarchy. Some folks thought it displayed a certain silliness that meant I couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. How could I love shoes and make up and also be focused on my career?!?!? And why wasn’t I more interested in conforming to the a-gendered norms that had gotten so many women so far (allegedly)?

(Fast forward….my career is doing ok)

The more I read comments from people who thought that I should be behaving differently, the more I realized that it wasn’t about me. It was about making the others feel comfortable with my place in the world. The presence of under-represented groups in academia does not make the general academic population feel uncomfortable and a lot of professionalism talks are aimed at training these folks how to “pass.” How to dress more masculine as to not be threatening. How to change your speech so that you are not threatening. How to act less gay, less black, less feminine, less barrio, less trans.  If we spent as much time teaching the majority culture to not be assholes as we do teaching others to fit in, the world would be a better place.

I remember my optimism from those days when I thought that there would be a time when it would be acceptable to just be who we are.  Part of what makes science wonderful is that our imagination, creativity, and differences lead to new ideas.  Fast forward to today when the following advice was apparently given at a women scientist’s symposium…

Conference poster


h/t to @GoAstroMo

And it just breaks my heart that we are still doing this to young women. Particularly, that woman are doing this to other women. Teaching them not the be “a distraction” by “showing too much skin.” Even if we ignore that there are groups of women who have been colonized and sexualized for decades, which would be wrong for us to do, it is fundamentally wrong to teach young women that there is some magical combination of behaviors that will cause the patriarchy to unlock the door of advancement.  Sometimes, even when you do everything “right”, you learn that you’re not welcome in a space because the people in the space are racist/misogynist/homophobic/fools.

That’s when it’s time to be a distraction.

 

 

 

Words For My Grandmother and Why Girls Rule the World

TD just showed me this horrendous video about why girls rule the world. I’m trying to explain to her that princesses and sparkles don’t make girls rule the world. It’s the mountains of things that we do, heaped on a pile of historical bullshit, and topped with sparkles (or not), that make girls rule the world.

grandmomThinking about girls who rule the world made me think of my grandmother. My grandmother passed last November and it’s taken me four months to come to terms with the fact that her funeral was really fucking weird.  She died in Texas, where my family had relocated, but was flown home to the town I was born in for her funeral and burial. Her funeral was held in the church I was baptized in, where my mother’s funeral was held, but it all felt very foreign. We had all moved on from this place.  A few days before my aunts asked me to prepared a eulogy, as I had for my mother, grandfather, and uncle. We joked that I had become the family eulogizer.  Before my grandmother died, she and I shared memories of her family. She told me, “You’re going to have to be the matriarch.” I thought she was just having a lapse in her lucidity as the dementia set in deeper. Maybe she was, but it was the last personal thing she would say to me before she died. She may have thought I was my mother. She called me “Patty” a lot in her last years. I’ve never been able to escape the shadow of my mother.

My mother had been the oldest and, when the funeral home director called my aunts and uncle to drape the cloth over my grandmother’s coffin, my oldest aunt beckoned for me. She said to her brother and sister, “She stands in Patty’s (my mother’s) place.” I helped drape the cloth and held my uncle’s arm.  My middle brother was supposed to be there, but at that moment he was being mugged at the train station. I’d continue to look for him during the service.

Then the service started. The men from the funeral home gave us directions and Little I asked me, “Do we belong to a crime family?”

Maybe? We certainly belong to a family with roots and history in this neighborhood. My grandfather had been an alderman and my grandparents were entrenched in the community.

The priest said the words of the mass and I clenched the notebook where I had written the words I wanted to share. I hadn’t written a eulogy since my grandmother made me type out the words I wanted to say for my mother. The others were outlined, but off of the cuff. I knew my grandmother would want me to write words for her. For every word to be deliberate.

And then the mass was over. The priest gave the homily and the Eucharist and then dismissed us all. No one said any personal words for my grandmother. My aunts and uncle looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say. These were different ivory towers than the ones I occupy, but they were ivory towers that were robbing my family of its closure. A family that had just lost its cornerstone. I clutched my book, left the church, and went to the burial site where we stood in the rain and walked through the mud.

I’ve kept the book, tucked away, still in shock from the weirdness of that day until TD tried to explain to me what it means to run the world.

These are the words I wrote for my grandmother, who really truly ran the world.

Seven years ago, I had a little girl and it left me with a dilemma. Even though I knew there was a 50% chance I’d have a girl, I hadn’t settled on a name. I thought about all of the things that I wanted for her. All of the wishes and dreams that mothers have for their daughters. I wanted her to grow up to be kind, but also fiercely loyal. I wanted her to be loving, but also stubborn as a mule. I wanted her to be smart, but also have a sense of humor. I wanted her to be brave, but also to be humble and treat everyone with dignity. I thought about all of these qualities, and about the woman I knew who had them all in spades and had always been my hero, and I knew there was only one name I could give my daughter.

I had the honor of being with my grandmother at the end of her life. In between reading chapters of a biography of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, I wondered about her name and where it comes from. “Marcia” is Latin and means “Dedicated to Mars; warlike.” One of my aunt’s favorite philosophers Bob Marley said, “You never know how strong you are until strong is your only choice. In that sense, there was never a stronger warrior than my grandmother. She raised five children, who eventually gave her 20+ grandchildren, who she always had endless love and energy for. She was married to my grandfather, which was a profile in courage itself. I envy and aspire to a marriage with as much love as they shared, but she showed her true warrior colors caring for him after he became ill. And, she did it with the love and humor that only she had, arranging his daily pills on a dessert plate despite his disdain for them. She dealt with the death of my mother and my uncle with grace, and I am grateful to her for giving me her memories of them, even though I knew it hurt her sometimes to talk about it. I can’t imagine burying my own babies.

I have so many beautiful memories from my childhood. Family reunions, drinking tea at the L-shaped dining room table, watching Murder She Wrote at the house on Wycombe Ave. But, I’m most grateful for the time I had with her once I became a mother. I may have sometimes gotten frustrated when she (or my aunts) would sneak frosting into my babies’ mouths, but she had taught me so much by example that motherhood wasn’t nearly so overwhelming. I am grateful for out weekly phonecalls we shared when she was still able. She gave me generations of wisdom, wrapped in a lifetime of laughter.

After her passing, I shared the news with others in my life. My parents’ contemporaries called her “Mrs. Meara”, but all of my friends referred to her as “Grandmom.” That had never struck me before. I had never noticed. Maybe because she had so many grandchildren, she forgot whose Grandmom she actually was sometimes, but I don’t think so. I think it gave her joy and happiness to have love around her and to be at the center of that universe. Everyone who commented or offered condolences said the same thing:

Grandmom was always so kind to me.

My warrior grandmother waged a relentless campaign of love, family, and courage. She has been and always will be a beacon in my life. My here. It has been the sincerest honor of my life to be able to remember her in this way and I feel blessed to know that she lives in the families we’ve all built because of her.

 

Things That Make Me Laugh…

I’m a little bit humorless today, mired in editing and scientific tomfoolery. Little I called me from the bus stop, freaking out because he has to wait 16 minutes for the bus and it’s flurrying and OMG, HE MIGHT FREEZE TO DEATH!!!

Strange noted on Twitter that I have been playing American Pie on repeat. In science, it’s easy to feel a little like Kiki Dee some days. You get all excited about what you’re doing and start dancing around and then science (AKA Elton John) is like, “No, no Kiki Dee. You are enjoying this far too much. We’re doing serious stuff here! Stay in your lane! You need to be serious like the rest of us!”

But then I got this email that made me chuckle. I don’t know why, because I get about 100 of these a day, but this one put me over the giggle edge…

Dear Dr. Bates M.L,

I have not heard back from you with regards to my previous email. So I thought, I’d quickly check with you once again  to see if you have given some thoughts on my email and bouncing across few ideas about your decision on submitting an article to the journal, Current Trends in Ophthalmology.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me, if you have any queries.

Thanks

Best regards,
Jamie Logan

I am so deeply sorry that the wait for a reply will be so long, but I study lungs, and blood vessels, and blood cancer. No eyes as far as the eye can see. I’m happy to email him to bounce a few ideas about my decision to submit, but until lungs grow eyes, I’m not sure how I could contribute…

Which led me to thinking more about eyes…and things with a lot of eyes…which led me to thinking about Lucas the Spider and my very favorite Lucas the Spider cartoon.

I think I am going to send this to Jamie Logan. He loves eyes.

Ending Monday On a High Note…With Bubbly, Dahlings

Today has been a day of intense conversation about the infrastructure issues facing my lab and how it impacts my ability to do my work.  I received a very favorable mid-tenure review, and even a suggestion from some colleagues that I consider going up for tenure early, but that’s been offset by the reality that my lab and office are not really conducive to doing quality research.  I have really felt at about the end of my rope lately. Remember the un-stiff upper lip I wrote about the other day? It is still not stiff. It is still quivering like the tuna mayo lime Jello mold at a 70s dinner party.

Then this morning, I got word that a paper we submitted needs a couple minor revisions, but will then be accepted in a cool journal. The reviewers wrote…

Reviewer #1 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

This is an outstanding paper with one of the best experimental designs I have read for some time (matching time of day of in vivo vs. vitro). They have addressed all of my concerns.

Reviewer #2 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

The authors have satisfactorily addressed my questions.
Nice work!

Reviewer #3 (Comments to the Author (Required)):

Thank you for addressing my comments. Congratulations on developing such a novel area of research that has tremendous biomedical implications.

This work has taken all of the blood, sweat, and tears I had to give. It was a project that Strange described as “high risk, high reward” and it means so much to me to 1) have been able to pull it off and 2) have been able to watch the trainee who executed most of the experiments shine and flourish. He’s going to do tremendous things with his career.

And then in the afternoon, I got this in my email…

Giles Filley Award

Part of me feels so humbled and honored to have gone from being an “inconsequential scientist“,  to being recognized on a national level by my peers. I’ve worked really hard to establish a cool, innovative, independent line of research.

But, part of me feels like shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit….

Can you imagine what I could have done if I had a lab that actually worked all the time? And if I didn’t have to keep cobbling things? I could have already had my dream moment – which is, in case you’re wondering – getting my Nobel prize in a sick ass gown like Mariah wore to the AMAs that year she wore that dress that was so tight she couldn’t even move and had to have some dudes come and carry her.

It’s a very specific fantasy, but it gets me through a lot. I’m going to be carried to my Nobel.

So, right now I feel honored and happy, but I also feel like that lady who just wanted her husband to take her to the lake (on the inside, of course). I just want to be able to do my work without worrying what’s falling down around me.

In the meantime, I am going to drink some champagne and try to stay hopeful that everything will work itself out.

How to Write, And Other Things We’re Supposed to Be Teaching Trainees

 

Today’s post is inspired by a long-time friend of the blog Drugmonkey, who asked the following on The Twitterz…

There’ s no opportunity like the present to take a break from online shopping and offer my opinion.

Green heels

Which is no small feat because, how adorable are these? Spring needs to be on its way post haste.

Once upon a time, I wrote a now well-referenced blog post on my own approach to scientific paper writing. I, of course, think that this is the absolute best approach to paper writing and that everyone should always do things my way. Still, Drugmonkey’s question about what is best for trainees is not lost on me. When I was a postdoc, I had an outstanding mentor who was willing to be very open about his successes and failures in mentoring. He gave me two outstanding pieces of advice. The first, with regard to writing, was to read broadly and find people who I thought were outstanding writers. Not people who were reporting results that I was interested in, but people who did an excellent job of communicating information. Then, emulate and incorporate their style. This really motivated me to read broadly, which has been beneficial in both my science and writing because there is a lot of outstanding writing in the literature. Clear, direct, awesome writing.

The other broader piece of advice that he gave me was that mentoring is not a one size fits all activity. Different trainees have different needs and barriers. I remember, at the time, naively shrugging that one off. We’re all trying to be scientists, right?

Oh, how I wish I had listened better.

I quickly learned when I started reading student writing that, for some students, bringing a PI their first writing is a terrifying proposition. They have no idea where to start, with the white page of doom staring them in the face. Will their writing be any good? What if their PI thinks they’re an idiot?

And, as a PI, it can be a  mentally daunting task (even if it’s your job) to correct the same n00b writing errors over and over again, just to be able to get to the best part of the writing.

[As an aside, I often hear senior colleagues lamenting about how kids these days aren’t as awesome as when they were PhD students/postdocs/junior faculty. They are. It’s just t seniors’ frames of reference shift as they grow older and (hopefully) wiser.]

So, a couple of years ago I came up with a solution to try to make my trainees more comfortable with writing, and more receptive to feedback. We now have what I call “paper meeting.” The point of paper meeting is that anyone can bring anything that they’re working on and get feedback from anyone that shows up. Paper meeting is totally optional, but my observation is that people who participate write papers quicker and far less painfully.  We still use my basic formula for writing (results first, etc.), but this gives the trainees a chance to get feedback from people that aren’t me, alone, in my office, in the most intimidating way possible. They put their figures and writing on the wall and the feedback begins. I find that I can usually stand in the back, ask the occasional Socratic question, and the trainees do an outstanding job of critiquing their own work. Nearly every initial edit that I would have made is picked up in paper meeting, and by people who aren’t me. This gives the trainees experience editing others’ writing and it saves the most fun part of the paper writing for me.

Now, do my trainees like paper meeting? I will be honest that my sense is tainted by the fact that I’m the boss lady. Are people going to tell me they don’t like it? But, it is regularly attended and the feedback from the trainees to each other is scrappy. I call that success.

The best part of the process is that, by the time the rough draft is done, I get to focus on the fun parts. Wordsmithing.  Refining the perfect phrase.  The skeleton of the story is usually already established and the challenge becomes, how to craft everything else around it. I usually meet with the trainees to review a section together. I edit one section in from of them, let them see how I will edit the rest of the paper, and then give the paper back to them for one last edit. They typically get the kind of stuff that will stop me in my tracks, and edit it out themselves. Then, I edit the final draft.

It sounds like a lot of work, but once the lab got the hang of things, it became extremely efficient. I have more papers on my desk than ever before, and I think some of the fear and anxiety has been eliminated from the writing process. The most important lesson it teaches is that writing a paper/grant/etc. is an iterative process that is best accomplished by a community.

Very few people write outstanding prose in isolation and no one benefits from having a single mentor.