Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Me, cool? Not hardly!

Cool is no adjective to apply to me. But thanks for making me feel better.

NerdTests.com says I'm a Cool Nerd.  Click here to take the Nerd Test, get geeky images and jokes, and write on the nerd forum!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The thrill of victory...

On the off chance that any of my miniscule readership does not already follow Ambivalent Academic's blog, you have to go over and check out yesterday's post over there. In it AA discusses the positive aspects of being a basic academic scientist, and I'd hazard a guess that many of us can strongly relate to those feelings. It serves as a welcome counterpoint to all the crappy and ugly aspects of the practice of science, and all the bitching and complaining that goes on in the blogosphere (and in lunchrooms, coffeebreaks, and post seminar chats between scientists in real life). Now, don't get me wrong, discussing all those negative parts are very useful and necessary. But it's also nice to sit back and reflect on the things we love about science. I find it helps stoke my passion for science, which too often nears extinguishment. And I really do love being a scientist.

Physioprof added a great comment as well, about his excitement at an old breakthrough achieved in grad school. You can feel his enthusiasm, even for an event that must be years old by now. And as he says, we're all chasing that feeling. I remember one of my own as well, which I will share. For my first project in grad school I was recording sodium and calcium currents during action potentials in nociceptors. As there's no good blocker for TTX-resistant sodium currents, I settled on using ionic substitution, replacing external sodium with NMDG. That worked well for the subtraction, but I did notice that the resulting sodium current kept increasing even as the voltage approached ENa, which obviously shouldn't happen. I kept that stuck in the craw of my brain, which chewed over it as I proceeded to look at calcium currents in other cells. (Which is how I normally let it happen; given time the craw digests whatever problem is given to it).

I can still remember sitting at my desk, looking over some other experiments, when it hit me. It was obvious that intracellular Na+ and K+ were making outward currents through unblocked TTX-R channels, and these became sizeable at depolarized potentials near the peak of the AP. In retrospect it isn't so surprising. But it wasn't so obvious to me that the outward currents would really be large enough to make a big difference, relative to the large inward currents when external sodium was high. Turns out they were. Very soon after that I figured out a way to correct my previous results, which became a figure on its own in the final paper. All in all a great feeling.

I think we all just hope that our science doles out sufficient number of these moments to keep us from totally giving up in the face of so many difficulties.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Perversity isn't always fun.

Judging scientist performance by impact factors is like judging CEO performance by short term share prices.

And both produce perverse incentives.

Let me add as a final note, if you scan people's CVs for Cell, Nature, Science papers, then you're judging by impact factor.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

First Axiom

I've been doing lots of thinking about teh Scienz lately, from the little details to the big pictures. (Yeah, ok, so maybe I'm having a scientific midlife crisis. What's it to ya?)

Sure, most of these thoughts are neither particularly well considered nor highly developed. Indeed, they're probably not very insightful either. But the best way of improving upon them is to just start writing about them, and hopefully get feedback from other people (especially fellow working scientists). One benefit of this approach is that I'm not so wedded to my thoughts that there's a huge congitive barrier to overcome if they need altering.

With this entire morass in my head, regardless of the current state of each, I've begun by thinking explicitly about the "why?" question*. Why do we do what we're doing? What's the ultimate purpose of it? In my mind, before we can judge whether a particular way of doing things is good or bad, we need to figure out the answer to the "why" question.

So let's ask the question about Science, broadly speaking. What is the purpose of our endeavor? The answer to that question forms the ultimate basis by which its attendant ethics, practices, and structures must be judged.

My answer is that Science's aim is to produce true statements about the world.

I consider this to be the first axiom. I don't even claim this phraseology as my own, as I'm sure I must have read something to this effect over at Dr. Free-Ride's (which is the place I go when thinking about All Things Philisophical). But I can't think of a better way to put it. And I would guess that essentially all scientists would agree with it. If not, I'm all ears about what is the ultimate goal of Science.

Now onto whittling down that morass!**

* - I understand that this isn't terribly insightful. Either River Tam or Arlenna brought it up some time ago (i.e. - the hazy time that existed prior to the daughter's arrival) in a discussion about authorship order issues. Furthermore, just about every project planning book out there contains something similar. Hell, it's in David Allen's Getting Things Done book, so that means about 1.18 billion people on the Earth know it.

But knowing it and doing it are two very different things. If you don't believe me, consider just about any committee meeting you've had the pleasure of attending. How many actually started with "Why?" And how much talk was really about "How"? Besides, having done exactly this in project planning of various sorts, I'm often surprised by how useful it is in producing different ways of approaching and solving problems.

** - Something about this sentence really makes me happy.