Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Morning Quick Hits

(Ed. - Sorry about the accidental posting clogging up your RSS tubes)

I am about to start patching some cells this morning. The cells have been a tad obstreperous and ornery these days. I want to warn them though, this crap's gotta stop. So here's your heads up you little buggers:

In other news, DrugMonkey is highlighting an online comment on a recent Nature paper that point to possible GlamourMagz shenanigans: did a Nature editor string along one group working to refute a recent paper, only to publish a second group's similar work (thus scooping the first group)? And was this Nature editor friends with the 2nd group? Check it out.

Lastly, your Science Soundtrack for the week:

Yes, I just compared science to S&M. Dog upon a leash indeed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Morning Science Soundtrack

To coincide with Genomic Repairman's daily music postings, and the awesome grad school blog carnival Samia is hosting over at 49 Percent, I present my own top pick on my personal Science Soundtrack. Though it doesn't actually convey my grad school experience (which was on the whole quite good), it sure nails the post-doc.

Here it is, arguably the greatest metal song ever:


A perfect meditation on the at times abusive relationship I have with Science.

Master of puppets I'm pulling your strings

Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams

Blinded by me, you can't see a thing

Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream



Just call my name, 'cause I'll hear you scream



Master, master, where's the dreams that I've been after?

Master, master, you promised only lies

Laughter, laughter, all I hear or see is laughter

Laughter, laughter, laughing at my cries

Hell is worth all that, natural habitat

Just a rhyme without a reason

Neverending maze, drift on numbered days

Now your life is out of season

My fellow masochists are invited to contribute their own picks for the Science Soundtrack.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Science Dads Reporting for Duty!

ScientistMother's recent post about a new article in Science Careers (Scientist Dads Step Up by Vijaysree Venkatraman), was welcome, extending the Work-life balance theme that the bloggers at LabSpaces have been exploring recently.

Let me first make a big fat disclaimer: I don't know anything about work-life balance, because mine has been broken ever since the second baby came into our lives (hey, who knew a 4 1/2 lb preemie could bust that up?). I ain't no role model, as I'm far from doing either the work thing well, or the parent thing well. In fact, if I had to say which I was better at, right now it'd be the parent thing.

Figure 1: The Blair spawn frolick. I'm not in the picture cause Mom had to work on both weekend days. We all survived, the house survived, and I think I even got some laundry done. Can't remember if it was folded though.

Normally I don't think of blogging about my role as a parent. As most parents will tell you, parenting is by and large boring and repetitive tasks, punctuated by both incredibly heart warming and incredibly terrifying moments. So who cares when I have to stay home with a sick kid? Or that I made dinner last night - as I have just about every night for the past 11 years of our marriage? Or when night terrors in a 4 1/2 year old return us to the sleepwalking zombies of the infant stage? Or that I left the lab early to go to a parent-teacher conference at daycare? I already lived it, what's the point to discussing it further? Plus, god forbid it be seen as cookie-begging.

Well, maybe it isn't obvious that a lot of science dads are doing the hard grunt work of parenting. Maybe because there just aren't actually do do it. Or maybe those who do feel they need to hide or diminish it, for fear of not being taken seriously. In that case, having science dads talk about their involvement would help make it more normal.

And reading between the lines of the Science Careers article suggest we need to go even farther, as these quote suggest:

"...his lawyer wife, who works part time..."

"Currently, his wife stays home to care for their two young children -- "

"But women avail themselves of those [parental-leave] policies more often than men do because men fear they may not be regarded as serious, competitive scientists if they take parental leave..."

[now, each couple makes the decisions that are best for them. I get that. But the best we got from the men for staying away from work was Chad Nusbaum and his two months. Which is definitely great. Still, can't we do more? Shouldn't we?].

And some other quotes:

"Maybe pick two hours each day on Saturday and Sunday” to balance the needs of science and home life." (F*** you dude).

"Maybe you should have married a more supportive wife" (one male postdoc to another regarding long hours spent in the lab)


So, should I do more of daddy blogging? Like I said, I'm not a role model for someone doing well at parenthood and work. I wouldn't call myself a successful scientist; I'm just kinda getting by as well as I can (though things are improving). So in that case, maybe it's worse to do more daddy blogging?

Final note: we're on vacation next week, having family time on the beach. So whoever out there is reading (not that any of you lurkers would step up and respond to this - naughty naughty), no posts.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Team Fox or Team Hedgehog?

Team Hedgehog, all the way!

In case you haven't been following, Notorious Ph.D. posted about the differences in academic approaches between “foxes” and “hedgehogs”:

"The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one, but he does it well."

I’ll admit it, I am and have always been, a science hedgehog. There’s nothing like a nice 10+ figure paper, replete with detailed, technically exce
llent experiments, explicit consideration of other explanations (negative results, and their controls go here) to get me all hot and bothered. It’s what attracts me, what I find compelling science, and after enough time, I’ve realized that it’s not something I can easily change about myself (part of Notorious’s post concerns exactly that: changing from a hedgehog into a fox, and also how other scholars respond).

And yet, I realize the limitations of such a hedgehogia
n approach. Sometimes, a mix of approaches is required to get an answer; hedgehogs might miss this. Sometimes, you get so deep into something that you lose perspective, seeing only the trees, and not the forest. I get that. Still, there are ways as a hedgehog to evolve without completely changing species. You can be a serial hedgehog, going deep into different topics over time (I’d put my thesis advisor in this category). Or, you could be a topic hedgehog: sticking to one topic, going very deep into it, but bringing in other techniques as needed. I’d put the guy I started grad school with in that group.

But in all the discussion on this, which has largely been pro-fox, there hasn’t been much focus on what the limitations of the fox approach is. Sure, the best foxes are out there seeding fields with new approaches, new techniques, and both answering old questions while raising new ones.
There’s another species of fox too:

We all know them. Shitty experimentalists who flit from project to project, or people with a new fancy trick that they get the same answers people in the field had already gotten (BUT LOOK, IT’S PRETTIER!). Or they ignore the previous results that their "great new technique" doesn't replicate (probably because they don't really understand the earlier results, as they never engaged them seriously).

True, there’s fewer of these kind of foxes around for long, being selected against over time. In this vein, the idea/suggestion that younger scholars must start out as hedgehogs has a lot of merit. But I've seen young foxes; it often ain't pretty.

In the end, instead of pigeonholing hedgehogs as boring old, narrow minded, one trick ponies, and foxes and shallow, incompetent, jacks of all trades, I’d rather people agree that, when well done, BOTH approaches have their merit, and that it’s important to maintain a healthy equilibrium between the two.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I am the Norge Repairman of the primary literature

In one of those strange coincidences of the blogosphere, Chad (at Uncertain Principles) and Janet (at Adventures in Science - now in her new digs are Scientopia) are discussing the role of the primary literature in the sciences, at exactly the same time as I was plumbing the depths of the primary literature.

See, for the past few weeks I myself have been conducting an extensive expedition through the literature on the M current. M current stands for muscarinic current, which is a potassium current in various neurons that is closed by muscarinic agonists (among others). This reduction leads to enhanced neuronal excitability and more action potentials. The current has been most widely studied in sympathetic neurons, which do something to pumps or plumbing or something. Go ask her.

This sort of detailed review is something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, but never forced myself to start. But the life-work balance has been recalibrated recently (hence the increased posting here - more on that later?), so I’ve finally begun. I’ve been tracing back through the literature and cited references, checking reviews, and also reading what I can find about the scientists who contributed to the field. I find this a great way to engage in the literature, because tracing the development of the ideas helps .e put them in a context that I find much easier to remember. I’d hazard a guess that this would be a lot more useful to undergraduates engaged in research, than simply throwing the “primary source” of a bunch of ganglia at them while telling them to “do research.”

I find the M current story compelling for a couple reasons. The first relates to why studying the primary literature can be an important part of doing science. The excitation resulting from muscarinic stimulation was obvserved as far back as the early 1950s, yet it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that a pretty complete picture of the entire process, including receptor proteins, ion channels, signalling molecules, was developed. And in that time, as you might imagine, there were a lot of missteps, and numerous errors. That lesson, that wrong things get published all the time, is a crucial lesson. Another lesson is that science doesn’t develop as a neat and tidy, linear march to more and more understanding. Both of these are rarely discussed in science textbooks. he only counterexamples I can come up with are Newtonian versus quantum mechanics, and Lamarck’s theory of evolution). Most of the rest of science in textbooks is so boring. Message to undergrads: Science can be a whole lot more fun than that.

The second reason is that the 55 odd year trip from initial observation to final signalling molecules gives me hope on my own research topic. In my day job I’m studying how G protein coupled receptors activate a particular transient receptor potential (TRP) channel, TRPC5. But it’s been a bear, because we’ve exhausted the usual suspects, and haven’t yet nailed down the culprit. (Also, the channel is just a pain in the f***ing ass, clearly being a devotee of Marquis de Sade.) In fact, it’s entirely possible that we’re on the wrong path entirely (I said “possible”. Not “likely”). Still, seeing as this channel was only cloned in 1996, and “real” recordings of its activity date from 1999-2000, I figure we still have some time to go before making a run at the title of “Longest duration from ion channel to signalling pathway elucidation.”

I plan to do some blogging on the seminal papers of the field, as well as the its overall development.