Election Day
November 6, 2018

It is election day here in the US and I know many people are anxious about the results.  I thought it might be a good time for 10 things.  Had been meaning to get this out for a while, so some of these thoughts are from some time ago.

1.     Had the opportunity to see Erica Ollmann Saphire  (EOS, @EOSaphire) present at UTMB.  As one of the leaders in the field of structure and viral glycoproteins, she had an amazing seminar and her lab’s work speaks for itself.  What struck me then and even more so today is the dedication of her student/post-doc/staff scientist, Dr. Kathyrn Hastie.  I do not know her personally, only what Erica mentioned in her talk.   Dr. Hastie spent most of a decade working on the structure of the Lassa glycoprotein complex.  10 years working through this goal from student to post-doc to staff scientist (I think that’s the progression at least). I cannot imagine how difficult that was.  Not only the technical challenges, but the questions about your work and progress.  10 years is an eternity in science. To steadily work on the same project for so long requires fortitude and perseverance.  It also requires that you cast aside the expectations of the scientific community. How many people advised her to move on? How many told her career might amount to nothing for continuing this project? How much disappointment was projected onto her life?  How many people dismissed her?  Speaking for myself, I am not sure that I could’ve stomached these questions and thoughts. I am happy she persevered and we are all better because of her dedication.

2.     Coming back to EOS, it is not lost on me that many of the questions for Dr. Hastie also fell on her PI.  It is one thing to answer these questions and wonder if you are doing right by your trainee.  It is another to consider funding/supporting for a project that takes 10 years to complete or may never be completed.  Many kudos to her for supporting the project and the trainee doing the work.

3.     It is also not lost on me that this effort on Lassa GP was led by two exceptional women in STEM.  

4.     10 years on a project.  This is not on my radar as a new PI.  Sure, I can imagine in 10 years working on similar subject, but not 10 years on one project.  To be honest, I’m not positive my lab will still exist in 10 years.  In thinking about this, I am struck by the faith involved in these projects.  As a guy who works on aging in the context of infection, I can easily see a project taking a decade to complete.  When you need to age animals 18-24 months, waiting is the name of the game. That and the money to do the projects. Do I think my ideas are good?  Yes.  Have I put money into the longer term ones? Some yes, some not yet.  The risk is that I may not be around to achieve the fruits of the wait. In thinking about my short-term goals, many are in the quest to establish stability to do the long-term project.  Maybe everyone doesn’t think this way.  I do.

5.     Short-term productivity.  When I started my lab, I got lots of advice.  One thing that stuck was early productivity for your lab.  Countless people counseled the importance of getting a paper out of your lab as soon as possible, ideally within the first 3 years.  It needs to be well done and be relevant, but try to shoot for focused projects that can establish your independence from your PD mentor.  It also requires having a reasonable scope and capacity for the lab to do it. If you have all students, the timeline must be extended. For me, I am hoping that the first manuscript comes together before our 2 year mark.  We are working on a story now by my post-doc, so we are right in line.  We’ll see how it goes this spring. 

6.     I went to my second International Cytokine and Interferon Society (ICIS)  ( meeting: Cytokines2018.  Despite the name (Not ISIS), this is a great conference if you are into innate immunity and signaling.  Our group doesn’t do as much on the topic, but if you want to be inspired, this is a great meeting.  In Vienna next year and Seattle in 2020.

7.     I got my first R01 reviewed this month.  Discussed but far from funded.  It sucks. What rescued me?  A network of support.  Other young PIs going through literally the same thing.  People a few years ahead of me detailing their travails.  A steady stream of people offering to help parse the reviews and look at my grant (again).  We talk often about building your network.  We talk less about how to use it.  This is one important way your network matters.

8.     Imposter’s syndrome.  I now have 3 small children and my boys love the Cars movies.  We watch Cars 3 weekly and the story of Cruz is a story about imposter syndrome.  In this analogy, I’m Lightning McQueen, a guy who never had any doubt about his ability.  Cruz, not so much.  In many ways, I never knew how to help people with this.  I struggle to offer advice for something I rarely have felt.  What works for me will not work for many of these people I have met.  Yet, I am hopeful I have stumbled onto something that will speak to these people.  I was introduced to a pair of trainees, one of who spoke of the paralysis caused by her imposters syndrome.  She quickly deflected the praise offered by her mentor and friend with her.  In my conversation with her, I struggled to offer much to help.  Then I thought carefully about the woman who had introduced us.  This was someone who I knew and trusted; a person I’d asked advice from and who is currently working through my grant and reviews.  She had been effusive with her praise for this trainee and I know her not to pull punches. So I asked the trainee a few simple questions.  Do you trust this mentor?  Yes. Do you think she would lie to you?  No.  So why then do you not believe her when she says these things?  Before she answered, I interrupted:  Find people you trust to tell you the truth about your science.  Then trust their judgment if you can’t trust your own. Fake it till you make it doesn’t work for everyone, but if people you trust believe in you, maybe that will be enough to overcome your doubt.  I’m not sure if that worked for her, but I am hopeful it will.

9.     My lab uses slack ( for a myriad of things in organization and communication.  I know lots of labs use it.  If you aren’t using it, it is great combo of instant messaging, dropbox, memes, and more.  It is how I communicate with my lab the most; check it out if you haven’t already.

10.  An FYI for you new investigators applying for R grants.  I had been told this before, but there is a different deadline for New and ESI for resubmission.  While the standard date is usually very close to when you get your reviews, you can resubmit for a date a month or so later (  I was not planning to use this for my R01 grant, but it might be useful for those submitting new grants to know about. I may use it in the future, especially if my grant was closer to getting funded.

Whomp whomp
August 9, 2018

We got reviews back on a training fellowship this week and while there were good comments and suggestions, the following statement stuck out.

"in summary, it is difficult to foresee how a starting laboratory will provide the best training opportunity to this applicant."

Whomp whomp.

I had shared this with several people, mostly in venting.  My good friend Kari said I should write about it.  I told her I didn’t think many people would be interested in my sour grapes about this.  She tweeted out the statement and it seems to have struck a nerve.

Lots of responses and suggestions.  It also caused some reflection on my part and I decided to write 10 things on it.

1)   The statement above, in itself, was not the only flaw in this application. There were many good things we included and many things that needed work.  We knew many of them when we submitted.  Several new ones were pointed out by the reviewers. But given the nature and timing of fellowship grants, we decided it was best to put it in now versus waiting.  The work is in much better shape now than when we submitted months ago.

2)   Reviewing is hard.  I haven’t sat on many panels, but the ones I’ve done are exceptionally tough.  You triage as best you can and try to give everyone a fair shake.  Sometimes you might be unfair, either good or bad.  It is a thankless job and extremely hard when you hold people’s careers in your hands. 

3)   A moment on the suggestions from twitter:  1) There was a senior co-mentor with over 20 trainees previously trained; perhaps our integration could have been better, but we tried. 2) We had 3 letters of support from additional researchers/cores for specific techniques outside either mentors’ specialty.  3) Training plan had specific metrics  for the candidate and a mentoring team including senior faculty, new faculty, and a chair from a related department to help guide career objectives.  4) R00, U19, and startup throughout the fellowship meant there was enough support ($) for this project. 

4)   Sponsor, Collaborator, and Consultants Scores:  1, 2, 7.   I’ll let you guess where the 7 came from.

5)   It’s ok. Even with a better score on the above, I still think it probably is still Not discussed.  And that is ok.  Not what we hoped for, but ok.  Why?  Cause getting the fellowship isn’t the only benefit of writing a fellowship application.  Organizing and writing is great to improve your project and pursuit.  It forces you to think/plan out and consider alternatives.  It always seems 3 days before the grant deadline you realize a fatal flaw and have to adjust accordingly. You rarely get this without writing grants/papers about your work.

6)   Is this really what you want to do?  If you are interested in academic science, fellowship applications are a must.  Not just because of the prestige/money/etc that go with it, but it gives a real insight into your career choice.  Can’t stand grant writing?  It’ll be tough to be PI if you can’t/won’t write.  Fellowship grants are a great way to examine if this is in you.  I found great satisfaction in writing my projects up (when they were done).  Other people hate everything about it.  So, is grant writing what you want/can tolerate in your life?  The earlier you find out, the better.  Right?

7)   Money recognizes money.  Along the way, someone told me that the best prediction of success in academia is writing to get money for yourself.  The sooner you have that track record for that, the better it is for your career.  It does not mean the advice is true. Plenty of F31, F32, and even K99 have flamed out.  But, a track record of getting funding at each level is a tough feather to argue with it. Starting and getting funding early is a great help.  Having a record of successful grant applications (T32, an F32, and K99) did not hurt me on the job market.  It’s not fatal if you don’t have it, but make no mistake, funding matters.

8)   Reacting to reviews.  Everyone is different.  After the reviews come back, I’m usually pretty annoyed.  For awhile.  After awhile, I go back and consider the criticism.  Then get mad again.  Then really consider the criticism. It is easy when the reviewer is right:  missing controls, unclear outcomes, missing references, good experimental suggestions, etc.  When you think they are wrong is harder.  I spend time really trying to consider the reviewer perspective.  Often, it comes back to a few simple things: 1) I did a poor job explaining (often);  2) they fundamentally disagree with your interpretations;  3) they fundamentally disagree with your approach.  Often, #1 has a ton to do with #2 and #3.  All of this is important for improving your science.  Grants are a great way to get this feedback.

9)   Can/should a new lab train?  For everyone who has approached me about joining my lab, I have a list of specific questions I ask.  One is based around why they wanted to work in my lab versus my PD mentor or my more experience competitor.  I am usually very upfront with them about the limitations I have as a mentor.  I may not be good at it.  I  haven’t done it before. It will hurt your fellowship applications and job prospects.  It may be harder for me to give up projects when you leave.  I may not have enough money to really follow the science you want to do.  I myself wouldn’t have chosen my lab in their position.

I balance this with the positives of being a new PI.  If you are on the academic track, I can tell you lots of things I just did to get my job. Sure, my old boss has experience training and mentoring, but he got his job 30 years ago.  Things are a little bit different now. You will get to learn how to set up and run a lab, cause you’ll see me do it. You may just realize how not to do it.  There is much more research focus in my lab than the bigger ones. I can be more invested in your success than a bigger lab can/will be.  I need you to be successful.  That can be good and bad. 

10)   “in summary, it is difficult to foresee how a starting laboratory will provide the best training opportunity to this applicant” 

What annoys me about this is that there isn’t a way to address it.  Most reviewers’comments can be addressed, maybe not thoroughly, but this one is insidious because of what seems to be behind it. 

Why did you even bother trying? 

If a starting lab can’t train people in this reviewer’s eye, why even resubmit.  This is why I’m annoyed more than anything else.  The implied in this statement is: 

Why are you wasting my time? 

This is what I immediately went to and tried to head off when we discussed the grant reviews.  We talked about all the things we could do and address and the things we couldn’t. I did offer that switching labs to really famous scientist would address the problem.  We decided that wasn’t the best approach.  We have some ideas though; however, with the scores above, it seems for this particular reviewer, there isn’t a way around this comment.  So what’s the point?

Why are you wasting my time? 

Because resiliency and grit are also key to success in science. Because writing and responding will improve our science.  Because your review was Bullshit. 

So we’ll still be back, if only to waste your time again.

Whomp Whomp.

Science Mentoring... more than just your boss.
June 26, 2018

I had the great fortune in the last month to see two ends of my own mentoring spectrum. At the end of May, I made a trip back to my old post-doc lab for a working group meeting.  This trip dovetailed with the defense of my good friend and apparent mentee (I will get to why I term it “apparent” in a few moments).  A few weeks later, I visited my old PHD institution and was invited by my thesis chair to give a talk and meet with some faculty. I also got a chance to catch up with some old colleagues too. Both trips were a great opportunity to reflect on both the good memories and the things I don’t miss about those places.  It also spurred this post on mentoring in science.  

We often think about mentoring as the relationship we have with our boss. Obviously, this interaction dictates our work and success in ways similar to parent to child relationship.  However, the mentor-mentee relationship is not limited to one person.  While your boss is tasked with guiding your progress and development, they are not the only impactful person shaping your career.  Often, it is the people you work and interact with that will dictate your approach and success as a scientist.  In the moment, it is often hard to recognize who those people are; in reflecting, like I did this week, it was abundantly clear for me.

As a new PI, I am pretty sure that I would not have gotten along with the grad student version of myself.  I was smart and spent most of my intelligence on trying to do as little as possible to get the minimum desired result.  AKA, I was lazy.  Later, this translated into being a very efficient post-doc.  As a student, I was just lazy and tried not do any more experiments than I had to.  In one sense, I was fortunate that my PI mentor gave a ton of latitude to  (lazily) pursue my project.  On the other hand, it could have ended very poorly for me.

Luckily, the lab was also full of people who knew what they were doing. A senior grad student that worked really hard, experience technicians that knew how to do stuff and took no crap from a know-it-all grad student. Most importantly, a post-doc who had the opposite approach to my own.  While it took a few years, we eventually formed a ying-yang scientific duo, arguing about experiments and interpretations.  I like to think I saved her many experiments by simplifying what had to be done.  I know she saved me by pointing out what my bare bone outline lacked.  From this relationship, which involved a fair amount of bickering, I gained a key guidepost in my scientific pursuits:  Could I convince her with the data I had?  After I defended and graduated, convincing her transitioned into convincing myself using her standards.

A few years later, I found myself in my post-doc lab in the proximity of a new grad student.  She was smart and talented, but also driven in a way I never was as a student.  We wouldn’t have been friends in grad school. She also had the bad habit of actually considering the advice that I gave her.  For those who don’t know me, I am happy to offer my own opinion and advice on all kinds of things.  I also don’t really care if you take the advice, but if that is the pattern, I don’t care to offer the advice if you don’t take it.  Why waste both of our times.

Anyway, she didn’t always take my advice, but engaged in a way that made me realize she had considered it.  It is always ego boosting when someone at least acknowledges your suggestions.  I was also fortunate that we were wired similarly, which allowed her to handle my not so gentle probing of her science.  Distance helped too in that our subject areas didn’t overlap.  In many ways, this science interaction wouldn’t have worked if any of these variables had not aligned.

Over the years, we developed our own ying-yang; she pushed my work as much as I pushed hers.  Her organization and opinions shaped much of my best writing and figures. Her view from outside my field forced me to consider the big picture and improve my efficacy and experiments.  On the other side, my jabs always revealed where she thought her project might be weak.  How so?  For her strong data, she quickly dismissed my probing and criticism; in contrast, areas of weakness she defended with ferocity.  As I learned the pattern, I’d always try to highlight the questions I still had.  Often, she would return with a clever way of addressing the particular question with approaches I would never have identified myself.  As the years went by, she got better and better at it.  That, or she was more confident that I knew nothing (both could be true).

In reflecting on this “mentoring”, it never felt like work to me.  I never felt obligated.  Whether she did what I said or not had minimal impact on my own career.  I lacked “skin” in the game.  Despite that, in moments of altruism, I also wanted the best for her and her work. My goal was never to mentor, but to push her to be better.  Is that mentoring?  It didn’t feel that way. 

In chatting with my old post-doc friend last week, I mentioned my appreciation for her mentoring.  She balked, saying it was just fun to talk about the data and think about science.  A few minutes after my talk, as we said our goodbyes, she told me how proud she was and how far I’d come from the punk grad student I was before.

While it may not have seemed like mentoring to her, it truly shaped the scientist that I am today.  Perhaps I have been able to pay it forward, although I imagine my argument would be the same offered by my post-doc friend:  my contributions were only to encourage the best out of my friend.  They did the hard work to unlock their own potential and I am so happy I got to witness it.

So in reflection, take a moment to recognize who made you the scientist you are.  Not just the person who paid/pays the bills, but the people who actually taught you and shaped your science.  In the next moment, ask yourself if you are paying that forward.  Not to everyone, cause fit and timing are critical.  But the truth of scientific mentoring is that it has two sides and goes much farther than just your boss and the people who work for you.

Post AAI.
May 11, 2018

Spent the weekend in Austin TX at my first American Association of Immunologists meeting.  Had a great time and lots of thoughts about it and other things this week.

1.     A new meeting is always a good way to get out of a rut.  Science is often about perspective. While immunology is a big part of my work, I often only consider it in the context of viral pathogenesis.  I often look at the immunology, only after I know it is important to infection.  AAI takes an opposite approach, focusing on the immunology and how the systems work.  If you are trying to figure out how something works, maybe you should study it without something that actively screws it up (see viruses).
2.     Pathogenic OVA.  Look, I get it.  The above is true; viruses screw up experiments, modulate immune responses, require approvals, etc.  But come on immunologist, you can also use more capable pathogens (not LCMV) once you have an idea of what is going on.  Even better, partner with people who do (like me) and both groups benefit.
3.     It’s ok to miss a grant deadline.  I was chatting with a friend about upcoming grant deadline and she said she wasn’t going to be able to get it in.  No problem, I said and related the following truth:  All the grants I ended up getting, I went a cycle later than I had planned. True for my F32.  True for my K99.  I hope the same is true for my current R01.  In each case, I decided, relatively late that I just didn’t have what I needed to get it in (time, data, etc).  It is not a failure (although it sure feels like it) and sometimes, the right thing to do is to step back and say, this needs to wait until the next deadline.  Hopefully, you have sufficient support (startup/grants/admin) to make that decision.  I have been fortunate to have had that multiple times in my career.
4.     Good science comes from the grant push.  On the other end of the spectrum is that writing and planning your grant often pushes your science the way it needs to be done.  There are lots of easy things you think won’t take time.  Then you start your grant and see they are more complicated.  Problems with your approach that you didn’t see until you started putting it together.  At the same time, this can be coupled with eureka moments and finding just the right pieces of data to make you experiments seem right.  The push is key and usually leads to better science.
5.     What to read?  With so many new journals, it is hard to keep up.  How do I do it?  Mostly twitter.  I usually come across cool papers in my field following various twitter accounts.  Is it the best way? No. Is it the only way?  No.  Is it the way I usually find new papers?  Yes.
6.     To BioRxiv or not.  I am a fan of BioRxiv.  Why?  Cause it gets info out fast and your paper isn’t held hostage by the review process.  In general, I have yet to find a paper that is poorly presented on bioRxiv.  I’ve been putting some of my stuff on (especially if the journal has an automatic way to do it).  But, I also realize that replicating my work (in vivo, in a select agent CoV) ain’t easy.  I’m not sure I’d be so gung ho in a more competitive field.
7.     Constructive Criticism.  People who like constructive criticism are the worst.  I hate it.  I don’t see it as constructive. I see it as criticism.  I hate every minute of it.  I still seek it out.  Find people who will give you the unvarnished truth.  It’s key to making your science better.  But let’s not pretend it doesn’t suck.
8.     Re: #MeToo.  This is important for everyone in science. I thought this was a good article for everyone.
9.     Science is hard.  Don’t forget this truth.  Science is hard.  It is for everyone.  Don’t give up.  Seek out help.  Create support networks.  Science is hard, even if others make it look easy. 

10. Science is not always serious. Twitter makes it infinitely more fun.  My lab has had a whole year long joke about autoclaving money.  Not sure how it started, but you can imagine the discussions right?  Also, science memes are fun:

A Year In.
May 3, 2018

I wanted to start a blog to document starting a lab.  Then a year went by, and I wrote nothing (except grant applications and papers).  In the spirit of something is better than nothing, I am going to “try” a simple format. 

The premise:  10 things I like and don’t like.  Some about the job, some about other life stuff.  Hopefully it’ll balance and not just be whining.  Maybe it won’t. 

Here is the first iteration, a year into my lab officially starting.

1.     Loneliness. Lots of hard things about starting a lab, but the one that gets me often is how lonely the job can be.  While there are lots of people around, everyone is busy.  The camaraderie of the lab is not gone, but different, cause you are the boss.  Obviously, that changes the dynamics of your interactions.  The folks you have the most in common with are super busy, making the casual lunch/coffees seem short, cause you both have to get back soon.  It is a lonelier job than I anticipated.
2.     Bargain Hunting. Buying stuff is fun and you can take real pride in the “good” stuff you get to buy. I currently love my Stirling -80 and look forward to having its oil changed. You also have an unreasonable level of satisfaction of stuff you were able to “rescue” from surplus or another lab.  It feels like you found a real gem when you grab and “fix” an old “shaking” incubator.  That feeling hasn’t worn off for me… yet.
3.     My own office with a door.  It is great to close the door and get some work done, or listen to Taylor Swift in peace. Nice to be out of the hovel.
4.     My own office with a door.  It facilitates that door being closed and having “SOMAAD” days (Sit on my a** all day).  Coupled with being the boss, it can/does exacerbate that loneliness.
5.     Being recognized as your own scientific being.  So often, I started emails in the context of the lab I was in (post-doc or grad student).  I learned to use the stature of my old bosses to get attention and respect.  The cloak of their competency if you will.  When you hang your own shingle, you still maintain this a bit (“former post-doc in the X lab”, junior PI from X lab).  Every once in awhile, someone will respond… “I know who you are.”  “Of course I know your work.”  I wish I could bottle that feeling of validation.
6.     Who’s lab are you in?  The parallel to the above is the need to know who you work/ed for.  This is mostly a conference thing and with the season upcoming, I’m bracing for the … “well, I have my own lab now, but I used to work for…”  answer.  I know I get this less than others because 1) I am male,  2) I am an amazing scientist (ha)   2) I am generally less approachable (my wife with her kind face is always approached to be asked for help or just to chat… me, not so much).
7.     The unicorn foundation grants.  Writing grants is the name of the game and I believe reps are really important.  However, not getting feedback on your grants ranks up there as things that are super annoying and something you don’t realize right away.  While the reviews I’ve gotten have been painful, they have been exceeding useful in pointing out flaws in either my approach or in how I failed to explain something well.  With that, the majority of foundations grants that I applied to offer no feedback.  In my case, just a “you didn’t get it” form email.  I knew this up front and tried to reuse as much of the text of the grants over and over again, knowing no feedback was forthcoming (Perhaps why I didn’t get them).  While everyone complains about reviewers, it is actually worse to not get any information.
8.      Work-Life Balance.  I refrained from weighing in on the twitter discussion about how much time to spend in the lab.  I am very much a do what I say, not what I do on this front.  I try to encourage my people and trainees I interact with to go home on weekends and at night; find a balance cause science is hard.  More time is not always better.  At the same time, more is often more, and that translate to more productivity for me.  I fortunately have a wife and (now) 3 small children that demand my life be balanced.   I still spend parts of my weekends working on stuff, but try my best to keep track and account properly for the time worked.  I am a believer that work must ebb and flow; the key is to take the time off when you can as there will always be times you need to crank it up.
9.    Graveyard Papers.   There was a twitter discussion about finishing old papers from previous labs.  I am fortunate to have gotten several papers out in the last year wrapping up work.  While I take great pride in that, it was not primarily to get the productivity.  My goal was to wrap up my projects such that no one ever contacted me a few years later to ask what I did.  Translating my lab notebook or other notes for them years after the fact was not ever going to be a good use of anyone’s time.  Now that I have small kids, I have replaced that knowledge with Daniel Tiger tunes.  With that in mind, the easiest way to document your work is to publish it.  That’s what I’ve tried to do.  I will say it is not impossible, but if you don’t make it a primary goal, it’ll never happen.
10. Building a network & resources.  I have been truly blessed to have great mentors and friends who have helped me in this job.  I have relied on people a few years ahead to give me advice, grant materials, and a sounding board for my idea.  There are too many to name, but I’d say building your network is more than just a catch phrase and most of my good friends in science came from interactions that had nothing to do directly with science (ax throwing, poutine,  stumbling up the hill at Cornel late at night).  I am also indebted to blogs and twitter that provide great insights. My favorites include: