Archive for the 'Postgraduate Training' category

Guest Post: Gender Sensitivity in Neuroscience is a Work in Progress

This is a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous.

 


 

This week, the Society for Neuroscience opened its website allowing attendees to book their hotels for their annual meeting. The timing was couldn’t have been worse for the Vanderbilt neuroscience community given that on Monday, a former graduate student of the program leveled a disturbing series of accusations against neuroscientist Aurelio Galli. At least 10 of the 60+ alleged events of harassment occurred at SfN meetings. The year before the defendant claims she was subject to harassment, The Society for Neuroscience named Vanderbilt their ‘Neuroscience Training Program of the Year’.

 

In a 20 million dollar harassment suit filled in Nashville, sordid details were laid out of alcohol fueled harassment both in the lab and at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meetings in 2012 and 2013. The student, a recovering alcoholic, alleges she was subjected to unwelcome and embarrassing commentary from Galli about her perceived lesbianism, her sex life and her looks both in lab as well as in front of male professors.

 

Vanderbilt fired back saying they had investigated the claims and would vigorously defend themselves.  The medical center director and the chancellor were named as defendants, as were Mark Wallace, the head of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and National Academy member and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Physiology, Roger Cone. Wallace and Cone were included for their failure to act on the student’s claims and protect her career.

 

For those outside the field, the neuroscience community seems to be holding down opposite poles in gender and racial equality. The leadership of both the Journal of Neuroscience and the Society are enviably gender balanced in the last decade. SfN was one of the first national societies to initiate meaningful career-long mentorship for women and minorities. Thanks in part to this commitment, women constitute 50% of most neuroscience graduate training programs. The national attrition of women from academic science is also evident in Vanderbilt’s neuroscience program which has an all male leadership and > 30% of its training faculty as women. The vast majority of these female faculty members are assistant professors.

 

Sending a female graduate student from a heavily male influenced neuroscience graduate program to SfN would present many sources of potential conflict. The first SfN meeting the student claims she was harassed at was in New Orleans, a city proud of its tradition of asking women to show their breasts for beads.

 

The female graduate student alleges that at SfN, her PI required her to attend a cocktail party on a boat where senior male scientists “became intoxicated and were allowed to make romantic and sexual advances on the students”. <I’ll insert my editorial opinion that news does not surprise me especially in light of the report this week from Kate Clancy that the majority of women in her survey of field scientists say they have been harassed with more than 20% reporting that they have been assaulted.>

 

Why would anyone attend boat party or any other kind of party where alcohol is flowing freely and fun is a much more clear objective than science?   For many trainees, this is often the only chance they have to spend time talking to well-published PIs. Presumably, at a party like this, senior investigators would be amenable to laid back conversations with trainees providing a rare chance to judge the character of potential future mentors.

 

These parties are the products of the bygone era of much larger gatherings held a decade or more ago by men who were SfN officers and investigators. Hosts had ample institutional ‘slush’ funds and open bar was the norm. The fabled parties hosted by former Emory Psychiatry chairman Charlie Nemeroff were more or less the height of partying for many members.

 

While at Emory, Nemeroff managed to get millions in personal wealth by consulting for drug companies while also studying those drugs using funding for his lab from NIMH. This income presumably enabled him to host these lavish events. Nemeroff’s parties would often devolve into factions that went skinny-dipping, participated in drinking contests and unwelcome ass grabbing, and yes, accomplished some important networking.

 

From the Venderbuilt lawsuit, “networking” was the reported benefit Galli touted as a reason for the trainee to attend the boat party. Indeed, Galli trained at Emory from 1993-1995 while Nemeroff was there, so these kinds of parties probably did help him advance his career. The expectation that a female recovering alcoholic would likewise benefit underscores a clear cultural clash that needs to be addressed by both the Vanderbilt community and the Society for Neuroscience.

29 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: The Ideal Personnel Lineup

Excellent comment from eeke:

My last NIH grant application was criticized for not including a post-doc at 100% effort. I had listed two techs, instead. Are reviewers under pressure to ding PI's for not having post-docs or some sort of trainee? WTF?

My answer:

I think it is mostly because reviewers think that a postdoc will provide more intellectual horsepower than a tech and especially when you have two techs, you could have one of each.

I fully embrace this bias, I have to admit. I think a one-tech, one-PD full modular R01 is about the standardest of standard lineups. Anchors the team. Best impact for the money and all that.

A divergence from this expectation would require special circumstances to be explained (and of course there are many projects imaginable where two-tech, no-postdoc *would* be best, you just have to explain it)

What do you think, folks? What arrangement of personnel do you expect to see on a grant proposal in your field, for your agencies of closest interest? Are you a blank slate until you see what the applicant has proposed or do you have....expectations?

22 responses so far

The Birds and the Bees, academic version

Some guy has written a blog post asking "Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?"

This is not an absurd question on the face of it and one of his points appears to be that hiring postdocs is done in preference to hiring longer-term staff-scientist type people.


Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

I agree that if you can manage to do this, in preference to a series of 3-5 year cheap 'trainees' doing the same job, this is a morally superior place to be. Totally.

The blog post starts, however, with the following figure

sourced from Schillebeeckx et al (2013) in Nature Biotechnology.

See how the production of new PhDs each year leads to an ever-increasing disconnect between the number of available PhDs and the number of faculty jobs? So yes, there is an increasing body of postdocs being exploited and not being able to get the faculty jobs that they started graduate training to obtain.

BUT THEY DIDN'T GET DROPPED OFF BY THE STORK OF SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They were made. Intentionally. By faculty who benefit tremendously in their own careers from an inexpensive, unbelievably hard working, young and less-distracted, deluded and optimistic workforce.

Faculty who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of problem.

You know, kind of like any sort of Western subpopulation which advocates family sizes of 8, 15 or whatnot can't find any sort of problem with overpopulation.

And kind of like the US Baby Boomers stopped talking about overpopulation the second they realized their comfy retirements were gonna depend on a lot bigger working population behind them, paying the taxes that they couldn't even be bothered to pay in their own heyday.

But I digress.

The point is, that this blog post contains a big old howler:

One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.

HAHAHAHAAH!!!!!!

Riiiiiiigghhhhhttt.

Bog-standard excuse making that I hear from every damn participant in a graduate program that simply cannot bear to see that their habit has been to exploit cut rate labor. At first they simply refused to admit that there was any overproduction whatsoever. Then, when the evidence became overwhelming, they clutched the excuse of "alt-careers" and "general good" like a man going down for the third time grasping a life-saver ring.

It's laughable and pathetic.

One might even venture, immoral.

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p.s. I don't blame people directly for participating in this crappy system we are in. It demands that PIs exploit people to survive in the grant-funded rat race. Having a lab based exclusively on the work of ever more expensive career TurboTechs and Staff Scientists is a path to disaster. I grasp this. But for Glory's sake people! Stop pretending it is something it isn't. Stop pretending that your lab's arrangements are totally free of exploitation but those other aspects of the system, over there, are immoral and evil.

56 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Jun 12 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

Once you understand your PI is a data addict and your role as a trainee is a codependent enabler, things go much better.

5 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: The F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship Application

We've previously discussed the NIH F32 Fellowship designed to support postdoctoral trainees. Some of the structural limitations to a system designed on its fact to provide necessary support for necessary (additional) training overlap considerably with the problems of the F31 program designed to support graduate students.

Nevertheless, winning an individual NRSA training fellowship (graduate or postdoctoral) has all kinds of career benefits to the trainee and primary mentor so they remain an attractive option.

A question arose on the Twitts today about whether it was worth it for a postdoc in a new lab to submit an application.

In my limited experience reviewing NRSA proposals in a fellowship-dedicated panel for the NIH, there is one issue that looms large in these situations.

Reviewer #1, #2 and #3: "There is no evidence in the application that sufficient research funds will be available to complete the work described during the proposed interval of funding."

NRSA fellowships, as you are aware, do not come with money to pay for the actual research. The fellowship applications require a good deal of discussion of the research the trainee plans to complete for the proposed interval of training. In most cases that research plan involves a fair amount of work that require a decent amount of research funding to complete.

The reviewers, nearly all of them in my experience, will be looking for signs of feasibility. That the PI is actually funded, funded to do something vaguely related* to the topic of the fellowship proposal and funded for the duration over which the fellowship will be active.

When the PI is not obviously funded through that interval, eyebrows are raised. Criticism is leveled.

So, what is a postdoc in a newer lab to do? What is the PI of a newish lab, without substantial funding to do?

One popular option is to find a co-mentor for the award. A co-mentor that is involved. Meaning the research plan needs to be written as a collaborative project between laboratories. Obviously, this co-mentor should have the grant support that the primary PI is lacking. It needs to be made clear that there will be some sort of research funds to draw upon to support the fellow doing some actual research.

The inclusion of "mentoring committees" and "letters of support from the Chair" are not sufficient. Those are needed, don't get me wrong, but they address other concerns** that people have about untried PIs supervising a postdoctoral fellow.

It is essential that you anticipate the above referenced Stock Critique and do your best*** to head it off.

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*I have seen several highly regarded NRSA apps for which the research plan looks to me to be of R01-quality writing and design.

**We're in stock-critique land here. Stop raging about how you are more qualified than Professor AirMiles to actually mentor a postdoc.

***Obviously the application needs to present the primary mentor's funding in as positive a light as possible. Talk about startup funds, refer to local pilot grants, drop promising R01 scores if need be. You don't want to blow smoke, or draw too much attention to deficits, but a credible plan for acquiring funding goes a lot farther than ignoring the issue.

28 responses so far

Good and Bad Mentoring

This topic keeps coming up amongst the trainees and I have an area of confusion.

What does it mean that your mentoring has been bad? Is it all about *outcome*?

Is it about lab favoritism?

Does your mentor fail to advance the careers of everyone? Or is it just that you were not the favored one?

Are there specific things your mentor should and could have done for you that you can mention? Did you only recognize this is retrospect or was it frustrating at the time?

25 responses so far

Sydney Brenner on the trainee exploitation scam of science.

In this interview, Nobel Laureate Brenner says:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

 

I saw some comment that he was bashing peer review but if you look carefully, you'll see he's talking about the GlamourGame with professional, not-working-scientist, editors:

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

...

In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all.

18 responses so far

On the qualifications for a science PHD degree

Dec 03 2013 Published by under Academics, Anger, Mentoring, Postgraduate Training

Namnezia has initiated an interesting conversation on the criteria for awarding a PhD in the sciences. A commenter over there alleged a set of rules that is nearly impossible for me to believe is true. RX claims:

No official requirements for my PhD program, it's up to the PI.
My lab is crazy. Here's the requirement: total first author impact factor: 30, total pages of paper: 20. The first graduate of my lab got 1 Neuron and 1 Nature Neuroscience paper. All the rest graduates tend to follow this pattern.

This is one reason it shouldn't be left up to the PI, there is a reason doctoral committees and doctoral program rules exist.

Go Play at the Take it to the Bridge blog.

No responses yet

SFN2013: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Those of us in the neurosciences are preparing for our largest annual scientific gathering. I like to remind you to attend to a certain little task to assist with the odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I've edited a few things for links and content.


One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego is to stroll around NIH row. Right?

I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump. I did mention that this is a long game, did I not? Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Up all night...

via the UCSD Neuroscience Graduate Students

8 responses so far

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