I just realized I had never posted this, which I wrote last month during the Cartilage workshop in Montreal. So here it is at last!

This workshop has 35 participants from all over the world. There are several from Montreal, a handful from the United States, and I’ve met people from Denmark, Brazil, Taiwan, and Germany, at least. A lot of the people who live in Montreal come from other countries originally: Iran, USA, China. A couple girls from the US have Asian ancestry and one many from Brazil has Japanese grandparents.

The workshop is in English. Native Montrealites speak both French and English. The woman from Iran learned French recently. Some people speak so many languages! I wondered if I hold the dubious distinction of being the only monolingual participant. I asked the redneck-looking guy from Florida though, and he also speaks only English. Whew, that was a close call.

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From the inside: the NIH review process

I love writing grants. I love planning the experiments, sorting out all the details, talking to tons of people and getting their ideas and improvements, looking up products and catalog numbers, dreaming big. Building hopes.

Then the grant is submitted, and if it’s funded, that’s exciting (and scary), and if it’s not funded, I love reading the reviewer comments and diving back into it to try again. I’m definitely a bit odd that way–most people hate getting rejected and despise the reviewers. My initial reaction to the comments is the same as most people’s: “Did he even READ my grant?” But my next reaction is to take on the challenge to make my grant read so clearly that even an idiot can’t misunderstand. And, while I’m at it, to incorporate the valid points.

I’ve heard that reviewers stay up late to read all their assigned grants the night before they are discussed, and then are exhausted and bleary-eyed for the discussion. Or they read them on the plane or in the airport filled with endless distractions. From the applicant’s perspective the scores may be random for all I can tell. I’ve heard that my application is read by only the 2 assigned reviewers, and everyone else on the panel just goes along with what they say. If just one of those has a bee in his bonnet, or a grudge, or a bad day, or doesn’t really read it at all, your grant doesn’t have a chance, no matter how good it was. The time of day that your grant gets discussed can determine if it gets a thorough review or if everyone is tired and doesn’t care anymore. That’s what I’ve heard.

Today I’m on an NIH study section reviewing grants and I am having a wonderful time. I loved reading my 5 assigned grants. I got really excited about one, and angry at another. I loved writing my reviewer comments.

There’s no reading the grants the night before the study section meets, because our initial scores and comments are due two weeks earlier. A minimum of 3, and often 4, people read the grant.

I was so excited when the other reviewer comments were available. Would they agree with me? It was fun to see what they thought, and it was interesting to see how our opinions changed after we saw what the others said. On the application that made me angry, someone else loved it! But I noticed later, her scores had risen*.

The comments were thorough! The other reviewers took their job as seriously as I took mine.

I reviewed my scores in light of the other reviewers’ comments and scores on my assigned grants, and decided that my initial scores stood. Then we all got to DC and discussed the grants. During the discussion, some of my scores changed slightly. Rarely, someone’s score would change dramatically. Interestingly, the assigned reviewers’ scores are often close together, but sometimes there is a wide spread. Usually when there is a wide spread, the scores tend to get closer after discussion, occasionally to a unanimous number. Other times, the scores gravitate up*. I don’t think it was ever the case that someone thought an application was bad and changed their mind to think it was good. But often the other way around.

We change our minds after the initial reading, because the other reviewers bring their own expertise, they point out things that we didn’t realize. I’m impressed with how thoroughly everyone reads these. In fact many people read all the grants, not just the ones assigned to them. (If I’m asked to review again, I’ll be doing that!)

For some grants, there is vigorous debate. Time of day does influence that a little bit, but not much. I suspect the science review officer, who asked that he NOT appear in this blog, might select applications which require less discussion for immediately after lunch. Sometimes an assigned reviewer really wanted to like the application (the underlying idea appeals, or they reviewed the initial submission), and initially scores them well, but sadly concedes the application really isn’t up to it.

Once the assigned reviewers have settled on their final scores, the rest of the panel can vote within the range of the assigned reviewers’ scores. For example, the assigned reviewers vote 2, 3, and 4. The rest of the panel can vote 2, 3, or 4. If someone wants to vote outside the range, they raise their hand and explain why (we humorously call that the Penalty).

After the meeting, the program officers consider our scores, and other factors, and make Funding Recommendations to the center’s director, who makes the final funding decision. Since I’m not privy to that process, there may yet be an element of randomness to the process.

I really enjoyed the entire process, the traveling was a necessary evil, and my opinion of the NIH review process has improved considerably.

*In NIH scoring, a low number is good, and high number is bad. Her initial score was a low number, mine was a high number, and her score increased.

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The environmental impact of scientists

Scientific conferences are great. Brilliant minds collide and supernova ideas erupt. Networks net, collaborators collude, progress proceeds. Getting scientists together from all over the world helps science everywhere.

But they are horrible for the environment. Tons of jet fuel are burned getting to the conference. We drink bottled beverages and use the disposable table ware at the coffee breaks and lunch breaks, creating a lot of trash. I throw away so many flyers and pamphlets from vendors when I get home from a conference.

Plus I don’t like to travel. I used to think I did. That was before I had traveled much. Now I spend my hours in the airport thinking of ways to get the same benefits from a scientific conference without actually traveling.

Such as an MMO-style scientific conference. Or this workshop I’m at right now, only instead of me coming to the workshop, the workshop comes to me. Webinars. Online networking events. You can make them cost as much as the real thing, that way you weed out the spammers and such.

I don’t know. None of those ideas truly replace the in person networking experience of a scientific conference. More than wanting to save jet fuel and reduce trash, I’d just like to be at home right now, and still get this opportunity to dissect a pig knee and test the mechanical properties of a cow knee.

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Paleo diet

I was recently reading about the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet is supposedly what our ancient ancestors living in caves ate. Leaving aside how “genuine” the modern Paleo diet might be, one argument was that the dietary diseases which kill us now, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, can’t be selected against because they kill us AFTER we reproduce.

I disagree that diseases which kill or cripple us after reproduction can’t be selected again. Humans are more like ants or bees, inherently social, and much of the evolution that went into make us what we are today had to do with maintaining the social order. Why else would such a horrible feeling as embarrassment or shame exist?

If the village chief drops dead of a heart attack at the age of 50, and the village chief over yonder survives another 20 years, which tribe has the advantage? The village being led by the experienced chief might easily wipe out the other village. I read in a paper about the evolution of menopause that grandmothers play a major role in the survival of their grandchildren. Which baby is more likely to survive, the one whose brand new mother is assisted by her experienced mother, or the one whose brand new mother is going it alone, or perhaps with the help of an equally inexperienced friend or sister? In modern society, we don’t typically achieve the height of our careers until our children are nearly grown.

In that hypothetical tribe, the village chief shares substantial genes with most of the village. There is significant selection pressure against his premature heart attack.

The Paleo diet may have some merits. I’m only attacking that particular argument, not the diet itself. My own fad diet based on absolutely no evidence would be approximately equal amounts of carbs, fats, and proteins, but no refined sugar, refined flour, or corn syrup. It’s probably about as effective as any low-carb or low-fat diet out there.

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Changing my mind

A good scientist is willing to change her opinion in response to evidence and logic. Recently my opinion has changed on a couple of points regarding Academia. Everyone agrees that academia is broken. I don’t know how to fix it. I have a few ideas. It is two of these ideas that have changed: that we should hire researchers to research, and teachers to teach, and that tenure needs to go.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we select the best researchers and hire them as professors and put them in classrooms. Not only have these people had little or even no teaching experience, and little or no training in teaching, but they were hired on the basis of how well they do their research, not how well they teach. Those who make an effort to become excellent teachers win teaching awards but not tenure. If they achieve tenure and then go on to become excellent teachers they win teaching awards but not promotions. Professors are rewarded for putting their efforts into research. At least, this is the common paradigm in state schools. Many private schools pride themselves on offering quality teaching.

A trend in the last few decades is that adjuncts do more and more of the teaching. Adjuncts, if they don’t receive any more training in teaching than tenure track professors, at least are hired to teach, not hired to do research and oh yeah, you teach too. When I got my position as a Research Professor–with my own lab (a rare treat for a Research Prof)– I thought this was the solution. Hire research professors to do research, and adjunct professors to teach. Get rid of the regular faculty entirely. Spend some resources on providing training to adjuncts so that they will be better teachers, or focus on hiring adjuncts who have that background already.

A couple people have objected to my scheme. They don’t think teaching should be completely divorced from research. One presented sufficiently compelling arguments with real examples that I’ve changed my mind too. If someone only has experience teaching, and little or no experience in either research or practice (ie, clinical), what she teaches will be what she learned as a student. Someone who has current research projects or current clinical practice understands what the practice actually is. Research techniques change as often as our underwear. There’s not much point in learning what a northern blot* is anymore, but someone who graduates without a basic understanding of quantitative RT-PCR** is at a disadvantage.

That argument leaves me convinced that it is a mistake to divorce research from teaching, or clinical practice from teaching. I don’t know an alternative solution. Perhaps devote more resources and some incentives to teaching, reduced class loads so that instructors can devote more attention to the classes they have. My original plan had the advantage of being a lot cheaper: you can higher one adjunct and one research professor for little more than the cost of one tenure track professor. Adding yet more tenure track professors is prohibitively expensive.

That brings me to the second idea which I have abandoned: getting rid of tenure. Everyone knows the ancient moldy professor who hasn’t done a lick of work since he got tenured in 1972…well, actually, he’s as mythical as the Welfare Queen, according to Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education. But doesn’t tenure discourage change, lock professors into a rut, enforce the good old boy system? Isn’t it bad for students? According to this article, faculty tenure is only bad for overpaid university presidents. Tenure protects faculty the way labor unions protect the labor force…and tenure comes with many of the same problems that labor unions bring.

There are some ideas out there about fixing academia that I’m still in favor of. Use permanent technicians instead of temporary postdocs and grad students to do research. Backwards funding of individuals, not the fictional forward funding of experiments. Changes in the culture of science through changes in funding, publishing, hiring and promoting.

*A northern blot is a technique where RNA is loaded into a well in a gel, and electric current runs through the gel which drives the RNA to travel the length of the gel. It separates based on length. Once it is separated the gel is transferred to a nylon membrane (the blot) and labeled with probes, radioactive in the first northern blots. The sequence can then be determined based on the probes.
**Reverse-transcriptase is an enzyme that turns an RNA molecule into a cDNA molecule. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) makes many copies of, or amplifies, the cDNA molecule. Using fluorescently-tagged bases during the PCR and high-tech detectors that pick up the fluorescence and can distinguish the colors, the amount of cDNA is quantified during each amplification cycle, such that you can calculate relative quantities of the original RNA in your sample.

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Starve and feast

We have an internal grant of $40,000 near the end of its one-year extension and we hadn’t yet spent any of it. That was because the same proposal had been submitted to external funding and both the external and the internal were awarded. (This was all before I came here.) That situation led me to an important conclusion: Be wary of submitting the same proposal to multiple funding agencies. I’ve been told that funding agencies LOVE to fund work together because then they get $2 results for every $1 they give you. I’m not so sure that is true. Perhaps it depends on the funding agency.

In this case, the result was that we haven’t spent any of the internal grant and it is nearly at the end of its funding period (and beyond).

Requesting a no-cost extension is common. In fact I have to wonder if it is more frequently done than not. A no-cost extension is simply saying “We haven’t spent all the money in the year we said we would. Can we keep the money for a little bit longer?” Typically investigators are extremely frugal during the granting period. They request the no-cost extension. Typically only one additional year is allowed. Then the granting period is really and truly up, and if you haven’t spent all the funds, you better do it in a hurry. That means at the end of the granting period, there is a spending frenzy as the investigator tries to spend all the money. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like this practice–it seems dishonest. Both the scared frugality and the spending spree are wasteful.

We explained that we hadn’t spent much of the grant at all, because the project had been funded externally, and that I had some ideas of what we could spend the money on, but it wasn’t related to the project we had proposed.

“Spend it on your other projects,” the program officer told me. “I can’t give another extension, and don’t advertise that I’m letting you do this.”

Thus we entered into our own spending frenzy. It was a little better because we had his blessing (however covertly given), but I don’t like it. We’re guessing at what we might need and how much. We’re stocking up on stuff we might not use. For example, I ordered 10,000 wound clips but didn’t think to order an additional wound clipper. 10,000 wound clips will last us a long, long time. But if the existing wound clipper fails us before we run out, we won’t be able to use them all. On the other hand if I had ordered a backup wound clipper, and the existing wound clipper lasts forever, we’ve wasted our resources on the backup wound clipper that we didn’t need.

It is very frustrating that I can’t stock up on some of the things I really need. Cell culture media doesn’t last. It expires. So do drugs. And reagents. I’d much rather have a little pot of money that I can spend as I need it, and have the freedom to make it last as long as I like.

A recent article in Scientific American, “Dr. No Money“, recommends a looking-backwards approach to funding scientists. Instead of giving funds to conduct a certain set of experiments, give funds to someone to do whatever they like. Howard Hughes and Wellcome Trust have used successfully used this approach. Every five years, the scientist’s work is reviewed, and if they are satisfied with it, the funding is renewed for another five. In the current system, it is just a polite fiction that funds are given to conduct a proposed set of experiments.

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Herbal medicine, manipulation, meditation, yoga, shark cartilage, acupuncture: Why don’t we know with any degree of certainty that any of these do or don’t work? We can do rigorous studies on pharmaceutical chemicals and surgical techniques and we are convinced that they do (or don’t) work.

Leaving aside the issue of how “rigorous” those studies really are, traditional science is ill equipped to handle so-called “alternative” medicine. Herbs, for example, contain hundreds of chemicals. There are countless chemical interactions in this complex milieu of chemicals. Each chemical is a complex structure, difficult to isolate and difficult to understand. Modern* science can’t deal with this complexity, even with microarrays and high throughput analyses.

The realm of alternative medicine is those complaints which are mild enough not to warrant the adverse side effects that seem inseparable from modern medicine. These types of complaints are typically highly responsive to a placebo effect. A strong placebo effect means that a good portion of the control group will improve. You need a much larger sample size, and a much stronger effect, to show that the people receiving alternative treatment improved more than the people receiving placebo. Large expensive studies are for only the most promising potent drugs.

The idea of a placebo at all is problematic when studying mind/body therapies like exercise, meditation, yoga, or manipulation. How does a control group believe it is getting the same treatment as the treatment group, when the treatment is physical like exercise or yoga?

Finally, consider that many traditions of herbal medicine or mind/body healing call for individualized treatment. Today’s randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial is meaningless when therapy means a treatment specific to each individual.

But I don’t bring “half a thing”, a problem with no solution. How can alternative medicine be legitimized by science? My answer: by bringing “modern” science up to date. Multi-investigator studies and large databases. This approach will improve traditional medicine as well as establish alternative medicine. I’m afraid it will mean standardizing a lot of things that aren’t yet standardized and more electronic paperwork. Every health practitioner enters every bit of information about the patient and how she treated the patient. The data is de-identified and goes to a central repository. Researchers come along and mine the database looking for patterns. It will only be as good as the data entered, so there have to be standardized ways of talking about all aspects of the patient, the disease, and the treatment.

This isn’t a new idea. Some of it is being done already. It’s strictly voluntary, and getting volunteers is tricky because doctors don’t want to volunteer for more electronic paperwork. It’s not yet standardized, with a lot of variability among how things are reported. It will take many decades before it happens. It probably will happen eventually. Unless our society completely collapses, which is not outside the realm of possibility.

*Do you like how I use “traditional science” and “modern science” interchangeably? That’s probably a statement about something.

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Manuscript horror stories

Everyone has a few manuscript horror stories, but when we start sharing them, I seem to win hands-down. Generally the conversation goes like this:
“My paper has been on his desk for 2 months!”
And I reply, “I had given up on my paper, so I was astonished when it was published 7 years later.”

So I decided to put together my collection of horror stories. Some details have been changed so as not to burn bridges.

I actually had two first-author manuscripts which waited 7 years. I wrote the first one two years before I left the lab, and naively up to the end I believed it would get published. The PI constantly promised, “I’ll be in Japan, then Italy, and then a study section, and after that I’ll work on this.” After I left the lab, I continued to call him and email him every week. He never returned calls or responded to messages. The rare times I caught him in his office he started making excuses before I even asked about the paper. Eventually I gave up. It was getting to the point where the paper would no longer help me, and I was wasting my time on him.

Five years after I left his lab, and 7 years after I wrote it, the paper came out. I had no expectation that my 2nd paper would ever be published, the one I wrote shortly before I left his lab; I had given up on it before I gave up on the first one. I was astonished when it also appeared in print–again, 7 years after I wrote it.

After I left my next lab, my name was pulled entirely from a manuscript which I’d contributed to and expected to be co-author on. My contributions were NOT pulled.

At that point I was feeling a bit desperate for first-author papers. When my PI offered me a first-author paper if I’d run the statistical analyses and write up the manuscript, I jumped on it. There were some glaring problems that no amount of clever writing could hide, such as the basic experimental design. I submitted the paper 7 times before it was accepted.

He talked me into writing two reviews on subjects I knew very little about. I learned fast and added some first author publications to my cv. I am not proud of those publications. Or the non-peer-reviewed letter to the editor, also comprised of data which I analyzed and wrote up but had no role in the experimental design. We also wrote a “monograph”, this strange web-based thing for clinicians. I did most of the writing; he got paid for it. It has to be updated periodically. Each time we update, he gets paid for it, and I do most of the work. The last update I decided is my last. It is no longer any kind of advantage to list the monograph on my cv.

When that PI was leaving his lab, I needed him to sign a letter stating that another person would be an appropriate mentor for me (he wasn’t), in order for me to keep my fellowship. He made a list of things I had to do before he’d sign the letter. When I finished some items on the list, he’d add more. He had no need to be so manipulative: if he had simply asked me to do these things, I would have done them. I wasn’t interested in burning bridges. One of the things on his list was statistical analyses of some data. The data set wasn’t yet complete, as it was a repeated measures and most of the subjects had not yet reached the last time point. I didn’t have a statistical software, so I walked the mile across campus again and again to use the student computer lab that had the software installed. I had to keep going back because I’d run it once, then he’d want more, or I’d discover something I forgot, or the lab was locked, or there was a class in there, or I wouldn’t be able to log on. He promised me a co-author manuscript, a promise I took with a grain of salt, because I knew someone would have to re-run the stats with the complete data set.

Two years later, and he contacted me in the middle of a very busy time with the manuscript. “I can look this over after next week,” I told him. He replied, “I need it by Friday, if you want to be a co-author.” He also explained that my stats weren’t used in this manuscript and my only contribution would be whatever comments I made when I reviewed it. I nearly told him to shove it but my husband talked me out of it. Instead, I had my comments by Wednesday, but I didn’t send them until late Friday. “That’s just petty,” my husband said. I didn’t care.

The paper came back almost instantly rejected without review, as being not significant enough for their journal. He asked if I had any suggestions. I made a couple suggestions, and he then asked if I could take on a more substantial role, and that he would move me “up the author chain” to entice me. What, 2nd author instead of 4th? Some enticement. Try again. No, actually, don’t bother. Even a 1st author on this one isn’t enough enticement.

Most recently, I got a message from a lab I was in 8 years ago about a paper I am co-author on. I was given only a couple days to review it. (Where does this guy get off giving me 2 days to review a paper when it took him 7 years to read through the one I wrote?) I replied I’d need a little more time, and then I read the paper. I was horrified, in the last section he attacked his own former graduate student’s paper. I asked that the attack be removed, and planned to pull my name from the manuscript if it wasn’t–but it was.

So when a co-author took a month to get back to me on our manuscript, after weekly email reminders, I didn’t consider that to be a problem at all. A month is nothing compared to 7 years.

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It’s not about ethics

My daughter has always been uncomfortable with the fact that my job includes experimenting on animals. Her main objection is that she is not sure that humans are worth saving. Recently she changed her mind, not about whether humans are worth saving, or perhaps that is the fundamental change: she clearly believes that SHE is worth saving. For a teenage girl, that is a huge step.

When she was 3, I’d bring her to the lab on Saturdays when I went in to count the mouse pups. I’d sit her up on the counter and she’d hold out her two hands. “This is your girl hand,” I’d tell her, “and this is your boy hand.” I’d put the girl pups in one chubby hand and the boy pups in the other, and she would “help” me count them. Later she’d help me check for the “pregnant virgin” mice. The way we accomplished the miracle of pregnant virgins is simple. Every morning we’d pair virgin female mice with proven breeder males, and a couple hours later we’d come back and check for the presence of a vaginal plug which, in rodents, indicates that copulation occurred. (SO glad it doesn’t work that way in humans. SO glad.) We do this so we know exactly what day conception occurred, and we can dose during the right window of development. Sometimes a mouse would turn up pregnant although we hadn’t observed a plug. Since the mice were called “virgins” until they were plugged, these mice we called “pregnant virgins” to indicate that we didn’t know the date of conception. Since the virgins were housed 3-5 per cage (“harems”, if you like), we needed to separate out the “pregnant virgins” periodically to avoid having a litter of pups in the harem cage.

Nell’s job one day was to look through all the cages she could see–that is, the bottom 2 rows– and bring me any pregnant virgins. “How will I know if they are pregnant?” she asked.
“They are extra fat,” I told her. Mice, especially CD-1 mice, get super fat when pregnant. They look ridiculous.
“This one might be,” she said doubtfully.
“Leave it,” I answered without looking. “She’s not pregnant.”
Nell looked in the next cage and started laughing.
“That one’s pregnant,” I said. Again I didn’t need to look. Did I mention they look ridiculous when pregnant?
Nell watched me move the pregnant virgin into her own cage.
“Where’s her husband?” she asked.
“She doesn’t have a husband.”
“Where’s her boyfriend?”
“He’s off making other girls pregnant.”
“Does she miss him?”

We weighed the pups every 5 days. To keep track of which pups needed weighed on which day, we drew big symbols on the cage cards: square, circle, triangle, X, star. Nell helped me draw the symbols. She couldn’t draw a 5-pointed star, so she drew 6-pointed stars of David with 2 triangles. So we had Jewish mice as well as pregnant virgins. It was an ecumenical mouse colony.

That was Nell’s introduction to animal experiments. Later on she became aware that we killed the mice for our experiments. This bothered her. “We’re going to prevent disease,” I told her.
“In humans,” she replied. “What makes humans worth more than mice?”
What indeed?

A few months ago, she was on her bike and was hit by a truck. She’s fully recovered now. She suffered a fractured skull, bruised her brain, concussion, and a fractured pinkie finger. She doesn’t remember that 1/2 hour of her life, from the truck hitting her to being in the ambulance. Later, I was doing a literature search on a cartilage impact model, and came across several reports of impact models to study brain trauma. That made me shudder a bit. I’m glad someone is doing the research but I’d have a hard time hitting rats, pigs, or dogs on the head to cause brain damage. It came up in a conversation with her.

“I don’t think it is important for me to remember the wreck,” she said doubtfully.
“That’s not what this is about,” I answered. “During one of the follow-up visits, the trauma doctor told us to keep an eye on your math grades. She said sometimes a brain injury can’t be detected by the simple tests of a follow-up visit, but it could affect your ability to do advanced math. Those animal experiments are about helping the brain recover from that sort of thing.”

Nell looked horrified. I knew she had long ago realized that she could have died in that wreck (we LOVE that helmet), but I think this was the first time she realized that there were other options than death of how it could have been so much worse. She realized that she could have suffered permanent or longer lasting brain damage.

When it’s personal, it’s no longer an ethical question.

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Heart of an athlete

I attended the Annual Meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association two weeks ago (and then immediately got so swamped I can hardly breathe). The highlight of the meeting for me was meeting people who walked away from their research careers and never looked back. These are happy people who are redefining “success”.

Exemplifying this was Adam Regelmann, founder of lab management software company Quartzy. Adam is completing his clinical residency as a general intern. He is walking away not just from a research career, but from a medical career, within months of finishing his training. A medical career has become his backup plan if his business venture doesn’t work out! Adam had a table at the NPA meeting and I had dozens of questions for him, about Quartzy, about walking away from a career into which he has invested years, about his story of a mistake in the lab that inspired him to start this company.

He’s finishing his residency and then he plans to walk away. I can understand walking away before you have finished training, even when you have only a few months left. But what could induce someone to plan to walk away just after finishing training? Quartzy has a major investor who made it a condition of the investment that Adam go into it full time. If Adam didn’t believe in it enough to give it his full attention, the investor reasoned, then the investor didn’t believe in it enough either.

The main thing I got out of meeting Adam and hearing some other similar stories is that there is no shame in it. I’ve had a dirty little secret for several years: I dream of going into bicycle advocacy full time. I’m ashamed of having this dream. I put so many years and effort and emotional trauma into becoming a trained scientist, and I would love to throw it away and become a bicycle advocate. How wasteful and ungrateful is that? If Adam had any inner struggles of that nature, he has gotten past them. He is proud, excited, and happy about what he is doing.

That doesn’t mean that I’m about to cut the rope and launch myself into a new career. It means my dream is no longer a dirty little secret. Anyway, something else has happened that is allowing me to realize my dream in a different way. After founding Kirksville Area Motion (KA-Motion), a local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, I stumbled into applying for a grant that will fund the group. My scientific training is coming through for me.
A.) Although this grant is a lot different than what I’m used to, it doesn’t intimidate me the way it might someone who has never written a grant.
B.) My experience writing about difficult scientific topics in a way that reviewers will understand is helping me write about something that is a lot easier to explain.
C.) I have realistic expectations and understanding of the level of detail involved in writing a grant.
D.) My expectations are realistic. I’m so thrilled that this grant has a ~25% rate (research grants are about 10% these days). We have a 1 in 4 chance of being funded. But that still means we are more likely NOT to get funded this time around. If we don’t get it this time, we’ll revise and submit again next year.
E.) My scientific training fed right into creating an evaluation plan that is a lot more in-depth than what the funding agency requires. My scientific curiosity and a methodical way of collecting the data to answer the questions played into that plan. It was a bit of an eye-opener at this point when I realized that my training had actually taught me a certain kind of curiosity, a way of looking at the world of bicycle advocacy that other bicycle advocates don’t have.

When I heard Adam’s story, all of this sort of came together and I realized that I am already making my dream happen. As I’ve gone into the details of the grant, which includes hiring a program coordinator, I was a tiny bit jealous of that staff-to-be, because this is going to be a person who will be getting paid full time for bicycle advocacy. But I’m not really very jealous at all, partly because my salary is substantially higher than what we have budgeted for this person, but mostly because I realized that that person is the sergeant here, and I’m the officer. I’m the founder and about to be elected president of KA-Motion (unless someone else wants the job…unlikely…) I realized I’d actually much rather be the president of this group than the manager.

NIH defines “success” as having a tenure track position and holding an R01 grant. NIH considers a successful mentor one who has former trainees who now have tenure track positions. An ongoing conversation throughout the NPA meeting, even NIH Director Francis Collins said it, was that the NPA needs to help NIH change its definition of success. It’s no longer the case that the only successful scientists are those who become tenure track professors and hold R01 grants. Two years ago, the NPA meeting theme was about taking charge of your career. Peter Fiske gave an excellent talk and described several PhD recipients who went on to diverse careers. My favorite was the geologist who turned into a rodeo star!

You define success. Your success is what you say it is. I had a lesson in how we redefine words several weeks ago at a doctor’s appointment. The doctor was astonished at my low resting heart rate. “You have the heart of an athlete,” he told me. I have never thought of myself as an athlete. I’m not strong, or fast, or coordinated. I bike everywhere, and I’ve taken up some other activities as a result of my improved health and fitness. Somewhere along the way I became an athlete. As I became more fit and more athletic, I’d been revising my definition of “athlete” to exclude me. “An athlete is something I’m not,” was a consistent part of my definition. After being told I had the heart of an athlete, I came up with a new definition of “athlete” which includes me. I am an athlete.

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