Whether Vein

(by brooksphd) Jun 14 2012

In April I was promoted to Director of my group.

I started in late 2008 as a Research Administration Fellow - basically my third postdoc position, an internship if you will. They covered my postdoc salary so my lab mentor could release me from his clutches into theirs. I had very little understanding of medical and health informatics. I knew nothing about databasing, or coding. I knew virtually nothing about the real trials of clinical medicine.

In mid-2009 my position was made permanent and I was posted as Project Manager for the group. While I was learning as fast as possible about the technical aspects of our work, I had picked up good skills in technical writing, presentation delivery, organising and multi-tasking, etc. All these "transferable" skills proved useful and my duties and responsibilities increased. I made sure to get as much exposure as possible to the world of academic administration and volunteered to help out where possible in the Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of Faculty Affairs. I helped organise the Postdoc Office, and helped put on career fairs and grant writing seminars in my "Spare Time". Not one whit of this was altruistic. I was learning constantly and everything I did was coordinated to either increase my exposure to new, valuable experiences (not always hard to determine beforehand so there were some big misses), and new valuable people. As Benjamin Franklin might have said, "It's not enough to work hard, you must be seen to be working hard."

In 2010 I was made Associate Director, but unfortunately the Institute that employed me failed to secure long term funding from the National Institutes of Health and the seed money we'd been relying on finally dried up. The Institute was, essentially, disbanded, except for my group - we were too valuable and had started covering our salary line with grant funding. But that was a scary fucking time. I don't think I've ever worked so hard on getting grants out and research-project databases built. We were fighting to prove our worth. Around that time, more than one of us was found crying in the break room, or ranting in the washroom - venting stress at missing another family event. It was much much harder on the "real" staff than on us few PhDs, because we had all gone through a period of postdoc training and thus this was not a new experience. Certainly not welcome - I love my 40hr work week! But not new either. Some people quit.

But, it all paid off. We showed enough promise and so we were made into the newest division of the Office of Research. We've grown back to a decent sized little group, and we got nice new offices, with nice dark wood furniture and some new toys to play with. And I got made Director.

I'm a really good Project Manager.
I'm an OK people manager.
I'm not sure how to Direct a group.

Fortunately my colleagues think I do, and so does our administration. So, here I am - only 37 and Directing a research group with a 7 figure budget and salary line. We're responsible for multiple faculty projects and therefore several millions of dollars of federal funding. We got word that two more major projects are being funded in the next couple of weeks and there are three multimillion dollar projects pending for September. In addition my goal is to make us a University-wide resource. Within a year we'll have a couple of new systems on board (i2b2 & REDCap if you're curious) that will allow us to serve many, many smaller projects for free. And I think I just volunteered us to build a campus-wide student health tracking system.

My Boss, the Vice Chancellor offered me this sage advice when we she offered me the job: "It's a clean sheet. A green field. It's the opportunity of a life time. Only you can fuck this up now. So, don't fuck up."

Wise words indeed.

13 responses so far

He's a shooter innit!

(by brooksphd) Mar 01 2012

Tomorrow morning...do I don a balaclava, grab my Daisy 15XT Bb gun and join in?


My brother is a former tactical unit officer in the British police so I reckon, with only one degree of separation I bring a unique Trans-Atlantic viewpoint to this drill...

2 responses so far

Hey baby

(by brooksphd) Mar 01 2012

Well, this is it then. Just got back from a final visit with my wife to her ObGyn doctor. My son is due on Saturday (3rd), but she is dilated to just 1cm so the medical advice is to undergo induction on Monday. Mrs B is a bit nervous about this, but in an abstract way, worrying about the baby. Will he be OK with induction. Knowing this, we had a great chat with her doctor, and I feel my modicum of one-the-job-gleaned epidemiological and medical knowledge helped assuage her fears. Her primary physical fear is having to have a Cesarian section delivery. She has had a couple of major abdominal surgeries in the past and alas all her medical notes - indeed, her entire medical history have mysteriously disappeared from the hospital in Washington, D.C. where she had said surgeries. Because she is unsure of her diagnosis and the extent of the surgery we don't know what state her insides are in with regards to adhesions and scar tissue.

I'm looking at you Georgetown University Hospital medical records department. Not fucking cool.

Anyway, her doctor explained that induction enhances the "drive" into labor, but that there is no guarantee with any delivery that labor will progress "normally". This very afternoon she had to perform an emergency C-section on a woman giving birth to her third child whose labor had ceased suddenly.

She explained that on Sunday they will 'place' a medicated strip onto her cervix to help with dilation and effacement (the thinning of the cervix), and that on Monday this is followed by a Pitocin drip. Pitocin is a synthetic analogue of the hormone oxytocin and induces contractions of the uterus. It seems that the majority of first pregnancies are induced nowadays for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the weakening of the blood supply to the baby as he or she out grows hir placenta* and the increased width of the child's head blocking the birth canal leading to complications and ultimately a C-section delivery.

The 'bad' part of this is that a woman, to quote my mother, goes from 0-60 immediately. There is no gradual ramping up of contractions from mild/discomfort to full labor pains. It just starts! However, Mrs. B is a believer in 'better living through modern chemistry' and thus epidurals are on the menu for Monday, for sure.

So. Here we go then. I'll blog as I am able, and of course, you can follow my alter-ego on Twitter, although beware his language is riper than mine.

*The placenta is a totally fascinating feto-maternal shared organ and I hope to find time to write more about it. The baby side of it is derived from the same original bundle of cells that give rise to the fetus, and thus it could be thought of as a symbiotic, genetically identical support "twin". Professor Lee Silver in "Challenging Nature" (Amazon link) has a great discussion on placental development and genetics as it relates to bio-ethical decision making regarding stem cell technologies (the book was written in 2006), but which is also very relevant given the current political climate and the conservative attacks on women's reproductive rights.

12 responses so far

A Day in the Life...

(by brooksphd) Feb 28 2012

Apropos 28-and-a-PhD posting at the Scientopia guest blog I offer this...my day today.

0800 - Arrive in the office, immediate pow-pow with Business Manager about staffing issues that must be dealt with today if we are to get a new hire in place by the end of next month.

0830 - Grab a coffee and a shifty smoke. Go for a pee. Check email (25 in inbox)

0900 - Meet with Clinical Trial PI and coordinator (and student) to review database. Discover my staff didn't run a final test yesterday and there are still bugs. Fast-talk like a level 15 thief to keep our noses out of the shit.

1015 - Meet with visiting life science rep from a databasing company to discuss our work and future expansion plans.

1025 - Scientific Director hijacks meeting

1135 - Finally force meeting to close before I pee myself. Run to bathroom whimpering.

1140 - Very unshifty smoke

1143 - Impromptu phone call from collaborator at local institute updating me on developments in our area and inviting me to join the Board of a new research initiative whilst trying to wrangle promises of support for a proposal I haven't read yet

1235 - Phone battery dies. Shifty smoke. Grab lunch.

1300 - Panicky student intern interrupts lunch with request for information on his recent work performance. Break his heart.

1315 - Angry consultant interrupts lunch demanding to know why he hasn't been paid yet

1330 - Meeting with possible project collaborator for development of a campus-wide training tool

1500 - sprint to bathroom, shifty smoke

1515 - Discover why consultant hasn't been paid

1530 - Meet consultant for a shifty smoke and break his heart. Promise to try and fix.

1545 - Meet with payroll staff to discuss how to get consultant paid, and watch incompetence reach literally jaw-dropping proportions.

1600 - sneak out of room as world war three begins due to aforementioned incompetence

1615 - Follow up with my business manager regarding our 0800 meeting and submit final job description to HR

1630 - Meet with my staff to discuss the morning's clusterfuck and arrange another meeting for 0900 tomorrow because there's no point in talking about it today.

1635 - Arrange two more meetings for tomorrow and watch my calendar now fill up completely

1700 - start writing this blog post

1705 - Associate Director joins me for an impromptu chat about a personnel issue

1735 - Finish this blogpost and try and sneak out before email arrives

1737 - minutes from today's meeting arrive with SOW errors...

1738 - Scream, post to blog, shut down laptop and storm out, ready for tomorrow.

4 responses so far

I'm all in

(by brooksphd) Feb 09 2012

I play a lot of poker. Well, more accurately, I used to play a lot of poker. When I first moved to Memphis I was broke and waiting for my first month's postdoctoral salary was hard. Doubly hard because new postdocs really make a shitty salary - I started on $38,000 which was, at the time, the NIH standard salary for someone of my experience. My postdoc mentor was kind enough to arrange an advance for me which helped cover rent and groceries for the first month, but that naturally meant a smaller paycheck for the first two months in order to pay back the advance. And as much as new postdocs are enslaved to the lab for 14 hours a day, we are also often gregarious creatures who need to blow off a bit off steam in the pub and the thought of sitting at home, on the floor listening to the radio waiting for my furniture to arrive from DC and my paychecks to catch up with my meager lifestyle was not an option for me. So, I found a local poker game to play in, and one game became two, which became three, and within a few weeks I was playing poker five or six nights a week.

There are a lot of analogies, metaphors and aphorisms about the game of poker and the game of life. I've written before about the language of poker and the language of science. I've written elsewhere, now long gone, about the thrill of the game, of having a winning hand and knowing it's a winning hand. And of the darker thrill of thinking you have winning hand and playing it out, sometimes against the odds.

I'm back in the game now, and I'm all in.

I can't go into details really, but suffice it to say I am playing for the whole stack right now. The cards are dealt, I know what's in my hand and I've got a better than evens chance of being correct at guessing the hands of some of the other players. I can see the cards on the table and I've got a great hand. I might even have the winning hand. But there's one more round of betting left in the game and the stakes are so high I had to fold and lose everything or just go all in.

I called the bet and went all in.

Everything now rests on the actions of one more player. The play decides my future, immediate and long term. I hope the bet is called and the chips are all on the table. I hope we go there. Everyone stacked into the pot. But more than that, I hope when that bet is called and the cards are shown that I have the hand I think I do.

Win big or go home. I'm all in.

No responses yet

Political Compass

(by brooksphd) Jan 10 2012

Well, this is rather interesting.

Screen shot 2012-01-10 at 1.54.33 PM

My Political Compass

Coincidentally, I fall into the same area (almost exactly) as the Dalai Lama. This must show something but Ill be buggered if I know what. To be honest, I think Ron Paul is a fucking douchebag, and even if he wasn't a racist, misogynist I still wouldn't vote for him. So I can't be THAT Libertarian, right?

Where's my bong? Time for some deep thinking.

Tip o' Hat to Stupid Evil Bastard

8 responses so far

Crowd Sourcing - Ink

(by brooksphd) Jan 06 2012

There are many changes on the horizon; some before, some aft. The biggest of them I think will be the birth of my son sometime in late February or early March. In true punk-dad tradition I'm getting a tattoo to commemorate this event. However, exactly what to get...therein lies the rub...

I have a few tattoos already...a tribal design on my left shoulder, and a skull on my left biceps. My right shoulder has an astrological/zodiacal design on it. My right shoulder blade bears a bulldog, and I need to get the matching one done on my left. My right ribcage has large Kali that needs colouring and shading finally.

So, what to do next...the bulldog, the colouring for Kali? I want to finish my left biceps into a full half-sleeve, and perhaps my son's name or motif...his avatar can be built into that?

Originally I thought to go DeepGeek and use the single letter protein code to spell his name. Alas, unless I can get back in the lab and discover a novel protein and have it accepted with the letter O as its single letter designation, that plan is foiled from the start...and with a protein represented by the letter B, I can't even use just his initials either.

I'm inspired by the folks featured in Carl Zimmer's book "Science Ink". I've been looking at the photos online (not yet owning my own copy). Indeed, I saw that the Science Online Conference this year actually includes a trip to an awesome looking tattoo studio and will feature some of the attendees getting permanently inked! Zimmer finally reaches cult like status! To any attendees reading this who are getting inked for the first time, don't worry too much. It only really really hurts like absolute fuck for the entire time you're under the needle. Some areas are worse than others. My rib cage tattoo hurt so much i got a migraine, and for the skull on my left biceps, I nearly vomited with pain when he started to colour the inside of my arm.

It's like someone carving into your skin with a razorblade. Really slowly, with a lot of pressure.

You'll love it.

And have a few drinks afterwards - the endorphin rush is fucking unreal!

Anyway...I feel strongly that I want something to commemorate my PhD - i used molecular genetic techniques to dissect the function of voltage-gated calcium channels in synaptic transmission using Drosophila melanogaster. Among other things I discovered a novel RNA editing sequence intragenic to the gene we were looking at. That gave a pretty cool chromotograph I could have transcribed somewhere. Or, of course, if I had the money (and patience) a full detailed scanning electron micrograph of a fly head! The tenth anniversary of my defence and graduation is next summer, so I'm saving this up for then.


(credit - J Endocrinology, 191(1) 2006)

For now...well, seeing as there is no O in the protein code, I'm stuck. Hivemind - what thoughts do you have? What has inspired yours (wether or not you actually got it done; many think about it but fewer actually do it).

7 responses so far

Without a hitch

(by brooksphd) Dec 16 2011

I came late to the atheist fold and as a confirmed and ardent believer I kept my head firmly in the sand for too long. I lived that foolish duality that accepted faith and nonsense and unreason while clinging to the rationality that made me an excellent scientist. Oh how I wish I had the blinkers removed much earlier. how much more i could have done and been.

It was late, recently, that i really discovered Christopher Hitchens.

This post is rushed to get some thoughts out before they fully cloud my brain for the day. Hitchens is dead - just yesterday. Too young. Hitch-22 and Arguably are on my list of books for 2012. I wanted to read them when he was alive - I didn't know his end was so close; I have been woefully distracted this year.

The New Yorker has a wonderful eulogy by Hitchens' friend Christopher Buckley. One paragraph leaps out at me and makes me regretful for a year of self-indulgent, self-pitying self-loathing,

"Lunch—dinner, drinks, any occasion—with Christopher always was [bracing]. One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit."

I miss writing.

New Year's Resolutions are often a feeble waste of effort and simply reflect a fear of mortality and wasted time. However, the Catholic guilt is deeply written into my soul and so I still make them. Faith and Works etc.

PZ Myers sums it up for me perfectly:

"As atheists, I think none of us can find solace in the cliches or numbness in the delusion of an afterlife. Instead, embrace the fierce strong emotions of anger and sorrow, feel the pain, rage against the darkness, fight back against our mortal enemy Death, and live exuberantly while we can. Confront mortality clear-eyed and pugnacious, uncompromising and aggressive."

This year's is simple: Write More, Write Well, Write for the sheer pugnacious joy of the words.

One response so far

Statements of Lack of Faith

(by brooksphd) Nov 25 2011

I am a fairly recent atheist. I'm really more of a Judeo-Christian agnostic, but I have a suspicion this is just old habits dying hard. It's not been an easy journey and it's only recently that I've become more outspoken. This is partly due to becoming more aware of important civil liberties issues that I've read about ('enforced' public school prayers, the 'war on Christmas' being used to suppress diversity) and partly because I'm getting tired of the sanctimonious lies and hypocritical whining of Christians and the militant hate expressed by Muslims. Another important motivator has also been the common view that Christians seem to take, that because they are God's new chosen people* He wouldn't let them come to harm, thus scientists are liars and frauds and climate change is not man made etc. This affects me and my family directly (for e.g. warming up the planet we have to share) and indirectly (for e.g. I'm paid by Federal monies allotted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH); any attack on science is an attack on the meagre wage I get for serving the public good as a scientist).

Three recent events are of note and have spurred this little, meandering post and the two to follow when time permits.

A couple of weeks ago I made my first public statement of (lack of) belief. I read bloggers and writers who are great with their words when it comes to describing and defining their lack of belief in any higher/spiritual power. I've been curiously concerned about how I might speak up if asked about my opinion. I was at a bar with a friend and she was chatting to a gentleman, a dancer and choreographer. She is a Christian and so was this chap. I forget how the conversation moved round to this spiritual realm, but as they made the usual mumbling statements of faith, I stated that i was an atheist. You could have heard a pin drop.

"No you're not!" My friend exclaimed in the tone of voice usually reserved for young adults who make outlandish statements ("I'm going to buy a motorbike mom!")

"Yes, I am." I replied.

The dancer spoke up, curiosity in his voice betrayed by the fear and revulsion on his face. "Why do you think you're an atheist?"

I ignored the condescension of the statement, although I must admit I nearly used it as a springboard for a feisty rebuttal on manners. Heart thumping I paused for a moment and then spoke up "I am an atheist because after searching hard, I can find no evidence that there exists any higher power or any need for there to be a god. I can't believe in something I can find no evidence for."

His reply was a thoughtful, "Oh!". He briefly tied the common PoF tactic of asking me if I therefore believed in love etc., something I've since faced a few times and torn apart with ease. The idiocy of these statements simply betrays a lack of thought and reasoned argumentation on the part of the asker. My friend then steered the conversation back to more libatious matter and we ordered another round of drinks.

I think I handled it OK.

*An inherent LOL to poke at these people is each little sect thinks they're the chosen on and all the rest are hell-bound frauds. This is a very fun stick to poke them with....People's Front of Judea etc.

4 responses so far

Winter Retreat

(by brooksphd) Oct 19 2011

It's cold. Cold in Memphis. We don't "do" cold very well, which is silly because it's only hot here for 6 or so months of the year. Starting about now the weather gets grey, and chilly. The damp stays in the air and the chill is pervasive, leaching into your bones. It demotivates. All I want to do, and I think a lot of my fellow Memphibians would join me, is find somewhere warm to curl up. Somewhere with an open fire, a limitless supply of soup and good books (substitute TV for anyone not me).


The cold. It demotivates in a different way to the heat. The heat saps your strength and energy. The constant grinding humidity. It never cools off in the summer. The nights are a miasma of discomfort.

I am demotivated. I got my "old" job back and a promotion is promised. I still don't have a faculty position so I am demotivated to work on grants for the third year in a row. I do a lot of the writing and editing and am "just" a line item. It's stupid, I know. I need the grants to keep myself and my team employed, and I need them more to prove I am the One who Can and thus earn the faculty position. But, I am demotivated.

I have book reviews to write for Lablit, and they're half written. Discarded and angry passages and paragraphs. Aimless and meandering. I promised a book review; I have others waiting to be written and now even WW Norton have stopped sending me books.

I have editing I should have done, but I lost my motivation and lost my contract with a major publisher to serve as a free lance editor.

I have blog posts to write. I used to love writing and blogging. BANTER and the Society for Neuroscience meeting are coming up. This time last year I was railing over at LabSpaces and getting excited for SfN. My dear friend and beloved colleague Dr. Becca is doing it all on her own right now, and god knows how she finds the time with her new lab.

I am demotivated. Depression is a shitty illness.

3 responses so far

« Newer posts Older posts »