Archive for April, 2011

One of the reasons my wife and I have always wanted to live and work overseas is to broaden our worldview. We have only been living in the UK for approximately half a year, but our understanding of America’s unique place in the world has already changed considerably. Ironically, I think considerable insight into America’s place in the world is difficult to obtain by being born, raised and living in America.

First, I have to start out by saying that as a kid, growing up, I had an overall negative view of the US despite being born and raised there and having essentially no connection to where my family originated. I’m not sure where this sentiment came from (maybe I can blame the media…), but it was clearly there for quite awhile. As I got older my stance softened and until quite recently I was essentially neutral with respect to whether I thought the US was a power for good or evil. As I have became more politically aware in the last several years I’ve started to move towards seeing the US as a positive influence in the world and in the past six months I’ve never felt or believed this more.

I think what has pushed me in the direction of being much more proud of my homeland than I ever was previously has been exposure to the history of Britain and Europe. I was never much for history in high school and always found it boring and pedantic. I always thought of history as memorizing dates, names and places. However, now that I have been exposed to not only the wonderfully and insanely complex history of Britain through my travels about the country, but to the British themselves, do I see that history has never died but that it acts to intimately define our self-identity.

The history of Britain (comprising Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England) is ridiculously complex. There are wars and battles. Subterfuge and intrigue. Kings and Queens. Incest, torture and injustice. It absolutely boggles my American mind, in which we are taught that nothing really important happened until around the 18th century (or at least that’s what I remember).

What amazes me is that Britain’s long history still has a considerable impact on the British self-image. The idea of the British Empire is not entirely gone and on more than one occasion I have heard the US and Canada being referred to as “one of the colonies” in a sort of paternal way. By and large, I think the British feel a very strong kinship with the US and the other colonies than I would have ever anticipated (or even thought of!). I find this quite fascinating because, frankly (and somewhat sadly), the feeling is not mutual. The idea of the UK as kin is quite foreign to me, and I think a lot of Americans. It is as foreign and abstract to me as the fact that the British were our oppressors back in the 18th century. And I think there is a very good reason for this: it is because America is a nation of immigrants and thus, has a very short collective memory. Our family histories are lucky to go back more than three generations, and our collective history is inevitably much shorter. We tend to carry much less historical baggage with us, and this is why I’m amazed at how a long and storied history can shape individual and collective identities as it so clearly does here in the UK.

I think the fact that America is a country of immigrants is immensely powerful. I also think that this unique composition of the US has led to what is arguably the most benign superpower in the history of the world. This is not to say the US is perfect by any means (if the idea of “perfect” can even be defined), but as world powers go, it could be a LOT worse (see Rome, Britain and Germany).

And thus, living overseas has given me much more respect for history, collective identities and the British. I have also never felt more proud to be an American.


No D-Day in the UK

Posted: April 19, 2011 in UK Academia

Female Science Professor recently had a post up about the date of April 15th. This is both the dreaded tax filing deadline (unless you live overseas, then it’s June 15th :p) and “Academic D-Day”  with respect to graduate students having to decide on their graduate school choices by this day.  This graduate student decision date, however, is not universal.

In the UK they do things quite differently for recruiting graduate students. Students do not apply to a university or program for graduate school, but they apply for a “PhD studentship” (go ahead and check out Nature Jobs, you’ll see them advertised). Thus, a student applies to work for a specific professor and is funded by one particular grant to do a clearly defined project. This method gets around the issue of an academic D-Day because the whole process is treated much more like a job interview. A particular PI interviews several candidates for the position, and offers it to someone. In some ways this seems like a good deal, particularly for the PI. There’s no messing about with how many students one will get, and the PI has a lot more control over the entire process and is not reliant on the department to set things up.

One of the problems I see with this system is on the side of the graduate student. It doesn’t appear that there is much recourse for the graduate student if they find that their lab or PI is not quite what they expected (although I could be wrong about this, please correct me if I am). The issue seems to be that most PhD studentships are funded by a particular grant to do a particular project. Thus, as far as funding is concerned, most students are tied to a specific grant/project and appear to have very little flexibility. As far as I can tell, the idea of rotations here is quite foreign. This is in contrast to many students in American universities that have some financial support from the specific department through teaching or research assistantships (although I realize there is a lot of variability here from school to school and department to department). This is coupled with the fact that grants in the US appear to have a lot more flexibility in how money can be spent. Grant money seems to be able to be spent on a PhD student or a postdoc, or it can be spent on supplies or equipment. As best I can tell, in the UK money is allocated specifically for salary for a student and it can ONLY be used for that. If a student doesn’t come along to fill the position the money can’t be spent on anything else without a mountain of paperwork to be filed (again, if anyone knows different please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the impression I get from my PI).

So with respect to “academic D-day” it appears that the UK system solves many of the problems that the US system has, at least from the perspective of the PI. Whether or not this is better for the training of the student will be the subject of a future post. I need to do a little more snooping around here before putting such a post together so as to not misrepresent the UK.

Academic Playoff Beards

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Academia, Life in the UK

One of the most difficult things I have to deal with while living in the UK is how to handle my sports. I’m an avid NFL, NHL and MLB fan (not much of an NBA fan…somehow I find it challenging to go from watching tough NHL players block 90 mph shots and check each other hard into the boards to watching NBA players whine about how some other guy didn’t let them get to the basket…but maybe that’s just me…). The problem is that we are 5-8 hours ahead of you folks in the US, and the large majority of sporting events take place during “prime time”. This puts me in the difficult position of choosing between staying up uber-late to catch my team play and be tired the next day in teh lab (and make typos in my blog posts), or not follow some of the most exciting sports of the year just to nab some more zzz’s….Well, I think you can expect some more tpos of the next several weeks (hopefully longer!). But I do plan on putting in some work on manuscripts from my previous lab between periods.

So one of my favorite sport traditions is the playoff beard of the NHL playoffs (which just started!). For those of you not familiar, NHL players do not shave once the playoffs begin (well sometimes they do some ridiculous facial hair curating…). They only shave if their team is knocked out of the playoffs. It’s a bit of a superstition, good luck kinda’ thing. So by the time the Stanley Cup finals roll around, you have a bunch of scruffy looking, mostly bearded, hockey players scooting around on the ice (except for those youngin’ players). I’ve always participated in my own way by not shaving until my team was knocked out.

So this got me thinking, what would the academic equivalent of a playoff beard be? Perhaps one doesn’t shave until they get tenure (seems a bit extreme).  Or perhaps it’s not shaving until one’s PI says “so, where’s all that data you promised me?”. This second option would have the added benefit that you would look like you’ve been working like mad since you haven’t even had time to shave!

Well, I promise my next post won’t be sports related…or at least if it is it’ll be related to British sports (I have been getting into a bit of football/soccer lately!).

Damn Yankees

Posted: April 10, 2011 in About the author, Life in the UK

In keeping with a recent baseball themed post, and given that it is the beginning of the baseball season, I wanted to note how utterly obnoxious I find it that everywhere I look here in the UK, I see New York Yankees kit (that’s UK for gear or stuff for my US readers). Like any honest, hard working American, I despise the Yankees. I will always be a brief secondary fan of the team that is playing against the Yanks. Even if my team loses, if the Yankees also lose, well the day could have been worse. Few things in sports give me more pleasure than seeing the Yankees lose in the playoffs (or not make the playoffs at all!). Whenever I see someone wearing a Yankees hat or t-shirt here in Britain, I want to yell at them “The Yankees suck! They represent all that is putrid about America!” (although I have to say, the Mets have been giving them a run for the money in that category lately).

Now the Brits cannot be entirely blamed for baseball fans here wearing Yankees kit. When I go to the sporting goods stores in the UK, there are very few options when it comes to purchasing baseball paraphernalia (and can you blame the stores? This country is absolutely football (soccer) crazy!). The large majority of baseball hats are Yankees hats, followed by a handful of Boston Red Sox and LA Dodgers hats. But the Red Sox would be a better choice than the Yankees (well I suppose any team would be an improvement, except maybe the Indians)…and the Dodgers, well, one can’t help but feel sorry for them given the past couple of years surviving through the tail end of the Manny Ramirez saga. So there are some options. There is also the internet, so one can buy kit from any given MLB team. At the end of the day, there are really no good excuses for unabashedly supporting the evil empire.

Needless to say, I am proud to walk around the UK displaying my favorite MLB team kit…and who knows, perhaps I’ll make some converts to support a team worthy of an international presence!


Yes…it is y(our) fault…

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Academia

So there was a recent post by DrdrA of Blue Lab Coats fame ranting about a recent article in the Huffington Post concerning the pay of faculty members at Texas A&M, and how the article made use of dodgy data in coming to a false conclusions about the financial contribution faculty members make to a University. I do not disagree with Drdr A at all on these points. However, I do disagree on one very important point that she makes and that I’ve seen others make throughout the blogosphere. This point is epitomized by the following excerpt from her post:

“This drivel  gets seen by a national audience, without respect to the (sometimes massive) mistakes made during the process… and viewed by an audience that doesn’t have an understanding of how the modern research university system in this country works.”

The issue here is that the public does not understand what professors really do and how research works at the University level. Now, if you are a professor or postdoc reading this, think way back to the time when you were a first year graduate student. Remember how much there was to learn about the way the academic world, and academic research worked? Did you have much, if any, idea of this from your time as an undergraduate? I know I certainly didn’t grasp this at all. Even as a young post-doc I’m still working to understand how the system works despite being at it for 5+ years.

Now, you need to realize that the large majority of people in the United States, and the rest of the world, even those with a college degree, do NOT HAVE A CLUE when it comes to how things really work in a research university. Why? Is it because they are willfully ignorant? Because they don’t want to know? Not necessarily….it’s the same reason why you didn’t know when you were a first year graduate student. Because nobody tells them. And who is in the position to educate these college graduates? YOU, the professors, are!

So, in large part, it is largely the fault of the professors that college educated citizens do not understand how things work in a research university. You have many (but certainly not all!) of these people in your classrooms at one point or another, but there is no discussion in these classrooms about how science actually works. If there is no discussion from the people that actually do the science and work in this environment, then it seems completely unreasonable to expect educated citizens to actually appreciate how the entire enterprise actually works.

The solution? Integrate a bit of how science actually works into the classroom. I know I never had any exposure in a classroom setting as to how science actually works. The funding, the graduate students, the postdocs, the peer review process…all of this is completely and utterly opaque to even the college educated public. If we want people to appreciate all that academics do, then it is our charge to educate them when given the opportunity. Otherwise it appears quite unreasonable to expect Joe Q. Public to appreciate how academic research works, even at a very superficial level.

This lack of an understanding about how academic science work is, in many ways, y(our) fault!

Five-tool scientist

Posted: April 5, 2011 in Academia, Post-Doc

So with the beginning of the baseball season (which I sorely miss already!) I thought I’d write about something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. That is, the idea of a five-tool scientist. In baseball a player is considered a five-tool player if they can excel at the following skills:

1) Hitting for average

2) Hitting for power

3) Baserunning

4) Throwing

5) Fielding

There are only a small handful of so called five-tool baseball players ever to play the game (e.g, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays), as most players only excel at a subset of these skills. Since I am a pretty avid baseball fan, I’ve always wondered if one could define a similar type of skill subset that would define various aspects of being a professional scientist (professor?). The point being to define the broad categories of skills one should focus on so as to improve oneself as a scientist (and hopefully land a tenure-track job one day?!). So my first stab at this would be:

1) Publishing consistently

2) Publishing in high profile journals (Say top 10-15 journals in your field. A top 1-5 might be considered a 2-3 run HR, and a Cell/Nature/Science a grand slam)

3) Grant-writing (Like baserunning, this behind the scenes and oft overlooked aspect of being a scientist is often the difference between winning and losing; additionally, like stealing a base, getting a grant funded can depend on the slimmest of margins and is at the whim of a mercurial umpire)

4) Mentoring (It’s what you give to others. A well thrown, on target baseball is much easier for the receiver to handle than a wild toss in the dirt; or no toss at all).

5) Effective communication (Like fielding, everyone’s got to do this at some point in one way or another (unless you play in the American League), and some are more spectacular and flashy than others).

Well, there you have it. Perhaps you agree, disagree, or don’t give a damn? Or maybe you have five better “tools” a scientist should strive to achieve. At the very least I think simplifying various aspects of what it takes to be a scientist can help one focus on those things that will assist in being successful.