Archive for July, 2011

I’ve often wondered if there was an “ideal” sort of first author to middle author ratio that tenure track search committees consider in evaluating candidates. It seems to be that about a 1:1 ratio would be considered approximately “ideal”. Considering the two extremes: 1)  it would be a bit bizarre if someone was first author on every paper, suggesting perhaps that they are not good at working with others. 2) Of course, no first author papers would suggest that the candidate was not spearheading the research (and would probably not have a well written research statement either I imagine). So a 50/50 balance would perhaps be indicative of both an ability to collaborate along with an ability to advance one’s own ideas. Or perhaps I’m reading into this too much.

Of course, this would really only apply to graduate students and postdocs. Perhaps a similar sort of “statistic” would be useful for PIs in which it was a ratio of first:middle:last author (or whatever is the appropriate convention for senior scientists in the field). I’ve noticed some PIs have a ton of middle author papers, much moreso than last author papers.

 

I’m pretty close to the 1:1 ratio and am trying to work hard to keep it that way. Just a thought as one thing (of many) to keep in mind as I try and position myself to one day apply for tenure track jobs.

British vs US media

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Life in the UK

There was a great article in the Washington Post a few days ago about the differences in the media in the US vs Britain. I found it particularly enlightening as I have struggled to comprehend what it is we see at the news stands here. At first glance, it all seems like a bunch of rubbish to us. Tabloids that aren’t worth a moment of our lives. While after reading this article I now have greater appreciation for the art of British journalism, I find it hard to get over my cultural bias of seeing it as half-truthed nonsense. Nonetheless, for those of you out there following the Murdoch phone hacking shenanigans, this may provide some important context that is missing from a lot of the American reporting.

I recently came across the hip hop artist Baba Brinkman who rhymes about such things as human nature and the Canterbury Tales. As a life scientist, philospher and hip hop fan, I was interested in his artistic take on Darwin and human nature so I decided to download his recent album “Human Nature”. I also figured I’d give his album a review for my modest scientific audience.

Baba Brinkman is a rap artist that hails from Canada. His album “Human Nature” attempts to convey various aspects of evolution (primarily focusing on mate selection) through hip hop. To be up front, on a scale of 1-10 for his album I would give it a 4 (my rating system: I start at 5 and move up or down from there. I don’t start at 10 and then move down), and below I explain my praises and criticisms:

1) The reason it scores as high as a 4 is because the language in which he couches his subject matter is unique to hip hop. The subject matter itself is not necessarily new in the hip hop genre (choosing mates, prisoner dilemmas, understanding one’s own reason for action etc.) but using moderately scientific language and appealing to the scientific method is (even if the appeal is not always well substantiated). This makes his subject more accessible to audiences not as familiar with the vernacular typically employed in hip hop music. One may even argue that it may be more challenging to use more stuffy language to concoct rhymes.

2) The album claims to be “peer-reviewed”. Not sure I understand where such a claim comes from, but one of the more interesting aspects of the album is that after some of the tracks (e.g, track 3 “No Bugs on Me”) he has a scientist giving some feedback on the lyrics in the track with respect to their scientific accuracy. This is a nice touch, except that the presumably scientific explanations do not always address the points made in the song as intended*. Nonetheless, this is a pretty cool idea with respect to such an album that I appreciate as a scientist, even if only in spirit.

3) Brinkman does do a good job of handling a difficult topic in an artistic way. He clearly makes a wholehearted attempt at keepin’ it real with respect to scientific accuracy, and this should be applauded as he does a decent job in this respect. It is not a bad jumping off point if one wants to explore various interesting aspects of evolution.**

4) Finally, the reason the album scores so low for me is that, as hip hop, it fails miserably. Brinkman’s flow is poor and there is little to no variation on it throughout the album. Artistically, if you’ve heard one song, you’ve heard them all. There are only a small handful of spots throughout the album that stick out has having marginally decent flow (and I mean, for one or two lines if you are lucky). Otherwise, he basically ignores the beat and more or less just talks, he doesn’t rap. The beats themselves aren’t half bad (props to Mr. Simmonds I suppose) but they are no good if the artist ignores them as Brinkman does. The other aspect of good artistry that it fails at is metaphor. The focus is so much on using the language of science that he forgets what makes art so powerful…metaphors. His words appeal to the intellect, but not to the heart and imagination, which is truly where art derives its power and influence. If you listen to any good hip hop you’ll find your imagination stimulated and the metaphors presented will drive home the artists point. Appealing solely to the intellect, as Brinkman attempts, does not work in the context of art because you cannot satisfy the intellect with such short snippets of information that do not provide enough facts and discussion to satisfy such a demanding aspect of ourselves.

 

Overall, the album is worth a free listen to but not worth your hard earned cash. It firmly lands in my “fun hip hop” category of music that I’ll listen to occasionally if I’m in just the right mood but is very far from my hip hop rotation, although it might be more bearable to some folks who only listen to this genre on occasion.

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*e.g, in track 3 he notes how various religions argue that menses blood is particularly unclean as compared with blood that comes from the cut of a finger. On the next track he has David Buss come on and explain that there is a hypothesis that menses blood is different than other blood in that it may actually serve the purpose to help prevent a woman from being infected from pathogens carried by a mans sperm. However, this does not actually speak to the fact that menses blood is or is not different from the blood that comes from a cut on one’s finger (i.e, is any less clean). If anything it supports the argument that Brinkman already makes in the previous song that it is still the same blood and that it may actually serve the same purpose as the blood that comes from one’s finger (i.e, bleeding from a wound would also help to reduce the likelihood of infection).

**Note: I added this after the first post because I realize I left this important bit out and the review was not as even handed as I originally intended.

So you want to do your postdoc in another country? Here are some tips for identifying job opportunities and people to contact.

One way to land a postdoc is to send an unsolicited email to someone to see if they have funds and are interested in you. However, finding potentially suitable employers can be challenging. One way to do this is to use the Web of Science, which should be available through your institution (usually a link in the libraries website database page). From here you can do a search based on a number of criterion, one of which is address. All you need to do is pop in the topic you are interested in one field, and the country you are interested in working in another, and voila! While this isn’t perfect, it’s a good way to start tracking down potential employers.

The other resource that is rich in international opportunities is nature jobs.

Finally, you can look into European society websites that have job listings. These are actually quite useful as they appear to be the number one place specific jobs are listed as best I can tell (e.g, FENS (Federation for European Neuroscience) job market, or EMBO jobs (European Molecular Biology Organization) etc).

When I was searching for my current postdoc, I had an offer through just contacting someone (that I found via Web of Science) and one from a job posting on Nature jobs. I ended up taking the latter offer (partly) because it was for longer (3 yrs vs 1 yr).

If anyone else has any other resources for finding an overseas postdoc (obviously this comes from an American perspective) please leave a comment!

Happy searching!

Droppin’ the F-bomb

Posted: July 4, 2011 in Life in the UK

No, this post is not about my recent tirade in the lab elicited by uncooperative immunoblots in which the loading control would simply not show up  (but seriously, wtf was that about?!).

This post is about a recent F-bomb that got dropped on my wife and I. This is an F-bomb that not even Comrade PhysioProf, the most prolific purveyor of profanity in this sector of the blogosphere has spewed forth. The f-bomb in this case is fag.

I was recently at a party chatting with a Kiwi* who was regaling me with stories of the seven years he spent living in Western Mass. One day while he was at work, his boss comes to him and asks where one of his co-workers is. His co-worker is outside smoking, so the Kiwi responds to his boss:  “he’s out there where all those fag butts are”. His boss pulls him into his office and starts screaming at him that he can’t use that sort of language at work. Eventually things get sorted, but referring to a cigarette as a fag is just one of the many uses of this apparently versatile word.

Then came the f-bomb.

Also while at the party, my wife and I were chatting with an older English gentleman about differences in language between Britain and the US. He was vaguely aware of how offensive the word fag is to an American, although I’m not so sure he entirely understood the deep hatred it conveys. Nonetheless, and despite his apparent understanding, he spent the next 10 minutes telling us how, when he was in college (equivalent of high school in the states), all the older boys had their own fags, who were sent fagging about (apparently it can be used as a verb too!).

“Oh we all had fags!”

“I was a fag at one point too”

“I made them fag just as I fagged when I arrived at college”

Despite having several beers in us, initially my wife and I tried very hard to not be offended by this ostensible outpouring of homophobic hatred. In reality, the chap was conveying the idea that each of the senior boys at the school had one of the new lads as their “fag” that would do their bidding (i.e, fagging), not entirely unlike how in a fraternity at a US university the brothers would treat the new class of pledges.

This was the most prolific use of the word I’ve heard since the high school locker room. After a couple of minutes though it was almost comical seeing this older gentleman with a full on English accent throw around the word “fag” like a ragdoll.

*Someone from New Zealand

Today’s post is brought to you by my new top beer here in the UK, Laverstoke Park Farm’s organic real ale:

Finest Ale in Britain...thus far

Don’t mind the ridiculous looking picture on the front of the bottle…this is a real pale ale folks, so certified by CAMRA (Yes, the British have an organization dedicated to promoting and supporting real ales….truly a country after my own heart). Only one way to describe this ale, delicious. If you pour it fast you get a nice full-bodied ale with many subtle flavors that dance across your palette. If you pour it slow you get an easier drinkin’ crisp, clean ale. It’s like the transformer of beers…now if I can only find it on draught somewhere…

So this post is to say “Cheers to afternoon baseball”. When I was in graduate school I would look forward to afternoon baseball because it meant I could listen to it on the radio while my hands did the pipetting. Nothin’ like idiot proofing an experiment and kickin’ it into auto-mode while listening to the announcers paint me a vivid afternoon. Now I rejoice when there is a 1pm game because it means I can make it home in time to catch my favorite players spitting tobacco, scratching their crotch and smacking homers. Gotta love baseball. And nothin’ like enjoyin’ the national pastime with a fine, fine ale.

So cheers to afternoon baseball in the UK!

Oh, and happy Canada day to my Canuck friends out there.