Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not the awesomest 7-Year postdoc.

When I was a postdoc, I read Radhika Nagpal's, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. I definitely appreciated many of the sentiments, and advice, especially that of focusing on life now, instead of delaying it on the hopes of achieving tenure. I think this sentiment should persist across academic ranks (trainees, faculty, staff). I think the advice in that post are all really important - re-reading it just now was a good reminder.

As a postdoc at the time, I couldn't yet say whether being a faculty member could be anything like being a postdoc or not, but equating a tenure-track faculty position with a postdoc didn't sit right with me. (It was also, in my opinion, easier to write about not caring about tenure *after* having gotten tenure.)

So, let me be on the record, writing publicly and openly about my thoughts about the tenure-track, in the thick of it. I've been an assistant professor for three years now, halfway through. I can say unequivocally, that my job is not like being a postdoc, nor should it be (with the side-note that certainly postdocs and graduate students have some of these responsibilities as well, but I'd argue to a different degree).

1. I am responsible to so many people.
I am a researcher, a supervisor, a mentor, a teacher, a writer, a role model, a boss, a collaborator, a PI, a grant writer, a grant manager (hopefully), a mediator, an editor, and an advocate. I manage people and projects. I need to think of projects that I think will be successful to work on together with the people in my lab, and contingency plans if those projects fail. I need to find ways to compensate these people. This includes startup (which ends at the end of this month - we get three years here), and writing applications for funding to so many different agencies (government, foundation, internal, inter-institution, you name it, I'll apply). I never appreciated how terrible it would feel to tell someone I can't afford to pay them to continue doing the great work they are doing. 

2. I am a gatekeeper. 
I am in a position of authority over others in a way that I wasn't as a postdoctoral fellow or a graduate student. I can affect the trajectory of trainees in so many ways: grades, admissions, recommendations, candidacy exams, thesis defenses, access to collaborations and professional opportunities. I have the power to intentionally harm an application by giving a bad recommendation. (Note that I won't agree to write anything but positive recommendations.)

More insidiously, I learned in my first year as a professor that I can unintentionally harm an application - not just in gendered language, I was aware of that - but in all the content that people expect in a letter of recommendation for different types of applications. I hadn't sat on these committees (I have sat on several now), to see how skillfully some professors deploy the letter of recommendation to really make a strong case for the applicant. Whoa. Happy to talk about this more later. 

3. It can be lonely.
The cohorts typically keep getting smaller, from the number of other people who are undergraduates that you can interact with, to the number of graduate students that you interact with, to a dwindling number of postdocs, to you, as a new professor. Depending on the size of your department or institution, there may be a a few other new professors, but likely not that many. That isn't to say that there aren't more established professors for one to interact with, but the interactions, in my experience, have been fewer and further between. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting the number of daily interactions to be this different (reduced) from being a postdoc. 

4. There are new expectations for interacting with the lab. 
Merging the three previous thoughts... one inclination I had/have is to treat members of my lab as peers. But, it's more complicated than that because of the power dynamics. The members of my lab are definitely colleagues. Per Wikipedia
"Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other's abilities to work toward that purpose."
While a peer is someone: 
"that is of equal standing with another"
I have the ability to shape letters of recommendation, open doors, close them, or otherwise influence the career trajectory of people who are in my lab. By virtue of that, I need to be especially careful to recognize that we are not on a level playing field. There is a power imbalance. The people in my lab are not complete free to speak their minds with no fear of potential retaliation. They can't decline my invitations without a twinge of concern that I might interpret it negatively, even subconsciously. Given how academic institutions and funding structures work, there are so many concerns for them, literally for their livelihoods. 

Sure, as a postdoc, I could, some day, have an effect on my peers, and on the graduate and undergraduate students in the lab. But I wasn't directly above them in the food-chain. If they didn't want to come hang out, it's no biggie.  More than anything, this transition has been the one that caught me off guard the most. 

Can I hang out with my lab? Of course. 

Do I have to be constantly aware of how there is a power differential that is tipped in my favor? Absolutely. 

Not a postdoc, but still a person.
I have responsibilities to the students in my class, to the members of my lab, to my peers, my colleagues, my administration, and to the public.  I feel the weight of this responsibility. As a professor, there are so many more ways for me to fail. There are so many more people for me to fail. Being a professor on the tenure track is not like being a postdoc in many ways. But, maybe in the ones that matter most, it is: this is my life. I'm living it right now. It isn't on hold. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I'm not blogging

I have five minutes. That's all I'll take for this. 
  • There are all the things to write: papers, grants, letters of recommendation, evaluations of the students in the program I'm co-chairing, more papers, more grants, annual evaluations.
  • I have trainees to mentor - it takes time to actually sit down with everyone, listen, and try to respond.
  • I like to see my family. 
  • I am giving seminars and conference presentations
  • I'm doing research - I've been so excited to be coding lately! It's really great to be doing hands-on research.
  • I'm teaching, grading, reading, meeting with students.
  • Sometimes (often?) the things I'm thinking are much better said by other people.
  • I'm sitting on committees at my University.
  • I'm a council member.
  • I'm peer-reviewing.
  • I'm editing papers for journals. 
  • I'm packing lunches, walking dogs, cleaning the house, grocery shopping...
  • Sometimes, I make it to the gym.
  • I bought a book I might get to read.
I love blogging. I love reading other people's blogs. So, maybe I can give myself five minutes here and there to do it more. 

Time's up. Back to work. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Being nominated

A little over a week ago I found out I was nominated as a BadAss woman of ASU.

I was totally (pleasantly) surprised by it.

Yesterday Shantel Mareka wrote an article about it that made me tear up (happy tears):

Science is full of many challenges and constant rejections. There are the things that go wrong that we don't have any control over, and then there are the mistakes we make ourselves. There are external and internal pressures. There is self-doubt, and questioning. There are successes, too, but somehow I don't hold on to good news as much as I do the criticisms.

I don't know how to express how much it means to me that students and colleagues would share such kind words. That other people would spend their precious time, for me. I will hold this so close. I will treasure your sentiments. I will take them to heart. I appreciate you all.

Thank you for reminding me of the value of all that we do together, because surely we do this together. We learn together. We research together. We help each other see our errors and move past them. We commiserate in our losses. We celebrate our discoveries and successes together. We move science forward. We move each other forward.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


It would be an understatement to say I was moved by the broadcast of Allegiance today. I was, like many other people in the theatre, softly sobbing at many parts of the performance.

The show today was, as is every performance of Allegiance, a tribute to the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were wrongfully detained 75 years ago today in internment camps during WWII.

I learned about internment camps during WWII, but as a side-note. There's a song near the end of the musical that sums it up so well, and illustrates how I learned about these, as a "whoops, we thought you were the enemy but we were wrong." No acknowledgement of wrong-doing. No apologies.

It was easy to connect and empathize with so many of the characters, but the one that drew me in the most, was that of Greg Watanabe's Mike Masoaka. His role is curious in both being immensely influential at the time, and only a side-character in the show. He has a book that he co-published (presumably about himself) in 1987, They Call Me Moses Masoaka: An American Saga. But, I didn't see another biography of him on Amazon. I did find his obituary in the New York Times from 1991, which is surprisingly brief:

Perhaps it's primarily because of Watanabe's performance, or the way the character was written, but I'm so curious about how he really felt about the reports he gave on the news, his stance on the camps, and the 442nd Regimental combat team. For whatever his motivations, after the war, it seems he was instrumental in the passing of, among other things, an act (that took until 1998) to compensate the 60,000 surviving Americans who were interned.

Most of the people portrayed in Allegiance were invented for the musical. The portrayal of the pain, humiliation, and anxiety that we put our fellow human beings through, and their joy and resilience is palpable throughout the show.

I don't need to see someone's hurt to know I should care for them or that they deserve respect. That said, historical dramas, to me, are a constant reminder of the history I've neglected, and a renewed motivation to be proactive to not repeat our shameful past.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

He made a difference.

At a time when I was lost and alone and questioning, my math teacher, Mr. Tim Boerner, made a tremendous positive impact on my life. And now he's gone.

My parents were in an ugly divorce. We moved from Arizona to Texas to Kansas to Nebraska in a matter of months. My brothers and I knew no one in Nebraska. We were all new kids in a small town. Thanks to differences in school districts across States and moving to a small town, I was also skipped up a grade. In a weird transition, I spent three days in 8th grade before I was moved up to the high school, in a different building across town. In a town of 1,600, everyone knew everything, and knew I didn't fit in.

Mr. Boerner (I'll never be able to call him by his first name) taught math. He also ran the Math club, and encouraged me to join. I never thought I was very good at math, but I liked it, and his encouragement made me feel like it was okay to just like math. He took the time to take our small town group of students to Math events around the local area, and even to the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL)'s Math Day every year. There we got to interact with over 1000 other students, tour the campus, compete on teams with timed questions, and take individual exams. I realize that may not sound like a lot of fun to some people, but to me, it was incredible, and something I looked forward to every year. I got to do all of this - to fit in - because of Mr. Boerner.

Mr. Boerner was nerdy and gruff. He saw potential in all of us. He got frustrated with students who didn't pay attention. High schoolers are an unforgiving group, and he took us on. He answered our unending questions and worked with anyone who asked for help. He gave us opportunities to see how math could be used. He didn't tell us, he showed us. He showed me that diligence and practice matter.

He showed me how I could push myself to learn, even when things are difficult. He showed me that being challenged by something doesn't mean I should give up. He showed me how to persevere. That is key in education, but especially in mathematics, where I've heard over and over that I must be smart for doing math.  I'm as smart as anyone. More than that, I don't give up. And, I have to thank Mr. Boerner for that.

I've thought about him often over the years, but am sorry I never told him. I never told him how much he gave me something to look forward to at a time when I didn't know what was going on in my life. I never told him how his consistent and logical demeanor was an inspiration to me. I saw his unwavering dedication to teaching, to his students, and it made a lasting impact on how I approach the world.  I've since earned a B.S. Mathematics and a Ph.D. Bioinformatics & Genomics. I get to teach hundreds of students every year, both formally and informally about science, including math in biology. I see some struggle, and I continue to be inspired by Mr. Boerner's example to never give up on them. He was tough, fair, and (perhaps unknowingly) helped me find solace and self-confidence at a very uncertain time. I don't know how I can ever pay it forward enough.

If there is one thing, I hope you can take away from this, it is that Mr. Boerner made a difference. I don't know what would have happened if I'd never known him, but I know that his life made mine better.

Thank you, Mr. Boerner.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Come say, "hi"

It's going to be a busy two months coming up, but if I'll be in your neighborhood, please let me know, and I'd love to say "hello"!

Oct 4 
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
Human Genetics, University of Utah School of Medicine
Salt Lake City, UT

Oct 11
Seminar: Convergent evolution of dosage compensation in human and green anoles
New York, NY

Oct 13
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
New York, NY

Oct 15-17
Hack-a-thon organizer: Inferring sex chromosome and autosomal ploidy in NGS data
HackSeq, Vancouver

Oct 18-21
Platform presentation: Modeling the subclonal evolution of cancer cell populations
ASHG, Vancouver

Nov 4-6
Invited participant
Irvine, CA

Nov 7
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
Human Genetics (Genetics & Genomics), UCLA
Los Angeles, CA

Nov 17-19 
Conference organizer, presenter
Tempe, AZ

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I forgot about self-promotion.

Yesterday at a faculty meeting, we started the meeting by being asked what the most exciting thing going on with us was.

Excited about teaching computing skills
I was pretty stoked because this class I'm teaching - and introduction to research computing topics - has been super-well attended (there's an option to take it for credit, or anyone can show up for a single session). It's a hands-on introduction to computing topics (e.g., SSH, SFTP, HPC, command line scripting, etc), and later it will be more domain-specific topics across different departments at my institution. I've been doing assessments after each class, and getting really constructive feedback, which is awesome. And, attendance has been awesome!

Exciting?! I got this!

I piped up about this being the most exciting thing right now. Then, in an effort to keep it brief so we could get on with the meeting, let the next person go. Short and sweet. Well done, self.

So... everyone else in attendance made sure to highlight multiple current research projects in their lab, and current/pending publications.

Right. Yes. Listening to everyone do this, I realized that is probably what I should have been focusing on too.

In my excitement about how well this computing teaching has been going, I forgot to mention those things that I probably should have. Those things academics value, for self-promotion, even among colleagues. They won't know unless I tell them.

For example, I should probably have mentioned that the lab has had two publications this month, and another coming out next week:
Narang P and Wilson Sayres MA. 2016. Variable autosomal and X divergence near and far from genes affects estimates of male mutation bias in great apes. Genome Biology and Evolution (accepted).  
Pagani L… Wilson Sayres MA… et al. 2016. Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature (advanced access online). doi:10.1038/nature19792. 
Webster TH and Wilson Sayres MA. 2016. Sex-biased demography across human populationsCurrent Opinion in Genetics and Development  3(41): 62-71. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2016.08.002 
And, I also didn't mention that we've got some really great RNAseq data back, as part of a collaboration that we're starting to analyze. Seriously, it's the prettiest data I've seen to date, just look at it!! 

It's okay, you can be jealous.
Back to work
I'm really not sure what the best approach is. I *love* talking about my research. I do it incessantly. But, I also get distracted (I'd say, "motivated") by things outside of lab that are going well. For now, I'd better get back to work, so I'll have new science things to talk about the next time someone asks about how things are going. :)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Academic hiring committees aren't doing enough.

I'm sitting on my first search committee this year (assuming we get approval for the two hires). It is sometimes hard to believe that I'm on this side of the equation now. Being here, I feel a lot of responsibility. 

The first thing I started thinking of was ways we can do a better job of recruiting a diverse pool of applicants. There are many people who have been thinking, writing, and talking about this, so searching google, and asking twitter is helpful. I can share what I've learned there. I'm also happy that the committee I'm on has already been vocal about not sparing expenses on advertising in as many diverse venues as possible. 

Why come here? 
But, it's nagging on me, that it isn't ever going to be enough to just advertise in a variety of places. Why should someone want to join us? Why should they want to be my colleague? What are we continuing to do to build an inclusive environment that values and respects each person's contribution? And how are we making that known? How are we, as a department, as a University, sensitive to all the bigoted garbage that disproportionately affects people from underrepresented groups? How do we support them? 

Academic job hiring is always a two-way street. I want colleagues who choose to come here, over somewhere else, because it is a great academic environment that supports their growth as a researcher and a person. Every academic department should be like this. 

I'm not doing enough. 
For the past two years, since I started in this position, I've been focused on how I can build the best laboratory environment. We (mostly I) will always be learning, and adjusting. I feel privileged by the students and trainees that have chosen to join my lab. I try to advocate for my trainees. I try to make a space where we can be open, and inclusive. 

Last year I ran our seminar series, and worked to take suggestions from across the department (it's technically a school, but I'm using department because that is how most places are structured), and invited a group of speakers that were representative of the range of disciplines in our unit, as well as considered other dimensions of diversity. But I could have done better. I see ways in which I could have improved - working more with each faculty group to build up a more diverse list. 

This year, my service to the department is co-chairing the Evolutionary Biology graduate program. In doing so, we are working to build a sense of community among the members of the program. We had a welcome potluck, we are hosting a journal club, and working to set up peer-mentoring for writing grants/fellowships. 

Okay, so I can work on my lab. I can work with the graduate students in my program. But, what am I really doing to contribute to the department as a whole. How am I making a lasting impact on the climate of the department? I think it has to start small, with the lab, with a program, but I need to contribute more to the department as a whole. I'm still working on how best to do this. I welcome your suggestions. 

Advertising isn't enough.
I also think every academic should be thinking about the health of our working environments. It isn't enough to advertise broadly. It isn't enough to carefully craft the language of an advertisement to be inclusive. Though, surely, those things are important. 

Some units are small, with single digit faculty. Some, like mine, have around 100. In every case, there will be people we want to recruit who don't look like us. Their science is different, their experiences are different, they won't look or sound like us. But, our motivations should be the same. We should all be motivated to lift each other up, to do the best science we can, and to be good mentors and educators. That motivation  - shared across the department - should be abundantly clear to all applicants. Maybe it could be simple. As an academic, this is the question I want each department to ask: 

How are we building an environment that someone who doesn't look like us will want to join?

We need to ask ourselves this routinely, and work towards answering it. It is the long game. It takes conscious and persistent effort. And it will never be a question we don't have to ask. I think making our environment the best it can be is the most productive recruiting strategy we can have. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Genomic signatures of sex-biased demography

Oh hey look! Our paper is out today!,2BdT7EGQ

Genomic signatures of sex-biased demography: progress and prospects

Sex-biased demographic events have played a crucial role in shaping human history. Many of these processes affect genetic variation and can therefore leave detectable signatures in the genome because autosomal, X-linked, Y-linked, and mitochondrial DNA inheritance differ between sexes. Here, we discuss how sex-biased processes shape patterns of genetic diversity across the genome, review recent genomic evidence for sex-biased demography in modern human populations, and suggest directions for future research.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Third year

I've received the email that reminds me that it is the beginning of my third year as an assistant professor, which means (here) that I need to prepare my packed of my third-year evaluation.

This evaluation is all the content I'd submit for a tenure review, and goes through the same review process, except that the University doesn't ask for external evaluation letters at this point.

Technically I'm on a three-year contract, so at the end of this year, ASU can decide not to renew me for another three years. While that possibility looms, I feel like I've been doing my best in the three areas I've been hired to work in - Research, Teaching, Service - and there isn't more that I could have done up until this point.

I still consider myself a #newPI, still learning about grant-writing, how to be a better educator, and learning about University goings-on. But, I feel more comfortable.

How are things? 
The lab is set up, and I'm really fortunate that my lab is filled with wonderful people who chose to work with me: I really love teaching Evolution every Spring, and this semester I'm teaching three one-credit courses (two of which are new as of this semester, about coding topics, which I'm *super* excited about). I have some really wonderful colleagues, and this year I get to sit on a search committee to choose two more!

Quiet around here
Well, quiet on the blog. I haven't been blogging around here, but I have been doing a lot of writing:

  • Blogged for CEM: How Rare is a Rare Disease?
  • I've responded to a lot of questions from K-12 students for Ask a Biologist.
  • Since I started in August 2014, I've written, or contributed to writing, seven publications that have been accepted, four that are in revision, and another five that are in various stages of preparation/review (as in, I could get you a draft if you wanted). 
  • Umpteen grant applications

And the thing is, I have so many things to tell you all! We've been doing so much good science and fun outreach. I just need to make time to write about them. Partially, in the last several months, I've traded blogging time for working-out time. I needed it. And as much as I miss writing, I need the exercise more.

So, it's all rainbows?
Well, no, of course not. There are plenty of things to nit-pick and complain about. And, get me alone over coffee, or after a poster session, and I'm sure I'll complain with you. But, taking a step back, I can say this:

I have my dream job. 

Being a professor, teaching, doing research, service... this is what I've wanted to do before I even know what to call it. I get to science, and I wouldn't want anything else.

Where we're going 
I'm going to make a goal of getting up one blog post a week, updating on the projects in the lab, and my thoughts about science/lab/life.

One a week.

I can do that.