Monday, August 18, 2014

Transitioning from postdoc to professor: It begins

Well, today was my first day as an Assistant Professor. I spent the day in orientations, learning about ASU, and swimming through a sea of Human Resources information. Overall, I'd say the day was good. My brain is a little drained tonight, but I wanted to let you all know that things are going well. So, what does that mean? The transition from postdoc to PI is only beginning, but let me give you an update of our academic nomad lifestyle.

The move from Berkeley to Tempe.
We had to pack up all of our things in May and move them to a temporary storage facility because our landlord wouldn't let us extend our lease two months. We searched and searched for a sublet for the summer, and a day before we had to move out, providence smiled, and we found a little studio apartment (yes, a studio for two adults, one 3yo, and a chihuahua mix). There were four things that made this sublet amazing: 1) it was less than a block to daycare (I cannot emphasize how wonderful that was); 2) It was about half of what we were paying in rent at our previous apartment; 3) It was one of the few places where the start & end of the sublet matched perfectly with when we needed it, and 4) It had a small fenced-in garden area for LittleBear to play in. So, all things considered, it was perfect for us.

Thanks for help!
That said, moving all of our stuff to temporary storage was less-than-ideal. Many, many, many, thanks to my lab mates who came out to help us load the truck (carrying down a flight of stairs inside and half a flight of stairs outside). Seriously, they rocked it. The movers came at the end of July to pick up our stuff from storage and loaded a truck to bring it to Tempe.

The move.
We split up the move into two days. The first day we drove from Berkeley to Irvine, CA. Then we stayed with some good friends there for a few days (not long enough!), doing a little work, playing some games, relaxing a bit, and even went to Disneyland! Then, we packed up again, and headed out to Tempe. The drives, both times, were marked with a little bit of worry, because LittleBear gets car sick, but with various techniques, we avoided any disasters.

Purple car. 
Then, about 20 minutes from our new rental, we were rear-ended. Luckily most of the damage was to the car, and no one was seriously injured. A little shaken up, but all okay. I can't say the same for the purple pontiac, which was deemed "totaled" by the insurance company. It turns out that because the car was titled and registered in California, we'd have to drive it back to CA (in its unsafe condition) to get it re-tested, if we wanted to keep it, or the insurance company would give us more than we were expecting to take the car off of our hands. So, it is time to say goodbye to the purple car. Now, however, we need to also figure out which car, and how much to spend, to get a new (to us) car.

Getting set up in lab.
Getting things set up is taking a little longer than I expected, even to just get started, but everyone has been super nice, and helpful whenever I ask questions. So, I'm hoping once I get through orientations, and trainings, I'll be able to get up and going pretty soon.

Orientations and trainings.
So far I've taken a few trainings, and gone to a day of orientations. I'm happy about them. I want to know how not to freak out if I'm in front of a class and there's a fire. I want to be prepared to deal quickly and professionally with incidents of harassment (sexual or otherwise). I want to know who to contact and what to do to keep my lab members, my peers, and my students safe and healthy. So, no, I'm not upset about the time spent in the trainings. I think they are a valuable use of my time. The only thing I wish was that I had more time!

Is it glamorous? No. But, it has been fun to meet so many new people, and start brainstorming new projects and grant applications (check back in on me about this one at the end of the Fall). I'll have an update for you at the end of the week, especially if I learn anything really cool in the rest of my trainings.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The value of saying, "I was wrong."

In April I got to meet Margot Adler. We sat together on a panel about gender identity.

She died today.

When we sat down on the panel, she mentioned that she wasn't sure what she was going to talk about, or why she had been chosen to participate on this particular panel. I wasn't quite sure what she was going to talk about either. She started by talking about how righteously angry she got when talking with a group of college girls who stated their preferred pronouns. When she was first learning about transgendered individuals and the efforts towards equality for transgendered people, she recalls how she thought it was naive of these students to think that their struggle was difficult. She recalled how she had been in the thick of fighting for racial equality, and that the struggles today were nothing compared to the hatred and violence that occurred in the 60's and 70's.

And then she paused.

When she began again, she talked about her process of learning about transgendered people and their experiences. She talked about the hate, violence, abuse, and discrimination they are subjected to. She talked about the rejection, and the staggeringly high rates of suicide and attempted suicide.

Margot Adler talked about how she was wrong to be indignant. About how she had changed her mind.

In that gesture, she opened the door for everyone in the audience, for everyone who ever listens to this panel, to change their mind about transgender people (something that many people need to re-evaluate). It was such a refreshing thing to be reminded of the value of saying, "I was wrong." Thank you, Margot.

Suggestions for best (and worst) lab meeting practices.

A wonderful twitter discussion about suggestions for running lab meetings, with a little about general lab management at the end.

In general, broad suggestions are: 
* Keep lab meetings to an hour.
* Moderate (keep focused on the topic of the week, whatever it may be).
* Snacks are generally a good thing, but not necessary.
* Joint lab meetings are great for new PIs and for outside perspective.
* Be flexible

Particular suggestions:
* Each lab member presents a figure.
* Avoid after 4pm.
* PI should also present.
* PI should share about grants/admin (on occasion).
* No bad-mouthing during lab meeting. Just, don't. 
* Invite grad students or postdocs from other labs to present.
* Lab safety training.
* Code reviews!
* Read/discuss draft manuscripts/grants.
* Schedule for start/end of day or noon-time.

Other than lab meeting advice:
* Create a lab culture that is conducive to asking questions and interactions.
* Lab retreats/potlucks/picnics can be good for building lab connections.

Links mentioned for further discussion/reading:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Just think a happy thought...

There are a lot of people chiming in on this article in Science encouraging postdocs to "think happy thoughts": Happy Thoughts May Help Postdocs Handle Stress by Rachel Bernstein.

The hashtag to follow on twitter is, #postdochappythoughts. Really, go check it out.

Certainly there is something to be said for trying to be optimistic, and realistic about the challenges in academia. It is useful to realize that we may, regardless of status, often feel like impostors. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real problems with the academic machine that need to be addressed. There just so many things that you can't "happy thought" your way out of in academia, during graduate school, postdoctoral work, or even as a PI.

Just a few:

I'm at a transition point now. I am finishing my postdoc, and will be starting a tenure track position this Fall (yes, I realize how very lucky I am to be in this position). As I'm preparing for my position as a PI, I'm working to recruit postdoctoral researchers to work with me. I've already talked about making expectations and responsibilities clear for all parties involved in my lab, starting with a clear set of expectations on my web site.

But, there's another aspect that that I am surprised to have run into. Talking with several PIs about recruiting postdocs, I have received this advice (paraphrased):
"Don't offer to pay your postdocs too much. I'd suggest going with the bare minimum. You want to make sure you save money for other projects and other people."



I think this is exactly what @27andaphd is talking about here:
So, what do I think about it?

As a PI, I either have enough funding to pay a fair salary to my lab members, or I don't have enough funding to hire them.

This includes paying for health, dental, and vision insurance. It also includes budgeting money for moving expenses. Why would I want to hire someone, who I view as both a trainee and a colleague, and not care about their well-being?

That brings up a bigger question, though, "What is a fair salary?" Partly what constitutes a fair salary is dependent on location. I think a good rule of thumb, and what I plan to do, is to, at a minimum, follow the NIH salary guidelines. In an area like Berkeley, however, the NIH salary guidelines would still be too low.

No, happy thoughts cannot make postdoc life better. PI's and administrations who give a damn about quality of life will make postdoc life better.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pretty. Already.

"I want Matt* to think I'm pretty."

I was temporarily stunned into silence when I heard those words from my daughter.

Because she's three years old.


So it begins
What?! Already? Is this how it begins? So soon? Why does she care whether he thinks she is pretty? Most importantly: How have I contributed to this? And, what can I do to combat it?

The first answer is "No", this is not how it begins. It begins so much earlier. It begins when she was born. I begins with how we talk to our kids. This video shows pretty clearly some of the common pitfalls in the way we talk to girls.

Have I contributed to this? 
Probably. I tell her she's beautiful. I also tell her she is wonderful, funny, smart.

How can I combat it? 
I can be more aware of the language I use, and how I respond to her behavior.

Ever since she was born, we try to make sure she has an assortment of toys to play with, not just stereotypical girl toys. We also encourage her to take things apart, and encourage her to try again when she wants to give up (girls tend to give up faster than boys and doubt their abilities more).

We also want to help her to be independent and responsible. We try to give her the freedom to make decisions about her life (within reason, I mean, she is three). That said, there are a lot of ways a three-year-old can be involved. She helps chose books we'll read, and the activities we'll do. She also helps with chores around the house and cleaning up her own messes.

She also helps choose her clothes. It would be an understatement to say my daughter loves pink and frilly dresses. As her parents, we let her wear what she wants, making a mental note that we would do the same with any child (although we do try to sneak some other colors and styles in). We also try to encourage her to get dirty, to explore, to investigate, and to question. The dresses will wash. And what's wrong with a few stains anyway? The experiences are worth so much more.

So, what did I respond with? I told her that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of her. She is pretty and she should wear whatever she likes to wear, because she likes it.

And then we went and played in the dirt.

Mud is exponentially more fun than dirt.

*Names changed

Friday, June 20, 2014

New academic lab thoughts, recruiting, goals

I am starting my lab in the School of Life Sciences (housed in the Biodesign Institute) at Arizona State University and recruiting all levels: undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and a programmer/computational lab manager.

I am thinking through how I want my lab to run, and what kind of advisor I want to be. I think having a clear list of expectations and responsibilities will help. So, I'll start it here, put a copy on my lab website, and update as needed. Please share your thoughts and comments, especially what has worked for you (as an undergraduate, grad student, postdoc, or advisor).

The ad for postdocs is here. Appointments for postdocs are one year, and renewable for up to three years. I'm looking for postdocs who will be excellent colleagues and mentors to the other members of the lab.

My responsibilities to my postdocs:
  • Assist with identifying and writing postdoctoral fellowships
  • Develop project ideas, including independent projects that can be taken with the postdoc
  • Interpret results
  • Proof-read manuscripts
  • Discuss future career goals (e.g., do you want to teach, go into academia, continue in research?), and plan ways to facilitate these goals
  • Support travel to at least one meeting per year
  • Meet regularly to discuss progress & pitfalls
Expectations of my postdocs:
  • Participate in weekly lab meetings
  • Prepare for our regular progress/pitfalls meetings and a follow up email of progress and goals 
  • Maintain a set of lab notes, including directories of data, annotated codes & versions, detailed methods. These need to sufficient to reproduce results without additional instructions.
  • Attend departmental seminars
  • Participate in general lab responsibilities (servers, maintain common areas, taking turns hosting visitors)
  • Be available in the lab/office for a minimum pre-arranged set of hours to facilitate interactions
  • Optional, but preferred: Mentor at least one undergraduate student

Graduate Students
I missed the graduate student recruitment, but I can still bring in a graduate student this year, working together with the department, if there is mutual interest. I am also happy to discuss plans with juniors and seniors in college, who are interested in graduate school.

My responsibilities to my graduate students: 
  • Assist with identifying and writing graduate student fellowships (before and during PhD)
  • Develop project ideas
  • Interpret results
  • Proof-read and contribute to writing of manuscripts
  • Discuss future career goals (e.g., do you want to teach, go into academia, continue in research?), and plan ways to facilitate these goals
  • Support travel to at least one meeting per year
  • Meet weekly to discuss progress and pitfalls

Expectations of my graduate students:
  • Participate in weekly lab meetings
  • Prepare for our regular progress/pitfalls meetings and a follow up email of progress and goals 
  • Maintain a set of lab notes, including directories of data, annotated codes & versions, detailed methods. These need to sufficient to reproduce results without additional instructions.
  • Write and submit a pre-doctoral fellowship proposal
  • Proof-read manuscripts from other lab members
  • Regularly attend departmental seminars
  • Present a poster or talk of research progress at conference at least once a year.
  • Participate in general lab responsibilities (servers, maintain common areas, taking turns hosting visitors)
  • Be available in the lab/office for a minimum pre-arranged set of hours to facilitate interactions
  • Optional, but preferred: Mentor at least one undergraduate student


I really enjoy working with undergraduate research students (see my past students here). There are many projects in bioinformatics and computational biology for undergraduate students. If you are an undergraduate interested in working in my lab, please read through the kinds of research we do, and the following expectations and responsibilities, then email me 1) your resume, and 2) one page or less describing your research interests and course background.

My responsibilities to my undergraduate students: 
  • Preparing a structured project
  • Analyzing and interpreting results
  • Proof-read and contribute substantially to writing results
  • Discuss future career goals (e.g., do you want to teach, go into academia, continue in research?), and plan ways to facilitate these goals
  • Meet weekly to discuss progress and pitfalls

Expectations of my undergraduate students:
  • Participate in weekly lab meetings
  • Prepare for our regular progress/pitfalls meetings and a follow up email of progress and goals 
  • Maintain a set of lab notes, including directories of data, annotated codes & versions, detailed methods. These need to sufficient to reproduce results without additional instructions.
  • Present a short talk or poster of research results to the lab once a year.
  • Be available in the lab/office for a minimum pre-arranged set of hours to facilitate interactions

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Some postdoctoral fellowships in Biology

When I was looking I had a heck of a time finding a summary of postdoctoral fellowships to apply for, so thought my compilation might assist others. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start. I’m happy to update this post with other suggestions (and links and descriptions). I especially tried to include whether the fellowships are available to international students or not. I’ve ordered them by approximate submission date, but as submission dates change every year, please don’t rely on these. Similarly, the links were active at the time of this posting. If they aren’t working, you can probably find the fellowship with a simple google search.

Lists Compiled by other people:

UC Berkeley: Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Biological Sciences
Life Sciences Research Foundation Fellowship 
- Due ~October
- LSRF awards fellowships across the spectrum of the life sciences: biochemistry; cell, developmental, molecular, plant, structural, organismic population and evolutionary biology; endocrinology; immunology; microbiology; neurobiology; physiology; virology.- Similar structure as NSF postdoc- Only one LSRF fellow allowed in a lab at any given time- U.S. citizens are eligible to work in any geographic location while holding an LSRF fellowship. Non-U.S. citizens must work in a U.S. laboratory to be eligible for an LSRF fellowship. 
NSF postdoctoral fellowship 
- Due ~October 
- The focus this year is, “Intersections of Biology and Mathematical and Physical Sciences“.- applicants must be U.S. citizens (or nationals) or permanent residents of the United States (i.e., have a “green card”) at deadline. 
NIH postdoctoral fellowship (using form SF424) 
- Due ~December 
- Applicants must be citizens or non-citizen nationals of the United States, or have been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.
L’Oreal Fellowships for Women in Science 
- Due ~December 
- Has both US and International options 
Graduate Women in Science Grants/Fellowships 
- Due ~January 
- All women scientists that are conducting research in the natural sciences regardless of nationality are eligible for application for any of the SDE/GWIS Fellowships.
Branco Weiss fellowship 
- Due ~March 
Helen Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship 
- Due ~July 
- Fellowships may be awarded to US citizens planning to work in laboratories either in the US, Canada, or abroad and also to foreign citizens for research in laboratories in the US only.
EMBO Fellowships 
- Due 15th August and 15th February 
- The EMBO Long-Term Fellowships are awarded for a period of up to two years and support post-doctoral research visits to laboratories throughout Europe and the world. International exchange is a key feature in the application process. All fellowships must involve movement between countries and one of those countries must be an EMBC Member State. 
Human Frontier Science Program 
- Due August 
- Long-Term Fellowships (LTF) are reserved for applicants with a Ph.D. in a biological discipline to embark on a new project in a different field of the life sciences. Preference is given to applicants who propose an original study in biology that marks a departure from their previous Ph.D. or postdoctoral work so as to learn new methods or change study system. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

My time as a real scientist (@realscientists)

I was very lucky to participate in a wonderful science outreach and education endeavor by tweeting for @realscientists.

What is Real Scientists? From their "about" page:
RealScientists (@realscientists) is a rotational twitter account featuring real scientists, science writers, communicators and policy makers talking about their lives and their work. Tweeters from different fields of science and science-related fields (you can also follow them on Facebook).  
My welcome from Real Scientists: Why Y? Evolutionary biologist Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres joins RealScientists

Throughout the week the tweets were collected together. The picture changes with each account user, so just keep in mind, wherever it says, @realscientists, it's me talking, whoever is shown in the picture.

Storify #1:
Please welcome Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley! Melissa’s research uses bioinformatics and genomics to study the evolutionary dynamics of sex chromosome evolution, male mutation bias, and pregnancy. Twitter pretty much exploded with excitement when Melissa started. Part 1 is Sunday/Monday.

Storify #2:
Melissa continued her fabulous form through Tuesday and Wednesday. She talked job applications, collaborations, courtroom science (ie uncertainty and reasonable doubt), science funding and more. And she posted a photo of leggings with genes on them. Could we call them geggings, do you think?

Storify #3:
During her week of tweeting for RealScientists, Melissa was also involved in several panels at the Conference of World Affairs (#CWA2014). Tweets from Thursday and Friday picked up on one of these sessions: sex and gender. Do yourself a favour, and read on….

Storify #4:
That's a wrap for Melissa. Over the course of the week she talked research, job applications, collaborations, courtroom science, science funding, why or why not to do a PhD, how to become a bioinformaticist (+/- coding), the role and importance of academic outreach. Here are days Fri, Sat and Sun.

My farewell from Real Scientists: Y leaving so soon? Farewell and thanks, Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres

Monday, April 14, 2014

56 Different Points on the Gender Spectrum

I was on several panels at the Conference on World Affairs (#CWA2014). One of them (which I was both most excited for, and most nervous for) was also video-recorded:
Panel 3712
56 Different Points on the Gender Spectrum
3:00-4:20 on Wednesday April 9, 2014
UMC Center Ballroom 
Margot Adler
Joel Gallant
Judithe Registre
Melissa Wilson Sayres
Moderator: Mindy Pantiel

I'm not sure how long this will be online, but I have ordered this video-recording, as well as the audio recording from the other panels I was on, and am inquiring about sharing them.

I forgot the awesomeness of the way this panel ended. The 56 refers to the different gender identities allowed in facebook at the time. I have transcribed it here for you.
Mindy: We have time for one more very brief question and this person has been very patient. 
Audience member: The question will be, just how many stories can people be expected to learn? The context is, I don't believe you can accept somebody unless you understand them, and I don't think you understand them until you know their story. 56 genders, 56 stories. It impresses me as a huge burden to learn 56 stories. Just how big a burden can people be expected to take on? How many stories can people be expected to learn? 
Joel Gallant: Well let's not take the 56 too literally. This is a facebook invention. I mean, it's not an invention, these come from somewhere, but the 56 comes from facebook as far as I know. And remember, that if you look at the categories in the facebook list, which I did last night, y'know, there's lots of overlap, these are not biological categories. The stories... there's many more than 56 stories. There's a story for every person, and what you want to know is not their facebook classification, but what's their personal story? And when you find that out, it won't really matter what they call themselves, 'cause you'll know that person as a human being, and that's the story you want to learn. 
Melissa Wilson Sayres: I'll say. According to the world population counter there are currently: seven billion, two hundred twenty-five million, three hundred eighty two thousand, eight hundred and fourty... nine, stories. 
Judithe Registre: I'm just going to add though there's one story. The story is that you feel pain, I feel pain, we hunger, there is one human story. Seven million people and one thing I've been fascinated by, whether I move across different countries around the world, that people have the same desire: to be respected, to live with human dignity. That is one story. And if we can remember that one story, the 56 stories become meaningful. If we can't remember that one story, the 56 stories is meaningless.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Academic startup: What is negotiable?

Okay, so you've been on your job interview (tips here for preparing for that), and now you have an offer. Yay! It's time to negotiate. Oh... 

If you're like me, you've been told over and over that we should negotiate, but not how to negotiate, or what to ask for

So, I asked twitter for advice on what to request in negotiations and startup packages. The #startupwishlist tweets were Storified here, and summarized below. In addition, the book, At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory was recommended for new PIs, which also has a chapter on job applications.

NOTE: Keep in mind that many of these suggestions come from people at research-heavy institutions. Resources will differ from institution to institution, and especially between institutions with different missions. You will need to prioritize what you need to be successful, and balance that with the resources/facilities of the institution. That said, at least this list can give you some ideas of things that are negotiable.

Be informed when negotiating salary.
"Day in the Life: Lunch Money" by marya via Wikimedia Commons
  • Confirm whether 9-month or 12-month appointment.
  • Ask for summer salary for 2-3 years.
  • X years of guaranteed salary, and any salary that is covered by outside grants to convert to unrestricted funds.
  • When is the start date? Can you start early, or push it back?
  • 10% increase in salary, unless you have better information from inside the department (Can check the web for salaries for public institutions. University library reference might also have this info).

Make sure you have the equipment you need to succeed.
  • Confirm availability of any major equipment and space modifications you need.
  • Ask whether space renovations are included in or separate from startup budget.
  • Negotiate access to equipment that is shared, or in another person's labspace.
  • Negotiate ongoing service contracts for equipment, and non-expiration of these accounts.
  • Computational resources - desktops/laptops, node buy-in, annual HPC fees
  • Software
  • Sofa, table, chairs, coffee maker, fridge

Experiments are run by people.
  • Ask about University rates for overhead for students/postdocs/techs/staff.
  • $$ for 2 graduate students 
  • Access to administrative staff for grants
  • Does the department have a regular source of TAships for students?
  • $$ for postdocs
  • $$ for tech/lab manager

Time limits on spending startup?
  • Know if there are time limits for spending the money (also if $$ able to roll-over).
  • Request some startup to go to an unrestricted account (versus only to personnel or equipment).
  • Is the startup a lump sum or a set amount each year? 
  • What restrictions are there on Startup spending, and are there reporting requirements?
  • Flexibility for how to spend, versus what was requested.
  • Ask for 2-5 years to spend start-up

You need to travel to share your results and network.
Photo by Douglas Paul Perkins, via Wikimedia Commons
  • $$ for travel for you and lab members for first 2-3 years.
  • An annual professional allowance each year (for conference travel, journals, professional membership).

How many new courses will you need to develop in the first 5 years?


  • Protected time (preferably >1year), including teaching reduction and protection from service - get it in writing.
  • Ask for written out %FTE expected of teaching vs research.
  • Ask what %FTE is covered by department versus needing to get grants to fund yourself (mostly for medical schools).
  • Can time off teaching be held and used after the first year?
  • What courses you will teach over the first 4-5 years.

"Almost done" by Lisa Risager via Wikimedia Commons
  • Extension the deadline for you to make your decision.
  • A parking lot near your building
  • Housing/relocation allowance (sometimes you can request a month's extra salary if moving expenses aren't explicitly covered).
  • Slot in the University affiliated daycare/preschool
  • A semester of teaching/service relief for parental leave/dependent care

In summary:

What is negotiable? Everything.