Academia, Career, Economics, Faith, Neurological Disorders, Pain, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Uncategorized, Writing

Grant Amazing

I  did! I posted again!

Okay, it’s been a long time since my last post. While I feel bad about not keeping up with the blog, at the same time, I have a good reason. I’ve been deep in the bowels of grant-writing.

Science, despite all it’s glorious discoveries and wonders, fails without cold-hard cash driving it forward. In our day and age, money motivates discovery. Almost all our breakthroughs in science have some kind of sponsored backing.

Sad, but true. But then, many of us who are in the field of academic science research are driven by more than simply the need for knowledge fulfillment. Personally, I believe I belong in research (for now). And I love to teach…. which in my position provides me with that opportunity.

Regarding Money

With my desire to propel my projects forward, I’ve stopped nearly all distractions from my ability to devote time and energy to getting a grant. As some of my friends know, I’ve made this a top priority. I firmly believe that the work I’m doing in the lab will have some future benefit as well provide an exciting perspective on the issues of Spinal Cord Injury and Pain. 

A metaphorical image….

So I give myself a pat on the shoulder, because just a day ago I got a phone call from the funding agency that my grant application has been award full-funding for the next two-years.

I’m a young investigator, and this is my first grant funded as the principle investigator. In the course of an academic career, this is a THE milestone toward something “bigger” or at the very least more independent. For a little bit of time, and to a point, I will have my own little research space to study something on my own. This is nice, scary, and exciting all at the same time.

As I move forward, as the quiet margins open up again, I will try my best to continue my ruminations. Writing continues to be a great outlet… no matter the topic.

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Coffee, Economics, Problems to Solve, Thinking, Wisdom

Matter Over Money

Well, it’s time to save money. I don’t know why, but I feel the need to recollect my thoughts on spending. This is not a blog about my personal finances, but in my mind, there’s this instinct to save now that wasn’t there before.

I suppose someone could say it’s because the economy is rocking the bottom rung, but that isn’t the entire truth. I think it’s because I’d like to save my money for things like a good get-away or simply repair the roof of my home (though I think we still have a few years for that). 

Another sign of maturity as I get older is the slowing down of that desire to want things that have no bearing on just living. Food might be considered a necessity, for example. But, going out to nice restaurants is not. Other small things seem to take on a greater value since I don’t want to spend as much as I used to. Coffee… I take the free stuff from the conference room whenever I can, whereas in the past I would go to the corner Starbucks in the hospital.

So, what am I saying? I guess I’m saying that I’m feeling the pinch! It’s hitting me. Oh, and that gasoline price hovering around $4/gallon don’t help none.

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Academia, Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Problems to Solve, Time, Uncategorized, Writing

No More Newtons

English: Isaac Newton Dansk: Sir Isaac Newton ...

Sir Issac Newton

The man was a recluse, aloof in anything social. He threw himself in his work, staying at his desk for hours and hours and sometimes never slept. He was a professor and had few teaching responsibilities so he was able to disappear and work on physics and astronomy with no one to bother him. He was a scientist by all rights.

I’ve had moments like this. So absorbed with trying to figure out a problem or resolve some issue; maybe something that I might have thought was interesting. I have sat in one place for long periods of time working or just writing. When this happens, time has no place. I disappear.

But, this is rare. I’m a cog in a big wheel, and I can’t just go off the deep end for very long, no matter how fun or enthralling such adventures could be in my work.

In the distant past, a scientist didn’t have to worry about their ‘brand’ or reputation. After all there were so few of them. If you were a scientist, you were the only one in the entire town or city. Money was no problem. You were probably already rich, an aristocrat who didn’t have to run business or anything like that. You had a lot of time on your hands so you spent it by exploring the world around you. There was a freedom back then that is no longer true today. Scientists of old were an elite group.

Today

Though not bad in of itself, it seems now that successful academic science people have become best used within a corporate enterprise. I say enterprise because in fact science is now a matter of business. It is now within this construct of marketing, personal networking, and money-acquiring.

What has happened seems to be me like a saturation of the research field (a lot of them), and through some weird coagulation, some type of pseudo-feudal system has been setup in American academia. The majority of the most successful laboratories are the larger ones (i.e., several technicians, post-docs, tier-ranked scientists, and students), which have built-up over time a great system of resources, both labor and money, and through that body maintain the collective creativity of many, diverse people.

So, today with funding problems in science in this country, the corporate labs can keep moving and making those papers, and so can keep making money.

In the past, there was one scientific question, and 2-3 people working to get the answer. Now, there are 10 questions that maybe a thousand people are working on. Some might say this is good, but thinking about it–this doesn’t mean there are 10 answers for those 10 questions. It could mean there are 200 answers for 10 questions! Since there are only a few top-tier journals, there is a violent rush to beat your neighboring competitors. Because of the speed, each answer might differ by a little bit. A little bit here, a bit there.

In the past, those 2-3 people would answer that question. It might take them a year or two, but they’d produce solid evidence that had no wobbly room. What great concrete and solid foundations they have built.

No more Sir Issac Newtons running around discovering or describing the properties of gravity; not alone at least. It’s kind of a bitter-sweet predicament for modern science. Corporate science appears to be our future.

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Academia, Career, Economics, Grants, Philosophy, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Writing

Bricks and Straw

MY situation…is daunting

I’ve been preparing a manuscript that will describe a series of experiments I performed, aimed at characterizing an issue of abnormal pain after spinal cord injury. This is the hardest part, at least for me, where I have to decide what to include in the report. I’m planning on submitting it for publication before the end of the month.

Preamble

You spend days working on analyzing data, only to realize that it doesn’t fit into the entire scheme of the project. You’ve spent a lot of time gathering data that doesn’t make sense. There’s that extra data point that winks at you and says: “Ha, now where are you going to put me?”

Ethically, I’m obligated to talk about that piece of esoteric, nonsensical data. The trouble is, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s that werid cousin you have in the family. You don’t know what to do with him when he’s over for dinner, cuz’ he doesn’t eat meat.

Constructing progress: tactics

Trial-and-error, or careful pre-experimental planning? This is a unique challenge. How much time to spend planning, rather than performing the actual experiment is a tactical choice. I could spend weeks and months reading about and planning for a project, or I can perform the project with a few ideas in mind and see where it takes me. Both have their advantages.

Trial-and-error, or the “fishing-expedition”, is used frequently, but not looked upon highly by scientists as the best way to make progress. It’s risky and has a low return of success for the amount of time invested. However, this approach allows a scientist freedom to be creative and innovative.

For example, in the movie “Dolphin Tale“, the scientist in charge of engineering a new prosthetic tail for the dolphin amputee ends up utilizing a trial-and-error approach. Though the scientist studies what he can from the literature and theorizes how the tale ought to function, he doesn’t know until he tries several prothetic flipper-tail designs. Many of these contraptions fail….(see the movie).

Pre-experimental planning is probably the most used approach. It provides a plan for all the potential scenarios for what might happen within an experimental project. It even has an exit strategy, of when to stop the experiment. The time invested is primarily upfront, and once executed, all labor runs through a workflow designed to meet specific objectives.

Now, I’ll admit, I do prefer to start with the strategy of planning just a little bit, then flying by the seat of my pants the rest of the way. I won’t hesitate to try new ideas or different designs, and do so without planning. If it perks my curiosity, I’ll try it for a while. In this way, I work from a solid framework, but I’m not so rigidly held to that plan that I won’t deviate if something interesting pops up that might require more investigation.

Of course, there’s the bottleneck — scientific progress requires two basic resources: time and money. Without these, it doesn’t matter how motivated, creative or talented you are. You don’t make bricks without straw. Another tactic: good funding. 

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Academia, Career, Economics, Grants, Problems to Solve

Genius Enough

A successful academic career, especially in the life sciences is the acquisition of currency, which is earned by publishing quality peer-reviewed manuscripts and receiving grant funding for projects.

Earning this currency has an inherent flaw. In order to publish manuscripts, a scientist needs money, but money comes from grants. Conversely, to have a grant funded, an individual has to provide evidence of productivity and progress in the form of publications. There is, therefore, a cycle and balance that a science researcher needs to maintain in order to grow.

A scientist who wants to succeed and climb the academic ladder must be a dynamic machine, spending resources (time) that will further his own ideas by gathering grants and publications simultaneously. Failing at one entity will sabotage the machine.

The NIH did what?

The National Institute of Health (NIH) is the primary government source of funding for academic research in America. Receiving NIH funding is the hallmark of a successful academic scientist. If someone receives NIH funding for a large project, which may come in the form of a lucrative (>$1 million) R01-type NIH grant, then for up to 4 consecutive years that scientist can perform any creative endeavor they have proposed. Funding from non-NIH funding can provide supplementary sources of money, but NIH funding appears the priority when it comes to determining whether an academic scientist has made a mark in the field among his peers and is vital to attaining a promotion.

A different battlefield

A flailing US economy and war have resulted in a progressively declining NIH budget. NIH now funds less than 12% of first-time applicants. It is much worse for junior faculty, which receives less than 5-8% for the smaller R21-type grants (references pending). It is incredibly discouraging for the young and creative scientists, who are the future of academic society. These individuals who have either just begun or have had several years in the sciences are experiencing the worst of the economic squeeze. A large population of these scientists will have to wait or, in my opinion, struggle excessively for little salary in order to progress toward academic independence (i.e., spinning the grant funding/publishing cycle).

What does this mean?

Scientists who are firmly established in their academic fields will dominate funding sources, and therefore will be most able to control the publishing game. These scientists are generally of an older stock (I know of exceptions), and I would not be cynical to suggest that they are not ready to give up the reigns.

The incentives for young and energetic individuals to remain in academics are many and rewarding; however, time is not something anyone wants to waste. Given that the starting researcher in academia is compensated by a small salary in comparison to their peers with similar educational background in non-academic fields, it is difficult to justify remaining in academia.

Where will all the creative, motivated individuals go, if not part of this academic factory?

A lot of promising, young scientists are disappearing from Universities across the nation. I’ve seen it happen. Industry pays well and the atmosphere of the work environment has become more and more appealing for highly-educated, creative people.

Industries will rise and fall based on their corporate success or failure. But their success and failure is not dependent on poor political and national policies governing funding for academic sciences. This also has an interesting side effect, if this shift continues away from academic research: breakthroughs in medicine and technology will move toward private industries.

It might be okay, but it shows one common trait of our World: the driving force for human innovation is and always will be money.

For fun, hypothetical purposes only: 

To the extreme end—I foresee there being only two types of individuals who can happily remain in academia in the future: machines and geniuses. The machines work to produce data for publication. Machines do not have grants, either because they are unable to receive them in a poor funding environment or choose not to submit grant proposals (it’s a lot of work and a gamble). Therefore, machines rely on the geniuses for resources. Machines may be rewarded intellectually, not so well monetarily, and this might be sufficient.

In contrast, the geniuses come up with the ideas and tell the machines what to do. They have the intellectual might and/or ruthlessness to obtain limited resources. Geniuses will submit grants and get them. They will publish papers consistently and in great volume. There can only be a few geniuses in an environment with few resources.

Like animals….

No, seriously.

As a young academic myself, I love what I do, but I can’t help but wonder, am I “Genius enough?”

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