Academia, Career, Philosophy, Problems to Solve, Thinking, Wisdom, Writing

Enthusiasm Expulsion

The first step in any endeavor is planning. In my project, I usually need to start with anatomy. I need to know where the parts, muscles and nerves, fit together so that when they get messed up I can pinpoint where exactly things might have gone wrong.

Obviously, the anatomy I study doesn’t involve anything human. This is entirely within another experimental system, which is the reflection of our bodies–the prototypical lab rat. Well, I don’t want to get into trouble, so I won’t go into details except to say that this is a fully justified study that could be done in no alternative way. We go through a lot of regulatory paperwork, some of which can slow down our progress, but I can see the benefit in terms of preventing unnecessary cruelty.

Now, I’m fired up for this study and can’t wait to get the ball rolling. Yes, that’s about it for this posting. I wanted to expel my enthusiasm. It’s like a feeling of being on queue for a roller coaster ride. You know you’re going to have fun and excitement, definitely going to get sick to my stomach, and certainly some screaming a long the way (oh, “my life is over!” kind of thing); and yet, I step off at the end with something to report home about.

That is science, ups and downs, and some screaming in horror along the way. It’s not for everyone.

Academia, Career, Thinking, Writing

A Scientist Goes Upstream

It’s blogging type of day, a friend of mine wrote. Truly, true. I suppose my life just got sucked into this deep dark pit of busy-ness. So, here I am sitting outside on the patio in the backyard, smoking a nice smoke, and reflecting on my career choice of becoming a scientist.

Absolutely, this has been the worst financial choice I could have made becoming a neuroscientist.

After graduate school, I continued on as a post doctoral associate, but after two years of struggle I quit. Just picked up my stuff, left the laboratory, and went into the industrial sector. My salary nearly tripled over-night (2.5x increase/yearly).

In a single year, I had paid off all my credit card debts and paid down a huge chunk of my college school tuition loans.

Then, the horror! I realized that I missed something. It slapped me upside the head like that idiot kid in high school who just comes up to you and slaps you, literally, on the back of the neck to say “hi”.

And so, there I was in my job as a professional writer and editor, running a small show in a commercial company business–doing quite well, I might add–and not feeling…complete.

There’s a song out there by Lady Gaga (who I am not a fan of, really), which has a line that goes “I was born this way”. So, it rings true for me, I realize when it comes to my chosen vocation and line of work.

I was born, created, as a scientist, to be a scientist. And, sitting in that cubicle made me realize that I had to continue in that line of work as a scientist to feel normal. Normal work was in a lab.

So I did it. I did what people don’t usually do. I went through the pipe in both directions. I was told people in academia field go downstream with the flow.

Academia —> Industry —> Industry —> Retire

Me? Unwise, unnatural choice? I’m a scientist who went against the flow, against the mainstream. We’ll see what’s around the river bend.

Academia —> Industry —> Academia —> ???

A salmon swims upstream

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.


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.

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.


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.