Remembering Bill Loomis, a Dictyostelium colleague

Bill Loomis at the Asheville Dicty meeting 2013

Bill Loomis at the Asheville Dicty meeting 2013

Bill leaned towards me, slightly lopsided but intent, holding a glass of white wine at an angle that almost kept it from spilling on me. It was clear he wanted to figure out what I was up to, not quite staring, but listening hard. He always had an opinion and often they were useful. But just as developmental biology is not my strength, evolutionary biology was not his, so there was conflict as perhaps neither of us respected our knowledge limits.

My collaborator, David Queller, and I came late to the world of Dictyostelium, first getting introduced to the players at the Dundee Dicty meeting of 2000. Since we were a lateral transfer, we had no history, had not grown up in any camp, and did not know the issues or the factions. But it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the silverbacks were. I won’t list them all here, but clearly Bill was one of them. So were Pauline Schaap, Rob Kay, and Jeff Williams. People talked about Peter Devreotes, who I think was not at that meeting, in hushed tones of respect. But for us most of all the best silverback was Rich Kessin, who treated us like a new-found treasure with a different perspective. He helped with an intensity and care I hope I can remember to offer to future newcomers to any closed group. Also a cell biologist, but one with a very global view, Rich shared with us what he could, even triumphantly pointing out that our two most likely future collaborators, Adam Kuspa and Gadi Shaulsky, worked at Baylor College of Medicine, right across the street from us. And they, of course, were former postdocs of Bill Loomis.

The good thing about Bill was he was always around to chat since his need for a cigarette took him away from many talks. We quickly figured out that we learned more from private conversations than from the lectures, so we spent a lot of time with Bill. He was always skeptical, but not unwelcoming. He was not the one at that first meeting that actually asked me what we were doing there, as if we were threatening intruders.

We only know Bill from Dicty meetings. Sometimes he was a bit over the top, insisting how much he valued our presence, but giving us an undesirable first or last slot to talk. I think we confused him, but we had shared friends in Gadi and Adam. And when he could be, Bill was very helpful. Perhaps the best time was when we were puzzling over all the very long triplet DNA repeats in Dicty and wondered if they were expressed. Bill had a blot that showed that in fact one of the largest ones was, and let us use this unpublished datum.

Colorful, larger than life personalities make things fun, but can offend. Bill was certainly more in the former than the latter camp. What would a Dicty meeting be like if you couldn’t count on finding Bill smoking away, skipping a talk, giving opinions on just about everything?

After we had seen Bill at multiple Dicty meetings, he seemed more accepting of us. He told some family stories. Apparently he grew up in a very intellectual family, discussed in a book called Tuxedo Park. What I remember is Bill telling of hanging as a kid on the stair railing as people below, major intellectuals of that time, talked about things like splitting the atom.

Bill Loomis, opinionated, penetrating, interested in everything, and fun. I’m going to miss you! You died too young, but thus did not suffer the indignities that extreme old age eventually brings to us all.

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You have ten minutes to win a great score on your grant proposal

Have you seen the studies that indicate a high correspondence between what students say about your class when queried after 10 minutes and after an entire semester? What if a similar effect influences whether or not your grant proposal is funded?

The panel member has just opened your proposal. She spends ten minutes reading the introductory material, perhaps flipping to some other section also. She peruses your aims. She might look at your publication list or at what university you call home. In these first few minutes she is forming an opinion of your proposal. This first opinion might be very hard to change. She may well spend the rest of the time reading through the proposal to justify her first opinions, finding either flaws in the details of the methods for a negative outcome, or strengths for a positive one. If those first few minutes color everything what should we do?

Really? Only ten minutes for my proposal?

Really? Only ten minutes for my proposal?

You may argue vehemently that you absolutely do not do this when you read a proposal. You read the whole thing before judging. You are careful. The process is fair. But how do you know? Anyone who reads much of Daniel Kahneman or Daniel Ariely among others realizes how little we understand of how we actually make judgements. (Why did two male names come to my mind first anyway?)

Of course it is true that a grant proposal is carefully read and discussed. A reader might change their mind in the process. There might actually be a subtle fatal flaw in the methods. What  looked very creative might not actually be so original. The disjointedness of the proposal might reflect a similar problem in the thinking. But when I look even at my own funded and unfunded proposals, there seems to be a huge random factor. Does some of that come from the impressions from the first ten minutes?

So what do you do? Polish. Make the headings look harmonious and informative. Help the reader see the connections and the structure, even after a quick glance. Sooth the reader with clarity. Make the different aims connect to a larger goal, a complete picture. Do not use negative words, even if you are saying you won’t do those things. The word might stick longer than the context. Break the text up with nice figures on important points. Hold the reader’s hand.

Give the proposal to friends and time them, giving them 10 minutes to look at the proposal and give a quick opinion. They should know what it is about and how you are going about answering the questions even in this short time. You might even try the same thing for slightly longer periods, or even just five minutes.

The good news is that doing things for the first 10 minutes also helps the entire proposal. But if you still do not think this can possibly be true, think about grading essay exams. I imagine you are like me and do this blind. But sometimes you sneak a look at who it is. If it is a generally good student, you can almost feel your brain frantically finding reasons why a weak essay is actually stronger than it is, or a good one is actually shallow.

So, try to be the careful reader throughout when you are on the panel. Write your own proposal early so you can bring even complex and exciting research problems to clarity in ten minutes.

 

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Who gets to be the corresponding author?

Let’s just get one thing straight about authorship. It is a political statement. Like all political statements, it is highly subject to dispute, but also has some underlying truth. Authorship is a convention and the conventions are different in different fields. Authorship rules also change with time. If you want my overall philosophy, it is to fit in with your field and to be generous both with authorship and issues like author order and who is senior or corresponding author.

When I was trying to decide what laboratory to join as an undergraduate, I first visited a neurobiology lab on the med campus at Michigan (almost no one knows this, but it is true). The kindly professor showed me around a bit and gave me a few reprints. I also met his technician. I don’t remember how it came up, but I will never forget what the professor told me about authorship. It was that the technician did a great deal of the work and got her credit in the acknowledgements, which was just what she wanted, he explained. Right then and there I decided that being acknowledged was not what I wanted and did not join that lab.

Chandra Jack, first author and corresponding author, https://peerj.com/articles/1352/

Chandra Jack, first author and corresponding author, https://peerj.com/articles/1352/

But 40 years ago it is probably true that technicians were more likely to be acknowledged than to be in the author list. That has changed. Many other things have changed, like the size of collaborating groups and what constitutes a publishable unit. I could write about who gets to be first author, senior author, or last author. But instead for now I’ll focus on something else, corresponding author.

The corresponding author is the one who gets a little indication by their name for correspondence and then their contact information is given, at least an email address. I opened the latest issue of Evolution and see that for one paper Erik Svensson is both first author and is the one with an email address, though no formal designation of corresponding author is given. The next paper I opened from the same issue of Evolution has the last author, Nick Royle, as the one with an email. How about PLoS Biology? Planarians has a little envelope sign by the last author, as does a CNS myelination paper. It seems like the corresponding author is being used here to indicate whose lab the work was done in. How about ecology? Also in PLoS Biology, from January, a paper on forest biodiversity has the little envelope by the first two authors. Another paper has it by both the first and last author. In the journal, Ecology, it was the first author with the little envelope on all of the papers I checked.

What does corresponding author really mean when we can usually easily find the email of any author we choose? Are they really the only one we should communicate with? Does the corresponding author tell the official party line about the study, leaving out all the difficulties?

I think corresponding author is being used to claim leadership for the work. This is probably really annoying for postdocs and graduate students who would like to be the one to talk about their own work. But the PIs of the lab might feel ownership also, even if they didn’t do the hands-on work, particularly if the project was part of a grant they wrote.  If you are looking for a rule on how to balance these two legitimate kinds of claims, probably between first and last authors, it is a good idea to think about who will automatically get credit and who might benefit from more recognition. Under this criterion, corresponding author should go to the earlier-career person.

Oh, of course corresponding author has nothing to do at all with who paid for anything, publications or otherwise. And, no, it is not just about who handles the paperwork of the submission. It is a political statement. From among the qualified authors, use it to benefit the newest person where it can do the most good.

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How to write a tenure letter about a colleague

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We got tenure a long time ago, but are still active in the process.

Letters that inform a committee on whether or not someone should get tenure are really important because the deciders include people that do not  know the field. They can be deans and department chairs from other departments and ultimately a university wide committee. Think of these people when you write a tenure letter. Explain things you might not explain to your closest colleagues.

In some respects this is a letter like any other, where you should make clear some standard things. As I mentioned in the cited post, you should give an overview, how you know the person, what they have discovered and why it is important, then make them come alive with a story or two and finally mention any special skills or techniques they use or have developed. But a tenure letter is special. It is a potentially 30 or 40 year commitment to someone’s entire active career. How can you make a judgement on that?

Elsewhere, I have written about the importance of helping someone get tenure. I view tenure failure as a social failure and an extremely expensive one, though it is perhaps not as expensive as a tenure mistake. But mentoring is done and you are now helping a department and university decide what to do next.

If you are an outside letter writer you should focus on what you know, the research career. Don’t try to interpret the teaching or service statements. Leave that to the home institution. Instead try to communicate the importance of the work. Most of the time I view tenure letters as advocacy pieces where you are explaining to a possibly unfriendly or distant administration why your whole field and this person’s work in particular is important. This can be fun and easy. You don’t have to read everything. Focus on 5 or 6 cool papers, taking care that some of them are very recent.

But you would not be doing your job properly if you did not alert the readers to possible warning signs. Has early productivity continued? Are there some cool recent ideas? Does the professor seem to be expanding or changing field or is he essentially repeatedly re-doing his dissertation? Growth is essential for continued productivity in this business. Look for new collaborations, new ideas, an active group. If the person’s fame is all from early on, tell the reader.

The first tenure letter I ever wrote I spent a week on. I read everything the person wrote. I pored over all the documents the committee sent me. To this day, I know that person’s early work well. I do not do this any more. You are not being fair to yourself and your own other commitments if you generally spend anything over 2 to 4 hours on this task. Remember, it is not micro details, but big picture that matters.

In fact it seems like the higher the recognition the shorter the recommendation. Some fancy national societies expect only a couple hundred words and a dozen or so references. You will write more than that and it may take some time to find the best dozen words, but don’t make the job bigger than it has to be.

Posted in Recommendations, Tenure | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What happens when you don’t publish promptly?

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Science is not a merry go round.

If science is a relay race, when you don’t publish, the baton goes to someone else. If science is a quilt, when you don’t publish, someone else’s square will go in the place saved for yours. If science is a community garden, when you don’t publish, someone else will till your soil. If science is development, when you don’t publish, another way will be found around that stage. If science is a great saga, if you don’t publish, your bit in it will be left out.

When to publish is sometimes a matter of taste. Do you tell the story bit by bit, or wait until it is complete? Do you do one more experiment? Is it decided by years or by figures? My preference is to see a story brought to a fairly complete level, with several experiments or studies that answer a question quite completely.

Another important factor in when to publish depends on whose work it is. If a student completed a story to a certain point and then moved on, there will be a bias towards publishing that story without too much more. The story matters, but so do the authors.

Since science builds upon itself, a study done in one year will not fit years later without revision. Other work will have taken place that at best means your study must be reinterpreted and at worst means your story is now irrelevant. Publishing promptly when the research is done will avoid these problems.

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Did your project get started back when these ancient Bordeaux olives were planted?

It was one of the surprises when I became head of a group that others might not be as anxious to get their work out as I was. Or if they were as anxious, writing blocks, or failures of confidence kept the work under wraps. I have lists of papers, now probably irrelevant, that never got written, never fulfilled our obligation to the taxpayers that funded the work, never helped someone’s career advance. Try to keep this from being your story. Finish your work and write it up. It will never be truly done, but putting it out there will let others join in building the next story.

 

 

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Do you deserve to be told why your preproposal was not invited?

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Don’t give up science for sand sculptures just yet.

By now everyone has heard whether or not their preproposal at NSF in DEB or IOS has been invited for a full proposal. About three quarters of us are disappointed, perhaps fewer if people wrote more than one, so had better odds. What should you do if you were not invited to go ahead? What I have to say is not specific to a narrow area or the USA but is generally relevant, using this system as an example.

First of all, remind yourself of what a great scientist, teacher, and mentor you are. Do not fall into the trap of low expectations for yourself. This is really hard to do when you have had a punch in the gut from NSF, particularly as you face the real consequences for funding your lab, getting tenure, and retaining respect at your institution. Don’t let them take away your self esteem. Don’t let them make you feel terrible. Figure out somewhere to get satisfaction anyway. This often comes best from remembering to give. Find something to do for someone, in science, teaching, or otherwise.

But ultimately you do have to look at that proposal and the comments. Ideally these comments will help you write a more effective preproposal next January, or for another program. They might like some of your plans but not others. They might have discovered a methodological flaw. They might think your sample size is too small, or your approach inadequate. Read these comments really carefully. Try to see your proposal through someone else’s eyes. Get someone to read it outside your group. Pretend it isn’t your proposal but someone else’s whom you are mentoring.  Set defensiveness aside.

But, you say, you did not get a real review. There were no substantive comments. The referees did not like the proposal, clearly, but only said things like it wasn’t cohesive, there was too much information on the system, or too little, too many hypotheses, or too few, the aims were too tightly connected, or unconnected. Maybe you didn’t even get the full three reivews that NSF says preproposals should get. You got scientific word salad. The reviewers did not want to bother to tell you exactly what was wrong with your proposal. They didn’t like it. They liked others better. They didn’t bother to do the hard job of careful comments, but it is clear your proposal did not excite them.

Do they owe you a real review? Are they required to actually grapple with the ideas in your proposal and point out where they are strong and where weak? Do they have to find a flaw in your thinking to deny you? Are they supposed in any way to help you do better science?

The sad truth is that they are not. There is nothing in the whole process that says they have to actually discuss your ideas. They may be very distant from your field. All they are required to do is pick a quarter of the proposals to go forward and write some word salad for the rest. You do not even get to have three reviews necessarily. But remember, part of the reason they went to preproposals is the difficulty in getting careful reviews.

At NIH the system is different. They do not have preproposals but they triage as many as half the proposals, sending them away with no review at all. Michael Eisen just posted on Twitter that the work that got his HHMI renewed was not discussed at NIH, , @mbeisen. So, no, you do not get your work discussed there necessarily either.

Is this fair? Does the system work? I would have to say that no, it is not fair, but the system works. There is no time to be fair. The system has checks at NSF in the form of Committees of Visitors, who oversee the process after the fact. Does that make it fair? What does fair even mean with such low funding rates? This question and the general one of fairness should be addressed most explicitly with respect to systematic bias towards those underrepresented in science. This has been addressed and discussed in places like the DEB blog.

What should you do? First, remember to be the careful reviewer when it is your turn to do that. On your own proposal, call your program officer. See if she has any more substantive advice. Volunteer to serve on a panel if you have not done this, so you can see how the process works. Get colleagues to read your proposal, colleagues willing to do the hard work of being very frank and critical. Get examples of successful preproposals from friends.

One thing the preproposal process has introduced is a stage with no expert ad hoc reviews, just a panel that has to get through a lot of proposals. So the sad truth is they did not like yours and they are not the ones to tell you why.

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What to do if your research stops being fun for you?

Meghan Duffy wrote a really thoughtful piece on science with a baby. She had lots of good points about the challenges of getting enough sleep, of feeding a baby, and that you can’t really take off from running your lab group entirely. But she had one point that has more general ramifications and is particularly important: what should you do if research, or anything really, stops being fun? After all, isn’t the pure pleasure of the complicated beast that is academic science what keeps us going?

Meghan’s situation was not a true loss of interest, but exhaustion from baby and health, as she reported in her blog, both things that sounded like they are already on the mend. But what if it truly gets boring or just not fun any more? What should you do?

First of all admit there is a problem and try to understand it. Is it no fun because you have hit some tough challenges? Have you had a bad run with funding agencies? Do you feel the questions you are addressing have become repetitive and unoriginal? Is it routine? Is your department falling apart around you? Is there a particularly difficult person? Is there something else that takes all your time? Are you suffering from a crisis of confidence? Are you sick?

In the decades I’ve been a professor, I’ve probably had crises of confidence and dips in interest for all the above reasons and dozens more. Probably so have you. So how to you move out of these troubles and back into productive research? I think the first thing to do is to regain fearlessness. Then figure out what should change. Toy with big changes if the area no longer thrills. Take a break.

When I was 12 I lived with my parents and sisters in London. My dad was on sabbatical and we were in school. We learned to eat bread with dripping and to play tennis on public clay courts. At the time I couldn’t tell what my dad was doing. It seemed like he had turned the living room into his study and was home all day long reading stacks of poorly copied articles from somewhere economic in London. Later he told me that was the year he made a big switch in his research from manufacturing to housing. He might have switched in another direction, but the point was he was ready for a switch. I guess manufacturing was no longer fun.

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Brilliant young scholars having fun at a meeting in Toulouse

His was a big change. I’ve made changes big and small, from one wasp species and question to another. All the changes were not preceded by a loss of interest, but some were.

There are other directions to go in universities if the research no longer charms. You can focus more on administration, making things easier for others, or on teaching. And nothing says you can’t go find something altogether different to do. The point is that it should be fun, but it is natural for it not to be fun sometimes. The challenge is not that this happened, but in how you respond to it.

Posted in Managing an academic career | 1 Comment