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011: The 8.5 fixes that will save biomedical science

Biomedical science is broken.  Funding is unpredictable, training programs drag on indefinitely, and some of our best scientists are drawn to careers outside of the university or drowned in paperwork if they stay.  Can anything be done to support research staff and boost lab productivity?

9182-a-swiss-army-knife-isolated-on-a-white-background-pv
Two of the fixes are the bottle opener and the cork-screw. A little bit of ethanol makes everything better!

Saving Science

These topics are regularly debated in the literature, but a recent meta-analysis by Pickett et al. in PNAS works to find the consensus among a dizzying number of suggestions.  Their paper, Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Finding consensus and implementing recommendations, could be re-titled “8 Ways to Save Science.”  And while these 8 ideas may appear across the literature, they’re not without controversy.

This week on the show, we unpack the 8 recommendations and debate their merits.  Should all graduate school programs be limited to 5 years?  Should the federal government increase overall funding?  Should post-docs receive higher pay?

To summarize, the 8 recommendations are:

  1. Make funding predictable from year-to-year
  2. Increase the total amount of money the federal government hands out
  3. Reduce regulations
  4. Pay post-docs more
  5. Shorten graduate school to 5 years
  6. Train students and post-docs for “alternative” careers other than faculty PI
  7. Change how trainees are funded
  8. Increase opportunities for staff scientists

Josh throws in a bonus recommendation that didn’t quite make the top 8: increase diversity in the biomedical enterprise.

Did you applaud every item on this list, or did the authors miss the mark?  Leave your comments below and let us know what you’d add or remove to make biomedical science a more sustainable enterprise.

Also in this episode, we pay tribute to all the Oregonians who don’t listen to our podcast by drinking Dead Guy Ale from Rogue.  It’s an Oregon beer and we’re pandering for listeners in that great state, so tell a friend!

References:

States in order by quality of their beer offerings.

Newt Gingrich (NYT April 2015): “Double the NIH budget”

PIs spend 42% of their time on administrivia

Stanford recently bumped starting postdoc pay to $50K

NIH recently started a funding mechanism called “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST)”.

010: Are you too old to go back to school?

Congratulations!  You just decided that you want to be a scientist, and spend your career doing research in a biomedical lab.  That would be great news, except that you’re past thirty and you have no training.  As the excitement fades and reality hits, you ask: “Am I too old to go back to school?”

You’re never too old to science

You're never too old to go back to school! Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donhomer/5840513827
Dr. Thigpen’s research on anti-aging therapies were effective, but difficult to control. This photo shows the last time he was seen in public before reverting to a zygote.

This week, we face some tough questions about what to do when your career path didn’t take you straight to your dreams.  You may come from another career or had a family first, but now you’re convinced you want to join the ranks of scientific society.  It’s going to be a long road: biomedical scientists reach their first real jobs at a median age of 37.  Should you even bother if you’re just getting started at 35?

We put these tough questions to Robin Chamberland, Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Microbiology at St. Louis University Hospital.  Dr. Chamberland went back to school in her 30s, and successfully navigated her way to a faculty position at a top-tier university.  We ask whether she faced discrimination or other challenges because of her age or family commitments, and she shares some insights for others on the same path.

Whiskey is the water of life

whiskey sours
There’s so much fruit, the Drosophila declared our birthdays a National Holiday!

While we’re pondering these existential questions of life and meaning, we’re also celebrating our birthdays!  We sample some tasty homemade Whiskey Sours with a generous helping of fruit.  Listen closely for the secret ingredient…

And this year, we ask for one present each: we’d love for you to share the Hello PhD podcast with one friend, and to leave a rating or review on iTunes.  Both of those simple gifts help to broaden the conversation and make Hello PhD a podcast for scientists and the people who love them.  Thank you!

References:

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett

NIH Report on Biomedical Training

009: Research and Prelims and Quals, Oh My!

It’s year two, and you’re just hitting your stride in the lab.  You’ve finally got classes behind you, so now it’s time to drop the books and make some magic at the bench, right!  Nope, now it’s time for prelims!

Will Work for Fish

dolphin by Niklas Morberg
It’s a metaphor, people. Dolphins rarely earn PhDs in captivity.

That perennial favorite of graduate training rears its ugly head in this week’s show.  Whether your department calls them prelims, quals, or something else, you know it as the dreaded “test” between you and your PhD candidacy.  Our question came from Katiria, who wrote:

Hello Joshua and Daniel,

Great Podcast! It is really fun to listen to it during the tedious bench work.  

I will be taking my prelim at some point this semester, and I was wondering how can I increase productivity. I want to have data, but I need to read a lot. At the same time, I need to focus in the parts of the projects that are producing. It seems overwhelming at times. How did you do it?

Katiria

We take a few minutes to consider the somewhat dubious value of the modern preliminary exam, and think about some better options for testing a student’s readiness.  But in the end, we give Katiria the advice she probably didn’t expect but definitely needs.

Tell us about your prelims!  Are they designed to “weed out” students, or is it a garden party?  Do you write a grant on your own project, or simply fill out a multiple choice questionnaire covering the first two years of classes?  We love a good horror story, so pass those along, too!

Galileo Finger-o (Magnifico-o-o-o-o)

Also this week, Josh finds deep scientific meaning in Galileo’s time under house arrest, and uncovers the final resting place of a couple of his fingers and teeth.  It’s that kind of hard-hitting scientific journalism you can only get from Hello PhD and/or Wikipedia (which is where we got it.)

galileo's final salute
This really redefines the phrase “Give ’em the finger!”

On the ethanol front, we sample Wetherburn’s Tavern Bristol Ale from Williamsburg, VA.  It’s a malty, hoppy voyage through history and back, with very little sense of direction.  

 

008: Fight for Your Right to #GradInsurance

Imagine waking up on a Friday morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and sitting down to check your email.  What’s this?  A note from your employer stating that your healthcare coverage will expire in 13 hours and it’s up to you to find insurance.  Have a great day!  Hope you weren’t feeling pregnant!

#Mizzou #GradInsurance

gradinsurance

That scenario played out in real life for graduate students at the University of Missouri last week, when an email from the Associate Vice Chancellor stated that their health insurance subsidy would be cancelled immediately to comply with new rules in the Affordable Care Act (lovingly known as “Obamacare”).

The students took to Twitter, using #GradInsurance to raise awareness of their situation and pushing hard on the administration to explain, and reverse, their decision.  In this week’s show, we unfold the timeline, and talk to Rachel Zamzow (@RachelZamzow) a neuroscience graduate student affected by the change.  It’s a powerful story of students standing up for themselves and making a difference on campus.

Beer ghosts want #gradinsurance too!
Is this the ghost of Tank 7, or just a tissue that I drew a face on? Find out this fall on the new TV series “Ghosts I Think I Saw But I Was Drinking So Maybe I Imagined It.” Brought to you by The History Channel.

Don’t Cross the Streams!

Also in this episode, we talk about the explosive history of laparoscopic surgery, and we inadvertently attract poltergeists to the studio by drinking Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale from Boulevard Brewing.  We managed to capture photographic evidence of the specter before exorcising the sound board. Spooky!

ghost

Resources

The initial announcement of cancelled insurance
The Twitter fire that ensued
The students’ formal statement of demands
The reversal
Audio of Chancellor Loftin credit Geoff West of The Missourian
University of Missouri’s Graduate Professional Council

 

007: From Quiet Lab to Super-Fab!

Some labs feel like a party – there’s music playing, post-docs chatting, and grad students running from bench to bench setting up experiments. But what if you land in a spot that feels more like a morgue than a living laboratory? Co-workers keep their eyes on their benches, every ear is covered by headphones, and you end up eating lunch alone in the break room.

Do you work in a quiet lab, or one where people gather around to point at your experiments?
The lab that does tissue culture together stays together. Or has a serious contamination problem. One of those two things.

Silence is Au

Working in a lab environment where everyone maintains monk-like vows of silence can be alienating, but it’s also bad for the science. Researchers who aren’t talking aren’t teaching or learning, and your training as a student or post-doc can really suffer.

“Quiet Lab Syndrome” was the problem we faced in this week’s episode. “Sue” (name changed to prevent her lab-mates from finding out they’re boring…) asked:

I just started in a research lab, and I have an issue. The lab I joined is super quiet. For most of the day, people just do their experiments, sit at their desks, focused on their computer screens, and there is very little conversation and communication. I’m new to the lab, so I’m finding it very difficult to learn about what’s going on, hear about people’s projects, etc since there is very little informal conversation going on. Not to mention, I feel a little jealous that some of my peers joined labs where people play music, go out for beers, and are generally pretty social with one another. I think the science is interesting, and I really like the PI, but the silence makes it difficult to pick up on things, and makes the lab generally a less pleasant place to be all day. What should I do?

We’ve got tips for understanding the cause of the quiet, and some advice for helping you break the ice.

Is there a doctor on the plane!?

Also in this episode, we talk about whether flaunting your PhD on hotel and airline reservations earns you better treatment. If you’ve ever put “Dr.” on the reservation and they rolled out the red carpet, let us know so we can exploit those businesses ourselves!

For ethanol, we enjoy the rich, caramel goodness of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale and discover both the violent and adorable origins of Toxoplasma gondii. Here’s a picture of the fuzzy little vector known as a Gundi.

If you are what you eat, this little critter must live on marshmallows and dandelion fluff!
If you are what you eat, this little critter must live on marshmallows and dandelion fluff!

Resources:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking