Is that MY voice? OHwell

I tried to find a video of the Emperor’s New Groove where Yzma gets turned into a cat and it’s hilarious and adorable. But all I could find were fandubs, most of which were terrible. Why the heck do people make versions of this stuff and put it out there on the internet! It’s a big “hey everyone, look at me and how I wasted my time!” Except less cool than that.
A week or so ago, Travis of Obesity Panacea, Jason of the Thoughtful Animal, Christie of Observations of a Nerd, and Sci all got together to record a podcast on things that might help you when you start out in grad school. Sci learned several things from this podcast:
1) My voice sounds really funny. Seriously, it sounds NOTHING like I hear in my head. I’m going to have to change my intonation on everything now so I can sound normal to myself.
2) Canadians really DO say “about” like that and it’s hilarious.
3) Christie is awesome. I mean, I knew this before, but really, she’s great.
4) My crutch phrase is “I mean”.
As a group, we also learned that we were all far too serious once the recording actually came on. When we do this again, there will be a two drink minimum. Also, it’s really hard not to interrupt people when you can’t SEE them. Hence, Sci has decided she wants to do a video podcast, using sockpuppets, because it would be both intentionally and probably unintentionally hilarious.
But anyway, here it is! I think we need to do another one, there’s a lot to cover, anyone got any specific questions they want answered?

Mooney Kerfluffle redux, or How Science Journalists Don’t Get What The Average Scientist Is Up Against

Chad at Uncertain Principles wonders what the kerfluffle is with Chris Mooney. Chris wrote an Op-ed in the WaPo that summarizes this AAAS article. My last post was directed at the Op-ed, which was pedantic and useless, if not counterproductive. The AAAS article has decent recommendations that will never do what he hopes they will do, for reasons outlined below.
As a side note- I think most of the problem stems from the fact that Mooney isn’t saying things that 1) we don’t already know or 2) aren’t common sense. He also perpetuates stereotypes of the scientists who are poor communicators. It’s another one of Chris’s self-refuting positions: if we scientists are so arrogant, so unwilling to put up with being misunderstood, so hostile to any perceived stupidity, so wary, curmudgeonly and standoff-ish, then how can he cite a study that says the public generally holds a positive view of scientists? Things that make you go hmmmmmmm……
By and large, I’m willing to bet that these cretin scientists are the Occasional Communicators, the ones who don’t do outreach. They think facts should prevail, they take part in, for example, to an evolution debate and act cocky, with no debate training and unprepared for the subtleties of what is essentially a religious right performance, not realizing that 3/4 of the audience has been bussed in from a local church, as orchestrated ahead of time by the Disco ‘Tute. Yeah, instant turnoff for the audience at large. What Chris ought to be doing is drawing public eye to the effective science communicators (whether they be scientists or not). These aren’t the ones that make a public spectacle, so by and large the media only passingly engages them. (We love dirty laundry.)
Enough idle chit-chat. On to the global problems I have with the AAAS paper.
I agree with Mooney- “nip it in the bud” is a good idea. But the problem isn’t coming from your average joe, who generally has a decent opinion of scientists. There is a segment of society that is adamantly anti-establishment, which includes being antiscientific. We all know that anti-vaxers, for example, attribute a large part of their fears at Big Pharma. These traits are telling. They underscore a rejection of all things corporate, of all things modern, of advances in civil liberties. In a post-BP, post-9/11, post-Katrina world, there is a fear of corporate interests. There is great concern that business and government are in bed together, because capitalism, fascism, or communism, that setup doesn’t work for shit. Which is why the Luddite message resonates with the general public, who might otherwise trust scientists.
The way you “nip it in the bud” is not to give the Luddites a podium. You do so, you make those who would normally trust scientists nervous. Perpetuate the false controversy, even a little, and you’re doing the Luddites’ job for them.
Mooney is right: building trust as early as possible is a better response. It sure beats putting out fires. But the AAAS recommendations fail on two counts: 1. they don’t take into account the massive paradigm shift that must accompany their recommendations, and 2. are not as far-reaching as they should be. Not by a long shot.
For the latter: Giving people the tools to evaluate scientific claims is a better response. Teaching people to think statistically is a better response. Teaching kids how to detect pseudoscience will be a more effective response. Look, we’re poor on resources over here. What agencies and funding we have to devote to these issues, well, we are dwarfed by the opposition. Besides their ability to raise money and support thinktanks, they get free publicity from celebrities and the internet. We don’t. The AAAS recommendations don’t go far enough. They’re tactical. They deal with snuffing individual conflicts. We also need to target our meager resources at building trust with youth; lose the battle, win the war.
For the former: What we need is a massive shift in the way we perceive the role of scientists- Universities treat us as cash cows. We should be viewed, at least in part, as liaisons. Part of our professional responsibilities needs to be outreach. Outreach needs to be targeted, as Mooney suggests. But what I don’t think he gets is the scope of the changes he’s suggesting. They are too far-reaching to fit within existing job descriptions and expectations. Your average tenure-track faculty does not receive departmental support for any extended outreach, although this does vary widely by institution and department. Oftentimes “outreach” or “service” is defined in a professional setting- how many grant review panels are you on? How many journals do you review papers for? Are you on any departmental or university committees? It is all self-serving and insular. Academic entities depend upon the external money we bring in for survival, why the hell would they want us doing anything that doesn’t further the university and its bottom line, especially in this economy?
Real community outreach is often frowned upon by tenure committees, at least if you do it regularly. Here’s how tenure committees at research institutions view things: Brain Awareness Week comes once a year, ok. Go talk to the grade school kiddies. But give too many public presentations in the community? Better be to recruit students, else get your ass and your data to a professional conference. Blogging? Fuck that. You wanna write, you should be writing papers or grants. But not review articles, because they’re not novel enough contributions and therefore don’t count much toward tenure. Hell, writing a book on your own academic area of expertise carries zero weight with most tenure evaluation committees. You want to communicate your expertise then you need to build an international reputation with more papers, more grants, more committees, and more conferences. And more money to support our university staff. So any communication skills workshops you go to should be grant writing workshops. If you want to organize a public talk, do it by setting up a high profile session, forum, or entire conference at your next professional society meeting.
The fact of the matter is, researchers spend most of their time navigating IACUC and IRB red tape, constantly revising and submitting grants in an endless, near-hopeless cycle, frequently teaching (which ends up comprising much more than the10% effort outlined in their contract), occasionally mentoring, and rarely actually doing science. We put our kids to bed at 9pm and go write more grants or revise and resubmit an IRB for the 98th time, until 2am rolls around and we crash. How in the name of St. Gregory’s Sack are we supposed to find the time to build our outreach skills? The system does not support it. Full stop.
What outreach we do, we do on our own time. Without training or preparation. If we’re good at it, we do it until we burn out. If we’re not good at it, we make spectacles of ourselves and then get targeted by another Luddite group for the next debate, to keep the spectacle going and free publicity rolling. That’s how the crazies work.
The Bottom Line: The problem with Chris Mooney is that he doesn’t understand the problem. And the reason he doesn’t get it is because he has never been a scientist and doesn’t understand all the factors lined up against us. I’m not trying to be a dick here, I’m giving an honest assessment. Like I said before, his heart is in the right place. Heck he’s even right about a lot of things regarding public perceptions. But the basic mechanisms to facilitate what he proposes simply. aren’t. there. The resources aren’t there. The infrastructure does not support it. The academic lifestyle and administrative expectations are antithetical to it. The university system actively undermines it. Corporations quash it.
While blaming scientists for a broken system, perpetuating myths of the social outcast, and saying that ultimately we just need to listen might sound great, it does nothing to address the core issues. Chris- please, spend more time listening to the scientists too. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and the deck is already stacked against us.

Calling Grad Students, past, present, and future

Samia, over at 49 Percent, is about to become a brand spanking new grad student. And, like the good blogger she is, she’s interested in the input of…other bloggers. What’s grad school going to be like? What should people watch out for? What things should you look for when choosing a lab? When choosing a project? What kind of things do you wish you knew when you started? Well now you have an opportunity to share. Samia is accepting submissions for a grad school carnival, scheduled for August 15. Sounds like fun! She’s interested in perspectives from new grad students, current grad students, old grad students, and basically anyone who’s ever had anything to do with grad school. Send ’em in and let’s make this thing a repository of grad knowledge!

Congrats, and Awesome Site!

First off, YAY ED!!! Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science Fame, has won the Top Quark Prize for Science, given out by Three Quarks Daily. His post, on gut bacteria in Japanese people who love sushi, is truly really awesome. Kudos also to the winners of the Strange Quark and the Charm Quark! Well written all around!!!
And secondly, Sci got wind recently of something really cool brewing on the internets. This cool thing is a place called The Third Reviewer, which allows people to post comments on journal articles. Right now it’s only neuroscience (which is enough for Sci!!) but maybe if it gets popular it will expand. Sci thinks this is a brilliant idea. Right now, you can’t really comment on a lot of articles (unless the paper is in PLoS, and though PloS is great, it can’t publish everything). Most require you to send in a comment, written and cited, which then has to be reviewed and itself published. And mostly, that won’t happen at all. But this is commenting instantly, and ANONYMOUSLY.
Sci thinks this is brilliant. Of course you may get some quacks on there, but you will also get grad students and post-docs, stretching their wings in commenting on science, who will finally feel they can comment without putting their reputations in their field on the line. Sci knows that she and her professional cronies have discussed papers long and hard, and often had some pretty angry (or happy) opinions, but were afraid to say anything due to the huge effort and the possible blow to your reputation that can come from speaking your mind to the big dogs, and maybe, getting it wrong. So this looks like a great idea, and I hope it gains momentum. Check it out!
And now, back to your regular Tuesday.

Repost: Life as a Guinea Pig: The Pain Study

Sci would like to note that she is without internet for the next few days for various reasons. Thus, there is a repost. Play nice on the internet everyone, or I’ll send the Evil Monkey after you. He bites. πŸ™‚
Over my years as a grad student, I’ve been a guinea pig for more than a few research studies. Most of the people leading the studies are fellow grad students (I’m never involved with the work at all), and it’s good to help them out. A lot of times the studies are kind of cool (like that one with caffeine and the brain). And Sci has a dream. One day, I really want to see a picture of MY BRAIN in an fMRI scan on the cover of Science. Ok, I won’t be too picky. I’ll take J. Neuroscience. Honestly, I’d probably take Brain Research. Seriously, that would make me so geekily proud. I would ask for a copy, and get it printed out big, and frame it on my wall. “THIS is your brain on SCIENCE!”
But I’ll admit, I’d probably participate a lot less if I didn’t get paid. I know, I know, I’m bad. I shouldn’t sell myself to science for money. But we grad students are poor. My cat needs food, and I really prefer to feed my little carnivore food that doesn’t contain corn as the first ingredient. I also like eating healthy food once in a while. So I volunteer. These are not clinical trials for drugs or anything. Instead, these are basic research studies where they need human volunteers to see how the brain and body works.
And then of course, there’s the certain amount of machismo. And that’s where the get to my current study, which my fellow grad student has graciously given me permission to blog. The pain study.
The pain study has been going on at my MRU for a while, and has…a certain reputation. Many of my fellow grad students are guinea pigs in the service of science, and we have fun telling our war stories. There’s the friend of mine who ate a diet (don’t worry, it was a full 2,000 calories, and adjusted so that she neither gained nor lost weight, and completely nutritious) composed of ONLY what the researchers gave her, and had to collect every bit of…anything that came out…for two months. There was the caffeine study where I drank 12 cups (cups as in the unit of measure, it was a whole pot) of coffee a day for three weeks, and then went through 48 hours of withdrawal (the original high levels of coffee drinking were self-imposed prior to the study, don’t worry, and I’ve since cut back to one caffeinated drink per day, and only when I really need it). There’s the study where they give you a cold, and you’re not allowed to treat the symptoms at ALL.
But to all of these, the real veterans give you a raised eyebrow and say “yeah, but have you done the pain study?”

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Ask Scicurious: Do you want to go to an SLAC?

Sci got a great email in her little inbox the other day:

Most knowledgeable Dr. Scicurious (for which title much congratulations), this aspiring neuroscientist finds itself at a great turning point in its young life, and in need of guidance from its elders.
I am going to college in the fall to begin my training as a scientist; I am trying to decide whether to attend a large university or a small liberal arts college, and leaning slightly towards the SLAC. My career plans after that are the usual scientist stuff, get my PhD, try to get tenure at an MRU, you know the drill. I am aware that even a blogger as great as you probably cannot give me an easy answer as to which I should attend, but if your busy schedule permits it, I would love to hear your opinion on how the different atmosphere of a SLAC can shape an aspiring scientist.
Your adoring reader,
Wannabe Neuroscientist

Isn’t that awesome?! Appropriately servile, a good bit of flattery, excellent. πŸ™‚ Sci is pleased. And she thought, might wanna blog it.
After all, Sci did her undergrad at an SLAC of some minor fame. So I can certainly offer some insights into what an SLAC did for me that a much larger school might not have. But this is only my opinion, and my experiences. Your mileage may vary. And Sci would love to hear from some people who went to larger universities (especially those which were med school affiliated) to hear their advice.
So here we go: so you’re thinking you might want to go to an SLAC?

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Now May I Introduce To You…

(aka Dr. Sci, Dr. Curious, TOTES AWESOME PHD)
(Thank you, I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.)
That is right, these past few weeks when Sci’s blogging has been…a bit light, have not been due to a much needed vacation to some far away island filled with mai-tais (though that would have been very nice). Rather, these weeks have been devoted to…THE DISSERTATION. But now it is done, and Sci is a PhD. For something that Sci has spent a good six years of her life on…it feels very unreal. Sci keeps looking around and wondering where the “Doctor” is. It is rather more of a first step on the huge journey of my scicurious career, one that Sci imagines is not going to be straight or very normal. But it’s still exciting.
It’s so exciting, Sci could SING!!

(I’m doing SCIENCE and I’m still alive)
Now, as some of you may be aware if you’ve written a thesis (dissertation, whatever) before, there’s a section at the beginning titled “acknowledgments”. This is where the student thanks the Academy, their PI, and all the people who helped them get where they are today. Ok, they thank some of them. There’s no limit, but it is not generally “done” to be informal or funny or in any way overly personal in one’s acknowledgments at my Uni.
And Sci doesn’t think this is sufficient. She thanked a few important people, but didn’t really get to do the kind of acknowledgments section that she wanted.
But that’s why Sci has a blog, now isn’t it.
And here is Sci’s REAL acknowledgment section.

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A Letter to a Grad Student

Sci was racing through the corridors of her MRU the other day, taking piles of papers hither and yon, and generally taking care of business. She was on her way out when she saw a girl (she was young and tiny, though probably over 21) come flying out of the bathroom and take up a position in a corner near the stairwell, where it can look like you’re just looking out of the window in an idle way. She had a tissue in her hand, and was steadfastly NOT looking at Sci, in fact looking the other way as hard as she knew how.
She was a grad student. And I think (ok, I know) she was crying. I wanted to stop, and I wanted to ask what was wrong, but she was turned away so violently I don’t think she wanted anyone to ask. So I did the antisocial thing and tried to salvage some of the girl’s pride by not looking.
But little grad student, I did see, and I did want to ask what was wrong. And this is for you.

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An Open Letter: Pubmed

My Dearest Pubmed,
You and I have always had our ups and downs, like that time when you were down for 24 hours for NO REASON AT ALL, and the times when you return me hilarious responses to my admittedly rather silly searches (like the time I puts “peeps” into pubmed. Try it sometime).
But today I would like to offer up my thanks, dearest pubmed, for this truly awesome thing you’ve done with your open access posts. Observe:
pubmed open letter.png
What you will observe above is an exerpt from this previous Friday Weird Science’s post on bees and coke. Sorry, Sci had to make it tiny to fit. You can see the text on the left, and on the right…you can see the CITATIONS!!! Not all of them (only the ones that are open access, I think), but some of them are THERE!! WITH LINKS!!! Perfect for tabbed browsing, you can hop on over to check each citation as you come across it, read up, and snap it up. I LOVE IT. Used to be, you would click on a link in the text, and it would hop you down to the citation in the bibliography (this does happen, and it’s REALLY annoying), and sometimes, you just had to go through the dang numbers and look it up yourself.
But this, these little links. Pubmed, these are freakin’ GOLD and I LOVE YOU FOR IT. That’s my ever faithful little science butler.
clone high butler.png
(The adorable little butler from Clone High. If you haven’t seen it, you REALLY should.)
So thank you, Pubmed. Do carry on. The day you put ALL those links in the margin is the day when Sci is a very very happy little scientist.
❀ always,

Ask Scicurious: So you want to be a biomedical grad student…

A few days ago (ok, maybe it was more than that, the days kind of blur together), Sci got an email in her inbox, and the instant she got it…she knew she had to address the crowd. For it went like this:

O neuroscientist-who-have-come-before-me,
I am a neurobiology undergrad. I am looking at graduate programs. I
have figured out that there are a great many labs out there that I
would enjoy, which is bloody great – except the number of schools
they’re at is about 30.
How do I narrow this down and not either gloss over a really good
program that might be in a crap location or not select good criteria
for a curriculum or other things?
I want to hear from you especially because you’re a grad
student right now.

First off, Sci noticed a vast difference between this letter than the letters full of flattery and awe which are sent Isis’ way. Sci’s a little jealous. Perhaps her humble manner makes her more approachable, but we all want some worship, don’t we?!
(of course we do)
Anyway, on to the question. When looking at grad schools, how do you narrow it down? What should one look for in a grad program in neuroscience?

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