The Plight of the Post-Doc


Ph.Dishes - Brandied Cherries!

Aw, I can't stay mad for long--especially when it's cherry season! Here at Chez Dr Becca, the start of cherry season means it's time for a new batch of brandied cherries, and it is a happy time indeed.  If you've never had a brandied cherry before, you've truly been missing out on one of Life's Finer Pleasures ($20 and Under), so thank heavens you stumbled across this blog when you did! These are super easy and so incredibly delicious, especially in a tasty cocktail or over ice cream.  They also make a nice gift.  So go to the store, buy a big old bag of bings, and let's get started!

The first step in making brandied cherries is to change your clothes.  No seriously. You've got to pit your cherries, and pitting cherries is a juicy mess of an endeavor, so go ahead and put on whatever you'd normally reserve for yard work or something.  Pitting is an absolute necessity, not only because it makes eating them easier, but because it allows much more of your spicy brandy concoction to soak into the cherries. You might not own a cherry pitter, but they're not too hard to find, and not that expensive. I got mine at a restaurant supply store for ~$5.  It looks not wholly unlike a primitive torture device:

Now I'm not going to sugar coat things, here--pitting isn't fun. But you must persevere, so flip on the telly or a podcast or whatever and get to work!

When you're finished, set the cherries aside, and raid your spice cabinet. Be sure to grab some cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom--whole sticks/pods are preferable, but ground is OK too. Other spices in that general family can also be good, like allspice or maybe even a teensy bit of coriander.

Add equal parts white sugar and water to a large saucepan, about a cup of each per pint of cherries you have.  Add your spices, remembering that a little goes a long way, especially when it comes to cloves (and cardamom). And you know what else?  It certainly wouldn't kill you to add a splash of vanilla extract to the mix.  Heat it all and stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then let it simmer for around 5 min.  While you're waiting, you may as well go ahead and open your bottle of brandy.  And while your bottle of brandy is open, you might as well pour yourself a little glass.  I mean, what else would you do with 5 minutes?

After making sure that the brandy hasn't been poisoned (nobody wants poisoned brandied cherries!), turn off the heat and dump your cherries into the pot.  Stir in some brandy, maybe 1/2 cup per cup of water you  put in, but no one's complaining if you round up, you know what I mean?  Cover the pot and let everything sit until it's cooled to room temp, and then transfer cherries and syrup to a sealable jar.

Stick the jar in the fridge, preferably somewhere hidden, because now comes the hard part--you've got to wait for the cherries to macerate. They're going to taunt you every time you go for a wine cooler (hypothetically speaking), but you must resist!!  Give it at least 2 weeks before breaking the seal, and then get yourself a nice pint of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla or a nice Rittenhouse Rye Manhattan, and....MMMMMM!!!!!!!



There are many beautiful features of NYC that inspire feelings of awe and wonder in me; the Brooklyn Bridge, the view of midtown from the north side of the Central Park Reservoir, and the bourbon wall at Char No. 4 in Carroll Gardens are a few examples. But on the rare occasions that I get out to the mountains, it’s a whole other kind of awe. America is so pretty sometimes!

So I was out in the mountains this week for a small meeting, the focus of which was about as close as you can get to my exact specific interests. It was so awesome.  So much nature-y and science-y goodness!  Plus, I knew a ton of folks there—some friends from grad school, some acquaintances I’d met at previous meetings over the years—I felt like I was with my people, you know?

I learned so much and had so many great conversations, and I’m returning to New York just bursting with ideas for experiments.  It’s a nice feeling to want to get back to lab.  I also learned something VERY INTERESTING from my roommate re: the flexibility of NIH funding policies.

As we were introducing ourselves and getting to know each other, I mentioned that I’d unsuccessfully applied for a K99 award.  When she asked me whether I’d resubmitted, I lamented that by the time the following due date rolled around, I’d passed the 5-year postdoc mark, making me ineligible. 

“Oh no,” she said, “a guy in my lab was in the exact same boat as you with an unscored proposal and had passed the 5-year mark as well.  But he appealed to be allowed to resubmit on the grounds that he’d started the process before the 5-year mark, and they let him and it got funded!” 

Well! I’m sure you can imagine my response to that!

I mean, WTF, NIH?  It explicitly says in the K99-R00 FAQ that

Investigators who have more than 5 years of postdoctoral research training experience at the time of initial application or subsequent resubmission(s) are not eligible.

I might be crazy, but what this suggests to me is that you cannot resubmit if you have over 5 years post-doc experience?  I’m of course totally happy for this guy who found a way to make it all happen, but obviously if I’d thought there was any wiggle room in what is an exceptionally straightforward rule of eligibility, I’d have done the same thing!  There are many instances where a well-argued appeal makes sense, but I feel like in this case, it should either be a rule or not, you know?

Look, I know this post reeks of sour grapes, and I know that life isn't fair, and that complaining rarely achieves much beyond annoying the people listening to you (sorry guys!). But sometimes you just gotta vent, and I mean, isn't that what the interwebz are for?   


Does your PI do your PR?

In case "PR" has some scientific meaning that's either not occurring to me or is relevant only in fields with which I'm not well-acquainted, I'm talking about Public Relations, here.  I've been thinking about this a lot, lately--the role of the PI in "advertising" his or her trainee, especially when the trainee is getting close to the next phase, be it grad student to post-doc, or post-doc to junior faculty.  I mean, it's in everyone's best interest for us to move onward and upward, right?  So why aren't they all selling the shit out of us?  Or if you're a PI, why aren't you selling the shit out of your trainees?  Or are you?

I'm not talking about writing letters of recommendation, here; everyone does that.  What I mean is, what extra things is your PI doing to show the world how great you are?  Or is this not happening?  And how do you feel about that? This is an essay question, to be answered in the comments by both trainees and PIs alike.

A couple of recent experiences have made me hyper-aware of this phenomenon.  First, I was at a small symposium in the city a couple of weeks ago.  Four really great talks, including one by my PI and one by a very famous collaborator dude (VFCD--different from the new Famous Dude I may work with soon).  My PI didn't present my work, but VFCD did.  And right before VFCD presented my work, he said, "this is the work of Dr Becca, who is over there (he points, I wave bashfully) and what she did that was really monumental was..." I mean, he actually said "monumental," which I thought was really nice of him.  I don't even know if I'd consider my work monumental, but it made me feel really good that he'd promote me like that.  Moreover, he deferred to me to answer any relevant questions after the talk, and not because he couldn't have answered them himself--VFCD is a bona fide brilliant person who has the mind-blowing ability to remember every tiny bit of data you've ever mentioned to him in the hallway or whatever.  So that was all really great.  I felt like I was being treated like an adult, having adult scientist conversations with other adult scientists, and I was so grateful to VFCD for that.

More recently, I was at a meeting in the Midwestern US (OMG $2.75 for Maker's Mark??!!??!).  During one of the talks, the speaker said, "this is the work of my post-doc ____, who is here at this meeting," and she showed a picture of this post-doc, which she continued to show a couple more times as she went through the data.  I saw this and thought, That is so smart and great!  Now people don't have to remember her name--they can just remember her face! And then they'll recognize her at future meetings, rather than having to randomly check her name tag and try and remember where they heard the name. I am so doing this when I am a PI.  Every time.

These truly small-in-effort gestures are, I think, really important for trainees.  While in the long run, we of course will (and should) bear the primary burden for promoting ourselves, you never know what a two-second mention, a photo, or a casual "monumental" here or there can really do for a person.


Come on, get happy!

Arg, again I am a day late for the Scientiae Carnival, but I'm doing a post anyhow, dammit!  This month's theme is celebration, and it's a great way to start the summer.  I feel like we so often focus on the trials and tribulations of being scientists (and with good reason, as the trials and tribulations of scientists are many) that we often forget (or worse, are afraid/ashamed) to allow ourselves a little joy when things go well.  So, what do I have to be happy about?

When we last checked in with each other, I was reeling from the realization that I'd soon have to leave my lab and struggling against a bizarre but deep-rooted discomfort with success.  Since then, I've been working hard to get a plan together for September, and it's actually all been kind of......awesome.

The obvious choice for a new lab is a Famous Dude at a different NYC institution with whom I've recently done a little collaboration.  I met him in his office a couple of weeks ago and said, "I'd really like to continue the work I did with you last year, studying the effects of A on measure B, with a general focus on brain region C." He said, "Well, A might be OK, but we don't really do measure B anymore, and I'm not all that interested in brain region C." At that, both my jaw and heart dropped what felt like a mile. But before the waterworks could begin, he went on: "Look, the lab is pretty full, but I'd like to help you out.  Why don't you try to come up with some ideas of things you'd like to do that fit within the current focus of the lab, and we can talk again in a week or two?"

Believe it or not, at first I was devastated.  The thought of having to leave my pet project--my pet brain region, even--behind made me super sad.  I mean, what if someone else did the experiments while I was off being unfaithful, messing around with brain region D?  MY experiments?  It was then that I realized how head-over-heels in love I'd been with my own ideas, and how monumentally stupid that was (more on this in a future post, probably).  I got a grip and said to myself, "Self, we have a chance to work with Famous Dude, who pretty much sneezes Glamour Mag pubs.  Let's think of some sexy new experiments and make it happen!"

So I had some thoughts and I wrote them up in a little 1-page specific aim-type proposal, which I nervously sent off to Famous Dude one Sunday evening.  He got back to me within the hour with a response that included the expression "home run."  Not to brag or anything!

Now of course, nothing is set in stone (there are, as always, money issues) and thus part of me thinks we shouldn't dare start celebrating just yet.  But another part of me says, you know what?  Go ahead and bask in the glow of that tiny bit of validation--heaven knows we don't get that too often.  

So as things progress on this front, I'm allowing myself to feel cautiously optimistic.

In the meantime, I'm headed to two meetings this month to present some cool new data.  I finished my poster last night, and as is customary in the Dr Becca household, I made myself a cocktail in celebration.  It's called a Bijou, and it may be the most delicious potable on earth.  Equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and green Chartreuse, stirred with ice until very cold and then strained into a cocktail glass, it is elegant, balanced, and the perfect accompaniment to just about anything.  Garnish with a homemade brandied cherry if you like (I like).


PS: Lots of other current events of note, but I think trying to squeeze it all into a single post may be ill-advised.  Stay tuned...