The Plight of the Post-Doc


Learning to Write about Science with Carl Zimmer

Earlier this week I took the Metro-North up to New Haven to attend a science writing workshop with Carl Zimmer, who's written thousands and thousands of amazing sciency words for the New York Times and Discover Magazine.  He gave us an assignment for the 2nd part of the class, meeting next Monday, and I'd love your feedback!  Our instructions were simply to write a piece aimed at lay people describing one of two recent findings reported in Science.  The one I chose was:

Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly
Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Scott Rutherford, Raymond S. Bradley, Malcolm K. Hughes, Drew Shindell, Caspar Ammann, Greg Faluvegi, and Fenbiao Ni Science 27 November 2009 326: 1256-1260

Let me know what you think!!

A Global Thermostat

Sir Galahad was hot—literally. Not because of poorly ventilated castles or armor that didn't breathe well, but because the legendary knight lived in a time during which, according to climatologists, the earth’s northern hemisphere experienced unusually warm temperatures. This warming, which lasted from approximately 950 to 1250 CE, is known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), and new research revealing regional differences in the earth’s surface temperature during the MCA may help us better understand current global warming trends.
             Determining the weather conditions of a thousand years ago isn’t easy.  Daily temperature recording wasn’t commonplace until the mid-19th century, so today’s scientists rely on information that can be gathered from natural sources that have survived for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.  These sources, called “proxies,” include tree rings, oxygen content in coral, and water molecule structure in ice from deep within the polar caps.  Until recently, proxies have only allowed researchers to estimate past temperature change on a very broad scale, providing information about the earth as a whole, or in some cases, its hemispheres.  However, a team headed by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has been able to combine data gathered from an array of proxies to construct a more focused picture. 
            Mann’s group looked at two distinct periods:  the MCA, and what’s known as the Little Ice Age (LIA), a period of uncharacteristic cold that spanned from about 1400 to 1700 CE.  Unlike in previous studies, they were able to see differences in temperature patterns at a regional level, rather than global or hemispheric. Mann’s reconstruction for the MCA showed distinct warm patterns over much of North America, the North Atlantic, and some of Western Europe, all of which was expected.  However, when they looked at the temperature of the eastern tropical Pacific area, they saw something surprising—it was cold.
            In fact, this part of the Pacific was colder during the MCA than during the LIA, a finding that may initially seem counter-intuitive.   Colder temperatures in the tropical Pacific are commonly referred to as “La Niña,” (the flip side of El Niño, when the tropical Pacific is particularly warm) and are often associated with increased rainfall in much of the United States, as well as increase snowfall in Canada. Mann’s findings suggest that the eastern tropical Pacific may act as a kind of global thermostat, adjusting to extreme swings in the earth’s temperature in an attempt to restore balance to the climate. 
One thousand years ago, before cars and Styrofoam and other human-created sources of greenhouse gases, these swings were almost certainly caused by natural occurrences, like suppressed volcanic activity and changes in the intensity of the sun.  Over the last 100 years the Northern Hemisphere has experienced a remarkable spike in surface temperature, presumably due at least in part to human activity. The question now facing climatologists is whether we can expect a response in the tropical Pacific comparable to that of the MCA, and what such a response would mean in terms of flooding, drought, and other potentially destructive weather patterns.  Hopefully, Mann’s model will provide some answers.


Science Mag: Late to the party and a total buzzkill

In news of the obvious, Science recently printed a piece entitled "Tenure-Track Jobs Remain Scarce." It describes the phenomenon in which experienced post-docs, unable to land a TT offer, go and do a second post-doc. I presume you're familiar. At first I thought it was a new-decade flashback kind of thing--you know, where they print articles from several years ago out of nostalgia for the aughts?  But then I realized that no, this is current.  Current, yes; new, no.

The piece reads like this:

1. It's hard to get a job.
2. Because there are no jobs.
3. Because universities have no money.
4. Stimulus package money helped a little, but not that much, plus it's all gone anyway, so...not that much.
5. Q: "Where will all the scientists go?"
    A:  Europe, but actually only a few of us will do that.
6. We.  Are.  FUCKED.

Oh, really?

What I find interesting about this article is that it highlights the fact that universities less affected by the economic downturn are able to have their pick of the litter when it comes to TT applicants.  Well!!  How nice for them!!  There is a silver lining after all!  It reminds me of all the articles that came out when the economy started tanking that covered how shitty life was for everyone who had lost their jobs or had their hours cut or whatever, but for those unaffected, there were some fabulous deals to be had on seriously reduced luxury items!

What I also find interesting is that there are no solutions offered.  Not even a suggestion that anyone, anywhere is working on it.  This on the heels of news that NIH will be passing the buck with respect to funding young researchers (go read MsPhD's and DrugMonkey's assessments of Francis Collins's announcement), and it's all one can do not to throw up one's hands in despair.

One thing I've noticed since I've started blogging is that although there are dozens of really amazing post-doc bloggers, I haven't found anyone else who's actively talking about their own job search.  Are you out there?  Even if you're not a blogger, but just a reader, I'd love to hear how things are going for others in my position.  I can't be the only one; if I were, I'd probably have a job by now.


Extreme Makeover: Blog and Grant edition

While y'all were down in NC this weekend at ScienceOnline2010, meeting each other IRL and watching videos of duck penises**, I was home in rainy New York with an icky cold and a grant to revise.  Naturally, I found it the perfect opportunity to teach myself a little HTML/CSS and start watching Lost.  Inspired by Biochem Belle and her blog's fancy new look, I checked out BTemplates for something that felt more like me than the standard Blogger template.  I found one that I almost liked completely called "Extreme Georgia," and then through lots of trial and error figured out how to tweak the font and colors to better suit my liking.  HTML is the sort of thing I imagine is actually super easy if you have even the tiniest smidgen of baseline knowledge, but with zero, I assure you, it is quite boggling.  But persevere I did, and as you can see, OTM:FTTT is now different, but similar.  Didn't want to freak anyone out; did want to incorporate my favorite font (Futura--coincidentally, same font as Lost logo!).

With that and 10 hours of fuselage, polar bears, and SECRETS SECRETS OMG SO MANY SECRETS!!!! under my belt, it was time to turn my 20-page, 5-year K99 proposal into a 2-page, 2-year NARSAD proposal.  This is not just a little fat-trimming here, we're talking major surgery:  face lift, eye job, tummy tuck, lipo--the works.  I had to pick out the sexiest parts of the K99 and sculpt them into a perfect, tight little package of hot science that could feasibly be done in two years.  Not an easy task, no indeed (how excellent is this expression, btw? I was so confused when I first heard it, back when the SfN meeting used to be in New Orleans)

Now, I could have just gone and taken Specific Aim 1 from the K99 and called it a day, but let's be honest:  Specific Aim 1 is the boring Specific Aim.  Oh sure, it sets things up, lays the groundwork for things to come, but as a self-contained idea is often lacking in hotness.  If I'm going to get some clinically-relevant, high-impact-style data out of this grant, I've gotta go straight to the money shot: Specific Aim 3.  Luckily, my proposal was not set up such that I needed definitive answers from the first two Aims in order to do the third, so I didn't need to re-work things too much.

But two pages, man, that is KILLER.  I think the last time I had to write a two-page anything was in my freshman writing course, which occurred during the Clinton administration (first term).  Add in the fact that I'm restricted to just 10 citations, and I basically have to find someone who's done my exact experiments already so as to keep my methods as succinct as possible. 

Painful though it may have been, I think writing this grant was a great exercise.  When you're so constricted, you're forced to be clear and to the point, rather than blathering on about the entire history of your field and how monumentally important your research is.  Your ideas need to speak for themselves, rather than you speaking for your ideas.  This is going to prove incredibly useful the next time I apply for a grant from NIH, which recently cut the page limit of its grant applications in half, much to the chagrin of long-winded scientists everywhere.  But for me, 6 or 12 pages is going to feel downright luxurious!

**Hot damn did you love those duck penises!  Twitter was so full of your tweets during Carl Zimmer's presentation I'm amazed "duck penis" wasn't a bona fide trending topic.  For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, click the "duck" link at the top, and scroll down to the video.  It just might blow your mind.


Summer Student Situation

I don't know if it's my biological clock or what, but I've just had to turn down what are probably two very excellent summer high school students, and my heart is totally breaking.

An email popped up earlier this week from a PI in a different department in my institution, saying I'd been recommended as a possible mentor for these two high school students who were interested in neuroscience.  I scrolled through the string of emails to see who recommended me, and it was a PI in my department who I don't know very well at all, but who described me as "stellar."  Well!  I see my reputation precedes me.

Below that email was an email that included mini-statements from the students, and WOW.  High school students are reading primary source journal articles these days?  I went to one of the best (public) high schools in my state, and I think I had maybe heard of the amygdala.  Maybe.  These kids can more articulately describe their interests (which substantially overlap with my own) than many grad students I've encountered, and oh, how I want to adopt them!  I want to take them under my wing and teach them stereotaxic surgery and run a journal club and I can't help but imagine we'd all have the Best Summer Ever. 

Unfortunately, this is pretty much the Worst Summer Ever to take on a good times mentoring gig.  First off, though I think it's unlikely that I'll get an offer for the fall, it hasn't been definitively ruled out, so I may not even be here this summer.  Assuming I don't get an offer, I then need to kick so much ass and be crazy productive to try to get another paper at least in press (or, more realistically, submitted) by the time the next hiring cycle comes around.  The students would only be here for 4-6 weeks, which is not really enough time to train them to the point where they'd actually be helping me; it's just not that compatible with kicking so much ass.  Finally, most of the work I'll be doing this summer will be computer-y stuff, not fun animal experiments, so even if I were to take them on as helpers, they likely wouldn't be doing anything they actually find interesting. 

Sigh.  Bon chance, little students!  I'm sorry the timing was completely wrong for us to be together.  Look me up when you've (started and) finished college and are looking for PhD advisors, mkay?


Quick Question

Right, so when you email one of the search committee heads to let them know they can update your CV to include your hot new IN PRESS manuscript, is it at all overreacting to have feelings of joy when he replies that he was about to email you to see if you were still interested in the position?

Just asking.