The gory details – experiment design guide for beginners

In the previous post I’ve outlined the strategy that will allow beginner scientists to understand the complexity of a research project – something that they often struggle with. From the “tree of life” view of the research project there is a rather straightforward path to understanding the significance and interpreting the results of each experiment that they perform. I recommend that each beginner scientist answers (ideally in writing) the following questions before they even touch a pipette:

  1. What is the goal of this experiment?
  2. What is the hypothesis?
  3. What is the approach?
  4. What are the experimental groups and controls?
  5. What are the expected results?

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The big picture – project perception guide for beginner scientists

One of the things I have learned the hard way during my first year as group leader is how easy it is to overestimate the ability of beginner scientists – graduate students, interns, undergraduates – to grasp the “big picture” of the project. Beginners are usually quite good at performing experiments and processing results, but they typically find it very hard to visualize where the experiment fits in the grand scheme of their project. I would like to propose a framework that will make it easier for beginners and their mentors to stay on the same page when it comes to the big picture of their projects. Continue reading

Academaze – the awesome new book by Xykademiqz

The road of an academic scientist is long and tortuous. Many pitfalls await the hapless young researcher, so any advice is always a great bonus. I have been relying on Twitter and a bunch of great blogs (see my blogroll) to get my fix of do’s and don’ts in academia, and it has served me well – I now have the coveted group leader position at a major university in Poland and I use the blogroll as a constant source of information and support in my ivory tower woes. One of my favorite blogs has always been xykademiqz, written by a successful mid-career group leader in the physical sciences. The blog is filled with great advice and down-to-earth musings on the “human” side of research. That’s why I was really excited when I heard that xykademiqz is coming out with a book, which, as I understand, is a collection of her most successful blog entries organized in a way that will make for an interesting narrative. The book is here, and I got a glimpse of it as an early access reader. Let me tell you this – it is pure gold! Continue reading

Salary support for technicians in National Science Centre grants

The NCN (National Science Centre) website has recently published a report from their April Council Meeting. There are quite a few interesting tidbits of information there, including plans for “mini-grants” that would support scientists that have not held an NCN grant before and who need some seed money for preliminary work or other expenses, such as conference participation. What caught my attention, however, was that the Council discussed the issue of bringing back salary support for technical staff as a legitimate expense in NCN grant budgets. In 2015 there has been a major shift as to who can receive full salary from an NCN grant. Before the change, any team member could be supported on NCN money, afterwards only the PI, PhD students, and post-docs were allowed to have their full salary/stipend included in the grant budget. This was significant, because according to NCN regulations, a post-doc must have received their PhD at most 5 years prior to being supported. Continue reading

The use and abuse of metrics in science – the Polish perspective

I have just returned from a debate at the Nencki Institute about the use of metrics in science evaluation. The debate consisted of two presentations and an open discussion with the audience. The first presentation was by Prof. Leszek Kaczmarek from the Nencki, who has had a lot of experience being a referee for both Polish and European granting agencies, and is actively involved in policymaking for the Polish National Science Centre. The second presentation was by Prof. Karol Życzkowski from the Jagiellonian University and Center of Theoretical Physics, who has also served on many review committees for Polish and International grants. Those of my readers who follow research-related blogs and the usual suspects on Twitter will not be unfamiliar with the main points covered in the discussion – the hegemony of the Impact Factor and how it is a terrible metric of the quality of science, the impossible task of judging and ranking the increasingly specialized and esoteric achievements of our peers, the heterogeneity of research fields and differences in citation practices etc. A few points discussed, however, I think, are specific for Poland, and I would like to dwell on them a little longer. Continue reading

Saving dead trees

As I am writing this post, my office printer is busy printing hundreds of pages in what can only be called a massive waste of paper and toner. I am in the process of obtaining what is called a “habilitation” in Poland, which is one step up from a doctorate and allows one, among other things, to mentor graduate students. The habilitation proceedings involve the setting up of a committee that will decide whether or not I deserve a habilitation. Every single one of the seven committee members must obtain a paper copy of all the paperwork, which includes, for example, a copy of a bunch of my recent papers, and letters of support from all the co-authors of said papers. In addition, the committee members receive a copy of the documents on a CD, so it’s not like they couldn’t selectively print out what they actually care about. I really think there is something deeply wrong about the process if it requires a waste of a ream of printer paper. In addition, a glitch in my PDF software caused my PhD diploma to be printed out 70 rather than 7 times… This is going to be a great day!

Edit: so yeah, this is it…habilitacja_papiery

Debate about young scientists in Poland

Recently, the Council of Young Researchers (Rada Młodych Naukowców) organized a debate on the career prospects of young scientists in Poland. There were a great many things that were discussed, but I would like to highlight a few things that I found interesting. The first observation I had even before the debate started was how few young scientists actually participated. The vast majority of the people who spoke could hardly be qualified as “young scientists”. The second observation that I must admit worried me quite a bit was how few women were represented. I didn’t count them, but I suspect that they represented roughly 10%-15% of the participants. Given the fact that women represent more than half of Polish scientists, and that the representation among young scientists is probably even higher, this is very worrying indeed. Now let me focus on some selected points of the debate. Continue reading

Teaching animal welfare in research

Recently, a new bill on the protection of laboratory animals was passed in Poland. One of the regulations stipulated by the bill is the requirement for all researchers that will do animal research to take a course in laboratory animal handling and welfare. That means everyone – whether a student who hasn’t handled a mouse in their life, or an experienced technician who has been doing animal experimentation for the past 20 years. There is nothing wrong with the idea per se – it levels the playing field and ensures that everyone is on the same page when it comes to animal welfare. What I object to is the form of the training. Continue reading

The Darwinian management model – can it work?

I have just read a NYT piece on the workplace environment at the world’s largest retailer – Amazon. The picture that emerges from the article is that of an ultra-competitive winner-takes-it-all war zone where no heed is paid to personal circumstances or work-life balance. Although Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, was quick to denounce the article, I would not be surprised if it rang true to many of Amazon’s employees. It also doesn’t seem very different from what is rumored to be going on in other tech giants, such as Apple. For a while, during my postdoc in the Silicon Valley (Stanford) I co-habited with an IT professional who worked at Apple. He would spend whole nights at his computer. He didn’t have much personal life from what I could tell – all hours of the day were spent working. For a fairly “normal” person this kind of workplace seems like a total nightmare. But can some people actually thrive in it? Continue reading

Fund the person or the project?

If you are following science-related topics on twitter, you are probably aware of the recent proposal by Ron Germain to reform the NIH funding system so that the evaluation focus is on the person getting the funds rather than the project getting funded (also see his op-ed in Cell). For new investigators, he proposes to give every institution funds commensurate with what they are getting right now from the NIH and let them distribute the funds to their new hires at their discretion. Renewals would be based on performance, but again there would be no precise “projects” being evaluated. Ron’s proposed solution to the woes of biomedical research have created quite a stir on the Interwebs. Drugmonkey has a huge discussion on his blog (here and here), with most voices strongly opposed to Ron’s ideas. Putting ad hominem’s aside I think the argument really boils down to a rather simple cost-benefit calculation. Continue reading