The Ultimate Conspiracy–the importance of being Donald

Children–and adults–often believe that when they root or hope for a team or for an event to occur, that their wishes can influence the outcome. This irrational behavior probably underlies the fervent cheering for sports teams. And candidates in political processes. Despite my adherence to scientific and rational principles, I admit that I too am guilty of these sins on occasion.


Statistician/blogger Nate Silver‘s prediction for the US election, if all women abandon Donald Trump!

Months ago, when pundits here in the US were mostly rejecting the notion that Donald Trump might win the Republican primaries and become the Republican nominee in the presidential elections, I was saying “Bring it on!”

Being a supporter of the Democrats since my arrival in the US in 1998, I predicted that the election of such an unimpressive (to say the least!) candidate–someone who is a populist and not even part of the mainstream conservative movement, would likely fracture the party. Little did I know that the drama would play out just a month before the election, although I knew that “unimpressive” could easily turn to “utterly disgusting,” “revolting,” “racist,” “birther,” “misogynist,” “sexual harasser,” “criminal,” “tax evader,” “serial liar,” “vengeful,” “misfit,” “bad judgment,” “poor temperament,” etc. etc.

It did. But only after the release of a particularly disgusting conversation between Trump and another TV celebrity. What is remarkable to me is how long and how many individual incidents registered with the American public until this one finally is causing the Trump campaign to truly crash. And why?

The list of Trump follies has been growing exponentially in recent weeks. We have seen a man who cannot sling two sentences together and speaks with no filter in a stream of consciousness that offends women, African Americans, Latinos, disabled people, and families of veterans who died in defense of the country. A narcissistic being whose thoughts focus first and foremost of himself. A rich, privileged, spoiled-brat, who always had money and power, and abused it at every opportunity. A man whose business principles include stiffing contractors and ordinary people, because he knows that they cannot afford to sue him in court.

Trump has probably paid little or income tax in many years, and apparently hasn’t given a cent to charity in recent years. He has led the racist birther movement, claiming that President Obama wasn’t born in the US, even after the President showed his birth certificate. He has made outrageous and demeaning statements about women, ranting about their bodies and looks, rating and ranking them like prize cattle. He has called woman “disgusting,”  “fat pigs” and “slobs.” He goes on frequent Twitter rampages attacking anyone who dares criticize him, particularly women.

And yet-and yet- despite this very partial list of his egregious behaviors, Trump has, until recently, received support from about 40% of likely voters in the US. How is that possible? And why only now, are Republican leaders beginning to abandon ship?

Statistician, blogger, and head of the “538” website Nate Silver, wrote just now that had Trump been up by 5-6% in the polls, rather than down by that margin (as he is–or was–just before the video tape broke), it’s quite possible that we would not be seeing so many rats jumping a sinking ship.

With regard to the questions I penned above: Why (until now) ~40% support? The US is a polarized society, with roughly 50% of the electorate supporting democrats, and 50% supporting republicans. I won’t get into the history of this, but it’s fair to say that the Republican Party is also polarized from within. The so-called Tea Party, or more conservative branch of the Republican Party may include up to 50% of the Republicans. Anywhere from 30-50%. Hard-core enthusiastic Trump supporters may also comprise up to 50% of the Republican base, and probably include a large segment of the Tea Party group. I believe that with this base of core supporters, nothing that Trump will say or do will change their minds. It is the other half of the Republicans–still supporting Trump (until now), who are beginning to rethink their support. Until now, they have rationalized their decision by maintaining that a vote for the democrats will help elect a democratic supreme court and democratic agenda–which is more important than the integrity of the president. However, the absolute vulgarity–not to mention likely illegal behavior–exhibited on prime time television, has begun to sway the tide.

We have heard so many Trump-invented conspiracy theories: The “birther” conspiracy, the delegitimization of highly popular President Obama by fabricating stories that he was born abroad (even after he produced a birth certificate), that the elections are “rigged” against Trump, that the media has been unfair to Trump (the media has been far too patient). The list goes on and on. So now it is time for the ultimate conspiracy.

I may have been correct about Trump causing a civil war within the Republican party–but what if–what if–WHAT If TRUMP and his ascension to the Republican Party presidential nominee IS MERELY A TRICK PERPETRATED BY THE DEMOCRATS TO GET HILARY CLINTON ELECTED?

Stew on that one, Trump campaign…


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Sanexit would make Brexit look like child’s play

For months I have been avoiding a critical civic duty, and have abstained from writing about the political situation in the US. Not from a lack of conviction or interest in the situation. No, I find myself obsessed with the presidential race–so much so, that I check 8 different poll aggregates multiple times a day, to try to reassure myself. But I am not reassured.

Another reason I have not written on the situation to date is that there is a feeling that what more can be said?! We have a candidate, Mr. Trump, who (it has been said, accurately) lies every time his lips move. Mr. Trump tosses around incredible conspiracy theories–such as one that President Obama wasn’t born in the US and therefore is not a legitimate president, or that if he loses in the upcoming race, it is only because Secretary Clinton cheats and rigs the elections. He is utterly ignorant of international affairs, and too lazy to read, learn or pay attention to briefings. Worse yet, he points to his ignorance pridefully, maintaining that his (very debatable) business acumen will suffice. In the same breath, he will tell the public that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and that he has all the solutions. Trust him. He’ll make it right. So fast, your head will spin. Like hell…

So much has been said, by so many, that my words are just a drop in the bucket. Perhaps the ocean. Or perhaps, keeping with the proper metaphor, a drop in the sewage tank. He has been described as having grandiose narcissistic behavior. Hundreds of former high ranking Republican officials, including the most recent Republican presidents and presidential nominees have refused to endorse him and stated that his candidacy is a danger to the United States. Centrist New York Times journalist, Tom Friedman, who has advocated for years that a stronger US needs more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans and a strong center, has simply described Mr. Trump as “a despicable human being.” Again, what more can I add?!

The last straw, the one that broke me and induced me to sit down today and spill my guts, was a minor one, in the scheme of things. A simple Tweet put out by Mr. Trump on Friday morning, but one that showcases who he is and how he behaves:


First, Mika happens to be the name of my daughter. So while that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, it managed to draw this particular characteristic and highly offensive tweet to my attention.

Is this the type of leadership, the role model for our children and our nation that we want? A man who did not know that the Russians invaded Crimea, and had no idea what Brexit was until he landed in Scotland the day of the referendum, has ample time to watch cable news on television and respond insultingly to every perceived slight? A man who has called women “fat pigs” and when asked which women would be suitable for his future cabinet, could not come up with a single name except for that of his own daughter?

I could go on indefinitely. Every one of his numerous lies, ugly and childish insults, bigoted and false statements, narcissistic ego-filled blustery comments and crazy conspiracy theories would be enough to sink any serious candidate. But that has not happened. Yet.

The exit from sanity, or Sanexit, that a Trump presidency would be akin to pushing us back to the middle ages. This is no longer a race between Democrat and Republican, between trickle-down economics vs breaks for the poor and middle class. It is not a contest between those who believe in the freedom of a woman to have an abortion against those who believe that life begins at conception. It is not a fight between those favoring stricter gun-control laws and those who oppose them. Nor is it a battle between those who want the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose stronger regulations on businesses and those who would disband the EPA. This election will go far beyond any such “minor” issues, and go to the heart of American society. This election will determine if the majority of Americans want rational, sane government, or whether their frustration is so great that they would put control of the country in the hands of an egotistic bully whose ignorance knows no bounds, and whose insults don’t either.

Only time will tell, and I will update over the next few months with my humble analysis on the situation. But for now, I need to get back and check the polls…

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Flowers for Algae-non?

I am delighted to report that I am now happily entrenched in my new environment–just 2 miles west of my previous home–here at the western edge of the city of Omaha. “Chez Ginger,” as we have named our new place (after Ginger the dog), came from a desire of an already-suburban midwest family to live in close proximity of walking paths.


Ginger et moi

Indeed, we were extremely fortunate to find a home backing onto a small lake–or a large pond, rather–that ties in to a system of trails with short links and both west and east to larger lakes with trails.


Our lake/pond, as seen from our back deck

We have already seen dramatic changes in the biology (flora and fauna) in our new environment, despite the proximity. The open space of the lake is less hospitable to woodpeckers and warblers (which we miss!)–but of course we have traded them for sparrows, cormorants, herons, geese, ducks and wild turkeys.



Overall, we are having a great time exploring our new area, which borders on woods and farmland. The one issue that has become a bit of an eye-sore is the algal bloom on the lake.


Large areas of the lake are now covered in this phytoplankton. In reading up on the problem, it turns out that this is fairly common for bodies of fresh water that have minimal water movement; while the lake is a coalescence of two streams that run into a larger low-lying area (that has been dammed), the water flow is slow. There is a fountain that has been installed to stir up movement, provide oxygen and increase the likelihood of healthy fauna (fish, ducks, geese and other water fowl. However, run-off from the neighborhood, apparently from those who apply fertilizers to their gardens/lawns, creates a nutrient-rich atmosphere that, combined with the excessive global-warming-derived heat, leads to this algal bloom. Drastic treatments may endanger the fish and other water wildlife, so it was decided to take a cautious approach with minimal intervention, and hope for a respite in the coming season.

For now, I try to enjoy the view when the algae get blown to the other end of the lake–and I wait (not impatiently) for the seasons to change, with great curiosity to see how the lake will freeze come December.

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Paid overtime for post-docs? Implications!

A new rule issued by the US Department of Labor, scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2016, is likely to have a major impact on the structure of the biomedical research enterprise in this country. This rule, which was designed to provide help to those at the lower end of the pay scale, has raised the threshold that absolves employers from paying overtime from around $24,000 a year to $47,476 a year.

What does this mean? Currently, it is not required for an employer to pay overtime for any worker earning less than ~$24,000 a year. Accordingly, post-doctoral fellows in the US, whose NIH-recommended salaries begin in the lower $40,000 range do not qualify for overtime. Post-docs who are not at the NIH—particularly those who live and work in less expensive areas of the country, often earn considerably less. The scale could be in the mid-to-high 30K for the midwest or periphery (at least for a starting position). By the current overtime rules, these post-docs still earn well above the $24,000/year threshold, and therefore are also ineligible for overtime pay.

However, with the change in the rules Dec. 1, even post-docs earning $45,000/year will now need to be paid overtime for any work that goes beyond an 8 hour day and 5 day work-week. For many of us who put in 6-7 day weeks, often with 60-80 hours physically in the lab (not to mention reading, writing and thinking science at home) during our post-doctoral stints (and graduate days), a 40 hour work-week just doesn’t seem sufficient to compete in today’s highly competitive world. A post-doc working such hours and intending to obtain a tenure-track position will be at a significant disadvantage if he/she is forbidden from spending more time in the lab or working at home to abide by labor regulations, AND to avoid the employer (i.e., the principal investigator) from having to pay overtime. On top of these serious concerns comes the virtual impossibility of clocking work when dedicated researchers read at home on the computer, pencil ideas on napkins during dinner, and make finger-drawn diagrams in the steam on the shower door.

What is the alternative? Raising salaries so that post-docs meet the $47,476/year threshold, and that no overtime pay is necessary. In fact, this is really the only solution, since overtime pay would be practically impossible to enforce.

The problem? I am all in favor of better wages for post-docs and students. However, not only are grants in this country harder and harder to obtain and maintain—but they have not increased with the cost of living in the 13 years since I have been a principal investigator. The cost of research materials and reagents goes up every year. Serum for cell culture has risen to ~$400 for a 500 ml bottle! It’s hard to purchase an antibody for under $400. Students stipends have gone up to ~$25,000, and post-doctoral fellowship stipends have almost doubled since I was a post-doc (between 1998-2003). The starting post-doc stipend at NIH was about $22,000 in 1998—less than a student earns today.

Don’t get me wrong—this is progress! But the problem is that the funding situation has not progressed at all in parallel. It has worsened. And as a result, I predict that while post-docs will soon earn more when they attain their position, I suspect that many fewer researchers will be able to afford a post-doctoral fellow. This means that most likely, post-doctoral positions will be far more competitive to obtain.

Is this all bad? Truthfully, I don’t know. Many claim that we train too many post-docs for too few faculty and biotech positions. Others think that the post-doctoral position awards a final chance for those who may not have succeeded as well they intended as graduate students to prove themselves as highly capable researchers. But in an era where post-doctoral positions are few and far in between—and with attempts to have students graduate timely within 5 years—there may no longer be second chances, and this may increase the pressure on student trainees to be highly productive.



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We’re #1 with “Saving One!”

It’s been a crazy 30 days since I submitted my LabLit novel, “Saving One,” to Amazon Kindle’s new publishing program, Kindle Scout. I would like to

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 10.49.03 AM

Saving One is #1 in HOT & TRENDING!

thank everyone who took a few seconds to go to my campaign link to nominate Saving One for a book contract. I do not know whether I will be offered one yet, but I DO KNOW that “Saving One” is ranked #1 in the HOT & TRENDING section of Kindle Scout, and has been firmly ensconced in this section for the past 24 h.

The campaign ends in about 11 hours, so for those of you haven’t yet had a chance to read the preview and nominate it, please support LabLit. It only take a few seconds, it’s free, and IF I am offered a contract, you will receive a free ebook to read. What do you have to lose?

Thanks to everyone, and I’ll keep you posted.



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Common sense policies to promote reproducibility in science

The ability of scientists to reproduce published experimental data from other laboratories is the foundation for all scientific advance. Indeed, the whole point of publishing is to educate other scientists (and the public in general) and to build a scaffold of information that will allow others, immediately or at some indeterminate time in the future, to build on the published findings and advance them to the next level. It is no wonder that recent concerns with the ability to reproduce published biomedical research have been taken very seriously by the scientific community.

How prevalent is the problem? A recent article by Monya Baker in Nature magazine sheds some light on this question; in effect, it depends on the field of science that one examines. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the more quantitative and exact sciences of physics and chemistry are a lot higher on the reproducibility scale (according to 1576 scientists who were surveyed). This, of course, is unlikely to be due to lower ethical standards in biomedical research, than, say, physics research; most likely it stems from the inherent variability in biological samples. While I will discuss some of the apparent causes for irreproducibility below, it is clear that there is great significance in ensuring the highest degree of reproducibility possible in biomedical science. Time, money, the honor of the biomedical research community, and ultimately, lives are at stake.

While there is some disagreement over the scope of the problem, I think there is likely a strong consensus among scientists that we need to do as much as we can to limit irreproducibility in science. So what should and shouldn’t be done to address the problem?

Many issues and concerns in academia and other walks of life are often superficially treated by adding administrative burden merely for an outward demonstration that “something must be done,” without taking practical steps to solve the problem. Weighing in this way is a serious mistake, which actually exacerbates the problem, because it diminishes the significance that should be attached to the issue. Unfortunately, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has adopted such bureaucratic measures, which include compelling researchers who submit grant proposals to “go through hoops” and provide a series of explanations of how they will ensure that there studies will be maximally reproducible. This, however, is unlikely to lead to any real changes in reproducibility, because researchers will simply write what they are being asked to write, in order to be eligible for funding. Simply writing that “we will verify cell lines, or test antibodies in our studies” will not improve the situation. The litmus test for reproducibility needs to be on ‘what we have done and intend to publish’ rather than on speculating vaguely on what we will do in the future if we obtain funding.

So where can reproducibility be effectively implemented? The key place to enhance reproducibility is in peer review for publication–in ensuring that papers published in scientific journals are well vetted by expert reviewers, and that the experimental design and reagents used are extremely well described. For example, the shunting of the Experimental Design section of papers to a hard-to-find supplement is unacceptable. Experimental Design (also known as Materials and Methods), should ideally be found following the Introduction section in a prominent and visible place within the manuscript. Not only should all the experiments be described in considerable detail (enough detail so that any graduate student is able to carry out the experiment described), but all of the reagents and antibodies used must be listed with their catalog numbers (and where applicable, lot numbers). This is because some reagents, such as polyclonal antibodies, are derived from the serum of animals such as rabbits. When the rabbits eventually die, and new antibodies are generated in new animals, the resulting immune response and quality/specificity of the new antibodies may be quite different than the initial batch. This is a potential problem with considerable complications, and has led to avid discussion about the use of antibodies in scientific research. While there are issues with the use of antibodies, I believe that they are too important to sideline, as suggested by some.

Scientific journals have an inherent responsibility in ensuring that the peer review process includes a careful examination of factors relating to reproducibility. While some of the factors are merely properly cataloging the reagents used, other considerations are whether the authors carried out appropriate controls to determine that the reagents (within reason) are valid or validated. This is a central and key reason why so-called “post-publication review”–or those in favor of letting readers decide on the value and significance of published papers (rather than expert reviewers) is a dangerous idea, at least for biomedical research. Many of the validations and controls that need to be done to ensure reproducibility are specific for the field of research, and any interested reader who is not acquainted with the field directly may not be able to judge such reproducibility criteria.

To make things even more challenging, many today view the internet as “the great equalizer” giving everyone an equal voice. By this scenario, outstanding journalists who write for the New York Times are no better than any individual with a Twitter account or a blog site. By the same token, for some strange reason, there are those in the realm of science who think that any website that calls itself a “scientific journal” has an equal voice to bona-fide scientific journals that carefully select editorial board members and reviewers. Every scientist in the realm of biomedicine today must be familiar with the endless junk-mails that arrive in our inboxes with requests to join editorial board. Just yesterday, another of these popped into my mailbox:

Dear Dr. Caplan, Steve,

Greetings for the day

We are completely aware of your busy schedule; however, we are taking the liberty to remind you again regarding our proposal to you, to be an honourable Editor for Source Journal of Ophthalmology.  Because we didn’t hear any reply from your side. Please accept our sincere apologies if this mail causes any inconvenience.

Awaiting for your positive reply

Source Journals
4722 E Bell Rd
Suite # 2159
Phoenix, AZ

We are glad to introduce our new journal Source Journal of Ophthalmology to you. Source Journal of Ophthalmology is a new journal launched by the Source Journals. With an open access publication model of this journal, all interested readers around the world can freely access articles online at without subscription.

We are soliciting scholars to form the editorial board. This is our immense pleasure to invite you as an Editor of our journal. We aware of your international reputation, moreover, your unmatched expertise and experience will help the journal. We would be fortunate if you accept our request. If you are interested, please send your resume along with your areas of interest to

Editor benefits:

  • Articles submitted by Editors will be published at free of cost.
  • Based on the quality of the manuscript suitable waiver can be provided for your recommended manuscripts (co-workers, students etc., referred by you).

Editor roles and responsibilities:

  • Processing of articles by assigning reviewers for the manuscript and making decision by considering the reviewer’s comments.
  • Active interaction with Source blog members.
  • Monitoring and suggestions to improve the standards and quality of Source Journals.

Kindly let us know your willingness by sending us the following

  1. Complete CV
  2. Short Biography
  3. Photograph
  4. Research Interest

Looking forward to work with you

Source Journals
4722 E Bell Rd
Suite # 2159
Phoenix, AZ

Aside from the embarrassing grammar, this type of very common scam-request raises crucial ethical concerns about the publishing process: if I am invited to serve on an editorial board for ophthalmology, when I have never worked in this area and have no specialization in the field, then the editorial board and review process for such a journal renders it useless. And this is but a single example of hundreds of such requests and cases that I receive (and I suspect most researchers receive) on a daily basis. The obvious concern with regard to reproducibility, is that even in highly stringent, peer reviewed journals that carefully select editors and reviewers, issues with reproducibility will crop up–but in journals such as these where there are no standards? It is a wonder there is any reproducibility in anything published in such journals.

So while many researchers typically ignore such requests and avoid such journals like the plague, there must be some critical mass of researchers that publish and read these journals, otherwise there would be no market for them. Along with the above-noted suggestions for dealing with irreproducibility, I believe that it is necessary for scientists to take on these scam journals and expose them for what they are, because they lower the standards and credibility of scientific research. We must take a stand in denouncing and actively dissociating themselves from such damaging enterprises.

However, there is much more that can be done to promote greater reproducibility in biomedical research, because as noted, there are concerns even in the most respected and prestigious journals. Some of the ways may need to be determined specifically for individual fields, as organized by researcher Dr. Daniel Klionsky for the field of autophagy. Society journals, such a the Journal of Biological Chemistry (from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; ASBMB) or Molecular Biology of the Cell (from the American Society of Cell Biology; ASCB) have taken initiative and either have new regulations for peer review, or publish important policy papers regarding reproducibility. Organized societies such as ASCB and ASBMB are crucial for providing the leadership and impetus for researchers to implement best practices, and I look forward to continued discussions about making biomedical science more reproducible.

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The Wandering Jew

IMGP7954New view from our back deck. The path around the lake is precisely 1 mile.

Condemned to eternally wander from place to place? I guess that could describe my life. Born in the US when my father did a residency in Cleveland, lived in Canada in 3 different homes between ages 3-18, a year in Israel on a kibbutz, military service, 10 years as a student in Jerusalem, 4.5 years as a post-doc in Maryland at the National Institutes of Health, and 13 years in Omaha, Nebraska. 2 capitals: Jerusalem and DC.

How many homes? Cleveland: 2, Winnipeg: 3, Israel: 7 + military (I’ll count as “1,” although it was really dozens of places in 3 years), Rockville, MD: 1, Omaha 1 + 1. Total=16. On average, a move every 3 years. Does that qualify for a Wandering Jew, damned to circle the earth until the 2nd coming?

In truth, it isn’t as bad as all that. With a family and career, my last 13 happy years have been all at one residence—until last week. Why move? We loved our house and home. No one left last week without shedding tears. But sometimes change, especially advantageous change, brings freshness, new perspective, and renewal. Once the boxes have been unpacked, or course.

Another reason for the move relates to a career-related issue—an offer and long-drawn out negotiations for a position out of state. The process of seeing a new place, new possibilities, the potential for move and change—even if it didn’t actually occur—helped overcome an inertia barrier. Compared to moving labs and homes, the relocation of just a home—and only 2 miles away, was not as daunting.

Only time will tell whether this Wandering Jew has ultimately found a place to sink roots deep in the ground. But after 13 years in Nebraska, and a move to a house backing onto a lake with beautiful walking paths, it will probably take a lot to drive me away…

Our dining area, until things cool off in the late fall…


Picture window from my bedroom. Can hear frogs and toads at night.

Wide open skies of Nebraska.


The heart of the home; not much artifical light needed.

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“Saving One” — my new lab lit novel

FRONT COVER-jpeg-convert

Over the past two years, I have been avidly writing and editing my new lab lit novel, Saving One. This is the story of a widowed biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who has a fateful decision to make. Both of his twin sons are diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease and require urgent transplants.

It does not take a Ph.D. in mathematics to realize the tremendous ethical dilemma that protagonist Jeffrey Coleman faces, and all this in the wake of his competitive professional life, which includes fighting for publications and his administrative burden. To complicate matters, one son is an ideal offspring, while the other son has an antagonistic relationship with his father.

I will not give away any more of the drama; suffice to say that Saving One is my most ambitious lab lit novel to date, a story that goes beyond the lab and interweaves a desperate circumstance with complex characters.

I have chosen to first try a new publishing route that, if successful, may allow the novel to reach a wider reading audience. It is called Kindle Scout. For the next 28 days, a 5000 word preview will be available on the Kindle Scout website, along with my short bio, links to my writing on websites and my 3 other published novels. Based on recommendations or NOMINATIONS on the site, and the Kindle Scout editorial staff, after the 30-day preview, the book will either be selected or not for a contract as a Kindle Scout ebook. The advantage in selection is that there is a very robust marketing campaign (and a modest royalty advance).

And now, the shameless request: I would be grateful if you, dear readers, would go to the site and NOMINATE Saving One. All that’s needed is a (free) Amazon account (any country). Just click on NOMINATE. And please, spread the word to fellow scientists: students, postdocs, PIs, technicians, doctors, colleagues, friends and family. Thank you!


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How much is my sanity worth?

largeI think that many scientists today would likely agree that writing grants (and worrying about funding) can drive a person to insanity. A question that I’ve never really pondered until recently is “Would I trade my sanity for a grant?” And if so, what size of a grant would warrant relinquishing my treasured stable mental state?

The reason that this question penetrated my conscious thinking stemmed from an email that I received a few weeks ago from a colleague at another US university. Paraphrasing his note, he essentially told me that our collaborative grant proposal was just reviewed and was deemed worthy of funding. Yay! As a result, he was asking me to send him a variety of documents related to the proposal.

My first thought was WONDERFUL! Good for him! And good for me, too, as apparently my proposed contribution to the work had led him to ask for a significant sum for our end as well. To the tune of $30,000/year for 4 years. But then a nagging feeling hit me—yes, we are collaborators and even published a manuscript together—but I honestly couldn’t remember reading and helping write the grant. Or when it was submitted. Or even what precisely we had pledged that we would do to support the study.

Over the course of my career, one of the things that I learned to do was to delegate responsibility. Along with that skill, I also learned to “let go” of anything that I had already done or delegated to someone else to do. In layman’s terms, in one ear, and out the other. I have always maintained that my brain is not large enough to hold all the information I need, so by releasing and forgetting about things that I have completed and no longer need, I free up more space for current tasks. Just like a hard drive—although I shouldn’t flatter myself.

Well. I calculated that this must be what happened with the collaborative proposal with my colleague. Proposal written, read, edited, submitted (ages ago)—and out of sight, out of mind. On to other matters until it is reviewed. But then, being organized, I should have computerized records of some of these documents. None could be located.

Now I began to worry. I began to randomly call to memory the names of extended family members, politicians, athletes. Anything that would reassure me that I’m not losing it. $30,000 is great, but I never played professional football or boxed. Never had a traumatic head injury. Should I be forgetting such basic work-related things?

Giving up, and quite embarrassed, I wrote to my colleague and asked if he wouldn’t mind sending me a copy of the proposal. That’s when he responded, sheepishly (if that can be detected by email), that the email he sent me was intended for ANOTHER STEVE who is also a collaborator—and not me! Good or bad? Well, I lost $30,000/year of grant money for the next 4 years, but what I lost monetarily, I gained in relief. No, I’m not crazy—yet!

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How to deal with delicate situations in the lab

Welcoming diversity in the workplace has become second nature in the US, and I would venture to guess that the biomedical workplace has been paving the way for years. The reliance on international scientific talent in the US has truly made the biomedical science laboratory a mosaic of cultures, religions, ethnic groups and nationalities that could almost outdo the United Nations in diversity. My own laboratory, since its inception 13 years ago, has seen students and postdoctoral fellows from nearly every continent, religion and culture, and overall, the tolerance and willingness to learn and empathize with others (in my lab and all others I have seen) is nothing short of remarkable.

I would further venture that based on my experiences throughout the US, this tolerance and open-minded behavior is the reigning sentiment. I know that skeptics will point out the recent racial tensions in St. Louis and other US cities, and will comment on “Black Lives Matter,” and I do recognize that there is still a way to go before things will be as they should. However, seeing my own teenagers at school, and their friends and their attitudes, I can honestly say that it appears as though the next generation will be “color blind,” “gender blind,” “sexual orientation blind,” and so on. It just isn’t an issue to them, and they truly fail to understand how such issues have been so divisive for so many for so long. I am encouraged by the spirit of the younger generation.

In this era of enlightenment and optimism, how then, do we deal with the day-to-day issues relating to tolerance in the laboratory—tolerance of those of any culture, including our own? Specifically, how do we manage to thrive if our work environment is subject to odors resulting from poor hygiene, or noises made by bodily functions that are perceived by many as unpleasant? And how can we ensure that our responses to such incidents are not viewed as being ‘intolerant?’

Many years ago, in another place and time, a graduate student joined the lab and my ‘tolerance’ was tested to the limit. She was from another country, but it was not a true cultural difference that created a rift; she was a heavy smoker. I am not only a non-smoker, but having grown up in a family with a parent who had no qualms exposing me to second-hand smoke in the home and in enclosed automobiles, I developed a severe reaction to even the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke. Yes, nausea, coughing and wheezing were probably as much psychological as physiological, but my pain was real enough.

Of course, smoking in the lab was forbidden—even in those days, when people were still inclined to pipette with their mouths—but when she would step out for a smoke and return to our tiny lab space, working back to back at the bench, her clothes, breath and hair would reek. What is the proper way to politely deal with such an issue? Is there one? Speaking quietly to the principal investigator of the lab to try and locate bench and desk space as far away as possible was the only, albeit partial, solution.

Years ago, in another lab, in another time, I became acquainted with a postdoctoral fellow with several habits that I found to be rather less than pleasant. He was an extremely likeable and helpful person—traits that made it even more difficult to broach a sensitive topic with him. He would arrive in the laboratory promptly at 8 am, head to the sink in the center of the lab space, and proceed to clear his nasal passages and throat. “Would you mind not doing that?” Or, “Could you please do that at home?” just did not seem like a compelling option for me or any of the other early-birds in the lab. Instead, 8 am became time for a coffee break in the library, far from the distracting noises in the lab.

I was reminded of these instances some time ago as I entered an elevator and caught the scent of poor hygiene/body odor emanating from the only other occupant of the elevator. She appeared to be oblivious to my discomfort, as I recalled instances when poor hygiene had been an issue with someone when I was in the military. After been forewarned and not taking corrective measures, in the military such a person was subjected to a ‘night shower,’ being carried and dumped unceremoniously in the shower, sleeping bag and all. Not a solution for the laboratory, obviously. So, how to deal with it? Grin and bear it? Grimace and bear it?

These examples, and other similar instances, are difficult issues to resolve. Sometimes they revolve around differences in culture, other times they may have more to do with socio-economic status. At times they have no nothing to do with anything—an example that’s probably no longer relevant in the realm of iPhone-carrying and headphone-wearing lab personnel is the once controversial radio channel/volume debate that every lab seemed to have. I worked in a lab once where a postdoc loved Carmen so much, that for months I couldn’t get the music out of my head.

What’s the solution? As I noted earlier, there is no magic bullet. In many cases, a more astute lab chief can minimize tensions by instituting common-sense rules that promote the most efficient workplace. For example in the case of music, if the music or volume bothers someone, then no music. After all, it is a place of work. But in other, more sensitive instances—personal hygiene and such—aside from a more efficient ventilation system, it seems difficult to find a solution where someone will not be offended.


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