A student’s guide to finding and securing a desirable PhD mentor in the biomedical sciences

Several years ago I wrote a satirical article titled How not to get a lab job.” In that piece, designed primarily for graduate students who were looking for post-doctoral positions, I tried to use real-life examples based on the types of letters and applications that I received to humorously illustrate what not to do in looking for a position. By all accounts the piece was a big success, and the key focus was to emphasize the importance of professionalism when applying for a position. However, surprisingly (at least to me) I also received complaints that while I was illustrating what not to do, I had failed to help those who truly wanted to learn how to better their chances of finding suitable employment.

With that criticism in mind, and after years of serving on and then chairing a departmental graduate and admissions committee, I now intend to rectify that deficit and provide a semi-comprehensive guide to help graduate students identify desirable mentors for their PhD and successfully secure positions in their laboratories.

Most graduate programs (at least in the US) are designed for advancing directly toward a PhD, without the requirement of obtaining a Master’s degree. And in most cases, students join a department or program, and within the first year or so, are required to set up a number of short trials in host laboratories, usually known as rotations. These rotations typically last anywhere between 6 weeks to several months, depending on the individual program, and provide an excellent experience and window for the prospective student to determine how suitable the mentor (and the lab) is. However, one important point that is too often ignored by students, is that the rotation period also serves as an opportunity for the mentor to observe the student, and in turn, decide upon his/her suitability. In other words, prospective graduate students, beware! Rotations are a two-way street, and you had better look both ways before crossing!

For the purpose of this guide, I will assume that the prospective graduate student has already been accepted into a biomedical research graduate program, and is charged with the task of finding a graduate mentor who will accept him/her into the lab; acceptance into the graduate program is an entirely separate issue and will not be dealt with here.

As noted above, most graduate programs use a rotation system where students need to do trial periods in 3-4 laboratories, and only then can they gain acceptance into one of those laboratories. So obviously, the first task at hand is to find prospective laboratories in which to rotate.

Finding rotations

Since the key to finding a suitable permanent mentor for the PhD depends on first finding suitable rotation options, the identification of good rotation options is a crucial step in the process and cannot be taken lightly. Even students who have homed in on a very specific laboratory that they would like to join and have set up a rotation in that lab should not discount the significance of the other 2 or 3 rotations that they must do, or ‘waste’ them on laboratories that are suboptimal options. Why? For several reasons: the laboratory that the student initially desires may fill up and have no place by the time the student completes his/her rotation, or alternatively, the student may realize that the atmosphere in the lab is not as good as he/she originally thought. Or, the mentor may not be satisfied with the prospective student (even if the student is happy with the mentor). Or there could suddenly be a funding issue and the mentor can’t accept a student at that time. In any case, one never knows the outcome of a rotation in advance, and having reasonable backup opportunities and alternatives is wise. So the optimal situation is to identify 3 or 4 rotations, all with potential—meaning that at least at the outset, each laboratory rotation could lead to selection of a mentor and lab.

What should a student look for in searching for a rotation?

It is my experience that the majority of students at this early career stage do not yet have a very good overview of the different types and wide variety of biomedical research opportunities available. While a small minority may have decided on a specific disease-related focus (for example a type of cancer or heart disease), often for personal/family reasons, when looking for a rotation many students are fairly open to experiencing different research avenues. In my opinion, a common misconception in the search for a PhD laboratory and mentor is that the prospective student often places too much emphasis on the specific scientific research areas of that laboratory. Why is that an error? For several reasons: 1) As noted, students often lack the overview of different scientific research areas to really know in advance if they will like the research or not. I agree that a student who is not particularly interested in physics, chemistry and math will be unlikely to enjoy a structural biology. And obviously a student who knows he/she cannot work with animals should stay away from labs that exclusively do animal studies. But in many other instances, students can find that they like (or dislike) projects unexpectedly. Excitement often comes with greater knowledge of the field, and as students gain independence in their research, they usually become enamored with their selected area of study. However, in contrast, if the atmosphere in the laboratory (or with the mentor) is toxic, usually no matter how interested the student might be in the field, it is unlikely to end well. 2) A PhD project is not likely going to be the area of research that those pursuing academic careers will continue with after their PhD. Most new faculty who come to a university as new assistant professors to start up their own laboratories will bring projects that they begun (and often squirreled away) during the course of their post-doctoral training, not from their PhD training. What is the bottom line? I am suggesting that a student is likely to be happy and succeed in a lab with a good mentor, even if the initial project appears less exciting. This is a key point to consider, and when choosing a mentor, it is important to reflect on the goal of PhD training.

What is the goal of PhD training?

As an idealist, one might say “to gain a greater understanding of the world around us,” and so on. But let’s face it, altruism is hardly at the top of most students’ list of reasons for doing a PhD. Given that the primary reason for enrolling in a PhD program—aside from personal interest, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and everything that comes with learning to be an independent scientist—is to kick-start a career in academia or industry, this leaves us with the next important question: What is the measure of a successful PhD?

Why all this verbiage about the goal and success of a PhD when I am supposed to be providing guidance for how to find and obtain a rotation and PhD mentor? It’s simple: students need to find mentors who are equipped to provide them with the ability to succeed—otherwise that PhD diploma ends up being next to useless. And—not all PhD mentors are equal in that aspect. Not even close. So what is the coin of success and how do students identify it in a prospective mentor?

How do we measure a successful PhD?

This is a question that I asked nearly every applicant to our graduate and admissions program when I was the chairperson. Very few students at that stage were able to communicate an answer that I viewed as realistic. Many would say “I will have learned a lot of techniques.” Others would say “I will be able to run my own lab.” Perhaps the latter answer is a step closer to what I was hoping to hear. I tried to simplify things and ask: “How will a future post-doctoral mentor rate your PhD as successful, if he/she is considering hiring you among other applicants?” Some students would get a little closer to the idea and say “based on my recommendation letters.” Still, very few hit the nail on the head—and this is one reason that I decided to put together this little guide—so that students would be more aware of the real-world expectations of graduate school. The answer, of course, (although there are many versions of this) drills down primarily to one thing: your PRODUCTIVITY, largely assessed by looking at your PUBLICATION RECORD.

For simplicity here, I will avoid getting drawn into difficult arguments over the relative significance of the actual number of papers published, or so-called Impact Factors of the journals in which they are published. Suffice to say that if a student completes his/her PhD with several first-author papers that are published in respected peer-reviewed journals, this is probably the most important stepping-stone to open the doors to top labs for post-doctoral studies. For a student who aspires to an academic career as an independent scientist, acceptance to a top-tier post-doctoral laboratory is the single most important step. Accordingly, this means that for such an aspiring student, the practical goal of a PhD is to position oneself for acceptance to the very top post-doctoral positions.

In a sense, then, the optimal PhD mentor and lab will provide an opportunity for a student to learn, grow, and mature scientifically, develop critical thinking, lab skills and techniques, communication skills (oral and written), but just as importantly, provide an opportunity for the student to excel by publishing first-author research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Published papers are the ‘currency’ of science, and in all likelihood, a student who publishes 3-4 solid first-author papers will have doors open to almost any post-doctoral laboratory. A student who is unproductive will have few options, and those options that remain will likely be with mentors/labs that lead to dead-ends scientifically. In my experience, students who fail to excel in their PhD research are almost never able to “catch-up” and become independent scientists.

So how does one find such a mentor?

It is incumbent on the student to do due diligence and homework to identify such mentors. No mentor will say to a student “Don’t come to me, my students rarely publish—” it is up to the prospective students who are looking for rotation options to do research (remember that word!). How? There are a number of ways: the most simple way is to search the PubMed at the National Library of Medicine. By entering the mentor’s full first and last names, the student can get a readout of all papers published since about 2002. That is long enough—primarily the student should see what has been published in the past 7-10 years. (Note—if the mentor has a very common name, the student will have to search each manuscript and examine the author affiliations to see if the university fits for that mentor, otherwise that paper will be from a different person). It requires effort, as evaluating a mentor’s productivity in this manner needs careful research.

Is my prospective mentor productive and publishing well?

First, just seeing that the mentor has published ~100 papers in this period is not a sufficient measure of productivity. Papers that truly come from the mentor’s lab have the mentor as the senior author, usually the last author on the list, and typically note that the mentor is the corresponding author. If the mentor’s name is placed anywhere else within the paper, or he/she is not the corresponding author, it is probably not really relevant for a prospective student, as it means that the work was a collaboration and (much of) the actual research was done in another lab. Next, the student should make sure that most of the papers are research papers (rather than reviews of the literature). Reviews indicate the mentor is widely known and respected in his/her field, which is a good thing. But if 90% of the papers published in the lab are just reviews, this might be worrisome. Another thing that a student can and should do is try to determine what current students and recent graduates in the lab have published. Most graduate programs have lists of students assigned to individual labs, and many individual labs also have lists of current and former students. My suggestion is to take those lists and very carefully use the PubMed to determine how well these students have published with the prospective mentor. Usually a pattern emerges: in a lab where strong motivated students do extremely well, even average students tend to do well, and most students in such a given are likely to be quite successful. Beware of labs where students publish infrequently.

Another way to evaluate a successful mentor/lab is to see where former students end up. If they have mostly left science, this does not bode well. If the mentor has had the lab long enough, there should be a trail of students who have gone on to excellent post-doctoral positions (searchable on the web with some diligence) and even on to faculty positions, or alternatively, good biotech/industry positions, or other interesting jobs within the scientific community. Often this is listed on lab websites, but can be checked by searching.

Information from current lab members and from other students in the graduate program and institute can also be helpful in filling in the blanks, but it is usually best to complement this information with your own online searches. Students in the lab may be cagey or unwilling to talk freely about their mentor (for fear of retribution or being disloyal). Former students, even if you catch them on the phone, are still dependent on recommendation letters and may be similarly reserved about any criticism of the mentor. 

What about funding? Should I ask a mentor if he/she has funding?

Typically a mentor will need to be able to pay for a student’s stipend for the duration of his/her PhD studies, and of course be able to afford chemicals, biological reagents and equipment for the research. However, this is usually not an issue—most departments or programs vet their mentor pools and will only allow mentors with stable funding (or at least a history of stable funding) to recruit a student. So it is certainly worthwhile asking, but usually a program or department will assume responsibility if the mentor runs into trouble. Even in cases where the mentor decides to move to a different institution, procedures are usually in place to find a solution for the student, if he/she does not want to move with the mentor.

What about the differences between large labs and small labs?

When looking for a post-doctoral position that will hopefully later lead to a faculty position, most of the top-tier laboratories will be medium-sized to large. Very few will be small. However, for graduate students, where we are concerned with strong mentorship and a different set of goals, small laboratories can also be outstanding places for a PhD, with potential for much one-on-one mentorship. The key is in the mentorship, and the same criteria apply (productivity, the mentor’s overall commitment to the advancement of his/her students, etc.). In larger laboratories (more that 8-9 people), it would be important for the student to make sure that there are delegated senior people in the lab (post-docs or senior students) to help out in the day-to-day mentorship, because the head of a lab with 20 people will not have the time to discuss research and progress with a new student on a daily basis.

What about new or younger investigators?

New or young investigators can be an excellent choice for a PhD student (in fact, I chose a new investigator and it turned out very well for me). They are usually very ambitious, full of energy and drive, and often spend time in the lab in the early years training personnel and even doing some bench-work before succumbing to administrative duties later on. The only issue is that it is harder to “vet” new investigators, as they do not yet have a track record handling students or even in many cases, publishing as senior authors from their own laboratories. However, the innovative nature of their research and their motivation to succeed usually makes up for the lack of experience and track record.

I have identified a potential mentor who is productive and has successful students—how do I obtain a rotation?

The most important thing in setting up a rotation—and I can’t emphasize this enough—is to be professional! A student who is unprofessional and lazy in approaching a mentor risks losing that rotation. Remember: there may well be pressure on the better mentors, and if it is a “mentor’s market” –meaning the mentor has multiple students who are interested (for what might be a single PhD position)—then students who make a weak first impression might not even be offered a rotation. Again—as students evaluate mentors, mentors are also evaluating students.

Usually the best way to first approach a mentor is with a grammatically-correct and properly spelled email query. It is particularly important to spell the mentor’s name correctly. Put yourself in the mentor’s shoes—if the student who wants to do a PhD in your lab can’t even get your name right, how will he/she be able to get the right chemicals in the right test tubes for the experiments to work? You may be in a hurry, or think that it isn’t important, but believe me—as a mentor—these are crucial points.

The email may be brief, but should ask about a meeting to discuss a potential rotation. While it isn’t necessary to go into minute details about why you are interested in the lab/field, it doesn’t hurt to state that you are interested in XXX or YYY—whatever it is that the lab is working on. But it is better not to expose ignorance than say too little. The conversation with the mentor will be an opportunity to impress him/her with your knowledge.

Once the meeting has been set up, don’t assume that means you automatically have a rotation set up. After discussing potential projects (and make sure to do some basic reading before you meet), it is legitimate and important to ask how the lab works: what the mentor expects from the student both during the rotation and afterward as a full-time PhD student in the lab. Some mentors will say they expect students to work until 7 pm every day. Others are more hands off with regard to time in the lab and vacation. There is a lot of variability, but most mentors expect their students to be as committed as they themselves are to the success of the lab. Make sure you are comfortable with however the lab works.

I found a mentor for my first rotation—can I relax now?

Congratulations on the good work—hopefully you have done your research and vetted your mentor! However, this is not time to relax. To ensure that the mentor will want to offer you a permanent position as a graduate student in the lab once the rotation is completed, it is now crucial to bear down, work very hard and diligently, show that you are interested, responsible, trustworthy, honest, sociable with the other lab members, and capable of great things to come. It is important to realize that your mentor’s time is precious. He/she may be juggling dozens of teaching, administrative and other duties, in addition to mentoring the personnel in the lab. When you have time with your mentor, don’t waste it. Be interested. Ask questions. Learn from him/her. Be eager to show your data, but respect the mentor’s time. I have seen rotation students receive a cell phone call while talking to a mentor (me!), turn their back and walk away to the hall to talk on the phone. As I mentor, I recognize that there can be an urgent call or emergency, but when this quickly became a pattern, it also became quickly apparent to me that if a rotation student that early on didn’t respect me or my time, he/she should find another mentor (who perhaps didn’t care or was far enough removed not to notice). That is precisely what occurred. How else can you impress a mentor? I don’t suggest staying until midnight every night, but every mentor knows that a student who (on a day with no classes) works 9-4 will generally get less done than a student who works 8-7. Be aware that not only the mentor, but the other graduate students, post-docs and even technician in the lab are likely clocking your habits and reporting to the mentor their impressions of you. If you want the job, show that you do! Remember, there may be other students rotating, and perhaps only a single slot open for a PhD position. If you demonstrate that you are the best candidate, you will be offered the position.

Final points:

Remember, a good healthy environment with a mentor who looks after his/her students is crucial. Even if the field isn’t a perfect match with your initial interests, think carefully before turning down such an opportunity for a situation with less mentorship, but what appears to be a more interesting project.

Don’t be discouraged if a specific rotation does not work out as well as intended. That’s what rotations are for: it’s almost like dating, and sometimes it’s just not a good match.

Do your research before approaching mentors for potential rotations; avoid wasting time in labs that are scientific dead ends. Remember, a mentor who is not particularly committed to mentoring can often survive through collaborations—and in some cases by having a lot of funding and personnel. But as a student, what is important is not the overall number of papers published with the mentor’s name on them, but rather the PPPproductivity per person in the lab. A mentor may only publish 2-3 papers a year, but if his/her lab is made up of 2 students and a technician, that is outstanding PPP. Another lab might have 18 people and publish 5-6 papers a year. You make the calculations per person…

Finally, remember that you chose this career to enjoy the work/research. If a mentor or lab environment causes anxiety and stress from Day 1, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg, and I would recommend looking at a different lab.

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The Chinese Hoax that affects the globe

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Something wicked this way comes (R. Bradbury)

Our Dear Leader took to Twitter, his favorite media form, some years ago (and one would presume that it is his favorite because reading or writing more than 140 characters may be beyond his ability to concentrate), and said the following:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

This is about the most absurd statement ever made, and of course patently false, as are many of his statements. For millions of years, the planet has been undergoing cycles of warming and freezing roughly every 10,000 years, regardless of humankind. So even without the arguments against the contribution of greenhouse gases, it is clear that we are in a cycle of global warming. But it is also clear that over the past 100 years, greenhouse gases are enhancing the rate of global warming at an alarming pace.

I will leave it to climate scientists to continue to make the case for for this in peer-reviewed research. But as a non-climate scientist, who is also a trained observer, I will herein provide a few anecdotal points regarding climate change.

For those who don’t know me, I have lived in the great state of Nebraska for the past 14 years. Coming here in 2003, I became fascinated by the massive storms that occasionally roll into this area of the country during the spring-to-fall season. They consist of massive winds that can reach up to 150 mph (even without the rotation of a tornado), torrential rains that frequently bring golf-sized hail that can be as large as oranges, and skies that turn black in mid-day and are littered with lightning and thunder.

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But apparently there have been many changes in recent years. Calling my car insurnace agent to ask why my premiums are increasing every year in the absence of new claims, she told me that one of the reasons was the massive amount of hail damage seen in the last 10 years. Naively, I noted that the midwest has always been subject to such weather. She asked me whether I grew up in Nebraska, and when I said that I’d only lived here for 14 years, she told me that 20 years ago, while storms certainly occurred, hail was virtually unheard of here. In fact, she couldn’t recall ever seeing hail in her Nebraskan childhood. Although I could not find good records in support of that claim, it did appear that numbers of hail days in midwestern states have been changing (up or down) this century.

While there are clearly long-term trends in weather pattern changes, from my perspective I can say that we are experiencing a significant number of “severe weather situations” every year.

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The quiet after the storm…

It’s time now, not to be quiet, but to stand up and reject this government’s anti-science policies.

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Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut—or does he?!

The new Emperor, Dear Leader, or as he is known in this country, President of the United States of America, is on the verge of proving that even age-old sayings are no longer sacrosanct. Since inauguration in January, we have collectively witnessed an elected official to the highest office who has bungled everything that he has touched. He has lied outlandishly and perversely to the American people (the size of his inauguration crowd, the size of his electoral victory, the claim that Obama is sick and evil and wiretapped him, that the Russian interference in our election is a hoax, that 5 million illegals voted and otherwise he would have won the popular vote, and on and on…), picked unnecessary fights and disagreements with allies and friendly foreign leaders (Germany, Australia), continually praised our adversary, Russia, at all costs, displayed terrible judgment in hiring someone who may yet be accused of treason as the National Security Adviser (Flynn) and refused to condemn him even after firing him, hired an Attorney General who may be accused of perjury (Sessions), messed up with travel bans, healthcare and many other issues. Come to think of it, has he done anything that the country can be proud of?

An old adage is that even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut—meaning that even the worst president, even randomly, should be able to do something right. No one is completely bad (or good)—there must be something positive that he does. So now is the opportunity: a no-brainer. Do NOTHING and win. Stay in the Paris Accord on climate change! How difficult is that?

An overwhelming majority (61%) of Americans support it. Only 17% want to exit the accord. Big business—even Exxon—wants the country to stay in the deal. Even if you are obstinately anti-science, and maintain that the climate is not changing due to human pollution, would you not want your children to breathe cleaner air? Can you doubt that facts that there are more people just in California who work in the clean energy sector than all of the current coal workers? That the US will benefit economically from staying at the cutting edge of energy technology? I guess “alternative facts” have taken over this conversation too…

Our Dear Leader has shown that he has no trouble backing away from other promises; everyone will be covered with much better healthcare! Except for the 23 million who won’t. So why not back away from this particular pre-election pledge, especially with so much pressure from business to stay with the accord? After all, he claims that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on the street in New York City and it wouldn’t detract from his following.

I have no explanation—except to say that this firmly proves that blind squirrels may not always find a nut. And the Emperor may not find out that he has no clothes. Until it’s too late for us all on this planet…

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The March for Science: Can and should politics be absent?

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Since the crowning of the current US administration, the scientific community in the US has not only been reeling from the proposed cuts to almost every type of scientific research in this country, but also from the quandary of what to do about it. Scientists have been all over the map, embracing everything from encouraging active scientists to run for public office, to quiet, behind the scenes attempts to advocate the economic value of scientific research, with the notion that this will be a more palatable argument to those in power.

As a member of the American Society for Cell Biology’s Public Policy Committee, I was aware of discussions that went back to the earliest days of the administration, when immediate attacks were made on the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and other agencies that deal with anything related to the effects of mankind on our planet. At the time, many biomedical scientists that I talked to were of the opinion that “this can’t happen to us;” that whereas the environment has become a politicized issue, pitting big business and industry against environmental protection, there nonetheless remains overwhelming support for biomedical research. I disagreed with this approach then, and I disagree now.

For anyone who doubts the historical tendencies of people in power to ‘divide and conquer’—to start with “easy targets” and attack them first, followed up by attacks on more and more targets, hitting closer and closer to home—until finally almost everyone but the attacking party is targeted, please have a look at this poignant reminder from the “Life of Brian.”

In other words, scientists should come to the rescue of their fellow scientists, whenever they are under attack—and not sit on the sidelines hoping that the importance and value of their work may (strong emphasis on the word “may”) enjoy a more general consensus. As I have implied, it does not work like that.

Science is society’s ongoing attempt to understand things, to get to the truth of the matter. It is an elusive goal, with moving goal posts. As technologies advance, our understanding and interpretations of science often becomes even more complex. Always moving forward, in the long run, although often subject to the 1 step forward—2 steps backward phenomenon. But at any given time, there will always be the most rational, logical and explanation, and that interpretation based on scientific evidence, falls under the jurisdiction of principles devised by our namesake, William of Ockham, back in the 1300s. In layman’s terms, his ideas have been paraphrased as “The simplest and most logical explanation is the most likely one.”

Scientifically, how would that work? Well, as an example, if one were presented with 2 photos taken from an identical vantage point, with A showing masses of people covering the entire print from top to bottom and side to side, while B showed large gaps or areas where no people were present, what could we conclude? Yes, in the millisecond that the photo was taken, all of the people in B may have simply ducked their heads and thus are not viewed properly in the photo. Or they may have been momentarily abducted be an alien spacecraft before being returned to the throngs of people immediately after the photo was taken. We can find many such “explanations,” but it is obvious that there were simply more people present in photo A. So when people in a position of power explicitly lie, and claim that there were more people in photo B, scientists, and the general population need to rise up in relentless protest. Because once such lies have become acceptable, the rest of society will be lost—and science of course will be among the severe and immediate casualties.

Having said this, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us, scientist and non-scientist, to continue our protests on the attack against the truth. In every way possible. Letters to congressmen and women, senators, the president, newspapers. Science, and truth must be made a national priority. But in today’s March for Science, my view is that we should refrain as much as possible from singling out individuals and administrations. That we should refrain today, in this mass rally for science, from affixing blame and turning the march into JUST a protest. We should give the citizens of this country and all administrations, at least to date, credit for wisely, and in many cases, apolitically, supporting many branches of science with much foresight—and encourage today’s leaders to continue these policies that have served this country—and the world as a whole—so well until now.

And tomorrow, should the message not be internalized—we need to fight like hell.

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Back to the cranes

Although it feels almost treason-like to momentarily hold my tongue and write a blog  unrelated to the war being waged on science and truth in the US, the annual crane-fest is as good a reason as any to distract oneself with nature’s wonders.

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The sandhill cranes at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

It’s been over a decade since I last drove out west, about 2.5 h from Omaha, Nebraska, to view the spectacle of ~500,000 sandhill cranes congregating along the Platte River to feed, rest and bulk up before continuing their annual spring migration to the great white north.

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During the day, these cranes feed on leftover corn from the harvest of the many farms in the area, but each night, they collect along the river, and eco-tourists (like me) can reserve a spot in a protected “blind” and view this incredible scene.

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On the other hand, each morning (5 or 6 am), we can also reserve a spot at the blind to watch as the cranes noisily awake and begin their typical “lift-off” to head for the fields to feed.

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Need I say more? Take a look and take a listen! (click on the last photo to see a short movie or try this you-tube link https://youtu.be/IYP32K49nm0 …)

 

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Back to the Middle Ages

The current administration under the direction of Trumph has published a new budget proposal for 2018 discretionary spending. It does not take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that aside from a huge 54 billion dollar increase to the military (and with the exception of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs), all of the domestic departments have been targeted for massive cuts. This includes the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the department that houses the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH currently has a budget of about 31 billion dollars, which it uses to supports competitive grant programs that are the mainstay of this country’s research enterprise. These are grants in basic science and biomedical research as well as so-called ‘translational grants’ aimed at translating basic research findings to bedside treatments, and of course purely clinical research such as drug trials in patients. Trump has proposed a draconian cut in funding of about 18% or 5.8 billion dollars, that would reduce funding to 25 billion dollars—a funding low not seen in this millennium.

Just for context, for the last ~15 years, NIH funding has remained fairly stagnant, with the exception of a much awaited bipartisan-supported 2 billion dollar increase last year. The flat budget has seen a severe decline in US-led research advances, as mounting costs for equipment, research tools and reagents, and of course, personnel, have dramatically decreased the ability of researchers to make significant new discoveries. This, coupled with the natural growth of the number of biomedical researchers (without increasing funding for more grants) has led to low success rates for grant applicants.

There is little doubt that such a cut would have a devastating effect on our biomedical research program, which until now, has been the envy of countries around the world. The US has been able to draw the best and the brightest to its shores, to take advantage of the critical mass of brainpower and outstanding research infrastructure that we have enjoyed. This has fueled and incredible satellite community of biotech stat-ups and advanced equipment, all of which have a huge impact on our economy.

Of course, the major concern is not merely the negative impact on the economy, it is the overwhelming hit that biomedical research may suffer. Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg once said: “Without advances, medicine regresses and reverts to witchcraft.” Former director of the NIH appointed by George W. Bush, Elias Zerhouni, said that the cuts would be catastrophic, and said the following: “It will be a catastrophic event because the NIH funds grants over four or five years and therefore only has 20% of its budget to give at any one year. Therefore, if you cut it by $6 billion it means next year there will be no grants. It’s really ill-advised, I think, to change budgets so drastically so quickly. It will be very detrimental, especially on young investigators or new investigators, new science.”

Fortunately, the NIH enjoys broad-based bipartisan support from the US Congress and Senate, and representative from both parties have started to voice their serious concerns with the budget proposal overall, and the NIH budget cuts specifically. As scientists, the time has come to stand up for science and objective truth. Every one alive suffers or will suffer from disease, and without biomedical research, we will regress to the middle ages.

 

 

 

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SAVING ONE–my 4th lab lit novel is now available!

books

After a hiatus of nearly four years, my fourth novel featuring biomedical researchers as protagonists has finally been published, and is now available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon. Or you can get an autographed copy if you purchase through my website.

In SAVING ONE, I return to the setting of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where I spent just over 4.5 terrific years and nostalgic years (along with thousands of other enthusiastic post-doctoral fellows)–and where I have been returning for grant-review sessions every 4 months for the past 5-6 years.

Jeffrey Coleman is a successful principal investigator who has recently lost his wife to breast cancer. But he faces an even worse dilemma: his twins are both ill with polycystic kidney disease–and both are in need of a kidney transplant.

Described by a fellow author/reviewer as “a fast paced medical thriller,” I think that SAVING ONE is my best work yet (I know all authors say that about their most recent novel, but in this case, I really think it’s true). It’s also my second time publishing with Robin Stratton at Big Table Publishing Company, which has been a superb experience. Robin is a wonderful editor, and a joy to work with, and having read a number of the novels published through this small press, I feel honored to have been selected from the throngs of wannabe writers.

I will say no more, and hope that this topic may be of interest to some of you–and I’d be delighted to hear any feedback!

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House

Full disclosure: I am not a psychiatrist.

But it doesn’t take a board certified psychiatrist to see ominous parallels between the behavior of the recently elected president of the United States and a mental illness known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The Mayo Clinic describes NPD in the following way:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which is a sort of “Bible” of psychiatric illness published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists several of the following criteria for NPD:

Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance

Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

Exaggerating your achievements and talents

Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people

Requiring constant admiration

Having a sense of entitlement

Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations

Taking advantage of others to get what you want

Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

Being envious of others and believing others envy you

Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Sound familiar?

Many Americans maintained that Trump would become “presidential” and change his tone once he assumed the responsibilities of the job; once he was sworn in. But that moment has come and gone. And we are left with a person who is all-consumed by the most significant issue facing the United States in decades: whether the crowd at his inauguration was larger than that of President Obama’s two inaugurations. (Requiring constant admiration, Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it, Exaggerating your achievements and talents). Anyone recall his taking issue with Marco Rubio’s taunt about his hand size?

This issue is so cardinal to Trump, that he attacked the press from CIA headquarters, and had his press secretary viciously and, with blatant lies, read a statement claiming that the press was lying on this matter. The same Trump, after incessantly attacking the CIA and US intelligence services for their analysis that Putin and the Russians interfered in the US elections, blamed the press the his “supposed” discord with the intelligence communities. Just a few days after comparing them to Nazi Germany. Why does he do this? Because this apparently undermines his sense of being admired for winning the election. There is no other reason for this behavior.

I could go on and on with countless examples. Unable to stomach criticism from anyone on any matter. Examples that fit every single one of the criteria listed above. And so blatant and clear, that it’s hard to imagine how those near him, those in the Republican party who willingly or unwillingly have come to support him, fail to see it.

Fail to see it? Of course they see it. Of course they know it. It is the elephant in the room. And while I hope that as a country we get through the next 4 years unscathed, if things devolve into chaos and trauma for this country, in the words of Emile Zola: J’accuse.

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No escape from the geeky scientist phenotype–or is that stereotype?

Slide1

Professor John Nerdelbaum Frink, Jr., scientist from “The Simpsons.” A familiar stereotype.

For years I’ve been trying to combat the misconception that all scientists are, generally speaking, a geekish bunch who have little or no interest in anything but their own miniscule scientific worlds. Such a perception has been trumpeted in films, the media, and books, and has been challenged to some extent by those of us who try to portray scientists as ordinary people—albeit in extraordinary careers (author’s view!).

For this reason, I became incensed several days ago as I listened to music on “Spotify” during my morning exercise routine. An advertisement for the Exxon oil company popped up. As an aside, do they really need to advertise? For what? So people will pull into their gas stations and purchase their gasoline? Hard to imagine. To drum up public support for Trump’s Secretary of State nominee and former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson? Who knows… What really irritated me was the stereotypical depiction of scientists—not brave seekers of truth and explorers of new worlds—but as geeks.

The advertisement starts with the announcer noting that “This is the sound of seven Exxon scientists hard at work.” There is, of course, no sound. The scientists must be focused exclusively on their impossible-to-understand-for-normal-folks work, and patronized as those idiots that none of us would want to be, but necessary fools to keep things moving. The announcer goes on to say “They sure know how to party,” further distancing the listening public from those introverted fools, until one of the scientists utters an irritated “Shhhhh” in the background.

Some might conclude that this is a flattering depiction of brilliant scientists hard at work for the good of–well–for the good of an oil company. I do not. Such depictions neither portray scientists accurately, nor in a positive light. They do not foment empathy with scientists and science, and only serve to further distance the general public from science. It’s time for scientists to take a stand and reject such stereotypes. Otherwise how can we convince the general public of the importance of scientific progress, not to mention the integrity and understanding that science is the frontier of truth–with a characterization of bumbling, doddering introverted fools?

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The Autopsy, and what next?

I began this blog on Nov. 13, less than a week after the elections. It was too painful for me to continue. Not that there are many bright spots on the horizon that have appeared over the last 6 weeks, but the time has come for me to put this blog to rest and move on. So here it is, no less painful, but blunted slightly by mankind’s ability to adapt to new and stressful situations, time and time again…

The polls were wrong. The statistical aggregators were wrong. The pundits were wrong. The Democratic party was wrong. And the Republican party was wrong. And I was wrong. And while I won’t be eating any bugs, I am tremendously worried about the future of this country, the free world, and the planet.

What happened? There is no simple answer. And every one of the ~120,000,000 voters probably had a slightly different reason for casting her/his vote. One thing is clear, though; a large number of those who cast votes, did so with emphasis on outcomes that differ from what most analysts thought.

Some comments on the situation: The Irony: Early on in this election, it is clear that the Democrats realized that this election should first and foremost be a referendum on the character and temperament of Trump. It isn’t hard to understand why, or to fault this strategy. As noted by Clinton and the Democrats, does the country want a man who can be baited by a tweet? Whose anger at criticism boils over until he vents his frustration at common citizens in the middle of the night? Who cannot control his temper, frustration and anger during debates? The democrats, seemingly wisely, made this a key element of the campaign for Clinton for president. This left little time to really contrast policy.

And now, Americans are realizing that into the Oval office will go a Republican ticket that wants to turn back the clock on a woman’s control over her reproductive rights, that wants to annul gay marriage and (at least the Vice Presidential candidate) apparently supports “conversion therapy” for gays. Ironically, such ‘policies’ are largely considered to be anachronistic in American society, and surveys show that the vast majority of Americans are reject these attempts to infringe on the rights of minorities, women and LGBT community members. This irony can be extended for the environment–the new administration has put a climate change denier in control of the transition team of the American Environmental Protection Agency (*note: this has gotten far worse since Nov. 13), and I suspect that when millennials and many who were apathetic during the election realize the extent to which the Trump administration will ignore environmental concerns. *Additional irony since Nov. 13: Trump’s self-declared “landslide victory” includes a loss of the popular vote by nearly 3 million voters. Of course, he maintains through his post-truth ignorance of data, that this defeat in the popular vote stems from the “millions of illegal immigrants who illegally voted against him.” An ego such as his has no clause for losing.

Why did Hilary Clinton really lose the election? Was it the famous server in her basement? The perception by the working person that democrats took them for granted?  The growing loss of faith in institutions?  Was it FBI chief Comey’s two interventions? The Russian hackers? The tremendous smear campaign waged by the Republicans? The accumulation of “Fake News” and elevation of its significance to that of “Real News?” The desire for something different? Even as different as Trump, with 67% of the American public of the opinion that he does not have the skills, abilities and temperament required to be president? Or–is it all–“The economy, stupid!” *As an aside, significant numbers of people who voted for Trump are now very concerned about losing their healthcare insurance through “ObamaCare.” Some of these people, when interviewed, even said that they didn’t take Trump literally when he said he would repeal the act. Guess what?

I remain optimistic. I hope that these next four years will be better than I predict–despite tremendous misgivings regarding the president-elect–and I will not forgive any of the bigot-racist statements (in particular the birtherism and stirring of hatred towards President Obama) or “Locker room talk” and sexist behavior–but I still hope for the success of the government and country. After all, I live here. My goal is not to say “I told you so” in a few years (or months)–but rather–if at all possible: well, we are still moving forward.

At the same time, demography, the popular vote, a perceived weak democratic candidate,  a desire for change after 8 years and attention by the working classes all combined, in my humble opinion, to make this an exceptional and unusual election–with an unexpected outcome. Social issues, science, technology and equality for all people cannot be erased and the clock cannot be turned back. Let’s hope that the president-elect realizes that the clock needs winding.

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