How *NOT* to deliver a seminar

It seems that people are apt to try and recreate or relive their greatest successes, and it turns out that I am not immune to this behavior. Some years ago, a combination of exasperation and disbelief coupled with an attempt to educate others led me to publish a satirical piece called “How NOT to get a lab job.” 

In those years I was besieged with a multitude of poorly conceived and written emails from scientists wishing to join my lab as a postdoctoral fellow. I had emails addressed to “Dear Madam/Sir,” as though the writer had never bothered to assess with whom he/she would like to work. Other requests were sent to my email, but addressed to other scientists. Others still urged me to hire their spouse, or told me they like my project on –and here they cut and pasted the entire synopsis of my work from my website, different color font and different style/size text and all! In my analysis of these emails, I tried to illustrate to the reader how such emails were perceived from the standpoint of the employer—the person running the lab.

Remarkably, the satirical piece that I published on Lablit.com received a lot of attention, and I was swamped with comments from many scientists who appreciated my attempt at humor—and from several who did not. And now, years later, I still struggle at trying to surpass this achievement. And finally, I had an idea…

Every scientist spends countless hours listening to seminars—but not all seminars are created equal. There are good talks, and there are talks that need significant improvement. And while I try to remain positive and polite with my critiques, it seems that I open my mouth more than most—and thus, a colleague asked me: “You seem to have a pretty good idea about how seminars should be delivered—how about putting your money where your mouth is and giving a lecture to our trainees on the art of delivering a seminar?”

I had now effectively painted myself into a corner, and it was time to “put up or shut up.” And I guess that I just don’t have it in my DNA to shut up. And thus, my little seminar, “How *NOT* to Deliver a Seminar,” was born…

Lesson #1:

The key, I surmised, was to lead by example. So, after being introduced, I stood up, walked over to the front of the lecture hall, buried myself behind the podium so I was virtually invisible and unable to make eye contact with a single person in the audience, and began to mumble quietly so that anyone farther away than my belly-button would not comprehend a word. I then flashed on my “title slide.”

Slide01

There is nothing like yellow-on-white background so as to be poorly visible to the audience—and when there are spelling mistakes, inconsistent spacing between words, and no affiliation listed for the seminar speaker (and so on)—well, perhaps it is better if it is not easily visible to the audience….

Lesson #2:

Connecting with an audience is very important, as is delivering good content that is well organized. But that is not enough. So I moved to my second slide.

Slide02

As it turns out, a great way to lose an audience is to pack a slide full of words/sentences/paragraphs, with no respite for the weary. Drone on and on. The typical scientist in the audience will likely not even get to the third written line before abandoning hope of reading whatever is written, and start to tune out.

 

Lesson #3:

The Model. Every scientist appreciates a “model”—a simplified explanation of the best-guess for how something actually works. Models can be expanded upon, modified, altered, or even switched around completely, depending upon new incoming data that supports, negates, or allows modification of the model.

Slide03

But when the model looks more like circuitry for the wiring of a hard drive or nuclear transformer, and the lecturer does not focus in on a more select arm of such a tangled and complex pathway, this is another great opportunity to elicit snores and provoke latent narcoleptics into acute ones.

Lesson #4

Scientific terminology is cumbersome. Perhaps because scientists want to show off their ability to rattle off big names, or perhaps because the big names help formulate the accurate descriptions that scientists desire.

Slide04

In any case, lecturers often use a variety of acronyms to make their talks easier—easier for the lecturer and harder for the audience! When introduced once and usually rapidly, a typical person in the audience will have a difficult time remembering that dSTORM stands for direct Optical Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy, or that BBSome is derived from Bardet-Biedl Syndrome.

So to help put things in perspective, and not only show what NOT to do, I formulated an abbreviated series of recommendations for the presentation of a seminar–in other words, WHAT TO DO:

Why bother? Is it worth my time?

  • Every opportunity is a chance to improve, practice oral presentation skills, learn to better field questions.
  • Never underestimate the significance of impressing other researchers and faculty, networking, and being able to solicit strong letters of recommendation from faculty other than one’s direct mentor.
  • Being able to explain your work to a broad audience means that you may benefit from great ideas from someone outside your field, and also might potentially lead to beneficial collaborations.

In summary: Preparing a well-conceived post-doctoral seminar is key to obtaining a job

Professionalism

What constitutes a professional seminar?

  • The seminar is practiced (the more the better) and timed to the appropriate length
  • The slides are effective: clear, simple, and with good-sized words/text, images and graphs. Avoid overly crowded and complicated slides.
  • The slides should be very carefully vetted for proper spelling and grammar.
  • It is good practice for every slide to have a clear, concise informative title that summarizes the point of the slide.
  • Speak loudly and clearly. Use a microphone if you have a soft voice. It is YOUR responsibility to make conditions so that the audience can hear and follow you.
  • Don’t hide behind the podium. Talk to the audience whenever possible (rather than look at the slide), make eye contact and continually look at different parts of the audience/room.

Content (for a ~40 minute talk)

Introduction/Background (10-12 min.)

*This section should start broadly and slowly work toward the specific question(s) asked.

*If given in a diverse forum, it should be presented so that those outside the field and not familiar with the details can still follow.

*Do not include an abundance of extraneous information; everything you include should tie in and make sense when you bring up the specific question(s) asked.

The HYPOTHESIS (Objective/Goals) of your study should be understandable by the audience once the Introduction has been completed.

Hypothesis (Objective/Goals)

*The key to a good seminar is appreciation of the rationale. The logic of how the seminar is put together (the “flow”) and whether the questions and experimental design make sense and address the most important questions is crucial.

*A well-articulated (and simple) Hypothesis or Objective is essential—basically outlining your research mission in a nutshell—and in many cases a simple schematic model can be very helpful to get the message across.

Results/Data

*Ask a specific question before each data set. Sometimes a separate slide with a simple question really helps people follow.

*Use this type of format: 1) “We asked the following question….”   2) “To answer this question, we used the following approach…”   3) “From this data we can conclude the following…”

*Informative titles for each data slide help the audience follow.

*Make an effort to have good transitions from slide to slide: Example: “Now that we have shown that the sky is blue, we next asked whether the ground is also blue…”

*Beware of presenting overly technical information, or information that doesn’t fit well into the overall rationale.

*Remember the “Peak Effect” and that often “more is less.”

Conclusions/Summary

*While it is important to summarize as you move along through the results, at the very end of the seminar an overall conclusion slide should summarize the most important points learned.

*This information should essentially be simple, concise “take home information” that someone who slept through the entire talk could write down and still have learned something.

*Don’t rehash every point made, but give a general summary of the most significant things learned.

*If possible, a schematic diagram helps most people better conceptualize pathways and cascades, and gives much-needed perspective.

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Reinventing the Wheel

CRISPR /Cas9 gene-editing: staying on top of technology is a full-time job for researchers

New Year’s Eve has always been more of a time for reflection for me, rather than a time for partying. Perhaps this stems from growing up in a Canadian climate where late December and early January (or more accurately, October through April) and the accompanying bone-chilling cold and darkness were more likely to entice me to curl up in a fetal position than chug champagne.

Just as chess champion Garry Kasparov maintained that “Life Imitates Chess,” I would venture to modify that and say that “Life Imitates Science!” Wait! Does that even make sense?! Of course not—life is science, while, pardon the treachery fellow chess players, but it is—sorry—after all, only a game. However, there is something to be said about the parallels between life and the career of a scientist. And it all begins with New Year’s Eve reflections. 

Speaking both from experience of years gone-by and based on much anecdotal inference, it seems that young people have a tendency to feel immortal. After all, for a healthy young person, age 70, 80, 90 is eons away, and the end of life is practically inconceivable. And of course, statistics bear out these ideas, clearly demonstrating that in general, young people are more reckless drivers and greater risk takers than those who are older.

In parallel, younger scientists also feel as though the scientific world is in the palm of their gloves. I don’t mean that younger scientists are reckless, but that those embarking on careers as independent researchers are very focused on the here-and-now, as they should be. And growing up scientifically in an age where technology is rapidly advancing on so many fronts, I suspect that today’s young scientists have neither the time nor inclination to think about their careers in 20 years’ time. After all, many of us fight those early years to survive in academia—the struggle for tenure. But just as in life, aging brings on thoughts of mortality, tenure and initial successin sciencealso bring about renewed reflections on one’s future career in science.

If most young researchers think the way I did, then they may take it for granted that once one derives a measure of success in running a lab, they are confident that can be readily continued in perpetuity. But is this really the case?

Far be it from wishing to dissuade young people from a career in academic science, I do however wish to convey the need for long-term, treadmill-like persistence for success and satisfaction in this field. I have harped on how, in the past, PhD students were required to master several techniques in the course of their studies, whereas today’s students have become “jacks of all trades,” who (although they may not need to completely master the techniques) must be fluent with dozens of new technologies, many of which crop up at a startling pace. Today’s students must be highly skilled at the use of technology, particularly sucking out the benefits of computer searches that include finding technical solutions to a range of problems. But what is expected of those directing the research and running their own labs?

I find that to stay competitive in this field, I have not only had to adapt technologically to an ever-changing landscape of techniques and methods, but also conceptually to continually find new niches. First, from a technological standpoint, there is no such thing as staying current—to stay current, one needs to constantly move forward an adopt new and emerging technologies. And it can be a significant challenge to introduce new technologies in a small-to-medium sized lab comprised primarily of graduate students, when the principal investigator (PI) does not actively work in the lab. 

Just to highlight a few examples of how the research technologies in biomedicine have evolved since I have been a PI, when I first started up my own lab, the technology of knocking down a specific gene in cultured cells (to study the role of the protein encoded by that gene) was only starting to become established. Today, however, the use of the newly discovered CRISPR systems to knock down, and even more significantly, to edit or tag genes in the cell, is re-revolutionizing the science that can be done. While understanding the concept of CRISPR techniques is not especially difficult, being able to sort out the design of such editing at the molecular level and successfully direct the lab to incorporate these technologies has been a considerable task. Despite the many fine papers, excellent blogs, websites and troubleshooting readily available online, these systems are so individualized to each laboratories’ needs that it required weeks of reading, schematic scribbling and planning until we were able to set up these complex systems. And while I am very satisfied that we have met the challenges of incorporating these technologies, I suspect that the next ones will be even harder to overcome. It is important to note that I used CRISPR as a representative example, but our lab has launched into a variety of new technologies, from structural biology to super-resolution microscopy and beyond, each with its own significant learning curve. 

At the same time, my lab has been laser-focused (pun intended) on understanding endocytic membrane trafficking and mechanisms of endocytic recycling; in short, how receptor are internalized from the plasma membrane and eventually returned to the plasma membrane. While I think there have been significant advances in our field by many outstanding researchers over the past couple decades, it seems that this brick-on-brick, sure-and-solid level of advance is not sufficiently attractive for low-hanging fruit funding in recent years. To me, it seems as though we researchers are being asked to reinvent the wheel—to continually find new groundbreaking discoveries, rather than ‘incrementally’ advancing knowledge in the field. Good or bad? That’s a debate for another new year…

As a result, I have spent an enormous amount of energy to try to connect my area of expertise with tangential fields. We have connected endocytic trafficking to mitochondrial biology, and more recently, to centrosome biology. The ability to divert my lab’s research focus from its almost exclusive focus on endocytic pathways to these new realms over the past several years has been almost overwhelming for me. Even mastering the literature of a tiny area of research has become a near-impossible task—so the immersion in several new and unfamiliar fields to the level that we are able to study relevant questions and publish responsible data has taken a toll on me. 

I no longer have the cocky confidence of a newly-minted PhD. I hope that I will be up to the challenge for the next 20 years or so.

And as a Nobel Laureate for literature once wrote:  The times they are a-changing” 

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Tears for lives and an ideal lost

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Mindlessly meandering down Dodge

Tears flowing like blood oozing from an arterial wound

Lies and lunatics, spiraling out of control

And all decency unmoored, with no captain at the moral helm

 

Red light gushing blood of victims

My blood, any blood

Jackhammers banging like gunblasts

And all responsibility ignored, “it’s a guy with a gun”

 

Head hanging on the wheel

Stifling sobs and choking

11 elderly Jews, 2 African Americans, a pipe-bomb dream of drowned diversity

And only “What you see is what you get”

 

Car dealerships, banks, fast food restaurants

With flags moping at half mast

I grieve for those murdered

And I mourn for the once-moral nation that no longer is that beacon on the hill

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Balancing science and the need to be politically active

Many fine articles have been written on the need for scientists to find the right “work-life balance.” Most of the time, the meaning of a work-life balance is equated with identifying a healthy balance between the need to dedicate significant time and energy in one’s scientific career together with spending time with one’s family. Finding the “right balance” has always been a difficult and moving target, with tenure coming early in one’s career, and often in parallel with major family and personal events, such as pregnancy and the birth of children. However, more recently I have been considering a different work-life balance—a balance between work (science) and being politically active.

Compared to other academics, scientists have always been particularly slow to enter the political scene—and even then, only funding issues seem to resonate with many scientists. But in the light of recent events over the last 2 years—with emphasis on the last brutal 72 hours that include attempted assassinations of political figures and critics of Trump, the murder of two African Americans, the killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue, and the injury of several law enforcement officers, scientists need to speak out.

Scientists have traditionally felt that they are “above politics;” after all, we are involved in endeavors that are critical to human health. Scientists have always maintained the necessity of “focusing on one’s research” and “not being distracted.” But now, with a country fighting for its morality, this is no longer an excuse for not speaking out.

Political differences are legitimate. I may think that the tax cuts recently approved by the government are bad policy—that they are heavily weighted to those wealthy people that don’t need them, and that they do not help middle and lower classes enough. But elections have consequences, and all that is legitimate policy debate. However, when the president does not stand up, time after time, and whole-heartedly condemn racism, racists and white supremacists, this is not a policy issue. This is an issue of who we are and what we stand for. It’s an issue of survival—the survival of morality of this nation. It is a time for all people, scientists included, to stand up and speak loudly.

Do I think Trump is an anti-semite? I don’t know; his Jewish son-in-law and family is often cited as proof of his tolerance. I do know that this president has trafficked in conspiracy theories and many of them involve attacks on African Americans. Some examples: his failure to accept the legitimacy of President Barrack Obama, his attack on African American athletes, his diatribes on African American Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her supposed “low IQ,” his refusal to accept that the 5 men originally convicted and later found innocent of the brutal attack and rape of a Central Park jogger were indeed innocent. And, of course, his stream of insults and attacks on Hispanics and those from “shithole countries.” So while Trump may not fit a classic definition of an anti-semite, white nationalists and supremacists see the “whole package.” To them, Jews are just another “non-white” invader of their white hegemony, like blacks or browns—just perhaps harder to discern. And it is well known that tolerating one form of racism provides license for other forms. So when Trump unleashes his racist propaganda—Jews and every minority are potential victims.

Wrote Martin Niemoller, who was later quoted by Brecht:

“First of all, they came to take the gypsies
and I was happy because they pilfered.
Then they came to take the Jews and I said nothing,
because they were unpleasant to me.
Then they came to take homosexuals,
and I was relieved, because they were annoying me.
Then they came to take the Communists,
and I said nothing because I was not a Communist.
One day they came to take me,
and there was nobody left to protest.”

Fellow scientists—it is time to say something. Before they take our pipettes away, together with any remainder of the truth. For those scientists in the US—truth is on the ballot, so make sure you vote.

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Why women in science cannot achieve equality when the president presides over chants of “LOCK HER UP!”

By nature and training, most biomedical research scientists are reductionists. For those non-scientists who are reading this, what I mean is that organisms and cells are so complex, with so many things going on simultaneously, that it is extremely difficult to attribute cause and effect to any singular factors. To do so, many scientists “break things down” to simple systems: we use the bare minimum of factors thrown together in a “test tube” so that we can specifically determine what impacts what. Normally this is a solid approach—but it doesn’t work for everything.

For example, the reductionist approach is not viable for understanding why women, who are entering biomedical science in numbers that approach or even exceed the number of men, are still not achieving parity with men beyond graduate training. It does not explain why fewer women succeed as post-doctoral fellows, go on to faculty positions, and climb the ladder to full professorship. Yes, it is a complex issue with many factors, and yes, there are many possible (although not necessarily acceptable) explanations. But we must not adhere to a reductionist approach.

Last evening in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from my city of Omaha, Nebraska, the president of the United States, arguably the most scientifically developed country in the world, presided over a rally where people—including many women—were raving and chanting “Lock her up, Lock her up!” Who is “her? In this case, probably Senator Diane Feinstein, who Trump falsely accuses of having leaked the letter from Dr. Blasey Ford accusing the newest Supreme Court judge of sexual assault. But the “her” is more ominous than Senator Feinstein, or Hilary Clinton, the other frequently attacked woman in the “Lock her up!” chants. It is a generic HER. That HER represents every women who has ever been mocked, abused, mimicked or bad-mouthed by this president. Or any woman who has publicly disagreed with him.

It makes no difference that one by one, those surrounding Trump are being investigated, pleading guilty, cutting deals with the special counsel and prosecution, and earning jail terms. Just as it makes no difference how successful young women are in science, and in what numbers they are entering the biomedical workforce. What matters is the principle. What matters is that the supposed role model for the US and the world is disparaging women—specifically women (okay, and minorities of all sorts as well)—for the sole purpose of repressing. Pushing the old order. The male-dominated order. Male victims. White victims. And while one can somehowenvision how a certain type of older white male might be attracted to this type of populist garbage, I am appalled at how many women don’t see through it.

Yes, new polls are showing that in record numbers, women are appalled by what is going on. Roughly two-thirds of the women in the country are deeply upset by what is happening—regardless of politics. One can still be an avid conservative and be appalled by the attacks on women. Or so I’d like to hope. But one cannot support this president and be a supporter of women’s rights. That would be a complete contradiction in terms. Unless you believe in “Alternative Facts.”

It’s time for the American public, and particularly American women, to take charge. We need a female president and female vice president. We need female congresswomen and female senators. And we need respect for women. Only once this occurs, will we be able to really properly push forward women in science. I’ve done my bit and submitted my early ballot for Kara Eastman, democratic representative of Nebraska’s 2nd District, and sent a campaign donation. I call on all those who are able to vote in this crucial election—please get out and vote.

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Sometimes science needs to take a backseat

Science is based on fundamental, objective truth. So sometimes, in support of science, it is necessary to step back and take a moral stand. Here is my letter to Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse (republican, Judiciary Committee). Since I have no other way to reach out to Dr. Blasey Ford, I will tweet this link to her in full support of courageous testimony this week.

Sept. 29, 2018

Dear Senator Sasse,

As a constituent and fellow Nebraskan, I feel it is my duty to write and convey my deepest dismay at your vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in favor of confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.

On the day of the hearings, I sat riveted to my computer screen, watching, the compelling evidence of Dr. Blasey Ford. Like most Americans, I feel that it is inconceivable that this woman committed perjury; she had absolutely nothing to gain from wrecking her life and exposing herself to the deep hatred, death threats and everything else she has put her family through. As an academic myself, I could her love for her research and graduate students, and I know that this hearing has disrupted her entire life. No woman (or man) would lightly consider doing this, or taking a lie detector test, for that matter.

On the other hand, I was deeply upset by the belligerence of the supreme court nominee. Obviously, someone accused of doing something he didn’t commit would warrant a vehement denial. However, Judge Kavanaugh’s bellicosity and utter hostility, his unhinged attack on “The Clintons” and half the country, and his condescending behavior toward the female senators who were questioning him raised serious concerns as to his fitness to be an impartial, balanced, responsible Supreme Court Judge. If you have any doubts as to the accuracy of my assertions here, I ask that you please watch the hearing again. And for reference, please compare his hearings with those of Judge Gorsuch, who had zero allegations against him.

In addition, there is little doubt that Judge Kavanaugh has told a significant number of lies or untruths, depending on how serious one considers certain misrepresentations. There is mounting evidence from eyewitnesses that he was a serious drinker in high school and college years. Would that in itself disqualify a nominee who may have a stellar career post-college? Probably not—although I submit that the Supreme Court should have the very highest standards. However, lies about his past are, in my view, disqualifying, and potentially perjury.

Notwithstanding everything else, it is very clear that both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh cannot be telling the truth. And while this is not a criminal trial, the following reasons lead many to deeply question the fitness of the nominee: 1) Dr. Ford was extremely credible, and absent ridiculous conspiracy theories, had no reason to lie and every reason not to come forward. 2)  Judge Kavanaugh had reasons to lie; if true, his position is in danger. 3) Dr. Ford has clearly made her accusations known to others years before this nomination. 4) Dr. Ford has taken and passed a lie detector test. 5) Judge Kavanaugh has not taken a lie detector test. 5) Judge Kavanaugh has told a number of lies about his past and at the least, misrepresented himself. 6) Additional women have come forward; while their credibility has yet to be determined, this is something that needs to be done.

As my junior senator and representative in the senate, I am deeply disappointed in your decision to vote to confirm the nominee without further FBI investigation and calling additional witnesses to testify. Although my political views differ somewhat from those of your own, I have always respected your independence and general tendency to support what is ethically “the right thing to do.” A couple years ago, I recall corresponding with George Will of the Washington Post, regarding a column that he wrote just before the 2016 elections. In that e-mail, he wrote to me that he considered “writing in” your name on his ballot. He viewed you as the new brand of empathic conservatism. But today I feel numb and disoriented that only a single Republican senator stood up and asked for a very minimal FBI investigation. Unfortunately, you were not that courageous senator, and I ask you why not? And how could you possibly think that it was morally right, not to subpoena the only other witness allegedly involved, Mark Judge, to testify?

While I can understand some frustration at the possibility of potentially having to withdraw a nominee at the last moment, whatever unhappiness there is about Senator Feinstein’s decision-making and whoever leaked Dr. Ford’s letter, all of that pales in comparison to the sacred duty of ensuring that the next Supreme Court Judge is a person of the highest moral caliber. Your decision not to spend any additional time considering this matter is deeply disturbing to me and many Nebraskans/Americans.

As my senator, even independently of the FBI investigation, I ask that you carefully consider whether this nominee has moral values that are consistent with those of a worthy Supreme Court Judge. Whether you think his record is truly “unblemished” or whether there are serious and potential concerns. I think most non-partisan people would come to the conclusion that this nominee is truly not a good fit, and ask that you work toward finding as more appropriate and worthy nominee.

Sincerely,

Steve Caplan, PhD

 

 

 

 

 

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When truth meets “feelings”

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And behind the curtain is…?!!!

As human beings, we are taught (perhaps except in the era of Trump) about the importance of respecting others, and being sensitive to their views and feelings. Overall, this is a GOOD thing, and while money may make the world-go-round,  empathy certainly makes the world a better place. But respecting sensitivities, as important as it is, should not usurp the truth.

I will assume that no reader has a clue why I am including a photo of a purple curtain, but there is a method behind my madness. This photo is at the Nature Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, and behind the infamous curtain, hidden away from the patrons is an exhibit on evolution and Darwinism. Why is it hidden behind the curtain? Because this is the policy of the museum (i.e., government)–when kids from religious schools come to the museum, seeing such an exhibit upsets their sensitivities.

This is a classic example of a case where sensitivities should NOT be accommodated. Scientific truth is not for sale. It should not be tampered with, muted, whittled down or hidden just because of someone’s religious beliefs. If one chooses not to “believe” scientific fact–well, that is hypocritical–because we are alive as part of the process of science, and we stay alive longer due to the science and medicine.

The time has come for scientists and those who support science to become more vocal, and less “sensitive” to the “feelings” of those who oppose science. Contrary to what the current Trump administration would have people believe, science and truth are not negotiable.

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UGG: The Undergraduate Guide for Graduate School

UGG Cover

It’s been a fast-paced and hectic summer, but I am pleased to have finally completed and published a new e-book/e-manual titled: UGG: the Undergraduate Guide for Graduate School*  

Sensing that many graduate students enter biomedical research graduate programs without really knowing what to expect, and that many undergraduate students are in dire need of more comprehensive information on how to apply and get accepted to such programs, I finally put together this information in a comprehensive manual/book.

Unfortunately, I was only really able to address the US system, which may not be particularly helpful to those in the UK, continental Europe and across the globe, but I hope I have contributed my little share to helping out undergraduates who are considering a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences within the US.

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Once upon a time there was respect for scientists…

Some families sit together and watch sitcoms, entertainment, or sports. Not my family; we are the classic science geeks. Two parents who both are researchers with a lab to run, one adult child who is a sophomore microbiology/biochemistry student at university, and a high schooler with a love for all things math and physics and an interest, potentially, in medicine. What do we watch? Recently we began a fascinating series called “Charite,” named after the famous Berlin hospital, and dealing with the lives of the doctors, researchers and nurses who worked there toward the end of the 19th century.

charite-robert-koch

Robert Koch is visited in his laboratory by the German Kaiser and his entourage. A scientist in that era was accorded the highest respect.

I read somewhere that this German-made miniseries has been described as a sort of Downton Abbey of the medical sciences, with the professors and doctors likened to the wealthy Crawley family, and the nurses and assistants paralleled to the servants living on the lower level of the Downton Abbey manor. But personal stories and love affairs aside, the series brings to life three of the most significant researchers of this era: 1) The famous bacteriologist and immunologist Robert Koch, who laid the groundwork for the causal relationships between bacteria and diseases. Koch, famous for his Koch’s Postulates, a series of conditions that he deemed necessary to formally prove that a disease was caused by a specific microbe, made groundbreaking discoveries in tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera research. 2) Paul Erlich, who despite contracting tuberculosis, had a long and fruitful career in which he developed anti-sera and drugs against a variety of bacteria and parasites. 3) Emil von Behring, who made tremendous discoveries in the area of diphtheria and tuberculosis.

The apex of all three of these fathers of immunology centered in the miniseries around their common work at the Charite, bringing to life their strengths and weaknesses as people, their tempers and intimacies, their humanity. The story is compelling, and while one will not necessarily come away with a better understanding of the science behind vaccines, bacterial infections and immunology, that is far from the point; it is easy to pull up the information online. The beauty of Charite is in the recreation of the era–a time when electricity was barely available and yet these dogged researchers were carrying out controlled experiments in animals, and even testing their anti-serums on themselves and each other–to test safety before their antidotes became public.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Charite is the depiction of the scientists in the eye of the public at the time; the visits from the German Kaisers to the hospital, the degree of respect and honor accorded to the scientists for the work. The promises of more money for research, new institutes, new hospitals. The general adulation of researchers by the public-at-large. Indeed, Robert Koch was essentially pursued by an up and coming pretty young singer/actress who–at least in the miniseries–seems to have fallen as much in love with his research as with the man himself.

I do not bemoan the lack of adulation by young actresses for my own research career–but honestly–some respect and more support by the government would benefit the research community and the public at large. More than border walls and military parades. Will someone please take note?

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The best experiment

It has been a long winter, but spring is finally here. It’s a beautiful day, starting from breakfast on the deck, watching the birds over the lake.

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And it’s time for someone who hasn’t done an experiment in a dozen years (at least with his own hands) to pick up–not a pipette–a garden trowel.

For years now I have been the fortunate recipient of delicious summer vegetables from colleagues who have second careers as backyard farmers. Now, finally with a little backyard space of my own, it’s time for this nearly-flunked and unwilling student of botany to throw in his trowel. And so I did!

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I purchased 7 tomato plants: 3 “Park’s Whoppers” (recommended and approved by an experienced colleague), a Nebraskan Cornhusker cherry tomato plant, a grape tomato plant, a “heirloom tomato” plant and one other larger tomato species.

The fun thing about this “experiment” is that I can make it as subjective as I like! I can “quantify” how much I like each type of tomato, balanced by the hardiness and time for each plant to come to fruition, coupled with a factor for the yield from each plant–and come up with a mathematical equation for what to plant next season. Or not. Perhaps I will just decide subjectively whatever tastes the best.

For now, all I can do is wait it out. In the time it takes for a submitted grant to be reviewed, I will (hopefully) be able to indulge in delicious ripe tomatoes.

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