Prayer works–or does it? Shall we ask the murdered?

No sooner had I penned my piece exposing the hypocrisy and weak-kneed leadership of Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, when he has made new headlines with another smug, holier-than-thou, awful and divisive statement–that is also wrong.

Following the horrific church shooting in a small Texan town, in which at least 26 people were murdered by rapid gun fire, Mr. Ryan was criticized for his now- standard response that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Many Americans, however, are unimpressed with the hollow words–that tend to follow every gun-related massacre–and have criticized Mr. Ryan saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough.

Mr. Ryan replied in the following manner:

“It’s disappointing, it’s sad, and this is what you’ll get from the far secular left. People who do not have faith don’t understand faith, I guess I’d have to say. And it is the right thing to do is to pray in moments like this, because you know what? Prayer works. And I know you believe that, and I believe that and when you hear the secular left doing this thing, it’s no wonder you have so much polarization and disunity in this country when people think like that.”

Really? The secular left is the problem? The ones who are “polarizing” everything?

Mr. Ryan, please take note: for thousands of years people have been praying to one entity or another. Idols, the sun, the moon, polytheism, monotheism–take your pick. For thousands of years people have continued to die from hunger, disease, accidents and murder. People have died during civil wars, in the Holocaust in gas chambers, in Rwanda and in Syria. People continue to pray. And die of cancer and heart disease. Children and refugees continue to suffer around the world. And you say prayer works? For whom? For those who have lost their lives? Or just for you–making you feel better?

For many of the issues still causing suffering across the globe there are no easy answers. For mass gun murders, there are also no easy answers. There are, however, rational steps that can be taken to decrease the likelihood or deadliness of these events. Even if these measures, related to common sense gun control, ‘only’ prevent one such massacre (rather than all of them), evidence still shows that this will be more helpful–to the potential victims–than prayers.

Speaker Ryan, it’s time to get off your pew–and your smug high-horse–and use your position to push for common sense measures to protect the children of this country. Pray all you want, if it makes you feel better–but DO SOMETHING to ensure that others feel better.

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Paul Ryan, it’s time to go home

It has now been a full year since the elections that brought a morally reprehensible person into the White House. By now, any remaining negligible hope that the man who was elected president might “pivot” and show even a semblance of the type of moral leadership expected from the holder of this position has drowned in the swamp that he so hypocritically vows to drain.

In the course of the elections, we were met with an occasional and largely insincere smattering of spineless criticism from the Republican leadership, every now and then. After release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes, in which Trump prided himself in forcing himself on women and being able to grab them by the genitals, there was a short period of silence from Republican leaders. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz even went as far as to rescind his support, noting that with a 15 year old daughter, he couldn’t bring himself to support Trump. Interestingly, in the aftermath, he managed to forget about his daughter fairly quickly. It’s remarkable how sparingly that principles, integrity, honor and courage are related to politics these day.

Arguably the most morally bankrupt Republican politician today is Paul Ryan.  This man, who once stood as a vice presidential candidate for an honorable man, Mitt Romney, has lost any shred of respect that I once had for him. Following the very most revolting comments and behaviors of Trump, Ryan occasionally–when pressed and appearing as though in a hostage video–surfaces to make a weak statement. The man who noted that Trump made a “textbook racist comment” continues to support him to this day. Why? Tax reform, of course. Isn’t it obvious?

What Ryan fails to understood, as is fitting for a man lacking any moral courage, is that however one feels about tax reform–he is selling out the country by supporting a president who does not respect our democracy.

How many times will Trump attack American judges before Ryan speaks out against him? How many times will Ryan and the weak Republican leadership fail to reprimand a president who continuously complains about the FBI and the Department of Justice, and sees fit to interfere with ongoing investigations? Does Ryan–and his fellow leaders on the hill–not understand that taxes are meaningless in comparison to the threat to our unique democracy? I will accept ANY kind of tax system that congress and leaders agree on–as long as we prevent our democracy from sliding toward the type of autocratic system that the president is pushing for. But our system of justice and equality must be protected. And Ryan is asleep at the wheel.

It is time for Ryan to step down and allow Republican leaders who value moral clarity to take his place. There comes a time when not speaking out can only be viewed as endorsement–and by supporting morally reprehensible behavior, by default, one becomes morally reprehensible.

 

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A danger to science and so much more

Recent polls demonstrate that a shocking number of Americans believe ridiculous conspiracy theories. For example, nearly 1/3 of Americans believe that the Federal Drug Administration in the US deliberately withholds new drugs that target cancer from the American public. In addition, a full 25% of Americans still believe that former US President Obama was not born in the US (the “birther conspiracy”). Many also believe that the US government itself caused the horrible deaths of thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, or even that the whole event never occurred. And our current president is a major proponent of a variety of such conspiracy theories, especially the one about President Obama’s place of birth.

It needs to be said clearly that truth is objective, not subjective. It is not an opinion. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, and no amount of BS from artists like Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer (supporters of the “Alternative Facts” movement) will change that. Hydrogen has a single proton. Conway, Spicer, Trump or anyone else can say it has 2, or 10 or 1000–that will not change the truth of the matter. Just as they can say that Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever–when data shows that it wasn’t. It will not change the truth. Similarly, climate change is real. You can “believe” climate change is not happening all you want–that won’t change the truth, just as you can believe 2+2=5. Belief has nothing to do with truth.

The massive number of people who are gullible enough to fall for these conspiracy theories is extremely worrisome, and bears careful consideration. I break up the US population into 3 segments: 1) Those that go by evidence (scientists, mathematicians, teachers, academics, journalists, and essentially anyone who has been trained to think critically). 2) Those that are gullible and will ‘believe’ conspiracy theories. 3) Those who know that the conspiracy theories are BS, but propagate them to their own advantage (politically and otherwise).

Of these groups, ethically the worst are the propagators–Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicers and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with the enablers (the Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans)–all of whom know that they are spouting lies and nonsense that has no evidential basis, and yet do so for supposed political gain.

The massive number of people drawn towards conspiracy theories and other debunked nonsense presents a clear and present danger to this country and to democracy in general. It also makes science an almost impossible feat; when such a large segment of the population is stuck in the middle-ages of truth, how can science proceed? How can people appreciate scientific evidence when fact has lost its meaning?

It is difficult to stop these promoters of lies and vicious conspiracies, especially when they appear to get away with their crimes. There is only one tried and true way–that is to start from the “bottom up” and slowly but surely teach children and adolescents critical thinking in school.

Children must be taught the difference between objective facts and opinions–and that “believing a fact” is nonsense. One doesn’t believe in facts–a fact is a fact, period. No ifs and buts. And children need to understand what makes a fact a fact, and what precludes a fact.

This is an emergency; if there is not sufficient emphasis placed on ensuring that the next generation can differentiate between facts and BS, then democracy will lose its meaning. And science will become the first victim.

 

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Why we need to better educate the public about science–and stop bill “S. 1973, The Basic Research Act”

The 20th and 21st centuries have arguably been the “Golden Age” for science in the US and other developed countries. Within a generation we have gone from people routinely dying as a result of simple bacterial infections to the power of antibiotics in preventing most deaths. We have gone from polio, smallpox and even chickenpox to vaccinations that largely eliminate disease in immunized people. Even many dreaded types of cancers are slowly becoming, in some cases, manageable diseases with the advent of new therapeutics, including the remarkable new chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy (CAR T) that is based on taking a patient’s T lymphocytes and engineering them to express a protein that selectively attacks the patient’s cancer cells—before returning them to the patient’s bloodstream to take on the cancer cells in battle.

There may be no “magic bullet,” but torrents of sticks and stones, along with researchers who are determined to better understand our natural world, are steadily improving human health. If there had been similar advances (to those in biomedical research and science in general) in preventing war, terror, and discrimination over the past hundred years, the world would be an infinitely better place to live in—as we generally live longer and healthier within it.

Despite these dramatic advances, I am convinced that the public lacks a crucial appreciation of the value of science and scientific research, and just as importantly, there is a lack of understanding how scientific research works. What evidence is there for these claims of mine? First, the White House and administration have been calling for massive (20%!) cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the chief funder of biomedical research. Fortunately, bipartisan support for research in congress has rebelled against these calls and continued its support for science. But now a new proposal threatens science and research from another angle.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has introduced a new bill (S. 1973, The Basic Research Act) that proposes to fundamentally alter grant review at both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). What is he proposing? That on every grant review panel there be two additional “reviewers:” one who is outside the general field of research who would independently judge which fields are most worthy of funding, while the other panel member would be a “taxpayer advocate” who would be there to ensure that “there’s no silly research that the government has no business funding going on.” Worse yet, for the NSF, there would be a new “Office of the Inspector general and Taxpayer Advocate for Research” that would randomly sift through top-rated proposals that were reviewed to decide if these proposals “deliver value to the taxpayer,” and this office would have absolute veto power over funding of any NSF proposal.

The senator’s proposed bill threatens to seriously undermine and damage the grant review system and research in this country. It is agreed by most researchers that our peer review system isn’t perfect. Just as democracy isn’t perfect (trust me, look at what happens when an intellectually and emotionally unfit person is elected to the highest office). But despite being imperfect, the peer review system still works—even under the highest levels of stress. As a reviewer at NIH, I frequently see that reviewers independently manage to identify strong grants and weak grants. There are relatively few disagreements; where it becomes trickier is separating the very good from the excellent. Can reviewers really discern between a grant that is in the top 8% compared to the top 14%? And are these comparisons mostly subjective? Despite these issues in grant review, which are worsened by insufficient funding in the system (if the top 25% of grants were all funded, these would not be concerns), reviewers do a good and thankless job overall.

Why is Senator Rand’s proposal so damaging to scientific research? Because it illuminates his own ignorance of science and the scientific process. It characterizes his misunderstanding of how scientific advances are made. It ignores the principle that science is built brick-on-brick, and goes from fundamental understanding to applications for diseases. It ignores centuries of knowledge beginning with Darwin, demonstrating that humans are part of an evolutionary ladder, and fails to realize that lower organisms are frequently a very useful tool for scientists to understand how humans function—at physiological, cellular, molecular and atomic levels.

Without basic studies on proteins, their structure and function (would the taxpayer advocate care about protein structure?)—how would we be able to engineer vaccines? Without genetic engineering—coming from the study of bacterial enzymes (would the taxpayer advocate care about bacterial enzymes?), would we be able to edit DNA in cells and reprogram enzyme production in children with human enzyme deficiencies? Without the very same genetic engineering techniques (and again, would the taxpayer advocate care about these things?), we would never have been able to produce insulin for diabetics.

Another fine example: would the taxpayer advocate have thought that it was worth the taxpayers’ money to study how bacteria can acquire resistance to bacterial pathogens (called bacteriophages)? These studies ultimately led to the CRISPR/Cas9 method for targeted gene editing, opening a new era in molecular biology, leading to over 20 new clinical trials to ‘correct’ defective human genes, and likely on route to future Nobel prizes.

The public needs to be better educated about how scientific discoveries are made so that people understand that science is not a parochial system. It is not nationalistic. It is global. One discovery leads to another. There are no artificial boundaries, and science cannot be lumped into useful and wasteful categories. Often times bizarre findings in one field can have a huge impact on another. The identification of enzymes from bacteria at Yellowstone hot springs—enzymes that are resistant to high temperatures—led to revolutionary advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering, and have been the foundation of much of modern medicine. So the public needs to be better educated about how science actually works—so that it refrains from electing senators who threaten the advance of science and biomedical research through their ignorance.

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Thin slicing a thin-skinned president

A wonderful elementary school friend who I haven’t seen for over 40 years recently drew my attention to a Canadian journalist and author named Malcolm Gladwell. I first read his book “Outliers,” a book that examined how the very most successful people in a variety of fields (from computer gurus like Bill Gates, to star hockey players, to airline pilots) managed to climb to the top of their respective disciplines. The overwhelming premise, backed by a slew of fascinating facts and anecdotes, is that skill, intelligence and drive are simply not enough on their own; without being in the right place at the right time (fate, luck, coincidence or whatever), no one would reach the top.

I have since moved on to my second Gladwell book, “Blink.” No less entertaining and original than “Outliers,” “Blink” deals with the notion that people have a relatively unrecognized and poorly understood mechanism for making ‘snap’ judgments, a mechanism that Gladwell claims is often as effective (or even more effective) than ‘traditional’ rational decisions.

I found this argument to be particularly interesting, and although I often pride myself on carefully articulated and cautious judgment, I also know that many of my most important and (accurate) decisions are made very quickly. This is true not only in my personal life, where many times I find that an initial negative impression upon meeting someone is almost inevitably borne out upon closer acquaintance, but also in my professional capacities. The success of a science lab rides on the quality of the personnel—students, postdocs, and technicians. And I feel that I have been fortunate in typically selecting the best of the best, something that has been great for our research.

Gladwell likes to use the phrase “thin slicing” for this type of quick judgment, and gives numerous examples of how people who are good at thin slicing can make immediate and accurate judgments, often without understanding how they are doing so. His examples include identifying forgeries, being able to rapidly assess whether a married couple will remain together, evaluating whether a tennis player will double-fault as he/she prepares to serve, and assessing the teaching of professors after watching them only for several seconds.

One spectacularly successful bit of my own thin slicing, if I do say so myself, was done just a couple years ago during the Republican primaries for the 2016 US elections. Not watching any television, aside from the news and an occasional Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) show, I had never heard the name of one Donald Trump before the primaries. This bit of thin slicing, unconsciously and rapidly evaluating him as a person, must have occurred not in seconds but milliseconds (nanoseconds?)—and my intuitive feelings so strongly indicated that this is a morally compromised and revolting individual, that I am continually in awe of my thin slice judgment with each passing day and each new terrible discovery of the mendacious and narcissistic personality who holds the office of the presidency. If only thin slicing could provide hope and indicate when this awful person will finally disappear from public life for the good of the country.

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Corruption is contagious: just ask the former US Health and Human Services Secretary

This week, as Caribbean Islands including Puerto Rico are struggling from the horrific effects of Hurricane Maria, as running water and electricity have all but disappeared, and as the first rumors of possible cholera have emerged from the rubble, America’s rich spoiled brat took to the airwaves to criticize those “Sons of bitches” who dared to kneel in protest against discrimination. In the meantime, as the spoiled brat flew off to one of his fancy golf clubs, he took time to attack the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, describing her, in his classic misogynist manner, as “nasty,” eerily as he did to Hilary Clinton.

We seem to flounder from crisis to crisis in this country, hanging by a presidential tweet, with our tolerance for disgust being continuously immunized with every passing day. The president seems to be that blind squirrel, but one who never manages to find an occasional nut. Or the dog, who is always on the wrong side of the door. Is there any issue that he ever manages to come out looking like a leader, one who has empathy for anything other than his own ego? Well, there’s a rhetorical question.

Underscoring all this “winning” (perhaps he meant whining?) that the president promised the country (you’ll get tired of all the winning, believe me!) the country is being run by a cluster of fellow rich spoiled brat millionaires and billionaires, none of whom seem to understand that rules apply to them, and that they are supposed to be looking out for the good of the country. Not their own egos and comfort. But of course, corruption and spoiled-brattedness (yes, I just coined a new phrase) are contagious. And an infected president has infected his cabinet and inner circle.

Yesterday, the American Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, resigned (or more accurately, was forced to resign). Price, who just loved to talk about his commitment to the American taxpayer and the terrible waste flying in private jets  resigned in the wake of a scandal uncovered in a series of articles by diligent Politico reporters Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan about—you guessed it: wasting taxpayers money by flying on private jets .

Price took at least 24 chartered jets across the US, including a ~$25,000 return flight between DC and Philadelphia, which would have cost about $72 for a return Acela fast-train and would most likely have delivered Price more quickly to his destinations. All in all, including the chartering of military jets for overseas flights that he could have flown commercially for a mere fraction of the cost, Price racked up around $1,000,000 in costs just since March/April! He should be proud—that’s probably record government waste, for Mr. Fiscal-Responsibility.

What is especially alarming is the context of the waste, as James Hohmann of the Washington Post points out. Before his fortunate early forced retirement, Price was a big proponent of cutting research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by almost 20% in 2018, noting that the research is not efficient enough (wasteful?). Sure—it pales with the need for private jets! Just for some personal context, the average NIH grant, which has not increased in its amount over the last 20 years, is at about $1,000,000 in direct costs to the research lab over a 4-5 year period. That keeps a principal investigator, several graduate students, a technician and perhaps a postdoctoral fellow employed and active in basic and clinical research, all of which lead to improved health and economic growth. By contrast, what does the American public gain from a private jet flight by the Health and Human Services Secretary between DC and Philadelphia? Go figure…

More context: The history of the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is long and convoluted, and it is not my intention to wade into the controversy over patents and who first made the crucial discoveries. Suffice to say that after fundamental findings probably dating back to the mid-1990s, over a brief period of time beginning around 2012, several investigators (most prominent among them Doudna  and Zhang , recognized and developed the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system as a method that could be used to edit genes in human cells. A mere 4 years later, an article in the New Scientist reports on more than 20 clinical trial involving technology derived from the CRISPR/Cas9 technology . Indeed, the online NIH Reporter tool shows that Dr. Zhang is funded for ~$1,095,702 for a grant focused on CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Dr. Doudna is listed as also funded for a grant-center at about $2,000,000 to study this technology. And what was the contribution of the leader of the NIH and former Health and Human Services Secretary Price? Wasting a million dollars that could have gone to brilliant and hard-working researchers to support health and advance science.

Fortunately, the arrogant Health Secretary has now been dismissed. But I seriously doubt that his replacement, if not already infected by the contagious corruption of the Trump-swamp, will be able to hold his/her head above the stinky waters for long, especially as the president has opened the dams of the sewage reservoir.

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Diversity skips African Americans in science

On a recent grant review panel, I was struck at the degree of diversity among the reviewers  at the table; with roughly twenty scientists in the group, I noted people who who hailed from at least nine different countries (not including the US) and four continents, spanning Europe, Asia and the globe. I found this to be a remarkable feat; almost half of the reviewers on the panel–scientists who were considered to be sufficiently established to help make important decisions about the future of US science–came from outside the US.

grant review

In an era where the president of the US avidly rejects the need to invigorate and rejuvenate this country with new blood through immigration–which has always been a hallmark of American success–such a review panel symbolizes the integration of foreign cultures and highlights how the US has traditionally leveraged its policy of welcoming immigrants to funnel new ideas and approaches into this country. “The best and the brightest” and in fact, anyone with a work ethic has always been welcomed. At least until now.

Despite the pride I feel at being part of the great American melting pot, in the wake of the events at Charlottesville, Virginia recently–including the death of anti-Nazi and anti-KKK protester Heather Heyer, it is clear that the US has not been able to entirely overcome its racist past. But even putting aside the racist fringe groups (and one might well argue, as did ESPN’s Jemele Hill, that the president and key White House staff are white supremacists), there is no question that despite the US success in integrating immigrants and people from outside the country, the African American community in the US is still suffering from the horrific long-term consequences of slavery, and in its aftermath, longstanding inequality.

Following the terror and murder in Charlottesville, I was moved by some of the African American journalists and commentators that I watched on the news. One commentator noted, in a statement that really resonated deeply with me, how the African American community has watched wave after wave of immigrants come to the US, and within a generation, each has managed to assimilate and become successful Americans. And yet, the African American community remained repressed, impoverished and unequal, and extremely frustrated as each new wave of immigrants claimed their part in American society.

A lot of controversy has surfaced with the introduction of affirmative action, programs designed to ‘level the playing field’ and help African Americans and other under-represented minorities get accepted to college and other positions. Admittedly, while this may help in the short run, it is an imperfect solution, as it does not get to the root of the problem, and it also imposes a subjective system of acceptance with its own imperfections.

The real, long-term solution is to eradicate prejudice and discrimination, reduce poverty, beef up and especially enhance all levels of pre-school, elementary school, middle school and high school education for African Americans and minorities, to provide an equal footing. If we were able to achieve this, in 10-15 years I am certain that we would have a proportionate number of American Americans in science, and eventually on grant review panels. But for now–as this solution does not appear to be on a government priority list–we’ll probably be left with varying forms of affirmative action.

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Science in the Trump era

Shortly after the inauguration of Trump as president of the US, this country has entered a new “post-truth” era. The president, who undoubtedly has serious (and perhaps justifiable) feelings of inferiority and insecurity along with his narcissism–despite outward posturing–claimed that his inauguration crowd size was larger than that of Obama or of any US president in history.

crowd_split_social_y

Does inauguration crowd size matter, one way or another? Actually, who really cares? But perpetration of the lie–and this is a man who lies as easily as he breathes–DOES MATTER. Particularly when there is ample proof that this is a lie. The image above and the ones below, taken at almost the same hour on Inauguration Day for Obama in 2009 and Trump in 2017 make this abundantly clear. Screen_Shot_2017_01_20_at_11.04.49_AM.png

Trump inauguration 2017

 

GettyImages_84374977

Obama inauguration 2009

However, the president sent out his advisers and press people to perpetuate the false claim that more people attended his inauguration. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer stood in front of a room full of journalists and told them, and the American people–and the world–that they are wrong and that the president was right. He stated the bald-faced lie (with obvious irritation at being asked about the issue) that it was the largest inauguration ever. Period. Those were his words before ducking out and refusing to answer questions about the telling aerial images and photos that proved he was wrong. Later, Trump’s mendacious mouthpiece, Kellyanne Conway, repeated the lies and coined a new term which will, I predict, have long-range damaging effects on American society. When pressed about the issue by Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press,” she told the American public that “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” she said. His answer, of course was: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.” The new ‘post-truth era,’where ‘alternative facts‘ become an accepted answer when pressed about prevarication, has ramifications that go beyond politics. After all, if we can casually brush off lies and call them alternative facts regarding day to day events, why not in science?

Take the following potential situation, for example: my colleagues in the lab and I recently discovered that a protein influences mitochondrial fission. This means that in the absence of this protein, the mitochondria in cells are not cleaved and trimmed, but tend to become very long and elaborate. Just as the inauguration of President Obama was large. Mitochondrial fission

The length of mitochondria increases when the protein EHD1 isn’t there… We recently published our findings, and this first figure from the paper shows that a protein called EHD1, when deleted from cells genetically (the right-hand images) leads to elongated mitochondria (the white structures marked by the protein Tom20). As one can see from the graphs in F, G and H of the figure, we have quantified mitochondria from hundreds of cells, and this is not merely an atypical set of images but images that are representative of what is really going on.

Suppose that rather than the peer review our paper was subjected to, we instead had a “Kellyanne Conway-like” editor who wrote back to us after our submission: “Dear Dr. Caplan, we appreciate your sending us your manuscript to our journal for review. While the data is intriguing, our reviewers and editors have carefully reviewed your findings and believe that there are serious concerns. Both reviewers who read your manuscript believe that the mitochondria are not really longer in the cells lacking EHD1, indeed, they believe that there are alternative facts that show that the mitochondria are much shorter in the images lacking EHD1.”

Humorous? Satirical? Highly unlikely? So was the election of our current president. Scientists, beware. You have been warned.

post-note: the removal of the US from the Paris Accord and the trampling of scientific evidence on climate change and the environment show that this is already occurring…

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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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