Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Whistleblowers suffer from collateral damage too

Science reported the case of Elizabeth Goodwin, a former UW-Madison associate professor of genetics who pleaded guilty to a charge of scientific misconduct for falsifying data in a grant application to the NIH.

What is interesting (and sad!) though is not so much about sentence meted out to Goodwin (most likely just a fine and a ban from receipt of federal grants for 3 years), but the fate of her ex-students (ie. the whistle blowers):

The university praised the students for having done the right thing. A university investigation subsequently concluded that Goodwin had falsified data on grant applications and cast doubt on three papers, all of which were later cleared of any problems. Goodwin resigned. But the outcome for several students, who were told they had to essentially start over, was unenviable. One, Chantal Ly, had gone through 7 years of graduate school and was told that much of her work was not useable and that she had to start a new project for her Ph.D. (The reason wasn't necessarily because of falsified data but rather, Ly and the others thought, because Goodwin stuck by results that were questionable.) Along with two of the others, she quit graduate school. Allen moved to a school in Colorado. Just two students chose to stay at UW.

One of those who left reflected about the case in the Science story published in 2006. "Are we just stupid [to turn Goodwin in]?'" Sarah LaMartina said. "Sure, it's the right thing to do, but right for who? ... Who is going to benefit from this? Nobody."

The system as is right now is heavily tilted to the PI's favor. Principal investigators have too much power over the fate of their graduate students' and postdocs' scientific careers.

The PI has the power to direct the efforts of his/her students and postdocs, choose their projects, set their hours, tell them who to work with, decide whether their data is worth keeping or suitably labeled as junk, decide whether, when, and by whom their results are presented, and so forth. The PI controls all the resources the graduate students need -- funding, training, even access to other faculty in the department.

Even if he/she is to fall in disgrace, the students and postdocs won't be able to get away unscathed, as this episode demonstrates. A professor in my PhD institution once gave us (then 1st year grad students fresh out of college) this piece of advice:

"Your relationship with your PhD and postdoc advisor is most important, even more so than your spouse, especially if you stay within the scientific community. You can divorce the latter, but your link to your advisor(s) is permanent. So make sure you choose the right one."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NIH Grant Proposal Writing and Review

The key to bread and butter for academics running research labs...Begging for money isn't that simple as you think it is just by holding out your hand, certainly not when there are so many other beggars scattered all around lusting after the same pot.

For those of you further down the pecking ladder (and thus less painful to get out while you are still able to do so), it is best in your interest (and sanity) to ask to start getting involved in the begging process as early as you possibly can.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The truth about doing research in Grad School and beyond

Credit: Boingboing and Chemistry Blog.

The term "lab rats" doesn't come out of nowhere. Again, it is very important to choose the right adviser.

The cartoon below would be a good response to the last part of Carreira's letter:

Afterall, Guido seems to be doing well at Novartis after leaving Caltech.

Edit (30 June): A Boston Globe reporter spoke with Erick (Now at ETH-Zurich). He now claims that is a joke.

Reached by email at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he runs a lab, Carreira said that the letter has been circulating for a dozen years, and he expressed frustration that it has surfaced again in such a public way. It has caused him to receive "many e-mails that have been threatening and downright inhumane," he wrote. In response to questions about the letter's authenticity, and a request for a more general comment, he forwarded an email that he had sent to an earlier correspondent. It said, in part:

"I wonder whether you would think it fair to be judged on the basis of a letter 14 years old, especially when the comments and rash judgments are made without knowledge of the context or the circumstances surrounding the individuals involved. Indeed how does anyone out who is so quick to pass judgement and who is coming to conclusions know that it is not part of a 14-year old joke (or satire as you state) that backfired? ...

I am quite sure everyone has at some time or another an e-mail, photo, letter, note, or comment that when taken out of context can be used to create whatever monster one wishes to envisage. After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change."

In this note and in a shorter one to me, Carreira said that he had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on the validity or the context of the letter. (I asked him a follow-up question about the oblique suggestions that the letter was some kind of joke, but he has not yet replied.)

I certainly don't think any person on the receiving end of such a letter will think it is satire, or funny at all.


Another one (Bob Tjian was then a professor in biochemistry at Berkeley when this memo was circulating amongst the grad students in the department in the mid-90s):

To: All Lab Members
Fm: Robert Tjian
Re: Dismal Attendance at Group Meetings and Slack Work Ethics

From now on, I or someone designated by me will take attendance at group meetings starting at 9:10 am. If you are not there, I will not sign your salary sheets. Also, if you haven't noticed the number of people working on weekends and nights in the lab is the worst I've seen in my 17 years. The frequency of vacation, time taken off and other non-lab activities is bordering on the ridiculous. In case you forgot, the standard amount of time you are supposed to take is 2 weeks a year total, including Christmas. If there isn't a substantial improvement in the next few months, I'll have to think of some draconian measures to "motivate" you. I also want to say that the average lab citizenship and community spirit of keeping the lab in functioning order is at an all-time low. Few people seem to care about fixing broken equipment and making sure things in the lab run smoothly. If the lab were extremely productive and everyone was totally focused on their work, I might understand the slovenliness but productivity is abysmal and if we continue along this path we will surely reach mediocrity in no time.
Finally, those of you who are "lame ducks" because you have a job and are thinking of your own nibs, so long as you are here you are still full-fledged members of this lab, which means participating in all aspects of the lab (i.e. group meetings, Asilomar, postdoc seminars, etc.)
I realize that this memo won't solve all the problems. so I am going to schedule a meeting with each one of you starting this Saturday and Sunday and continuing on weekends until I've had a chance to speak with everyone and to give you a formal evaluation. Sign up for an appointment time on the sheet outside my door.
This is the first time I've had to actually write a memo of this type and I hope
it's the last time.

Robert Tjian

Two more letters from Paul Gassman and Albert Meyers, with excellent information about standard expectations of grad students and postdocs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The problem with unisex bathrooms on campus...

I am surprised no one has yet posted anything about the toilet seat up/down argument or how some guys would spray their liquid waste onto the seat in its down position.

The whole thing is becoming very Ally McBeal-ish.