Archive for: July, 2008

Worthless grant review comments

Jul 23 2008 Published by under Academia

We've all had that R21 or R03 come back with completely useless comments. Months and months of work, hours or weeks spent in the lab collecting that preliminary data (which is supposedly unnecessary for those R21s). More time spent waiting and waiting. Revisions. Resubmissions. The same useless comments back to you.
Come on. We all know it's a racket. In a tight funding climate, nobody in charge of the purse strings wants to fund a competitor. But they gotta find a way to reject your grant in a way that is completely noncommittal. Hence, weasel words.
Here's my favorite: "The proposed studies are not unique". With this simple, vague statement, any hopes of funding a decent or important project are quashed. Think that study will fill in a crucial hole in the literature? Screw you. Your project isn't unique enough.
"Unique" or "innovative", or other similar words have pretty much whatever meaning the reviewer wants them to have. Or needs them to have. But what does uniqueness matter, really? Some of the most informative developmental neurobiology work, for example, still relies heavily on chick embryo limb bud removal; a technique developed about a century ago, requiring little more than a tungsten needle and a microscope. Apply some simple histochemical procedures (which date back even farther) and a few molecular biology techniques (which are about as ubiquitous as you can get), and you can potentially rewrite our understanding of the developing nervous system. Yet on the surface, standard fare. Sorry bud, your project just got pigeon-holed. I've seen some great grants go down in flames this way, grants that were either conceptual genius or exceedingly relevant to a health-related issue. The most egregious example I saw was an R01 dealing with the potential for soy phytoestrogens (as an unregulated dietary supplement) to affect behavior and pathology in a model of aging and dementia. This grant-- beautifully designed to address a number of questions relevant to the health of postmenopausal women-- scored right at the payline on the first review, just missing funding, but then subsequently triaged on both resubmissions. The payline shifted, the grant got rerouted to another, much more competitive study section, and suddenly the grant was "not innovative".
The best part? You revise and resubmit according to the reviewer's useless comments, and you get the exact same comments back again.
So what's your favorite useless grant criticism?

16 responses so far

My first 5K

Jul 21 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

Normally I don't run for any sort of competitive purpose. Ok, so I've never run for any sort of competitive purpose. I took the opportunity this time, though, so that I'd have other runners to help me push my pace.
I'm pretty out of shape right now but I can still do a 7:30 minute mile pretty easily, on hills. When I was in good shape 2 years ago, I my best time on my toughest 1 mile run (which was all uphill for the last half mile, on 14th St heading south towards Walter Reed if anybody knows the area), I could do 6:40. Which makes me reasonably certain I could've broken 6:00 on a flat course.
But I digress. I did manage to come in 76th out of about 225 people, with a 8:02 pace, and 11th out of 22 in my age group. I figure that's pretty good considering that besides being somewhat out of shape I have a condition called enthesopathy, an arthritis-like condition that affects insertion points of the ligaments and tendons. Originally I thought it was fibromyalgia but that turned out not to be the case. I have a dickens of a time with it because my Achilles and psoas never seem to loosen up anymore, and they're always painfully tight when I run.
I'm obviously not competing with the race winners, who came in with the insane 5:15 pace, but as far as pushing myself I feel really good about my performance.

One response so far

For my first trick, I'm going to make Jack Nicholson... disappear!!!

Jul 18 2008 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

I'm going to try to review a movie without discussing the plot much. Last night we trudged out to the theater at midnight for the first screening of the new Batman flick The Dark Knight. I went in with high expectations given the stellar cast, but a bit nervous about Heath Ledger in his role as the Joker. Heath's acting has always been a mite bit unpredictable for me; he was amazingly good in Brokeback Mountain, for example, but bored me to tears in Ned Kelly.
Turns out that very unpredictability makes him perfect for a "reimagined" darker, grittier, noncampy version of the Joker. In the original Burton Batman, the Joker steals the show and thus completely overshadowed every conversation about Batman movies for the ensuing 15 years (minus the Bat Nipples). The same thievery applies here, but Ledger doesn't do it in a "ooh look, Jack is acting like he just downed a case of Red Bull.... again!" sort of way. No, Ledger's Joker is a self-proclaimed agent of chaos, and from when he first walks on screen uttering similar words that I allude to in my post title, you know that he's about to take you for a ride.
One fucked up ride.
Ledger's Joker is not funny. Not at all. And he knows it. He's not supposed to be. Sure he laughs, but it's the laughter of a hyena about to chow on a wounded gazelle, a salivating, gutteral sort of tittering that belongs in a Stephen King book. Sometimes he shrieks. But he does. not. once. in. the. entire. movie. inspire. the. audience. to. laugh. Full stop. End of line. **** What he does do is leave us constantly giggling. Nervously. This giggling should not be taken for actual laughter. It's the sort of insecure chuckle emitted by a person who's just seen something so completely inappropriate, so completely out of left field, that he or she can't help but emit a nervous chattering as a coping mechanism while we try to process "Oh holy fuck, did he really just do that????"
This Joker is unstable. He's completely amoral. You will be extremely glad that he exists only on the big screen. And Gotham is his playground. Whereas in Batman Begins Ra's al Gul was a calculating villain, the type of comic book gentleman villain that you sit down and have a chess match with--while the audience watches move-by-move and discusses who will come out on top-- in The Dark Knight you get none of that. The Joker is the sort of chap who blithely kicks over the table and sets fire to the game board, and while the rest of us scramble to pick up the pieces or stare for a second, in shock while processing the situation, he'll shoot somebody simply because they happen to be there while he's holding a gun. Whether they're an innocent bystander or one of his own men, no matter. But he's run across a very strange, effective way to inspire loyalty; people, even hardened criminals and mental patients, fear a true madman, but they'll follow one who provides even a modicum of order amidst the overwhelming chaos he creates.
At least until he blows your face off.
Both Ra's and The Joker had the same goal-- tear Gotham apart. The former failed though, because he at least played by some rules; his own, maybe, but rules nonetheless. This time Batman, Gordon, love interest and Asisstant DA Rachel, the Mayor, and District Attorney Harvey Dent scramble to pick up the pieces of that chessboard. Even working together, they're constantly 2 steps behind the calculating lunacy that consumes the city and threatens to compromise everyone's moral character. I greatly enjoyed Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two-Face. You don't get an indication from the trailers, but that transformation is a very integral part of the movie. I won't say more because I don't see it as my place to do so. Suffice to say that we can relate, to some degree, to what each character goes through.
Whoever wrote this script is a frakkin' genius. To many it may seem like the pace is off, disjointed or too fast in parts. I think it's all intentional; we're dragged into the same world as Gordon, Dent, and even the Batman as they struggle to keep that very world from unraveling around them. It is viscerally unsettling to watch a movie and know that you're processing the events, but only barely fast enough. The entire movie plays out like a psychological drama; in a mere 2.5 hours we are given a host of character development to work with. It is hard work to make a comic book flick where not only do you relate to the characters, but you feel as if "yes, all that personification of an animal as my superhero avatar" stuff, all those crazy costumes and gadgets, they really could be part of my world. The Dark Knight excels in this department, easily suppressing its predecessor. Some people will see that as a negative, undoubtedly because they fear the consequences of a reality where The Joker could exist. Sometimes fiction is too damn freaky to be fact, and blurring that line is unsettling as hell.
I can't say I blame them. But damned if I'm going to let that keep me from seeing this flick again in the theater.
****I was just reminded of one actual funny remark where the Joker waxes Jerry Maguire, but even that was disturbing because you can't quite tell how much he actually meant it.

3 responses so far

How not to ingratiate oneself with the instructor

Jul 17 2008 Published by under Academia

I teach class as an adjunct at the local community college from MTWTh, from 1-3 pm. Today I'm giving an exam over evolution and biotechnology. The last exam was pretty rough. I made one that would've been tough for biology majors but this is a nonmajors course and the students don't have as much background. Consequently, I told them I'd make it up to them by having this test be painfully easy and with opportunities for extra credit abound. So one would think that a student who's barely pulling a D would prioritize this exam, right? Especially since I was kind enough to send out a reminder of the exam last week, with a study guide?
Apparently not. I got this email yesterday....

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10 responses so far

Summer session's almost over???

Jul 16 2008 Published by under Academia

I've been enjoying my first teaching gig at the local community college. The students are plenty bright and have taught me quite a bit as well. Although they definitely didn't like the midterm...
I'll probably start talking a bit about my experiences, and about my job prospects in this transitional career mode. There are more opportunities out there than I figured there would be, but knowing how to find them is a challenge. Additionally, it's time to start blogging about my horrific postdoc a bit. That should be entertaining. Who knows, maybe I'll even feel like posting actual science again soon!

2 responses so far