Monday, September 28, 2015

The grass may look greener

Second post as I sit and think about my first five years running a lab...

Inevitably, there is going to be something about your lab/research situation that you're not happy with. If these things are within your control, great! You can hopefully fix them and move on. Other institutional things will be out of your immediate control or above your paygrade. With this second set, you can either look to find jobs elsewhere or find creative ways to make your current situation improve.

One of the most difficult things for me to deal with as a PI at Arizona is that there is no 'real' central Microbiology program. There are numerous smart and talented researchers across the campus who are microbiologists, but it's not as cohesive a unit as other places I've been. Part of this is historical inertia. Part of this is stuff that's over my paygrade. Part of this is that many of us have obligations to other programs on campus and simply can't devote the time that we would like to fostering those relationships. There are only 24 hours in the day, and my loyalty (for lack of a better word) has to be to Plant Sciences first and foremost because that is my home department.

For whatever reason, and I may definitely be the person to blame for this, I have felt a bit lonely on campus researchwise. Everyone else is doing great things, but I've never truly felt that other research interests on campus significantly overlapped with my own interests in evolutionary microbiology. Sure, I can bounce grant/experiment ideas off of people and receive very useful feedback, but I haven't been able to find a community of researchers on campus to discuss topics like "adaptation", "pleiotropy", "horizontal gene transfer" general ways. I really enjoy lofty discussions about where the field of experimental evolution is going, but I haven't met anyone else on campus to grab beers with and talk shop. If you're out there, please come find me! On top of all this, many of the microbiology folks associated with the EEB department here have up and left in the last few years.

I didn't appreciate it until recently, but our own research careers are hugely shaped by the environment we are in. My last post was about how my research trajectory changed in the first five years of my lab. I can definitely say that those changes were precipitated by what kinds of scientific interactions were available to me on campus. Lately I've been wondering though, how would my own experiments or grants have changed if there were a couple of more labs on campus generally involved in evolutionary micro (or if I knew about them)? Would I have had a bunch of different collaborations than I do right now? My research ideas would no doubt be shaped again if I changed Universities and joined more of an EEB department, do I want that to happen now?

Without going into details, I think that the problem described above is institutional. Without hiring numerous new PIs, which has been a bit difficult at state universities since 2008, there are only two options to remedy my intellectual withdrawl. I could change institutions, which has it's own set of issues, or I could find a way to get the interactions I needed off campus.

A couple of years ago I had to defend my time spent on Twitter to my department head. What I said then, and still do, is that Twitter has been an intellectual lifesaver in addition to any other tangible benefits. I can go there and find papers that I wouldn't have the time to search out otherwise. I can interact with people whose intellectual interests better align with my own, and carry out great (to the extent that any character limited discussion can be) discussions with people about new results or research trajectories. I've tried to get better grant feedback by posting these and asking for comments, which hasn't worked quite like I'd have hoped but I think was still worthwhile. I connected with a couple of folks who were willing to read over other versions of grants and offer really constructive critiques.

Ecology/evolutionary microbiology seminars on campus are few and far between (for instance, EEB has had some micro people in to give seminars). Sometimes I've been able to invite people to give Plant Sciences seminars, but you have to fill a certain niche for me to feel OK doing that. Given this context, microseminar has been another intellectual lifesaver and has filled one of my on campus blindspots. Along these same lines, I've participated in Google hangout journal clubs and am thinking about incorporating those kinds of things into my own lab meetings. It's fun to actually have the person who wrote the paper get in on the discussion, and with the magic of Youtube these discussions are archived for everyone to see. I'm going to try and work both of these activities into my lab meetings next term, because that way the time is already scheduled.

Long story short, there is no perfect situation as far as I can tell, but there may never have been. Some research environments may foster new discoveries (i.e. Bell labs) but there were all sorts of downsides and infighting that happened there too. There are tons of letters (actual letters!) from back in the day between researchers talking about their ideas to each other and which provide a bit of coloring for how experiments are described in textbooks. I don't think I've ever written a letter to another researcher with a pen and paper, however, I've been able to find ways to placate some of my intellectual cravings through social media. FOIA requests aside, future historians are going to have a lot of archived tweets/blog posts/videos to sift through to understand how scientific revolutions happened in the 2000s. I think loneliness happens to everyone in this job at some point or another. At least for me, time spent interacting online has helped to quell these feelings a bit and because of that it's time well spent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The five year plan redux

Rounding into about my fifth year on the job as a PI, I've started to look back and think about how I made it to this point. This will probably be a series of posts as the ideas jump into my head, but today I've been wondering about how a lab's research focus changes.

Five years ago I sat down and thought about a five year plan for my lab. I was just coming off of a postdoc using comparative genomics to study virulence evolution in the plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. Given that I was (and still am) in a Plant Sciences department, I thought that it would be a good idea to continue studying virulence in P. syringae, and I knew that there were some interesting/safe results left to mine from my postdoc data. In parallel, I was thinking that I wanted to get back into studying experimental evolution of microbial populations. I actually chose the lab for my postdoc in order to get experience with Pseudomonas with the hope of eventually setting up such systems. For my "riskier" projects I wanted to use experimental evolution to look at the effects of horizontal gene transfer on adaptation.

For a couple or three years I followed my plan. I've been able to publish a few papers on virulence in P. syringae. I've got my experimental evolution system up and running and have published some of the necessary background work. There remain a bunch of different paths that I can follow for either of those two projects that I am exciting to try and follow up on.

The amazing thing to me though is that I'm not currently funded to do any of that. I've written numerous grants (20?) for these projects across multiple agencies, but they just haven't been successful. A few of these grants came REEEAAAALLLYYYYY close to funding, but just didn't make the cut. Getting any of these grants would have been great, but I think my research program is actually stronger because of those failures. Sure, every rejection email sucks, but I was constantly evaluating and reevaluating research directions. For the plant pathogen work, there was a lot of competition and my grants (even though they were solid I think) just didn't stand out because there were many other labs doing approximately similar things. The experimental evolution work just didn't seem to hit the right chord to the right people, again and again and again.

I've been lucky to get a handful of grants recently, but none of these projects was on my radar five years ago. One of the funded projects started out as a random email question between Betsy Arnold and I in about year 2 of my lab and has blossomed incredibly since then. It's one of those exciting projects where we find a new result every week or so, yet every thing about the system remains pretty black-boxish. Another newly funded project started as an observation by my postdoc Kevin Hockett around year 3 of the lab. He started out playing around with diverse strains of P. syringae, seeing how these strains interacted with one another. We kept pushing the genetics of the system because nothing published could explain the results. Turns out we stumbled into a really cool evolutionary story.

The point of this whole post is that I had a plan, but the plan necessarily changed. Since grad school, I've imagined how my research career would look. Never did I think I'd end up in a Plant Sciences department (there are pluses and minuses, but that's a post for another time). The questions I thought my lab would be focusing on have fallen to the wayside. I'm still quite interested in them and have a variety of undergrads plowing ahead, but they aren't on the forefront anymore. The projects that have been successfully funded came together after I spent a couple of years focused on completely different topics. I'm an N of 1, and I have no idea if my story is shared by other researchers, but there are so many posts about how to be a PI that I figure I'd share this data point. I have no clue what the future truly holds, but I'm just going to keep being curious about the world because it's been good to me so far.

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