Monday, October 18, 2010

Cold Season

"I woke today and found the frost perched on the town
it hovered in a frozen sky, and gobbled summer down."
-Joni Mitchell

Rostock has its first real frost this morning. In anticipation of this event, the first bad cold of the year has been going around. I think about half the Institute has gotten it so far. I have been sick to varying degrees for a week now. Without having actually looked at the relevant research, my understanding is that we get so many more colds when it gets colder because the airborne viruses break down much more slowly when the areas cold and dry and sunlight is weak. I've also heard somewhere that the cold air makes mucous membranes more susceptible to viruses. This all makes sense, and helps explain why that other common airborne virus that spreads every year, the flu, also concentrates in winter, but it leaves me wondering this: is the pattern the same in species that are adapted to highly seasonal climates? Humans are basically a tropical species that construct tropic-like microclimates for ourselves wherever we go. Our ancestors a few thousand generations ago would not have experienced the yearly cold season as we do today. Moose on the other hand have been living in cold climates forever. Their bodies should expect high virus conditions every winter and prepare accordingly. I speculate that the immune systems of such animals are seasonal, being better at fighting airborne viruses in the winter, and perhaps skin fungus is in the summer. I wouldn't personally want to do the experiments to find out, but I would read the paper if somebody else wrote it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Not buying a PC

The paper I recently submitted was written almost entirely by dictating to my computer at work. I've been finding it hard to do any work, or other writing at home. I am dependent on dictation software, and the best available dictation software for Macs was okay but not nearly as good as the PC version. I had started to toy with idea of buying a PC for home use, despite already having a couple of good Macs, just so I could dictate easily and quickly. But now they updated the Mac software, and it is in theory the same as the latest PC dictation software. I'll wait for the reviews to come out, but I'll probably buy the $40 upgrade instead of a whole new computer.

Friday, October 15, 2010


This big grant on applying for, to lead my own group, requires me to do all sorts of things beyond just completing the grant application. I need my CV to look as good as possible when I submit, and that doesn't just mean checking for typos. A lot of the work that I've done recently is not yet in the form that goes on a CV, so I need to get it in that form. A paper that is written but just sitting on my computer is not a publication. So last week I submitted a draft to a high-profile journal is very rapid turnaround time, hoping to have accepted before my application deadline. I am now working on what is called an LPU.

The Least Publishable Unit has a long and proud history in science. It is often the case that one can either toil for months over a very long paper, or chop that up into several smaller papers which will come out faster, often in lower profile journals. The quality of the work is not necessarily any lower, but the step is more incremental and the CV filled out faster. This particular LPU is a simple reanalysis of some data from my doctoral work. I started writing it today, and expects to have completed draft by sometime next week. I will submitted to a low-profile journal with rapid turnaround and hope to have an answer from them before I send in my CV.

I do not feel at all bad about this, my first LPU, for several reasons. First, looking through the CVs of most of the very successful scientists I know, there are quite a few little papers among their giant publications. Second, I can think of several papers which seem to me to have started out as LPUs but which turned out to be tremendously important and widely cited. Third, experience and mentors have told me people are more likely to read a short paper. Fourth and finally, writing short papers is a hell of a lot easier when one has to dictate everything.

There is one way in which this paper does not really meet the classical definition of an LPU: there are lots of data behind it. The true LPU should have just enough data to make a publishable paper. In this case, the sample being analyzed is fairly enormous, although not much bigger than is needed to answer the question.

All in all, writing a little paper seems a good change from the massive review article I've just submitted. I hope it turns out to be as easy as I think it will.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Big grant, small grant application

Applying for a grant is nothing new, but this one is big, at least by the standards of the grants have applied for previously. The Max Planck Society sponsors Independent Research Groups, headed by a promising young scientist to explore some innovative and important niche. My task is to convince them I am promising and young, and that my work is innovative and important. They don't actually say young, they say "early career," for which I qualify, as I just got my PhD last year. I'm also fairly confident that my work is innovative, as everyone I tell about my work tells me that nobody else has thought about the question. The problem is, "nobody else has thought about the question," can be taken to mean, "who could possibly be interested in that?" So I am young and innovative, and my challenge is to seem promising and important.

Assuming I can convince them of these things, more so than the many other applicants, it will be a pretty sweet deal. They will not only give me a significantly increased salary for five years and enough funding to get my experiments going, they will pay for me to hire a couple of graduate students and a postdoc or two. Frankly, this is more of a career advance than I think I am likely to receive at this point.

The nice part, other than the generosity of the award should I get it, is how little work they ask of me for the application. They want only a one-page statement of my Scientific Accomplishments (I'm not sure what these are yet) plus 2 pages of Research Plans. I could give them 20 pages of research plans with little difficulty if my hands worked well, but under the circumstances I'm much happier to give them 2.

How my health issues will work into this whole application is an interesting question. There is no doubt that I would have been more productive this year and in grad school had been healthy, but I doubt that they can or should take this into consideration. The best I can hope for is that one of my letter writers will mention something about dedication to science or gumption or the fact that I just keep coming back, like a bad case of poison ivy.

On a more philosophical level, I can ask this question: if someone has a disability which interferes with their productivity, and is likely to continue interfering with their productivity, should an employer consider how productive the worker would be without the disability, or should they simply asked of each candidate, "how productive is he/she likely to be?" I would like to say the former, but from the employer's point of view, it's hard to make the case against the latter.

On the other hand, my joint problems potentially make me better qualified to think of the questions and tell other people to gather the necessary data to answer them than I am for actual data gathering and analysis. The higher they promote me, the more qualified I may be.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The news from me

I've just started using Dragon 11, the latest version of the dictation software I've gotten used to over the last few months. I was on version 8, and over some months of using it fairly intensively it had gotten pretty good at recognizing my voice and words. This new version does about as good a job as the old one did, maybe a bit better, but without the months of training. I haven't yet tried out how it works with other applications, in Excel, PowerPoint, Firefox, etc. but at least word it seems to work surprisingly well for never having heard my voice before.

I had carpal tunnel surgery on my left hand about a month ago and am pleased to report that had very little numbness or tingling since then in that hand. I still have pain around where the incision was and some of the internal cuts but they assure me that will fade with time. I'm having the same surgery on my right hand on Monday. I'm supposed to be on sick leave for all of next week, but I suspect I'll end up coming in to use the dictation software, as I don't have it at home (I have a Mac it works on PC.) I hope that by the end of the year I'll be able to use my hands fairly normally again.

I also just found out today that a large grant application I need to submit is due on November 17. This may interfere somewhat with my plans to post here more regularly.


Sunrise splashes across autumn-spangled tree tips. A hooded crow, black and gray and flapping methodically, meanders between the swaying, glowing, multicolored peaks. Wingtip sweep up, flashing into horizontal sunlight, and down, into shadow and raucous foliage.