Today a large-scale federal grant proposal was submitted, bringing me to four proposals submitted so far in 2020 (and eight total in the 2019/2020 academic year)! I have one more that is planned for the end of May, and two more that may be submitted this summer depending on the disposition of my pending proposals. Each of these proposals takes weeks to months of planning, writing, and coordination between the research team. The proposal submitted today was 107 pages, and only some of those materials can be re-used between grants, such as descriptions of equipment and research facilities.
The success rate for obtaining federal funding for your project varies by agency, year, and category of project/principal investigator, nicely tracked here (updated Dec 2019), and currently ranges from 8 – 30%. For example, “pilot” project (small projects to “seed” your long-term research), student-specific, or “new investigator” grants may have a higher rate of success because their applicant pool is restricted by eligibility. Competition is fierce, especially when federal agency budgets are cut or re appropriated.
If projects are not funded, they are returned with reviews from typically 2 – 4 experts in the field who provide comments and recommendations for strengthening the experimental design, or the presentation of the project itself. You might think that proposals are judged on the merit of the science alone, but the ability of the team to manage the project, and the research team, is also being evaluated. Principal investigators (researchers like me, leading the project) need to show that we have good ideas and the organizational skills to implement them, especially if the project spans multiple years or institutions.
Submitting a research proposal is worth celebrating – it represents weeks of effort – but especially during this time when we are all trying to keep our head above water, never mind accelerate or productivity. It’s important to take a few minutes to relax, work can wait, because ‘the grind’ will be there waiting for you when you get back.
No one is sorry to say goodbye to 2018, yet it still seems like the 2018 Year in Review has arrived too soon. As usual, I’ve been keeping busy; you can find my reviews for 2017 and 2016 in the archives. For the first year in the three years since I started this blog, I’m not starting a new job! I’ve been at BioBE for a year and a half, and it’s a relief to be in an academic position long enough to finish the projects you started (I’m only just starting to submit some manuscripts for work I did back in Montana).
Two papers of mine were published this year, including one on the bacteria along the GI tract of calves, one on the effect of dietary zinc on bacteria in sheep. A comprehensive culturing initiative of rumen microorganisms, called the Hungate 1000 Project, an international initiative to which I contributed data, was also published. That puts me up to 17 scientific articles, of which 9 are first-authored, as well as 5 scientific reviews. I have three manuscripts in review right now, and another five being prepared – 2019 will be a busy year.
I joined two journal editorial boards this year, PloS One and Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Both positions are as an Academic (or handling) Editor; I will oversee manuscript review by soliciting reviewers, assessing their recommendations, and interfacing with authors. In recent years, the gender discrepancy in science has received more attention, and some journals are making efforts towards increasing the number of female editors, reviewers, and contributors to reduce implicit bias in science publishing. I am pleased to be in a position where I can help change that!
I’ve been spending a lot of time writing grants and developing potential projects on microbiology and health in the built environment, many of which should be moving forward in 2019. I’ve also been spending time training the 9 undergraduate students I hired over the summer and fall to work at BioBE. In addition to microbiology and molecular biology laboratory skills, I have been training them on DNA sequence analysis and coding, scientific literature review, and science writing and communications.
This fall term, I taught Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes for the University of Oregon Clark Honor’s College. I proposed this new course last year, and developed the curricula largely from scratch. I’d previously taught some of the subject material at Montana State University in Carl Yeoman and Seth Walk’s Host-Associated Microbiomes course; however in IMM I was teaching to non-science majors. The course went well, and I’ll be diving into it in detail with a full blog post in a few weeks. I proposed the course again for next year, as well as another new course; Microbiology of the Built Environment.
Presentations and travel
Early in the year, I gave two public talks on the gut microbiome for Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; one in Eugene and one in Portland. Both were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed getting to share my work with the public.
At the end of the spring term, I also presented at the University of Oregon IDEAL Framework Showcase. Over the 2017/2018 academic year I served on the Implicit Bias working group, tasked with assessing the need for campus-wide training and making recommendations to the college.
In June, I attended the HOMEChem Open House at the UT Austin Test House, University of Texas at Austin’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus. I got to tour the amazing indoor chemistry labs there, and met with BioBE collaborators to discuss pilot projects exploring the link between indoor chemistry and indoor microbiology.
MoBE 2018 was an intensive meeting that brought together the top names and the rising stars of MoBE research. Gordon conferences are closed-session to encourage the presentation of unpublished data and ideas, and to facilitate discussion and theoretical contemplation. While in Biddeford, I had the opportunity to eat seafood, visit friends, and check out Mug Buddy Cookies!!
Immediately after MoBE, I flew to Philadelphia for the Indoor Air 2018 conference. I again presented some of the work I’ve been part of, exploring the effect of weatherization and lifestyle on bacteria indoors. I also found some incredible shoes.
I spent a great deal of 2018 participating in activities for 500 Women Scientists. I am a Pod Coordinator for the Eugene Pod, and as such I meet regularly with other Coordinators to plan events. The majority of our 2018 events were Science Salons: science talks by local female researchers around a particular theme, with a hands-on activity to match, and a Q&A session about life as a (female) scientist. We heard about some awesome research, raised $1300 for local science non-profits, and learned how to be better community members by sharing personal stories about the triumphs and troughs of being a woman in science.
We also hosted a film screening of My Love Affair with the Brain, generously lent to 500WS by Luna Productions, followed by a panel discussion of women neuroscientists here in Eugene.
Along with two other Eugene Pod Coordinators, I wrote a small proposal which was funded, to coordinate workshops at UO: “Amplifying diverse voices: training and support for managing identity-based harassment in science communication”. Those workshops will take place in 2019.
I again participated in citizen science through Adventure Scientists, as part of their wood crews for the Timber Tracking 2018 campaign. Lee and I drove around a 20,000 sq mi section of southwestern Oregon to collect samples from big leaf maple trees at 10 locations which adhered to certain sampling parameters. Despite the large number of big leafs in Oregon, the sampling criteria made it difficult to find the perfect tree in an entire forest, and we logged a lot of mileage. Lee and I also volunteered for their Gallatin County Microplastics Initiative while we lived in Bozeman, MT.
As of today, my site received 4,447 view from 97 countries and 3,101 visitors in 2018. So far, I’ve published 109 posts, and received 6,147 visitors who viewed the site 9,481 times.
It’s easy to forget how many life events go by in a year, unless your social media is making you a video about them. But they were all important parts of my life and had some impact, however negligible, on my work. The one I’m most proud of was officiating the wedding of two dear friends, in Vermont.
I tried to spend more time on creative projects, including getting back into art after more-or-less tabling it for several years.
As usual, 2019 promises an abundance of opportunities. Already, I am planning out my conference schedule, seeking speakers for upcoming 500WS Science Salons, and writing, writing, writing. But through all of it, I will be trying to cultivate a more open, inclusive, and supportive work environment. In 2018, after more than a decade of trying to convince doctors that I should have agency over my own organs, I was finally approved for the hysterectomy that I’d wanted for so long, and the medical diagnostics to show that I’d actually needed it for probably just as long.
The surgery has dramatically improved my quality of life, and the scars are a constant reminder that you never know who is dealing with something in their life that isn’t visible to you, who is trying to pretend they aren’t in pain because they can’t afford to take time off to resolve their situation. At first, I kept the details to myself and I kept it off my professional social media. I did share, in exquisite detail, on my personal social media, and was flooded with similar stories from other women. It encouraged me to share a little more, after all, if I’d had surgery on a knee or a kidney I would talk about it openly, why not a uterus?
In a typical semester, one to two-thirds of the students that I teach or mentor will disclose that they experienced a serious life event, most often while at school. They may casually joke about how they couldn’t get time off or almost failed out that semester, or recall how receiving help saved them. I take my role as an educator, mentor, or supervisor seriously – the competition in academia forces students to work long or odd hours, to prioritize other things over study, to accept positions of low or no pay “for the experience”, or to accept professional relationships where they are not respected or may be taken advantage of. I have always tried to be a supportive mentor to students, but the higher up the ladder I climb the more important it is for me to set a good example for these students who will one day mentor people of their own.
In addition to listening to them, and having frank conversations, my response this year has been to get rid of student employee deadlines whenever possible. We are asked to do so much with our time in school, or in academia, but there are so many hours in the day. Sure, I routinely wish things were accomplished more promptly, but I have never once regretted not causing someone to have a breakdown. And constantly telling my students to take care of themselves first and work second reminds me to do the same, it benefits my work , and it’s made a certain furball very happy. Happy New Year!
Every scientist I know (myself included) underestimates how long it will take to write, edit, and submit a paper. Despite having 22 publications to date, I still set laughably-high expectations for my writing deadlines. Even though scientists go into a project with a defined hypothesis, objectives, and workflow, by the end of data analysis we often find ourselves surprised. Perhaps your assumptions were not supported by the actual observations, sometimes what you thought would be insignificant becomes a fascinating result. Either way, by the time you have finished most of the data analysis and exploration, you face the difficult task of compiling the results into a meaningful paper. You can’t simply report your data without giving them context and interpretation. I’ve already discussed the portions of scientific manuscripts and how one is composed, and here I want to focus on the support network that goes into this process, which can help shape that context that you provide to your data.
One of the best ways in which we can promote rigorous, thoughtful science is through peer-review, which can take a number of forms. It is worth noting, that peer-review also allows for professional bullying, and can be swayed by current theories and “common knowledge”. It is the journal editor’s job to select and referee reviewers (usually 2 – 4), to compile their comments, and to make the final recommendation for the disposition of the manuscript (accept, modify, reject). Reputation, and personal demographics such as gender, race, or institutional pedigree can also play a role in the quality and tone of the peer-review you receive. Nevertheless, getting an outside opinion of your work is critical, and a number of procedural changes to improve transparency and accountability have been proposed and implemented. For example, many journals now publish reviews names online with the article after it has been accepted, such that the review does not stay blind forever.
Thorough reading and editing of a manuscript takes time. Yet peer-reviewers for scientific journals almost unanimously do not receive compensation. It is an expected service of academics, and theoretically if we are all acting as peer-reviewers for each other then there should be no shortage. Unfortunately, due to the pressures of the publish-or-perish race to be awarded tenure, many non-tenured scientists (graduate students, post-docs, non-tenure track faculty, and pre-tenured tenure-track faculty) are reluctant to spend precious time on any activity which will not land them tenure, particularly reviewing. Moreover, tenured faculty also tend to find themselves without enough time to review, particularly if they are serving on a large number of committees or in an administrative capacity. On top of that, you are not allowed to accept a review if you have a conflict of interest, including current or recent collaboration with the authors, personal relationships with authors, a financial stake in the manuscript or results, etc. The peer-review process commonly gets delayed when editors are unable to find enough reviewers able to accept a manuscript, or when reviewers cannot complete the review in a timely manner (typically 2 – 4 weeks).
I have recently tried to solicit peer-review from friends and colleagues who are not part of the project before I submit to a journal. If you regularly follow my blog, you’ll probably guess that one of the reasons I do this is to catch spelling and grammatical mistakes, which I pick out of other works with hawk-like vision and miss in my own with mole-like vision. More importantly, trying to communicate my work to someone who is not already involved in the project is a great way to improve my ability to effectively and specifically communicate my work. Technical jargon, colloquial phrasing, sentence construction, and writing tone can all affect the information and data interpretation that a reader can glean from your work, and this will be modulated by the knowledge background of the reader.
I’ve learned that I write like an animal microbiologist, and when writing make assumptions about which information is common knowledge and doesn’t need a citation or to be included at all because it can be assumed. However, anyone besides animal microbiologists who have been raised on different field-specific common knowledge may not be familiar with the abbreviations, techniques, or terms I use. It may seem self-explanatory to me, but I would rather have to reword my manuscript that have readers confuse the message from my article. Even better, internal review from colleagues who are not involved with the project or who are in a different field can provide valuable interdisciplinary perspective. I have been able to apply my knowledge of animal science to my work in the built environment, and insights from my collaborators in plant ecology have helped me broaden my approach towards both animals and buildings.
No scientific article would be published without the help of the journal editorial team, either, who proof the final manuscript, verify certain information, curate figures and tables, and type-set the final version. But working backwards from submission and journal staff, before peer-review and internal peer-review, there are a lot of people that contribute to a scientific article who aren’t necessarily considered when contemplating the amount of personnel needed to compose a scientific article. In fact, that one article represents just the tip of the iceberg of people involved in that science in some way; there are database curators, people developing and maintaining open-source software or free analysis programs, laboratory technicians, or equipment and consumables suppliers. Broadening our definition of science support network further includes human resources personnel, sponsored projects staff who manage grants, building operational personnel who maintain the building services for the laboratory, and administrative staff who handle many of the logistical details to running a lab. It takes a village to run a research institution, to publish a scientific article, to provide jobs and educational opportunities, and to support the research and development which fuels economic growth. When it comes time to set federal and state budgets, it bears remembering that that science village requires financial support.