When This Sea Slug Eats, It Prefers the Turducken of the Sea

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a few weeks. There is a new type of predation, practiced by sea slugs called “kleptopredation”.

These psychedelic slugs eat hyrdroids, and will pop polyps off the hydroid as one might pick flowers off a stalk. But a new paper suggests that sea slugs prefer to eat hydroids that have just caught plankton.

Think of it like a bear. You (a human) just caught some salmon while fishing in Alaska (I hear it’s the thing to do there). And said bear sees this and waits for you to eat your fish before swooping in to eat you both. It’s two meals for the price of one. A little human-salmon combo meal.

These sea slugs are doing the same thing. So as you head home for Thanksgiving, potentially to eat a turducken, think about how you might be practicing some kleptopredation your self. And if you want to know more, read about it here.

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Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job: Part 1

antlion

This post is from a good friend of mine. They are on the job market and I asked them to write what it’s like to currently be on the market. The answer is: bleak. So they agreed to write an anonymous post describing their experience and offering advice to those of us currently out there pursuing the dream tenure-tracked job:  

Dear reader,

I imagine you’re a graduate student or a postdoc aiming for a tenure-track academic job. Here, I present a case study of that endeavor, from my own experience on the job market. I present it anonymously because that feels like the best approach. I want to offer general advice, not just draw focus to my specific situation. Names spark a search for idiosyncracies and contingencies, whereas I hope you are able to see some generality and applicability to your own path. In that way, perhaps you can glean some wisdom from this, even if I’m not sure what it is.

I’m going to do this in two parts. In Part I, I will describe my situation, factually, from the point of view of someone whose sole goal is to get a tenure track job. Who am I? What have I done? Why haven’t I succeeded yet? What do I need to do to succeed?

In Part II (next week), I will consider my situation as a human being, discussing family goals, work-life balance goals, and non-academic desires and ambitions.

None of these are ground shaking revelations, and I don’t know if I have any answers, but it never hurts to have one more case study out there in the ether. If this helps one person better understand their career and life, then I’ve succeeded.

PART I

My academic history

  • Field: evolution, ecology, genetics
  • Current employment: Post-doc since early 2013
  • Publications: >20 total, 2 first author glossy papers (e.g., Nature, Science, PNAS etc.), 1 first author high-impact review paper (e.g., TREE, AREES, etc.), several first author field specific papers (e.g. Ecology, Evolution, etc.), several papers with undergraduate advisees as first authors. My H-index is between 6 and 10.
  • Grants: NSF GRFP, NSF DDIG, co-author of a full NSF grant during my postdoc.
  • Teaching: Instructor of record during my postdoc, plenty of TAing in graduate school
  • Future projects: Solid (admittedly not spectacular) project ideas in model eco-evo-gen systems with strong potential for grant funding, student involvement, and new research trajectories
  • Toolkits: Ecological genomics, field work, lab work, organismal biology, museum experience, multivariate multi-level statistical expertise, outreach
  • Pedigree: Top 10 EEB program for undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc, with nationally recognized letter writers. Pedigree shouldn’t matter in an ideal world, but to the extent that it does in reality, mine is objectively excellent.

Application History

I got my PhD in early 2013, and a I published 1st author glossy paper from my graduate work in time for the 2014 job season. Since then, I’ve applied to ~ 7 jobs per season at a mix of R1s and SLACs, for a total of 26 applications. Overall, I’ve gotten zero interviews (phone, skype, or in person), hearing only that I made one long-short list (though I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about others, depending on grapevines at each school).

Real talk

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about my job search, and I’ve come to a stark realization, which my graduate advisor put most bluntly: “My CV is not as strong as I think it is”. That is, I’ve never really been competitive enough at any one time during my postdoc to land a choice tenure track job. Here’s why.

  • Early in my postdoc, I didn’t have my graduate work published.
  • In the middle of my postdoc, I didn’t have enough first-author postdoc papers, and my graduate papers, including that glossy, were getting old.
  • By year 5 in my postdoc, I finally had that 1st author, glossy postdoc paper, but too little too late.
  • During my entire career, I haven’t done enough to distinguish myself from my advisors.
    1. My graduate system was too similar to my advisor’s: I’ve actually had people confuse my work for theirs.
    2. My postdoc position was initially a hired position on a pre-existing grant, rather than a system I developed and funded.
    3. It is unclear how much of the second grant that I did co-author during my postdoc are my ideas versus my postdoc advisor’s, as the work is an extension of our previous work together.
    4. I may have a massively multivariate dataset from my postdoc that will churn out papers for years, but my publication record hasn’t proved that I can write those papers on my own.
  • Though the strong letters from my advisors address these concerns and promote my intangibles and other skills, the letters will not stand out because every advisor writes a glowing letter for their student.

In short, I’ve gotten stale, and I don’t have enough publications or independence to compete with the younger postdocs who have their own system and a higher rate of publication. My graduate advisor, at least, was thus not completely surprised that I haven’t gotten any interviews.

What have I done wrong and what do I need to do?

  • Publish or perish: I haven’t published enough. This is clear and not surprising. My h-index is decent and growing, but currently not competitive. More importantly, perhaps, my rate of publication is too low, despite the high profile, complex papers and datasets I have produced. Before the 2018 job season, I need to get two or three more 1st author manuscripts at least in review.
  • Numbers game: I haven’t applied broadly enough. Successful tenure-track job procurement requires an appreciable amount of luck (as discussed by Jeremy Yoder). Even with a strong CV and research program, many other factors need to line up just right to get an interview: who is on the committee, what are the final parameters of the job search, who is in the applicant pool, how many are in the applicant pool, what are the diversity goals, etc. Thus, one has to apply very broadly to increase the chances of success during a low probability process. Again, perhaps not surprising, and I need to be applying to 40 jobs per year, not 7.
  • Jump start: I took too long to get papers out as a postdoc. My main projects had long gestation times—2.5 to 3 years of data collection, plus a year in review for my big paper. I should have focused on taking other datasets to publication in the meantime, but did not. Thus, for a 5-year postdoc, I haven’t produced enough. One bit of advice I received recently was to take any sub-optimal (per my parameters) tenure track job and use that to jump-start my career (see point 2: Numbers Game and applying broadly). In that way, my productivity clock could restart, and if I was productive during the 3-4 years of being an assistant professor, then I’d be competitive again for my preferred jobs.
  • Move around: The jump-start, sub-optimal assistant professorship would make me competitive enough to land the choice faculty job at the close-to-perfect university for me. Apparently, plenty of people move several years into a professorship, as they are way more competitive than any postdoc who will not have shown yet that they can successfully run a lab. Maybe instead of looking for the “right” position, I need to look for the “right now” position, without the intention to stay where I land forever.

Conclusion

To paraphrase Cersei Lannister, in the game of academia, you publish early, apply broadly, jump-start your productivity clock if you need to, and move around a lot, or you die.

In Part II, I consider the implications of these rules for me.

 

Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA

CRISPR has become so pervasive, that while I was at a party this weekend in Berlin I had three different people ask me if I’m working on CRISPR (for the record, I’m not).

But now you can! Seriously, DIY CRISPR kits are now available for purchase online. Read about one journalist’s journey trying to figure out if she was successful in her gene editing endeavors.

But equally hilarious are the posts I’ve seen on facebook of scientist considering buying the kit for the cheap lab equipment (optional mini-centrifuge for 125… that normally costs a few thousand dollars…).

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How The Black Death Caused Medieval Women To Shrink

The Black Death (the OG “plague”) killed a large proportion of the population of Europe in the 14th century (30%!). But even after it had run it’s course it left long lasting and interesting effects on the population left behind.

People were on average healthier after the Black Death passed through. And for some reason, women were smaller. What’s interesting is these two factors might be correlated.

What does being healthier have to do with being shorter? Read about it here!

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NASA Twins Study spots thousands of genes toggling on and off in Scott Kelly

When astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after a year floating about the International Space Station, he was noticeably different from his identical twin, Mark Kelly. For one, Scott temporarily grew two inches taller, but what really fascinated people were the change in his genes. “There are over 50,000 genes in the human genome, and when floating in zero gravity, the body is trying to manage that situation in new ways,” Chris Mason, one of the principal investigators of the Twins Study and a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told PBS NewsHour. “Both DNA and RNA were found to express genes in order to compensate for a lifestyle in space.”

Which is really cool, and really important for long periods of space flight. Say, for example, to Mars…

Read about it hereImage result for Scott and Mark Kelly

 

Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!

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Revisiting Gattaca in the Era of Trump

I have written exhaustively about CRISPR-Cas technology, and its potential to change science and the world as we know it.

But with this change in science as we know it, we’re faced with some pretty important ethical questions (also not the first time I’ve talked about this on NiB). However, what is new is this excellent post by Osagie K. Obasogie, who researches ethical issues surrounding reproductive and genetic technologies.

He addresses how the Trump administration, and the rise of white nationalism is concerning with the new CRISPR possibilities. It’s not like we haven’t experienced scientific projects trying to engineer better humans, one only needs to remember the aftermath of the Holocaust and the public Nuremburg trials.

It’s an interesting line of thought to walk down, and I strongly recommend reading the piece here.

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