Blind Cavefish, and what they can teach us about getting less sleep

The Mexican cavefish have no eyes, little pigment, and require about two hours of sleep per night to survive.

Imagine what you could do with those extra hours! So we should ask cavefish, how do they do it?

Read more about that very research here.

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Algae as people food?

When maintaining the delightful snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, in captivity (say in the lab, prior to infecting them with all sorts of trematodes), we feed them a micro algae called spirulina.

You might have heard of it. It has become popular in super food drinks and smoothies. If you see a green smoothy, it likely has this little micro algae. Additionally, many people have touted to me the great health benefits, and the anti-oxidants.

But I resisted. Because spirulina is not people food. It’s snail food.

But now, algae might infiltrate our food supply on a more permanent basis. Read about it here!

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CRISPR as a way to eradicate invasive species? Tell me more…

The way to kill invasive species, and thereby protect endangered species are brutal—traps, long-range rifles, and poisons—deployable only on a small scale and wildly indiscriminate. To excise the rat, say, from an ecosystem requires a sledgehammer that falls on many species.

All this is why some conservation biologists such as Karl Campbell has begun pushing for research into a much more precise and effective tool—one you might not associate with nature-loving conservationists. Self-­perpetuating synthetic genetic machines called gene drives could someday alter not just one gene or one rat or even a population of rats but an entire species—of rats, mosquitoes, ticks, or any creature. And this biological technology promises to eliminate these destructive animals without shedding a drop of blood.

But the methods also contain the threat of unleashing another problem: They could change species, populations, and ecosystems in unintended and unstoppable ways.

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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CRISPR-Cas9 for an RNA world

CRISPR has the revolutionary potential to alter gene expression by cutting DNA.

Now NmeCas9 is a protein that cuts not just DNA, but RNA.

This has scary potential for viruses (made from RNA), but having read very little (and I don’t think very much is known yet), but I am interested to see how this progresses.

Read about it here, and keep checking on NiB. I see myself writing more about this in the future.

 

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The promiscuous process driving antibiotic resistance

“While overuse of antibiotics has been fingered as the driver of resistance to these drugs, the contribution of bacterial sex plays an underappreciated role, one that could bedevil efforts to fight antimicrobial resistance.”

Want to hear more about this sexy and interesting outcome of bacteria doing it*?

Read more here!

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*I’m pretty sure that’s how the song goes:

Birds do it.

Bees do it.

Bacteria do it and it drives the evolution of resistance.

Pretty sure.

 

Conservation stories from the front lines

The stories of science are told many ways, in many places. Scientists share the ups and downs of the research process over raucous conference cocktails and long hours on the road, across lab benches and conference call lines, and around campfires after long days in the field. These stories underlie every scientific paper yet rarely appear alongside the tables and graphs. To read the often dull, sometimes tedious reports that fill the scientific record, you’d never know that science is a human endeavor, like any other, shaped by tragedy, comedy, and (mis)adventures.

So over at PLoS Biology there is an entire issue dedicated to this. To the knee scrapes, the mosquito bites, the drudge and the euphoric moments of discovery. So get over there and read about them!

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Huddled against the wind, picking through weeds to find snails. Cold, wet and a little tired.

Science’s Pirate Queen

Over half of all research, according to one study, is now published by the big five of academic publishing: Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and, depending on the metric, either the American Chemical Society or Sage Publishing. Elsevier, for example, boasts a nearly $35 billion market cap. It has reported a nearly 39 percent profit margin for its scientific publishing arm — which dwarfs, by comparison, the margins of tech titans such as AppleGoogle, and Amazon.

And Alexandra Elbakyan and SciHub are trying to do something to combat that. And similar to research gate they are being crazy sued because of it.

Read about it here!

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The US Postal Service make Bioluminescent Stamps!

The photographs of Dr. Edith Widder, founder, CEO and senior scientist at ORCA, will appear on US Postage forever stamps!

Bioluminescence, the ability of living things to generate their own light, is demonstrated by the 10 examples on the stamp: a transparent deep-sea comb jelly,  the firefly squid, deep-ocean octopus, midwater jellyfish, deep-sea comb jelly, mushroom, firefly, bamboo coral, marine worm, crown jellyfish, a second type of marine worm, and sea pen.

Read about it here.

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The sippy cup is half full – a story of having kids in Academia

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Both parents in our household are academics (The Two Body Problem Awesomeness). We knew we wanted a family and I knew I didn’t want to put it off forever. We picked a biological time instead of a career time to try – and we were lucky to have no fertility issues. We had both just secured postdocs at the same institution when we discovered I was pregnant. I defended my dissertation in the first trimester, my husband defended his in the second, and then we moved across the country to start postdocs on the cusp of the third. We had a second child less than two years after our first (while still postdocs). I applied for, interviewed (while pregnant with #2) and secured a tenure track position during my first application cycle, and we negotiated a soft money position for my husband. We were able to defer for one year so I could take maternity leave and we could (try) to wrap up our postdoctoral work.

Planning and some luck are responsible for the fact that we are both still academics. My post doc advisor was so, so, so, so supportive of me. He put no pressure or guilt on me from day one, and his entire lab is family friendly. Having a kid is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding boss guilt to the list. I will always be grateful for this fact and hope to emulate it in my own lab. I also applied for and received a fellowship that allowed me to work at my own pace and on my own project for the last two years of my postdoc. This was huge for my career. My husband’s advisor was similarly supportive. Without the understanding and flexibility of our mentors, I’m not sure we could have made it this far.

Personally, I say I “crash landed” into parenthood. It wasn’t pretty. I had never been around kids. We had a serious health scare. I had the Baby Blues and a short period of post-partum depression. Breastfeeding—not easy under the best circumstances—was much, much harder than I thought it would be (physically and mentally). Pumping at work is the second worst part of parenthood (in my opinion). The first worst part is sleep deprivation. That shit is real. It’s a torture mechanism for a reason. At the start, some babies need to be fed every hour. Go ahead and set your alarm for every hour of the night, stay up for half an hour then repeat. Your next day is not going to be great. Then repeat that for a couple of months and the fact is, your work productivity is going to take a hit. It just is. Plan for it as best you can, don’t beat yourself up for the biological realities, sleep if you need to and rest assured, it will pass.

It took a long time for my fully functional science brain to return to my head. I doubt I worked “full time” for many months after having kids – having children alters every aspect of your life and it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll take a little while, or maybe a long while, to adjust.

All that said – kids are amazing! Now that they are 2 and 4, I am more efficient, happier and (at this point) more productive as a scientist than I was before. Kids give my work brain a break (and work gives my kid brain a break!). I love playing with them. I love reading to them. I love weekends and I love having a very full life. I just traveled to NYC to give a talk and I loved being able to take a short awesome trip and I loved buying two dinosaur toys to spoil them when I got home. I love my life and although I wouldn’t choose to go back to the hardest parts of the last four years, I would never ever change that decision.

I don’t really know what useful advice I have for the young-uns out there. We’ve been lucky and privileged in a lot of ways and it’s not exactly helpful to say “Just be lucky!” We wanted children so we had children. And it’s worked out pretty ok (so far, knock on wood). I guess knowing my priorities helped me a lot. I’m very lucky. I’m very happy. I work my butt off at work and at home and go to bed exhausted every day – and I love it. Good luck to all (and please feel free to post questions here or on twitter @sarahmhird and @NM_Reid)

Noah’s notes on…

  • …mentor support: Both of our postdoctoral mentors were incredibly supportive. That said, the system is unfair to everyone in this circumstance. On average, people starting families are going to experience a productivity hit, particularly women. And PIs on the grants supporting them are likely to feel that. If we want science to be more diverse, PhD students and postdocs can’t just rely on the magnanimity of tenured professors to start their families, we need a system that renders that magnanimity unnecessary.
  • …institutional support: The University of California postdoc union has negotiated decent healthcare and benefits. The first two trimesters of the first pregnancy at our PhD institution cost us dramatically more money than the third trimester, birth and the whole second pregnancy combined at UC Davis. However, technically mothers only get 6-8 weeks “paid” maternity leave (paid by disability insurance! pregnancy as disability, how wonderful!). That is absurdly short. There is amazing variance in needs of infants, and each of our kids completely destroyed our ability sleep out to at least six months before gradually getting better.
  • …the nature of the postdoc: We both did work that allowed flexible hours and did not require extended time at distant field sites or 12 hour stints in the lab. I walked into a postdoc where the initial stages of the project were already underway. I had clear goals for skills I wanted to develop and the project had low technical risk. When your life is about to be upended by children, managing uncertainty is key.

Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job : Part 2

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PART II

Dear reader,

Thanks for continuing on from Part I. Here, I add a human component to Part I, reacting to the criticisms, advice, and to-do list for my career by actually considering that I have growing family, a desire for work-life balance, and  goals in life additional to being a tenure track faculty.

The crux of Part I was that I need to publish more, apply broadly, jump start my career, and move around a lot to land that perfect (or at least good enough) tenure track job. Let’s unpack the implications of this from a more holistic point of view than I had in Part I.

  1. I’m not complaining nor am I surprised by the prescriptions. I had a good sense for all these challenges when I started graduate school and that sense was strengthened when I took the postdoc. Publish or perish is not a new revelation, and the peripatetic postdoc life is well known. The rules have always been clear (mostly, see below), and I’ve intuited the holes in my CV for some time now.
  2. However, I do take umbrage at the implication that, to succeed in academia in the future, the majority of us will have to take a post-postdoc, assistant professorship as a stepping stone. The argument goes, that there are so many people on the market now, to be competitive, you have to have run a lab already. In other words, we’re in danger of another level being added to the process. Postdocs used to be quite rare—they were fellowships that exceptional people took before becoming faculty (I think E.O. Wilson is a good example). But now the postdoc is a standard step in the pyramid process. Is the post-postdoc about to become normalized too? Perhaps, and maybe 20 years from now, it’ll be expected. But I am disheartened by the idea of having to take a sub-optimal (for me!) faculty job to eventually land in a better (for me!) faculty position. **
  3. At some stage, how much can one move? How many postdocs does one accept? Moreover, I have a spouse, and have already moved them for my work once. How many times can I ask them to move to a new place, make new friends, find new jobs? And my family is growing. How many times can I move my kids, especially as they approach those challenging middle school years during the post-postdoc I’m now supposed to be considering to jump start my career?
  4. Finally, I am trying to optimize more than just my faculty job aspirations. I want to move to a place where my spouse can find good work, where we can build a good community, where my kids can go to good schools, and where we don’t have to spend more than half of our income on housing and school. I want a broader quality of life to go along with that tenure track job (which brings some good quality, I agree). Am I willing to hang on for a post-postdoc and spend 3-6 years in a sub-optimal place (again, per my specific parameters) in the hopes of perhaps getting a better faculty position perhaps in a better place?

If you’re paying attention to tone, you’ll have intuited by now that the answer is bordering on no. I’m not really willing to apply broadly and move a lot to land that final job. Publishing more is the only thing that I will reasonably do to make myself more competitive. So, I will do that, and keep applying. Frankly, I am not confident that anything will come of it. My postdoc has gone on too long already and extending it another year won’t really patch the holes in my CV. So, I may be coming to the end of the line.

At some level, dear reader, you’re thinking to yourself: “Sounds about right. Objectively, you’re not good enough. You haven’t published enough, and you aren’t willing to move enough or sacrifice enough to become a tenured faculty at your dream school. There’s no judgement in that statement. It’s just how the game is played, and the game demands more.”

To which I say—fair. I’ve suspected this for some time. I decided long ago that I am going stay in the game, while playing it at the level of work-life balance that I am happy with, until the game tells me it’s time to get out. I’ve done that, and now—empirically, i.e., no interviews—my playtime seems to be coming to an end. So, I’ll pack up my good memories, friendships with great people, and large set of transferable skills and take my PhD out into the real world. I’ll have some sadness in doing that, but no sense of failure (a topic for whole other set of blog posts) and no regrets.

 

** PS. I wrote this piece and then let it sit for a while. In the intervening time between when I wrote it and when it was published, I talked to a number of folks and realized that perhaps the post-post-doc, temporary assistant professorship isn’t really all that new. Lots of people move around at the pre-tenure stage apparently, so it seems that this is an obscure rule I just didn’t know about. I still take umbrage, but my surprise is lessened. Now you know too.