Reconsidering my pacing

I was really set on getting out a post per day digging into the meat of science funding and policy, but I’m finding that I want to put more thought and care into it. There were vague thoughts about posting things before Election Day too, but the more I think about it, the less that matters.

On one hand, who is elected into office plays a huge role in securing funding for NIH, NSF, DoD, and DoE research budgets. Ultimately, the president proposes the budget, and various congressional committees craft the budget which is eventually passed by the legislature. Clearly, if science/technology funding is a priority, we want a president and congressmen who think likewise.

That said, the importance of funding science remains, no matter who is elected. I’ll be optimistic and say that most of our senators and representatives are reasonable.(Unfortunately it seems there are a few exceptions… how he wound up on the science committee mystifies me…) So if constituents (you, dear readers) are willing to be vocal, then change can be affected.

I think that more importantly, it’s a long game. No one’s minds are going to be changed overnight. It’s more vital that voters eventually be informed properly on what we have gained through government funded research, so that for many election cycles going forward, the US will continue to be on the forefront of science and technology.


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More substantive post tomorrow, but a quick thought. I was startled today to find myself scrubbing the shower doors midst shampoo. I NEVER clean the bathroom (that’s always been R’s job) so it struck me as unusual.

Nerd that I am, I did a pubmed search for human nesting. Not much came up, other than this article on social nesting (parents pulling back from friends and pulling in family instead).

I don’t remember being particularly ‘nest-y’ (?) with J until a week before he was born, when I made R meticulously clean our bedroom. This one isn’t due for another 7 weeks. /shrugs

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NaBloPoMo, Federal Funding for Science

It’s National Blog Posting Month, and things are winding down a bit for me. So I figured I’d try my hand at posting every day, and poof, like that, some inspiration arrived for me.

First came Nature’s endorsement of Barack Obama, in which the editors state that they believed that his policies would lead to more funding for research than Mitt Romney. However, they did not explain at all why the government needs to fund research in the first place. (Perhaps they felt their audience did not need any explanation, since their livelihoods depend on it.)

Second came an article in Cell, in which a biologist laid out in more detail how government funding for science works, who has any power in the process, and who to put pressure on to make scientists’ voices heard. This is a great read for scientists and scientists in training; it is unfortunately behind a paywall, though, so only scientists/scientists in training affiliated with universities etc can get to it without paying 30 bucks. That said, this article, too, does not explain WHY we need government to fund science.

Finally, one of the bloggers I follow made a post about becoming more active in advocating for science policy. Frankly, this is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place, to practice my hand at writing about science for public consumption. After all, the public elects the government, and (ideally….) those elected will represent the will of the people who elects them.

So in the next few days I am going to try to put together some posts about how government funding for science and technology works, some of the history behind how funding agencies came into being, what this funding has yielded us, and why we need to continue to fund research.

I want to start by saying that research scientists sure as hell are not doing it for the money. Graduate school is 4-8 years of hard labor, with minimal pay (typically 20-30K/year). Depending on the discipline, one then has to do a postdoc, also with minimal pay but grueling hours (maybe 30-40K/year) for another 2-5 years. Then if you’re lucky, you can find an academic position, but then you have to worry about getting tenure, so you have to juggle writing grants, starting up a lab, getting published… your pay goes up but the stress seems (to me) exponentially higher. And once you have tenure, you still have to fund your lab, and very few become millionaires doing this kind of work.

Compare this to if I had simply gone straight to industry as an engineer…. back in 2001, I had an offer of a starting salary of ~60K right out of the gate from undergrad. Nevermind what my bank account would be like if I had gone to Google at that point.

I’m not trying to make academic science researchers out to be martyrs. But I do want to make it clear that when we advocate for science funding, it is not merely for ourselves, but for our work, because there is some part of us that truly is trying to make the world a better place. There is no corporate line there, simply a yearning to know more.

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Being Disaster Ready

With the aftermath of Sandy in the forefront of my mind, I have also been thinking about emergency preparedness for my own family. Living in Northern California, we don’t think about hurricanes or tornadoes, but obviously, earthquakes. It’s easy to be complacent about it, because major earthquakes are rare… but unlike hurricanes or tornadoes or snowstorms, there is no way to predict when an earthquake will hit (well, ok, tornadoes aren’t as predictable as snowstorms or hurricanes, but at least it is precipitated by extreme weather). We only know that the longer we go without a major rattler, the more likely one will hit.

Since he grew up in CA, R was already well versed in how to be prepared beforehand, and how to act during an earthquake. (He was a young teen when the Northridge quake hit, was shaken awake from a dream in which he thought his friends were shaking his house!) That said, we weren’t *really* prepared until we had J a few years ago.

A good basic list with discussion on how to be prepared beforehand and how to act during an earthquake is here. The steps are:

1) ID hazards, and secure them. Hardware stores sell all kinds of earthquake straps, etc. This doubles as baby proofing! Our TV, shelves, J’s bunkbed, the washing machine/dryer, are all fastened to the wall, specifically to the studs. All our kitchen cabinets also have little hooks to lock them shut.

2) Make a plan. R and I have agreed that if something happens during the day, we will both converge on wherever J happens to be; if it’s during school hours, we meet at J’s school. Text each other to confirm each other’s status (when service is limited, text goes through even if voice does not). My father in NJ is our emergency out of state contact. We both know where our emergency supplies are. Which brings me to….

3) Make disaster kits. We have a store of canned and dried goods, and water, squirreled away. We try to buy new cans every year, and use the old ones once we’ve refreshed the supply. The kit includes a hand crank radio/charger (so we can charge our phones), flashlights, and batteries. I don’t know if there is an extra medical kit in there, I should check that soon. And I know we DON’T have cash in there, but maybe we should….

4) Assess safety of your home itself. Our complex is relatively young, and has no masonry, no garage, so we are in relatively good shape. We are also, thankfully, in an area with low probability of liquifaction. (The USGS has good maps of liquifaction zones.)

5) During an earthquake, protect yourself; Drop, Cover, and Hold On. We recently went over this with J, as there was an earthquake exhibit at the Cal Academy of Sciences, and his teachers at school also talked about it. Get under a table and hold onto the legs. Make sure you are away from windows. He took this very seriously, and while R was installing earthquake straps onto his bed, he decided that his father was trying to START an earthquake, and immediately went under the kitchen table!

One thing interesting that I recently found out was that what R was trained to do as a child (brace yourself in a doorway) is no longer recommended, as building codes have improved. Apparently, the safest place really is under a table, away from windows.

6) After a quake, check for injuries. This one reminds me of what they tell you on airlines: take care of yourself first, and then address others near you. Also, check for other immediate hazards. (fire, gas leak, etc.)

7) After immediate concerns are taken care of, follow your emergency plan!


All in all, I think we are decently well prepared, except for the emergency stash of cash. When we first started putting together our emergency kit, I didn’t really think much of that part, but observing the aftermath in NJ, I see the point. If there are widespread power outages, no one is going to be able to ring you up on plastic!

I hope you all have explicit plans in place, and that we never have to put them into practice.

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Gawking at Sandy from cross country

I grew up in Monmouth County, NJ, and my parents are still there. I watched the weather with trepidation over the weekend, and then with growing horror through Monday. The photos that came in first thing Tuesday morning had me in tears.

Two things that really struck me this week:

A) Sometimes I think I am no different than I was 10 years ago, and sometimes I think the way I see the world has completely changed since I had J. This week has definitely been the latter. Imagining what it would be like to have to grab my child and evacuate ahead of the storm, or worse, unexpectedly have to protect/save him from flooding, is an absolutely terrifying thought, made all the more scary knowing that children are keen observers, and immediately can pick up on our worries. (A few weeks ago, I burst into tears about something, and J nearly started crying himself when he saw. His little eyebrows knitting up nearly made me laugh through my tears.) It’s one thing to worry about yourself, another thing entirely to know you’d do anything for our kids.

B) Not that this surprised me, but I was REALLY worried about my parents. (going from the younger generation to the older one!) During the storm, I worried that my work-a-holic father would insist on going to the office, endangering himself on the road in those tropical storm conditions. And of course, I worried about how my parents’ house and property would fare. My childhood home is far enough inland that it thankfully has escaped the brunt of the immediate damage, but now my parents are facing all the infrastructure problems. I think their water is fine, but no power for at least a week, so everything in their fridge is gone, they can’t cook anything, have no hot water, etc etc. My dad is surprisingly technologically savvy for his generation, and is tethering his laptop to his smartphone, but he gets barely any bandwidth. Even though the storm has passed, I am still calling them on a daily basis to check in, and pass on any useful information I can glean from various internet sources; what stores/restaurants/gas stations are open, what progress has been made on restoring power, how the water supply is doing, are they still under curfew, etc. Based on the information I gave them today, they ate their first hot meal in days (roast chicken and garlic bread from Sam’s Club), and it made me feel so good to know I could help them all the way from CA. At least I could directly help *someone*.


Since the vast majority of my friends and family are in NJ, I’ve kept fewer tabs on NYC, but the loss of research animals and samples at NYU was a real punch in my graduate student gut. Just today, I was going through my lab’s freezers, and tossed 3 years worth of material from a failed project into the trash. Even knowing that it was useless, and that I am still getting my Ph.D., it felt pretty terrible. I can’t even IMAGINE what it would be like to lose years worth of work that is actually going in some direction to a natural disaster. I can donate to the Red Cross all I like, but nothing I do can help in that particular situation (patient samples can’t be replaced, and I have no knockout mice to share… I’d bet that many of the strains were unique to the facility, and as such, wouldn’t be replaceable.)


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Like I said.

That bit where I worried that the rest of the world might not treat my daughter the way they treat my son? Yeah, this recently published study backs that up. I think what shocks me the most is that so many of the really terrible gender stereotypes are being said by GRADUATE STUDENTS. If you care to look at the article itself, take a gander at Figure 1…. more physics graduate students than professors think that “Women seem to have more natural ability in biology than in physics” while fewer graduate students than professors think that “Women are discriminated against more in physics than biology.”

Wow. You young ‘uns should know better.

This Buzzfeed article does a nice job summarizing, so I’ll stop there, but I do want to point out their final sentence…..

It might also be worth teaching male scientists that women don’t innately suck at math, a fact of which female scientists already seem to be aware.

Edited to add: In hindsight, I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that those graphs represent what the various types of scientists truly think, rather, it represents what they are willing to say in response to the survey. Maybe professors do think those things as well, but know that they’d better not be perceived as thinking that?

Posted in diversity, science | 2 Comments

My body for science!

Funny I should have seen this article on participating in clinical trials pop up on my Google News page today, as I recently had an OB appointment and some follow ups on studies in which I am a patient. Working in a major medical campus, I’ve seen a ton of advertisements up looking for clinical trial patients, or seeking patients for research purposes. Being a graduate student in the medical sciences, I have also been privy to plenty of the behind-the-scenes minutiae concerning human research (despite the entirety of my thesis work being on mouse cells). As a result, I have a deep appreciation for how HARD it is to recruit patients for research/clinical studies, and how much effort the researchers/clinicians/etc put into making each and every person/drop of blood count.

This makes me a prime candidate for participating in trials/research. Before I had J, I participated in one safety/efficacy trial for an anti-inflammatory to treat eczema. I think I must have participated in at least 1 or 2 research studies while pregnant with J. Post-partum, I was in a breast-feeding attitudes study. And this pregnancy, I wound up signing up for FIVE separate research studies! One on how pregnant ladies respond to the flu vaccine, one on CMV risk assessment, one on effect of probiotics on strep-B, one on methods for coping with post-partum depression, and one massive study on how anti-bacterial soaps affect mother and infant microbiome. (I think that’s all of them….)

A lot of these research studies do have a small amount of compensation for your time and effort (for instance, I received $20 worth of Target gift cards for a blood draw recently). But really, I’d participate even without these small incentives. I believe that human research is an absolute necessity for science/medicine to move forward, so I intend to put my money where my mouth is. Or my body, as it were.

Then there is the situation, as touched on in the aforementioned article, where clinical trials could be a way to get access to groundbreaking treatments years ahead of time. FDA drug approval is a long and arduous process, requiring many clinical trials (further reading on this comprehensive page at wikipedia). A quick summary – there are 3 main stages before approval: Phase I consists of safety tests; Phase II tests efficacy at various doses, in preparation for; Phase III, which does final testing against placebo or other products.

One thing that a patient really has to understand is that there is always a chance that he/she will be in the placebo arm of the trial, in which case he/she will NOT be receiving the drug being tested. Sometimes, this may not be a big deal: in the trial I participated in, I was not too concerned about receiving placebo, as my eczema is not debilitating, and I was willing to risk being a little extra itchy for a couple months. However, the idea of putting my 4 year old in a oral allergy tolerance clinical trial requiring an entire day of hospital monitoring and a blood draw every month for 3 years really gives me pause if there is a chance he would never receive any actual tolerizing treatment. How much am I willing to put him through to combat his peanut allergy, knowing that this type of treatment is probably decades from FDA approval? In the end, changes to the protocol made him ineligible to participate, taking the weight of that decision out of my hands.

While I will soon no longer be on the medical campus on a daily basis, I do intend to keep close tabs on clinical trials in this area. I feel very lucky to have access to these opportunities to potential treatments while simultaneously moving research forward.

Posted in immunology, personal, science | 2 Comments