Five ways real scientists need to be like Mad Scientists!

We scientists all have a little bit of the Mad Scientist in us. And some of that is probably healthy.

1. They’ll never understand my genius!

“Those fools in the Society. They’ll never understand me and my genius. The FOOLS!”

Well, this is true to an extent. You are the person most qualified to evaluate yourself and RotwangMetropolisappreciate yourself. Sure it’s great to get recognition from others but you need to be your own worst critic – and your own biggest fan. Nobody appreciates your genius. Actually most people don’t know you exist. You have to have confidence that you’re doing great work. You should have a kind of quiet insanity that allows you to push through when nobody seems to be supporting you or even noticing you (which is a good bit of the time- people in the Society are really busy with their own plans.) If you don’t think you’re doing great work maybe it’s time for a change. So you need to show them. Show them ALL…..

2. Push the bounds

Pinky_and_the_brain_by_themicoWhat self-respecting mad scientist dreams of taking over the world in incremental advances? None of them that’s who. You have to think BIG! Of course, given the constraints imposed by life and those expensive mortgage payments on your tropical island secret lab you’re likely to have to do more than a little incremental work. I guess my advice (aimed at myself as much as anyone else) is have at least one BIG thing you’re working toward that all those small-time evil gigs are work to support. Have VISION and a willingness to carry it through.

3. Find good help

Minions. You’ve got to have minions. But not just any minions-

"Abby somebody"

“Abby somebody”

good ones. They’re hard to find but can be crucial to your successful world domination. If you’ve got a plan, chances are it’s a big plan. Working away in your secret lab by yourself quickly becomes impossible. You need people. Smart people who understand your vision. In my opinion this may be more important than their specific skills since if they don’t sign on with the vision they’re not going to be minions for long. And having minions gives you a lot of warm bodies between yourself and those pesky heroes who are out for your blood.

4.  Be dedicated to the plan, even in the face of utter defeat

Yes, it’s true unfortunately. Your grand plans are likely to be foiled. Over and over again. Yes it sucks. But you have to keep moving forward and take those little victories when you can (and the big ones too). Failure is actually the name of the game in science. When the dastardly Reviewer 3 raises his/her red pen of dream smiting you need to be ready to respond and absorb the good and ignore the bad.

5. Have crazy, intimidating hair.

This last one is important. Very important. You’ve got to have the hair (Dr. Evil 2007_7young-frankensteinnotwithstanding)- lots of scary, intimidating hair. It helps to keep your minions in line and to frighten off your enemies. But seriously, there’s a hint of truth here- about being judiciously intimidating, not the hair part per se. You may not be doing any favors to your minions by being super nice to them all the time, and this may not promote critical thinking and personal growth. Dr. Isis has a great post about this– specifically regarding women in science but I think it applies to all mentors/mentees (in different ways clearly). I am certainly more like the first example she uses, the nice guy mentor who is very encouraging. But lately I’ve started to see how this can backfire- especially with some people- and end up not being helpful for anyone involved.

Happy Halloween and good luck taking over the world! (you’re going to need it)

Presentation blues

It never seems to fail. The presentation is set up, the slides have been previewed, the system has been tested- but now that everyone’s actually IN the room to listen something goes wrong. There’s a laundry list of things that can go wrong (see below) but this invariably causes delays, uncomfortable silence, fidgeting, and, if you’ve got a flexible audience at a conference or online, you’ll lose people, first slowly then in droves. It is truly

This is a projector my grandfather, Gideon Kramer, designed. It uses a single carousel and dissolves between slides- extremely cool for it's time.

This is a projector my grandfather, Gideon Kramer, designed. It uses a single carousel and dissolves between slides- extremely cool for its time.

amazing the percentage of meetings where SOMETHING goes wrong with the presentation- even at well-organized computational-leaning conferences.

Back in the day (i.e. days of my grad school experience) we weren’t ‘blessed’ with such things as computer projectors, Powerpoint, and web-enabled broadcast. We had actual slide projectors. Humming heat sinks with mechanical carousels of physical slides. You had to plan ahead for your talk- no last minute rearrangement of slides or addition of attributions before the talk. You had to plan out your talk, compose the slides, then have them made (when I started the presentation thing in earnest we at least could compose the slides on a computer.)

A visting senior scientist told us before a talk that he would do a test for all his graduate students and post-docs prior to them giving a talk. He would take their prepared carousel full of carefully arranged slides and turn it upside down. If they hadn’t remembered to

"THIS MAN... has a very large head"

“THIS MAN… has a very large head”

attach the retainer ring the slides would all fall out and the poor student would be left scrambling and presumably panicking. I guess this was to teach them to be careful to pay attention to important details or something- to me it just sounded sadistic. In any case, his point was a good one: always be prepared for something going wrong. As the importance of the presentation rises so too does your need to remember and apply this rule. Do not be caught with a blank screen and a blank stare at a job interview- EVEN IF IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT!

To help I’ve prepared the following lists. The first is a (non-exhaustive) list of things that can go wrong- most of these I’ve seen or been a part of, the second is a list of things you can do to prepare yourself for these eventualities.

Things that can go wrong

  1. Technical issues with computer-projector connection. By far the most common problem I see. The computer doesn’t talk to the projector. It can happen when you switch computers to present from your own computer, for example. Or it can just happen. I know from experience that you can have several people test the connection ahead of time and things can still go wrong. The computer forgets its display connection, the cord comes loose, sometimes there are complicated control panels that have to be configured just right.
  2. Format issues with slides. Do you use Keynote or some other software that isn’t used as ubiquitiously as, you know, PowerPoint? Then you might have problems. Switching the AV to use your computer can often lead to other problems (see point 1.) Sometimes platform differences do cause problems (Mac to PC, vice-versa) but more often it’s old versus new formats that might prevent a presentation from being given.
  3. Web- or video- casting problems. I will say that I’ve almost never been involved in a video webcast that has gone without a hitch. Also, running a webinar is pretty tricky too (though it is getting easier.) This is a bad situation because you have people who are not in the same room with you getting antsy. Of course, the upside is that you can’t see their discomfort.
  4. Problems playing embedded videos. It’s just an issue. Embedded videos can work on one computer and then not on another. There are sometimes encoding issues and other times it just doesn’t seem to work. I sat in a presentation hall with 300 other people at a big conference and we waited 20 minutes (!) in the middle of a Pinky_and_the_brain_by_themiconot-really-that-interesting talk so they could fix video playback. The video wasn’t all that great in the end. This is particularly insidious because it means stopping in the middle of a presentation to fix things. Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.
  5. Can’t find the file. You’ve seen it happen. The speaker thinks that their presentation has been loaded on the computer. Maybe they sent it to the conference organizers the previous week? Maybe they have a thumb drive that they’re sure they put the file on. This may be one of the more embarrassing problems. Sometimes it’s the senior researchers squinting over their glasses at the screen and repeatedly opening the wrong folders/drives (while everyone watches on the big screen) but nearly as often it’s younger, computer-saavy folks who really should know better.

What can you do to prepare yourself

  1. Know your talk. This is by far the most important point I’ll make. Know it inside and out and be able to give it even without your slides. This is especially important for things like job talks where a lot is on the line. It’s true that your interviewers will cut you some slack if there are technical issues that are clearly on their side. But you’ve missed a HUGE opportunity by standing around with a dumb look on your face. You could be giving your talk (or a portion of your talk) WITH NO SLIDES. It’s like MAGIC and it can be done for ANY talk. Sure display of actual data will suffer but if you have access to a white board you can sketch quick visual aids to give the idea. If you do this I guarantee no one will forget your talk. I still remember a talk I saw like this once where the slide projector failed mid-talk and the speaker (a fellow grad student) kept on GIVING their talk. Practice important talks both with and without slides. And not just once, multiple times. It will pay off.
  2. Have backup copies. If you’ve sent your slide file ahead to be loaded by someone make sure that you also have a thumb drive in your pocket with the presentation too. Also- always have a backup format too. A PDF copy of your slides seems to work just fine and can be more universal. Of course, the PDF won’t display the animation of the stick figure and the associated completely unnecessary sound effects that accompany your slide transitions. But that’s really not a downside, is it?
  3. Do a pre-flight check. If you have the opportunity to view your slides as they will be presented then do this before your talk. A lot of times scheduled individual talks will include setup time in your agenda. Use it to load your slides and click through each one to make sure that it looks OK. Especially pay attention to embedded videos and anything else that might be problematic.
  4. Pre-flight video/web casts. If possible, test your webinar or video connection prior to your talk (or a talk you’re organizing). Do this with someone who can be offsite to make sure that there aren’t issues with firewalls to test this as well as possible. In my experience even a preflight check won’t guarantee that things will work. If you can send a slide file to your destination, or get one from the presenter if you’re organizing. That way, at the very least, you can follow along in real time. It works.
  5. Know what you’ll do/say if your presentation stops in the middle. You should never simply stop if your next slide doesn’t come up, if an animation or video you had doesn’t work right, or if the AV simply goes down in mid-sentence. This is a subpoint of my point 1 above, know your talk. If you know your talk you can keep on rolling and pause when your at a more convenient point. It does not
  6. Have a filler. This is one that I haven’t tried but seems like a good idea. Have in mind a short something that you can say that will fill time while the AV people (and generally 3-5 other interested parties from the audience who are ‘sure’ they know the problem and the fix) get you fixed up. This could be a short introduction to your talk (maybe then skip a couple of intro slides), an aside that is highly relevant to your audience, or even a short introduction to yourself and your work. I can see this could be dangerous because you don’t want it to sound like filler. So just take this as an untested idea.

Please let me know if you have comments or additions (or funny stories) in the comments below.

To my friends, loved and unloved

My friends of Facebook, Twitter, and beyond (and those that just happened upon this post by searching for “red kitchen manga fruit”)- I’ve now been blogging for just over a year. Woohoo! I think I’ve started to find my voice- though I’m not really sure that my posts have gotten measurably better. It’s been fun and I’ve managed to post about once a week, on average.

Anyway, today’s post is a response to a Huffington Post piece titled “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook“. The author starts with an example of a self-serving post from a friend of a friend and then elaborates a basic premise:

A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it.

I actually agree with all the points listed and have been annoyed at one point or another by some variant of those points (it’s worth a read, really). The author lists two ways that a post can be unannoying– if it’s either A) interesting or informative or, B) funny, amusing or entertaining.

So roughly translated the author states that the way posts can be annoying is if they’re all about ME (the poster) and the way they can be unannoying is if they’re all about YOU (i.e. the reader.) My problem with the post is that the author is ignoring something very important about Facebook and other forms of social interaction on the internet: the interactions are social. That is, they don’t go just one way- they are an interaction between two invested parties.

The key here is moderation. Of course, if you always post attention-getting posts I may get annoyed. But here’s the thing- I am interacting with you on social media because I want to be social with you. If I didn’t want that I wouldn’t be your friend/follower/blog reader/etc. It’s easy.

It boils down to two easy rules of my own: A) How would I interact with a friend if I were talking to them? and B) It is my choice to read your post so and I can easily ignore things that you post should I choose.

So here’s my take. If I’m your friend/follower/blog reader then:

  1. If you have something great in your life happen and want to BRAG about it. Go ahead! I would love to know what you feel proud about and what’s great in your life. Really I do. If you do it repeatedly, I may tune you out. If I’m threatened by your success and happiness then that’s just my problem, isn’t it?
  2. If you’re in a new relationship and loving it. I want to know! Really. Young love is the stuff of famous plays, pop music, and personal mythology. It’s great! Why would I not want to know that you’re in a new relationship? If you post pictures or change your relationship status without an accompanying post, I’ll feel left out.
  3. Likewise- if you’re sad I want to know. Why haven’t you been posting your normal humorous anecdotes? Oh- your dog ran away and your grandma died. Makes sense and I feel for you. Maybe it makes a difference to me to know these things. If you’re always sad it might be depressing to be your friend.
  4. Cryptic cliffhangers? OK, there I’m at a loss. But everyone needs a little mystery in their life right? Once in awhile it’s OK to leave me hanging.
  5. The literal post: Do I want to know mundane details of your life? Sure I do. In moderation. I don’t need to know that you’re sitting on the toilet or putting on your jacket. But it can be comforting and familiar to know that you’re eating at your favorite lunch spot, reading to the kids, or cooking something wonderful. It gives me insight into your actual life.
  6. Oscar-acceptance speeches? Why not. Imagine that you’re reading someone’s Xeroxed (yes, that’s a word) yearly family Christmas letter (the distant predecessor to Facebook)- this is something you would expect to find there. Everyone likes a little appreciation. Just not too much.
  7. An incredibly obvious opinion? Now that’s pretty much a judgement call isn’t it? I agree that there are some posts that are just as obvious as “the sky is blue today”- but there’s a whole lot of gray area and someone’s obvious post may be somebody else’s revelation into the mysteries of life. OK- maybe not that far, but at least interesting.
  8. A step toward enlightenment is described in the post as “an unsolicited nugget of wisdom”. So, when, except in Kung-Fu movies, is wisdom sought out exactly? These are easy to ignore and can be pretty interesting sometimes. Unless of course, you’re one of those people who happen to already know all the wisdoms. Then it’s just annoying.

The post finishes with the (probably accurate- depending on your definitions) statement:

That means that between 96 and 99 percent of your Facebook friends DO NOT LOVE YOU.

So- I’m not friends with you on Facebook because I love you (well, except YOU- I mean I DO love YOU, obviously- that’s why we’re having this heart-to-heart). But I am friends with you, or follow you, or read your blog, or follow your Tumblr because you give me something- a connection, some interest, some part of a social interaction. So post away! In moderation.

I dream of science

I had a dream last night- after yesterday hearing about possible furloughs at the lab due to the government shutdown. Here it is:

I was trying to go into a building and needed to go through security. Now that I think of it, it had a lot of similarities with the NIH campus main entrance. I needed to talk to a security guard so I put my bag down. After he asked me what I did- that is, what I studied, I was surprised to find that he was a scientist too. We had an interesting conversation about science. Then I turned around to get my bag (presumably to enter the building). However, I found that someone had completely taken apart my 35 mm camera while my back was turned- it was entirely in pieces, even the lens was just a pile of glass and black metal and plastic parts. I was shocked, angry, and despondent all at the same time.

I’ve been thinking about this dream all day and it seems to sum up my career stage, my concerns about making it to the next step and succeeding in science, and my concern over the state of science in the US currently- especially during the shutdown. Imagine that the camera represents my vision of science and security represents the grant/career process, especially with an emphasis on funding organizations. Also the security guard? An alternate ending to the career story. The mind is a wonderful and terrible place when it’s worried about something.

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Open access, peer review, investigative reporting, and pit bulls

We all have strong feelings about things based on anecdotal evidence, it’s part of human nature. Science is aimed at testing those anecdotal feelings (we call them hypotheses) in a more rigorous fashion to support or refute our gut feelings about a subject. Many times those gut feelings are wrong- especially about new concepts and ideas that come along. Open access publishing certainly falls into this category- a new and interesting business model that many people have very strong feelings about. There is, therefore, a need for the  second part: scientific studies that illuminate how well it’s working.

Recently the very prestigious journal Science published an article, titillatingly titled, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review: A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals.” I’ve seen it posted and reposted on Twitter and Facebook by a number of colleagues, and, indeed, when I first read about it I was intrigued. The post has been accompanied by sentiments such as “I never trusted open access” or “now you know why you get so many emails from open access journals”- in other words, gut feelings about the overall quality of open access journals.

Here’s the basic rundown: John Bohannon concocted a fake, but believable scientific paper with a critical flaw. He submitted it to a large number of open access journals under different names then recorded which journals accepted it, along with recording the correspondence with that journal- some of which is pretty damning (i.e. it looks like they didn’t do any peer review on the paper). Several high-profile open access journals like PLoS One rejected the paper. But many journals accepted the flawed paper. On one hand the study is an ambitious and ground breaking investigation into how well journals execute peer review, the heart of scientific publishing. The author is to be commended on this undertaking, which is considerably more comprehensive (in terms of numbers of journals targeted) than anything in the past.

On the other hand, the ‘study’, which concludes that open access peer review is flawed, is itself deeply flawed and was not, in fact, peer reviewed (it is categorized as a “News” piece for Science). The reason is really simple- the ‘study’ was not conceived as a scientific study at all. It was investigative reporting, which is much different. The goal of investigative reporting is to call attention to important and often times unrecognized problems. In this way Dr. Bohannon’s piece was probably quite successful because it does highlight the very lax or non-existent peer review at a large number of journals. However, the focus on open access is harmful misdirection that only muddies the waters.

Here’s what’s not in question: Dr. Bohannon, found that a large number of the journals he submitted his fake paper to seemed to accept it with little or no peer review. (However, it is worth noting that Gunther Eysenbach, an editor for a journal that was contacted, reports that he rejected the paper because it was out of scope of the journal and that his journal was not listed in the final list of journals in Bohannon’s paper for some reason.)

What this says about peer review in general is striking: this fake paper was flawed in a pretty serious way and should not have passed peer review. This conclusion of the paper is a good and important one: peer review is flawed for a surprising number of journals (or just non-existent).

What the results do not say is anything about whether open access contributes to this problem. Open access was not a variable in Dr. Bohannon’s study. However, it is one of the main conclusions of the paper- that the open access model is flawed. So essentially, this ‘study’ is falsely representing the results of a study that was not designed to answer the question posed: are open access journals more likely than for-pay journals to have shoddy peer review processes? No for-pay journals were tested in the sting, thus no results. It MAY be that open access is worse than for-pay in terms of peer review, but THIS WAS NOT TESTED BY THE STUDY. Partly this is the fault of the promotion for the piece by Science, which does play up the open access angle quite a bit- but it is really implicit in the study itself. Interestingly, this is how Dr. Bohannon describes the spoof paper’s second flawed experiment:

The second experiment is more outrageous. The control cells were not exposed to any radiation at all. So the observed “interactive effect” is nothing more than the standard inhibition of cell growth by radiation. Indeed, it would be impossible to conclude anything from this experiment.

Thus neatly summarizing the fundamental flaw in his own study- the control journals (more traditional for-pay journals) were not queried at all so nothing can be concluded from this study- in terms of open access anyway.

The heart of the problem is that the very well-respected journal Science is now asking the reader to accept conclusions that are not based in the scientific method. This is the equivalent of stating that pitbulls are more dangerous than other breeds because they bite 10,000 people per year in the US (I just made that figure up). End of story. How many people were bitten by other breeds? We don’t know because we didn’t look at those statistics. How do we support our conclusion? Because people feel that pitbulls are more dangerous than other breeds- just as some scientists distrust open access journals as “predatory” or worse. So, in a very real way the well-respected for-pay journal Science is preying upon the ‘gut feelings’ of readers who may distrust open access and feeding them with pseudoscience, or at least pseudo conclusions about open access.

A number of very smart and well-spoken (well, written) people have posted on this subject and made some other excellent points. See posts from Michael EisenBjörn Brembs, Paul Baskin, and Gunther Eysenbach on the subject.