Why I March: March for Science

The March for Science is this Saturday April 22nd. Thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of scientists and supporters of science will take to the streets in Washington DC and over 517 cities in satellite marches around the globe. I will be marching virtually from my sister’s home in Bend, Oregon.

Why do I march? I march because science is incredible. How cool is it that some people have DNA from two different people in them? How cool is it that scientists are working on curing HIV/AIDS with cord blood transplants? How cool is it that science has increased the length and quality of our lives, in part by eradicating childhood diseases like polio?

My goal as as a scientist is to help scientists do what they do best: research. Research can only be done by funding and supporting science.  Since much of scientific funding comes from the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies, we need to make sure that this support of science continues to be a nonpartisan priority. We need to support our young scientists so that a generation of science isn’t lost.

My goal as a human (who happens to be a scientist) is to empower the public. I want to help the public understand science and health, but I also want everyone to know (or feel like they know) a scientist. It’s a tough road to slog when people don’t trust in science. A first step in fixing this may be making sure that every single American knows a scientist. A recent survey found that people are more likely to trust news from a Facebook friend. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a scientist as a Facebook friend?

So I march for science. I march for progress. I march for our present. I march for our future. And I march for all of you, since I am your Facebook science friend.

What’s one thing that people don’t know about your job, but should?

On Facebook the other day, a post come up with answers to this question: what’s one thing that people don’t know about your job, but should?  I wish I could share the link, but I just can’t seem to find it. Perhaps this means that my answer to this question should be “Even though I’m a researcher, I can’t find everything I’m looking for by Google searching either.”

Joking aside, I have spent the last several days thinking about this question and what the answer is for me.  I’ve also asked my husband who is a Neuro ICU nurse and everyone else I’ve come into contact recently. For the record, the hubby’s response was that even though you only have two patients that you pay attention to for your 12 hour shift, they take up all your time and you barely have time to sit, eat or do anything else. (He’s such an awesome nurse!!)

Me - my first day as a newly minted PhD scientist!

Me – my first day as a newly minted PhD scientist!

I keep changing my answer the more I think about it. In part, this blog tries to demystify what being a scientist is all about.  I think I tell you about things all the time that you probably didn’t know about, like what a scientific meeting is like, how does the grad school experience work, and what in the world I do at an Institutional Review Board meeting. Also, as a scientist, I think one of the main things I want people to know about the profession as a whole is that scientists aren’t just one type or stereotype. Scientists can be nerds, we can work in the lab, but we are also in business, policy, the arts (and be nerdy or not – it all depends!).  We also have hobbies outside of the lab. I play in a handbell choir and love to bike ride bar hop. Friends of mine have hobbies as diverse as raising carnivorous plants, riding horses, or long-distance biking.  We’re just people too!!

But what if I had to choose JUST ONE thing about MY JOB that I’d want people to know. I think it would be the critical importance of communication. I spend the majority of the day communicating my thoughts and vision to my team, to my leadership, and to other people who will help my team achieve our goals.  I write papers and grants with the goal of communicating to reviewers, other researchers and funders the importance of my work. I communicate with people throughout the hospital asking questions, solving problems and working together to achieve our shared goals.

I know that communication is an important part of many (most?) jobs, but perhaps it is a bit surprising to non-scientist that it is so necessary for a scientist.  Maybe what I really mean is that so much of what I do every day, I can’t do on my own.  I rely on so many other people. Science isn’t a solitary as you might think!!

Then again, in 10 minutes I may think of something that I would want to people to know about my job EVEN MORE. Fortunately, I have this blog, and I can tell you all about it then – and I will.

What about you? What is your job and something that people don’t know about your job but should?  Share in the comments!

Why can’t you get anything done? Activation Energy

I was having drinks the other day with an amazing scientist and physician.  She started talking about getting things done and how some people have the “get-it-done” gene and some people don’t.  The people who don’t either don’t ever get things done or work really hard to develop something that looks like the get-it-done gene. I think that whether a scientist or not, this feeling is very familiar.  Like those times when you know that you have to make an important phone call or answer a time-sensitive email and instead you end up doing 15 different work related (or unrelated) tasks instead of what you need to get done.  Or even better, my favorite technique, cleaning your desk instead of starting a new project. My excuse? “Having a clean and organized desk will help me work better when I get started”, but we all know that it’s really just a solid way to procrastinate.

My most recent difficulty on getting something done was starting to write a manuscript that I was invited to write in June and had a very clear mid-September deadline.  Not only did it have a deadline, but there were collaborators that had to contribute to the manuscript, so I had to be on top of things. What was the problem?  I had all the information gathered to start writing. I had ideas in my head of what I wanted to write. I had a motivational deadline. My problem was activating what my colleague called the “get it done” gene, but I call activation energy.

You may recall this term from your high school chemistry class.  The technical definition is that activation energy is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.  If you think about it another way, it’s the energy barrier standing between chemicals and the chemical reaction that will turn those chemicals into products.  In some cases this activation energy may be really huge and a lot of energy is needed for the chemical reaction to take place.  In other cases, the temperature may change or an enzyme may be present that decreases this amount of energy needed for the reaction to take place.
This is IDENTICAL to those large and small barriers that you face when you are trying to get things done.  Some things, like cleaning your desk (especially while avoiding other tasks) is easy to start.  It takes very little activation energy to go from messy desk to cleaning (your chemical reaction) to the desk being clean (the product of your chemical reaction).  On the other hand, despite all your best efforts, some projects – like starting to write a manuscript –  have a really high activation energy and are really hard to get started.  Whether it’s easy or difficult to start, whether the activation energy is big or small, the end product is the same – a completed project. That’s what makes activation energy so annoying.  You know that you’ll eventually get to the same place whether you struggle at the beginning to get it started or not.

So I’ve tried to trick myself into decreasing the activation energy for the projects I just can’t seem to start.  I’ve “pretended” to get real work done by printing out papers I need to read, writing outlines, or doing online research.  These activities don’t have a high activation for me and therefore seem really easy and unrelated to the larger project.  But the trick is that these activities are actually helping me with the bigger project!  It’s like incrementally decreasing the activation energy through each low activation energy, easy activity.

There are other ways to decrease the activation energy too.  For example, I just read an article in The New Yorker reviewing a book called “SuperBetter” about gamifying your life.  If something difficult comes up, find a way to turn it into a game.  One of the examples was to turn challenges into a “quest” where you challenge yourself to achieve a particular goal as if you were in a game. What a fun way to decrease the activation energy when starting a project.  Make each step part of the massive, exciting, dangerous quest to navigate the twists and turns of writing a manuscript or making a presentation or developing a cool new product.

My other favorite technique to decrease activation energy is similar to the gamification idea, but is completely reward based.  For example, I will challenge myself to write one page or one section and then I will reward myself with a low fat chai tea latte from Starbucks or a few minutes surfing Facebook. It’s amazing what creating these mini-successes does to make overcoming that energy barrier.

And in case you’re wondering, I did finish that manuscript, several weeks early and with great success.  It only took multiple tiny tasks and a half a dozen chai tea lattes.

How do scientific papers get published?

I had a busy week last week.  Besides doing experiments, I was also working on a manuscript about sustainability in biobanking. I’ve talked in other posts about what a scientific paper generally looks like (see here), but not what it takes to get from experiments in the lab to publication.  This is what I’m going to talk about today.

First, you have to know enough of the field to have an understanding of what is known and not known.  Second, you have to identify a hole in that knowledge that you could fill by doing experiments to test hypotheses. Third, you needed to do well-controlled experiments that will hold up to careful analysis.  These will be the basis of your manuscript’s results section.


From the NYT article

Let’s talk about this point a bit more, but first, go to the New York Times and take this little puzzle (it’ll only take a minute or so). This puzzle boils down the essence of doing a good experiment.  You start with a hypothesis (e.g., the numbers are all even). You test that hypothesis and see the result. If you get a negative result, you come up with a new hypothesis and test that.  If it’s a positive result, you can do a few things.  You can decide that your hypothesis is correct and try to guess the answer or, in the case of the laboratory, publish a paper about your new amazing result.  However, it won’t get published because you could be wrong. You will have to find other ways to confirm your hypothesis using different or complimentary experiments.  You should also do your best to disprove your hypothesis. Even in the NYT puzzle, you should try to find negative results. This will help you better understand the limitations of your hypothesis and the results you obtain.  In the lab, it will likely also lead you down roads of abject failure that will never see the light of day, but that’s the reality of science.

Now that you have your experiments completed, your forth step is to actually write the paper.  My undergraduate research adviser always had a draft outline of the paper in process as experiments were being done. That way, he could fill in results as he went along. Most researchers aren’t that organized and they get to writing the paper when their adviser (or the head of the lab) looks at them essentially tells them to “get their butt in gear and write the damn paper, already!” Why is starting a manuscript so difficult? Mostly because it involves synthesizing information. Results on their own are beautiful pieces of success that could go anywhere and do anything.  Synthesizing these into a “story” and discussing the implications of these results on the broader field is hard work. And the wrong analysis can affect the chances of the paper being published or your reputation in the field.

The other challenge when starting to write is figuring out what journal to submit the manuscript to – and keep in mind, there are thousands of possibilities.  Depending on the scientific significance, novelty of the results, and general scientific interest, you may submit your paper to one of the top journals (like Nature, Science or Cell) or you may submit to one that isn’t.  Maybe you’re wondering why this matters?  Each journal has an impact factor, which indicates how often papers published in that journal get cited by other authors.  The more prestigious the journal, the more citations your paper gets, indicating generally, that your research is more influential.  This affects how likely it is for you to (fill in the blank): get a job, get tenure, get invited to give talks at meetings around the world, get a raise, get more grants, get more students, be more successful overall etc. Therefore, the higher the impact factor, the more likely it is for you to become a wildly famous (in the ideal) or successful (in reality) scientist.


The first page of a publication I wrote about the DNASU plasmid repository published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research

Once the journal is decided upon, and the manuscript is reformatted to fit the requirements of that journal (which is a whole other pain in the butt sometimes requiring you to cut the manuscript length by 60%) you submit your manuscript and wait. And you may wait a long time.  I’m not a journal editor so I can’t provide all the insider details, but once at the journal there are  levels of review.  Internal reviews by the journal editors sending the manuscript out for review by other scientists in the field, additional editorial review, etc.  At each stage the manuscript can be rejected and each step takes time.

The manuscript reviewers take on an essential role in the scientific process. They help to ensure that the research is high quality and that the claims made in the paper are valid and supported by evidence. Any scientist can be a reviewers (I’ve reviewed a half a dozen manuscripts), but they should ideally have knowledge of the scientific topic being addressed in the manuscript. Typically each manuscript that is sent out to review to three scientists, and they each anonymously provide their comments back to you and to the editors.  This is where the process can get messy.  The reviewers could just flat out suggest your paper should be rejected or accepted.  Then again (and more likely), they may ask for edits – these can be as simple as fixing typos and adding a few clarifying sentences to doing years worth of additional experiments. And the reviewers may not agree – one reviewer could accept the manuscript, one could reject it and one could ask for edits.  It’s then up to the journal editor to decide what to do. For more about reviewers, check out this Sci Snippet about who these reviewers actually are and the crazy things they sometimes do and say.

When you get the reviews back, if your paper hasn’t been immediately accepted, you can choose to make edits, do the suggested experiments and resubmit to the same journal.  If this is your choice, just by re-submission, you are not guaranteed to have your paper accepted.  You may spend months doing experiments, just to have your manuscript rejected at the end of the day.  If the reviewer comments are too negative or the paper was rejected, you may realize that you set your sights too high and you should submit to a different journal that may have a higher likelihood of acceptance.  At that point, you start the review process all over again.

If this sounds frustrating to you, it is.  I have friends who have had papers in the review, edit, review process for over a year.  I have friends who have submitted papers over and over and haven’t been able to get them published. I also have friends that submit to a high profile journal and get accepted right out of the gate.  However, with the stakes being so high and affecting you scientific career so directly, the publishing process is a necessary frustration and if done correctly, can make your science and your research better.


Do you want to ask a question?

Often, when people find out that I’m a scientist, the first thing they do is ask me a question.  It may be about their family member who has cancer or about something they recently read in the news that was scientifically related. I’ve gotten questions about a drug they were recently (or about to be) prescribed or about what it’s like to be a scientist.  I’ve been asked to look up statistics about a disease or to talk to their child or grandchild about my career.  Since my Mom has the opportunity daily to ask me all of her scientific questions, I want to give you the opportunity too.  On my new “Ask A Question” page, you or your child or grandchild can send me a question.  I will respond personally (as soon as I can!!) and maybe even use your question to prompt a blog post.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Why does a scientist need to know how to write?

I hated English class in middle and high school.  I was convinced that my teachers were being nitpicky and particular just to torture me.  I diagrammed sentences. I practiced comma placement. I learned where and when you add semicolons. I learned how to write a paragraph with a beginning, middle, and an end. I learned how to make an argument logically on the page. I learned never to end a sentence with a preposition, never to split infinitives, and never to write a run-on sentence. And finally, I learned that you weren’t going to get an A in AP English if you didn’t have the EXACT margins that were requested (and on a dot-matrix printer, no less).  To be fair, I did read a lot, which made that part of English classes easier, but otherwise I was convinced, as I slogged away, that what I was learning would never help me later in life.


As a scientist, I write every day.  My first independent research laboratory opportunity was at Boston University where I was awarded a two year Beckman scholarship.  To receive this award, I had to write about the science I wanted to do.  To be able to graduate with distinction, I then wrote a 60 page thesis describing my work that I had to defend in front of a committee.  The better and more logically written, the easier to defend.


Taken from Nature (thank you)

In graduate school, we had an entire class devoted to writing called Scientific Exposition and Ethics.  We learned how important writing was to a working scientist by drafting letters to request a reagent or information from a colleague.  We also learned how to properly write an abstract, which is a short summary of your work that you submit to be invited to talk or present at a scientific meeting.  We practiced creating presentations with concise and clearly written text, which is critical to help people understand the science you are presenting.  Each of these activities has been repeated over and over throughout my career. And one cannot forget the nearly 150 page thesis that was required for me to graduate with my PhD.

Besides day-to-day activities, a scientist’s livelihood is dependent on how well and clearly they can write.  Grant applications, which can be anywhere from 2-30 pages long, must describe your proposed project in detail and be written in such a way so that it convinces the reviewers of why they should fund your project.  Scientific papers, the currency for working scientists are also reviewed before they are published.  If you cannot clearly describe what you did and what it means, all that hard work will never see the light of day.  The art of writing in science is actually so important that scientists encourage you to “tell a story” when writing or presenting your science.

If there is a take-home message, I imagine it is this – being able to write is important even for a scientist. This may be information you want to share with your son or daughter or your local high school classes or anyone who thinks that when they “grow up” they’ll never have to worry about English class again.  Because, let me tell you, my biology classes were incredible and I loved every moment of them, but without the torturous English classes I had in high school, I most certainly would not be where I am today.


What does a scientist wear to work?

What does a scientist wear to work? Whatever they want.  Just kidding, but not really.

I want you to have a real image of what scientists look like and do on a daily basis.  This is different for different kinds of scientists, so I can only speak to my life as a molecular biologist.  First of all, we do not dress like this (though I did dress like that for Halloween one year – I’m the Bio Geek):Photo Feb 22, 11 18 22 AMTypically to work in a lab there are some rules – the rules are to keep you safe but also to keep your experiments free from contamination.  In the lab, you often work with caustic chemicals, so closed-toed shoes and long pants are encouraged, if not required. Some labs are more strict and also require long sleeve shirts. When I was in grad school, this was a typical day and typical outfit (and typical mesys desk – I think I was writing my thesis at the time)

Photo Feb 22, 11 25 29 AMWhen doing experiments, you typically wear person protective equipment (also know as PPE).  This includes a lab coat, gloves and maybe safety glasses.  PPE is generally annoying but necessary.  First, PPE protects you from spills.  I worked with hydrochloric acid and cancer-causing chemicals all the time so I didn’t want them to be touching my skin.  Second, PPE protects your hands and eyes from these chemicals.  Third, it limits your skin cells, bacteria on your hands, or anything else from getting into your experiments.  When working with DNA, you don’t want your DNA to get into your experiment and mess up the results, and when working with cells you don’t want random bacteria from your hands to contaminate your cell cultures. There are other labs that are much more strict because they have more dangerous agents in the lab, so you may need a ventilator or a suit with negative pressure.

Scientists don’t spend all of their time in the lab.  Meetings, where you present your research either as a talk to an audience or on a poster that people walk around to see, are common.  For those, I typically dress up, because even as a scientist, making a professional impression is important.  This is my first ever poster presentation when I was an undergraduate presenting at the Beckman Symposium in California.

Photo Feb 22, 11 25 42 AM

These days I don’t work in the lab anymore, so I dress business casual nearly every day.  Again, to make a good impression and look professional, however I know researchers who have their own labs that wear shorts and sandals to work every day.  Once when I was at a meeting in DC, a researcher from the west coast made a big deal about how he wears a tie on the east coast but doesn’t on the west coast.  Either way, most scientist are just normal people who dress like everyone else, but sometimes need to protect themselves and their science with PPE.



You’re what kind of scientist?

I was one of those people who wrote in their college application essay that since I was seven years old I wanted to cure cancer.  And I truly did (long story for another post).  Somehow, I thought it would happen by the time I graduated from college.  I was convinced that all cancer needed as a “fresh pair of eyes” and it would just come to me.  Looking back, I want to pat my teenage head and sigh at what a cute idea that was while being incredible proud of my idealism.

BU terriers

So with this goal in mind, I thought I should be a pharmacist so that I could do pharmaceutical research, until I asked a pharmacist what they did all day and decided that would be incredibly dull.  So I started Boston University as a biomedical engineering major – it included the words “bio” and “medical” so I assumed that it would be perfect for me.  This was a fabulous plan until I took physics.  This was the first time I realized that not every scientist was the same kind of scientist.  I was a scientist who had a lot of trouble understanding physics – specifically electromagnetism.  I still don’t understand why the electromagnetic vector was sometimes going into and sometimes coming out of the board.

I distinctly remember the day I decided to switch my major to biochemistry and molecular biology. I called my parents and they told me to tell them 10 reasons why I should switch major.  They understood what a person could do with a degree in biomedical engineer (create prosthesis or design medical devices), but what in the world would a biochemistry and molecular biologist do?  And so I explained…

Cells are the building blocks of living organisms and molecules (whether DNA, RNA or proteins) are inside of the cells essentially either doing things (in the case of proteins) or directing the creation of these proteins (in the case of DNA and RNA).  Biochemistry explains the mechanisms of how these molecules function. So by understanding how cells and molecules work through research, I could better understand how life works.  And even more interesting, you can study what happens when these mechanisms break down to cause changes in the cells that result in diseases like cancer.  Cells and molecules are also what are targeted by drugs, which fit right in with my goal of developing a cure for cancer.

As I reflect on this early “scientist” moment, I’m thinking about how the public views scientists and how it could be confusing that different kinds of scientists are not at all interchangeable.  Do people lump all scientists together?  Is it confusing that as a biochemist, cell and molecular biologist I know so very little about physics? Or climate change? Or medicine? And even though I’ve taken classes in neuroscience (and neurons are cells that are filled with molecules), I’m no neuroscientist?  There’s so much information and scientific knowledge, that I’m actually grateful that there are experts in other fields…if for no other reason than so I don’t have to understand physics.

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