Improving Science

Science is, and must change.

I mentioned in a previous post that we got a bottle of Whisky to a PI of my department who refuse to give trimestrial science “output” reports.

Well, this little thing actually gave birth to an initiative we started with a few colleagues called “Improving Science“. After a few meetings and dinners, we decide to do something at our own level at the university here to improve the way the system works.

I presented all these ideas today, in front of a committee composed of 3 institute heads, and representatives of PhD students. The short talk was followed by a discussion, in which  the institute heads actually agreed with most of our ideas, and said they were thinking about it and try to implement them.

The good thing is that, in fact, they are already conscious of the problem, and having meetings about it. Nevertheless, I cant help feeling slightly frustrated because these things just take forever to change.

We had 3 mains points that we thought needed improvement.

-The evaluation of the PhD training. Right now, we only have a very final evaluation, and poor follow-up during the training. Implementing a mid-term meeting is necessary.

-The paper requirements are off the roof. PI’s required from us to publish 2-3 to 6-7 papers in order to graduate. Which means we have to split projects, do low-risk research, privilege quantity over quality, and so on. This is the thing I hate the most about the dutch system. Not to mention that people are put on them because they “need them”, without contributing to them very much, or at all. We proposed to lower that requirement to 1 good paper. It should be enough to get a PhD. Which would allow us to have more time to “play” with science and go on riskier projects. It still feel like going against a wall of habits, traditions, and dutch academic culture.

-The last point was about offering more opportunities for non-academic careers training. As most of the PhD will leave academia, the university should feel responsible to offer training in teaching, journalism, industry, policy making, or collaborate with NGO’s.

Well. I’m happy we actually took initiative, and presented our ideas. I deeply hope they will be used, and implemented as soon as possible. The next generation of scientist should be able to grow in better conditions then what we have now, although it’s not all bad of course.

My PI told me today I should not feel responsible for this. This is very weird to me. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s only like this that the system can change. From the top and bottom. These elements, such a the sky high publication pressure, the high amounts of burn-outs and depression, the selfishness of people demotivate and drive me away from all of this. And I still love it. But I hate it so much as well. I thought it was possible to feel like this only when it comes to people. 

I apologize for writing such a long post. I needed to get that out of me, I think.

He For She

Can not resist sharing this movie, the speech that Emma Watson, the british actress, gave at the UN last week. They are launching this new movement, called HeforShe, to promote gender equality. Very powerful and moving.

Made me think about gender inequality in science, of course, but also at a much greater, sad, and deep level. It’s incredible that, at the 21st century, men and women still don’t have equal rights, and opportunities.

Book review: How to change the world

Hi all, 116

Long time I haven’t written a book review, but here we go. A few month, when I was going trough my “PhD dip” (more on that later), this guy, a PI from the lab, recommended me to read this little book.

“How to change the world” by John-Paul Flintoff. 

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The timing was perfect, as I started reading it in times were I thought there was nothing I could do to improve academia and science. Well, the book proved me I was wrong. And since then, we started, in our institute, a little initiative to improve things.

I would recommend that book to anyone, because it’s a very good rampart to resignation or resilience. The book it structure in small chapters, starting with “How to start to make a change”. First, it will show you how to overcome defeatism, explain strategies, and how to take the first step. I will also help you to identify what exactly needs change. And then, help you to make your idea beautiful, fun, appealing, etc … many important factors that come into account when one wants to change things.

I loved reading that book. It was a perfect, short, simple, motivational read. I would recommend it to anyone that is slowly sinking into resignation, or thinking of giving up. Because on should never stop fighting or give up on important matters. Especially not in the societies we live in, where it’s easy to do so.

A paper. A day

a aper

I am now, very officially, in the last year of my PhD. In about a year, a big chunk of results will be published, and I’ll be defending my thesis in front of a committee. One of the things I don’t do enough, in preparation of this, is to read. It’s difficult to find time for it -especially during busy days-, but I decided I just have to take it, anyway.

I ambitiously decided to read 1 paper each day, until the day I defend. With a few exceptions authorized, I am not a robot. Hey.

I’m not very good at keeping resolutions, but that one, I’d really like to. I also see it as a bit of a challenge. So, to keep track,and also share it, I decided to create a Tumblr. account especially for this: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/drosophilista

Basically, I’ll post each day the paper I’ve read. Not sure I will have time to incorporate notes. But I’ll tag is at open/closed access. Good way to estimate how many papers I would miss if my university didn’t have a suscription to all main journals.

I started already last monday, and have been quite diligent since, so let’s hope it continues like that. How much do you read ? How do you do it ? I’m interested to hear your experience, so please leave a comment !

Let’s not give up just yet. Change might be ahead.

After last month’s rough patch, things have -fortunately- improved a bit. Just at the time I was jaded about the wonderful world of academia, a few little things happened. And they have the merit to put me back  in a more combative and optimistic state of mind.

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Everyone I’ve been talking about the worst sides of academia actually agreed with me on the system’s unsustainability. It’s bad, because it reflects how weary people are this days. It was also irritating, because most people would just say things like “It’s the system, it won’t change, you have to play the game …”. I deeply think my french education clashes with this. I simply can’t understand this attitude. Not doing anything against this consumes my energy bits by bits. Petitions, strikes, but more importantly, constructive changes and improvements are incredibly important to me.

A few events  -small or more consequent-, the past week proved me, once more, that I’m not the only one to think like that.  And it seems things could change for the best in the future.

First, let’s start with the smallest thing. Lego is starting to commercialize women scientist toys. It’s a very small step, but it deserves to be highlighted. And probably does a better promotion of women in science then that awful spot EU had managed to come up with a few years ago.

Second, I made a pact. With a friend of mine, a senior post-doc, and aspiring future PI. If we ever get in these positions, we will take action to improve the system. Not that we cannot start now. For example, I decided that my thesis committee will be approx. 50/50 men and woman. Because sometimes you have to force things before they seem normal. And I don’t want to defend in from of a committee with only 55+ men; even tough it’s almost a tradition at my university.

Third, the cherry on the cake. We received an email from our department’s administration, asking for a report on the research output from each PI. A report they want every 3 MONTHS. MONTHS. I will not even take the pain to explain how crazy that is. Anyway, one of the PI’s  send an email back (cc-ing everyone) saying that this was simply demotivating, un-inspired, and useless. I was so happy someone actually stood up and dared to say no. No to this non-sens. No to administrators who have no idea that a good research paper necessitates years of work. No to evaluating research on a simple count of papers. Whatever they contain. I, and a few more PhD’s were so happy about this that we decided to buy a bottle of excellent scotch as a sign of support to that PI.

So yes, I think it will be possible to change things, as long as enough people are willing to simply say no to non-sense. And I hope our generation will have that strength.

5000 words, 3.5 years, and …

and now it really starts. La merde. The past week has probably been one of the most hellish week of my PhD.

See, the last 3 years, a.k.a., phase 1, I’ve been happily working on a research project. Starting almost from scratch, developing hypotheses, performing lots fo experiments, and slowly building up enough data for a good research paper, making the final figures, and writing (summarizing) it in 5000 words. That was the good, innocent and enjoyable part of being a PhD student.

Then came phase 2. Submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. I don’t know when it will end.

Nooooo, I wasn’t cranky. No, I wasn’t sad. No, I did not feel like my main job had become formatting stuff in Word. And counting character numbers. And converting PDF’s. And all of this meaningless s*****, just to be done for one or two days, before it came back, again, without explanations. Or standard letters. No, I did not half-joke with my supervisor I would open a bakery after my PhD and be done with all this non-sense. No, we did not have that depressing debate at university, about non-existant career perspectives, burn-outs, and universities being ruthless and terrible employers.

So let me make it clear: I know that no paper ever gets accepted just like this. It’s normal that it gets rejected, and reviewed, and edited. Nevertheless, it’s hard, because this is my work. My project for the last 3 years. Week-ends and late evenings. Overall, very hard work. And I find it impossible to stay calm, neutral, unaffected, placid, and objective in that case. We are people, not emotionless humanoids.

Yes, this is all normal. And it will eventually go away, because, yeah, experiments need to be done. The classic 4 phases I described previously. (I’m almost in phase 4, by the way).

 It is a bit less normal that subjective (or do I want to say, profit and hype-driven) editorial decisions control your scientific career. And by this I mean, it is even less normal that an impact factor, which is nothing more then a stupid number, is almost the only, yes, only, indicator, on paper, of the quality of your science.

And you know the part that revolts and disgusts me deeply ? It’s that we, scientists, do nothing about this. Or let’s say, almost nothing. “It’s the system, you have to play the game, it’s a phase we all go trough, you’ll never change it, bla bla bla …” .Yes, we are scared people, collaborating with an unfair and stupid system that ultimately drives good scientists in an other direction. Or should I say, kicks them out as soon as they are not productive enough. But why should it matter when you have tenure, or publish enough, or get grants … everything’s fine, right ? And why should it matter when you know the expiration date of your career already ? Haha.

Now, the question that I haven’t figured out yet is, can I comply to these unwritten rules ? Can I accept and play that game ? When do you stop looking at yourself in the mirror ? Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve written on this blog mostly positive things about science (1,2,3,4, and many more). They remain true, and I do still enjoy all these things. This hasn’t changed.  But is the price to pay really worth it ? That’s the million dollar question. Bah. Future me will figure it out. For now, I have to get back to the paper factory sometimes called university.

And, if I ever make my way in there (less then 10% chances, yes), dear bloody system, I am coming for you. I’m not alone. And you don’t know who you’re messing with. Like all revolutions, this one will start when the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

 

–Sorry for slight excessive dramaturgy, I really needed to rant write this down and get it out of my head.

Flying to Brazil

Even drosophilists who spend most of their time in fly rooms are aware of this: The Football World Cup starts in less then a month. 

This means: live streaming games in the lab, going to pubs watch games after work, and … making bets and predictions!

I discovered a few weeks ago, via Twitter, this very cool tournament prediction contest—with a science twist, called SciTourney (created by Intergrated DNA technologies).

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Each of the 32 countries had been attributed a Drosophila gene name. And fly people know how to be creative when it comes to gene names ! For example, France is “Burgundy“, Australia is “Crocodile” and Japan is “Sumo“. It all makes perfect sense, right ?  Click here to see the full list! 

The ultimate question is to know which Drosophila gene will be dominant in Brazil ! (My prediction ? Toucan)

Anyone can participate to the tournament. It’s free, fun, and sooo nerdy ! (And there are a few prizes) The more, the merrier, right ? Join by clicking here.

It’s not everyday that football and flies come together. 

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