Debbie Knight

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Hanging up the lab coat

In observation on February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

lonely lab coat 1Today,  my lab neighbor and office mate officially hangs up his lab coat for the last time as he retires from the university.

What this means is he has put in an equivalent of 30 years of service, so he can begin drawing retirement benefits from the public employee’s retirement fund.

But what it doesn’t mean is that he will completely retire from the workforce. It’s highly likely he will find another job elsewhere (and by “elsewhere,” I mean “not in the research lab”).

He will reinvent himself. Try something new. And I wish him well.

But I must admit I’m a little jealous especially since I have a considerable ways to go before I could do the same.

But more importantly, he’s getting out of research just as things are about to get tougher. Way tougher.

As sequestration looms large over the nation, its impact may mean a 5.1 percent cut in National Institutes of Health (NIH)  funding ($1.5 billion of the total).

And according to an announcement made by the NIH, it will likely “reduce the final (fiscal year) 2013 funding levels of non-competing continuation grants and expects to make fewer competing awards to  allow the agency to meet the available budget allocation.” [Translation: funding of existing grants may be reduced and fewer new grants will be awarded]

So, it will be even harder to get grant funding than it already is (and believe me, it’s already tough!).

But it also means that even grants already awarded may suffer reductions in the actual paylines.

I know one researcher who was only given half of this year’s award — the other half held back in case the governmental budget cuts were as severe as predicted. Now, she may not get the other half. This means she won’t be able to do much of the research she proposed to do in the grant that was funded. This means that she may have to let one of her employees go. This may negatively impact her chances of future funding. And I won’t even mention the advances in skin cancer research she might have made.

Of course that could be said of all the possible scientific advances which could be slowed significantly by these budgetary cuts.

It’s a bad time to be in research and to be dependent on government funding for your livelihood. And it sounds like we will have to tighten an already severely restrained belt.

So, Pete, your timing is impeccable! I wish you well in your future endeavors. And don’t forget about those of us still in the research trenches, frantically panning for that research “gold!” 🙂

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The “core” of the problem?

In Uncategorized on February 14, 2013 at 11:16 am

flow cytometer with studentsconfocal microscope

My department has some scientific equipment that is shared by all its members. I’m talking the pricey, big ticket items like flow cytometers and confocal microscopes that very few individual labs could afford.

It’s a great idea. And I actually wish that there was more shared equipment like centrifuges, for example. And maybe even some smaller, more affordable instruments.

But, alas, in a department that is spread out in five buildings, it’s nearly impossible to have truly communal equipment. Now, don’t get me wrong, most investigators are more than willing to let others use their specialized equipment.

The department actually has allotted lab space for the shared (or, as it’s called “core”) equipment. So the flow cytometer and the brand-new confocal microscopes are housed in a lab. There’s even a person who manages the area. Well, actually one and almost-a-half persons. The almost-a-half person is me.

In a new turn of events, there are members of the department who want to make the core equipment a fee-for-service deal. Where, if you are not a member of the department and you use the equipment, it will cost you. Not a bad way of earning a little revenue to help defray the cost of the equipment’s maintenance contracts which can run $2,000 a year.

I will tell you that the one and almost-a-half person staff are not as “expert” as we would need to be to actually run a fee-for-service core facility.

If I was paying to use the flow cytometer, I would expect the staff to help me set up my protocol and attempt to fix any problems that might arise while using the instrument.

Oh, sure, I’ve done my share of flow cytometry. But I’ve only done the simple stuff like looking at one or two fluorochromes (they “glow” when they are hit by the cytometer’s laser beam). But it gets really complicated when you’re looking at more than two because one fluorochrome’s “glow” might overlap with another’s. You have to make adjustments to how much of the flow the cytometer’s detector, well, detects. I haven’t done this. It’s something that I would need to learn.

The other staff member has never used a flow cytometer. Talk about a steep learning curve!

There exists a really good flow cytometry lab that is fee-for-service on my side of campus. They will even run your samples for you – if you’re willing to pay.

A really good microscopy facility exists as well. They may not scan your slides for you, but it is worth having these experts available to help.

In my department, the fee-for-service idea is just talk at this point, but I suspect it will happen.

That being said, I wonder if we “build” it, will they come?

A story behind the research

In observation on February 6, 2013 at 9:00 am

One of the great things about going to a talk given by a scientist is that they sometimes drop in a little anecdote about their research.

I attended such a seminar yesterday.

The visiting scientist gave a talk about breast cancer. While this isn’t my area of research interest, I went primarily because it was my department’s seminar series and I felt obligated to attend.

It turned out to be an interesting talk about the effects of mutations in a receptor protein, its ligand and their influence on cancer cells.

But even more interesting was when she told us one of her technicians had manipulated some cultured cells so they no longer expressed the ligand protein (The protein is called Ephrin A1, in case you’re wondering.)

The technician noticed the treated cells had quite a number of little bubbles (or vacuoles) in them, more so than the untreated cells.

He mentioned this to his boss, the woman giving the lecture.

She admitted to the audience she dismissed his observation as an artifact from the treatment method (that would be transfection for those wondering).

But the technician thought there was something important going on. So without asking, he stained the cells with a special dye called oil red O. This dye stains fats (or as we call them, lipids).

Those little bubbles in the cells were loaded with fat.

His finding led to a whole new area of research in her lab.

She said she was happy that her tech hadn’t listened to her. (Take note all you research students and research associates out there!)

You’d never get that little nugget of fun in a scientific journal article.  But maybe scientists should include them 🙂

The wisdom in waiting to submit a grant proposal – a calculated risk or just plain stupid?

In research issue(s) on February 5, 2013 at 9:00 am

grant proposal due

Today (February 5th) is the official deadline for this round of NIH grant proposals.

Our lab had planned on submitting a proposal.

However, we decided to wait. According to my boss, who is writing the bulk of it, it’s just not close to being ready.

Admittedly, the proposal would be in better shape if we performed more experiments which would add strong support to the proposed research.

But knowing this doesn’t change the fact that deciding to wait is a huge gamble.

It’s tough to get NIH grant funding these days.

Some call it a crap shoot.

And you only get two shots to get a proposal funded.

And if you’re lucky enough to get a score on the proposal (rather than triaged out), you will also get some feedback in the form of a critique.

Admittedly, reading the critique is a bit painful, often resulting in tears or fury (or both). Criticism is sometimes hard to take — after all, you did write the perfect proposal!

It is always wise to put the critique in drawer or on a shelf for a while – allowing the emotions to die down so you can look at the critique in a more constructive (and instructive) light.

Ideally, the critique will give the researcher some idea of what the study section scientists were looking for. And it gives the researcher an idea of how to improve the proposal for the resubmission.

This is all well and good. But getting funded is better.

Yes, my lab, like all research labs out there, needs grant money to keep our research going.

But I also have a personal stake in this: my livelihood depends on this funding.

For me, no funding = no job =  no money.

This weighs heavily on me at the moment since my salary “well” will dry up in a few months. In exactly how many months, I’m not sure. I’m finding the “ostrich method” – sticking my head in the sand, hoping things turn out for the best – is working great for me. It’s certainly keeping the heartburn at bay.

I like the lab I work in. I love the research project I’m working on. I would really (really!!) like to stay and see the project through.

So you can understand that waiting to submit a grant proposal is a huge gamble from my perspective.

It may mean I will have to find another job — especially if we postpone this submission.

I have a friend who is in a similar “boat.” He’s currently looking for a research position. On paper, we look very similar – our skill set is pretty much the same. We’ve worked at the university for about the same amount of time. He’s having a hard time finding a job. Although for him it could be a matter of timing. I’ve found that other research associates who look just as the new funding cycle has started have a somewhat better chance at landing a position.

I’ll admit there are days where I’m not sure it’s worth staying in research — especially if I’ll only be in a lab for a couple of years before the project’s funding runs out. That’s usually when the research is just getting interesting. (But that’s a post for another day).

I’m not quite to the “panic” stage yet. I have a little time before I’ll officially be there. But I won’t kid you into thinking it isn’t a kernel of concern churning and gnawing away in my subconscious.

Waiting to submit the grant proposal is a gamble.

It could be a huge gamble for me.

But if waiting means it will be a stronger proposal, with a better chance of getting funded, it might well be worth it.

Just to be sure though, I think I’ll gather my assorted good luck charms while keeping my fingers, eyes and toes crossed. 🙂