Tag Archives: Academia

When funding for academic research dries up…

…postdocs panic!!! ūüėģ

And then, hopefully shortly there-after, come to terms with the situation and focus their efforts on selecting the best course of action to take, selecting the career move that will best position them for career growth and advancement. NBD. :-/

As you may have gathered, this has been my reality for the past few months. The storm officially began in June when, due to financial constraints (for once this is actually true, not just another use of the classic excuse), my appointment was only renewed through the end of February rather than for the next 12 months. Despite the fact that we had all (1 PI, 5x post-docs and 1 MD/PhD student) been writing grants and fellowship proposals like mad, not a single new dime had come through in the last year.

Now I want to emphasize that this really is no ones fault, no one is to blame for the situation. This is simply the unfortunate reality of being in the business of academic research right now. Funding is difficult to come by cut throat  and positions/projects are anything but guaranteed.

Ok, so the $$ train was stalled but I still had until Feb, I still had 9 months — enough time to finish and publish quality research projects and hopefully find some funds to keep the work going. And that’s exactly what I did. In the midst of marathon training, marathon running, friends wedding-ing, sister wedding-ing, friends moving, biology teaching (inside a prison…this little baby will get her own post…), and Halloween celebrating (the very best holiday of all), I finished the research project that I’d been working on over the last year, submitted the paper for publication, and re-applied for the coveted NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowship.

Phew!!

I really did absolutely everything that I could. Which, PS, feels great in the end.

PPS. Thank god for the chemicals your brain secrets during times of stress that make the crappiest of times fade away into a not-as-bad-as-it-actually-was haze.

Unfortunately, as good as it feels to do your best, sometimes your best just isn’t good enough. I was not awarded the F32 this time either, not even close. In fact, the lab landed only one single new piece of funding (a fellowship for a most talented and deserving MD/PhD student ūüôā during the rest of 2014. So, as of March 1st, my postdoc days at Princeton are coming to an end.

Ok, What next? That’s what I was seriously asking myself from mid-October until the end of December. (It was actually more like OMG!!! WHAT THE EFF AM I GOING TO DO NEXT?!?! …but never mind.) Another academic pos-doc? Another small, private university, or back to my beloved public school life? East coast or otherwise? CA? NYC? Or what about industry? Pharma? Energy? Biotech? Consulting? Big business or small start-up? I¬†clearly¬†had no freaking idea what the hell I wanted to do next wanted to keep my options open ūüôā

Regardless, step 1 is to start applying, and apply I did. I applied to postdocs and industry jobs…little private ivory towers and some of the largest companies in the world…from NYC to Boston to Missouri (don’t ask) to CA…healthcare, energy, biotech, and everything in between. I got a number of interviews (and even more rejects or noreplys) and in the end was blessed with making a most difficult decision.

So when I was first applying for postdocs at the end of my PhD (when I was applying to¬†the position here at Princeton) I had fallen head-over-heals in love with this¬†one particular group at Columbia University. Everything about it was perfect, the work was super interesting: cutting edge, diverse applications, a really good fit for me…forwhat I already know how to do and what I want to learn, it was in NYC, it was at a nice¬†university and the PI was/is amazing. ¬†Now, I was going through this application process during the fall of 2012…the fall that Hurricane Sandy had her way with the east coast…had her way with the island of Manhattan…had her way with the chemical engineering labs that reside in the basement of Mud Hall on the campus of Columbia University. ūüė¶ Consequently, my application to join the Banta Group¬†stalled out indefinitely as Scott and his group had to piece their professional livelihoods (and personal lives too quite frankly) back together during the months that were most critical for my interviewing. Damn.

In the end of course, I accepted my position here at Princeton, which has been a most excellent¬†growth opportunity for me overall. I really can not complain for a second about what-I-wish-had-been (aside from Friday nights when Princeton goes to sleep at 9 pm…but never mind…) But moving back to present time, this position is ending, I need a job, and *knock-on-wood*¬†the entire east coast has not recently been nailed¬†by Mother Nature. Hello Scott Banta.

Long story short is that I finally¬†went to interview with the Banta group. (Interview = chatting with Scott for a few hrs in the morning, giving my ~1 hr research talk over lunch to his group, meeting with collaborating faculty and group members and touring the lab and other department resources in the afternoon and then wrapping up with Scott again at the end of the day.) And it was¬†AMAZING.¬†Scott, his projects, Columbia, Harlem. I¬†loved¬†it all. Walking out of the department, through campus, and then on to the streets of my favorite city that day, I had made up my mind before I’d even reached Penn Station.¬†I was¬†finally¬†moving to New York!!¬†How wonderful the way things work themselves out in the end! Right?¬†Right?¬†Right?!?!

And then I went to Exxon.

My interview with the Banta group was on a Tuesday and my interview with Exxon was on the Thursday-Friday of that same week. I had decided in my mind what I was going to do by 5 pm on Tuesday night, no questions asked. But, out of respect for my Exxon interview, I had to hold off on officially accepting the position at Columbia-Banta until after Friday. It was a done deal though, Columbia-Banta was perfect, it was just a matter of going through the motions at Exxon. Or was it.

Again, long story short is that there is actually some really exciting¬†basic science research going on in industry! The resources are wonderful and the people are nice and smart and interesting… For me personally, this is¬†such¬†a unique experience relative to everything that I’ve ever done before (which, aside from a summer internship at a small pharma company, has been confined to academic research for the last 9 years), AND¬†they (Exxon) are interested in providing me with the research/training/publication opportunities/conferences/start-up funds (potentially) that would make me a really strong faculty candidate in ~2 yrs!!! WHAT!?!?

WHAT!?!?

Thinking (out loud…doing more listening than talking…on the phone with my former PhD advisor) about this in terms of building my career was what sealed the deal for me. Making the move from Princeton (after less than 2 yrs) to Columbia would¬†require an explanation (why go from one small, private, research university to another? can’t you get along with people? can’t you adapt to new places?).¬†Although I would also be doing energy-related research at Columbia-Banta, it would be very high-risk-(high-reward)…which does have it’s perks if things work out, but may not be the smartest gamble for a second¬†postdoc position…and would¬†much farther from any real practical application. In contrast, I would be doing cutting edge basic bio research¬†at Exxon that very well shape the way energy-related processes evolve over the next 20 years. AND¬†given the current cut-throat funding climate surrounding the traditional means of supporting¬†academic research (with public $$), it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt to make friends with one of the largest energy companies in the world (and seduce them¬†into supporting the start of/collaborating with my future academic research group). IMHO, the¬†current funding structure in academia is not sustainable long-term (long-term = the length of my careers). I may as well be one of the firsts to stick my neck out there and try to blaze a new path, right?¬†Right?! :-/

Anyway…to say the¬†very least, this was¬†SO¬†not what I was expecting! I had every intention of taking the weekend to think over¬†the decision and then, first thing on Monday morning, officially accepting with Scott. Which, in the end, is SO¬†not what happened.

Exxon made me a most beautiful offer that I would have been a complete idiot to refuse. After thinking things over for about a week, I sent the most painful break-up email to my beloved Scott and then officially accepted with Exxon to start March 1st.

With that, I am now in my final month here at Princeton. (OMG!) I’m afraid these next few weeks are going to fly by as one big whirling vortex. I am wrapping up some of my projects and preparing¬†others¬†to be passed on to/finished by those who will remain in the Brynildsen group…I am looking for a new apt near Exxon…AND I am trying to apply¬†this classic (but nondescript and surprisingly unhelpful)¬†“business casual” phrase in a serious close rehabilitation effort. So far all parts are going slowly :-/ However, I think I finally have all most enough experiments planned out for the next month, I will be apt hunting this Friday and Saturday, and I have successfully determined that no, large bleach stains/holes (in just about any article of clothing) are not generally just accepted/understood.

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F32

Well is this long over-due or what?!?! And to be honest, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what I’ve been doing that takes up so much time!

I did go on two wonderful runs over the weekend, and once this week.

On Tuesday night “one beer” with “a friend” turned into multiple beers and whiskey and Triumph and The Ivy and all the roommates from freshman and sophomore year … and then quite the hang over for a Wednesday. Ugh.

I wasn’t particularly prepared for work today (see above paragraph) so there was a lot of near eff-ups in the lab and frantic experiment slavaging.

Tomorrow will be a big-time experiment day. I mean, why not plan two experiments that you haven’t done before for the same day and make sure that their busiest times overlab? There was no heavy drinking today, or consequences of previous heavy drinking, so I have high hopes of making it through the experimental circus without ending up as the clown of the show.

In contrast to what is suggested in the above paragraphs, today was actually a pretty big-time day when it comes to a work-related item – my F32 study session met today! For everyone who isn’t a slave to the prospect of academic research, the “F32” is a class of post-doctoral fellowships funded by the NIH that (in combination with a hell of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears…and a bunch of luck and a little fairy dust…why not? it won’t hurt…) have the potential to MAKE YOUR CAREER.

There are three application dates for said fellowship each year. I submitted my application on Dec 9th — way to be prompt NIH — errr….I mean, take as much time as you need, oh gracious funding agency! Anyway, each “applicaion” is actually a monster of documents that includes a 7 pg research proposal, personal statemnt, biographical sketches from the applicant, mentor and all co-mentors (these are substantially more work than one would think), statements about your institution, your collaborations, your training opportunities, your research ethics, your teaching opportunities…the list goes on and on and on and on and it is all in the context of your long term goal of becoming the next great academic research hot-shot.

So, my big fat ass paper monster was turned in on December 8th and the study session that was assigned to review it met today to do just that. The top applicants (selected by the study session…typically ~10%) will then be awarded fellowships that fund 3 years of post-doc salary and $x000 for travel to conferences, meetings, etc…

Now, as you may imagine, it looks damn good to be in this top %10. It opens the doors to funding opportunities that come at the end of your post-doc career/ beginning of your junior faculty stint (think K99 territory my fellow nerds). Ultimately it then helps build your case for why one should consider entrusting you with said precious junior faculty honor.

So, yeah, today was a big day. I’m not sure when I’ll actually find out the decision of my session (if the time between the application deadline and today are any indication…never mind…) but I will most definitely keep everyone in the loop when I do (as I obviously haven’t anything of actual interest going on in my life right now)!

I hope everyone has had a nice week and will make it to the weekend also without donning the village clown costume. In the event that you do end up in said costume, make it count!! ūüôā

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Purdue Prospective Faculty Workshop Recap

I survived Purdue (and, maybe more importantly, Newark Airport)!

Both Monday and Tuesday were packed with engaging lectures and opportunities for Dr. Trot to talk about herself and her research. (In the unfortunate scenario that you DO NOT know a scientist personally, given the chance to talk about their work they will a) find a worm-hole up to cloud 9 and b) refuse to get down and shut up until they go hoarse.)

Instead of going into all of the gory details of the topics we covered, I’ll just include main, most interesting points of the day —

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Monday

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Tuesday

The outfits of course!!

Actually, that’s only partially true. It was super interesting to hear about the parts of working with people from different cultures (“culture” = age, location, language, religion, training ideology, etc…) that you often aren’t aware of and the significant influence they have on a project’s outcome. Presentations on what to consider when striving to be a successful mentor for graduate students (or anyone for that matter) and as a classroom instructor were also super useful. The absolute top highlights of the workshop were as follows:
1. The opportunity to meet with the faculty of the Chemical Engineering Department
2. Presenting my current research and ideas for future research directions to the CE faculty
3. Potbelly!

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Potbelly!

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Purdue Prospective Faculty Workshop: Fun Facts and Pot Bellys

Fun fact: West Lafayette, IN follows Eastern Time rather than CST. This will be true even if you fly into O’Hare and (incorrectly) assume that your desination, only 2 hrs away, is in the same time zone. Doing this will simply result in you being an extra hour late to your first engagement of the evening. :-/

The good news is that I actually didn’t miss out on anything because the dinner spread at said engagement was nonexistant!!

The even better news is that I somehow managed to make 2 adorable new friends during those precious final 15 min of the Welcome (non)Dinner who I then coincidently ran into while we independently scavenged the Purdue campus for emergency dinner supplements! In the case that I hadn’t instantly had a science-crush on them at the Welcome (non)Dinner, I would have totally fallen for their great taste in late night sandwich shop choices. Now we all know that I love food and I love to eat, but this is often in the context of trying new things and tackling new challenges rather than being a die-hard groupie for a particular restaurant or recipe. That being said, when I stumbled upon by beloved Potbelly after venturing only three blocks from the hotel, I was way excited. When I noticed my new friends drift in after me I was beyond excited!

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Laughing your way through one of your favorite sandwiches, that you’ve apparently missed dearly since moving to the land of 8.5 restaurants, is a great way to cap off a long (and actually rather stressful) day. Hopefully it is also a great primer for the next two intense days that are waiting on deck, and in the hole. (Why do we always forget about who is waiting in the hole?)

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Pre-Prospective Faculty Workshop – Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and breakfast)

Dr. Trot is on her way.

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We took the NJ rail from Pton Junct to (the wretched) EWR. After a complmentary 30-minute delay (of course) we are finally en route to Chi-town. Upon landing it’ll be a mad dash to fetch what is likely be a go-cart posing as an “eco car” for the final leg to West. Lafayette. (At $79.99 for 3 days I really have no justification for being picky…)

Assuming all goes well above, I’ll report back re: the welcome dinner tonight and just how panicked I am about my talk that is still 2 days away. (I’m sorry stomach lining…and I will continue to be until 4:30 pm on Tuesday.) The good news is that I am now down to 10 min and something resembling a coherent discussion for each slide and transition. The bad news is that the majority of my flight’s passengers now think I’m totally nuts.

Alrighty, it’s just about time to sharpen up the elbows and make sure boots, tights and skirt are properly adjusted for optimal mad-dashing. (If the don’t already think I’m nuts…)

Good thing I’m well fueled from this most delicious start to my day…

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