Tag Archives: Funding

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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Sometimes your very best just isn’t good enough (and not just for Shalanie, for normal people too)

On the heals of a disappointing Monday for one of my favorite distance runners, I had the pleasure of downloading quite the colorful set of reviews of my F32 application. And if the title of this post wasn’t a total spoiler, the reviews were collectively NOT in favor of funding my most novel and impactful research projects. (I’m not biased or anything…)

If you remember my previous discussion about this horse shit F32 fellowship application process, I was waiting for my impact score, the result of a panel discussion of the research I had proposed and the training plan that would be in place for me as a post-doc. Well, apparently with this line of thought I was being more than a bit presumptuous as my application never even made it to the panel discussion!! x-(

So to get to the discussion panel stage each proposal has to make it through a first round of screening, During this first round 3 reviewers assess the proposal and applicant for scientific merit and potential. Two of my reviewers saw the world in a way similar to myself and although they raised a number of very valid criticisms, they both gave me very constructive feedback and scores sufficient to pass me onto the panel discussion.

Enter Reviewer #3.

To his (I’m assuming here) credit, he also raised a number of constructive and valid objections to my merit and the potential of my proposal. HOWEVER, I have a hard time keeping this in the front of my mind as he also had a field day with my proposed research at the expense of maintaining his own scientific integrity. Let me summarize my most frustrating grievances in a few bullet points and then leave it at that:

1. Works that are published AFTER my proposal’s submission are NOT something I should have been familiar with at the time of submisison.
2. It is prudent to at least skim the paper that you’re referencing (read: using as a basis for trashing my fellowship application) to confirm that the title (as you are interpreting it) accurately describes the research project.
3. It is even more prudent to read said paper well enough to asses if the data collected do in fact support the claims being made.

Now I do get that everyone is busy, very busy. The task of carefully reviewing lowly post-doc fellowship proposals is a thankless chore and I would most certainly struggle to do what I consider an acceptable job. Being still many steps below this point in my career I really can only complain so much. I simly need to be grateful for the constructive comments I received and make my best case possible for round two in August.

HOWEVER (there is always a “howerver”), regardless of the point of your career that you’re currently in, of how very junior or senior you may be, you still need to do a good job. You need to do your best job. Like what little Miss Shalanie did on Monday. This is what will ultimately make or brake your end result of course, but your efforts also (and maybe more importantly) impact other people. Sometimes a lot.

Some Most days people will be better than you and off you’ll fall to 7th place, or worse…maybe much worse. Truth be told, this is very very very likely where I would have ended up had I made it thought to the discussion panel…if I were so lucky.

But, one day you/me/SF won’t fall off. One day it will be our day too. It will be. And while we patiently wait for that day to come, please please please don’t be the a$$ hole that takes everyone else down with you!!!

(And now I can go draft my polite yet very concerned email to my program officer inquiring about WTF happened?!?! scientific inconsistencies in the review that may have impeded a just assessment… )

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