This is why I blog: from rock bottom to top tier

Last July we wrote about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and spoke of Buzz Aldrin’s autobiography about his battle with alcoholism in the years following. The post drew a comment from a reader who I’ve renamed “Anon.”

Thank you so much for this post.
I am a recovering drug addict and am in the process of applying to graduate programs. I have a stellar GPA, have assisted as an undergraduate TA, and have been engaged in research for over a year.
I also have felony and was homeless for 3 years.
I don’t hide my recovery from people once I know them, but I sometimes, especially at school, am privy to what people think of addicts when they don’t know one is sitting next to them. It scares me to think of how to discuss my past if asked at an admissions interview. Or whether it will keep me from someday working at a university.
I’ve seen a fair amount of posts on ScienceBlogs concerning mental health issues and academia, but this is the first I’ve seen concerning humanizing addiction and reminding us that addiction strikes a certain amount of the population regardless of status, family background or intelligence.
I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

Regular readers know that while I am not a substance abuse researcher, many drugs of abuse do come from my research area, natural products. Think cocaine, morphine and other opiates, psilocybin, mescaline, etc.
I also have special compassion for folks with the biochemical predisposition to substance dependence, especially as I come from a long line of alcoholics including my beloved father who I lost way too early.
With that said, I’m sure you understand how Anon’s comment hit me and how grateful I was for her appreciation. So moving was her comment in fact that I raised it to its own post. Since many of you readers are in academia and serve on graduate admissions committees, I figured you’d have some good advice for Anon.
Well, you did. Here’s the comment thread as a reminder.
And guess what? I got this e-mail from her a couple of days ago.

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Howsitgoin’, eh?: Nature offers $10,000CDN for outstanding research mentors

Canadian flag.jpgI’m delighted to see those $32/article access fees going to good use: Nature is accepting nominations to recognize two outstanding research mentors in Canada with cash prizes.

Since they were launched in 2005, Nature’s awards for mentoring in science have rewarded outstanding research mentors in Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia and South Africa. The competition is held within one country each year, in the belief that mentoring reflects not just notions of good scientific practice and creativity that are universal, but also scientific traditions and cultures that are, at least to a degree, national. . .
. . .This year’s competition is taking place in Canada. Two prizes of Can$10,000 (US$9,900) will be awarded, one for a mid-career mentor and one for lifetime achievement in mentoring.

As regular readers know, I love my Canadian colleagues – several of whom I consider to be excellent research mentors.
It’s pretty easy to be a crappy mentor. That’s why there are so many.
But good mentoring and career development skills takes very special people – those who acknowledge a responsibility to those who choose to train with them and who care that the accomplishments of their scientific progeny can have as much or greater impact than their own direct scientific contributions. Sadly, the quality of one’s mentoring efforts rarely figures into faculty promotion and tenure decisions. So any effort to recognize and reward outstanding research mentoring is a wonderful idea.
Nominations are being accepted through 30 June 2010 and the full details can be found at

Welcome back Nature Network blogs!

Looking all shiny and spiffy today are our colleagues over at the blogging network hosted by Nature. After some downtime to install a new blogging platform, Movable Type 4, Nature Network blogs are back with a much more pleasing aesthetic and a more user-friendly interface.
New Nature Network.jpg
For those readers who don’t have their own blog, the publishing software behind the scenes makes a big difference in how easily (or not) you can post text, photos and multimedia, and add all sorts of widgets and personalization features. I started, for example, on Blogspot with the Blogger interface (owned by Google) but had I to do it over again today I would have used WordPress where, for example, our favorite literary bartender scribbler50 works his weekly shift at Behind The Stick. Both of these are free services that allow you to start a blog in literally 30 min. WordPress also has a local version of their software you can use to further personalize blog templates and host a more SEO version of your blog.
If this is gibberish to you, just go over to the new Nature Networks interface. It now has a nice Recent Posts list analogous to the Last 24 Hours feature at ScienceBlogs.That was actually the original frontpage of ScienceBlogs when launched in January 2006 and I still find that to be the more useful for a quick look at things than the main frontpage here.
But some cool stuff Nature Networks now has is a Most Commented page to follow the posts with the most involved conversations, a Recent Comments page, and a Popular Blogs tab that permits one to list blogs by activity (which I assume to mean page views), ascending and descending alphabetical order, and by the wonderfully British term: recency.
One still is required to register to comment at Nature Network blogs, a feature that for good or for bad is generally an energy-of-activation barrier for some that limits the conversation. But what I *love* about the new Nature Network format is that I can read the type. The default text is a larger and nicer font than what I have here and there is some white space between the lines that makes it more friendly to my 40-ish eyes. (By the way, bloggers can alter their text settings here to make the appearance more friendly as does Revere(s) at Effect Measure but I don’t yet know enough HTML to work on my own custom style sheet, or CSS).
Here’s a nice example of the text from my fellow Colorado expat colleague, Kristi Vogel at The Gulf Stream. You’ve got a nice wide main text column and then two right-hand column for profiles, widgets, and other typical blog detritus. It also looks as though bloggers will have more opportunity to personalize the appearance of their blogs to provide better distinguishing between the writers and cultivation of their personal brand.
Oh yeah, and there’s content as well. For a nice example, take a gander at this insightful post by Dr. Eva Amsen at her blog, Expression Patterns, on why she chose not to do a postdoctoral fellowship.
So, happy day to you my colleagues at Nature Network blogs. Enjoy your shiny new toy!

Amy Bishop UAH case: What role should personality or collegiality play in tenure decisions?

Valued commenter wc just left us a link to one of the most insightful articles to date on Dr. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama in Huntsville biology professor charged in the shooting deaths of three colleagues where two other professors and an administrative assistant were injured.
In today’s Decatur Daily, staff writer Eric Fleischauer has an extended interview with UAH psychology professor Eric Seemann. You really should read the whole thing because it provides an inside view of Bishop’s personality and relationships. But here is a critical passage:

Despite her excellent research ability, Seemann was not surprised she struggled to obtain tenure.
“Amy was kind of hard to get along with,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who said, ‘Wow, she can be really arrogant,’ or be really headstrong. I knew that to be true. But at the same time she was brilliant. She was really one of UAH’s rising research stars. People I know in biological sciences would say, ‘She’s a great researcher, but she’s lousy to work with.’ ”
She was brilliant and she knew it.
“At one meeting I was with Amy, she was complaining to a group of us. She said she was denied tenure not because she was a lousy researcher — she’s not, quite the opposite — and not because she didn’t have good classes, she believed she did — I think some might say otherwise — but because she was accused of being arrogant, aloof and superior. And she said, ‘I am.’

I recently had the opportunity to lead an effort to draft from scratch a reappointment, promotion, and tenure document for a newly-established department. With a committee of deans and department chairs, the final document pretty much included your typical quantitative requirements for teaching, research, and service. But one dean strongly suggested to me that we include a section on collegiality, defined loosely as the ability to interact constructively with individuals for the greater good of the department and the university. While wording to that effect was included, it was not explicitly defined as an evaluative criterion.
In academia, we often tolerate a great deal of destructive and defiant behavior that disrupts the organization in the name of “genius,” perceived external stature and, perhaps most importantly, grant dollars (which generate indirect cost dollars for the institution). When describing some situations I’ve encountered to my colleagues in other non-academic businesses, their conclusion was that some of these people would often be let go if such behavior occurred in their workplaces.
For this consideration, let us step away for a moment from the horrible tragedy in Huntsville. Let us assume that an assistant professor there adequately met all of the explicit quantitative criteria for promotion and tenure in terms of teaching, research, and service. I would expect, however, that if the candidate under consideration was not an otherwise constructive member of the organization, comments in this regard would have been included in the chair’s recommendation to the college dean’s promotion and tenure committee based on the deliberations of the departmental promotion and tenure committee.
The questions for you, dear academic reader are:
1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?
2. Do you feel that collegiality – or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation – should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?

Update Feb 15 – One of the most collegial academics I know both online and IRL, Prof Janet Stemwedel, has an excellent post this morning on her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, entitled, “Collegiality Matters.” She expands there on what comprises academic collegiality and why she thinks it is an essential consideration in tenure decision.

How much should you know outside of your field?

I’m a bit under the weather today but I wanted to at least share with you an interesting career development consideration pointed out by the always-excellent medicinal chemist blogger, Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline.
In his post, What Should Non-Chemists Know About Medicinal Chemistry, Anyway?, Derek posits:

Here’s a topic that I was discussing with some colleagues not too long ago: how much do we need to know about each other’s specialties, anyway? I’m assuming that the answer is “more than nothing”, although if someone wants to make the zilch case, I’d be interested in hearing it done.

A nice comment thread has developed there. Lowe writes from the perspective of a chemist in a pharmaceutical company but I believe that his considerations extend to academic research as well, especially with the increased emphasis on interdisciplinary and translational research.
I consider myself fortunate to have been trained in pharmacology when “true” pharmacology departments were more abundant (i.e., not just a bunch of in vitro biochemists). Having to interact with chemists, stop-flow enzyme kineticists, physiologists using in vivo and organ bath systems, and physicians with research laboratories, I feel that I can be somewhat conversant on a variety of issues outside my immediate research area. Being able to explain the chemistry of glucuronidation sites or the clinical pharmacology relevance of high plasma protein drug binding are obvious extensions of what I should know. I’ve also learned to recognize when it may not be appropriate to ask a chemist colleague for more than a milligram or two of a new compound.
But knowledge beyond that, I think, is even more important for my research program and department. I tell students that you never know where you will end up working and a breadth of knowledge is important to develop even while pursuing the myopic drilldown of PhD dissertation research. Particularly if one ends up in a drug company, you will have to interact often with team members across the drug development pipeline and many go/no-go decisions will be made because of limitations outside your area, no matter how novel your pharmacological target may be. And yes, it is a problem in trying to make a drug out of a compound that only dissolves in DMSO.
So I’ll throw open Derek’s question to those of you in academia: How much chemistry do you expect biologists to know or how much biology should we expect chemists to know? Some of it is simple courtesy and helps develop mutual respect among research colleagues. But some of my colleagues think that the wider you can think, the more likely it is for your research program to make greater impact. (I can’t find it right now but I recall Brown and Goldstein holding forth somewhere on how a strong basis in chemistry is essential for physician-scientists). There’s no one right answer and I am certain there is no consensus, and I feel that the need for breadth will vary based on how far along one is in one’s career.
But in your area, how much do you expect yourself and your trainees to know in areas afield?

#scio10 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Session: Engaging Underrepresented Groups in Online Science Media

Thumbnail image for scienceonline2010logo.jpgNext weekend at ScienceOnline2010, I’ll be co-moderating a session on encouraging scientists and science trainees from underrepresented groups to participate in social media. I will be working with Damond Nollan, a social media specialist and Web Services Manager at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). Damond is the author of the aptly-titled blog, In The Mind of Damond Nollan. The whys and hows are what we hope to discuss in the outline below.
The reason for calling this the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Session stems from the fact that this conference has been held for the last four years over the MLK holiday weekend. It’s a practical time of year, just after the beginning of spring semester but before things get too crazy, the crappy January weather in North Carolina gives us great hotel rates and encourages people to stay inside and engage at the conference, and the Monday holiday allows for greater travel flexibility and cheaper airfares.
But the conference timing may keep some attendees away in their hometowns participating in local MLK activities. Therefore, we are introducing this session to celebrate the principles of Dr King in the context of online science communication: promoting social justice and eliminating racism in areas ranging from healthcare to scientific career paths, giving opportunity to those often left out of the conversation. In my case, that conversation involves increasing the diversity of the biomedical science community.
A longstanding example of the dominant demographic in science communication is the cadre of bloggers in the ScienceBlogs network and the repeatedly missed opportunities to increase diversity in this network. I announced last month my intentions to use this page and my white maleness to give greater voice here to that of underrepresented groups.
MLK_MainSt_close_021660.jpgThe conference is being held in Research Triangle Park, NC, part of the county of Durham, home to Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and Durham Technical Community College. Dr. King had ties to Durham and visited here several times as shown here from a photo shot on February 16, 1960 on West Main Street. On his immediate left is the Rev. Douglas Moore. The civil rights activist Moore, who now lives in Washington, DC, was the leader of the 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in where he led six African American students in protest to use the white entrance of a local business and request service at the counter. This event preceded the more famous Greensboro Woolworth sit-ins by two-and-a-half years. I had the rare pleasure of visiting with Rev. Moore a few weeks ago at the dedication of the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In historical landmark that I wrote about here. It was simply amazing to shake hands with him and chat for about five minutes with someone who worked with Dr. King. The source of the photograph, Gary Kuebke of the historic preservation blog, Endangered Durham, has a superb discussion of the Royal Ice Cream Sit-In here.
We plan to take a different angle from the Casting a Wider Net session being led by Anne Jefferson, although we are sure to have overlap – not a bad thing, IMHO.

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Four for Pharmboy: Thank you and a mission modification

The Preamble

Four years ago today, I wrote my first post in the blogosphere over at the old Blogger version of Terra Sigillata. The post, entitled, A Humble PharmBoy Begins to Sow,” set out my mission to be an objective source for information on natural health remedies and drugs that come from nature, whether used as single agent prescription drugs or as botanical mixtures and supplements.
I read blogs for about six months before setting off on my own, primarily because I wanted to be sure my efforts were not redundant with others. Because I am academic and paid by a combination of federal research and state educational funds, I feel that I can provide an objective forum for discussing news and developments on natural products that is not driven by a need to sell a product.
While I do not write every day, I hope that I have succeeded in approaching that goal. I thank you for coming by to read, participate in the comments, and refer us to other blogs, your colleagues, and your friends and families. It has been a delight to meet many of you and grow to call you my friends and colleagues. I still get a particular charge out of being called “Abel” in person, especially when the person addressing me knows my real name nonetheless.

I command thee: Delurk!

I have been very fortunate this year to see an uptick in the number of regular readers that I believe may have been stimulated by our presence on Twitter. I’d like to get a feel for who you are and why you are here because I always like to serve the community who takes time out of their busy schedules to see what pixels I’ve scribbled on this electronic papyrus.
As my colleague and blog mentor, Orac, did the other day for his fifth anniversary, I wish to ask those of you who read to delurk and drop a note in the comments to share 1) your general background, 2) why you read, and 3) what other stuff you’d like to hear from us. I know you are out there, so I thank you in advance for sticking your head up, saying hello, and going back to lurking. In fact, you may find that commenting is kind of fun and may be something you’d like to do more often.
Since you are here, you already know my answer to #1 and why I write.
But here’s my answer to #3 and how I would like to move forward with this blog in the coming year:

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Today, The Chronicle. Tomorrow, The World! A Scientist’s Guide to Academic Etiquette by Female Science Professor

I was just going through my unread Twitter stream from yesterday and found a link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “A Scientist’s Guide to Academic Etiquette,” with a tagline about scientists lacking in social skills.
Recognizing the truth in that statement, I fired up the post to the very pleasant surprise of learning that the author is none other than the Grande Dame of the science blogging community, Female Science Professor.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is

An aside: I really like the term moniker instead of the pejorative pseudonym or the pompous nom de plume or, worse, nom de blog.
Oh, wait – what’s that in my profile? Nom de plume?
So, one might think that FSP’s first point would be not to be a pompous ass. Well, not exactly, although several points cover that ground.
Here’s a little background:

In the years that I have been blogging, I have written about some of the situations in which we academics are impolite to each other, and offered suggestions for how we might get along better. I started numbering the examples, at first with randomly assigned, absurdly high numbers, as if they were items in a long nonexistent document called “FSP’s Guide to Academic Etiquette.” Eventually I collected all of those scenarios together and gave them real numbers. I hereby share my existing list, with the addition of some new items.
A cursory glance shows that this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the things one might want or need to know to navigate the academic world. Furthermore, some of these tips are more useful than others, some are more serious than others, and more than a few focus on the extremes of academic behavior. All of them are based on actual experiences.

A couple of my favorites:

24. For advisers: Don’t assume that a student or postdoc lacks ambition just because they don’t want to be a professor at a big research university.
10. For students and postdocs: If you are paid a salary, you should do the work.
21. For people introducing a speaker: Before the talk, ask speakers if they have a preference about what is said during their introduction. Some people won’t, but some may have preferences about what to mention (dates, places, awards, crimes).

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Dr Saul Schanberg: neuroscientist, physician, mentor, teacher, father, husband

Saul and Rachel.JPGAlthough I saw this obituary over the weekend, I didn’t get to posting it until today. I was reminded by a local friend, an outstanding young scientist in her own right, of the impact that Dr Schanberg had made on so, so many lives in science, medicine, and our larger community.
I only had the honor of meeting Dr Schanberg once, shortly after his cancer diagnosis, while we were at a Duke Cancer Patient Support Center fundraising dinner. His wife of over 50 years, Rachel, is founder and former director of the organization which they started following the loss of their own daughter.
Among the many scientists and physicians that were mentored by Dr Schanberg is my dear friend and colleagues, Dr Cindy Kuhn. I knew that Dr Kuhn had worked with Dr Schanberg extensively, having co-authored 83 publications. What I had not appreciated previously was that Cindy had also done her PhD work with Saul – so much for that rule of distancing oneself from one’s mentor.
I can’t do any better than the obituary that follows.

“Saul was a warm and wonderful, high-spirited, opinionated and good humored man much loved for his infectious enthusiasm for science, his love of Duke (and Duke basketball) and most importantly his commitment to his family and friends.”

And I couldn’t live a life any better than that.

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The Friday Fermentable Commencement Address

I was having a lovely conversation this week with scribbler50, our beloved blogging bartender at Behind The Stick. Describing him as “just” a blogger does not do him justice; scribbler50 is a writer. If you haven’t been over to Brother Scribb’s crib, do yourself a favor and read a few of his essays. In fact, read the whole archives.
Scribb and I got into a discussion of wine connoisseurs sometimes being as pretentious and annoying as the single malt scotch drinkers about which he has written with piercing accuracy and humor. Thinking that perhaps he had offended me, he qualified the remark to mean pseudo-connoisseurs: people who spout out wine information with the intent to impress others when, in fact, the result is to alienate and cause the inquisitive to become anxiety-prone instead of delving into the enjoyment that wine can provide.
As I wrote in the July, 2006 Mission Statement for The Friday Fermentable, I am a wine enthusiast. I claim no special degrees or professional experiences that make me an expert. I did make wine a fair bit in the 1990s and met with a handful of winemakers around North America, but no more than many out there. But I can drink wine, and often do so with reckless abandon.
For me, wine should be a beverage that brings people together. Having even extensive, technical knowledge of wine should not interfere with that simple fact. From the Mission Statement:

3. To use this forum as a bully pulpit to offset the snobbery and exclusionary behavior of some alcoholic beverage experts that serve the counterproductive aim of alienating the public from gaining a rewarding, enriching, and stress-reducing experience.

In chatting with Brother Scribb, I was reminded of a theme I introduced in a commencement speech when I was an assistant professor. As university graduations are occurring all around the States this week and next, and since the commencement address is one of the most tedious forms of oratory, I wanted to share this recollection with readers of The Friday Fermentable:

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