Author: ck2

A Giant Inspires Once More

sacks_swimmingToday, the New York Times printed an Op-ed from the beloved Oliver Sacks. The title perfectly sets the tone of the piece and a catch in the throat: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer.

I imagine the next few months will bring stories of Sacks, re-runs of his pieces past, and, eventually, tributes. But, as he states in his letter to readers today, “This does not mean I am finished with life.” Guided by personal experience, I choose not to spend time saying goodbye until the moment of true goodbye. Instead, I seek to learn, experience, create with those with whom I will soon part.

To me, Oliver Sacks is a masterful ambassador of science, of critical thinking, of fun, and of humility. Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for what you have offered us, and what you will continue to offer us. May we all learn, experience, and create with your wit and keen eye, your creativity and humility. And may we all work to bring these qualities to science and to our conversations about science.

Interested in a career in science education? Check this out!

The Versatile PhD is hosting a web-based panel discussion on careers in informal science education (read: science education outside of the classroom). Panelists holding jobs in nonprofits, science centers, and government agencies will introduce themselves on February 23rd and answer your questions until the 27th. No registration necessary, but you’ll need to join VPhD to participate (VPhD is an amazing community for those exploring a variety of career paths, so joining the website is really just giving yourself a present. Do it!) More information about the panel here.

Rediscover childlike wonder with a pen pal

pen pal certificateLetters to a Pre-Scientist connects students in low-income schools with scientists using the ol’ pen pal method. They ask that scientists sign up to send four letters over the course of the school year to an assigned student. Sounds fun, refreshing, and relatively easy. I only just found out about this program and the first letter receipt deadline has already passed (sorry!).  Anna, the organizer of LPS, told me that although the letters have already started up this year, she makes a waiting list for when scientist pen pals fall through, so sign up as a scientist-in-waiting and stick around for upcoming years. More info about your specific duties as a pen pal found here.

Anonymous Dean Speaks up on Graduate Education

To skip the following treatise on reformatting graduate education and instead move directly to the amazing interview about which this piece is written, click here.

If graduate school were a sci-fi flick, how would the synopsis read? On my most cynical days, I like this one:

After being chosen as “Future Holders” because of their preeminant Life Aptitudes, the people of Cognetus are encouraged to undertake the life path of Phyloph and enroll in a decade-long training program purported to mold them into the elite minds of society. Phylophs enter the program eager for challenge and to learn how to work together, capitalizing on the strengths of each member, to create a peaceful and productive future for all. However, after living for years within the confines of their Phyloph training, they discover they inhabit a distorted reality where their communications with all non-Phylophs are altered and the talents that once defined them as Future Holders are fading. Now, absent their Life Aptitudes, the Phylophs risk everything to find their way back to the reality they once knew and the people they left behind.

Yes, on my most cynical days, I wonder where my pre-graduate school Life Aptitudes have gone. It is true that I have new Life Aptitudes of which I am very proud, and likely would not have attained without tackling the rigors of graduate school. But why do I feel as though many of my pre-grad school skills have hidden away in the meantime? Perhaps because graduate schools are still designed as one-size-fits-all, and that size no longer fits the student body; I have shed some of myself in order to fit into Academia.

Dean with a Cause

Back in January of this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a thought-provoking interview with Dean Anonymous (a dean who refused to give his name for reasons that become quite apparent in the interview) regarding how graduate education should change. Not if it should change but by how much it needs to change.


That graduate education fails to meet the training needs of most of its students is a familiar, now almost worn out, axiom for most students and postdocs I know, regardless of intention to pursue a traditional academic career. But not until the interview with Dean Anonymous had I heard this frustration offered up by an administrator, an administrator from Very Good University, no less.

Some snippets from Dean Anonymous include “doctoral curricula need to be changed to acknowledge…that most of our Ph.D. students do not end up in tenure-track (or even full-time faculty) positions” and “The changes…might include different kinds of coursework, exams, and even dissertation structures.”

So, Dean Anonymous, why no change yet?

“The biggest barrier is our own collective fears and self-imposed conservatism.”

Please, go on.

“Administrators are worried about looking too different from their peers or from the institutions with which they would like to compare themselves. As much as they might talk about innovation or disruption, they are worried that if they look too different, they won’t be playing the right game.

This is something I had never considered. I have long taken the stance that graduate education is, unfortunately, vocational training that tends to narrow one’s view of his or her future rather than expand it. Don’t get me wrong, universities are rich with avenues for broadening one’s mind, network, and resume, but taking advantage of these alternative-turned-mainstream training options often requires immense initiative, an extra work load or two, and sometimes even sneaking around.

Will the Real Visionaries Please Stand Up

My peers and I have discussed why graduate programs and universities give lots of lip service, and career service seminars, to “alternative” career paths yet spectacularly fail at making structural changes to programs that will capitalize on the passions students are pursuing on the side. And of all the theories that I’ve heard, a school’s fear of looking bad wasn’t one until Dean Anonymous spoke up.

Chart by Jordan Weissmann
Chart by Jordan Weissmann

In an environment where we are taught to be bold, think outside of the box, and to let data drive our next move, I have trouble accepting that universities won’t do the same. The data is clear—as of 2012, around 40% of graduating STEM PhDs immediately entered a postdoctoral position. We are flying away from the academic research nest, the place graduate school truly trains us to be. When will the Very Good Universities of America use  these data to design a new educational experiment and stop performing the same one ad infinitum?

I like to think I’m not completely naïve on this point. Budgets are sewn up, and when money is scarce, typically so is everything else: time, space, energy, patience. And I know I likely fail to appreciate the difficulties faced by administrators. But I also know that we have a diversity issue in graduate education, a retention issue in graduate education, and disconnect between the training we receive and the jobs we do, and do not, land.

What’s a University to Do?

It is time for concrete steps in the evolution of graduate education. Dean Anonymous knows it, lifetime postdocs know it, graduate students know it, and I think most professors know it. So why is this discussion of foundational change still happening mostly under the table, during happy hour and on weekends, quietly in labs, hallways, and offices, and after every career service seminar? Because we, the Universities, are afraid of breaking molds, standing out in a crowd, being trailblazers? Say it ain’t so.

This fear is letting highly talented and motivated students slip away from graduate school still lacking what they actually need: relatable work experience, diverse references, and a resume—not a CV—competitive enough to bypass the post-PhD part-time work and internships. These students can bring their doctoral degrees to education, the arts, nonprofits, business, politics, the judicial system, the media, Hollywood, to museums and funding agencies—especially if we train them up on how to make the most inroads and do the most good.

I can hear critics, including the one in my head, countering that if an individual wants to pursue some of the careers listed above, why apply to graduate school in the first place? Perhaps that’s the problem, an excess of students misunderstanding the purpose of graduate school. The purpose is to become an expert in a discipline and make a measurable contribution to that particular field through research and publications. For students who want extracurriculars, there are summer internships and outreach programs they can do on their own time.

If we commit to such an attitude, then I assert that we forfeit the right to complain about the ignorant news reporters, the unqualified middle school teachers, and the politicians with an elementary understanding of science*. (Do you want a rigorous scientist in Congress? Maybe we can give her a PhD in Science and Government, a curriculum created from the melding of Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry, Communication, and Political Science. How about better teachers? What about Child Development, Cultural Studies, Education, and Mathematics?)

excellenceMost universities have all of the fixings to design incredible multidisciplinary graduate degree programs and tracks; we just need to freshen up our perspective. The current model of graduate education is worn out. It’s time to rinse it off, examine it, and reorganize and realign with reality. After all, you can only be on the cutting edge if you keep sharpening that blade.

*Although this comes from a highly biased source, it’s too apropos to pass up. Click here for the video.

The interview with Dean Anonymous and Leonard Cassuto from The Chronicle of Higher Education is no lengthier than this introduction to it, so keep going and read it here!

For those who want more

After going back and forth on the challenges graduate programs face, someone asked me, What can we do, right now, to push us in the right direction? I confess I do not have a revolutionary answer. But here are some jumping off points.

  • At UC Davis, Dean Gibeling often hosts a quarterly “Dialogues with the Dean” during which he and attending students talk about a particular issue while dining on pizza. The schedule is not yet up, but I will post it when it is. Attend, dine, and speak up!
  • UC Davis also has a Graduate Student Assistant to the Dean and Chancellor who “serves as a liaison between graduate students and the administration at UC Davis.” Amandeep Kaur served for the 2013-2014 academic year, and I’ll post the new assistant’s info once I find it. Talk with that person, pay attention to emails from that person, and hell, you know it: become that person! The position requires two things grad students typically run short on—time and energy—but passion can sometimes breed both. Look for the call when it comes out in the spring.
  • Be a good citizen of the university—serve on committees, fill out surveys, participate in workshops, meet new people. There are a lot of smart and generous university citizens out there; perhaps together we can create (and implement!) a solution.

Bringing science careers to life: Do it for the kids


AAAS has launched two new outreach campaigns, and they’re asking for us to participate. One campaign, called 5 Questions for a Scientist, is exactly that. Participate in short interviews about your science career to help showcase STEM career options to young students. The other call for outreach, AAAS STEM Talks, connects scientists with K-12 students via video chat to discuss…science!

 Click here for more info and email contacts. Shout out to our own Dr. Ling Wong for this info. Thanks, Ling!

At least you’re having a better day in lab than Oliver Sacks

oliver_sacksIn lab, sometimes the going gets rough. And for some projects, the going is, was, and ever shall be, rough. If you relate to such feelings of defeat, take heart, for you are not alone. For instance, the beloved doctor and storyteller Oliver Sacks once lost nine months worth of lab notes in one hurried moment. Nine months of notes. He shortly followed this up by losing the accompanying nine months worth of tissue specimens. Sacks lived to tell the sad tale of his brief lab research career to Robert Krulwich of Radiolab.

In the short interview posted below, Sacks tells of how his relegation to a nursing home as punishment for his lab crimes soon set him on his way to becoming the Dr. Sacks we know today. This new trajectory was not without distress, either, as Sacks found himself disregarded by fellow clinicians and scientists who disdained his penchant for stories over quantitative description, a battle that ignited after the publication of his 1973 book Awakenings.

If you have any misery, and it needs company, take a listen as Dr. Sacks spins research heartbreak into pure gold.

Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks

Hawkeye, cone opsins, sixth graders, and YOU!

Apparently Alan Alda (perhaps best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye in the TV series M*A*S*H) is into science. And improving the communication skills of us scientists. In fact, he founded a center at Stony Brook University called The Alan Alda Center for Communication Science. The center offers classes and workshops and all sorts of cool things. And right now, Mr. Alda is offering up a contest that you could win, making you a household name among eleven-year-olds around the world. Yay!

Long story short, The Flame Challenge asks scientists to answer the question “What is color?” at a level appropriate for eleven-year-old comprehension. Entries are due March 1st (sorry for the late notice, I just learned about this), and can be written explanations or explanations using visuals.

I don’t know what you could win, but contest details are here. It’s worth a shot. Maybe you’ll get to meet Alan Alda! Maybe you’ll outshine tenured profs and impress a bunch of sixth graders. I hope to give it a go myself. But definitely consider taking this outreach opportunity. It’s a great exercise and may even come in handy in a future job interview when they ask about science education and outreach. Dropping Alan Alda’s name ain’t too shabby either.

UCD offers new file storage option

I was recently informed that UCD has teamed up with to provide all UCD folks with FREE 50 GB of high security space in the cloud. If you use DropBox, you should definitely check it out. If you’ve always wanted to use DropBox but simply wanted more space or better security, also check it out.

Click here for the UCD Box website, and here for the FAQ page. And they say you keep your Box account after you leave the university. Bonus!

What is progress?

At today’s “Writing a Dissertation or Thesis: Getting Started and Getting Done!” workshop (Remember, Grad Pathways can help light your way. The coordinator’s last name is even a homophone of “archangel.” I know I’d love to have one in my corner.), David Masiel of the UC Davis University Writing Program urged us to write, write every day.

Most of us have heard the worn out grad school adage “Write 15 minutes (or more!) every day.” But some days even 15 minutes of scribbling or typing words about our research seems an insurmountable task. Enter David Masiel’s story about James Dickey. Before achieving writing fame, Dickey worked in advertising. He’d leave work exhausted, too exhausted to write, but not too exhausted to sit. So he would rest at his typewriter, hands on its keys. At that time, writing 15 minutes in the evening was inexecutable for Dickey. But existing in his writing space was not. So that’s what he did. He eventually became an award-winning poet and also wrote the best-selling novel Deliverance.

Masiel gave us permission to fall short of the 15-minutes-a-day goal, but he did not give us permission to fall short of progress. He reminded us that even defining one lousy term is progress. For Dickey, creating writing time and space was progress.

Research is nonlinear, often rendering progress unrecognizable. But perhaps it is only unrecognizable to those of us who have yet to embrace progress at the level James Dickey did.


***I was unable to verify this story, but I also don’t care if I can. I think it serves a purpose regardless of its factuality.

Dr. Srinivasan Talks Imaging

vivekDr. Vivek Srinivasan is one of the newest members of the Neuroscience Graduate Group and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He jumped in with both feet when he spoke at the 2012 fall Neuroscience retreat after only being in Davis for only a few months. His office hasn’t had the time to collect the clutter of papers and artifacts often seen in the old timers’ offices, but he already has a journal cover to his name that sits on a shelf above his desk and a computer/printer setup fit for the engineer that he is. We caught up in his office with a view on the second floor of the Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility (GBSF) building on campus.

CK:  What was your most recent position (prior to coming to Davis)?

VS: Most recently I was in Boston, Massachusetts, at Mass General Hospital, specifically the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging as a postdoc and then junior faculty [instructor].

CK: What brought you to study optical imaging and also the hemodynamic response?

VS: Oh, well, it’s been a long road. So, I would say I started out very much as an engineer. My training was actually in electrical engineering. I was drawn to medical imaging because I felt it would combine my love of engineering and building things with some real and relevant applications both in clinical medicine and biology. My PhD work was mainly in the area of optical imaging of the retina, and we developed techniques that can visualize structures down to a few microns in the living human eye. During my postdoc and faculty time at Mass General, I became interested neuroimaging. In particular, the center I worked at was one of the early developers of functional MRI…it’s interesting how little we know about the fundamental underpinnings of it in spite of all of the papers being written about it and all of the publicity it has gotten. So, one of my areas of research is to better understand the origins of functional MRI…As MRI technology has gotten better…people have noticed new features in the response. The question is do those new features give us any new information about the underlying normal activity? Do they allow us to better interpret, let’s say, feedforward and feedback processing, or excitatory and inhibitory processing…It turns out it’s quite complicated.

 Dr. Srinivasan adds that, “From more basic experimental studies, we can ask specific mechanistic questions about how the brain regulates blood flow at the microscopic level and what we can actually infer from changes or correlations in blood flow that are measured macroscopically with fMRI or other techniques.”

CK: What’s your favorite part about your research?

VS: I would say my favorite part about my research is taking a measurement in the lab and having it agree with the theory. That’s always great.

CK: Yeah, it makes it easy.

VS: Getting data that is clean and interpretable. Because we do a lot of in vivo imaging studies where there’s all kinds of variables that could go wrong: the physiology, anesthesia, or the imaging instrument itself.

CK: What do you think defines you as a scientist? So, what sets you apart from other people?

VS: I think what really sets me apart is that I’m developing techniques and technologies to answer basic questions, but also that I’m flexible in that once you have a great tool, I like to apply it to different areas…there are many retinal diseases where some of our ideas could be used as new diagnostics.

 We then spent awhile looking at an image of rat brain vasculature captured with an optical imaging technique pioneered by Dr. Srinivasan (from this paper). As Dr. Srinivasan pointed out, the image demonstrates how incredibly complex brain vasculature is and why it is so difficult to tease apart the meaning of an fMRI signal, even for this engineer-turned-neuroscientist who has spent much of his career thinking about this exact problem.

 CK: What is the best scientific decision you’ve made thus far in your career?

VS: Um, well, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but I think I made a pretty good decision coming to UC Davis from Boston…I think this is a great neuroscience program, there’s nobody doing what I’m doing, and I really see the sky as being the limit in terms of the collaborations and opportunities that I could have here. So, right now I’m optimistic that I’ll call this a very good decision very soon.

CK: What advice do you have for current graduate students trying to navigate graduate school?

VS: For students navigating graduate school, I think it’s less important exactly what you work on. I think what’s more important is choosing an area that has potential for growth. So really look at the scientific field you’re in and [ask] is it a growing or shrinking field?  Where is it going to be in five to ten years? And it’s a tough question for a student to answer…so it’s good to get advice from senior people. And I think it’s also good to choose your advisor carefully, not just based on personal characteristics, although those are important, but also based on track record of mentoring.

CK: Do you have any concerns about the current state of academia?

VS: I’m at the start of my career, I hope, so I tend to be more optimistic. I mean, the funding pay lines are very low, and they are getting lower, so it means that very good science isn’t getting funded, so that’s a concern.

CK: What is your favorite way to take a load off and forget about your research?

VS: (laughs) I never forget about my research! I mean, that’s the stuff that, really, I like thinking about in my free time. I play the piano, that’s one way I take a load off. Uh, go for a run, spend time with my wife, travel, go out to dinner, all those things.

CK: What is something people don’t necessarily learn about you until they spend a lot of time around you?

VS: I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that question. Umm, I think people see I have a sense of humor, and I think that doesn’t always come across initially.

CK: Is there a question you wish I had asked to help students get to know you better that I didn’t ask?

VS: Yeah, kind of. What is unique about the type of work that I’m doing that may be attractive to potential students? And I think it’s really that we’re both in the business of developing new techniques and tools but also applying them to interesting questions. And I think there are very few other labs that can maintain excellence and emphasis in both areas, and this is what I hope to do.

CK: And do you have any current students or postdocs?

VS: Yeah, I have one postdoc who we just hired, another who’s coming, a student who’s starting in [spring] term in Biomedical Engineering. And then I have an assistant specialist who’s really going to help out a lot in running the lab operations.

CK: And are you still accepting students or postdocs?

VS: Yes. I’m very eager to recruit students from Neuroscience. Absolutely. And I would be interested in interviewing postdocs, too.