Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Other Nine

January 13, 2010

I spend an awful lot of time listening to podcasts while out for the walks that keep me on the leanish side of powerlifting. I choose to listen to one particular interviewer who specialises in speaking with Irish citizens who have been successful, very successful, in their chosen careers. Only some of these were successful as human beings, spouses or parents in my opinion. Yet each and every one of their tales is one that teems with lessons. Lessons for the person who’s trying to figure it all out. When to make that strategic move. To foresee when there is an opportunity for success or, more importantly, no dice. I listen and learn from them as best I can and I ponder what decisions I should make and when.

Eddie O’Sullivan is the former Irish rugby coach. He uttered the sentence that I felt most enlightened in this respect upon hearing. I approached every job as the interview for the next position. Suddenly it became so clear. You don’t start behaving like the best in the world when you reach the world championships. You begin now. You behave and act like the best. Learn your trade. Pay attention. Develop. The obvious inference from Eddie is that you will reach your plateau as soon as you stop thinking about being better. It’s one thing being happy with one’s lot but one can still continue one’s personal and professional development at this point.

Michael O’Leary is the man responsible for making Ryanair the most used and profitable airline in the world, though criticised for his poor treatment of employee and customer rights. He talked about his childhood. He spoke about how he had an affluent upbringing but that at times money had been tight. His primary motivation was never being poor. He talked about how his career changed one day when he phoned up a client and suggested he did something dodgy with respect to his tax returns….he definitely wasn’t telling fibs then! Still, he is the CEO of the most profitable airline in the world and a man who revolutionised air travel, making it affordable to the average punter.

Bill Cullen is an Irish business man most famous for buying the rights to Renault cars in Ireland for one pound, his book about his upbringing in inner city Dublin and his role as the boss on the Irish franchise of ‘The Apprentice’. Bill talked about working very hard as a core value. If you work hard you will be the last person to be let go should redundancies be necessary and the first to be promoted when a position becomes available. He says that one should be up at four in the morning and on the phones soon thereafter, though many have ridiculed this in pondering whom Bill might talk to at this hour. Bill’s point though is well made. If you work hard you will often be successful. Bill is happy with his partner, Jackie, but admits that the numbers of hours he spent in work likely lead of the break-up of his earlier marriage. It’s impossible to argue with Bill’s monetary success but I found myself wondering about success and work-life balance. So there might be a bit more to it than just working hard…

We’ve all made decisions that altered the direction of our lives for better or worse. Some people play it safe. Others take chances. When we look at these chancers they seem almost reckless. But the truth, I suspect, is quite different. Rather than being afraid of making the change, successful people are afraid of the consequences of not making that decision. Of staying in the dead-end gig. Of that being their lot. Their family’s lot. Whereas one person might see this as a gamble, the successful see these times as the greatest of opportunities. If not taken, how could one live with oneself?

The list goes on and on. There seems to be at least one consensus sequence in their tales. Each made what appears to have been that very brave and profound decision at one point or, in most cases, continuously during their careers. Many of these involved moving to another country. In this there was a profound difference to the world I find myself in. In their earlier careers, they were almost all in the financial position to start a family and thus had this support when they arrived in this new location. I wonder if the science world would be better if they paid just a wee bit more. If they gave tuppance for a weekend of overtime. A few pennies bonus for publishing. Or just enough to live on as a basic salary. Simple gestures that might make a big difference…

A wise friend once said to me that only one in ten PhD graduates will do a post-doc. One in ten post-docs will become a PI and one in ten PIs will be successful enough to avoid struggling.

I sat last weekend with my best friend in Neil Connolly’s Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield Dublin. We drank tea and I contemplated the genius of moving this beautiful cinema from its previous location. The world didn’t make sense but somehow I felt surrounded by the dream of someone who understood. And as we talked it out, my dear friend and I thought little of the one in ten and wondered about the other nine and if they knew exactly what they were doing…..


Is The Grant Funding System Removing Creativity From PhD Studentships?

October 10, 2009


There just isn’t enough cash to go around. I attended a seminar on grant writing last year where a study of grant funding was presented. Statistically, grant funding bodies in Ireland have the cash to fund only twenty percent of grants. This means that after all the substandard proposals have been thrown in the bin and there remains a group of perfect grants, there is only funding for twenty percent of these. A parallel study to this asked Principal Investigators (PIs) who are considered to be excellent grant getters about their success rates. Interestingly, these PIs reported that only twenty and thirty percent of the grants they’d written in their careers had been funded.

The result is that funding bodies must find some way of differentiating these grants to select the twenty percent to fund. So when we write grants these days we have to define each and every experiment that will be carried out. Every detail must be pre-designed, every chemical pre-selected. Should a grant not contain this detail it will be cast aside as a document prepared by a researcher who has not fully considered their project.

This has been compounded by an alarming increase in the demand from some funding bodies that researchers stick precisely to the detail of the grant. If the researcher develops a better approach or a new technology becomes available, this is deemed unacceptable as it was not detailed in the original grant. Any deviation may result in cancellation of the funding for the remainder of the grant. This might seem fair enough until one considers that if a grant is written today, it will be a year before the grant is reviewed and the awards decided and a further number of months before contacts have been finalised between the funding body and the research institution. Only at this point, one to two years later, can the studentship be advertised, candidates interviewed and the student appointed. In an industry where one can come back from a long weekend to find the entire research area has been turned absolutely by one publication, the idea that new ideas can’t be incorporated is insane.

A long time ago, in a lab far far away, I remember meeting my PhD supervisor. He had funding for a project. I was presented with a question. It was up to me to go to the lab and solve the puzzle. I learned from those with more experience than me and quite quickly I was bringing novel ideas to the project. I remember one moment when I met my supervisor in the lab and told him we wouldn’t be doing the experiment the way we had originally planned. He pulled up a stool, not ready to object, but ready to argue the merits of the new plan. I delivered one sentence. He smiled and nodded and walked away. I didn’t quite understand it at the time but now, as I supervise my own students, I understand what that smile was about. He saw that it was working. He was helping to create a scientist who was bringing new ideas to the project. Not just the physical skills to carry out the experiment but the intellectual skills of experimental design and analysis, hypothesis development and design.

I started working with a new student this week. The first thing I did was print out a copy of her grant, e-mailed her an electronic copy for her records and sat down with her to talk about the experiments. Over the next couple of days I realised that this was what the department was now doing with all its PhD students. It suddenly hit me. There was no avenue for creativity. Some of the PIs in my department actually threaten to throw students out of their PhD programs for deviating from the experiments! There isn’t enough cash to allow for extra experiments to be conducted and the experiments in the grant must be carried out exactly as described lest our future with this funding body be compromised. It hit me. The system is strangling and suffocating creativity. It directly produces PhD students who are discouraged from developing their own ideas. This, the very essence of the PhD in my opinion.

So as a supervisor who wants to create good scientists to send out into their careers, how can I help them to develop their creativity, their ideas, while appeasing the funding body?