Reblog: Why you shouldn’t decide anything important at your board meeting

This is a great post about how to prepare when getting a group to make a consensus. The official meeting shouldn’t be the first time you pose an important (potentially game-changing) question, especially one that you are heavily invested in. Though written specifically for entrepreneurs regarding board meetings, I think it’s good life advice. And for you scientists with the commonly-dreaded committee meeting coming up: I think it’s worth a read by you too.

Check it out here:

http://techcrunch.com/2014/03/19/why-you-shouldnt-decide-anything-important-at-your-board-meeting/

ScaaS: Science as a service (a research revolution)

CloudLab

Greetings, my fellow colleagues of tedium. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” Welcome to the new world of research: ScaaS.

It’s time to bring us out of the dark ages. No more old PCs running Windows 2000. No more equipment still using floppy drives. No more carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive tasks a robot could (and SHOULD) do. It’s not just about our quality of life – it’s about changing the devastating trend of costly R&D.

I’m happy to say that the future is here – or, at least, we’re on the brink of it.  I’m calling it science as a service. It’s like software as a service, but for the research industry. Even if you aren’t familiar with the term SaaS, you’ve probably used an implementation of it. SaaS-based products host their software and your associated data on the cloud, and you interact with it via a simple web browser interface.

Now consider using that model for your favorite scientific experiment:

Instead of purchasing the hardware ($20k – $100k, or more), dealing with the software, maintaining the instrument, and doing the experiment by hand, you pop open your favorite web browser. You select the experiment and direct every detail by specifying a series of options (cell type, temperature, internal standard, instrument settings, etc. – if it can be altered, there should be an option for it). Maybe you also select parameters for how your data should be analyzed, how many times it should be repeated, or you select a desired completion date. Click, click, click, and your little experiment is on its way.* And you are on to bigger and better things.

Sounds great, right? Other people think so too. There are already a few names in this field. You should check out this great talk about how Emerald Therapeutics’ Symbolic Laboratory creates a construct for lean research (and how “lean research” could no longer be an oxymoron). TechCrunch blogged recently about Transcriptic and Benchling, and companies like Synthego, Gen9, and Gingko Bioworks are making headway too. 

So what’s keeping this from being immediately adopted in every lab in the country?

First, it’s probably because most experiments are not done in an automated fashion. If you go through a web interface to order an experiment, but then a human in a CRO does it for you, this doesn’t help much. It may save you some time, but it’s not a scalable or cost-efficient model. But just because these experiments aren’t normally done in an automated way doesn’t mean they can’t be done in an automated way. Most people still prefer grad students as a cheap form of labor (students making just over minimum wage, in fact), even though an automated instrument is more cost-effective in the long run.

But there’s another problem. It’s a mindset. Let’s face it: We scientists can be greedy. We just don’t want an experiment to be out of our hands. There is a biased attitude of trust that if you do it yourself, it’s “done right”. But the do-it-yourself model hasn’t worked out so well for us in terms of reproducibility. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be concerned about handing over your experiments, but if a robot is doing the work you can take solace in that it will do what it’s programmed to do.** Robots don’t make complex errors like forgetting one element of a buffer recipe because it hasn’t had its morning coffee. The errors are standardized and if a major problem occurs, the robot stops entirely.

Lastly, scientists need to be more demanding about data. We need to make a priority of gathering it, storing it, and sharing it. In order to trust an experiment to a ScaaS system, the user needs to get back all the data (raw data, meta data, instrument files) they can get their hands on. Not just for the experiment at hand, but for the controls too. And not just the control run before their experiment – every control run. Ever. That should all be open-access. That way a user could investigate global changes in the behavior of the instrument, not just see an isolated period in time when their experiment was run. I would even suggest providing video records of the experiment in progress. (If you can afford a webcam to watch your kitty sleep all day, then a ScaaS center can afford them to watch their robots.) 

In conclusion – the solution is out there. But to adopt this system, we have to change the way we do science. We need to start integrating automation on all levels, incorporating computer science into the scientific way of life, and most of all, becoming gluttons for data.

* There is, of course, a potential problem with this. I’m not suggesting that only one powerhouse should dominate the market for a particular experiment. It would disastrous to find out later they’d done something wrong – remember the fiasco when we found out the major breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-435 was actually a melanoma cell line? I don’t think we need to get ourselves in that potential situation. I think competition within the private sector can do what it does best – have companies compete until a few “gold standard” options exist that are well-validated and trusted.

** The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies here. To properly program a robot, you have to have a unique blend of science and computer science savvy. I’m privileged to know some of these gurus, and in the right hands, this works.

Funemployment: Re-entering the working world

[Comic from Doghouse Diaries]

If you want to sigh at the word “funemployment”, go ahead. It’s cool.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about what it is. If you want to google it, you can read examples that mostly buoy the impression of the self-entitled youth. You know, the twenty-something-who-doesn’t-understand-hard-work kind of thing.

In my experience, that stereotype doesn’t really fit for unemployed (fun or not) scientists and engineers.

When we decided to go to graduate school (say, in the years 2004 – 2008 or so), we were told that higher education was the key to job security. We were assured that we shouldn’t worry about student loans. And then, one by one, tiers of professional options toppled. Major law firms shut down. Pharmaceutical companies slashed R&D departments. NASA and other scientific funding sources were cut. I was lucky – I was able to weather some of the storm in grad school. But even when I took my “risky” job at a start-up in 2010, I had more job security there than friends going to work for Pfizer or Merck. 

The job market for STEM professionals (and lawyers) is still pretty dire – that fact can’t be ignored. Excluding those who are desperately looking for a job, there are still many of us who are choosing, at least for a short period of time, to stay unemployed (a.k.a., funemployed). How come? It’s not because we don’t understand hard work, or we have a lot of money, or we’re lazy. In fact, let’s do a little focus study on your typical graduate student:

If we look at the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious award, it offers its 2014 awardees $32,000 as an annual stipend. Let’s be generous and use that as a ballpark graduate student salary (in fact, it’s typically $2000 or so above the stipend offered by the school).

First point: The stipend is a flat rate. If you look at stipends for graduate schools across the country, the values are pretty flat there as well. Cost of living is generally ignored. From someone who has lived in Arkansas and Silicon Valley, I can tell you that $32k stretches further in some places than others.

Next, let’s factor in the 2014 federal tax brackets. If you are making $32k a year and filing as single, you are going to be taxed at an average rate of 13.58%. You are taxed at 10% for an income of $9,075, and 15% for any income over $9,075 but below $36,900. (My mother, the accountant, is so proud of me right now). If you do the math, that means you’ll be paying $4,346 in taxes.

Your final take-home income is $27,654. For a 40-hour workweek, that’s not too bad – about $13.30 an hour. But what graduate student only works 40 hours a week? Let’s be generous again and say the average workweek is about 60 hours (though mine and my colleagues were typically longer). That drops your taxed hourly pay (remember – generously) down to $8.86 per hour.

Forgive my rant, scattered with nuggets of stipend averages and tax math. Do I think graduate students and post-docs are underpaid? Yes.

But my point is this – we’re not in it for the money. If one of my colleagues is funemployed, it’s not because they are lazy or entitled. We’re in STEM fields because we are passionate, motivated, innovative people who think we can change the world. We want to understand cancer, make green energy alternatives, synthesize new therapeutics. Even by the 3rd year of graduate school when we’ve been bumped down a few notches, we still think we can make a difference – and we’re willing to be paid minimum wage to do it.

So why are some of these motivated, passionate people choosing funemployment? From what I’ve seen, it’s one of the following options:

  • They’re at a crossroads. Maybe they’ve just graduated, been laid off, or their contract internship/fellowship/etc. has ended. (Maybe, you know, they just moved across the country for their husband’s job or something.)
  • They’re disillusioned. With the current job market, that’s not too rare.
  • They’re burnt out. They’ve been working themselves silly for the last n years, and need to take some time to remember what they’re working for.
  • They’re considering a career transition. Sometimes this isn’t their choice – some of them might have wanted a faculty position (something that feels about as rare as Halley’s comet nowadays).

Funemployed people are lucky in some way, meaning they have an alternative source of financial support (savings, a spouse’s salary, etc). It’s usually not the lap of luxury, but they can get by, so they take a break. They re-assess their initial motivations and evaluate how they’ve transformed over the last few years. They try to define their unique skills and identify career paths. They’re not making 40-year plans here – they’ve seen too much disruption to hope for that. Even a five year plan is a little optimistic. So they mull on what they want to do for the next 1-3 years.

And now – we’re finally at the real point of this post – they are ready to re-enter the job market. And by they, I really mean we, because I am one of these people.

There are some really good things about this phase. We STEM people are probably too type-A or energetic to sit around eating cheetos all day (at least, not for more than a week or two), so we’ve probably done something interesting with our free time. I started a blog (a cliche for a funemployed person, I know), spent time with my family, read voraciously, and was re-introduced to life “off-call” (not constantly checking my phone, email, etc). Learning a new programming language is next on my list of things to do.

Having time off has re-invigorated my creativity. The freedom has given me time to reconnect to my natural instinct to write, and I’m able to satisfy my curiosity when something comes along I want to know more about. (Since I’m addicted to all things TED, that happens a lot). So much time to reflect allowed me to draw a road map of myself, my motivations, and the type of job I’m looking for.

But it’s not all rainbows and cupcakes. I’ve been funemployed for two reasons – I’m at a crossroads, and I’m considering a career transition. In some ways, compared to the fast pace of science & tech, I feel like the last few months have been a little stagnant. I feel caught between two worlds because I can’t whole-heartedly commit to the jobs I’m qualified for, but I don’t have enough experience for that different job I want. I’m in a new area of the country with a different culture and new acronyms (jobs here are defined in terms of a general schedule for goodness sake). It’s a little overwhelming. Maybe some of you feel the same way.

So what does a funemployed person do when they are ready to re-enter the work force? I have three pieces of advice.

1. Look for a company, not a job post.

I don’t know about you, but going through job search engines is depressing. At first, it’s mining for gold. Then, you are lucky to see one or two new things pop up each day. You check them all during your morning coffee and think – what the heck am I supposed to do now? If your time off has been as reflectively fruitful as mine, take that mental vision of your ideal job and find a company that matches it. If you are looking for a technical position, find a company with a vision or technology you are psyched about. If you are looking for a writing job, find a source that writes the way you want to. If they have open positions, great. If not, maybe send them your resume anyway with a cover letter that expresses your enthusiasm for the company.

2. Be unashamed.

You probably have a large network (or at least, a network that’s larger than you think). You are probably an alumni from somewhere. You probably have friends who are happy to send an email to that random classmate who started a cool company. Don’t say no to a potential networking opportunity. Find conferences, meetups, or classes.  Don’t be afraid to tell people you are job-hunting, just make sure you can communicate who you are and what you are looking for.

3. Be patient, but proactive.

I am a very impatient person. (My close friends and family understand the word “very” there is a euphemism.) Mentally I know this is going to take a while and that there are going to be some dead ends. But when I’ve read the 50th irrelevant job posting or “no open positions” notice, I try to remind myself what I’m looking for. I’m willing to intern, freelance, or be underemployed (work in a position I’m overqualified for) in order to get that job. I have to believe that I have skills worth contributing, and that a place exists for me to contribute to. Until then, I actively wait.

4. UPDATE (2/7/14): Use the 60% rule

I can’t believe I forgot my most important rule! I’m using the 60% rule (a la Sheryl Sandberg). If it’s a job I’m excited about, I apply even if I’m only 60% qualified. And yes, this is hard. I can be the queen of talking myself out of a position. But I try to remember this – let them be the ones to tell you no. Every job is going to have an element of training, and for a quick learner and hard worker, 40% to learn can’t be that hard. Just prepare yourself to put some elbow grease into it.

“Fun-gineering” gone wrong

Silicon valley tech is likely patient zero of the “fun” workplace. Google and Facebook openly publicize offices with bright colors, bean bag chairs, and (according to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In), large LEGO collections.

I won’t deny that my tiny sector of silicon valley biotech embraced this model as well.

And yes – this is me:

I just read the NY Times OpEd “Who goes to work to have fun” and was horrified to hear that this workplace model has been co-opted (and even commercialized?) by “happiness consultants” or “fungineers”. Oliver Burkeman is spot on – putting up silly movie posters with your coworkers faces instead of the actors is a la The Office cringeworthy. Forced fun is just that – forced.

In graduate school, my coworkers were generally unhappy. It was a high stress environment where group-wide whisperings about our PI’s mood before meetings was normal. Yet every year, he insisted on a full-participation beach day and christmas party. We had no control over this mandatory fun – there was a highly regimented and scheduled series of events we were expected to maintain. Prior mishaps, like the time the appointed organizers chose a beach site too close to the bathrooms, lived in infamy.

When I joined a biotech start-up, there were no forced team-building exercises or trust falls. Instead, there were subtle gestures that my CEOs cared. Free coffee and tea of our choice. An endless supply of soda. A genuine appreciation of good work over face time. Relatively frequent lunches with the bosses to check in.

True to Burkeman’s OpEd, if workers in an environment feel they are not being treated fairly, no amount of mandatory fun is going to change their happiness levels. I think the Silicon Valley (SV) casual workplace idea is less about creating ‘fun’ and more about incorporating work into a larger lifestyle. Speaking from experience, the people in these SV companies are not 9-to-5 ‘ers. They don’t come in to clock hours and take home a paycheck. These are passionate people who are willing to put in lots of time because they feel they are enabling change.

I think SV realizes that managing that time investment requires some workplace accommodation. If many of your employees bike to work, make the office bike friendly. If the normal employee works 60+ hours a week, provide a gym (or a gym membership) as a healthy way to deal with stress. Set up a virtual private network (VPN) so workers can access the network or their work computer from home or a coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to push hard, but recognize when your employees need a break. Reward good work when reward is due, and provide honest feedback when improvements need to be made.

If you are in control of a work environment and want to make it more fun, just be observant, communicate authentically, and show that you care. Making an effort to make work more convenient or comfortable can go much farther in the happiness regime than a hawaiian shirt friday.