Science is highly competitive. We compete for positions, grants, awards, and recognition. Science is also very personal. Most of us identify very strongly with our work and are not able or willing to make a distinction between our work and our own existence as a person. Together, this makes a toxic mix. I am writing this to advocate for a different mindset that is healthier and perhaps will also create the better science. Here are my proposed 12 rules for making science a less stressful yet more productive enterprise.
What rules do you have? What am I missing? I am looking forward to reading yours in the comment section below.
I know it has been a while since I posted here - lots of great things are under development. I will catch you up over the next few weeks. For now, I wanted to share with you a (random) list of concerns that have cropped up over and over again in grant review of my own work. I am hoping this list can serve as a checklist as you are working on your applications:
..our just published paper of tACS for the treatment of chronic pain (abstract here). Today, I would like to share with you how we got started with this exciting new research direction and how things came together for that study.
Origin of the Idea
Before we initiated this work, we had not studied chronic pain. A graduate student approached me with the desire to develop a new treatment for chronic pain and I sensed a great opportunity to support her idea and initiative. The principal investigator for this study was Dr. Karen McCulloch, faculty at the UNC School of Medicine. The first step was a review of the literature and what we found was that there are only very few (perhaps less than 10) scientific publications on how brain activity is altered in chronic pain. To my surprise, the vast majority of research is focused on acute pain, which we hypothesized to be very different from chronic pain, which is persisting pain even if the original cause of the pain is long gone.
As an outsider, we had the freedom to not be bogged down by existing paradigms and research cultures. Our idea was straightforward. We hypothesized that there is a change in the alpha oscillations, which is a fundamental brain rhythm impaired in many disorders of the central nervous system, and that transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) can restore alpha oscillations and thus reduce pain symptoms in patients with chronic pain. More specifically, we speculated that alpha oscillations are reduced (corresponding to elevated neuronal firing) in the areas of the brain encoding touch.
With this hypothesis in mind, we planned and executed a double-blind, placebo controlled study, which is described in our new paper (NCT03243084). To my surprise, we found convincing evidence for the hypotheses. Typically, in any scientific study, about 80% of the results make sense (on a good day!) and 20% leave you more confused (next study!). In this case, it was unusual how well everything lined up.
Getting it Published
The process was very smooth (highly unusual!). As you would expect for a new idea, we first were met with an editorial rejection from one of the leading journals in the pain field. We tried another, equally established journal, made it passed the editorial pre-screen and both reviewers were enthusiastic and incredibly helpful. Paper accepted.
This was a highly synergistic collaboration between two outstanding trainees in my group Dr. Sangtae Ahn (postdoc) and Julianna Prim (graduate student, co-mentored with Dr. McCulloch). They have complementary expertise which was needed for such a new and exciting study. When I asked them why this all worked out so well, the answer I got was that I asked them to sit at neighboring desks, which facilitated their collaboration. Small details do matter!
PS While our first study looks really exciting, no single study can provide any final answer and much more work will be needed before this becomes a clinical treatment. This study was mostly a neuroscience study to understand if there are indeed brain rhythms which are impaired in chronic pain and if tACS can engage these rhythms. If you are interested in this kind of work, please consider a donation to enable this line of research. Also, you need to know that the study was performed with a device from my start-up company Pulvinar Neuro LLC. The company played no role in this study.
There are many elements that make a day a productive and meaningful day. Today, I would like to share some thoughts with you about the beginning and the ending of a work day. The following five tips reflect what I learned about how to ring in and out workdays:
Tip 1: Never look at your phone/tablet/computer for anything work related before you actually start your workday. Taking your time to prepare for the day will make you way more productive. The last thing you need is distraction in the form of many urgent but really not that important emails or (depressing) world news. Rather, I recommend you focus on a routine that nourishes your mind and body. This will give you the strength and resolve you need to succeed in your workday.
Tip 2: Always start your workday with writing down your goals and reviewing your calendar for what is coming up. I encourage you to critically ask if the scheduled activities really reflect your goals for the day. If they do not, I recommend (and yes it feels uncomfortable) you cancel the items which are not aligned. For example, if my goal is to work on an important grant proposal but my schedule is full with unrelated meetings, I will cancel these meetings. Pro Tip: Never lie about why you cancel the meeting. Simply state that you have something important that requires your full attention. If somebody asks (nobody does), explain in more detail.
Tip 3: Set an alarm for when it is time to start wrapping up your day such as 30 minutes before you want to walk out of the office. When the alarm rings, put everything down and start wrapping up.
Tip 4: Before leaving the office, clean off your real and your virtual desktop such that you are prepared for a fresh, new start the next day.
Tip 5: Make sure you get the chance to reflect on your day at the very end of the workday. Be willing to see the good and the bad, and make plans for the next day based on what that day has taught you. Be open to learn, change, and improve.
I hope these strategies help you getting your days structured and fulfilling. Please let me know how it goes by posting a comment below.
We had an indoor weekend due to the major storm passing through. Luckily we got mostly spared and our thoughts are with the ones touched by the storm. I noticed quite an uptick in tweets about how long the day is when you cannot go outside (with your kids). Here is what I did - and yes this is very nerdy:
We spent a lot of time measuring things. The idea is very simple (and very familiar if you are a scientist or in a relationship with a scientist..). In parenthesis, I am cross-linking the steps with a scientific paper.
You do not need a fancy research lab to do this. All you need is a bit of imagination and some (cheap) sensors. Also, cell phones do include a lot of sensors and there are apps that can be used. I am not including them here since I am a firm believer in limiting screen times for kids, independent of content (yes, we can argue you about this..). There is something special in terms of the learning and the entertainment when you carry around a measurement device and read from its display.
Here are some sensors that work well for such activities. Note that none of them are toys. Please stay safe and use them in an age-appropriate way. All of them are less than $25 on Amazon (except the CO2 sensor). Please see here to learn how my site uses affiliate links. Below are some sample questions that kept us entertained and curious.
Here are some basic but (too kids and adults like me who are still kids) fun questions. Always add the question "Why?"
Electricity using the plug in "KillAWatt" (only for adults, under strict adult supervision, outlets are nothing to play with)
Electricity using the multimeter
And so on. Have fun happy Monday!
I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can improve and learn to in whatever I am doing. This constant searching of new and better ways how to live and work brings me a lot of joy because it gives me the feeling of moving forward, of spending time in a meaningful way, and of challenging myself to be and do better than I currently am.
Over the years, I have shared with you some of these thoughts, many related to academia and how to become a better leader in the world of academic research. Today, I want to summarize some of these thoughts by sharing with you 3 key rules to get to the next level:
Rule 1: Never settle. It is so easy and comfortable to settle. However, the price you pay for that will be a heavy burden to carry, namely the feeling of having missed out on life in its richness. Signs that you have settled with yourself and your life are
Rule 2: Small incremental steps of improvement. It is easy to sit down and make a list of few big things that we want to change in our (professional) life, make an ambitious plan (to be implemented on Monday) which will be already in complete disarray by Tuesday. Rather, figure out a 2 minute thing you can easily do and hold yourself accountable to do it everyday. Start with kindness and generosity. Here are some examples that have worked very well for me:
Give it a try and let me know below in the comment section how these three rules are working out for you!
One of the staples of an academic lab is the so-called "lab meeting". I remember lab meeting as this frightening event where suddenly all eyes are pointed towards you and your science gets assessed by your peers and your professor. Will it be thumbs up or down? Will I get asked to do another year of boring control experiments? You get the idea. These are typically weekly meetings that often last one to two hours and assume various formats but it often boils down to trainees getting up and giving updates on their science. In my group, we spent some time thinking about lab meeting and decided to make some changes, here are our thoughts, in the hope they may help others make lab meetings more productive and fun.
We meet weekly for two hours and we have a shared spreadsheet where people add what they want to discuss to a queue together with an estimate how much time it will take. Every week, we work through that queue during the meeting (being flexible if urgent stuff has come up to ignore the order of the queue). There is explicit encouragement to present small and preliminary things, perhaps a single plot, a question about experimental design, a confusing result etc. So far, the meetings were highly productive and lots of fun since everyone learned a lot. Mission accomplished...
As some of you may now, we have started the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation last year to accelerate the convergence of our brain stimulation research with clinical brain stimulation such as FDA-cleared transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for treatment-resistant depression. Figuring out how to interface the realities of clinical care with research has been a rewarding learning experience for me. If you are a scientist interested in translational research, I highly recommend you hang out with clinicians who treat patients with the disorder you are interested in. For me, spending time in the clinical realm through shadowing and collaboration has been truly eye-opening.
Today, I am delighted to announce that the UNC Department of Psychiatry together with our Center has worked hard behind the scenes to augment the TMS options offered to patients with depression. Processes in the background have been streamlined to minimize time-to-treat. In the near future, there will be options to opt-in and contribute to research on biological variables that predict the treatment response and on augmentation of TMS with other potentially synergistic modalities while receiving TMS. More details to come as we are finalizing our research plans. In the mean time, if you are interested in clinical TMS for you or your loved ones, please do not hesitate to contact our Department to schedule a brain stimulation consultation by calling (984) 974-3854.
Small Print. Please note that I am not a medical doctor but a researcher. Please direct all your medical questions to your healthcare provider. In case of a medical emergency, please call 911.
I went back reading Peter Drucker’s book on strategy and upon reread there is one thing that jumped at me: his statement that unexpected failures and successes are a key source of innovation. The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward. If you have put your best efforts in and you fail, there is a good chance you are being sent a message, which may not always be easy to decipher or swallow. Similarly, if you succeed in something you had not expected to succeed in, you are – so Drucker argues – quick to dismiss it instead of studying the circumstances that enabled the success.
When I read this, as always, my thoughts quickly shifted to how this message may apply to science and in particular my group. For example, how do we even define success in science. A high-impact paper? Hopefully not! A new cure developed? You wish. Perhaps, discoveries made and knowledge acquired? Then I realized that science is too different a world and this seemingly convincing statement by Drucker may not quite apply. Unless, of course, we take a more entrepreneurial view and focus for a moment on the shallow measures of success (papers accepted, grants funded, awards won). This might be the right level since in this case we now have a product, our science, and some quantifiable metrics of how well it is selling. Disgusted with this commercial viewpoint? I understand. But let’s think it through since such “commercial success” largely dictates how much research we care for we can actually do (at least most of us who are trapped in the career-long struggle to keep funding for our scientific vision going).
So here are some potential unexpected events of success to watch out for:
As a follow up post to yesterday's thoughts on productivity, I would like to reinforce some of the points with the focus on meetings. I have previously written about some of this stuff, but I thought a brief synthesis may be of help.
I hope of these strategies will make your day a bit less painful when it comes to meetings.