Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crowdsourcing science

When I first heard about this project, I thought it can't be real: it just sounded too good. But it seems to be happening in reality: people are crowd-funding small research projects for postdocs and graduate students:

I am not sure how scaleable this model is (it could benefit from some reddit-style crowd-filtering for example), but at least it looks nice, and seems to be working!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On doing science in small schools

I attended a whole bunch of workshops recently, all designed to orient new faculty in their new life in the college, and to explain the path to tenure. So because of that I was thinking about my scientific research a lot. And I guess by now I can come up with at least two maxims.

1. Ideal research projects to pursue would be those immediately below the perceived funding threshold.

Rationale: the more fundable the project is, the more interesting and publishable the data will be. Yet if I try to do something that people from major research universities can get money for, I'll be tramped down because my productivity is a tiny fraction of their productivity. Even if I fully and successfully integrate undergraduates in my research, my total productivity is expected to be at about 0.5-1 of a good postdoc in a good lab: between 1 and 0.5 papers a year. I can't afford to compete with universities. Yet to stay cool and publishable I shouldn't shortchange myself by doing something boring and irrelevant. The goal therefore is to stay just below the threshold for fundable projects.

2. In terms of grant applications, I should only consider grants that are either very large, or very small. 

Rationale: it is possible, at least in theory, to get several people in the department interested in pursuing some large grant (perhaps something that combines cool science with outreach and teaching methodology), and then to go for it together. This could work. Or, on the other hand, tiny grants that fund student research projects, or my summer research, would work as well. Anything in between though would require too much restructuring of my teaching load, of lab space, of job descriptions for people around me, and so on. Getting money for a postdoc for a year may sound like a nice thing, but it would necessitate enough additional workload to make the collateral damage not worth it. Maybe tenured people can afford it. But it looks like for an untenured faculty it should be either participation in really large strategic things, or getting really tiny bits and pieces, and probably nothing in between.

Or at least such is my impression so far =)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time to restart the blogging

There are several reasons to blog. One is that I have recently started a new job as a college professor (yay!!!), which supposedly should provide me with a never-ending stream of new exciting things to say to the world. I am still to figure out how to blog about them though. All I can think about these days is teaching: methodology, practice, syllabi, activities, homeworks, etc. etc. But in my head all these questions are very much linked to those 2 particular courses I'm teaching now, and I can't blog about courses themselves, you see, as it would not be professional. So I now need to develop some "translation mechanisms", to generalize and anonymize whatever thoughts I have, to make them suitable for broadcasting. It will take some time probably, but I'd better start now.

Another reason to blog is that students started googling me up, and so I need to keep my sites updated. That's a downside of blogging under a real name: in a situation like that you can't just stop blogging, as people will continue googling you anyway. And then they would read your opinions from some 3 or 5 years ago: opinions you don't necessarily endorse anymore. So the only way to ensure that your internet presence doesn't embarrass you too much is to update it regularly.

Finally, I start to feel somewhat scientifically-lonely. For the first time in years I have people around with whom I can discuss botany, ornithology and physics, but I now have almost nobody to discuss ion channels and neural networks with. It's not quite likely that blogging would necessarily help with this issue directly, yet it wold be nice to feel a part of some virtual academic community that extends beyond the limits of the campus.

We'll see how it goes!