Yesterday was a good day. Events in chronological order:

9:30 am: Successfully ordered a $100 HP touchpad.

12 pm: Resubmitted manuscript rejected.

4 pm:  Big progress in research project. I almost cried in the clean room (j/k).

5 pm: Meeting with postdoc adviser about future paper, next research projects.


The rejected manuscript did not bring me down too much. I was not entirely surprised that it was rejected. This manuscript was sent to a <i>letter</i>-style journal that has only one reviewer. One reviewer — for better, or for worse. A couple of months ago, this reviewer had a rambling referree report with a laundry list of items that he/she thought demonstrated “lack of understanding” of our work. Some things listed made no sense… like the identification of the specific equipment we used or listing the research facility where we performed some of the experiments. Anyway, we sent in a rebuttal and made some changes to the manuscript, 1.5 months later the same referree gave a firm rejection. Not surprising. My opinion is that we should just send it to the sibling journal, but I’ll have to see what my graduate adviser says.

But the ‘good’ day was really a result of the last 2 things in the day… I made big progress on making devices. After so much fumbling around for 5 weeks or so, I finally found a reliable way to make things work. And then my long chat with my postdoc adviser… we agreed that my current work can be published. It’s not hot enough to go into S/N nor the highest technical journal of our field, but it’s going to a pretty good journal with visibility. And I have my fingers crossed that my new HP touchpad gets shipped tomorrow!

Nature Progeny

Previously, I wrote about how my dissertation adviser (DA) would publicly announce that he was not interested in publishing in Science/Nature. Well, he convinced his former post-doc-turned-PI to submit one of his manuscripts to Nature Progeny. DA is a co-author, and so am I.

This former post-doc announced to all the co-authors that he would give Nature Progeny a shot and attached a modified version of the manuscript for all to read. The only thing that changed were: the font style (to look like a published Nature paper), over-reaching title, results that are overly interpreted to apply to data that do not exist, the experimental section was moved to the end of the manuscript, and a new section on author contributions was included.

I bit my tongue, and replied to this former post-doc that I was surprised by his attempt to submit it to Nature Progeny. I also wrote that Nature Progeny would respond quickly as to whether this manuscript goes to peer review, and that much time would not be lost. That was my polite way of saying, “You’re wasting your time.” But I did suggest that the manuscript be submitted to top technical journal in our field.

Well, after the initial and final rejection from Nature Progeny, former post-doc submitted it to the journal I suggested. The rejection letter by the editor of Nature Progeny contained the exact concerns I had about this manuscript. It lacked a complete, thorough story for what phenomena they wanted to claim as generally true. Basically, the work in the manuscript looked at (J-K) and it had certain properties that were not yet ideal, but still had room for improvement by perhaps making it (J+K) (this last part was speculated). The speculation is okay in the discussion section, but it should not be some important, stressed finding if there is no direct proof of it (i.e., let’s go make (J+K) and measure its properties).

So why was I so skeptical that this manuscript would not even make it to peer review? I have read some Nature Progeny papers recently, and this manuscript did not even resemble closely to the type of studies that are featured there. I’m not talking about experimental technique – just the completeness of the dataset to support a profound finding was lacking. While a grad student in DA’s group, I almost never read any Science/Nature papers because DA did not and did not encourage it. But when I started researching on topics for my post doc fellowship, I started to read them. Now, I check on their table of contents regularly since other people in my field occasionally publish there.

If you want to join the Science/Nature club, then you actually have to start reading them to find a way to get in.

Aim High

During my first week as a postdoc at FAI, we had a group meeting where everyone briefly mentioned what projects they were working on. My adviser showed some slides, and at the end had some made-up covers of Science and Nature with our work on them. It drew some chuckles in the crowd.

My office mate openly tells me that he would like a paper to be published in the top technical journal of our field.

I had never thought of that before. Or I never openly admitted that I wanted that before.

In graduate school, my dissertation adviser openly criticized Science, Nature, and the top journal of our scientific field. He’d say that the experiments published there can only be performed once (i.e., they are not replicable). He’d say that certain research topics can always easily publish there while others are almost always denied. Aside from the whole Henrik Schoen debacle, most results published in those journals are replicable. And yes, there is a bias for certain research topics to be published there even when they have not made “big” breakthroughs. My dissertation adviser tried to play it cool – as if he was too good to try to even consider publishing in Science/Nature. Later, I found out that as a grad student, he did submit a manuscript to Science and it was rejected. Regardless what he publicly says, he does push some of his (former) postdocs to submit their papers to top journal of our scientific field, and so far most have been rejected. Some of the research topics my adviser works on are “hot” but these manuscripts (or his research program) lack a big picture/sell to them… which is something he does not realize.

My new project as a postdoc could result in a publication in top technical journal of our field (which I would love!) or the experiment might not be so interesting and gets published in a lesser journal. I am not ashamed of wanting an article in fancy name journal. Here, I aim high and hope for the best.

Choose Life

I started as a postdoc over a month ago at National Lab. Everything (and everyone) at National Lab is different from my time a Grad University. There are obviously the big differences between being a student vs being a postdoc, and doing research at a university  vs a national laboratory setting. Aside from the obvious differences, I really like where I’m at. I like that I’m in a much more professional setting (i.e., I’m not expected to be a part-time nanny to my adviser’s children or treated as 2nd rate because I don’t have light complexion and blue eyes). The postdocs in the group work independently from each other, but discuss science- and research-related issues with each other. My postdoc adviser is fairly low-key, and gives me the space and independence to do research and is approachable when I have crazy ideas or hit roadblocks.

National Lab is not Disneyland with rainbows and puppy dogs, but it’s a good place. My peeves so far are the type of bureaucracy that’s present (versus what I was accustomed to at Grad University) and some laboratory equipment inconveniences — it’s not centrally located but spread out across multiple buildings. But those are not the things that bring me down. Those are annoyances and I push through them.

Weeks leading up to my start at National Lab, I received a couple of comments from former postdocs that I used to work with at Grad University. Their comments were along the lines of, “I hope that National Lab meets your expectation.” These postdocs knew that I was unhappy during my last years at Grad University, and also knew that I was eager to leave and start at National Lab. I still think that my expectations were reasonable… I just wanted to work in a professional environment. To put it bluntly, I don’t know what (fucked up) graduate experience they had where think that my graduate adviser’s group was functional and operating normally. I suppose it’s like those who continuously seek to be in an abusive romantic relationship – they are too fucked up to know what’s better. And I think that for a long time (and evident in my earlier posts), I thought how my adviser ran his group and treated his students was normal, and that there was something wrong with me. And after reading numerous academic blogs and their version of their academic world, I now see that this is not normal at all.

About a month ago, I found out that my graduate mentor had been pushing and supporting the new graduate student in my adviser’s group. I consider my mentor to be a former postdoc in my graduate adviser’s group. My mentor suggested a fellowship for this student so that she could have a research stay at his group, and he even supplied a successful research grant for her to rebrand as her own. For a while, I was really betrayed that this guy who I considered to be my mentor had selected this other student to be “successful”. At that same point of my career, I was better than her in every way (from a technical background). The difference between us is our outward appearance. When I went to him as a first year student and suggested new directions and approaches for my research project, he killed it instantly. He told me to stick with what my adviser had laid out. Sure, maybe my research ideas were not good but I was trying to instill some creative control into my work.

When I applied for various graduate fellowships, no one (not my adviser, not my mentor) offered me any advice and my adviser even said, “You don’t have to apply for fellowships. I have enough money to support you.” That was not the point of why I was applying. My fellowship applications were rejected. And now I know that I likely went up against applications where the student proposals were basically authored by a much more seasoned scientist and not some first year graduate student. In my final year as a student, the adviser suggested to the golden graduate and undergraduate students to apply for fellowships so that their “CV’s will look good.” What about my CV? Anyway, this type of bullshit from my graduate adviser does not even faze me anymore. I almost expect it now. But from my mentor… I did not see this coming at all. Perhaps while I was a student, I looked passed his similarities to my adviser. Maybe they are one in the same.    

This was a lot harder for me since I have a personal friendship with my mentor. Some of his professional decisions do influence my personal opinion of him. I’ve thought about effectively separating my professional and personal opinion of him, and I just can’t do it. There are people that I don’t personally like, but I can work professionally with them. And there are those that I like on a personal level, but  I know that we could never work professionally. So I’ve decided to keep the professional relationship, and cut-off any personal ones. I can’t subject myself to being in a friendship where I know that he thinks I am inferior or undeserving of professional awards/opportunities because I am not Caucasian. I already subjected myself to 4 years of that attitude in graduate school.

But hey, look at me now? In spite of my adviser’s dementoring techniques (and his influence on my mentor and others in his group), I wrote a kick-ass proposal for my postdoc fellowship (scored 92/100) to join postdoc adviser (whom I had never met until a few months ago, and most importantly, my graduate adviser does not know). I published four 1st-author papers by graduation (+ additional conference proceedings), and will submit my fifth paper this month. So how are the other graduates doing? Of 2 (and soon to be 3)  other Ph.D. graduates, they have ONE 1st author paper between them all!  

It looks like I have gone from unhappy graduate student to a happy postdoc – and I hope that my frustrations as a postdoc stem from my research and not the working environment.

And my favorite monologue ever (from Trainspotting):

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself.

Choose your future.

Choose life.

Friday Firings

The text below was written earlier last year while at Grad University, but I never got around to finishing it.

Earlier this year, the GA’s funding situation looked very daunting. His funding was fickle, and there was no concrete budget for the next fiscal year. Most funding came in the form of congressional earmarks with great uncertainty of whether they would ever be delivered. He had too many post docs, a few graduate students, and an uncapped hourly limit for undergraduates. What a recipe for disaster.

In the beginning of the year, there were 6 post docs. With the funding uncertainty, he decided to let go one post doc (define him as post doc Z) in 4 months (after being there for one year), and another (former grad student turned post doc) by the end of the year. Of course being the chief financial officer of a group is going to involve difficult decisions which may be surrounded with some controversy.
The GA made this decision largely based on the tattling of another post doc (former grad student; there are 2 of these in the group). Tattling post doc would mention how post doc Z would take hour long lunches (where tattling post doc would join!), go to the university gym in the evenings, and spend less than 60 hours/week in the lab! Tattling post doc is the same as the emailing post doc in an earlier post.

Post doc Z was obedient to the GA… he was asked to measure on equipment A and obtained plenty of data for tattling post doc and another grad student’s theses. Once post doc Z was done obtaining and analyzing that data for those 2 students, he performed experiments with another faculty member which resulted in a timely publication in a high impact journal. And yet, GA still had this opinion that post doc Z was lazy. Every once in a while, GA would nonchalantly ask me if I had seen post doc Z around, and I would honestly answer, “Yes, I saw him in equipment A lab earlier.” At the time, my naïve self did not understand that the GA was trying to get a data point on post doc Z’s whereabouts.

GA has a lot of prejudices against certain groups of people. His very first students were from a particular region in the world, and he always made it clear in his “jokes” that he did not think too highly of people from these regions. Never mind that this region has produced many well known scientists including one with a spectroscopic technique named after him and another has a subatomic particle named after. Anyway, post doc Z was from that region, and I was assumed (during my first year) to be from that region as well. My theory is that the GA never really respected post doc Z before, and was looking for a way to rationalize why he would be let go.

I know the financial situation at the time looked dire, so that someone had to be let go, but the path and rationale to the selection is what I (and a couple of others) disagreed on. Why not let go the student turned post doc (aka tattling post doc) who has not even been scientifically productive (i.e., not perform a scientific experiment in a year) nor has produced a first author manuscript ever? Well, he couldn’t since that student-turned-post doc was also the nanny for his kids (e.g., going to the father-daughter day at an elementary school when GA could not attend). How about the student that is supported on a research assistantship but a majority of their time is involved with student government, the board of regents, and administrative hires? And this student has used multiple post docs to perform his experiments. Those two were (and are) untouched though… they are 2 of the GA’s golden boys.
The GA rationalized his selection by telling me that he eliminated a person who contributed least to the group and conversely the group benefited the least from. Based on his supposed criterion, he should have fired someone else. But this is academia, and rules are made as we go along.

But the undergraduates were not spared by the GA either. There were a handful of undergraduates paid $15/hour (the adviser set this; the department rate is much lower) and their weekly hours were never capped. I had heard the GA once mention that he was paying some undergraduates as much as a graduate student! Of the many undergraduates, one was groomed to be a future golden boy. This golden boy claimed to work on the weekends unsupervised whose “work” rarely benefited the post docs whose project he worked for. He rarely communicated with his post doc supervisors, and mistakenly believed he was in charge of a post docs project!

Straight out of Office Space, my graduate adviser (GA) likes to deliver bad news on Fridays. He didn’t want to deal with any next-day wrath. For two consecutive Fridays, he gave out the bad news. What was most classy, was that one of the Fridays was GA’s birthday! So after two morning firings, he asked those two (including Postdoc Z) and the rest of the group to come to his office for his birthday cake. I must say it was one of the most awkward cake sessions ever.


About a week before I left Grad University, we moved equipment from the old lab to the new lab across campus. Lots of things were packed in boxes, and many did their best to write the contents of each box on the outside of them. While the boys were allowed (and supervised) by grad adviser (GA) to put the equipment back together, I and other female grad student were put on unpacking duty. How female of us!

Well, other female student said to me, “Foreign Asian post-doc (description used, name omitted) must have packed this box. The contents of the box are misspelled.”

I look at the box and I know that Foreign Asian post-doc did not write the contents. Foreign Asian post-doc has very distinctive handwriting, and I can identify it. I told her, “That is not Foreign Asian post-doc’s handwriting. He did not write this.”

Other female student, “It makes sense if it were him. English is his second language. You would expect him to misspell things.”

I could not believe her! I replied, “Foreign Asian post-doc did not write this. White American Undergrad wrote this!”

And she repeated her schpeel again! “English is his second language. It’s okay for him to misspell things.”

I, then, asked her, “Is it okay for native English speakers to misspell things?”

She had some nonsense reply, and I just zoned her out at this point. By the way, if she really believed in her logic, why did she not accuse the other 2 post-docs and the GA for being misspellers? English is their 2nd language, too. Oh. Right, they come from a different continent than Foreign Asian post-doc where everything they do is golden.  

A few months before that encounter, the referee report of my manuscript said that the manuscript contained, “such bad English.” At first I was amused by this, and changed the wording of some things and resubmitted it, and again the reviewer thought the English was poor and I should send it to a “native English speaker to proof read it.” I am not the most gifted writer, and I do make mistakes. But what the reviewer accused me of was baseless, and the editor refused to open his eyes and read my manuscript. Anyway, at one small group meeting, the GA mentions my ongoing saga with this reviewer and says, “Hey Spins, why don’t you send the manuscript to other female grad student? She’s a native English speaker.” And white (he left this part out).

“The first two co-authors are native English speakers.” I replied. The authors I mention are myself and my collaborator at National Lab.

I was upset that he suggested I send it to new female grad student – somehow her whiteness will legitimize the written English that was used?? I resubmitted it without having other female grad student approve it, and it was finally accepted. Days after it was accepted, other female grad student asked me for that manuscript.

I jokingly asked her, “What did you think of the English?”

She replied, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.”

There many situations and instances that are make or break with how I judge people on a personal and professional basis. Needless to say, I never plan to send a holiday card to other female grad student nor my adviser.

Know Your Competition

The grad adviser (GA) likes to talk to American group members that his group is the only group in the US that does our science. He then adds that in Europe, there are plenty of groups that do quality work in our type of science.

When I first heard him say this as a 1st year graduate student, I thought that’s a bit much but I didn’t think more about that. Then, I started looking deeper into literature about our techniques and I started finding groups with some of our science applied to different systems at a handful of universities (much more well known ones). Technically, he is right that using techniques Q, R, and S to study topics T, U, and V – then yes, his group is the unique one in the US. But there are many permutations to this. As I began to google more and more about this, it began to be clearer and clearer as to why Grad Adviser came to the US – the obvious reason was supply versus demand. Back in Catland (Grad Adviser’s home country), every moderate to large sized university had a research group specializing in techniques Q, R, and S. There would be a long line for a before professorship was available. In contrast, the universities in the US had fewer groups that specialized in these techniques.

Anyway, I never liked how GA talked about how great and mighty his group was… as if we were the only ones that existed. He seemed displeased whenever I mentioned a more famous group at an Ivy League University, as if I was never to know that they existed. Unfortunately, for many other group members who have only attended Grad University (both as undergraduates and graduates, or those who came from abroad) believed in the adviser too literally and do not realize the groups (and competitors) out there. It appears to be a huge disservice to the students and advisees to mislead them to think that they are the only hot shit in the continental US.

A few months before I left Grad University, I was bored and browsed through the table of contents of a top journal in our field. I saw that a paper on topic T using our techniques Q, R, and S had been published by famous professor of topic T. Topic T was a project of another grad student in the group. I forwarded the article to this grad student, and he expressed his gratitude by saying (in front of newbie grad student), “What kind of person are you browsing through papers when you’re bored?” And he had more ridicule for me for which I cannot remember the details. Should I be more like him and post every waking detail of my life on Facebook? No thanks. Anyway, I could not believe this dumb ass… I showed him a paper on his own project which he has sat on for a couple of years, and was oblivious that any competition existed.

I do not remember explicitly being told to browse literature often, but it’s something any respectable scientist should do… you never know what you might find that may inspire or aid in your own scientific problems. Plus, you should get a feel for what else is out there… there’s much more to science than just that one problem you look at over and over again. It’s just basic good science practices that obviously the GA cannot instill in his own group.