Why not academic careers?

Karen Lona Allendoerfer ka143 at columbia.edu
Mon Apr 6 12:31:51 EST 1998


gbe392 at merle.acns.nwu.edu (Gina Berardesco) wrote:

>Karen Lona Allendoerfer (ka143 at columbia.edu) wrote:
>[snippage]
>>       However, I am personally having trouble on this particular front,
>> in deciding, should I apply for an academic job, what is "interesting"
>> enough to be working on.  My perceptions are colored right now by a
>> devastating experience I had two days ago, in which I showed a paper that I
>> want to send out to a colleague (a postdoc, at a similar level to me, who
>> had previously worked on a similar problem).  She hated my paper, mostly on
>> the grounds that, to her, it "wasn't interesting." 

(more snippage)

>This is really interesting to me - it's interesting how we can be so
>affected by one person's opinion. 

        I'm sorry, Gina:  I realized after I had already written that
rather long-winded post that it was still going to come across as if only
this one person's opinion had mattered to me.  There is some of that going
on here, and I'll get to it in a minute, but I just wanted to say that this
isn't the only time I've heard comments like hers.  I actually meant this
story to be more emblematic of several years of this type of frustration,
based on wildly differing comments and opinions on "what's interesting"
>From people who are supposedly in the know.
         This same sort of thing has also happened to me and my
PI/collaborator on a grant that we were writing (and writing and writing)
over the course of several years.  It was written, rewritten, and
resubmitted 4 times.  The second rewriting and resubmission garnered us
nothing but praise for the scientific aspects of the project.  They could
not find fault with our preliminary data, our ability to answer the
questions we had asked, or the collaborations we had initiated.  But they
(they being NIH in this case) still didn't fund the proposal.   My boss,
bless his heart (and his experience) still kept resubmitting it, and it was
finally funded, more than two years after it was first sent in.  
        But all the reasons against it the whole time were of this fuzzy
quality--somehow not interesting enough, not a good enough story--and there
was little that could be done because none of the criticisms were specific
or substantive, except to limp along, scrounging funds from other grants
and trying to get enough preliminary data to be scientifically convincing
anyway, and to keep rewriting, trying over and over again to repackage it,
in the midst of very conflicting "advice."  This advice would take the form
of statements like "you've got to have a hook to draw your reader in"  or
"you have to tell a good story."  So we would discuss and debate what the
"hook" should be, finally settle on one, put it in, and it would be ignored
or misunderstood by one or more the readers anyway.  And there was only so
much shoehorning of the data into a "good story" that we could do, and
still be honest about what the data said and meant.  In the time it took
the grant to be funded, two postdocs had to leave and find other positions
because there was no money for them.  

Karen, you already knew your subject was
>of interest to people, especially to established scientists, yet you were
>very upset when another post-doc was critical of it. (I personally think her
>response was rather rude - or maybe she was jealous?)

        She'd been working on something similar for a while and given up on
it, and I think had run into some of the same frustrations that I had/have.
 I think it's possible she was giving voice to some of her own frustrations
and bad experiences.  

I'm curious about what
>aspect of the situation upset you the most - did it make you think that
>maybe it wasn't a very interesting subject after all? 

        Yes, it did make me think that.  Because the topic is not that
mainstream.  I got into it because I followed the data where it took me.  I
had an antibody, I had certain expectations about the protein it recognized
(one being that it even was a protein), and it did not meet my
expectations.  Several people have told me, too, over the years that it's
much better to start with a gene than an antibody, much better to start at
the DNA level than the posttranslational level.  They have said that
genetics is so much more successful than anything else that people should
just abandon all other approaches in favor of genetic screens (and
preferably in drosophila, yeast, or c. elegans, depending on the system
that the advice-giver him- or herself happens to work in).   Because then
you have a gene already, and can manipulate it at that level.  I on the
other had have gone a roundabout way and am now trying to clone a
glycosyltransferase.
        When I went to graduate school, had I even *heard* of
glycosyltransferases?  No, I had not.  One person said to me a couple of
years ago, at a Gordon Conference, at my poster, albeit in a semi-humorous
way, "eeeeew!" when I told her where this project had gotten me. On the
other hand, I've also had other people say "you know, at some point, people
are really going to have to get to the bottom of all this stuff, and stop
running away from carbohydrates and lipids" and tell me something like they
admired my perseverence.   
        I am feeling right now, that I could stick with anything, even
through the "eeeew!'s," if I believed that there was some sort of bottom
line good that would come out of exploring an approach, even though it is
unpopular and unfashionable.  But in academia it's just less clear what the
bottom-line good is going to be, because that bottom-line good seems to be
determined by aesthetic taste.  If it's not a "good story" in the minds of
those handing out the funds and the kudos, it seems quite likely to
disappear into lack-of-funding-and-attention limbo, or at least cause a lot
of frustration.  Whereas if it is maybe going to lead to a drug, why would
anyone really care how sexy the mechanism is? 

Karen






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