News from the New Guy: The Process of Starting a Professorship

Hello Everyone,

 

It’s been a long time since my last update.  As you might know from reading the previous posts; I recently started a position as an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Chemical Biology at Seton Hall University.  Becoming a university professor has been a dream of mine for several years now, and it became increasingly apparent to me in the past few that I needed to take the next step in my development as a scientist.  As I’m writing to you know, things have really started to pick up.  I’d like to share some of the responsibilities that a professor has to give you all an idea of what this world is like.  In this first post, I’ll update you on one aspect:

 

  1. Teaching

As a professor at a university, I’m expected to teach and advise students in classes that are offered within our Chemistry curriculum.  This is so much more than just showing up with a power point slide every class period, talking for 2 hours, and then leaving without a trace.  Not only were the things I learned in the PFFT (Preparing Future Faculty for Teaching) fellowship useful, they are necessary.  The course I’m teaching this semester is called “CHEM1301 Elements of Bio- and Organic Chemistry for Nursing Students.”  This class is a lot of work for the students.  Essentially, they’re expected to learn the equivalent of two/three courses in one semester.  This course would not be functional without building in formative assessments to every lecture.

In this class, I’m using a formative assessment technique that I started experimenting with during the first class I taught, “Methods in Drug Discovery”.  In that class and in CHEM1301, I have a pre-class question based on the information in the lecture.  I ask the class to attempt to solve the pre-class question, and then we come back to it by the end of the class and I ask them to solve it again.  I make sure to collect their papers before I give them the answer.  Now why is that?  Well, I want to see whether he lecture had an impact on their answers.  I think unfortunately we’ve trained our students to always try to get the right answers no matter what that we’ve scared them into never admitting that they are confused or don’t understand a concept.  At the beginning of each class I show them how everyone did in the previous pre-class question and if a large portion didn’t understand both before and after the lecture (“-/-“).  I’ll know that I must take a step back and re-examine the material with them.

Data

Please take a look at the figures above.  The first one, on the left, shows the results after we went over Chapter 1, which was all about measurements (length, volume, mass) and units (meters, liters, grams).  What I can see here is that the vase majority of the class seems to understand the pre-class question (“+/+”) so they’re likely doing well with the material and I can continue on to the next lecture.  Now, take a look at the most recent lecture on the right, however, when we’re starting to move away from discussions of general chemistry.  Here I can see that the class struggled with the question both before and after the lecture.  This lets me know that not only are they struggling but that I didn’t present the material in an effective manner.  Now what I can do is go back and tailor the slides for the next class to cover the previous material in a, hopefully, more accessible way, and at the same time lead into the next topic.  I feel like this is a very basic way to keep the class engaged and to let them know that I’m actively updating the courses according to their needs.  In the future I hope to incorporate a more comprehensive pre-class questionnaire, rather than just one question, but there is just so much material and so little time in this course that it’s not feasible.

That’s just one aspect of teaching a college course.  So much to cover in so little time that I really need to monitor my students to make sure they’re not getting lost and to identify anyone who is struggling.  Another aspect that I have some experience with from TA’ing at Hopkins is working with the Disability Support Services (DSS) at SHU.  As the instructor, it falls on me to make sure that I can accommodate all my students and to make sure that the class is accessible to everyone.  Again, I’ve done this before for classes at Hopkins but I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about doing this at Seton Hall.  Also, I’m personally very familiar with how Individual Education Plans (IEPs) work in primary and secondary education.  Now at the college level, however, we have our own internal office (DSS) that I can work with to help my students with any needs they may have.  This can be anything from finding note-takers, to getting tutors together, to organizing external review sessions, to organizing external testing dates among other things.  I’ve found that DSS has been extremely helpful in getting started with this process as I had no experience with it at this university.  I would have been severely flustered without them.

That’s the last thing I have time to write about this morning.  The lack of time is what I’ll cover in my next post, hopefully in about two weeks so please look for updates!  If you have any questions about teaching please feel free to comment.  Thanks for reading.

 

Cheers,

GRW

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Introducing the 3B Lab!

Good afternoon everyone!

I have some exciting news.  I launched the first version of my lab’s website: http://www.the3BLab.com

Apparently it shares the name with a J-rock band from the early 2000’s but I think it will be okay.  I’ll be posting research highlights on that website and I’ll keep this one for my own personal musings on science.  I’ve got a lot to chat about and I’ll be ready with a better update soon.

Cheers,

GRW

Considering Compassionate Care and “Right to Try”

Hello Everyone,

For this post I want to transition back to a bit more topical discussion on health and drug discovery.  One of the issues that I’ve been reading about recently, and that you might have been reading about, Is the idea of the “Right to Try” Act that has just been passed.  This act of congress allows terminally ill patients to directly contact drug companies to receive drugs that have passed Phase I FDA clinical trials but do not have full FDA approval.  What’s been weighing on my mind is the thought of whether or not this is a good thing for the patients that it hopes to help.  There are two points that I think we need to discuss with this topic: whether or not there is a need and also whether or not it will work.  It’s hard to see exactly what might happen, if anything, as a result of this act being passed but it brings up the topic of clinical care vs clinical trials which I think we should discuss.

Firs let’s ask the question: “Is there a need for this act”.  According to the “Right to Try” website sponsored by the Goldwater Institute: “Over 1 million Americans die from terminal illness each year” (1).  That seems like a large number!  Furthermore, the Goldwater Institute also claims: “Fewer than 3% of clinically ill patients gain access to investigational treatments through clinical trials”.  Okay so what does this mean?  What’s being said here is that, of that 1 million or so people, only about 30,000 are getting drugs?  Does this mean that, without regulations, all 1 million people could get drugs?  The answer to that is a yes and no.  The writers for the website Biospace looked into the frequency of investigational drugs being given to patients through the current FDA “compassionate use” program.  They noted that “the FDA receives about 1000 annual requests for compassionate use and approves about 99% of the time” (2).  So while the raw numbers may be concerning (1 million people), the cases of terminally ill patients that can actually benefit from investigational drugs may actually be fairly low.

Regardless of the numbers, could these drugs actually help people?  We need to ask ourselves that question.  To answer this we need to think about the fact that we’re taking drugs that have passed Phase 1 FDA clinical trials.  Phase 1 clinical trials in humans means that the drugs will not actively kill or harm you at the doses that are potentially useful.  A recent review paper from Borysowski et al in 2016 summarized the frequency rates of these drugs going all the way through clinical trials.  The authors noted that from a compilation of other studies, “probability of a drug in clinical testing eventually being approved was as low as 11.83%” and furthermore that “lack of efficacy [accounted for] 35.3% of failures”.  This means that 35% of the drugs in these studies, that got past Phase 1 trials, failed because they were not efficacious; they simply did not work.  Still there is a non-zero chance of the drugs actually helping people.  It’s difficult to find information related to patient outcomes related to compassionate use because drug companies are not required to publish that information.  One could imagine however, that there are some cases in which patients have actually been cured by such drugs.

So what’s the verdict on Right to Try legislation?  I think that, as it’s written, the law makes sense and that there’s very little direct risk to patient’s health.  Drugs that pass Phase 1 clinical trials should be mostly safe to use if not particularly effective.  In my personal opinion the main problem comes from an increased blurring of the line between Clinical Care, and Clinical Research.  These are two entirely different things.  Clinical Care means that someone is proscribing you a treatment with the goal of improving your health. Clinical Research means that someone is proscribing you a treatment with the goal of getting a drug through the FDA approval process.  This is why the FDA and review boards exist: to make sure that people realize what they are getting themselves into with a clinical trial.  Now, with Right to Try, we’ve created a weird group that is not quite getting Clinical Care but also explicitly not involved in Clinical Research.  This puts doctors in a bit of a bind as well.  A doctor needs to consider the liability surrounding compassionate use.  They need to think about whether or not they have enough of an understanding of an experimental drug to recommend it to a patient.  This could lead to some grey areas concerning doctors with conflicts of interest such as being involved with the research itself.

In another recent review from 2017, Miller et al make a good point in suggesting that “  Legislative efforts should also aim to expand patient access to clinical trials, which in some cases could alleviate the need for expanded access and compassionate use programs” (4).  Perhaps this is a complementary way forward that we should consider as well.  Expanding patient sign up programs with subsidies, building avenues for patient transport to studies, and increase openness about the efficacy of clinical trials as they are happening could all lead to the same or better outcomes as compassionate use.  Overall, I personally find that this legislation probably provides both little risk but also little benefit.  It’s a good thing that we’re considering the role of regulatory agencies in drug development.  If nothing else we should keep the conversation going.

Thanks again for reading.  Again, I’ll be setting up the lab soon and meeting with new people.  I start sharing those experiences very soon as well!

 

Cheers!

 

GRW

 

  1. Goldwater Institute, 2018, http://righttotry.org/faq/ Accessed 06/01/2018
  2. Biospace, 2018, https://www.biospace.com/article/right-to-try-law-and-fda-face-criticism-from-law-s-author/?utm_campaign=Newsletters&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=63436544&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8L780WbA4697q2DeSbAg_lzRwrt6_FoPB1q_rky9t7i0HEh967ZID4vXUOTZWLaXlsdvasLuktDSxQVgs_isma6P5MBg&_hsmi=63436544 Accessed 06/01/2018
  3. Borysowski J, et al. Ethics Review in compassionate use. BMC MED, 15:136, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523146/#CR30
  4. Miller JE et al. Characterizing expanded access and compassionate use programs for experimental drugs. BMC Res Notes 10:350 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5534121/

My Faculty Search is Over

Good News Everyone!

Firstly, I apologize for not updating in a very long time.  As I wrote about before, I’ve been on the hunt for a job in academia for the past year.  I’m happy to let you know that I’ve accepted a tenure track assistant professor position in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Seton Hall University.  I feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity to become a Principal Investigator and teach and train young students to become scientists.  This was the end of a lengthy journey that again was fortunately shorter than most for myself.  I’d like to finally wrap up and share some of my experiences with the interview process and what went into my decision making.

In my search I submitted almost four dozen applications over the past year to departments in everything from Biophysics to Bioengineering to Biochemistry.  I felt that with my background and my goals I would fit well in a department that is focused on life sciences.  I knew that I only wanted to do this if I felt that I’d have a good chance of being able to get grants and support students.  I ended up interviewing at a few universities at both doctoral-granting institutions as well as undergraduate-only institutions.  It was a tough decision, but I ultimately decided that to really be able to ensure support for my students and my work that I had to go to a doctoral-granting institute.

Seton Hall is the ideal place for me to begin my career as an independent PI for a few reasons.  Firstly, the university is expanding and developing a new medical school program.  This opens the door to many clinical collaborations, something that is important to me because I’ve always wanted to do research that directly impacts people’s health.  Second, the university is located very close to my current work at PHRI as well as close to some collaborators at NYU and Columbia University.  I am therefore able to maintain the friendships that I’ve made while working as a postdoc and I’m able to provide even more opportunities to my students.  One final reason that SHU works for me is the atmosphere and the people working in the department.  There are so many places that you could get a job where you’re just filling a seat or a cubical or a desk.  I didn’t feel that way when I interviewed at Seton Hall.  It felt like the faculty and the students were genuinely interested in each other’s work and in helping each other develop their careers.  I’m excited to be able to work with the department and I believe that there’s a lot of room to grow at this place.

I’m so thankful for all of the support and encouragement I’ve received from my friends, family, and colleagues over the past few months.  I’ll try to update this blog more frequently as time goes on with my experiences as a young assistant professor.  In addition, I’ll be developing an official lab website with information on our projects and some of my student’s achievements.  Thank you so much for reading and please keep a lookout for new posts!  If you have any questions please feel free to ask away; I’d be more than happy to help others in their academic job search too!

Sincerely,

GRW

Happy Belated New Year

Hello Everyone,

I’ve been taking some time off from updating to prepare for a few upcoming interviews.  I’d like to mention briefly a few things about what’s expected of a scientist applying for a tenure-track faculty positions.

I’m taking my idea of “Molecular Yoga” on the road and it’s going to influence the first part of my presentation: my “Job Talk”.  Most positions expect you to give them a brief overview of your research interests in an initial Skype interview before they invite you to their campus.  The Job Talk is where I get to tell my story and describe the research goals for my lab.  It has to be both compelling and reasonable; finding the perfect balance is the challenge.  I promise to elaborate more on some of the successes and failures of my job talks in the future once I have some experience!

The second portion of the interview is usually a short teaching tutorial.  I’ve been asked to prepare lectures for specific topics.  I believe a key component here is to demonstrate my ability to 1) analyze a topic that is not directly related to my research, 2) develop learning goals centered on the key components of that topic, and 3) deliver a presentation that helps students achieve those learning goals.  This is, in essence, my chance to prove that I am both a scientist and an educator.  Again I hope to provide a breakdown of what i thought works and does not work as part of an interview in the future.

Thank you all again for reading this quick update.  I’ll be back soon with some more in-depth analysis.

Cheers,

GRW

Into the Fray of Faculty Position Hunting

Hello Everyone,

As I mentioned before about a month ago, I’m beginning my search for a faculty position.  This is my first attempt at looking for positions beyond postdocs so I wanted to give a sense of what I’ve learned and what advice I’ve been given up till now.

Where do you learn about faculty positions to apply for in the first place?  There are three main sources I’ve been using at the moment.

  • The first is through direct contacts. I met search committee members through the ACS Academic Employment Initiative in August and I’ve tried to keep in touch with them via Linkedin or direct email.  This, along with recommendations from colleagues, advisors, and personal friends, is probably the best place to start.  As with any job, getting your foot in the door is the first hurdle.
  • The second source I’m using is HigherEdJobs.com and other academic job listing websites. Here you’ll get a list of recent postings by HR departments at various colleges and universities.  This is nice because you know that these departments are actively recruiting a new faculty member and you get an idea of the timeline for hiring.
  • Finally, I’ve been perusing websites of specific departments from Universities at which I would like to be employed. This, I feel, can be the most difficult and possibly soul-crushing way of doing things.  It’s equivalent to a cold-call almost; you don’t even know if a department has an opening.  That being said, I’ve come to understand that the name of the game is “take every opportunity you can find” and these three sources provide opportunities.

Looking glass

What goes into an application for a faculty position in academia?  First up is the curriculum vitae or C.V. for short.  For those readers who are not in academia, a C.V. is similar to a resume but with heavier focus on academic accomplishments and education/teaching history rather than previous jobs.  These are the most crucial components to an academic position, hence why a C.V. is vastly preferred to a resume (something I might tackle in a later article).

All positions will require a cover letter.  This is where I’ve come to understand most people make their mistakes.  DO NOT use the same exact cover letter for each position.  It may seem tedious at first, but this is the first thing, other than the C.V. that a search committee will read.  The cover letter is a chance to make my elevator pitch for a position, I try to specifically bring up reasons for why I am interested in that position. Also, I make sure to specifically mention WHAT I am applying for: e.g. “I am applying for a position in X Department at Y University”.  I’ve heard a possibly apocryphal story where an otherwise spectacular candidate for NASA was rejected initially because their cover letter was addressed to the wrong agency.

The main body of the application is the Teaching Statement and Research Statement.  Here I’m laying out the evidence to show that I can be a successful faculty member in your department.  The Teaching Statement is a brief description of my Teaching Philosophy (how I approach a class), my experiences in teaching, and finally a brief description of classes which I believe I can teach for a specific department.  Again, DO NOT submit the exact same Teaching Statement for each position, especially in regards to the last point.  It makes no sense to be talking about my willingness to teach molecular biology if I’m applying to a mathematics department.  The Research Statement is my description of a few ideas I have for projects and programs in my new lab.  New faculty are always expected to secure “outside funding”, meaning that after a few years my lab work should be bringing in funding to sustain the lab members.  In many ways it’s like getting a start-up fund to start a new company, for good or for bad.  Knowing that search committees will likely go through hundreds of applications I’ve tailored mine to be 3-4 pages with figures and citations.  I hope that I’ve made it an exciting read and after a while I might even share it here as a templet.

The final components of an application for a faculty position in academia are the references and, at some places, a diversity statement.  The references are straight forward, make sure to ask former/current advisors if they could provide a strong recommendation and testament to your ability to work independently in a lab.  The diversity statement I find most interesting.  Some academics might write off a diversity statement as an unimportant, secondary component of an application.  I, however, think it’s a crucial part of explaining that ever-present, “Broader Impact” that we want to get at as scientists.  Diversity means inclusion in the scientific process.  In general I personally often forget that when I’m conducting research, when I’m making devices; this knowledge or these products are going to be used out in the world.  I’m not just doing this for other scientists like myself, I need to understand the communities that are impacted by my research.  I’ve learned this in Public Health, you need to have feedback and communication with people from all over the world.  Insights from as diverse of a group as possible are absolutely crucial.  This is the point that I stress in my diversity statement: I don’t want to make a small, isolated lab kingdom.  Our lab absolutely needs input and collaboration in the communities which its work is meant to serve which is underdeveloped or economically depressed areas.

These are the components of my application.  If anyone has insights to add or advice I would greatly appreciate it!  I hope that in going through this process for the first time I can get a better idea of what I’m doing and that I’ll have better advice to give in the future.  I will keep everyone updated on the results!  Thanks again for reading!

Cheers,

GRW

Moving on in Science

Hello Everyone,
For this post I wanted to make a brief comment on something that applies not only to science but also to any job in general: knowing when to move on from a particular position. Change is an inherent part of science. As new ideas come about, it becomes time to build upon them and move forward. Sometimes it’s also good to think about when to move on to the next phase of your career. The most successful scientists that I’ve known are able to adapt to changes. I’ve known people who started out in basic electrochemistry and who are now studying cancer biology. I’m always finding myself reading about new labs and new research and thinking “I wish I was working in this field”. I believe it’s that kind of drive, and that kind of enthusiasm that keeps a scientist alive.

For myself, I know I’ve always had to balance my devoting enough time to a particular project and my search for new projects. As I’ve said before, in getting your science funded even, the old joke is that you write a grant to get money for work you’ve already finished while you’re thinking about the next grant. Like anything there are ebbs and flows in science. Sometimes new data seems to be coming in easily and sometimes a direction I’m moving in just feels static. My advice would be to time the “focusing and dedicating time” in a particular area to the ebbs and to start thinking about new ideas during the flows. If I could possibly do so, let me coin the term “Data Drought” in this particular time. A Data Drought, being a time when you are not producing much, is NOT the time to be thinking about something new. That’s how you lose your focus; that’s the “grass is always greener” mentality. This again is broadly applicable; I’d like to think about why I’m not being productive rather than chalk it up to the field I’m in being dead. Again when times are easy and when you’re really productive: that’s the time to start branching out and to start thinking about moving on.

Personally I’ve always felt that the publication of a paper, the finishing of a dissertation, or the completion of a project is the time to starting thinking about what’s next. For me, I’ve just wrapped up several papers and it’s gotten me thinking about smaller side projects that I could complete while looking towards the next phase of my career. I also know that it’s just the type of person that I am; I can never seem to rest on my laurels. I don’t know if that necessarily makes for a happy life but it makes for a good scientist personality. Right now I’m putting together applications and I’ll be going through the process of looking for faculty positions and/or a second postdoc. I hope to write a post in the near future that compares it to my first experience applying for postdoc positions (and to applying for grad school) to give you some insight into the process. Thanks for reading again!

Cheers!

GRW