Commitment or Insanity? #nanowrimo

Oct 17 2014 Published by under Opportunities

During my residency in pediatrics, I had an idea for a story. As I pondered various twists and turns in the tale, I realized that telling the world would result in a novel.

Needless to say, life intervened. A couple of kids, a lab to start, a career to develop; somehow these all kept me from getting around to putting my words on record.

A couple of years ago I told my son about my idea. He was pretty amazed at the level of detail I had already incorporated into the general plot. Every time he came home from college, he asked about my progress. I finally started a Scrivener file for the work and began creating character sheets and some scene outlines. At least I could say it was a work in progress, and not just a dream in my soul.

Today I saw a link to the National Novel Writing Month site. I signed up, agreeing to write 50,000 words during November.

I will likely fail to write this many words.

Even if I only grind out 20,000 words, that’s a lot more than I have done to date. Having that bit of competition and encouragement may make it happen, and may get me to produce more than I anticipate.

Any of you have dreams of authorship? Not scientific papers, but novels, collections of stories, or even memoirs? I challenge you to sign up for #nanowrimo as it is called on Twitter. Let’s make each other write!

3 responses so far

My New Baby

Oct 09 2014 Published by under Learning

What do you call 100 babies in a single litter?

What do you call 100 babies in a single litter?

Hard copies arrived! My new book, The Promotion Game, arrived in a big box.

I never realized how proud I would feel to see my work in print and hold it in my hands.

It's almost like giving birth to something, except without the blood.

If you are interested in succeeding in academic medicine, this book may be for you. You can get more information here.

Ebooks are expected to be available soon on Amazon and the other usual venues.

One response so far

Countdown to #xBio 2014

Apr 11 2014 Published by under EB2014, Societies and Meetings

Two weeks from today I leave my home and head to glorious San Diego for Experimental Biology 2014, the annual gathering of the organizations that comprise the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, AKA FASEB. My favorite of these groups, the American Physiological Society, once again asked me to blog the meeting. I have finally gathered scheduling information and abstracts to organize my activities.

I will be attending and summarizing Saturday's session on storytelling for scientists, presented by Randy Olson. He has followed that traditional career trajectory from tenured professor to film school, and he wrote two books about scientists and communication skills (or, more accurately, lack thereof). I heard him speak at a screening of his film, Flock of Dodos, a few years back. His latest book, written with Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, is Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking. I am looking forward to seeing how his message has morphed over time. Obviously, I love communications, so this session is right up my alley.

Saturday also starts more traditional fare, including the Cannon Memorial Lecture. James M. Anderson of the NIH will present his talk, The Contribution of Paracellular Transport to Epithelial Homeostasis. As someone who teaches renal pathophysiology, this topic will be relevant. Look for some live tweets during this session.

Of course I will also attend and discuss the Gottschalk Award Lecture for the Renal Physiology Section on Monday afternoon. Susan Wall of Emory University will present her work on The Role of Pendrin the the Pressor Response to Aldosterone.

I have selected a number of abstracts that interest me; next week I will contact authors about coverage, either through email interviews, conversations on site, or perhaps even videos of them at their posters. See something in the program you think I should explore? Drop me a line via twitter (@phlane) or email (pascalelane [at] know the rest).

Be sure and follow me on twitter as well as @expbio, and track the official meeting hashtag (#xBio) while you're at it. You may not be gazing on San Diego harbor in the sunshine, but you can still get a feel for the science at the meeting.

One response so far

Haunted Manuscripts

Jan 21 2014 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Over at Retraction Watch an interesting question came up: Is it ethical to ghost write a paper? Click through for all the details and to vote in their poll.

I voted "no" for the specific situation described; there are too many issues raised about the data and hypothesis. The sitution obviously feels squeamy to the post-doc involved, as well as to me.

However, there are situations where a ghost writer could be perfectly acceptable.

  • A native English speaker to rewrite and correct dysfluencies
  • A large multi-author manuscript tweaked by a single writer to provide better verbal flow; to make it seem like the piece had a single author

In other words, there are times where  bringing in a pro to edit and rework the author's words and ideas into better prose is acceptable.

Go over to the post and vote. Comment below if you agree or disagree with my thoughts about ghosts.

No responses yet

Why I Will Be There: #Scio14

Nov 15 2013 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Thursday I did something I have never done before; I sat at my computer waiting for 2:00 pm CST when I could start clicking the link for Science Online Together 2014. All went well for me, and I will be returning to Raleigh in February for another round of the unconference.

Some have recently made clear their intentions to not be at the upcoming gathering (see here and here). Several factors entered into my alternate decision.

I came to Science Online at a different point in my journey from many others. I had scaled the rarified heights of academia to become a tenured full professor. As I embarked on a new journey, to create a news magazine for the American Society of Nephrology, I needed to learn about new-fangled things like blogging and Facebook and Twitter. Science Online 2011, my virgin year, gave me insights into the interactions possible between academic and popular media, as well as the potential interplay of Web 2.0 content and the dead tree media of my youth. That was the last really "small" Science Online, with our venue at Sigma Xi bursting with energy. I felt like I met most of the attendees at some point in time, and I learned a lot that has been put to work in my professional life. Sessions on narrative structure and writing tools have enriched my work as well. I now give talks to faculty about ways to get writing done, much of which is information intially gathered via Science Online sessions. I have recruited several articles for ASN Kidney News from Science Online participants. The magazine also hires journalists for events, so some of these are paying gigs for the freelancers in the crowd!

I also have a guilty secret. One of the reasons I love academic medicine is my love of writing. Had I not been a doctor, I likely would have majored in English and ultimately gone on to an advanced writing degree of some sort. Most academics do not understand this attitude; they hate the writing, even while acknowledging its role in their success. Attending Science Online was like visiting the Mother Ship. All of these people who liked science and writing existed! I was not alone! I also love it now when my husband likes a book, and I can say I have met the author.

Like all meetings, Science Online is not just about work. Evenings include a lot of chatting and networking (and often drinking), just like those at my professional meetings. If anything, I attend more sessions at Science Online than at "real science" meetings, simply because the unconference venue is not adjacent to the hotel. Once you are there, you may as well be in a discussion session since you can't run back to your room and "work on your paper" (AKA chill out with Diet Coke and a novel or daytime TV).

This will be my fourth Science Online, and I see the meeting at a crossroads. First, the venue (North Carolina State University McKimmon Center) and participants expanded in 2012 and 2013. Many of these participants remain unfamiliar to me; the meeting has already crossed the "intimacy" line (and not in the slimey sense of the word; you know what I'm talking about). Also, last year the informal organizational group became a real entity with a dot-com web site. Spin-off conferences, in a variety of locales and on selected topics, sprung up in 2013 as well. The people and concept of Science Online are evolving, and growing pains are inevitable. Will Science Online become a more formal organization with a bigger, more professional conference? Or will it step back and downsize into several smaller gatherings in an attempt to maintain the "community" feel?

I do not know which way things will go, but I plan to make my opinions known. If things proceed in a direction I do not like, I may be writing one of those "Why I'm Not" posts next year. In the meantime, I know I have achieved things I would not have without the Science Online experience. I will be there in 2014, for the learning and the party - just like every other meeting I attend.

No responses yet

The Scholar's Frenemy

Jul 17 2012 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Your scholarly activity may involve cultures or rats, people or databases.  You may experiment in a jungle, a shiny lab, or a clinic.

No matter what the particulars, you receive no credit for your research until the world learns about it through official channels.

Yup, you will have to write. Even an open access, online-only new-age "journal" requires words.

That's why most scholars view a blank page, be it paper or on a computer monitor, as their major enemy; yet they must confront it and make it their friend by filling it with meaning.

Why is the writing process so hard for so many people? First, many say they have no time. The other aspects of their jobs consume every waking minute, so they cannot find the block of time they need to write. Second, when they find a few minutes, they become paralyzed. They try to self-edit and make their first draft ready-for-publication, ultimately resulting in deserting a blank document at the end of their writing period.

No soldier goes into battle without tools or instructions. Here I hope to collect some weapons in the war on empty word processing documents.

Just Write

The most important rule of writing is to make like Nike and JUST DO IT! Turn off the tiny editor in your head and grind out words. A first draft is never a final draft; even a final accepted manuscript undergoes more editing before actual publication much of the time. The first step in conquering the blank page is learning to wound it with fonts rather than holding out for the final killer prose.

Make Time

Many writers swear by a scheduled time for writing. They put it on their calendar. They make it a sacred event, something that will not be interrupted.

Some of us cannot quite make that happen, at least not as regularly. For us, the strategy comes down to writing when we can.

Remember, no one concentrates well for more than about 30 minutes; we would be healthier if we got up and moved about every 20 minutes or so. Whether scheduled or not, write like hell for 20-30 minutes, take a bio break, and then come back and consider your words. Or do something else; at least you have words in your document! Now you do not have to start a project because it's already begun! You have made it through the blank page, the first barrier to your project! Congratulations!

We all have times when we sit staring at our blinking cursor, daring us to enter insipid statements with our keyboards. How can we overcome this fear (or laziness; I'll admit to it)? There are some tools.

Structured Writing Blitz

This technique works well with a partner or in breakout groups. Everyone begins by writing about 4 sentences along the lines of:

  1. What is the problem?     This maybe an actual problem. It may be a hypothesis to test.
  2. Where do you need to go?     What's the ideal solution for the problem? How would you test your hypothesis?
  3. What is the solution?     How can you make this happen? What resources and collaborators do you need?
  4. What are the alternatives?     If you disprove your hypothesis, what next? If your solution doesn't work, where else do you turn?

After getting this skeleton together, you can start fleshing out your idea. Then, swap documents with your partner or share them in the group. Let the others poke holes in your thoughts, trying to kill your "baby" (it's much easier than trying to shoot down your idea yourself). Take notes and began expanding and editing; it's a great way to start an abstract or a paper or a proposal.

Software Slave Masters

Sometimes you just need that stick to make writing happen. For me, Dr. Wicked's Write or Die, as its tagline goes, puts the "prod in productivity." You set up how many words you want to write in a given time period. A bare-bones text box appears; you can even disable the backspace key to prevent self-editing. If you slow down, the screen gradually turns color and warnings appear. In kamikaze mode, slowing down results in your words disappearing from the screen. When you hit goal, a congratulatory message appears.

Some programs work as carrots instead of sticks. Written? Kitten awards you with a cute kitten every 100 words, While not the motivation I need, it does work for some people.

Some more generic productivity techniques can also work. The Pomodoro (named after the Italian kitchen timer shaped like a tomato) involves chopping tasks into 25 minute blocks followed by 5 minute breaks. That's just about the perfect length of time for a concentrated task like writing.

Low-Tech Free Association

Stop "Writing"

Sometimes a text document is not the place to begin. Sometimes you need to start with something less structured.

Like a whiteboard. Scribbling on the walls may be forbidden, but scribbling on a whiteboard lets you make somewhat random thoughts visible. They can then be coded, erased or rearranged and reconnected as necessary. I find this structure far less confining than a traditional outline although both accomplish roughly the same degree of organization.

If you just cannot bring yourself to use writing utensils, software can provide a similar free-though experience.  Mind-mappers such as Personal Brain let you connect, reconnect, interconnect and otherwise manipulate items in a fluid nonlinear manner.

Finally, some folks just do not like the keyboard or the pen. Through the use of a secretary or voice recognition software they can generate their written documents. I am a far more visual than aural person, but there are those who still swear by their Dictaphones.

Find Accountability

Probably the most important step you can take is making writing social. I do not mean taking your laptop to the coffee shop and making friends (although that might work); no, you need colleagues who will take you to task if you fail to write something. They can also be excellent editors and critics, as well as cheer you on when writer's block occurs.

Find a small group of folks who also write and need motivation. You do not have to be in the same academic area; the point here is to make each other accountable to the group for getting things done. Groups can even be virtual. If you tweet, search the hashtag #madwriting. Folks will set up a session, write like hell for a given period, and then tweet their word output.

In Conclusion

A number of tools may help you start projects. Some tools can prod you along, especially if you have others holding you accountable. At the end of the day, the only way you can generate your documents is to sit down, shut up, and write.






9 responses so far

Updated Cliches: Goodbye Steroids, Hello Yogurt

Jul 06 2012 Published by under [Etc]

Thanks to prominent sports stars and their congressional hearings, we all became familiar with the effects of anabolic steroids. These drugs became part of our culture. So much so that when someone want to suggest that a given item exceeds the rest of it's class, they refer to it as "like X on steroids."  The phrase even makes it into online dictionaries.

 Your weather on steroids

Quix - Your Bookmarklets, On Steroids

A look inside Leap Motion, the 3D gesture control that's like Kinect on steroids

Just a few examples from a quick google of "on steroids."

I have tired of this phrase, but recently a wonderful new way to express the same sentiment magically appeared. As a bonus, it involves no illegal activity. When you are tempted to say something is like "X on steroids" please use instead:

Like mouse balls on yogurt.


 MIT Scientists studied yogurt's effects on mice, mostly hoping to find beneficial effects of probiotics. It became obvious as the study progressed that some unanticipated secondary effects deserved attention:

Click for source

Then the researchers spotted some­thing particular about the males: they projected their testes outward, which endowed them with a certain “mouse swagger,” Erdman says. On measuring the males, they found that the testicles of the yogurt consumers were about 5 percent heavier than those of mice fed typical diets alone and around 15 percent heavier than those of junk-eating males.

More important, that masculinity pays off. In mating experiments, yogurt-eating males inseminated their partners faster and produced more offspring than control mice.

So can we agree to stop using "on steroids" and instead substitute "like mouse balls on yogurt?" It's good science and you get to say balls. What could be better than that?

Go out, find, and replace please.


2 responses so far

Female Blogging Manifesto: #Scio12 In Action

Jan 25 2012 Published by under [Information&Communication]

The Science Online 2012 session on the perils of blogging female generated discussion, both at the conference and on the internet.  Comments to female bloggers are not merely sexist. Many are viscious, some are threatening, and some cross the line into criminal intent. If you don't believe me, search the #mencallmethings hashtag on twitter for examples. Kate Clancy blogged about the need for a posse, a group that gets it and can fight off these, well, douchecanoes when they materialize.

A number of us gathered later that evening, expressing our frustration that the session continues to remain necessary. We cannot believe that we have not moved beyond these blatant displays of sexism and misogyny and hate. We are ready to move forward; why isn't the discussion?

Yup, it's pink.

The answer came at the banquet Friday evening, when Janet Stemwedel took to the stage in The Monti Storytelling event. (This story will eventually be available as a podcast here). In the fall of 2011 the blogosphere exploded with a discussion of "gendered" science kits - you know, pink girl kits for bubble bath and cosmetics, while the boys get microscopes and chemistry sets that look like something an actual scientist might have in the lab. These kits reinforce the overwhelming value of girls' femininity while supposedly encouraging scientific endeavors. Dr. Free-ride, her "nom de blog", related how she heard about this topic and thought, "Not again." She felt tired; she wanted to let someone else fight the battle this time.

Eventually, she sucked it up and posted.

Then, a miracle occurred. Someone at this scientific toy company saw the virtual shitstorm on the internet. Multiple blogs, opinions on Facebook, updates on Google+, and a flood from the Twitterverse were not ignored. The company announced that they would no longer sell gendered science kits. They would simply sell science kits.


Now, I cannot say that without Janet's post that this would not have occurred. Was she the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back? We will never know what the minimal unit of rant is for any given change.

As I look back on our musings in the bar that evening, I realize that we must continue having these same sessions. The conversation and complaints must continue until the appropriate parties notice and act. Yes, we get tired of it. Yes, it is repetitive. Yes, it sucks. But it must be done. If not for us, for our daughters. The real daughters, whether they be tomboys or pretty-pink-princesses, and our daughters in society, those younger than us who want to inquire and write and express their thoughts on an equal footing with the menfolk.

So we will continue to complain and rant and fight and whine and even bitch. Get over it, boys - only then will it stop.

I am in this battle for the long haul. And so is my posse.

5 responses so far

Writing Tools: #scio12 Pays Off Already!

Jan 23 2012 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Science Online 2012 rocked! Of course, we all knew it would. Old friendships were renewed in real life. New friends were made. I finally graced the Duke Lemur Center with my presence!

One session I attended on the first day dealt with writing tools. While I write a lot for work, most of it has been in that highly structured scientific prescribed format. Standard word processing tools handle that work fine. As I have moved to other forms of written output, I find that these usual text editors often fall short. Based on less formal conversations at #scio11, I outfitted my computer with Devonthink, a Mac-only research tool with artificial intelligence engine, and Scrivener, a writing tool with text editor that allows you to organize thoughts, facts, and other musings, then rearrange them easily. Eventually you can output them to another program for final referencing and formatting. I love Scrivener already, and I have only touched the obvious capabilites of the program. Devonthink has a steep learning curve, and I have not yet mastered it.

Putting the "Prod" in Productivity

The latest addition to my repertoire is Dr. Wicked's Write or Die (this post is starting out on that program). This bargain software (desktop version is $10 and they encourage you to install it on all of your computers) has you fill in how many words you wish to write in a given time frame. You can set it for gentle cues: when you pause, your background color changes. If you fail to resume writing the color deepens, and eventually you get an alarm.

When this software was described at the unconference, the Kamikaze mode also got our attention. With this setting, if you pause too long it starts erasing your work. Yikes! I am not ready to go there yet! You can also set it to disable your backspace key so you cannot self-edit as you go. That will be my next step, since I probably do too much immediate editing (yeah, I have spelling issues).

I downloaded the program to my laptop Sunday while several of us awaited airport transportation in the Brownstone Doubletree Lobby. Usually I get distracted and converse when in a group, even in a group of all strangers. Those visual prods kept me on track, and I finished 800 words in about 30 minutes for a piece due today (OK, technically it was due last Friday, but no one will die if it goes in today). When the word goal hit, triumphant trumpets sounded, a congratulatory window popped up and the whole group turned my way.

I. Felt. So. Proud.

I cannot wait to hit my goal for this current post. I hope someone hears it just outside my office, so I can gloat.

If you have trouble with the "sit down, shut up, and write" command, Write or Die could make you way more productive. It continues to amaze me that even at this level of education and motivation, we still struggle with getting an initial draft written. We still need the carrot and the stick.

By the way, the first draft of this post (500 words) took just under 15 minutes with Write or Die watching. Add another 15 minutes to clean it up a bit and add the illustration and links after I finished my clinic. Oh, and both of the reports that were due today were submitted before I started blogging.

3 responses so far

Extra Credit

My favorite comic of all time

Last year at Science Online 2011, as we discussed the role of blogging in scientific outreach, the topic of academic "credit" for blogging arose. Mostly junior participants lamented that blogging would never be taken seriously until full professors had it on their CVs.

I went back and added a section of online activities to my own CV. As one of those full professors, I felt it was the least I could do.

Earlier this week Kate Clancy wrote about her upcoming 3-year review, including the difficulty the committee will have discussing her blog:

It doesn’t help that “blog” doesn’t sound very academic (oh, if only I had thought to call this the Context and Variation Monograph). And it doesn’t help that this writing isn’t just for scholars, but for everybody. That’s not because non-blogging academics don’t see the point of interacting with the public, but because this particular way of doing it is so strange to them. This isn’t a radio interview, or a book, or a talk at the local library, but a style of writing where the jargon is not academic but from the internet. We talk in ALL CAPS, we use emoticons and use extra exclamation points!!1!!1

WhizBANG! Letters...hmmmm...

She goes on to outline the virtues of blogging for a junior faculty member, including building networks, public outreach, improved writing skills, and even (gasp!) scholarship. I suspect a number of us bloggers do not really get our thoughts organized until we write them down (that's why there is a huge whiteboard in my office), and playing with a new idea in cyberspace can generate valuable feedback from a great audience. Blogging about academic works increases the audience substantially; I hope that mainstream journals can eventually embrace this robust discussion as part of the post-publication review of work.

So back to January. As a full prof, my CV did not really get examined by anyone last spring. This week I found out that I have to undergo tenure review for my new employer, and my CV must be completely rearranged. I prepared a draft, including my posts for Scientific American and Biocareers as non-refereed publications, complete with hyperlinks. I also listed my project, Academic Women for Equality Now, as an "Other" activity. [Yes, this blog got left off, mostly because it includes any shiny thing that catches my eye, especially shoes. I cannot classify my thoughts on fashion, including bottle sweaters, as any sort of academic activity.]

Our departmental reviewer got back to me with a bunch of red pixels, none of which landed on these posts. She told me to put AWEnow into my national service section. No comments about these being inappropriate activities for academic credit.

I still have work to do on my packet before it goes to full review. There is still a chance that someone will snub my online work, but so far, so good.

Anyone else out there counting their online efforts as academic work?

5 responses so far

Older posts »