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December 9, 2014

Colin Firth and the Slippery Slope of Scientific Authorship

Colin Firth CBE...PhD? Nicogenin (Flickr)
I’ve been in research for about seven years now. But if you search my name in PubMed, precisely one scientific paper will pop up—a manuscript published this past spring from my current group. I’m pretty far down on the author list, which reflects my contribution relative to my colleagues on this particular paper. While I helped with some of the writing, the data collection and most of the analyses were performed by others.

As you snuggle by the fire this holiday season to watch Love Actually, you should know that you’re also viewing the work of a published academic neuroscientist. That’s right—another PubMed search reveals that actor Colin Firth is cited on a 2011 brain imaging study in the journal Current Biology. 

And it doesn’t take an insecure graduate student like me to accuse Mr. Firth of not pulling all-nighters in the laboratory.

Authorship in science is tricky. In some laboratories, it’s a bit of a taboo topic. Ask your average scientist if they’ve witnessed abuses in authorship, and they’ll likely be brimming with stories for you—from people being “gifted” an authorship they don’t truly deserve, to hard-working (often junior) scientists being wrongly shafted by their colleagues. These stories are rarely discussed among labmates, and almost never between junior and senior investigators.

And then there are the extremes, like the 2001 Nature paper on the sequencing of the human genome boasting 2,900 authors and the 2012 paper detailing the Higgs boson, which cites a whopping 3,171 co-authors. Where exactly do we draw the line between who has made a meaningful contribution to a project and who is better suited for the “Acknowledgments” section?

November 28, 2014

Exposure to Different Forms of Violence Affects Kids’ Sleep Differently

I have a guest post today with the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. The piece is based on a new study in the journal Sleep Medicine showing that children exposed to different forms of violence in their community are plagued with different types of disturbed sleep.
Two particular types of violence stood out to researchers in terms of their association with sleep disturbance. Controlling for relevant confounders (such as age, gender and family income), individuals who were physically assaulted had a shortened sleep duration (by 35 minutes on average), exhibited almost three times as much wake time after sleep onset, and 6 per cent lower sleep efficiency than kids who did not experience physical assault. These effects were also seen three months later at follow-up. 
On the other hand, children who witnessed a homicide had twice as much wake time after sleep onset, greater night-to-night variability in sleep duration, and more self-reported sleep problems than kids who had not witnessed a homicide. These findings, however, did not persist at follow-up.
Read more of the post here!

November 20, 2014

#SfN14 Day 5: Reflections on a Neuroscient-astic Week

This is the final post in my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. It's been fun! You can read other posts in this series here. I live-tweeted some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Re-live the experience by exploring the hashtag #SfN14.
Taking some time away from the hubbub (and
warmth, apparently) to sightsee.

What a week. Neuroscience 2014 was completely overwhelming, exhausting, inspiring, invigorating, and fruitful (I'm kind of sad that last one didn't end in "-ing"):

  • There were over 30,500 people in attendance on any given day, with over 15,000 abstracts presented as posters or oral presentations.
  • I don't think I attended a single talk that didn't have a line of latecomers waiting to get in.
  • ...and I saw Eric-freaking-Kandel strolling around casually in his signature bowtie while I sat on the steps waiting to meet some friends for dinner.

But I think my biggest "takeaways" from the meeting weren't necessarily from the scientific sessions. There is so, so much more that goes on behind the scenes at scientific conferences, and thanks to its titanic proportions, Neuroscience 2014 was certainly no exception.

Here are 3 things I learned from #SfN14:

#SfN14 Day 4: “It’s Not the Stress that Kills Us; It’s Our Reaction to It” –Hans Selye (Theme E)

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

Day 4 winding down. You wanna know what a stressful situation is?
Being surrounded by 30,500+ people for five days. Whew!
For the most part, I like to think I handle stressful situations fairly well. I take a few deep breaths, tell myself the stressor is really not that big of a deal, then go find something else to do—like exercise or knitting.

The fact of the matter still holds, though: I’m a ruminator. As much as I try to escape, I can’t stop thinking about it if something’s bothering me. It affects my attention, what I eat, and how I sleep, to name a few.

The worst part is that all of this rumination is probably terrible for my cardiovascular health in the long-run. I try to adopt my positive coping mechanisms…but am I actually doomed?

Susan K. Wood of the University of South Carolina spoke on the role of stress and neuroinflammation in not only the susceptibility to depressive symptoms, but also how these symptoms translate to risks for cardiovascular disease. Wood was one of several speakers on Tuesday’s symposium focusing on resilience to stress.

November 18, 2014

#SfN14 Day 3: How to Effectively Communicate Your Science to the Public

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

My positively GORGEOUS new cell scarf from Artologica (Michele Banks)!
Check out her Etsy store for this and other incredible art!
Talk about exhaustion. I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday because I was too busy meeting Internet friends at #sfnbanter. In case anyone was wondering, all the people on Twitter are real!

In sleep research, we have this term called “social jetlag.” It’s aptly named. I’m feelin’ it big time this morning.

Yesterday morning, I attended the professional development workshop called “How to Effectively Communicate Your Science to the Public.” Panelists included science communicator Elaine Snell, AAAS Director of Public Engagement Tiffany Lohwater, author Jane Nevins, and Columbia University professor and NeuWrite host Stuart Firestein.

Here are some tips and tricks that particularly stood out to me:

November 16, 2014

#SfN14 Day 2: On the Origin of Sex Differences in the Brain (Theme E)

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

This is what a bunch of hungry neuroscientists look
like when it's 5pm and the poster session is over.
One of my mentors likes to occasionally tease me when I bring him data: “You’ve discovered something new. Men and women are different.”

He kids, of course. Male and female brains are different in funny and fascinating ways we don’t quite understand.  My poster (which I presented this afternoon) was on gender differences in the loss of slow-wave sleep across adolescence. I just had a paper accepted (today, actually!) on gender differences in some aspects of sleep apnea. (I could actually probably build a pretty successful career on studying gender differences in sleep alone, actually. If I wanted to.)

So I was very excited to attend Dr. Margaret (Peg) McCarthy’s talk on the origin of sex differences in the brain earlier this afternoon.

Let me get two things out of the way before I begin. First of all, I really admired Dr. McCarthy, who hails from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, for how she spoke about her past and present colleagues, giving credit where credit was due to previous labmates and graduate students. You don’t realize how few people do that until someone does it explicitly.

Secondly, McCarthy covered the history of research in sex differences in the most genius way possible: a parody of The Big Bang Theory theme song. Seriously—it was golden.

The simplistic view of biological sex differences goes a little something like this: an undifferentiated group of cells destined to become the gonads will, by default, be ovaries. But it’s the influence of the Y chromosome that gives half of our population testes. In this way, too, the “female brain” is the “default brain.”

#SfN14 Day 1: Tackling Difficult Mentor/Mentee Discussions

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

Wearing lots of hats—er, ribbons—at this meeting.
Greetings from D.C.! It’s nearly midnight on Saturday and my stomach is exploding from this chocolate torte I decided would be a good idea after a giant plate full of ravioli.

It wasn’t a good idea, though. It was a GREAT idea.

This afternoon, I attended life coach Dr. Samantha Sutton’s interactive talk called "Mentor-Mentee Interaction: How to Have a Difficult Conversation." In the past, Dr. Sutton has presented this as a 10-week, 4-credit course at Stanford. I was pleasantly surprised to see what I believe were an equal number of students, postdocs, and professors in attendance.

When I typically think of preparing for a tough talk, a student approaching a professor comes to mind. My preparation strategy for things like this is usually: 1. Prepare what you’ll say; 2. Be disappointed by mentor’s response; and 3. Not know how to respond because I didn’t prepare for this response, and because I lack tact and self-confidence. Knowing I’m not alone, and that PIs struggle with this too, was reassuring to me.

Kudos to everyone for realizing that relationships in the workplace—and especially among extremely competitive and career-driven scientists—are really, really complex.