Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This Is Where Memes Go To Die; On Thinking; etc.

I know that many of you kind readers have tagged me for memes. I assure you that there is only forgetfulness and no malice whatsoever in my utter failure to do any of them. I can barely keep track of what day it is, at this point; anything else is a lost cause. Apologies. Maybe one day I'll catch up. (Ha ha ha.)
Yesterday I, quite literally, spent five hours doing heavy manual labor, ate lunch at 2:30, and went to lab where I worked my fingers to the bone for another five hours. Then I went home, cooked part of dinner, helped fold six (6!) loads of laundry, made a pancake because I was finally hungry instead of nauseous from fatigue, and went to bed. This is what I'm doing instead of blogging.

I was all set spend all of Sunday on a boring set of experiments, whose answer I expect to be, roughly, 2+2=4.

As I was planning the week, I sat down and tried to figure out how my competitor had made the almost-impossible-to-make brick cited in his abstract. It's quite elegant really: he took several bricks out of sample walls, then made random foam replicates to replace them. If the wall didn't fall down, right size brick. Instant selection.*

So I thought about it for an hour, and came up with a simple, elegant, and definitive way to test my new brick models. It requires another month of prep, but then I make bricks out Sculpey clay to make them less brittle, do the experiment three times and am done- done!- forever.

Thinking it through is not encouraged in my lab- at least, not explicitly. We are pressured to produce RESULTS- pretty pictures every week, or else- that if you instead work out a complicated problem, in Advisor's book, that's a week where you did nothing. So although I do spend a lot of time thinking about my experiments, I don't always spend enough. In retrospect (like every other terminal grad student**), if I'd known five years ago exactly how important it is, I'd already be out.

As a famous scientist once said to me, 'Three weeks in lab will save you a day in the library.' Or in your brain. In the end, it's more efficient to do it right the first time: why is there so little emphasis on efficiency?

On a larger scale, I believe this is part of the problem with grant agencies. They want the pretty pictures in your grant, not for it to be really interesting and/or exquisitelywell-reasoned. If you want to throw things at a wall to see what happens, well, as long as there's a picture of something , you can get a grant. (Or as long as you already have a grant, in which case, instant 2x advantage.) The NIH goes on about how it wants to promote transformative research, and then funds 24 'New Innovator' grants. They don't fund great ideas; they fund preliminary data.

And don't even get me started on the waste and inefficiency in my lab alone. Let's just say, that time I found $5000 of custom-made grout in the back of the freezer? Not an isolated incident.

*Of course, the reason he didn't waste six months doing it the obvious ways is that I told him they wouldn't work. Wasn't that nice of me? That'll teach me.

**I often wonder, terminal in what way.