Friday, July 4, 2014

What I did before my summer vacation (one hectic month in the life of an academic researcher)

Academia is an unpredictable profession at best; for the most part, one never knows from year to year how much funding one will have to design and implement research projects, how many students one will have responsibility for, how many grant proposals one will write, or even how many papers one will write and send for publication. The unpredictability of the profession stems from the unpredictability associated with grant funding: is a researcher’s proposal good enough; will it get into the top ten percent; will it get funded, and if so, how much will the researcher get; will he or she get support for students and lab consumables or just consumables; and what happens if he or she doesn’t get funding. The list of worries is potentially a long one.

December and June are always busy and hectic months in academia, mostly because researchers rush to finish experiments and to send out their articles before the Christmas holidays and summer vacation, respectively. They are stressful months that have to be confronted and tackled before one can take vacation in good conscience. The odd thing is that the pace of academia is so erratic; during the other months, there are often lulls when one wishes one was busier. Personally, I would prefer if the pace was more even and thus less stressful during the entire academic year, such that the amount of work was spread out more evenly.

So what did I do from mid-May until now, before my summer vacation? I am co-adviser for a PhD student who has to deliver her thesis by the end of July, plus send her last article for publication so that she can write in her thesis that it has been submitted for publication. I am senior author on that paper, so I have read through and edited the paper several times during the month of June. Additionally, I have read through and edited her thesis for both scientific and grammatical accuracy several times. Most Norwegian students write their theses in English. I believe it is now a requirement, whereas their defense can be in Norwegian, although many choose to defend in English. Most Norwegians speak English well, especially the younger ones who have grown up watching American TV programs and movies, surfing the internet/social media, and listening to music. So it is not a major problem to edit a thesis for correct English usage; it just takes time. But this is what a senior scientist does—it’s part of the job. 

I also wrote a grant proposal that I submitted to the Cancer Society in early June. I spent more than a month reading background articles and writing the proposal, which had to do with treating gastrointestinal cancers with drugs that drive them into a senescent (non-proliferating) state. I was a peer reviewer for an article about treating colorectal cancer with a combination of natural compounds that led to effective tumor kill without killing normal cells, a win-win situation for patients. I was also an external grant reviewer for another country; this is often done—that granting agencies send out grant proposals for external review outside their own country. In this case, I learned a lot about treatment of colorectal cancer with adoptive cell transfer using tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. This is a field I knew only a bit about, but about which I know quite a lot more at this point after having read the proposal and a number of review articles that helped me to understand it so that I could review it properly. I also read and edited an article written by two of my colleagues who asked me to check their review article for correct English usage and grammar. I also read some background articles about ionizing radiation and how it is used in cancer treatment; this was information I found on the American Cancer Society website. I am impressed with the information that is available there to patients and their families, and impressed with the writers who create these articles and brochures. Finally, I printed out a number of review articles about mass spectrometry imaging of tissue samples; this is a cutting-edge technology that has a bright future not only in cancer research, but in pathology generally, as well as in disease treatment, pharmacology and toxicology. I need to learn as much about it as possible in case I travel to visit a medical center in the States that uses this technology successfully in their research projects.

It occurred to me today that I could work as an editor of a scientific journal, as a senior adviser for any number of scientific/political organizations, and as a scientific writer. I do all these things in my job as an academic research scientist, in addition to planning research projects and figuring out how to implement them. One must also figure out how to do all these things on a limited budget if such is the case. Academia is really a creative profession, in more ways than one. 

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