I am a small business owner. Science is my business.

showing-off-a-bacterial-plate

It is an exciting time in my lab, I just got an NIH research grant worth about 1.9 million dollars. WOW!!! I just had two new students start WOW WOW!!! And I just graduated three students WOWOWOW!!!

As a scientist at a research-intensive university, that grant drastically increases my chances on getting tenure, which will allow me even more freedom to hit scientific home runs. But what does it all mean to me and what will the money get used for? For that, you need to understand a bit about how I got hired, what I got when I was hired, and what I need to do to stay hired.

This conversation started when I was talking to my friend Wesley, yep, that Wesley, the guy who got me into blogging. He found out that as a professor, I had to pay myself. Here is the (mostly one sided and slightly modified) conversation we had. First a few details,

1) the grant is over 5 years and of the 1.9 million, I will get 1.25 million or 250,000 per year (which gives off one heck of an ROI). It represents a public investment in trying to find new cures for bacterial infections. The university gets the 650,000 over the 5 years (we call this the indirects) but I’ll get into thatlater.

2) Nowhere near all grants are funded. Depending on the study it can be a low as 6% or as high as 28%. Researchers compete for this money but submitting a plan and having that plan review by experts in the field to make sure it will help science move forward (thats a story for another day).

Ok, here we go.

Wesley: Wait… What? The scientists have to pay themselves?

Me: Oh Wesley…oh my dear Wesley…When I got hired I got a “start-up” package that covers 100% of my salary for 3 years, and then I have to cover 50%. Some places it is 75, some it is 25% (like at land grant institutions), some it is 100% (like Harvard).

My start up package was ****** (we will say between 500,000 and 1,000,000). Think of this as an investment from the university for me to do good research and bring back the indirects I mentioned above. I will get this money is pieces across the first four years. More in the first year and less towards the end. With that money I have to pay people and buy equipment and reagents.

My technician (about 40g with base salary plus benefits), postdoc (about 60 including benefits), and also graduate students (27g per year plus their tuition which is 11 g plus health insurance and other benefits etc. which comes out to about 55g total). Yes, I pay my students tuition and a stipend.

I also buy equipment including the 105,000 plate reader/microscope, the 50,000 protein purifier, and the 65,000 metal detector. Not to mention centrifuges (2-10g), thermocyclers i.e. the thing that makes more DNA on CSI (2-5g), incubators (5-7g), -80 freezers (10g) which luckily, the department was able to give to me without me having to pay (better believe we reuse and recycle). All of these things have, are, and will lead to new scientific breakthroughs in projects that I never thought I would work on with amazing people that I am fortunate to call colleagues and friends.

I have two grad students, one postdoc, and a tech so I’m already at an operating budget of 210,000 per year so long as I have them all in the laboratory. Then starting next year, I have to pay half my salary plus benefits which comes out to about 65g (again using the average assistant professor salaries at research intensive institutions here).

So, without buying any reagents, or equipment, or consumables, or going to meetings, next year, I’m already at 275,000 which is above the 250,000 per year I’ll be getting. Now, our monthly burn rate is about 3,000 so about 36,000 per year for reagents. So, I’m over 300,000 and using up my start-up money to pay for what the grant doesn’t (which I fortunately still have some left so it is sustainable for a period of time).

You invest in the people so you can do the research to get the data for the publications so you can prove that you are being productive with the grant money that you are asking for more of. I also try to get my students funded because it frees up a slot for me to hire someone else to do more research.

Well, that’s where the research money goes and why I need to apply for grants to the National Institutes of Health and other organizations. The University supplies a location and money from my grant called indirect cost. The 650,000 pays for electricity, science core facilities, admins, building maintenance, and much more.

Let me sum up. If I don’t get grants, I can’t pay people, I can’t buy stuff, and worse, I can’t do lifesaving research.

That’s why the grant was a BIG deal.

I am a small business owner. Science is my business.

MDLJ

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I wrote a research article, but what does it mean?!?!?

I am in a room full of keys made of poison (don’t ask why). I grab one poisonous key to open a very specific door, causing me to let go of the slightly different non-poisonous key that has the job of adding an extra lock to the same specific door. This door leads to the tools needed to get rid of the other poisonous keys in the room by producing two tools. One can capture the poisonous key from my hand (or anywhere in the room) and hand it off to tool two, which throw it away out of the room. This continues until all of the poisonous keys are gone or at a low enough amount that I won’t succumb to the poison. The first tool also makes a tiny modification to the poisonous key in order to put said key through the slot of the second tool that gets rid of it. Keeping the door open for no reason is a bad thing (like the fridge door), hence having the non-poisonous key is good to have around which is what I had to let go to grab the poisonous key to open the door. Hence, too much of that non-poisonous key would prevent me from responding well or grab to the poisonous key…But what does it all mean?!?!?

It occurred to me that I wrote a scientific article and didn’t exactly say what I think it means to the field or to people that aren’t in the field. I’d like to take this time to correct that. In October of last year, I published my first senior author research article at the University of Arizona. It was entitled “Copper Chaperone CupA and Zinc Control CopY Regulation of the Pneumococcal cop Operon” in a journal called mSphere, and open access journal through the American Society of Microbiology. Now, before you run away screaming, let me try to explain what all that is. If you only partially understood the first paragraph, then you are in good shape.

Ok let me start by the obligatory, copper is toxic to a variety of bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus (yes, the one there is a vaccine for) and other potentially antibiotic resistant bacteria. We think understanding how copper kills bacteria is important to know so we can figure out how to make copper work better. We also want to know how the bacteria tries to fight back against the copper stress. We know somethings, like they have specialized systems for kicking out copper and these systems could be drug targets.

cupA paper model

The players:

S. pneumoniae has a copper export system, or the cop operon, to export copper (the poisonous key) that consist of an export protein (this exports the copper or the second tool listed above), a chaperone (this guides copper to the exporter for export and is CupA listed in the title, the first tool), and a repressor (this protein makes sure that the bacteria doesn’t make a bunch of proteins it doesn’t need, it, CopY, stops the cop operon from being on until it, see copper, then it releases the DNA so all three proteins can eventually be made aka, me in the story above). Zinc is the non-poisonous key listed. DNA is the door.

The article (which hopefully matches with the story above):

1. I mentioned that copper makes the CopY repression release the DNA, but zinc actually makes the protein clamp down on the DNA. These metals are right by each other on the periodic table so that is quite the effect. We didn’t know that happened with a metal export system before. Adding zinc with copper prevented the repressor from “opening the door” to the operon thus have the effect of killing the bacteria faster than just with copper alone. Copper and zinc make brass so this is known as my super hero name, the Brass Dagger.

2. If you look at the picture, copper II AKA Cu2+ AKA blue lighting (ok the last one is made up) comes into the bacteria, and copper I AKA Cu1+ AKA…well it’s brown like your pipes so…I got nothing…anyway. To get kicked out the cell, it has to be the 1+ version. That 2+ to 1+ is the gain of an electron, a negative charge hence the number going down. We believe that electron has to come from inside the bacteria somehow, but from what and from where? Well, we found that the chaperone (CupA) could give the copper an electron to make it go from Cu2+ to Cu1+. But where is that protein getting electrons from, stay tuned! Or better yet, why does it matter. Loosing electrons has to come at a cost to bacteria and we think trying to keep up with the copper reduction (that’s what adding an electron is called because you are reducing the charge from 2+ to 1+, like adding a negative number). This reduction ends up really harming the bacteria. This chaperone can also take the copper away from the repressor so that it can go back to “shutting the door.”

Hopefully the story above makes a bit more sense now in context.

Cool, can we exploit that? We think so, we hope so, but we need to keep digging. Anyway, that’s the paper. I hope you enjoyed this little review of my laboratory’s recent work. Happy to answer any questions.

Cheers,

MDLJ

Reviewer (Believer Science Parody)

it-stinks

It’s time for another science parody! I’ve been hearing Imagine Dragons Believer and well, like so many songs I hear over and over again, I write some science lyrics for them. Despite the fantastic news that I did indeed get a grant, and a paper accepted in the same week (I could get used to weeks like this), these lyrics focus on the “dark side” of submitting grants. I hope you enjoy it. (Hopefully I’ll get some time to actually sing this one too!)

Reviewer (Believer Science Parody)

First things first
I’m real proud of the grant you just received
It fresh and it says all things I will achieve, oh ooh
The things I will achieve, oh ooh
Second thing second,
I got data that backs up all I said
But page limits stopped me writing all the things inside my head, oh ooh
All the things inside my head, oh ooh

As the ideas came to me
I held them tightly, don’t you flee
I spoke to my scribbles everywhere pleading out
What will work, can it work, will it work, make it work
Blood’s here in these aims
I felt the science in my veins
All these experiments from my brain
I put some down on the paper and then
(Pain)

You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You asked for things I said I’d do, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You say it’s just an incremental gain
And the vagueness in your comments gives me
(Pain)
You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer

Third things third
I got the letters supporting what is here
Now trust, we got cred, so there’s nothing here to fear oh, ooh
There’s nothing here to fear oh, ooh

Get my significance up to par
Oh, my research it will go far
I can expand out of aim three
Trust in the vision I can bring
But they never did, triaged it, saying my research was
limited, done before, and overreaching
And the tears came
They rained down, like
(Pain)

You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You asked for things I said I’d do, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You say it’s just an incremental gain
And the vagueness in your comments gives me
(Pain)
You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer

Last things last
Me and spellcheck we had a little fight
I had to make sure all the acronyms were right, oh ooh
The acronyms were right, oh ooh
But they never did, triaged it, saying my research was
limited, done before, and overreaching
And the tears came
They rained down, like
(Pain)

You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You asked for things I said I’d do, reviewer, reviewer
(Pain)
You say it’s just an incremental gain
And the vagueness in your comments gives me
(Pain)
You tore it up, you broke it down, reviewer, reviewer

Am I my ancestors’ wildest dreams come true?

gggrandmaThere has been a lot going on lately. In the news, on the job, in the home. (Although the first has made me actually weep, the last two have been very good). I think about some parts of my journey (1, 2, & 3), and I have this deep pull of responsibility.

But to what? Is it to my faith? Is it to science? Is it to communicate science? Is it to help as many black people as I can? Is it to help anyone I can? Is it to be a good father? Is it to be a good husband? A good mentor? Just another keyboard warrior? Can I start with just being an adult?

Eyes closed…Breathe…

I recently heard the phrase “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams come true” and wondered if I actually was just that, a dream come true for them. Looking back, so many people helped me fight the battle to get where I am and I sometimes worry I am not paying it back or forward enough. What lurks behind the smile is imposter syndrome 2.0 where I can’t even pretend to be something if I don’t know what that is.

Eyes closed…Breathe…

This is a lot of pressure to put on one’s self. But if I could just get that science grant, I could help so many people. If I could just convince them that they should eat their vegetables, the could grow healthy and strong. If I could just convince them that vaccines are good, then so many lives could be spared. If I could just convince them that there aren’t always fine people on many sides, then maybe I could live without some of the fear.

Eyes closed…Breathe…

If I talked to an ancestor, how would the conversation go? What questions do you think I would get?

“You made it through college?”

“Yes Sir!”

“They call you doctor?”

“Yes Ma’am!”

“They call you professor?”

“Yes Sir!”

“You got white people working for you?”

“Yes Ma’am, and a Nigerian, Mexican, and Indian?

“Well, is there still racism?”

“Not as much as when you were alive, but unfortunately yes. Your 
battles and scars were not in vain.”

“Well, I’m proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself.”

And just like that, you imagine the warmth of the past. It surrounds you and comforts you like a spiral ham sandwich on white bread a few days after Christmas dinner or a peach cobbler, with the good crust, and ice cream on top that soothes the soul. Even if not heard, I needed to at least imagine that last line. Some of you did too.

But some of your ancestors reading this would not be so pleased with you. And for that I say thank you for fighting with us.

Eyes open…Breathe

I sometimes feel so overwhelmed with what I feel I should be, that I forget to enjoy who I am. I should be proud of where I am. I should be proud of what I have become. I should take the time to enjoy me, and those around me. That doesn’t mean we aren’t fighting, hustling, researching, praying, parenting, mentoring machines that we can be, it just means that we should breathe sometimes.

It is time for our “shoulds” to become our “will dos”, and I for one, am starting now.

Ordinary Science

I really like John Legend, and LOVE Ordinary People. Turns out, that is a hard song to sing. In what would be guaranteed to make Randy Jackson say “some areas were a bit pitchy dawg” I dusted off the old pipes and gave it a try with a scientific spin on the lyrics. Is it perfect, no, but neither is science. We never pretend to be. You know what though, we are trying to help people and “you get from it what you sow.” I hope you enjoy it!

In case you were wondering, the pin says “Hope @ NIH” 🙂

Also, if you want to read some of my other science parodies here is Please Accept (to Let it Go), A Whole New Lab (to A Whole New World), and Hallelujah.

Lyrics

Ordinary Science

(Adapted from Ordinary People by John Legend)

My daughter was really sick
We wished we could heal her quick
She had that cancer in her brain
We’re waitin’ to see the doc
Ain’t no time for idle talk
We need a cure like yesterday

They read her DNA, these mutations don’t play
And they formulated a plan
Was two different cancers
With new sci advances
And help from the bench they will save my ‘lil baby girl

It’s just ordinary science
It finds cures for folks you know
‘Cause it’s ordinary science
You get from it what you sow

What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow
What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow

My daughter was ill once more
Fever higher than seen before
The chemo made her compromised
What infection could be
These things are hard to see
Docs studied up to get advised

Examine consult
To find the result
That would get my ‘lil girl out of bed
Bacterial advances with bad circumstances
Translational med stopped it cold before further spread

It’s just ordinary science
It finds cures for folks you know
‘Cause it’s ordinary science
You get from it what you sow

What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow
What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow

What you sow
Maybe you’ll vaccinate
Maybe before too late
Maybe you will, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll tempt fate
Please let us fight the fight
For cures that are in sight
Will science grow
We just don’t know it’s up to you and I

It’s just ordinary science
It finds cures for folks you know
‘Cause it’s ordinary science
You get from it what you sow

It’s just ordinary science
It finds cures for folks you know
‘Cause it’s ordinary science
You get from it what you sow

What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow
What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow
What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow
What you sow, ohh
You get from it what you sow

-MDLJ

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (A Science Version)

cohen

This one felt good to write. It hit on my personal story (1 & 2) and addresses some things I feel about the scientific craft, fellow scientists, and the public perception of both. I kept hearing Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. It was on SNL, there is a Pentatonix version. As when I hear songs over and over again, I write lyrics to get them out of my head. I plan on singing so stay tuned and I will link the video once I do. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing the lyrics.

Hallelujah (A Science Version)

I started out a music man
That wrote the songs and led the band
Until I heard a voice that led to you
I overdressed, I met the chair
I got the job, with help from prayer
My science mission started Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I entered lab, green as can be
I tried to learn things desperately
What drives these science souls to want to help you
Was love not pride that drove the lot
With this I gave it all I got
The knowledge started growing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Now we are ordinary folks
The warmth we have is not a hoax
We do our best yet little, is known to you
But in competition and trends we waste
The limited number of funds we face
While we fight for diseased and broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

To seek discoveries untold
I learned my questions must be bold
And collaborative communities are essential
So I made the call to take up arm
To follow data and do no harm
And hope to find some answers Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I sit here now with lab in hand
A scientific kind of band
And all we really want to do is help you
Within the realm of vaccine’s parch
Each cure is not a victory march
For there are those still hurting Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

MDLJ

Jumping into the Deep End of Science

I have this memory of when I was two or three years old. I have a floaty on me, but I have to jump into the water. I’m sure I was only two feet above the water and I was jumping towards an adult in the pool, but for me, it seemed to be 20 feet into swirling pool of sharks with laser beams on their heads.

laserbeam-sharkI was terrified. I was crying. But I jumped.

I don’t remember much about swimming until much later and by that time, I was already jumping into the deep end with a clear knowledge of knowing how to swim. Touching the bottom of the pool for fun and things of that nature. Swan dives and failed flips turned back and belly flops. I was comfortable in the pool. It took a while I’m sure, but I had to get over that initial fear by making that initial jump.

Recently, I jumped into a pool of a different sort. The pool of senior author research articles and major grant writing. This time, it is not a fear of drowning, but a fear of failure (although drowning under the shear amount of emails might be a real thing). But by becoming a PI, I knew this day would come. Not that I was just dipping my foot in the pool before, but these are bigger waters, bigger fish, and bigger stakes.

I just got back my first corresponding author research article paper review back and…um…it…um…well…at least the first reviewer and editor were kind, supportive, and helpful, but yeah, it didn’t go so well. I’ll refrain from talking about reviewer #2. Also asked someone to review my grant. Again, great, helpful, but soul crushing comments.

I am just fortunate that for this jump, I had a floaty. I had mentorship. I had someone I could ask for help. I had someones I could ask (and I’m sure they would point out the flaws in that last sentence). Do you have a floaty? If you don’t please try to find one. Try nrmnet.net, look for #BLACKandSTEM on twitter, go to your grad office, your boss, or just find a senior person and ask them (sometimes, it really is that simple). Engage the community you are in so you don’t have to recreate the mountain every time. Stand on shoulders, don’t succumb to the weight.

Even when it is the very nature of your position to jump, it is good to get the first one out of the way. It was exhilarating despite the outcome. It was terrifying, but maybe not as scarring as when I was younger (and clearly without the sharks with laser beams). Hopefully, because of the willingness to jump, and by finding floaties, I’ll be doing belly flops with a few low scored swan dives in no time.

MDLJ