Managing a Lab: The Parts You Won’t Learn in Class

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Panelists (L-R) Sally Kornbluth, Jessica Monserrate, Mohamed Noor and Susan Smith (Photo: David Steinbrenner)

By Erin Weeks

For many researchers in training, making it as a scientist involves the dream of one day running their own lab. But becoming the head of a laboratory takes far more than research chops — you’ve got to have serious people skills, too.

A March 13 panel called “Managing a Lab: Insights from Academia and Industry” advised an auditorium of Duke postdocs and PhD students on how to meet the management challenges they may face one day as principal investigators (PI). “Effective lab management can be as crucial to career success as the research itself,” the description for the session read.

Sally Kornbluth, Vice Dean for Basic Sciences at Duke Medicine and Duke’s provost-elect, drew from her own experience as a PI as she walked the audience through the nitty-gritty of building a lab from the ground up.

“The lab takes on the style of the PI,” she said. The job of the lab head is to set its scientific direction, obtain grant money and hire the right people.

PIs have to make decisions about what kind of leader they want to be — how accessible do they want to be? How will they motivate their lab members? How will they deal with difficult personnel situations? Some of these questions will be determined by the lead scientist’s personality, Kornbluth said, but others may require trial and error to figure out.

The panel, put on by the Office of Postdoctoral Services, included three other lab managers representing both academia and industry: Mohamed Noor, professor and chair of the biology department; Jessica Monserrate, a scientist at Bayer CropScience and former Duke postdoc; and Susan Smith, a scientific investigator at Stiefel and also former Duke and Duke Med postdoc.

The speakers fielded questions reflecting anxieties about the work climate many students and postdocs will soon enter, in which grant budgets are shrinking and PI positions are highly competitive. But the audience also asked evergreen questions about careers in science, like how to keep up lab morale and balance research with family life.

“Choose your spouse very wisely,” Kornbluth said, drawing laughs.

Sally Kornbluth, Duke's soon-to-be Provost, talks about managing a lab. The talk will be available online soon.

Sally Kornbluth, Duke’s soon-to-be provost, talks about managing a lab (Photo: David Steinbrenner). The talk will be available online soon.

Aphasia: Acceptance, Hope, Purpose

By Sonal Gagrani

Imagine having a head full of things to say, but not being able to articulate them. This is the life of Carl McIntyre.

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courtesy of aphasiathemovie.com

There is a three-hour window of opportunity after the initiation of a stroke in which it can be effectively treated. However, when a stroke hit Carl McIntyre, those three hours passed before he could be safely withdrawn from danger. His ability to speak and understand became heavily impaired, a condition known as aphasia. In order to raise awareness of this condition that affects not only him, but almost 40% of the people who suffer a stroke, he starred as himself in a film called Aphasia. Carl McIntyre came himself to speak at Duke for Brain Awareness Week following a screening of his film.

BAW logoAphasia is a group of communication disorders that affect the language centers of the brain causing impairments in speech, speech comprehension, reading and writing. It tends to arise with damage of some part of the brain, often due to a stroke, brain tumors, or neurodegenerative diseases.

McIntyre expressed powerfully that, “what happens to one, happens to two.” The aphasia affects not only him but his entire family. Life felt as if it was over, loving was difficult; he felt “trapped inside of his head.” Having a reservoir full of thoughts that he was unable to empty due to this inability to communicate could be eternally frustrating. Aphasia patients often are cognitively intact, but have trouble expressing what they want to say. McIntyre occasionally used a whiteboard to write down words he was struggling to say or stumbled on the first sounds of words.

Carl McIntyreBut rather than letting the aphasia control the way that he lived, McIntyre worked hard to restore his language capabilities and spread awareness of the challenges that inflicted individuals must face. Most importantly, McIntyre expressed the importance of keeping hope.

He explained that the first step to having a positive outlook on his condition was to accept the “old Carl was dead.” The next was to keep hope that his life could continue as normal as possible – that the condition would not impair his lifestyle. Last, he expressed the importance of having a sense a purpose by picking up hobbies and not losing all meaning in life. Carl strives to have a strong sense of self despite the adversities he and his family has had to face and inspires others to understand and do just this.

 

Sign Up For Datafest 2014 to Work on Mystery Big Data

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Heads up Duke undergrads and graduate students — here’s an opportunity to hang out in the beautifully renovated Gross Hall, get creative with your friends using big data and compete for cash prizes and statistics fame.

Datafest, a data analysis competition that started at UCLA, is in its third year in the Triangle. Every year, a mystery client provides a dataset that teams can analyze, tinker with and visualize however they’d like over the course of a weekend. Think hackathon, but for data junkies.

“The datasets are bigger and more complex than what you’ll see in a classroom, but they’re of general interest,” said organizer Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel, an assistant professor of the practice in the Duke statistics department. “We want to encourage students from all levels.”

Last year’s mystery client was online dating website eHarmony (you can read about it here), and teams investigated everything from heightism to Myers-Briggs personality matches in online dating. In 2012, the dataset came from Kiva, the  microlending site.

This year’s dataset provider will be revealed on the first day of Datafest. Sign up ends this Friday, March 7, Monday, March 10, so assemble your team and register here!

 

My Brain and Your Brain Speak Different Languages

By Clara Colombatto

The fact that “different people speak language differently” is one of the major challenges in uncovering the neural basis of language. Brain structure and function differ highly among individuals, and this is the core of the new discipline of cognitive neurolinguistics. Duke professor Edna Andrews explained the fascinating complexity of language research at the Regulator Bookshop on Tuesday, March 4.

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week Credit: Clara Colombatto

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week (Photo: Clara Colombatto)

A linguist by training, Edna Andrews is the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Distinguished Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies, Chair of the Linguistics Program and holds appointments in Cultural Anthropology and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Over time, Andrews’s research interests led her to neuroscience — so she went back to the classroom, studied as a beginning student with neurobiologist Gillian Einstein and shadowed a team of neurosurgeons at Duke Hospital.

This range of disciplines is fundamental for Andrews’ pioneering work in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics. Observations of brain-damaged patients led to a 19th century model that held that language centers are mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain. In particular, language was thought to be dependent on grey matter, the part of the brain that contains mostly cell bodies and is responsible for information processing, as opposed to white matter, which contains mainly long-range connection tracts (axons) and is responsible for information communication. Researchers realized this understanding was an oversimplification when surgeons started to notice that cutting white matter tracts alone significantly impaired linguistic abilities. New methods, such as electrical stimulation of the brain during surgeries in awake patients, led to the realization that the whole brain is involved in language.

White matter fiber tracts of a human brain visualized with a Tensor Imaging technique. The U-shaped fibers connect the two hemispheres. The finding that these tracts are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics because language was previously thought to be localized to gray matter in the left hemisphere. Credit: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons

White matter fiber tracts visualized with a tensor imaging technique. Findings that the fibers  connecting the two hemispheres are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics.
(Photo: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons)

When theoretical linguists such as Andrews joined the conversation, they merged empirical data with theory to answer questions such as, is language learned or innate? Are there specific structures and localized circuits in the brain responsible for language? And are there critical periods where our brain is particularly sensitive to changes?

The picture is complicated by the fact that “most of the world population is bi or multilingual,” and “one could argue that in fact there are no monolinguals.” In our daily lives, we use different languages at school, at work and at home (Learn more about this hypothesis here). Andrews’ current work addresses these complexities by looking at changes in neural activity as individual speakers acquire Russian as a second or third language. Her latest book “Neuroscience and Multilingualism,” coming out at the end of the year from Cambridge University Press, is an exploration of the neuroscientific modeling of multilingualism.

The lecture was part of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to encourage public interest in the progress and benefits of brain research. Not to miss: Michele Diaz on “Language and the Aging Brain” on Thursday, 3/5 at 7:30pm, and Richard Mooney on “Music and the Brain” on Friday, 3/6 at 6 pm at Motorco Music Hall.

Students DiVE into the Body to Learn about Addiction

By: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explains the mechanics of the DiVe. Credit: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explains the mechanics of the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

There are not many six-sided, immersive virtual environments in the world–but one of them is at Duke.

Students had the opportunity to dive into pharmacology visualizations with Dr. Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom last week during a tour of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE). She explained that the 3D in the DiVE is different from the 3D of a typical movie theater: the glasses have a refresh rate that’s out of sync between the two eyes.

It’s like being inside of a video game. You use a Nintendo-like wand and press buttons to interact with the environment.

We walked through two simulations modeling different aspects of addiction. In the first, we learned why some people are more likely to become alcoholics than others. In the second, we observed the brain changes that underpin addiction to nicotine.

We dove right into the body of an avatar drinking a beer. Some people metabolize alcohol differently than others, depending on their genetic code, Schwartz-Bloom explained.

The simulation was created by a team of students working with Schwartz-Bloom: she assembled a team of students studying biology, chemistry, computer science, electrical and computer engineering and visual arts. They worked together for a year to build the simulation, which explains how alcohol gets oxidized depending on genetics and whether the changes in metabolism increase or decrease the risk for alcoholism.

Students dragging NAD into the active site of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme in the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

Students dragging NAD into the active site of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme in the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explained the advantages of learning about this reaction with a 3D visualization. “Students made this as a game so that others could go in there to make the changes happen – they’d have to grab and move the atoms. The game gives students a real sense of why you need zinc and NAD for this chemical reaction,” Schwartz-Bloom said.

Through the second visualization, we realized why smokers who are addicted generally increase their consumption of cigarettes over time. We saw how repeated exposure to nicotine changes the brain, causing smokers to need more cigarettes over time to get the same pleasurable feelings. The tool can be used in schools to educate students how smoking actually changes the brain, Schwartz-Bloom said.

In the DiVE, I felt like I was on the Magic School Bus, jumping right into the action to learn about pharmacology principles! Free group tours are available at the DiVE between 4:30 and 5:30 on Thursdays.

Deconstructing the HS Textbook: A perspective from Steve Nowicki

Nowicki's original version of his textbook, published by the family-owned McDougall-Littell. Nowicki railed against the organization of the new corporation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, owned by people somewhere in the Arab Emirates.

Nowicki’s original version of his textbook, published by the family-owned McDougall-Littell. It’s now published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

By Olivia Zhu

Today I learned that Steve Nowicki wrote my ninth grade biology textbook! Dr. Nowicki, most commonly known for his neurobiology research in birdsong or his role as Dean and Vice Provost for undergraduate education, gave a lecture about his experience writing a high school textbook on Tuesday, February 11, through Bass Connections.

Nowicki shed light into the seven-year process of writing a textbook.  He said the table of contents itself took two years. After drafting an initial table of contents, Nowicki sent it to nationwide teacher focus groups—multiple times—for revisions. He then edited the table of contents to meet each individual state’s standards, a process complicated by No Child Left Behind. As for the actual writing process? “I could send the editors crap,” Nowicki confessed. The editors would then turn crap into “better crap.”

Dean Nowicki's official portrait

Dean Nowicki’s official portrait

Nowicki then faced more challenges. He described the struggle of biology textbook companies against the Texas state government, whose governor and chair of state education simply did not believe in evolution. The legislature ultimately allowed the teaching of evolution, mostly in the interest of attracting businesses, in Nowicki’s opinion. The opposition got personal as well. Nowicki said that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, competing textbook companies spread smear sheets about him questioning his credentials as a scientist and the quality of his book.

Ultimately, Nowicki put forth tremendous effort into writing a textbook that still stands as the biology book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but said it did little for his CV and didn’t turn much profit.

Still, he said he feels rewarded because he believes “each average citizen should know something about biology,” if only to be thoroughly informed of current issues.