Thursday, July 16, 2015

Adventures of an itinerant scientist- what doing science in 3 countries has taught me

Submitted By: Sumantra Chatterjee
Department/Affiliation: McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine
                                    Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


I still remember the moment when I realized I wanted to be a biologist. My high school biology teacher was showing us a time-lapse video of a developing frog embryo. How could a single spherical cell become a whole tadpole that looked nothing like the cell at all?! As they said, I was hooked.

My undergraduate and masters degree programs in India allowed me to do some basic research, but we still followed the rote style of education, which mostly was consisted of memorizing a whole lot of facts and regurgitating them in exams- commit to the memory, vomit to the paper- as we used to call it. A generation of Indian scientists has had such grounding. Although at that time we complained about how useless the system was in preparing us for an “experimental” future, we failed to appreciate that it taught us the value of understanding the details. My education in basic biology has given me a fundamental understanding, which has helped me to this day. As I swim in the ocean of large genomic data, this knowledge keeps me afloat and helps me to segregate the truly useful data from the junk.

As I was contemplating what to do next after my masters degree and, like most Indians of my generation, looking westward for the pursuit of a higher degree (brain drain as it is known), I came to know from a friend that Singapore was investing heavily in biomedical research as part of building a knowledge-based economy. Since she knew I did “something in biology”, she encouraged me to look at it. The only thing I knew about Singapore in those days was that it was great for shopping, had a huge port, canned an American boy for vandalism, and banned chewing gum, no good reason to think that any science was been done there, let alone high-end biomedical research. But the more I read about the expansive plans the Singapore government had to promote research, the more impressed I became. In addition to its two big universities, it had created a hub of 8 research institutes all centrally funded in billions. As I kept hearing horror stories (some vastly exaggerated no doubt) about how funding cuts had left many students struggling in the US, my westward journey suddenly took an eastward turn.

I found myself on a tiny island one degree north of the equator to get a PhD. Like a small town boy coming to the big city for the first time, I was blinded by the “opulence” of Singapore science. In India I had to seek approvals from 3 different administrators, just to buy a $10 reagent. Here I could order $3000 reagents and nobody batted an eyelid. For the first time, I saw what big science and big data was. I saw how ideas could flow freely and most of the time get done when unshackled from the grant writing cycle. My boss, who was a professor in the US, before moving to Singapore, encouraged us to think big and learn as many skills as we could. Nobody ever said no to any project. As a young, naïve graduate student, this was the best of times for me. I hungrily lapped up as many skills as I could master. I learned how to establish animal models and how to design and carry out large-scale genomics experiments. Again, for the first time, I learned that it was all right to scientifically challenge senior professors. I learned how to ask relevant questions and how to find solutions. I realized the value of true collaborative, cross- disciplinary research and how quickly science moved if everybody pulled in the right direction.

But there were no free lunches. The Singapore government was very clear that it wanted commercial returns from this unprecedented funding in basic biomedical research in 10-years time. This was my first exposure to academic institutes being run like corporations and introduction to terms like KPI (key performance indicator) and KOL (key opinion leaders). It was an eye opener for me that basic science can also be seen as engine for economic growth of a country. Maybe what I was seeing was a glimpse into the future of basic research and how it would be a struggle if we all didn’t adapt.

As I completed my PhD, my thoughts again turned westward and the need to move. While I was looking around for labs another fortuitous incident happened. I went to a seminar and heard a human geneticist talking about how many genes have now been associated with diseases but they have no way to actually identify what goes wrong with these genes. I realized that while I, as a developmental biologist, studying gene functions but never stopping to seriously link them to diseases, human geneticist find genes linked to diseases but don’t know how to determine their functions. It was yet another revelation how different disciplines in biology worked side by side without communicating and end up reinventing the wheel.

I turned my attention to human genetics labs in the US and started applying and boasting to the PIs that I was the right person to quickly ascertain functions of disease genes (how naive and pompous). I guess my current PI decided that I was the right kind of crazy person he was looking for and offered me a job.

So from a tiny prosperous island near the equator, I landed into Baltimore, a city on the Atlantic coast of the US. I knew of Johns Hopkins, I knew of Francis Scott Key writing the national anthem here. Of course, I had seen The Wire (maybe subconsciously as a survival guide). But nothing prepared me for the early shock of coming to a city, which was clearly going through a rough time. Though I must say over the years I have discovered some charm in this city and its people.

My journey in science so far has been interesting. I have seen the good and bad side of NIH funding. I have observed the crazed look on professors with looming RO1 deadlines, the negative impact it has on lab members when everybody’s job are tied to getting that grant. I have also witnessed the death of some big ideas because no one would ever fund them. On the other hand, I have also seen the desire to think out of the box to circumvent the monetary issues, the pooling of resources and ideas to make that one big idea work. I have seen a genuine desire to do research just for the sake of research. It amazes me that when basic scientists and physicians come together, magic happens. But I am also witnessing a concerted push by NIH for more translational research and dollar returns. I see an insincere effort by many scientists to work outside their comfort zone and having a myopic vision.

So what have I truly learned in my wanderings across countries? I have learned that science is constantly changing. You cannot deny the fact that more and more funding agencies around the world are demanding return on their investments. The very nature of research and training are changing and demands are being made to produce big data on limited resources that is also beneficial to society. It would require a concerted effort from both the scientific community and the funding agencies to sit together and reach the common ground. But it would require us to accept that we need to adapt and evolve with the times. “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It's time to start thinking.” Said Ernest Rutherford to his lab members. 

Maybe the time has come for us to start thinking.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Useful Baby Items

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Department/Affiliation: FM Kirby Research Center / Radiology

Having a baby seems to be quite common among many of our postdoc friends. Here are a few products that some our parents find especially useful:

Miscellaneous Useful Items

  • Avent Soothie pacifiers. Many babies will want to suck on something to be soothed, even when they aren't necessarily hungry. These pacifiers have an open back, which lets you stick your finger into the nipple and wiggle it around, convincing a crying baby to suck on the pacifier and quiet down. Touching the pacifier to the roof of the baby's mouth will also encourage the baby to accept the pacifier.
  • Pacifier clip. We like JJ Cole pacifier clips, which have an easily-attached non-metal clip, which is like a chip-clip.
  • Nose-Frida Snot-Sucker. The concept sounds a bit gross -- use your mouth to suction out your kid's snot -- but they have a filter to prevent mucus from going through the tube, and you're able to control the power of the suction, which makes it quite handy and portable). Before using the snot sucker, it helps to put a few drops of saline into your kid's stuffy nose, so that the boogers become a bit more liquid-y and easy to suck out.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Baltimore: Finding a Roommate

Submitted By: MB Nebel
Department/Affiliation: Kennedy Krieger Institute

I’ve lived in Baltimore for a little over three years, but for various reasons, this past month I found myself in search of a new place to live. When I first moved to Baltimore from North Carolina, I contacted a bunch of people looking for roommates on Craigslist and eventually found a great row house (and a great roommate) in Federal Hill. My original Bmore roommate also gave me a really helpful piece of advice for picking a neighborhood: you don’t want to live on a deserted street. If people are outside walking around, it’s because they feel safe doing so. There are always people out and about in Federal Hill; it’s not the most convenient neighborhood as far as getting to and from the East Baltimore campus is concerned, but my schedule is pretty flexible, and I wouldn’t trade riding the (free and always on-time) Harbor Connector to work everyday for anything. 

Anyway, this past Friday on my way home from work, I went to check out another apartment and to meet a potential roommate. We’ll call the person looking for a new roommate “Amy.” She’s a young professional whose job requires her to be away from Baltimore three weeks out of every month. Her current roommate, “Michele” is an undergrad and is about to graduate. When I arrived at the apartment, both Amy and Michele were in the kitchen. Amy proceeded to ask Michele if it was okay if she showed me her bedroom. Michele asked for us to wait just a minute while she went in first to tidy up a bit. Michele was only in her room for 2 minutes at most, and when she came back into the living room, she asked me to pardon the mess in her room, as she was getting ready to bring a bunch of stuff home. I told her not to worry about it, and I walked into her room; it wasn't any messier than mine. 


While I was trying to figure out which direction her window faced, I started to open one of her closet doors. After safety, closet size is probably my next biggest concern. Initially only seeing the inside of the closet in my peripheral vision, I thought to myself "Does she have a mannequin in her closet?" And then it moved! And I realized it wasn't a mannequin; it was a guy hiding in her closet! I took a little step back and let out a quiet "oh" as the man hiding in the closet raised his finger to his mouth to indicate to me to be quiet. Amy hadn’t followed me into the room; she was standing in the doorway, and luckily, my face was blocked from her view by the now-open closet door. I quickly closed the door and went back into the living room struggling to think of anything to say other than "There's a man hiding in your roommate's closet." Amy took me on a tour of the rest of the apartment building - the patio on the 9th floor and the gym on the first floor and whatnot - and the whole time, all I wanted to do was tell someone/anyone/everyone that I just found a guy hiding in a closet because that just happened! It was not a dream or a figment of my imagination. Should I have told Amy? Did Michele know? I’m assuming that’s the real reason Michele went into the bedroom before me, but who was he and why did she tell him to hide in the closet? If it was some sort of roommate test, I guess I failed. Oh well. I’ll just add “men hiding in the closet” to my list of apartment deal-breakers.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Interested in Interviews? Part 03: Your Interview

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Department/Affiliation: Radiology / F.M. Kirby Research Center

After finally getting that oh-so-elusive academic degree, we then need to figure out how to get a job. Whether you're trying to get an interview or get the offer, here are a few things to think about: showcasing your skillscustomizing your application, and brainstorming your interview answers.

Part 03: Your Interview

Research the job and organization, so that you're familiar with the lingo (e.g., if you're interviewing for the FDA, find out what a "PMA" is). See which things they emphasize on their websites, and get a feel for how you may fit into the work environment. Also think of a few questions that you may have for the interviewer -- what's an example of a "typical" day on the job? What sorts of things would you want to improve about your job?

The best way to prepare for an interview is to practice -- especially with a real, live person. Schedule a mock interview with the Professional Development Office to figure out what sorts of questions you may need to answer, and/or look through the questions below. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Interested in Interviews? Part 02: Your Application

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Department/Affiliation: Radiology / F.M. Kirby Research Center

After finally getting that oh-so-elusive academic degree, we then need to figure out how to get a job. Whether you're trying to get an interview or get the offer, here are a few things to think about: showcasing your skillscustomizing your application, and brainstorming your interview answers.


Part 02: Your Application

Now that you've got a pretty good skill set, how do you showcase yourself? Well, at the least, potential employers will want to see your résumé or curriculum vitae, along with a cover letter. 

A résumé is a summary of the skills that you're bringing to an organization, so don't forget to customize each résumé for each job that you apply to. Oftentimes, a non-technical person will be searching through applications to find someone that may match a particular job, so sprinkle your résumé with words or phrases from the job description. You may want to include a "Summary of Qualifications" that summarizes how your skills will be useful to that particular organization. Also look at the job description's requirements; for example, some government positions want to know how many hours you worked per week on a particular project. Limit your résumé to two pages maximum, or only one page for some consulting jobs.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Interested in Interviews? Part 01: Your Skills

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Department/Affiliation: Radiology / F.M. Kirby Research Center

After finally getting that oh-so-elusive academic degree, we then need to figure out how to get a job. Whether you're trying to get an interview or get the offer, here are a few things to think about: showcasing your skills, customizing your application, and brainstorming your interview answers.

Part 01: Your Skills

Most job applications require your résumé. The first step is to actually have things that you can put on your résumé. These not only look good, but also give you something to talk about at the interview. Join some of the extracurricular governing bodies or nonprofit organizations, like the JohnsHopkins PostDoctoral Association or Association of Women in Science, which let you organize events, create resources, and/or meet lots of interesting people. Leadership positions not only teach you how to manage people and resources, but also help make an impact on the community.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Some time in Baltimore

Submitted By: Sonali Sengupta 
Department/Affiliation: Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center

Hi! I am Sonali who joined Hopkins as a postdoc just a year ago, in fact, on September 17, 2012. I am from New Delhi. I visited the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. To my surprise I found the entry free. 

 Baltimore Museum of Art is a veritable impressionist lovers delight. A day is not enough. In fact one day for one room. One can spend hours poring over the details of Renoir, Monet, Pissaro….!!! Walters.. WOW…. Each room or hall represents a different part of the world. There is Japanese Art, Chinese Porcelain, Faberge eggs , sculpture from India showing Bodhisattvas, Vishnu etc, Dutch Art, African art… Can spend hours over there. 

Listening to the Baltimore Symphony orchestra, especially the animated characters of “the Nutcracker“ has been a delight. 

Strolling down Inner Harbor, seeing the calm placid water and the boats, going to Ripleys Believe it Or Not, Barnes and Noble.. yes its been nice. 

McCormick and Schicks dining is nice if you want to try Baltimore crab…Overall a pleasurable experience. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Downtown Sushi Spots

Submitted By: Issel
Department/Affiliation: Radiology / FM Kirby Center

Baltimore has a surprisingly good selection of sushi places. Here are a few of our particular favorites:
Nanami Cafe: Crispy Roll,
Spider Roll, Crunch Roll (Yum!)
  • Nanami Cafè: This place has a great selection of sushi, with indoor cushions/tables and outdoor seating, located on the end of S. Ann Street in Fells Point next to the Urban Pirate Cruise. Our favorite is the Crispy Roll, which features smoked eel tempura and avocado on the inside, with a mountain of crunchy fried shrimp on top. The Crunch Roll, a fried tempura roll with smoked salmon, avocado, and eel is also quite delicious. (See photo.)

  • Sticky Rice: With a website URL of "bmoresticky.com," this quirky Fells Point fixture features Asian fusion, with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. (Vegan sushi?? Yes, indeed.) That said, our <3s belong to the "Drawn and Buttered" roll, which contains shrimp tempura, cucumber, and lump crab meat -- instead of the typical soy sauce, you can dip your sushi into melted butter. It's like a mini crab feast. The tater tots are totally yummy, too. LivingSocial often has discounts (i.e., buy $15 and get $30 to spend at Sticky Rice), which we totally recommend perusing.

  • Chiu's Sushi: Next to Whole Foods in the Inner Harbor, with good specials and bento boxes. Note that if you buy something at Whole Foods, you can park for two hours for free in the parking garage connected to the building.

  • Minato: Located in Mt. Vernon, this restaurant has a pretty good Happy Hour from Monday to Friday from 5p - 7pm (dine-in only), where the special maki rolls are $7.00 each.

  • Ra Sushi: This place is pretty expensive, so we only go for the happy hour, which is Monday through Saturday from 3pm to 7pm, which features heavily discounted sushi (salmon nigiri, Viva Las Vegas Roll), appetizers (grilled short ribs), and tapas (garlic citrus yellowtail).
More suggestions? We'd love to hear them! Feel free to submit a blog post with your own recommendations! :)

Monday, August 19, 2013

JHPDA Events: BBQ at Gunpowder State Park

Submitted By: Nadège
Department/Affiliation: Radiology / DMIP

One month ago, the JHPDA's International Committee organized a BBQ at Hammerman Beach in Gunpowder State Park, a very nice place only 20 minutes away from Baltimore. Activities there include kayaking, swimming at the beach, wind-surfing...

There are plenty of grills that you can use on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want to spend a day with a group of friends, you can also rent a pavilion. The entrance fee is only $5 per person, which varies with the season. You'll find a lot of information in the Maryland State Park website, along with information about other state parks. For example, you can also go inner-tubing down the river in the other portion of Gunpowder State Park.

We had a lot of fun doing kayaking, stand-up paddling, and sharing food coming from various countries: India, China, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Japan, Bulgaria, France, and the USA.

It was a wonderful day, meeting new friends and welcoming new International Postdocs. Introducing people is one of the goals of the Johns Hopkins PostDoctoral Association, so if you have more ideas or suggestions for activities, please let us know (email postdoc@jhmi.edu)! Many of our past events can be found on the JHPDA website: https://sites.google.com/site/hopkinspostdocs/gallery

Review: Some not-to-be-missed Canton area eateries

Submitted By: C. Pettigrew

It’s hard to deny that Baltimore has many wonderful pubs and restaurants – something my husband and I were excited to learn when we moved here. So many, in fact, that we’re still exploring them, attempting to find a new place each week. Despite the new, untried possibilities, we have a few ‘go-to’ places for when we're too tired or uncreative to explore. Some of our personal hidden (or perhaps not) favorites are:
  • Adam’s Eve: This charming, brilliant gastropub is situated just near the Canton/Brewer’s Hill border on the corner of S Highland and Foster. Their full bar has a great rotating craft beer selection, and every meal we’ve had there has been fantastic. Great atmosphere, creative menu, reasonable prices. A must try? Their duck fat fries. (Given 4.2/5 stars on google, out of 55 reviews.)
    • Update as of 8/20/13, Adam's Eve is using a smaller summer menu. [Duck fat fries are not an option, but duck fat tots are! Also quite good.]  
  • Annabel Lee Tavern: If you’re looking for an excellent tavern atmosphere, check out Annabel Lee. The unique character of this place is based on Edgar Allan Poe, and the bartenders are some of the friendliest around. Their large selection of daily specials can be accompanied by various original cocktails, and intimate dinners are possible (but not required – it is a tavern, after all). At the corner of Fleet and Clinton in Canton, this oftentimes packed venue has unique charm that will leave you coming back for more. (Given 4.4/5 stars on google, out of 188 reviews.) 
  • Bistro Rx: Situated on the northeast side of Patterson Park, this charming bistro has just been named the 2013 Best of Baltimore winner for “Best Deals”. The varied menu, good selection of wines, continually rotating beers on tap, and accessible parking (given the proximity to Patterson Park) leave little excuse not to try this place at least once. Limited outdoor seating is available in nice weather seasons, but outdoor seats fill up quickly; when inside, be sure to check out the walls, which are adorned with local art. (Given 4.1/5 stars on google, out of 32 reviews.)