Friday, January 15, 2016

Belated New Year 2016...

Twas the night before tenure, and as I lay in bed
Visions of failure danced in my head.
Reflecting back over the past 6 years,
I remembered the challenges, thrills, and fears.

Returning to clinical practice, for one,
After years of just getting my gels to run
And putting the EM and AFM to action
Looking for oligomers in FFF fractions;
Now it was back to taking patient histories
And trying to solve their clinical mysteries.
The hospital was a maze but I was on my feet soon,
Although I did get lost in the emergency room…

Neither my office or house had internet or phone
To submit my first grant, I sat all alone
At night in my car in the cold so I
Could use my laptop and the Good Earth’s WiFi.

Because of my chosen research vocation,
My lab and office were in an invisible location.
“Environmental Engineering?” asked Med IT…
“Yes, the Centre for Prions, that’s me”…
“I don’t think we support you way over there.”
That’s reassuring… Nice to know people care…

But, grants were funded, at least at first,
And I figured I had seen the worst.
Little did I know that was just the start;
Tenure track’s not for the faint of heart.

Building completion was stuck in a rut,
Construction crews didn’t know who was supposed to do what.
Then biosafety approval was an epic tale
That moved along at the pace of a snail.
Our prion protocols were much too lax
Even though prions really are different from anthrax…

To facilitate any equipment for removal,
We required biosafety office approval
And despite our attempts at prion education,
We wound up with a VHP station.

There were rejections and judgements, demands and stress,
And expectations mounted with no guarantee of success.
Paperwork, signatures, deadlines and such,
Publish or perish, but what is enough?

So, lying in bed on the eve of my fate
I considered the toll that this lifestyle must take.
What if that banging my head against the wall
Has induced a tauopathy, oh the irony of it all,
Or what if Abeta has made an appearance,
And my stressed out lack of sleep is preventing its clearance?

But then there’s the people that make it worthwhile,
There’s the thrill of new data that makes us all smile.
My colleagues and students, we must support each other,
For that is what gives us the chance to discover
Something novel or profound, a brand new insight
One that may prove our hypothesis right.

We are explorers on a stormy sea.
It takes patience and strength and creativity
To find our way onto new shores, just so
That all of humanity’s knowledge can grow.

So, bring on the papers and deadlines and grants
And no talk of despair and long poetic rants
(That’ll have to wait for my music career)
For now here’s to research and a happy new year!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Jan 7, 2014

Okay.  New year, new resolve.  Last year was pretty rough.  I have to figure out how to balance the stress of everything I do while still doing everything I do…

I managed, with much time on hold over the phone with immigration, to help my research associate remain with my lab. Now he is motivated to become a Canadian resident so we can avoid these issues in the future!

My post-doc had a rough year, losing his mother to cancer and travelling home for a month.  But, I hope he can rally and really try to bring to fruition all his hard work these past years – ie PUBLISH!

My technician is back “post-baby” and is on a roll.

And my new PhD student started in September and he brings much needed enthusiasm and youthful energy to our group.  He even got a recruitment scholarship.  So far so good! 

I finally submitted and published our work on dendritic spine densities in prion-infected cerebellar slice cultures.  My technician really did most of the work, and when she left on maternity leave, things fell behind somewhat and I was never fully confident of all the data.  Finally this year we had enough pieces of the puzzle to publish.  I seem to always want more or better data, but in the end one has to just publish… or perish.

Since my last blog, I contributed to a collaborator’s grant in July, submitted 3 on Sept 30 (the day I returned from 2 weeks “vacation”), 2 of which were as collaborators, I submitted 2 in October, 1 in November, and I was part of a large collaborative grant due in December.

Grand total for 2013
As PI: 7
As collaborator: 7

That is 22 grants in 16 months…

Fortunately, I actually got four of them, including two that I was PI on.  Of course, the trend is for them to applaud the work and then suggest even more things to do, but for less money than requested.  So now I am editing budget and rereading the grants to remember what I actually wrote!

Ongoing assortments of problems – maybe they should get their own blog…

The Centre:
Still standing, despite the occasional flood…

Just saw another case of CJD before Christmas, and there is another patient I am scheduled to see soon who most definitely is affected – in the latter case it is probably genetic.  I hope to start doing some clinics focused on rapidly progressing dementias in the coming year.

I’m still talking up a storm, including on Jay Ingram tours.  Perhaps now I will try to put that into my on line voice again this year…

I am fast approaching this dreaded deadline, but I have found myself a mentor who is actually an advocate, and that really helps.  I also spoke to a clinician scientist / neurologist I had worked with during residency, and by the end of that discussion I felt much more confident that this is the career path I truly want.  Not that that alone equals success…


I still play violin with Concordia Symphony and LaFolia and am curling weekly in the winter.  This year I got a new violin and bow, so am really enjoying getting to know my new “baby”.  And as always, music has helped me through this past year.  That and of course my ever patient husband.  There should probably be a separate blog on how to live with someone pursuing a career as a clinician scientist!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

June 6, 2013

Man, tenure track is tough. Hence the lack of blog for over 2 years. I didn’t want to sound too pessimistic. But, perhaps reality is important to others considering the same path…

I have continued to have summer students in my lab – two last year and two more this year. It is a lot of fun, even if their experiments don’t always work, because they are not yet jaded and bitter. Very refreshing…

The post-doc situation has varied. Just because someone comes with a PhD and good references does not always mean he or she will be able to fit into the lab environment or be able to actually do decent experiments. Being intelligent and interviewing well does not necessarily correlate with doing experimental techniques well. There can also be issues where people feel certain lab members will do their work for them. Challenging for sure. There was a year of much training, retraining, advising, counseling, goading, encouraging, threatening, and other such attempts to light the right sort of incentive fire, with no effect. It was exhausting, it almost led to the quitting of other lab personnel, and at the end of the year there was nothing to show except money lost.

Also, it was a shock to learn my lab technician had become pregnant and therefore took a year off for maternity leave. It was wonderful for her and she will raise a wonderful child, but it was another rug pulled out while trying to get things rolling. I was able to find someone to fill her shoes for the year, but the personnel change really altered the lab dynamics and I was always unsure if everyone was really communicating with everyone else.

I almost had a graduate student start a Master’s last year. I flew him out on my dime for an interview and he was accepted by the program. Then within weeks of the start date, he told me his wife did not want to move to Edmonton so he wouldn’t be coming. I had already passed deadlines for other candidates, so that was that.

I rallied again this past year and hope to bring on a keen PhD student this September, if all goes well…

The latest and hot of the press crisis is a misinterpretation of work permit application renewal which has now led my research associate to be banned from any work or volunteering for the next 5 or 6 months. Yes, I am serious. Now I am trying to become an expert in immigration law – in my free time…

We published our first “real” home-grown paper this year in the Journal of Biological Chemistry on differences we found between a and b alleles of prion protein. It was actually quite publicized and landed me on the front page of the Edmonton Journal. We have a bunch of follow-up studies in the works. However, the work was spearheaded by my research associate (previously post-doc) who is now unemployable for 5-6 months because of a work permit issue. Just when you think you are getting somewhere – whoosh, another rug pulled away.

I did manage a couple of book chapters last year, a review, and a collaborator paper. This year I will soon have published a book (a neuroradiology pocket book guide for medicine residents), and we have a review submitted. Hopefully two more papers will soon be in the works.

Last Sept/Oct I wrote 8 grants. For 3 of these I was just a collaborator, not the main PI. CIHR was the big one. I had failed at the previous CIHR so thought I would come up with something new and more exciting. I got none of the grants.

This past April alone I wrote 6 grants. For 3 I was again a collaborator. I will find out the results sometime this month. If I get nothing, I will have to start self-funding my lab or figure out how to do all the research myself (but then who will fill in all the forms?).

We have all the bits, but sometimes things are still a major pain. Our fractionation system has taken a LOT of time to get up and running for a myriad of reasons.

The Centre: 
Believe it or not, we finally became active October, 2011, 34 months after I started at the Centre… We now have 7 full time faculty and lots of trainees. It finally feels like things are rolling. If only we could secure core funding…

I am up to 6 cases of CJD here in Edmonton. I still enjoy the general neurology clinical work and the teaching I do with residents and medical students in the clinic and hospital. If only the political situation were a bit friendlier towards the healthcare providers. Physicians and the government of Alberta have not been getting along. At least we have finally agreed on a contract so we shall see how the next few years go. We have to balance funding an optimized healthcare system with the cutbacks to the budget the government is making because of low oil and gas revenues. The government has also really cut funding for universities. That, and the added trend of grants moving towards funding more translational products with more immediate economic impacts (as opposed to basic science research), makes me feel attacked on all sides – clinical, teaching, research.

I continue to give plenty of talks, including a new tour with Jay Ingram last year. It has been a bit tricky at times though, as I get asked to give inspirational and motivational career talks at times when I am about ready to throw in the towel myself…

The word tenure induces stress in me. It is a big mystery. It is something that must be obtained, but exactly what is expected and what it is worth is not clear. In the past two years I was informed that there is an expectation of 4 papers per year. Whether quality of paper counts isn’t clear, or whether they all have to originate from my lab. Prion research takes a while… I know that if I don’t make tenure, that is it – no job. But if I make tenure, nothing really changes – it is contingent tenure and I still scramble for funding or lose my lab. In my “third year review” I was slammed for lack of papers and was given a 0.5 merit increase (usual is 1.0). I found out only 3 people in the entire department got 0.5. Nice. The excuse that the lab was not active until October, 2011 didn’t count… This past year I got a 1.0 again (the first two years I got 1.5’s), but I am still deeply shaken by the earlier judgment which has seriously led me to question if I am cut out to do this clinician scientist thing or not. When I express my concern about making tenure to some of my colleagues, the reply is very much like, “Of course you will make tenure, don’t worry! Besides, you’re a clinician.” I think that means I can always get a job if I don’t make it…

For anyone out there trying to follow this crazy path, find yourself as many mentors as you can, preferably advocates, as flying solo is NOT the way to go…

I still play with Concordia Symphony and I joined a new group, LaFolia, which is a string ensemble that performs early music (we even tune our instruments done to a 415Hz A and use uneven temperament tuning). We are performing Vivaldi’s Seasons this weekend (I am playing Autumn). Thankfully I still have music. Otherwise I would be certifiably insane by now… Okay, maybe I will blog again after tenure is decided…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

April 7, 2011

Okay. Lest my admin assistant continue to point out the absence of a blog update, here it is! Maybe winter is just too depressing for blogging. But spring is here…

I have a new summer student lined up for this summer – more dendritic spine analysis! Ironically, my last summer student is getting ready to do a Masters’ project. It isn’t with me, I admit, but it is on prions, so I must have a little bit of influence… 

This past winter has seen my first “499” student. And no, this does not mean I had 499 students, as one applicant misunderstood. This is just a course number, for a research project in final year undergrad. Alas, we hit many obstacles. Trying to make fibrils out of prion protein turned out to be more of a challenge than it should have been. Even just acquiring the protein took months. I requested “full length” prion protein from our on site resource facility, only to find out later they had given us a protein that was missing the first 6 amino acids. When I asked about this, I was told they didn’t think the first 6 amino acids would make any difference… Sigh. Always read the fine print…

As I train more people, I am also learning that not everyone is really cut out to do science. There are some basic math skills that really are needed. I am considering starting a collection of unusual mathematical calculations – like a 0.05% Tween solution being made by starting with 35mL of Tween… (okay, I’ll help you out with that one – to make a 0.05% Tween solution, starting with 35mL of Tween, would create a final solution volume of 70L!! That is more than my car gas tank holds!)

I am really enjoying having post-docs though. I now have three on board! If only it didn’t take a year to hire people! It is a challenge to convince people to come work with you when you are such a new researcher, and I can only extol the virtues of moving Edmonton so far… But, now I can actually spout ideas and have people run off to read about stuff, do experiments and bring me data! Of course, whether I actually believe their data is another issue. Ah, the dreaded control experiments…

I also have a great new admin assistant who pesters me just the right amount to keep everything on track (even this blog). And she makes yummy chocolate too…

I wish we were further along with experiments, but with more hands in the lab now, things are moving faster. We have great infections going, and we have tga20 mice to use now, which make more prion protein and are infected faster. Gene gunning the brain slices is still not optimal though. We are going to try using fluorescent mice (ah, the power of transgenetics) to see if this helps us.

We had some interesting confirmation that proteinase K really works well to chew up protein – even when it has been boiled and stored at minus 80C! Knowing this, we have made some adjustments and our immunoblotting looks much better. I think we may be able to snag a better antibody though…

We are making and comparing our allele a and b prion protein fibrils, with some early but interesting differences seen – and not what we expected. I’m not sure how to explain this yet, but that is part of the fun of research!

I actually am allowed to spend money from my CFI grant – as of Feb 9, 2011. You know, I first started putting this grant together in May, 2009!! New Investigators beware…

I also wrote a CIHR operating grant. That is one of the “big” grants, where you are really judged as a researcher. So, come September maybe I’ll have more good news. Although the success rate for these is only 18%, so I am not feeling very optimistic…

The confocal microscope is set up on site – just waiting for a CO2 regulator so we can do live cell imaging (why is everything always on backorder?). And I have bought my fancy field flow fractionation machine. I decided to go with a different company than the one I used as a post-doc. I hope it pays off, especially given the $175 000 price tag. With any luck it will be delivered in the next month.

The Centre:
Sigh. Ah, the Centre… Well, the basement area did actually get certified and activated. Of course, my need is the main floor space. And that NMR? Still no hole in the wall for venting helium. There are days when I feel like proactively making that hole… So, we still wait. Maybe May? Is there even any point in estimating the date? It is SOOO frustrating!! If a protocol has been submitted but no one is there to read it, does it still exist? I can’t believe how much of my time here has been spent trying to help get things rolling, but in the end I mostly feel like Sisyphus. Better him than Prometheus I guess.

I have now been involved with 3 cases of CJD since being in Edmonton, in addition to the general neurology I do in clinic. I really enjoy the clinical side of my career - there is a more immediate impact than I get from the lab. But, every time I tell someone they or their loved one has CJD, and I hear them say "I'm so scared", it really pushes me back to the lab to figure out this nasty disease...

I have given talks on how to give a presentation, on career choices, and oh yeah - some on my prion research! The most fun recently was joining Jay Ingram on his Alberta tour where he was discussing prions. Dr. Stephanie Czub and I were invited along to “answer the hard questions”. It was a lot of fun, and there were some really good questions too!

I am still with Concordia Symphony and the TEMPO group and I’m playing with some quartets now. I have also added some musical theatre into the mix, playing White Christmas over Christmas, and I’m doing Sondheim Into the Woods in a few weeks. So, my backup career is still thriving. Curling is done for the year (Go Stoughton!), so it is time to get my bike out again.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27, 2010

Hello again. As the sun streams in my window, and the colourful leaves are glowing, I feel inspired to put out another little update on things…

My summer student did a great job and we now have analyzed dendritic spine densities from uninfected slices kept alive for as long as 53 days. He is preparing a poster for the Faculty of Med & Dent summer student research day in October.

Now I have a 499 student who I just threw a bunch of information at and we’ll see how she fairs. Time to start making protein fibrils!

Two post-docs are “almost” hired. I just don’t know how soon they can start, what with all the VISA requirements. The hope is for January?

We have repeatedly succeeded in infecting our slice cultures, and are now trying to figure out the best way to image Purkinje Cells without having to fix the slices. Our latest attempts have been with dyes and gene gunning, with partial success, but I’m not satisfied yet...

My CFI grant is in budget finalization, meaning I put out a bunch of requests for expensive pieces of equipment and was rewarded with two large boxes full of quotes from contenders! This is not an environmentally friendly way to do this, as vendors feel the need to put big glossy portfolios together – some of which have each individual page laminated, and there are three copies of every quote. Anyway, the first goal is to purchase a confocal scope, and that order may even go out later this week. :)

The Centre:
We are ever hopeful of getting the main level containment lab up and running “soon”. The CFIA inspection went well, so we thought we were set. Then we were told that the NMR machine needed a HUGE hole in the perimeter wall in order to vent helium. (Either that or users would all be talking like Donald Duck). But, that might actually happen soon, and then, in theory, we could actually “go live” for infectious prion work in a matter of weeks. It’s about time, as our tiny tissue culture suite in containment is about maxed out in terms of personnel…

BIG NEWS! I took my first real vacation since starting here in January, 2009. After doing a LOT of weeks of call over the summer (and having my bike stolen from outside my building!), I finally snapped and decided to take a break. My husband and I went to Peru for 2 weeks at the beginning of September, and it was such a wonderful trip and change of pace. And you know what? Nothing disastrous happened while I was gone! I hope to do this vacation thing more regularly. Afterall, in theory I get 4 weeks per year…

I joined another musical group – Concordia Symphony, in addition to the TEMPO group. So, that plus curling, which is about to start, will occupy three of my evenings per week. I hope that is enough “other” to keep me sane in the coming year. We’ll see how long it takes me to touch base again…

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

June 1, 2010

June already, eh? Sigh. Definitely time for an update.

I had two high school students in the lab for a few months, a couple days a week after school, as part of a Sanofi Bioaventis Challenge. They had hoped to solve the problem of early diagnosis in prion disease in their time here, but I had to convince them that that was a bit out of reach for their short project. Instead we looked at toxicity of prion peptides on cell culture. At least, that was the plan… At least they learned a bunch of techniques and in the process we got Western blotting working in my lab.

I also have a great summer student. It appears that in order to work in my lab, at least so far, your name must begin with J… So J and J are busily getting things done. Now if only I could find a good post-doc candidate. That is proving to be harder than I thought…

We have lots of slice cultures growing, and are trying to infect them now. The first 5 week infection experiment didn’t work, and we found out that a certain someone who gave us the infected source sample gave us one without any infectivity in it! You know who you are… Anyway, we now trust no one and have confirmed there is abnormal prion protein in the latest batch so hopefully we’ll have some infected slices after 5 weeks or so. Our own mice are on site now too, so that helps a lot. Now we are playing around with gene gunning our slices (yes, we shoot DNA or dye-coated beads at our slices!).

My biggest news is that I got my Alberta Heritage Grant! It was a bit of a long shot, but I am really happy. That guarantees I have salary support for 7 years, and gives me some operating funds for 3 years. I didn’t get the PrioNet recruitment grant despite all that work, primarily because it overlapped too much with the Heritage Grant. Go figure. I am learning that navigating the nuances of different granting agencies is not as straightforward as I thought. Oh, and my other grant in the works is the infrastructure CFI grant. That was supposed to be reviewed in April and announced in May, but they had so many applications that the put off reviewing some of them (mine included) until June! So I am still waiting to hear about that so I can buy some of my more expensive pieces of equipment… We also didn’t get the NSERC grant we wanted as a Centre, but have just resubmitted, so we’ll see if we have more luck this time. My next big grant will be the dreaded CIHR grant next spring…

I went to the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Toronto – the first time since I was a resident. It is more enjoyable when you don’t have an exam looming over you.

I wound up leading a Meet-a-Mentor initiative at the University, as part of WISEST. We did 4 teleconferences to rural junior high schools over lunch hours, doing some science and engineering labs with them. From jelly beans to volcanoes to turkey basters, it was a lot of fun (and work!). All in the name of inspiring kids to go into science or engineering…

One last tidbit – that WISEST talk I gave last summer? Well, the students enjoyed it so invited me to be their keynote speaker at their graduation last week. It was quite an experience – and a flashback to high school band renditions of Pomp and Circumstance. Anyway, my two take-home messages were “Be happy” and “Follow your passions”. I hope I can live up to that too…

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jan 12, 2010

Happy New Year!

Where have I been you ask? Well, after my last entry, we successfully started preparing brain slice cultures, and even imaged some on a confocal microscope. This was really a miracle of circumstance, as a colleague happened to have extra mice pups delivered unexpectedly, which would be sacrificed without purpose unless we needed them. They were to be the appropriate age within a week of my lab tech (who I will call J for the purposes of this blog) starting, and we had nothing set up yet, let alone all the reagents required for the experiment. But, somehow J managed to pull everything together and we were actually slicing by early the following week. Then, it turned out we were having a demo for confocal scopes in our building, so we were actually able to bring our freshly prepared slices and look at them on confocal - all within 1.5 weeks of J starting at the lab! Since then we had fortune to have another batch of mice prior to Xmas and made better cultures on this second round. Unfortunately, the cultures still died, but we think we are using too much media on top of the slices and impairing oxygen diffusion. Soon we should have our own mice so we are less dependent on others for sources.

After a week of call at the end of November, I had some "fun" submitting my PrioNet recruitment grant. There was a lot of last minute confusion regarding who had to sign what, and on the day everything was to be couriered to the agency, the final office at U of A, which was supposed to sign off, told me they had received the grant but because there was no sticky note on it saying urgent, they didn't take it seriously... I will refrain from articulating my exact response to this, but let us just say it was the straw that broke the camel's back (my back). The good news is that the agency allowed an extra day for things to get sent. The bad news is that my sanity was damaged for a while... In the future I will invest heavily in sticky notes to ensure communication happens. See? Even within the "science machine" communication breaks down! "A sticky note, a sticky note, my kingdom for a sticky note!"

But, I had a great break for 7 days over Xmas, including some skiing and relaxing in Banff with my husband. After catching up on sleep and sanity, it was back on call on the 31st through to the 7th. So much for sleep catch-up; the last three days straight were very busy. The next day we had a huge NSERC funding agency visit, where we had to demonstrate the quality of the Prion Centre and convince them of our need for funding as a national resource. It was a long day, and I drank a lot of coffee, but it went relatively well. We won't know the results for a while though. In the mean time, the push is on to get the containment part of the Centre up and running - which is currently caught up in paperwork delays...

Anyway, I really should write up this neurology clinical skills test station, prepare my year-end PrioNet report (even though it has only been 9 months since funding was given!) and review this article by the end of the week.

Oh - one more piece of good news. I had my year end evaluation with the Chair of Medicine, and it sounds like they are going to keep me - for the time being at least... ;)