The importance of lacking necessary equipment

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It’s frustrating to to be hampered by inadequate facilities.

My university is severely underequipped. We have a Bioinstrumentation course featuring mostly broken and outdated equipment. Our EM has cobwebs. I can’t weigh to milligram accuracy. Until last year, only one person could use our autoclave because he knew the special trick (how to not kill yourself). The GC-MS has a useless detector, and HPLC is out of the question. The DI lines are not to be trusted, and a recent triumph was to convince physical plant to not shut down the vacuum lines over the evenings and weekends. (My rainforest field site is better equipped and staffed by an order of magnitude.)

My last university, which I left six years ago, had everything I could want, and plenty more – bomb calorimetry, confocals, automontage, and the machine that goes bing.

So why did my research productivity quadruple (or so) since I arrived at broken-down-equipmentville? It’s a causal relationship.

When I was in Equipment Heaven, I designed experiments that fit my most pressing questions. They involved cuticular hydrocarbons, image analysis, microsats, isotopes, nutrients, volatile odor bioassays and headspace analysis. And none of them worked. Either I didn’t have enough experience to make it work on my own, or my relationship with the expert connected to the machine didn’t work. The chemists at Equipment Heaven were great, but didn’t give a hoot about my biological question, and they had their own students, classes and projects on the front burner. What good is the fanciest GC-MS in the world if you can’t get a chemist to troubleshoot with you? I spent a lot of time at the fancy university spinning my wheels but getting nowhere.

After I moved to a place without working equipment, I needed access. But instead of finding machines, I sought out people. I’d find the best person to fit the project. “Hi, you don’t know me, but here is a cool project. It’s about ants that live in outer space and eat moondust. Doesn’t that sound cool? Want to work with me on this?” I was surprised how easy it was to find collaborators. People want to say yes to something fun. If the machine is next door, it seems easy enough to do it yourself. But it’s better to pack it in a box, and send that box to someone who’ll do it for you and then write part of the manuscript. Some of my best collaborators have been grad students and postdocs. Their PIs are generally happy to see them get extra papers and have them build their own networks.

I’m getting more done without any equipment now, because I have no limits. If I want to do a project, I just need to find the right people. My students are getting a more genuine taste about how science happens, too.

Work on the grant or the manuscript?

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You need papers to get a grant, but how do you get the data for manuscripts without grant funding?

I don’t have this dilemma anymore, as I have enough interesting data to stun a subadult moose. But I still have to decide how to allocate my time between grants and manuscripts. I’m referring to the nuggets of time when I’m not teaching and advising.

Based on what I have in progress, I think I can get two, maybe three, papers out before the summer field season, if I suspend grantwriting ambitions until the fall (when I have a brand new set of exciting data from the summer). I have one grant pending, and I’m co-PI on another going out in a month or so. So I do have an iron in the fire, though I don’t know if the fire is hot enough to press my shirts when I remove it (that is what you do with the irons in the fire, right?).

I would much rather submit a paper than submit a grant, but I would much rather a grant gets funded than a paper get accepted. On a related note, a couple years ago I went to a Nick Hornby book signing. He was asked about the differences between novels and screenplays for movies. He said he was done with writing screenplays, because of the frustration tied to wasted effort. He estimated that a contracted screenplay makes it to production about 10% of the time. He mentioned that he finished a screenplay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius  [loud gasps of delight fill the spacious room], and that he was convinced it would never make it to production [widespread groans of despair]. I imagine it would have been a gorgeous movie.

I feel about grantwriting like Nick Hornby feels about screenwriting. However, Nick Hornby will continue to ply his trade as novelist without writing screenplays. Without grants, my trade as a tropical field biologist will promptly wither. I’m not paying postdocs or grad students, but I do have to get myself down there along with some students. My hard drive has a number of finished grants which will never get funded. But the list of finished but never-to-be-published manuscripts is incredibly short.

So I’ll be working on the manuscript because I’m just more excited about the fact that it will come to completion and find its audience. All scientists go through cycles of grant writing, manuscript writing and data collection. I just don’t know what the optimal periodicity of each of those cycles should be to maximize productivity.