Beyond the R01

July 14th, 2011 by pcahn

In 2007, two economists were interested in how much an R01 grant from the NIH influences subsequent publication. Presumably, researchers who receive funding would generate more data and produce more academic papers. Quantifying the impact of government funds provides an important argument for continued public investment in science.

The authors analyzed all applications for R01 support (both successful and unsuccessful) between 1980 and 2000. The sample included over 18,000 individual researchers. Surprisingly, the data showed that scientists who received NIH grants produced one additional paper over the subsequent five years compared to those who did not receive the grant. Nor do the citation rates of grantees differ significantly from their unfunded counterparts.

The findings do not necessarily devalue the importance of  NIH-funded research. Biomedical benefits go beyond the publishing of papers. The authors hypothesize that researchers who fail to receive NIH funds usually locate other sources of support or shift their area of interest to a more fundable topic. Resilience is key.

Social Networking

July 13th, 2011 by pcahn

Ed Bennett runs a website to track how hospitals in the United States use social media. He and his team have identified 3,952 social networking sites coordinated by 1,188 hospitals. The breakdown is revealing:


While I had expected a large presence on Facebook and Twitter, the prominence of Foursquare surprised me. This service allows users with mobile devices to “check in” at a particular location.

The analysis of social networking can go even deeper. While Bennett calculates the presence of a Facebook page, for instance, UbiCare explores how much the target audience engages with the site. To achieve a high engagement score, a hospital typically adds over 7 posts a week.

While hospitals tend to target their communications at an external audience, faculty developers can learn from their techniques to reach internal stakeholders.

Scientific Reputation

July 8th, 2011 by pcahn

Amidst more instances of retracted scientific papers, it’s helpful to reinforce positive academic behaviors. The editors of PLoS Computational Biology have come up with their top ten list for maintaining a strong reputation. It includes:

  1. Think before you act
  2. Do not ignore criticism
  3. Do not ignore people
  4. Diligently check everything you publish
  5. Always declare conflicts of interest
  6. Do your share for the community
  7. Do not commit to tasks you cannot complete
  8. Do not write poor reviews of grants or papers
  9. Do not write references for people who do not deserve it
  10. Do not plagiarize or doctor your data

Some of these maxims are common sense. They all stress the importance of intentionality. It’s easy to see how falsifying data may ruin your reputation, but in a subtler way so can falsifying praise in a letter of recommendation. Every interaction with colleagues leaves an impression. Make sure it’s the one you want to convey.

The Crucial Comma

July 6th, 2011 by pcahn

Folklorist Alan Dundes pointed out the broad appeal of the number three in American culture. In sports, in humor, and even in the Internet (think WWW), we tend to think in threes.

The same goes for the manuscripts and grant proposals I review.  I often see sentences that include lists of three. No matter the topic, the tripartite serial fulfills some language euphony. When writing lists, I favor placing a comma before the “and.” This punctuation is known as the Oxford comma after Oxford University Press, whose style guide recommends it.

Like so many other rules of grammar, the Oxford comma seems to be disappearing. The trend in writing is to pare down punctuation. Some have even suggested that “I” will no longer be capitalized in a future where text message is the primary form of communication.

When I see lists in manuscripts, I don’t impose the Oxford comma, but I do check for consistency in style. In my own writing, I favor the comma before the “and.” As the book Eats Shoots and Leaves makes clear by its title reference to a joke about a panda, the Oxford comma makes meaning more clear.

Fast Track

June 23rd, 2011 by pcahn

The U.S. needs to produce more doctors yet medical training takes several years, costs thousands of dollars, and selects a small portion of the applicants. The University of Texas is starting a program that streamlines the process, granting a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree in as few as six years.

The 60 students admitted to the new program would demonstrate high academic achievement in high school. If they maintain good grades, upon graduation they are guaranteed a slot at the UT medical schools in Dallas or Houston.

By integrating medical education into the undergraduate curriculum, students would avoid the traditional fourth year electives of medical school. They would also enjoy the option of pursuing a master’s in public health or a research project for an additional year.

Texas Tech already offers a three-year medical degree for students going into primary care. Some law schools have shortened their professional programs from three to two years. As debt remains a concern for aspiring doctors, shortening the time they have to pay tuition may draw a wider pool of potential candidates.


June 20th, 2011 by pcahn

The Dean of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry is stepping down because he plagiarized a commencement speech. In his address to this year’s graduates, the dean repeated several passages verbatim from a speech Atul Gawande gave to Stanford Medical School students in 2010.

There’s been no explanation for why the dean plagiarized the speech. In my experience as a classroom teacher, plagiarism becomes a temptation if the assignment is ill-defined, the timeline for producing it is too short, or the writer is unable to grasp the material. In the case of the dean, it’s not likely that a commencement speech assignment caught him by surprise or that he lacked understanding of the occasion.

More likely, it’s the vague role of a commencement speech that motivated him to look to other models. These speeches have to be memorable yet anodyne, uplifting yet realistic. Gawande does seem to have a knack for the pithy platitudes  (as evidenced by his address this year at Harvard Medical School). Even if a dean can’t match Gawande’s wisdom, it’s always better to deliver an honest speech and one that reflects the values of the particular institution.

Assessing Assessment

June 17th, 2011 by pcahn

Last week BU hosted John McCahan Medical Education Day, a symposium dedicated to innovation, research, and technology in teaching. Martha Stassen, Director of Assessment at U Mass Amherst, delivered the keynote address in defense of assessment. Borrowing from Atul Gawande’s work on checklists, she argued that assessment can not only prevent errors but also enhance teaching.

One example of her argument is the biomedical engineer George Plopper, featured in a profile on Inside Higher Ed. After encountering Bloom’s taxonomy, Plopper restructured his undergraduate classes on cancer biology to integrate assessment into the syllabus. Instead of lecture, memorization, and test, Plopper’s classes now students analyze the subject matter themselves, teach it to each other, and apply it in realistic scenarios.

Plopper evaluates students on each of these tasks, pegging his assessment to specific terms in Bloom’s taxonomy. With the new focus on project-based learning, he measured quantitative gains in instances of higher order thinking. Rather than a burdensome task, being explicit about assessment helped improve student outcomes.

Pfizer in Boston

June 9th, 2011 by pcahn

The giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer already has partnerships with academic medical centers in San Francisco and New York City. Now they’re adding Boston. According to a press release, the company will house its Center for Therapeutic Innovation in the Longwood area and invest $100 million over five years to bring basic science discoveries to clinical applications.

The semi-autonomous center will be headed by a Pfizer scientist but draw postdocs from academic medical centers. A brochure describes that faculty from academic medical centers will be involved on a steering committee that helps decide projects and monitors conflicts of interest. Important to note in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Stanford biomedical researcher, Pfizer retains first right to license any clinical probes that come out of the research.

Steal This Book!

June 3rd, 2011 by pcahn

The National Academies Press is making all its entire catalog of 4,000 books available for free reading online or download. Some of the titles relevant to medical school faculty:

You can still buy physical copies of the book, but if you’d like to skim a portion, this is a valuable resource. It’s also helpful to scholars in institutions without large library budgets.

Best Practices in Gender Diversity

June 1st, 2011 by pcahn

Women receive over 50% of doctorates in the United States, but they make up only 38% of the instructional workforce. Women faculty are more likely to have lower rank, less job security, and lower pay than their male colleagues.

A report from the American Federation of Teachers offers some concrete advice on how to remedy the gender gap in higher education. Their recommendations include:

  • Encourage the institution to develop a diversity mission and strategic plan.
  • Educate hiring committees about the plan and offer them training in gender bias.
  • Establish protocols for the hiring process.
  • Promote cluster-based hiring to bring in a cohort of women faculty.
  • Create a travel fund that allows faculty to take small children with them to academic conferences.
  • Measure departmental success against national benchmarks

These changes have more to do with prioritizing than providing additional resources. The pipeline problem can no longer be used as an excuse for the low representation of women faculty. By developing an overall plan and implementing concrete steps, a university can close the gender gap.