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Science Careers Blog

May 2007

Dear Editors of Science,

I was pleasantly surprised to see behavioral sciences highlighted in the recent issue of Science (Volume 316, Issue 5827, 18 May 2007). The section on the diversity of occupations pursued by behavioral scientists was especially compelling.

The readers of Science might be interested in a field in which tens of thousands of behavioral scientists work: speech, hearing, and language sciences, i.e., the science of human communication. Employment opportunities for behavioral scientists exist in the academic study of speech, hearing, and language; the clinical treatment of speech, hearing, and language disorders and disease; and in providing products and services for improving human communication in a wide variety of contexts. Working on one of the most important human behaviors, human communication, has been rewarding to thousands of speech, hearing, and language scientists.

William A. Yost, PhD
Chair (designate) Speech and Hearing Sciences
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287 USA

The new NIH Extramural Nexus includes an article by Norka Ruiz Bravo, the director of NIH's Office of Extramural Research (OER), covering the various types of NIH funding announcements. Know the difference between a PA and a PAR? What about a PAS? It may sound dry, but if you're in the NIH-funded research world and don't know this stuff, you're at a disadvantage. Also covered: news on NIH's transition to electronic submission and the latest on the NIH Roadmap.

From Monday's Washington Post:

"In the present climate especially, the funding decisions are ultraconservative," Nobel Prize winner Roger Kornberg said in an interview conducted by the Post's Christopher Lee, describing the situation at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "If the work that you propose to do isn't virtually certain of success, then it won't be funded. And of course, the kind of work that we would most like to see take place, which is groundbreaking and innovative, lies at the other extreme." Kornberg is convinced that his groundbreaking research would not have been funded by today's NIH. He blames the problem not on NIH itself, but on inadequate funding for the agency.

(Please note, Washington Post articles typically are available free for only 60 days after the date of publication. After 60 days, they are available for a fee from the Post's archive.

A new biomedical research institute is soon to open its doors in Terni, about 100 kilometers north of Rome. Behind the new institute is Antonio Giordano, who left his native Naples years ago to make a name for himself in genetics and cancer research at Temple University and Thomas Jefferson University, both in Philadelphia. Since those early days, Giordano has set himself apart with his efforts securing private funds for his work and supporting young scientists. Giordano is profiled by Science Careers contributing editor Elisabeth Pain in the May 25 issue of Science (subscription required).

In the early 1990s, Giordano convinced the owner of the Italian fast-food chain Sbarro to donate $1 million to establish his own cancer and molecular medicine research institute in Philadelphia. Since then, Giordano has raised $3 million in private funding, which has supported more than 250 graduate students and postdocs in both Italy and the U.S. Now, he's secured more than 60 million euros (about $80 million) in donations from Italian financial institutions for the Terni institute.

An interim facility for the Terni institute will open its doors this fall, housing 20 to 30 early-career scientists. The main facility will be up and running by 2009, where Giordano hopes to provide research space and funds for an additional 50 biomedical students and postdocs.

Giordano sees the new institute as an opportunity to give back to his home country. "I owe this to Italy," he says. "This is where I grew up and was trained."

The goveror of Arizona has signed into law a bill that would exclude postdocs from the state's mandatory retirement plan. The idea is to allow postdocs to keep the money they would pay into the plan as salaries or stipends, helping them pay bills and pay off student loans instead of being forced to save for a distant retirement. You can find the full story at ASU Insight, the news-and-information publication of Arizona State University.

Here's a sign that alternative careers for scientists have penetrated the public consciousness--an Associated Press article on scientists choosing careers as patent attorneys.

"It's an exciting area of legal practice right now," said University of Pennsylvania law professor R. Polk Wagner. "Every year I see more and more people coming into law school with technical backgrounds."

You can read "Scientists Leaving Labs for Niche in Courtrooms" at azcentral.com, the online home of the Arizona Republic.

At Science Careers, we have articles and entire features on the value of mobility for scientists that describe the great experiences awaiting researchers when they venture abroad. But before American scientists or any Americans can get anywhere, they need to have a current passport, and getting a passport has become an adventure.

The main story here is: if you plan to travel outside the United States in the next few weeks, and you do NOT have a valid passport, you better hustle. Current waiting times for routine service run as long as 12 weeks, according to the State Department's Web site. Expedited service, for which you pay an extra $60.00 over the regular $67.00 fee takes 2-3 weeks, according to the site.

Those time estimates may be optimistic. According to Whirled View a blog run by buddies from my Foreign Service days, the regular service can run up to 16 weeks. Whirled View has been following this issue since February and in their latest post on the subject, they offer tips for moving the process along. (tip no. 1: Apply early and pay the $60.00 extra for expedited service.)

This is a topic in which I have more than a passing interest. I hope to join my wife in Italy in November, but my passport expired this month. I sent in my renewal application with the old passport three weeks ago. My bank says the check for the fee ($67.00 for regular service; my colleagues can testify to my frugality) cleared on 2 May. As a test case of this situation, I will keep readers posted on its progress.

By the way, the last time I renewed my passport in 1997, it took one week and cost $55.00.

The deadline is approaching for the first-ever open competition to become an HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) Investigator, one of the sweetest gigs in science. For the first time, HHMI is focusing on early-career investigators. The application deadline is 13 June at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

In this competition, HHMI expects to appoint 50 new investigators. Once appointed, HHMI Investigators become employees of HHMI--the institute pays 100% of salary--although they keep their faculty appointments and continue to work at their host institutions. Appointments are for 5 years, but renewals are routine. Research budgets are flexible and generous, covering staff--postdocs and technicians but not graduate students--and operating costs. (HHMI considers requests for major equipment periodically in separate competitions.) HHMI Investigators are encouraged to change directions when changing directions is a good idea and to try out new ideas. If your research takes years to bear fruit, don't worry: HHMI will wait.

The new competition is different from previous ones in several respects. For the first time, HHMI is seeking early-career scientists--specifically, people between years 4 and 10 of their tenure-track faculty (or equivalent) appointments. For just the second time, scientists can apply directly to HHMI--there's no institutional endorsement involved--and there's no limit to how many applicants can come from a single institution. In earlier competitions, except for a small competition last year limited to physician-scientists, the eligible institutions nominated scientists to compete to become HHMI investigators.

HHMI Investigators must be working on biomedical problems but don't have to be biologists. HHMI puts chemistry, physics and biophysics, biomedical engineering, and computational biology on its nonexhaustive list of eligible fields. HHMI Investigators do, however, have to work at one of 200 eligible institutions; there's a list on HHMI's Web site. Applicants must have one or more "active, national, peer-reviewed research grants that provide at least 3 years of support, such as an NIH [National Institutes of Health] R01 award." Career-development awards and mentored grants don't count. HHMI Investigators cannot be federal employees, they cannot receive material research support from for-profit entities, and they must be able to spend at least 75% of their time on research. Finally, HHMI Investigators can't change institutions during their first (5-year) appointments.

Application packages should include a CV, a 250-word summary of major achievements, a 3000-word or shorter description of current and planned research, and PDF files of five carefully chosen publications. Letters of reference are not allowed during the first stage, although they will be solicited for semifinalists, which will be announced in the fall. New HHMI Investigators will be announced next spring.

HHMI expects the competition to be "keen"--but don't let that deter you. Be bold.

Workforce statistics can provide useful guidance to job seekers in any field, but they can get a little dull even for experienced number-crunchers. American Institute of Physics (AIP), which serves a group often considered tolerant of quantification, produces "Workforce Trends" flyers including colorful, easy-to-grasp charts, and its Spring 2007 collection is available for free downloading.

One flyer, on initial employment of Ph.D.s, shows whether 2003-2004 doctorate recipients in astronomy and various fields of physics found temporary positions--postdocs or "other temporary"--or more permanent gigs. If you're in biophysics, be prepared to do a postdoc, the numbers indicate--that's where nearly 9 in 10 new biophysicists from the 2003-2004 classes ended up. In several other sub-disciplines--nuclear physics, particles and fields, condensed matter, astronomy, astrophysics, and atomic and molecular physics--6 to 8 out of 10 new doctorate recipients took postdoctoral positions. A few in each group took other temporary assignments.

If you'd rather have a job that's potentially permanent, then applied physics is the best choice. About half of the new 2003-2004 Ph.D. recipients in that field took jobs with the potential to be permanent. Almost as many new doctorates--about 4 in 10--took potentially permanent jobs in optics and photonics, atmospheric and space physics, and materials science.

Other new workforce flyers from AIP cover where bachelors-degree grads in physics go to work, 2006 faculty salaries, and trends for hiring women with bachelors degrees in various scientific and technical fields. In the women's hiring chart, which covers 1966 to 2004, all of the trend lines head higher over the period except one. Until 1985, the percentage of women with bachelor's degrees in computer science rose from 10% to about 35%, mirroring the other fields. But after 1985, the percentage of women in computer science declined steadily, reaching about 25% in 2004.

This is a comment on the article titled "A Tunnel to Atlanta", written by Beryl Lieff Benderly (4 May 2007). The author talks about the importance of networking within ones own ethnic group and how that can help people in their scientific careers. While this may be true to an extent, it also leads to some very avoidable situations in scientific environments. The biggest potential problem posed by excessive intra-ethnic networking is the formation of closed groups (popularly referred to as 'mafias') of foreigners in the work environment, often leading to a chasm between the members of this group and everyone else. In many situations, such groups result in its members lacking confidence or developing a sense suspicion when it comes to interacting with other nationalities or cultures: ghetto-isation in other words. This negates any advantage an international experience can have and can only be bad for science for two reasons. The first is that Science is and should be an international activity involving active interaction between different ethnic and cultural groups. Most high profile laboratories, irrespective of the field, are highly international in composition. Secondly, being scientists, we must endeavour to be above the boundaries of culture, language, religion and ethnicity, at least in the workplace.

I can give myself as an example of a person who had an excellent start to my scientific career without having another person from my country or culture anywhere near me. I left my native India to do my PhD in a Macromolecular Crystallography lab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I was the only person from my country in the whole building but never experienced any homesickness during the six and a half years of my stay there. My colleagues in the lab and my boss were fantastic and very supportive, so much that I did not feel the need for any support from people of my own cultural background. This has had an effect of making me immune to the effects cultural differences usually have on people, and I can now feel comfortable anywhere. I like to believe this is a good thing.

To sum up, I believe that active interaction with other cultures makes one a better person and a better scientist. Culture shock is a great thing to be experiencing all by oneself.

Dr Ganesh Natrajan
Post-Doctoral Associate
Macromolecular Crystallography group.
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
Grenoble, France.

The first round of preliminary proposals for the Starting Independent Researcher Grants, which are being offered for the first time this year by the European Research Council (ERC), which is also new, has just closed.

The grants, which will pay an average of €1.5 million over 5 years, have been designed to help early-career scientists establish their own labs in Europe. The ERC intends to give out between 200 and 250 of these grants in a yearly call. According to a news article published this week in Science (an AAAS membership or Science subscription is required to access the article), as the first call came to a close the ERC counted an astonishing 9,167 proposals, beating all expectations. The ERC will invite only 10% or fewer applicants to submit a full proposal. But if you make it that far your odds are good: The success rate in the final round will be between 30 and 50%.