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Science Careers Blog

August 2007

If you need an inspiring story or morale boost, or know someone in need of either, here's a doozy.  The 9 August issue of New England Journal of Medicine tells the story of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, assistant professor of neurosurgery and oncology and director of the brain-tumor stem-cell laboratory at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Quiñones-Hinojosa came to the United States in the mid-1980s as a 19-year old illegal immigrant, and went to work harvesting produce in the California farm fields.

From the fields, he took jobs as a janitor and welder, and eventually got admitted to a community college, where he learned English. Quiñones-Hinojosa also got a few breaks -- good mentors (see our article this week on that subject) and scholarships -- to go along with his deepening interests in math and science that led to University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, he discovered neurosurgery, his eventual forte, but along the way he also developed a sense of responsibility to the larger community. It is quite a story; read the whole thing.

And while you're reading about Quiñones-Hinojosa, think about a bill now being considered by the Virginia legislature to prohibit public colleges and universities from enrolling illegal immigrants, even if they attended public high schools and came to the United States at an early age (Quiñones-Hinojosa did neither). Virginia state legislators supporting this bill should take a day trip from Richmond to Baltimore -- it's a short drive on I-95 -- to explain their position to Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, and then try and explain to the rest of us how their bill benefits Virginia and the nation.

Hat tip: Freakonomics blog on the New York Times.

The new "Report on Racism and Xenophobia in the Member States of the EU," presented to the European Parliament by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) last Monday, shows that Europe still has much to do to guarantee a fair and equal treatment to all.

The report was not specific to scientists in academia, but sadly one can expect that some scientists, or their families, will experience discrimination on the grounds of their origin, culture, or religion at some point in their careers. How this affected them and how they overcame the difficulties will be the object of an upcoming feature on ScienceCareers. If you are a scientist from an ethnic minority in your current country please send me an e-mail and tell me about your experiences, good and bad. Have you encountered obstacles related to your minority status? Has some person or organization helped you deal with them?

Some early-career scientists in the U.S. have been suggesting since the early '90s (if not before) that graduate schools should limit admissions to improve the job prospects of advanced-degree graduates. Now that's exactly what's happening...in China. The situation there, however, is quite different from the one in the United States.

China's state-run news agency is reporting that the country intends to cap the growth in enrollment in its graduate schools at 5%. That may sound like a rapid rate of expansion by American standards, but, according to Tang Min, deputy chief representative and chief economist in the Asian Development Bank's Beijing Office (quoted in the news-agency story), graduate enrollments in China have "have grown fivefold in six years."

Apparently that expansion was too rapid and the quality of the training declined. For the first time, the unemployment rate in China among people with post-graduate degrees exceeded the unemployment rate for people with undergraduate degrees.

Hat tip: The Chronicle of Higher Education.

August 29, 2007

Pandora in the Lab

Over the last few months I've been playing around with Pandora, the online music server that uses a record of what you like and don't like to recommend new music, using what it calls a "musical genomics" approach. My experience has been mixed; I don't love everything Pandora recommends based on my established tastes.

Recently, I heard about an interesting experiment carried out by some undergraduates working in a research lab over the summer. Pandora is designed to work with an individual, but it can also be used in groups. Just two people (with quite different musical tastes) were working in the lab for much of the summer, and Pandora did a pretty good job (using input from both of them) finding music they both liked, or at least could live with. Pandora succeeded at finding music at the intersection of their tastes.

When, late in the summer, a third worker joined the lab and began to participate in the Pandora experiment, things got a bit more...unpredictable.

Anyway, it seems like a worthwhile experiment, a way of passing a little time and keeping your spirits up during those long, late-summer days in the lab when it's nice outside. Try Pandora (which, by the way, I have no connection with other than as an occasional user). Take turns giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to the selections it proposes. See if it can help you find common ground, music that the metal-head, the hip-hop fan, and the Chopin aficionado can all live with--or whether you end up with music you all hate.

August 28, 2007

Excitement deficit disorder

Much of the talk about increasing interest in science or technology among students has focused on the economic factors, such as numbers of good job opportunities for graduates. A recent article in The American, a contrarian Web-based publication, reports on research done by Microsoft that suggests for computer science at least, money may not be everything.

The article says that Bill Gates, founder and CEO of Microsoft Corporation, often says Microsoft is in "the IQ business", which means for the company to succeed, Microsoft has to attract the best brainpower. Since the end of the Internet boom in the 1990s, the number of computer science majors has fallen by half, and Microsoft Research -- its in-house research labs -- turned to the problem of how to attract more of the best and brightest brains to careers in computer science.

The investigators at Microsoft Research identified the usual economic factors, but also discovered another culprit: the way most universities teach computer science. Nick Schultz, the article's author, quotes the Microsoft lead research program manager who says the typical computer science class "turns kids off almost immediately." Introductory courses often focus on theoretical principles and code syntax, with little practical to show for their studies.

To remedy this excitement deficit, Microsoft partnered with Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech to develop an inexpensive programmable robot for first-year computer science students.  The robot responds to basic commands written in code that students can write quickly. Students can then write more sophisticated code for the robots to do more complex tasks.

This fall, the robot's developers plan to get the devices in the hands of 1,000 computer science students, and by next year spread their use to hundreds of computer science departments.

August 24, 2007

Lock up and back up

This is the time of year faculty and postdocs with new jobs move to new offices, and when students return from summer break. As a result, it is also the time many thefts occur as doors are left unlocked and boxes are stacked, even for short periods, on sidewalks.  A favorite target of thieves is laptop computers, and as we use laptops to produce more of our knowledge, we can ill afford to have this basic tool get lost, stolen, or strayed.

Risa Gorelick, an assistant professor of English at Monmouth University in New Jersey, told Inside Higher Ed recently of having her home burgled and her laptop stolen.  The perpetrator took not only the laptop, but also two flash drives, where she stored file backups. This thief took much more than than machinery; he or she took months of work on a book project Gorelick had been working on.

Gorelick admits that she let her guard down. As a grad student, she took extra precautions with her dissertation work, even storing a copy in a plastic bag in her freezer. Her lesson: be prepared for the worst. Make extra copies of your work, and store them away in a different physical location than the main system.

The comments on Gorelick's article offer some simple and inexpensive ideas, from online backup services (see PC World's review of these services) to sending copies to yourself using free e-mail services with abundant storage (e.g., G-mail or Yahoo). Or you can carve out a spot in your freezer.

Yesterday, the European Commission released some findings from its Mobility of Researchers and Career Development Implementation Report 2006. The report, soon to be published in full on the EC´s Web site, measures how well existing EC initiatives have supported the mobility of the European scientific workforce and helped make research careers more attractive in Europe.

Here are some of the most relevant findings already available:

- The European Researcher's Mobility Portal, which offers information on training and jobs as well as practical information on living and working in a foreign European country, advertised more than 1,000 jobs each month in 2006.

- The European Network of Mobility Centres (ERA-MORE), which provides assistance to researchers and their families on the move to or within Europe through more than 200 Mobility Centres in 32 countries, answered more than 25,000 questions over the year.

- By the end of 2006, the European Charter for Researchers, which specifies the roles, responsibilities, and entitlements of researchers and their employers/funders, and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers had been adopted by nearly 200 organisations representing more than 800 institutions in 23 countries.

- ERA-link, a free networking tool for European researchers in the United States launched in June 2006, currently counts 3,000 members. European scientists in Japan may soon benefit from the same service with the European Commission now considering extending the model to other countries.

- In 2006 more than 5,000 applications were sent to the EC for Marie Curie Actions funding, which supports the training and mobility of early-career researchers. Altogether, the EC offered 600 individual postdoctoral fellowships, contributed to the support of training and professional development programmes at 800 European research organisations, and to the organisation of more than 3,200 conferences and training courses in which around 93,000 researchers took part. 

Still, much remains to be done before Europe becomes the single, open, competitive labour market the European Union wants for its researchers. The EC plans to propose new initiatives in early 2008 following the current public debate of its Green Paper "The European Research Area: New Perspectives." You may contribute to the debate by expressing your views in the online consultation here, but be quick. The consultation will close on 31 August.

Do you feel overwhelmed or distracted by the number of e-mails you receive each day? Or do you value e-mail as essential in nurturing and extending your network of research collaborators? Or both?

An article published today in the French national newspaper Le Monde may spur you to assess how wisely you manage your flow of e-mails. According to a survey carried out by the foundation Suisse Productive, Swiss workers could save a month of work a year if they handled their e-mails better, Le Monde reports. Yet, an international study carried out independently by IT services provider Dimension Data and highlighted in the same Le Monde article found that 70% of the employees who responded believed that using e-mails made them more productive, not less. The entire article can be read here (in French, bien sûr). Both of these studies focused on industrial and corporate employment, but I see no reason why their implications should not apply in academia as well.

Another interesting fact that came out of the Dimension Data survey, which also may be applied to academia, is that while all respondents (100%) declared using e-mail, fewer picked up their landline (80%) or mobile phone (76%) to get in touch with people. This may be explained at least in part by the fact that only a little more than half of the respondents saw phone calls as enhancing their productivity, against 70% for e-mails. But by reducing direct and personal interactions, using e-mail instead of the telephone comes with its own risks, says Rob Lopez, Solutions Managing Director at Dimension Data, who in the press release questions "how effective and meaningful e-mail communication is when dealing with problem resolution and discussing complex issues."

You can participate in the Suisse Producive survey (in French or in German); in exchange they will rate how well you manage your emails and give you some advice on how to do it better. I did poorly, getting 47 points out of 100. Not all of their advice applies to my working context (that´s my excuse anyway), but I´ll take note of their recommendations to classify my emails neatly rather than letting them accumulate and refrain my compulsion to check them frequently.

A new report and data resource from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) confirms what people seeking life-science careers have long suspected: It's getting harder.

The FASEB data, presented in a summary document (PDF format) and as a downloadable Powerpoint presentation (switch your Powerpoint View to 'Notes' to view discussion), shows that the number of tenured and tenure-track life-sciences faculty positions has remained static over the last 20 years as the number of life-sciences Ph.D.s granted has nearly doubled. Meanwhile, new grad-school enrollment has been climbing since 2000 after several years of decline, and the representation of women in the life-science workforce has increased rapidly (at the lower levels at least). And there's lots more that's interesting.

Medicinal chemist Derek Lowe over at In the Pipeline recently posted some tips on interview seminars. "... [M]any of these are things that high school speech teachers have been telling their students for decades," he writes, "but you know, there's only so much new information in this world."

Of course, you've had to cram a lot of stuff in your brain since high school, so it's good to review the highlights. Among his tips:

  • Know your audience. Don't dwell on topics about which your audience is well informed.
  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" (or its equivalent). Admitting you don't know, Lowe says, is better than trying to whip something up on the spot.
  • Remember what your talk is supposed to do. "You are not giving an informational talk, you're giving a persuasive one, but a shocking number of candidates don't seem to realize this," Lowe writes.

In the comment section of the post, commenter MikeEast adds what I think is a helpful tip (edited throughout to spell out "minutes"):

"Be able to talk about your project for 50 minutes, 30 minutes, 15 minutes and 5 minutes - YES, 5 minutes!" MikeEast writes. "You never know how much time you are going to have to get your message across. I have seen too many candidates faced with a time constraint only quickly flip through all of their slides and cram a 50 minute talk into 20 minutes - not the way to go. You'll get way more kudos covering 'the most important message' or 'what I am most proud of'."

To see the rest of Lowe's tips, as well as the information-rich comments, view the post here. To read even more tips on preparing for interviews and interview talks, check out Dave Jensen's Tooling Up: Job Talk Jitters, the interview advice in You've Worked Hard to Get This Far, the dos and don'ts in Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk, and the tips at the end of Interviewing Skills for Scientists Entering Industry Science.

Our favorite Educated Woman, Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, in her last column on 3 August, talked about her need for external rewards, what she calls "gold stars", from advisers or supervisors. Here are two responses to Micella's column that we got via our Facebook page, hosted by José Fernández ...

Valita Jones:

I am all about giving back to better humanity and society, however, it is just as important to meet your own personal needs! The thing about living up to someone else's standards is just that, you are doing things to support the needs of others and not yourself. There is a quote that I like to use with my undergraduate research students, "Power is the ability to define a people's reality and have them accept it as their own." Ask yourself, who is defining your reality and what are your important life goals and objectives? Who defines your reality??

Louise Valmoria:

Intrinsic motivation is, in the end, a very personal matter; there are always going to be different reasons as to why one is drawn to a scientific career. One of the points that often comes across when I'm discussing careers with my peers is that a science career is very much a vocation, not just a career--it's a life passion.

It might be idealistic, but if you're doing what you're love, you're passionate about finding answers and solutions to what you're working with, and you have a supportive network, these factors can be interdependent to strengthen your own confidence in what you're doing. A motivated employee is going to be more productive, working smarter rather than harder, than one who is uncertain about where they're headed. So much the better, if that motivation is intrinsic and compelling.

Accolades and awards are nice--indeed they are the way that one progresses up into the field--but sometimes the greatest of achievements occur after a lifetime of research, and sometimes aren't even acknowledged in those lifetimes. And in the world of interdisciplinary fields and collaborative research today, not only does a sense of independence and strength need to be fostered, but an appreciation of what you can learn and pass on to others.

Gold stars can be easily obtained from all manner of careers if you push yourself to be the best. To push yourself to be the best in what you do, and contribute original and independent insights that can benefit the world, takes a certain kind of additional self-belief that a lot of us search for at times. That kind of strength, I believe, needs to not just come from a career alone, but from a solid and supportive network of those around you.

Maybe in this case, if Micella chooses a career that does please herself, that she knows she cares about and doesn't hesitate over, those loving rewards--and yes, I agree we are all searching for that in some degree--may come naturally. Enthusiastic, driven, and passionate scientists make for excellent role models--their excitement for their work is infectious--the kind that younger students still making up their minds can look up to even if they won't necessarily follow in those same career footsteps. Rewards are great; they tell you that you're measuring up to an expected standard in your field. In a world where we need to learn from each other and mentor one another, though, leaving a legacy is just as important, be it the independence of running your own lab or just proving to be a great mentor and sounding board for younger undergrads or budding scientists still making their own decisions; who knows, maybe these will prove to be more fulfilling than gold stars and carrots.

In the end we really do have to look within ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions: what is is that brought us here? Is this what we really want to be doing? What am I lacking; why is it that that we feel the need to push ourselves for me ... and ultimately, how can we improve things so we can continue to the make the most of what we've learned over our years of study, and contribute to our field, even if it wasn't necessarily the path that we set out on in the first place? I wish Micella the best of luck--it's a question I ask myself all the time, the answers change as I grow up and mature, and the kind of honest answers I can draw from myself aren't always the easy ones.

Last month, the Guardian announced that it's launching a new Web site for U.K. research news and funding, called Guardian Research. The site is still in its demonstration phase, and you need a subscription--or you need to be at a subscribing institution--to access it. Today, Gabriel Engelhard, field sales manager for Guardian Research, gave me a behind-the-scenes e-tour. 

The funding agencies are worldwide: As long as U.K. scientists are eligible to apply, the Guardian will include the grant or award in its database. As Engelhard showed me the site, a test search even pulled up an entry for the AAAS award for international scientific cooperation. Behind the scenes, four people screen and vet each funding call, Engelhard says.

Once logged in, users can search or browse funding opportunities by a variety of means--keyword, deadline, discipline, funding agency, etc. The database seems to cover the full gamut of disciplines: arts and humanities, computer science, physical sciences, chemical sciences, computing, agriculture, social science, education, law, biomedicine, medical sciences, and beyond--some 4,000 discipline keywords, Engelhard says.

When a user sets up a profile, he or she can choose specific disciplines from that same list. Then, whenever the user runs a search, the results are filtered to include only the profile disciplines. This option is easily turned off if you'd like to broaden a search. The portal will also send a user e-mail alerts about new opportunities based on this profile.

The site also features research-related news from the newspaper and has original content available only to Guardian Research subscribers.

In the next couple of weeks, Guardian Research will launch its trial phase, offering free trials to institutions so they can see if it's a product they're willing to pay for. Once your institution has a subscription, you can register and set up a profile. Engelhard wouldn't disclose subscription costs but he did say that the costs will vary by institution size, and that subscriptions will be available for individuals if your institution won't subscribe, or chooses not to.

The site's closest competitor is ResearchResearch, another subscription-based database that offers U.K.-specific grants and research news. I found Guardian Research very easy to use, but I can't tell you how comprehensive the database is since I was looking at a demo version that's not yet fully stocked. You can look at the site's home page and register your interest at http://research.guardian.co.uk/.

Shameless plug: Content on Science Careers and GrantsNet is available for free.

Last week, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced its latest Physician-Scientist Early Career Awards. HHMI selected the 20 award winners with the goal of creating a core group of scientists who can bridge the gap between the research lab and clinical practice.

As a new Science Careers feature on translational research points out, filling the gap between the lab bench and the bedside is not for the faint of heart. In an article from that feature, "Carving a Career in Translational Research", Anthony Hayward, clinical research director for NIH's National Center for Research Resources says, "It's a tremendous leap of faith for young investigators to commit themselves to translational research. It takes a special sort of person; you have to be willing to take risks."

HHMI recognizes the risks and works to mitigate them. The Physician-Scientist Early Career Awards provide $375,000 to each winner to cover research expenses over a 5-year period, and selects participants from alumni of two of its other activities, the HHMI-NIH Research Scholars Program and the Research Training Fellowships for Medical Students. The early-career awards support the researchers after they have completed their mentored training and while they are establishing--and securing funding for--their own labs. The institutions that employ the awardees must allow them to devote at least 70% of their time to research.

The first round of winners was announced last year, but this year HHMI increased the length of the award term from 3 to 5 years and the amount from $50,000 to $75,000 per year. HHMI plans to announce its 2008 competition in September.

For researchers, a tenured academic job is often the ultimate career goal.  In the 16 August Inside Higher Ed, Shari Dinkins, who joined the faculty this year at Illinois Central College, offers advice to newly-tenured faculty that combines elements of several recent Science Careers articles: "Be Careful What You Wish For", "Employment Due Diligence", and "Be Politically Astute, But Don't Play Politics".

Here's one example of Dr. Dinkins advice ...

It’s normal to want to plant roots, find a home, and invest in a community. After graduate school and years of TA’.ing, it’s natural to grab on to that first tenure-track position and breathe a deep sigh of relief. But the reality is that half of the colleagues I’ve met did not stay at the their first tenure-track job. Of those who left, some found that they needed to move even after a second tenure-track position. It’s a sobering thought.

Dinkins offers a lot of useful pointers, from sizing up the institution as a whole, to making a good first impression on other faculty. She explains, for example, how research funds, which can seem so plentiful when you first arrived, can dry up in a hurry, and how jabbering on about your last college or university will zone out your colleagues even faster.

If you're in the academic world, or even if you're not, read the whole thing.

Peter Fiske's recent column Opportunities: The Power of Poverty provoked a reply from Roger Wynne, a middle-school science teacher, that caused me to question an editorial judgment I made while editing that article.  I thought Peter's column was excellent--no criticism is implied--but 'poverty' may not have been the best word to describe the standard of living of the average graduate student. As a graduate student I--and everyone else I knew--had little extra money, but we also had few obligations. it was a comfortable life, and pleasant one; what we lacked in material goods we made up for in intellectual stimulation. Compare that to the situation of  the young woman described in this email:

I found the online article on "The Power of Poverty" interesting if not enlightening.  I have a different twist from what I thought the article might be addressing.  As a middle school science teacher I have for my entire teaching career promoted students, especially girls, to consider sciences as a career choice. In San Diego we have some interest in promoting girls in science.

Years ago, one student of mine in eighth grade was interested in science I encouraged her to pursue her interest.  She mentioned she could not attend a particular science event, a Better Education for Women in Science and Engineering-BEWiSE, so my wife and I took her to the event.  I was shocked and deeply bothered that upon picking her up she was living in the camper shell one that fits in the back of a small pick up in a rural campground.  The camper shell was sitting on the ground and mom lived in a just slightly bigger trailer at right angles to the camper shell. The odd thing about this was that you would have never thought about this as this girl was a good student and was attending school regularly.   

In our small rural school I was able to follow her through high school. She lived in a tent during some of the following years and most recently a single wide trailer with her mom and two small children of this student's older sister.  This girl decided to go to college and people encouraged her to do so.  Thank goodness that there are grants available; yet I thought this is really the time she needs assistance to overcome poverty with a better education.  Many people she has encountered and with whom I have talked have offered monetary assistance to help this student.  The last few weeks she has lived with my family as her home just went away, mom leaving, and the other children going back with their own mother. 

Getting to know this recent high school graduate better, I have seen her resourcefulness as Peter Fiske has mentioned grad students experience, but additionally there is a poverty present from lack of experience that no money can overcome. 

Encouragement, mentoring, and experiences through education are all useful to overcome this kind of poverty.  We all can contribute to stopping this kind of poverty through sharing our knowledge with others to guide them toward succeeding.  Now I infer that Peter Fiske is financially in a much better situation.  I only hope this experiment to break the cycle of poverty through education and mentoring happens for this student.

Sincerely,

Roger D. Wynn


...a recent Science Careers article has gotten a mention on the UNESCO blog. Pretty cool.

Hat Tip: Ric Weibl of AAAS's Center for Careers in Science and Technology.

Over at the Huffington Post, Susan Blumenthal and coauthors discuss the importance of biomedical research and provide charts outling the positions of the major presidential candidates on issues related to research.

The analysis is written for a lay audience--most of our readers don't need to be convinced of the importance of research--but the candidate chart is interesting. The positions of the leading Democratic candidates--Clinton, Obama, Edwards--are far more detailed than those of the other candidates, Democratic or Republican. The authors came up with virtually no information on the positions of the Republican candidates on research-related issues, except that all of them support restrictions on stem-cell research. (The only Republican candidate with any information on a topic besides stem cells is Mitt Romney, who says he is "committed to curing diseases through research.")

Among the candidates--all Democrats--who have laid out detailed positions, but Clinton's positions are the most detailed. Obama wants to double the federal research budget over 5 years; Clinton proposes a smaller expansion, but over a longer term--which is good. Clinton wants to increase the NSF grad-student stipend to $40,000. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama all want to expand the scientific-workforce.

There's no evidence that any of the candidates understand the current complicated labor situation in science.

In a recent blog entry, we reported passage by the U.S. Congress--and signing by the President--of the America COMPETES act, which provides an ambitious blueprint for federal science spending for the next few years--but doesn't actually allocate the money. That's the job of a dozen spending bills that Congress will consider over the next few months.

In the AAAS August Funding Update, Kei Koizumi analyzes the America COMPETES act and the probability that the ACT's promise would eventually be fulfilled. Koizumi points out that the Act goes well beyond the President's budget request;  instead of cutting funding for other R&D programs as requested, "the Act would provide increases to every major nondefense R&D funding agency, and would turn proposed cuts into significant increases for the congressional priorities of biomedical research, environmental research (particularly climate change research), and energy R&D. The added billions in FY 2008 appropriations so far would turn a requested cut in federal support of basic and applied research into a real increase, after three years of decline."

But even though the President signed the Act, he might veto some of the funding bills that would fulfill its promises. "These increases," Koizumi writes, "depend on an overall congressional budget plan allocating $21 billion more for domestic appropriations than the President’s budget; because the President has threatened to veto any appropriations bills that exceed his budget request, these R&D increases could disappear or diminish this fall in negotiations between the President and Congress over final funding levels."

For more discussion of science budgets, see the August R&D Funding Update.

August 16, 2007

Innovators Under 35

Worth a Look: Technology Review magazine has published it's "TR35" list of top innovators under the age of 35.

A recent article in Science Careers explored the advantages of undergraduate research. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (17 August issue; subscription required for Web access) takes a different approach to the same question, reporting the results of three studies that tested the conventional wisdom about the perceived advantages of undergraduate research.

This excellent and informative article, written by Lila Guterman, concludes that the conventional wisdom is largely correct. Doing research as an undergraduate increases the likelihood that a student will go on to graduate school--but the size of the effect ranged from about 3% in one study to almost 30% in another. The studies suggested that undergraduate research helps to clarify career paths; some students try it and decide it isn't for them.

The studies all agreed that undergraduate research has a large, positive effect on the sophistication of young students. "There seems to be a tremendous amount of growth," says David Lopatto, a professor of psychology at Grinnell College and the author of one of the studies. "Students report they can work more independently; they feel they can tolerate obstacles to their work better than they used to; they feel ready for challenge."

One important (if unsurprising) conclusion was that much depends on the quality of the experience and the strength and focus of the research mentor involved. Undergraduates who are able to engage in real research with active and involved mentors benefited most.

There's lots more. Worth reading.

As Science Careers pointed out in April, India gives a high priority to research and development as a cornerstone of its future economy, and a report in the news section of Science (subscription required) provides more evidence of it. Among today's 1.1 billion Indians, only 9.2 million are higher education students. To push that number up, last week the Indian government announced a plan to invest $33 billion over the next 7 years to add 8 elite Indian Institutes of Technology, 20 regional engineering schools, and many other campuses devoted to research, computing, and management. And there's something for the current crop of science trainees: a 50% increase in starting stipends for graduate students and postdocs.

Two reports out last month provide some interesting--and troubling--information about science courses at U.K. universities.

According to the first report, from the U.K. College and Admissions Service (UCAS), applications for full-time undergraduate courses are up by 5.3% overall compared with last year. But the findings vary within science subjects. There was a 31.5% rise in the number of students seeking to join courses in complementary medicine while the more traditional medical disciplines--anatomy, physiology, and pathology--saw a 19% fall in applications. Surprisingly, engineering and technology courses had the greatest increase in applications, with 54% more students applying than in the previous year.

But this apparently encouraging trend pales when the second report, on the continuation rates of students in higher education courses, is taken into account. The survey by the National Audit Office (NAO) showed that when science, technology, engineering, and maths students are considered together, they are less likely to continue to a second year of study than students following other subjects. In fact, of all students, the most likely to drop out are those taking computer science, mechanical engineering, and electronic engineering--the same areas of study that the UCAS finds have the biggest increases in applications. The retention of science students is the biggest challenge facing universities, say the authors of the NAO report.

A key factor cited by many students leaving these courses was that they hadn't counted on the maths being so hard. It seems that, although universities are doing better at making science and engineering courses appear attractive to prospective students, once enrolled the students are left to sink or swim. And many, it appears, are sinking.

Taken together, the reports also provide a caution against taking a single statistic at face value.

-by Hannah Devlin

Yesterday the U.S. President signed into law the America COMPETES act, which provides an ambitious blueprint for federal science spending for the next few years along with one of the most unwieldy acronyms in recent memory. For the whole story (or a big, juicy chunk of it) see the Science news story by Jeff Mervis (subscription, site license, or AAAS membership required for access). The bill passed the House by a wide margin on 2 August. It passed the Senate later that day by unanimous consent.

COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) sets priorities for science spending for years to come and commits the government (at least in principal) to funding targets totaling $43 billion over the next three years. COMPETES calls, for example, for a 7-year doubling of the NSF budget, for dramatically expanding a program providing scholarships to undergraduates who commit to teaching in technical fields, and "enshrines the social and behavioral sciences as an essential element in NSF's research portfolio," to quote the Science news story. COMPETES also creates a new grant program at NSF that would fund new investigators whose research proposals narrowly fail to achieve the level required for funding, as well as a new DARPA-style funding program at the Department of Energy.

COMPETES authorizes all of these new initiatives, so it's legally meaningful--but the act doesn't provide money to fund the new programs. That's the job of a dozen different funding bills that are slowly making their way through Congress that which will fund the fiscal year that begins on 1 October. The funding prospects for certain agencies--specifically NIST, NSF, and DoE, which are covered by the administration's American Competitiveness Initiative--look good. For others, the prospects are less clear.

If most of the programs authorized by COMPETES are eventually funded, the net effect for early career scientists should be quite positive. The act's education provisions should provide new opportunities for science students who wish to become teachers. That new NSF grant program should help more young investigators win NSF funding. And researchers in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences will see their disciplines on a firmer foundation after being attacked in recent months by some lawmakers, notably Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX).

On balance it's a great step forward for science funding, but it's not without flaws. The 7-year-doubling commitment for NSF is good, but more desirable would be a long-term commitment to moderate increases with no end point; that would help to prevent the sort of funding crisis that now afflicts the biomedical sciences as more scientists (nurtured by NIH's 5-year doubling) seek a smaller pot of money. And I can't help worrying that the new NSF plan for new investigators will tilt decisions at review meetings towards established investigators, since reviewers and panelists will know that new investigators--but not established ones--will have a funding fall-back.

The biggest reason for concern, however, is that Congress still needs to provide the money for COMPETES. It's far easier to support in principal a popular policy like expanding science funding than it is to allocate real money in a tight funding climate.

We reported in July that the European Research Council (ERC) whittled the 9167 applications for its Starting Grants for young scientists down to 559 finalists. Late last week, the agency provided further statistics (links to PDF) on those finalists. In a Science Scope in this week's Science (subscription required), Gretchen Vogel takes a look at the home countries of the applicants--and the fact that fewer than 5% of them are from the mostly eastern European countries that have joined the European Union since 2004.

Here's the breakdown that the ERC provided:

Nationality by country groups Number Percent
Founding Member States (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) 293 53%
Member States joining the EC/EU 1973-1995 (Austria, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom) 152 27%
Member States joining the EU 2004-2007 (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia) 30 5%
Associated countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Croatia, Israel, Iceland, Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Turkey) 47 7%
Other countries 37 7%

The ERC notes that 87% of the candidates have 4 to 9 years of experience after completion of their Ph.D., and their average age is around 36 years. They also say that only 24% of the finalists are women. ("Only" is my word, not theirs.) The applications are judged individually and without regard to the applicant's gender or nationality, and the starting grants are an awesome opportunity for young scientists to land some serious funding. Still, though, one would have hoped to see stronger representation in eastern Europe and a better gender balance.

A new report from the Commonwealth Fund says that American adults aged 19-29 are becoming one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the population without health insurance. From 2004 to 2005, the number of uninsured young adults (defined as adults in this age range) grew from 12.9 million to 13.3 million. While adults in the 19-29 age group comprise 17% of the non-elderly (under 65) population, they account for 30% of the non-elderly uninsured.

Young adults living in poverty account for a big part of this uninsured group. About 4 in 10 of uninsured young adults live in households with incomes below the poverty level. In addition, many employer-based health insurance policies cut off coverage for dependent children after they reach age 18 or 19 if the kids do not go off to college. (Many colleges require their students to have health insurance coverage, and employer-based health insurance often allows parents to extend coverage while their dependent children are enrolled.) Young adults who now choose instead to stay at home and take a job find fewer employers than before who offer health benefits.

An important factor influencing the availability of health insurance to this group, the report says, is the transient nature of young adult's lives. It is not unusual for college students--including those pursuing science degrees--to switch between work and school in order to earn enough money to pay for school or to gain new experiences. Their jobs, however, are often the low-pay or part-time variety that usually do not provide health insurance, and job tenure is often shorter for young adults than it is for older ones. So they risk going weeks, months, or years without health insurance.

A college degree is often cited as a key to avoiding poverty, but it provides no guarantee of health insurance coverage. Between 1996 and 2000, about 4 in 10 college graduates (38%) lacked health insurance for at least a little while in the year following graduation, more than half that number (21%) going 6 months or more without insurance. Graduated students are no longer covered by their parents' health plans or university-offered insurance. Their prospects for coverage depend on how quickly they can find a job that provides health benefits. Some students in the sciences have an advantage here, since jobs requiring science skills are more likely than many others to offer insurance coverage. But finding such jobs isn't easy, and often takes a while.

Consider, too, the postbac--the working hiatus many young adults take between undergraduate and graduate school described in this week's Science Careers. Some people manage to find good jobs with health insurance during this time, and those who participate in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and similar programs typically are guaranteed coverage in various ways. But many students spend the postbac doing other types of work--tending bar, building houses, whatever they can find--and for them health insurance can be hard to find.

For postdocs, the situation has improved dramatically in recent years, but it's too soon to say the problem has been solved. While many science postdocs now have some form of health benefits, as Beryl Benderly pointed out a year ago in Science Careers, it is a fairly recent phenomenon, did not come without a struggle, and is by no means a uniform practice. Coverage varies from campus to campus and with the type of funding.

In this week's "Opportunities" column, Peter Fiske preaches the value of living in poverty and urges readers--young adults, mostly--to use the ability to exist on not much money as a way of increasing the impact they have on society. If you limit yourself to opportunities that pay a lot, he points out, you minimize the opportunity to have an impact on the world. It's a great way to think about things, but it doesn't take health insurance into account. Eating tuna from a can is no big deal, but taking a chance that a serious illness will drive you even deeper in debt is harder to dismiss. Because getting insurance is such a problem, some of our most creative scientists are, we suspect, forced to take the safe road and not the influential one. Instead of toying with a new idea and starting up a new company that in time will add millions to the nation's economy, they plug themselves into an existing slot where they can earn a good salary--and health insurance.

The report goes to describe why young adults need health care and the means to pay for it (consider pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and obesity for starters) and discusses policy options for addressing the problem. An overview of the report is on the Commonwealth Fund Web site.

Hat Tip:  Think Progress

August 7, 2007

Tag Yourself with Science

The Loom, science writer Carl Zimmer's blog, has a couple of posts about scientists with tattoos related to their science--with photos. Here's the first, and here's the second.

A post on the Web site of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) points out that buried in the language of the 21st Century Competitiveness Act--the sweeping science-funding legislation just passed by the U.S. Congress--is a provision requiring applicants for NSF grants to document their postdoc-mentoring plans in their grant applications, and to report on those activities in progress reports. Here's the relevant excerpt:

 

SEC. 7008. POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOWS.

 

(a) Mentoring- The Director shall require that all grant applications that include funding to support postdoctoral researchers include a description of the mentoring activities that will be provided for such individuals, and shall ensure that this part of the application is evaluated under the Foundation's broader impacts merit review criterion. Mentoring activities may include career counseling, training in preparing grant applications, guidance on ways to improve teaching skills, and training in research ethics.

 

(b) Reports- The Director shall require that annual reports and the final report for research grants that include funding to support postdoctoral researchers include a description of the mentoring activities provided to such researchers.


You can find a copy of the legislation here.

Hat tip: Alyson Reed and the NPA.

August 7, 2007

Making IT Work for Women

The representation of women in some areas of science, like the life sciences, has increased in recent years, to near parity at lower levels (in the upper echelons women are still underrepresented in every area of science). But in some fields, like information technology, progress has been slow or worse. In recent years, (IT) there's been losing ground on the gender-diversity front. "According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the IT profession today has dropped to 26.1% from 28.9% in 2001," notes this article from Computerworld. "And the future looks even worse: According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), just 21% of computer science degrees go to women today, compared with 37% in 1985."

Computerworld interviews four successful women about their own experiences in IT. Read it here.

August 6, 2007

Resumes That Tell a Story

Sometimes the career advice columns on Science Careers offer tips for writing resumes, many of which urge resume writers to recognize that they are preparing marketing materials about themselves. A resume service company blog last month offers an approach to marketing yourself that can help make a resume stand out from the crowd.

A Blue Sky Resume blog entry on 12 July asks in its title, "Does Your Resume Tell a Story?"  Louise Fletcher, who writes the blog, notes that stories connect more deeply with readers than mere recitations of facts. If you can weave your experiences and accomplishments into an interesting narrative, your resume stands a better chance of catching the hiring manager's attention than the all-too-common staccato of isolated facts.

Fletcher gives an example. She received a resume from a client that had a series of bullet points telling about the client's accomplishments at a company. One of those bullet points read ...

- Helped increase sales by 10% through new marketing campaign.

Fletcher notes that as impressive as this accomplishment may sound, the reader has no context to gauge its value.  For example, if the company's sales growth rate was 20% during that period, a 10% sales increase for that campaign is nothing to brag about. Nor does the resume writer say anything about how this was accomplished. Putting the accomplishment in context (assuming of course that the accomplishment and context are true) helps tell a more compelling story. Here's how Fletcher suggested recasting this point, including the use of boldface font ...

- Repositioned outdated service provider by adding and promoting 3 market-leading services - drove a 10% increase in sales after 3 years of decreases. (Increase was achieved despite an overall market decline of 5%.)

A key point is that Fletcher implements her suggestion within the constraints of the standard resume form. The standard form is used creatively to communicate more information than most resumes manage to communicate; with just a few extra words, the resume goes from being a static recitation of facts to a dynamic passage--a story.

In a previous job, I once had to hire a computer system manager to run a large central system at a remote location. The job required not just the technical skills to run the system, but also good judgment and interpersonal skills to interact with the system's users. Wading through the first stack of resumes to find the top candidates was a long and arduous task, but one resume jumped out from the pile. It was from an applicant with the same amount and kinds of systems management experience many of the other candidates had. But he told the story of his professional life in essay form, telling how he got interested in this kind of work and relating his accomplishments, also in story form, in his current and previous positions. It was by far the most interesting resume, and he turned out in the interview to be an interesting person. We ended up hiring him and he stayed several years with this us, doing a splendid job.

The story here is to have your resume tell a story or series of stories, although it's probably too risky to put them in essay form like this system manager did. If you can work within the constraints of the format while still telling a story, it will help move your resume up towards the top of the pile.

While young women in the U.S. earn less than men, in New York and a few other large cities women in their 20s working full time are pulling down more money than the guys. The New York Times today (registration required) reports on an analysis by Queens College demographer Andrew Beveridge that shows as of 2005, women age 21-30 working full time in New York earned 17% more than their male counterparts: $35,653 for women and $30,560 for men. For the United States overall, men in this age group earn $28,523 compared to $25,467 for women.

And New York is not alone. In Dallas, Boston, Minneapolis, and Chicago young women also earned more than men. In Dallas, the gap was even larger than New York, with a 20% difference in earnings.

The article offers several reasons for the disparities. Diana Rhoten of the Social Science Research Council says big cities offer more professional opportunities and less gender discrimination than smaller cities. Andrew Hacker, a sociologist at Queens College says that women in cities are less likely to be married or have children, which lets them devote more time to their careers. Other data suggest that education levels are playing a role. In 2005, says the article, a majority (53%) of New York women in their 20s had a college education, compared to 38% for men.

While income gains made by women may be due to more advancement and opportunities, Beveridge's study also suggests that men's earnings may be going in reverse.  Since 1970, real wages adjusted for inflation have declined for all men nationwide. For men in New York with bachelors degrees or higher, incomes have barely kept pace with inflation while they have soared for women.

Surely I'm not the only one who procrastinates by reading blogs? Or perhaps that's why you're reading this now?

While not exactly a blog, it reads like one: This week, our Educated Woman, Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, writes about how she's settling in to postdoc life and finding it a bit ... unsettling. "Why can't I stay upright and ride off to the next stage?" she writes. "Why do I feel the need to keep having someone set me up again? Why does it feel like I still haven't quite started out, when by all outside accounts I'm already pretty far down the road?"

She goes on to observe that there just aren't any gold stars in postdoc life--no rewards for showing up every day, nothing for performing successful experiments, and no encouragement from those around her. Sometimes all it takes is the tiniest nod from a supervisor or adviser to boost the self-esteem. Micella notes that it's weird that there are so few gold stars in training for a career that's all about winning the approval of others.

After you've read this week's Educated Woman, wander over to The Daily Transcript for the 6th edition of What's Up, Postdoc? -- the carnival of postdoc life where bloggers submit their favorite posts about lab life. (Links to previous editions can be found here.)

Some highlights:

Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous notes that things aren't always cheery in postdoc life, but he takes a look on the bright side in Seriously, I'm enjoying myself immensely right now.

I'm not sure whether he meant it to be so uproariously funny, but I found myself laughing out loud at Sunil of Balancing Life's post, Survivor - Biochemistry Lab. "Well, I don’t know about deserted islands, but let us say I had to choose to be abandoned all alone somewhere," Sunil writes. " ... There is only one place I can think of where I think I’ll be able to do just fine. And that would be a well equipped biochemistry/biology lab."

And Propter Doc writes about what the perfect postdoc looks like. "What do I think the perfect postdoc looks like? You know what, I'm going to really hate myself for my answer because my perfect postdoc looks scarily close to what I've got in some regards, but very different in others. But similar enough to make me cross with myself." For more on that topic, check out The Perfect Postdoc: A Primer on Science Careers.

The regional government of Galicia in Spain has just announced a plan to attract internationally recognised scientists to its research and technology centres. The programme, called IMAN (Unidade de Captación de Intelixencia Estratéxica), will spend more than 8 million euros through 2010 to offer both temporary and permanent contracts to high-profile scientists. Their role will be to lead strategic projects and to help the centres and research in the region grow.

Applications will be accepted between January and April of next year. The first contracts will be signed by the end of 2008.

August 1, 2007

The Buzz About Charisma

Dave Jensen's most recent Science Careers Tooling Up column about charisma as a job-seeking tool (20 July) generated an online discussion on Facebook last week, with reactions ranging from quick to extended. Our colleague José Fernández, who hosts the Science Careers profile on Facebook, says he started receiving comments about the article soon after it appeared. (You will need a Facebook account--available for free--to view the full Science Careers profile.)

Here are a few of the comments José received ...

I think that having a sense of confidence and intellect helps you with charisma! But most important is cultivating your interpersonal communication skills...

- Valita Jones


I liked the article. I think there are some things that people can do to improve their "charisma." However, I also think that it comes naturally to certain people and for the others it is difficult to learn. Eye contact and keeping your audiences' interest in mind is definitely important. However, I still think there is more to it than that. I personally feel drawn to people who are self-confident, enthusiastic, and good story tellers. The most charismatic people I know are able to relate to a wide variety of people and appear genuinely interested in what others have to say.

- Leslie Bailey


Valita has said what I would like to say, but in a more succinct way :) Learning interpersonal skills and actively focusing on these is a great way to start. And I'll quote part of Leslie's statement as a springboard to my thoughts:

The most charismatic people I know are able to relate to a wide variety of people and appear genuinely interested in what others have to say. - Leslie Bailey

I strongly agree with this point. In my dealings with the corporate business world you meet a lot of enthusiastic, effusive people--but they also seem to be lacking in that quality of 'charisma'. I feel this may be due to the 'ego-speak' referred to in the article--the ability to attract a crowd over making some noise, but only being able to hold attention superficially because it was all about the 'I' and not about the rest of the team (or group, or company).

I once worked around a dynamic duo who were both charismatic in their own way; erudite, enthusiastic. While these two personalities played off each other, it was the second, quieter person who seemed to gain the greater respect, for that 'indefinable' quality. The first personality could get everyone talking and debating, mainly by seeking out their thoughts and then sharing them with his opinion (maybe too vehemently--he had a strong confidence in his opinion and that self-confidence meant he wasn't afraid to hold back, but that fit in with his style and energy). The second personality would listen, ask questions, draw out pros and cons, and synthesize everyone's points on the spot. What her personal opinion on the topic was, however, often a mystery. Time showed that while more creative brainstorming happened around the first personality, more effective meetings and outcomes occurred around the second, so they made a great team playing off their strengths.

Whether or not 'charisma' can be learned would depend on someone's ability to be aware of the perceptions they project of themselves. Self-confidence can be reflected in body language--aggressive body language in making a point might unconsciously trigger the listener to reject the message at hand, and insecure body language could indicate that the speaker isn't confident in what they're saying, as opposed to just being less than confident.

Some of the most charismatic people I know are also excellent at picking up details--some people practice 'active listening' as 'repeating what someone has just said in order to reassure them that the message has been sent', others seriously listen and draw out small, relevant points to keep up a cohesive conversation that refers back to the listener. Paying attention to details and using these in presentations does have a way of making the listener really feel as though they're involved and seriously engaged in the exchange.

The article makes this point in speaking of the other person's interests--if you're meeting someone in a corridor you need to rely on carefully active listening skills to draw out what their interests are.

Thinking back to my example above, sometimes the most gregarious, visible personality isn't the one that effuses the most 'charisma'; it's the one who is quietly confident that they have something to say and somehow gives off that air to others, who seemingly instinctively respect them, will actually seek them out to hear their opinion. The ability to relate to other personalities, especially very different ones, and get their message across seems to be one of the keys.

- Louise Valmoria

The European Science Foundation this week named the winners of its European Young Investigator Awards. Each of the 20 winners will receive between €1 million and €1.25 million to set up their own labs and build a research team. Among the winners: a computer scientist who will design and analyze algorithms for efficient management of large datasets; a biophysicist who will study single-molecule nanomachines; and a medical geneticist who will map genes for diseases in the domestic dog.

According to a press release on the awards, the average age of this year's winners is 33.1--the youngest group of recipients ever for these awards. The 20 awardees will work in eight countries: Czech Republic, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

The awards scheme was originally developed to attract young researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe to establish themselves. This was the fourth year for the awards--and the last. The decision on whether to continue the awards--either in their current form or in a new format--now rests with the newly formed European Research Council.

The winners (full list here) will be honored at a ceremony in Helsinki on September 27.