Science Careers Blog

December 2007

December 27, 2007

Editors' Best of 2007 Now Live

For three years, Science Careers has devoted its last issue of the year to highlighting our editors' choices for the best articles of the year, and we continued that tradition this year. Our editors could apply whatever criteria they deemed fit to the decision, but had to limit their choices to five articles only. The results are a mix of how-to articles, inspirational profiles, personal perspectives, and job-market commentaries.

You will notice that the last paragraph of the text before the article list asks readers to give us their take on how we're doing. While we respect our editors' opinions, it's you the readers who really matter. You can add a comment to this posting, send us e-mail, write on the wall of our Facebook page (run by GrantsNet database manager José Fernández), or discuss with peers and experts on the Science Careers Forum. If you really got something to say about your career in science or scientific careers in general -- more than few paragraphs -- send us an "In Person" essay.

Enjoy the Best of 2007, but let's hear from you in 2008. Best wishes for the new year.

Here's something you don't see everyday: Physicist Scott Aaronson of Canada's University of Waterloo, has found himself plagiarized -- a passage from his published lecture notes lifted without attribution -- by a couple of models acting in an Australian ad for a Ricoh printer.

Here's a transcript of the ad (which you can watch on YouTube):

Model 1: But if quantum mechanics isn’t physics in the usual sense -- if it’s not about matter, or energy, or waves -- then what is it about?

Model 2: Well, from my perspective, it’s about information, probabilities, and observables, and how they relate to each other.

Model 1: That’s interesting!

This is followed by the tagline "A more intelligent model" and an image of a Ricoh printer.

And here's the relevant passage from the lecture notes, from Aaronson's course "Quantum Computing Since Democritus:"

But if quantum mechanics isn’t physics in the usual sense — if it’s not about matter, or energy, or waves, or particles — then what is it about?  From my perspective, it’s about information and probabilities and observables, and how they relate to each other.

Here's a link to the actual lecture notes.

It's a weird world. You can read more about it on Scott Aaronson's blog, here.

December 26, 2007

Year-End Review, with Yourself

On the Shifting Careers blog at the New York Times, Michael Melcher engages in some year-end self-assessment. The usefulness of such exercises depends on how well they're executed, so Melcher's thoughtful modeling of the self-assessment process is helpful.

Johns Hopkins University is on the lookout for new recruits to enroll in their Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program in Nanotechnology for Biology and Medicine (NBMed). Funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and run out of the university’s  Institute for Nanobiotechnology (INBT), the program is geared to people looking for specialized training at the interface of nanoscience and medicine. The program’s Website touts the potential for graduates to establish careers "creating new diagnostics and therapeutics to detect, treat, cure, and prevent human diseases."

"The NBMed program ... will produce a new generation of scientists and engineers who will pioneer new scientific discoveries and the creation of new technologies," said NBMed program director Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and the INBT associate director, in a quote relayed to Science Careers by Mary Spiro, Media Relations officer with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

One of the features that sets the program apart is that students don’t obtain a degree specific to this niche. Instead they continue to work with one of a range of participating departments including Physics, Biomedical Engineering, or Molecular Biology. Students receive specialized training in nano-bio, but their degrees are awarded by their home departments.

Participants conduct lab rotations in and out of their primary disciplines, spending time with investigators in a variety of relevant fields. "Students can select a lab for rotations from among more than 150 faculty associated with the INBT," Wirtz says. "A surprising feature of the rotations is that students view this as a tremendous opportunity and are frequently the catalysts in binging together two faculty with complementary research interests. Several new collaboarations have been established through students serving as the 'matchmaker'."

Currently, 7 students are enrolled in the 3-year-old program and administrators expect to pick 3 or 4 new students in the new year. Students earn a stipend, but program administrators refused to disclose the amount of the stipend since, Spiro said, next year's stipend could change.

Prospective students apply simultaneously to both a participating department and the institute. Interested students can contact INBT Education Program Coordinator Ashanti Edwards at

                                                             - Andrew Fazekas, Canadian Correspondent

December 21, 2007

New Help for Student Borrowers

The National Consumer Law Center has set up a new site with an extensive collection of answers to questions and tutorials on student loans.  The site, Student Loan Borrower Assistance has two main sections:

1. Get Answers offers a long list of FAQs on the basics of student loans, default, delinquency, bankruptcy, loan cancellation, repayment, collections, and where to go for help.

2. Find a Solution takes visitors through these same topics step-by-step, which can be helpful if you don't even know which questions to ask.

Besides the nuts-and-bolts help, the site keeps visitors current on changes in the law and related policy matters. With student loan debt rising (PDF), students and their families cannot afford to be uninformed. The site cautions that it does not dispense legal advice.

Hat-tip: Project on Student Debt

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) reported that it had to postpone the scheduled offering of its Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) on 15 December. According to the organization's Web site, ETS suffered "an internal service disruption during the check-in procedure" for the test. ETS offers the test at hundreds of locations worldwide, and uses the Internet to capture the test-takers' spoken and written responses. It still offers a paper-based TOEFL test in some locales.

ETS says it will offer a make-up test early next year. It will also provide on request a letter with an explanation of the delay to institutions expecting the test results for applicants.

TOEFL tests the ability of non-native speakers to use English in university settings. It measures abilities in reading, listening, speaking and writing English.

Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed.

December 14, 2007

First ERC Awards Announced

The European Research Council (ERC) today announced the completion of the selection process for its first Starting Independent Investigators grants. The awards -- aimed at scientists with between 2 and 9 years of post-Ph.D. experience, an excellent track record, ground-breaking research ideas, and in the process of establishing an independent research group in Europe -- attracted some 9,000 applications back in April. Of these, 559 were retained for the second round.

Within a few days, around 300 up-and-coming scientists will receive a notification for an ERC Starting grant of up to €2 million for 5 years. The awardees are from 32 different nationalities and are based in 170 host institutions in 21 different countries. On average, the awardees are 35 years old, and a quarter of them are women. The first contracts will be signed in February next year.

The competition was especially tough this year, but those who were disappointed may draw on their experience to apply next year. Here is some advice from ERC panel members that may help your grant application stand out. The ERC also issued many documents on the process, have a look at those, too. (In August, we wrote about the home countries, experience level, and gender of those 559 finalists; today's announcement includes a similar breakdown of the finalists.)

As for the winners: Congratulations! I think we're all curious to hear about you, your research plans, and what you thought of the application process. So send us a comment or use our Science Careers Forum to share your experience!

This week, I got a press release from the Economic and Social Research Council with the subject line, rather stressfully typed in all uppercase letters, "WORKPLACE OPPORTUNITIES AND STRESSES ARE BOTH INCREASING." An ESRC funded study has found that new-ish workplace practices such as team building, performance-based pay, and productivity monitoring puts strain on employees -- as much stress as working an additional 120 hours per year.

To make matters worse, the increased stress affects women's family relationships more than men's, the study finds. Stressful workplace practices put strain on both men and women when it comes to anxiousness about childcare arrangements, and women get less help at home if their male partners' jobs are full of "the pressures of modern human resource management."

The findings are discussed in a book released this week, Market, Class, and Employment. You can also read more on the study in the ESRC's press release.

All the more evidence of the importance of work-life balance, I say.

December 13, 2007

Ph.D.s Ditch the Lab

As Harvard expands its Ph.D. programs in the sciences, graduates seeking jobs in academia face the bleakest employment prospects in decades, writes Clifford Marks in the Harvard Crimson.

December 12, 2007

More on Work-Life Balance

This week's package on work-life balance has generated some interesting feedback, and once you start talking about these issues, related items pop up all over the place.

We heard from Kathleen Wiant, co-founder of It's a new job board that lists flextime jobs in professional fields. The site defines "flextime" rather broadly, and is a bit geographically limited at this point. (It's now listing jobs nationwide, but it's still biased toward its starting region, Ohio.) There aren't too many science jobs, either, but again, it's a relatively new site, and the flextime angle is certainly a novel idea in the usually-uniform world of job ad sites.

Just as we posted the articles on work-life balance, I got a press release about Jobshare U.K., a jobs site for flextime, part-time, and, you guessed it, jobshare positions in the U.K. The U.K. Resource Centre for Women (UKRC) has funded a science, engineering, and technology consultant for the site, so the organization is paying attention to science jobs. (Aside: The UKRC has an interesting fact sheet on your rights in flexible working.)

We also heard from a reader who suggested we address scientists with disabilities (in the context of the article on part-time scientists -- some of the issues may apply to dealing with disabilities, too). We addressed some of the issues in a 2003 feature, "Able Scientists Overcoming Disabilities."  In 2004, we looked more broadly at dealing with health issues in the workplace, including chronic fatigue syndrome and whether you should disclose your health issues to your employer. Earlier this year, we ran an article on hearing-impaired scientists. Last month, the Business Office of AAAS (the publishers of Science and Science Careers) wrote about programs in schools and colleges to encourage people with disabilities to go into the sciences. All that said, there's more we can cover. We're always glad to hear suggestions from readers, and we'll certainly look into how we can freshen up our content on this topic.

The New York Times reports today (free subscription required) that Harvard University has raised the income ceiling on financial aid eligibility for students from families often considered middle and upper-middle class. Harvard joins several other elite private universities with growing concerns about the ability of even well-off families to afford the costs of sending their children to their institutions.

While Harvard's stated annual tuition runs $45,600 per year, the institution will reduce that cost to families making up to $180,000 a year. Officials at Harvard say these subsidies will reduce the cost of attending the university for many students from by a third to a half. The article quotes Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust saying, "We’ve all been aware of increasing pressures on the middle class. We hear about this in a number of ways -- housing costs, both parents working, the difficulty of amassing any kinds of savings, just the increasing pressures as middle class lives have become more stressed."

One reason for the new policy is the realization by university officials that only wealthy students can afford to pursue unpaid research opportunities or internships with professors or at summer institutes. The increasing costs also reduce the opportunity to study abroad.

Other universities have taken or are considering similar actions. The article cites Amherst, Williams, Stanford, Duke, and several Ivy institutions. According to the article, however, Harvard's actions seem to go further than the others.

According to Nairobi's Business Daily, the Gates Foundation has awarded $13 million to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to promote careers in agricultural research by African women. The grant will fund 360 fellowships for women at all career stages. There is no age limit. CGIAR is an umbrella organization of 15 international agricultural research organizations.

It's a fascinating situation because women form the majority of Africa's farmers but only a minority of its agricultural researchers. According to the article, African women produce 60-80% of Africa's food but constitute just 20% of the continent's agricultural scientists. "If only one in five researchers is a woman, you run the risk of not including all the relevant voices,” Vicki Wilde, head of the gender and diversity programme at CGIAR, told Business Daily at a CGIAR conference in Beijing on Tuesday. "More women in research and development will mean that women farmers are better served, and hunger and poverty are better tackled, added Ms Wilde. “Women are on the level closest to the ground. When we strengthen them, we back an important part of the equation.”

CGIAR has run a pilot program in Kenya for 3 years that encourages women to stay in research. The program (the article says) has helped retain 20% more women in agricultural research.

The program will provide 360 2-year fellowships for women. Women whose research promises to help small farmers will receive priority.

Hat Tip:

The European Commission has just made available a handy European Guide to Science Journalism Training for those of you interested in a career in science communication and journalism. The handbook lists all the relevant courses, exchange programmes, and support initiatives across the 27 member states of the European Union.

It can be viewed here for free.

December 5, 2007

Talk About Resourceful...

The University of California - Merced is a brand-new university with a brand-new campus. When Michelle Khine arrived there as an assistant professor of engineering, she lacked the million-dollar equipment she needed to make the microfluidic "lab on a chip" devices that were the focus of her research--and the patience to wait for them. So she improvised.

Khine turned to ShrinkyDinks -- those sheets of plastic many of us made into Christmas ornaments and other crafts when we were kids. Put them in the oven and they shrink to 1/3 their original size. ShrinkyDinks were invented in the early 1970's, but a recent innovation allows them to be used with laser printers.

Khine found that printed areas of the ShrinkyDinks got taller, forming an ideal, reusable mold for manufacturing her devices. From start to finish the process takes just a few minutes.

With colleagues, Khine wrote an article, which was published in November in Lab On a Chip, a journal published by the United Kingdom's Royal Society.

Hat top: Slashdot and Wired Science.