Science Careers Blog

March 2008

There is probably no more difficult decision for new parents than finding day care.  A few companies, according to USA Today, are offering employees a novel solution to this vexing problem: bring your baby to your desk.

Some companies apparently allow parents to have their babies, generally kids not yet at the crawling stage,  with them in their offices or cubicles. Most of these companies described work in office environments, such as advertising agencies and consulting firms.  However, Francine Gemperle, one of the parents interviewed, is a researcher at Maya Design, a consultancy and research lab in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gemperle took her son Milo to work every day for 6 weeks after returning from maternity leave. She set up a compact bassinet next to her desk, kept a supply of blankets handy, and used the rest room to change diapers. 

While Maya Design lets staff members bring in their babies up to age 6 months, the company does not allow infants with fevers higher than 100, and parents have to sign a liability waiver. Gemberle also prepared her coworkers for the experience. Before bringing in young Milo, she alerted everyone within 15-20 feet of her cubicle that they would hear baby noises during the day.

The practice of having young children at work apparently is gaining traction. The article cites the Society for Human Resource Management, which says the number of companies allowing babies in the workplace at least occasionally rose to 29% last year, up from 22% in 2006. Advocates for employees bringing their babies to work say it removes a huge psychological and financial burden from parents, reduces turnover, and increases loyalty to the company.

But detractors find the noise and attention given to babies distracting, and company lawyers get nervous about potential liability. Plus, if the parent is your supervisor, how do you tell her the baby is making a racket?

"The playground bully has grown up and gotten a job." That's how the New York Times health blog started a brief entry on 11 March that generated a heavy response (nearly 400 comments), and resulted in follow-up posts on 24 March and 25 March. As Science Careers columnist Irene Levine also noted in a 2006 article on this topic, bullies are causing problems in a lot of workplaces, including academia. Like the response to the Times blog posts, Levine's article continues to be among our most read articles.

One of the difficulties in identifying bullying behavior is its insidious nature. Unlike the playground bully, the workplace bully uses psychological rather than physical punishment. What may at first seem like insensitivity or bad manners can in fact be a way of intimidating coworkers. Public put-downs, glaring, interrupting when speaking, taking credit for others' contributions, and spreading gossip or rumors are examples of the nasty tricks bullies use to belittle and embarrass colleagues. The New York Times and Levine's article have more examples.

Levine's article for Science Careers focuses on bullies in supervisory positions, who use their positions of authority to intimidate staff and students in their labs or classes. But as the Times notes, bullies can appear in the next cublicle (or lab bench) as well as the corner office.  Wherever they occur, bullies take a toll on individuals' self-esteem and mental health. It costs organizations as well, with more turnover, higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and the threat of legal action.

Apparently, workplace bullying is common. According to a Zogby International survey released last Fall and cited by the Times, some 37% of American workers say they have experienced bullying on the job. Many victims of bullying are tempted to just swallow the insults, but as both Levine and the Times pieces suggest, you don't have to suffer in silence. Levine suggests finding the courage to confront the bully in a professional manner. If that doesn't work, take it up the chain of command.

Levine also suggests that you find confidants inside the office, or among friends or family, to provide advice and support. Also, don't forget the Science Careers Forum, where other participants and forum advisers can offer advice. If all else fails, make plans to change jobs.

In his 13 July 2007 "Opportunities" column, Peter Fiske mentioned EquityEdit, an organization that enables advanced students and postdocs to earn income working as medical writers while simultaneously contributing to global public health.

This publicity resulted in so much interest, apparently, that EquityEdit had to stop accepting new writers. I've recently heard (from EquityEdit co-founder Duncan Smith-Rohrberg Maru) that EquityEdit is once again accepting new writers. He writes,

EquityEdit is a team of scientists and scholars from universities in the United States and Europe who work as editors for the for-profit biomedical editing company ProEdit Japan. A [portion] of the compensation they earn then goes to fund small, innovative, pro-poor global health organizations.  Our current beneficiary is Nyaya Health.  We meet the high demand for technical editing services for medical research articles, and simultaneously raise funds to make use of this research through public health programs in poor countries.

If you are interested in becoming a paid editor, please apply at  Note that you must have significant first-author publication experience to be considered as an editor.  We are also looking for scientists who are conversant in Japanese who can act as translators. Please apply through the same applicant portal. 

Additionally,  we are looking for passionate, talented leaders to facilitate our expansion.  The amount of funds generated for Nyaya Health since we started a year ago have totaled over $10,000, and we have increased the number of editors from three at the beginning of last year to over forty.  To further improve our model, we are looking for individuals with backgrounds in marketing, social enterprise, biomedicine, technical editing, and public health.  Please see see for more information and contact editor(AT)equityedit(DOT)org with your skills and background if interested in joining our team as a volunteer. 

Following a public consultation, the European Commission last month adopted a Code of Conduct on nanotechnology research. Member States, employers, funding bodies, and researchers are encouraged "to undertake the necessary steps to ensure that they contribute to developing and maintaining a supportive research environment, conducive to the safe, ethical and effective development of the potential" of nanoscience and nanotechnology, the document reads.

The Code of Conduct is based on 7 principles:

Meaning: Nano research should be conducted in the interest of society and be comprehensible to the public.

Sustainability: Nano research should be safe, ethical, and contribute to sustainable development.

Precaution: Nano activities should anticipate and protect researchers and the society from negative environmental, health, and safety impacts.

Inclusiveness: Regarding the governance of nano research, all stakeholders should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process in a open and transparent manner.

Excellence: Nano research should meet the best scientific standards, including research integrity and good laboratory practices.

Innovation: Governance of nano research activities should encourage creativity and growth.

Accountability: Researchers and research organizations are accountable for the impact of their work.

An article this week in Canada's National Post newspaper says that universities across Canada report increasing use of their mental health counseling services in recent years.  Queens University in Kingston, Ontario says the number of patients seeking counseling has tripled in the past 10 years, and Simon Fraser University, with three campuses in British Columbia, reports a 30% increase in one year alone.

Mike Condra, who heads counseling services at Queens University, says mental health is the fastest growing problem faced by his office, which also deals with academic issues, physical health, and student disabilities. At Queens, campus counselors are still seeing new patients quickly to determine if they are in immediate danger. But non-emergency follow-up visits with a psychiatrist are backlogged for as long as three months.  What worries Condra further is that there are probably many more students who need help but who aren't seeking treatment.

The problem apparently is not limited to Canada. The article cites the 2006 National College Health Assessment survey conducted on U.S. campuses that showed about a third (35%) of students reported feeling depressed at least once in the previous year to such an extent that they could not function. The survey also said about 10% of respondents seriously considered suicide. Some 88% of the survey's respondents were undergraduates.

The experts quoted in the article could not agree on a cause for the increased demand. Melanie Drew, director of health services at Concordia University in Montreal attributes much of the increase to higher expectations and more financial pressures. A student in the social work department (who was once a patient at the school's counseling facilities) started a drop-in screening kiosk at Simon Fraser University. She says about 70 percent of her clients are international students, who face cross-cultural problems on top of everything else.

But not all experts in the field, at least in Canada, are convinced that the demand for services means more mental health problems. Stanley Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia attributes the increased demand to rising awareness among students that counseling is available and they are taking advantage of the service. "People are often going for assistance for distress, as opposed to disorder," says Kutcher. "The bar is lower."

As we've noted in Science Careers over the years, even scientists can get the blues, including those in the U.K. and Belgium.  If you think you need help, get help. Let the counselors tell you there's nothing wrong.

Hat tip: Education News


In these days of tightening credit and Wall Street nervousness about new ways of lending money, introducing an innovative online student loan service seems courageous indeed. But that is what Fynanz, Inc. has recently done. Fynanz takes the social network idea, and combines elements of eBay auctions and microcredit to offer students a new way of borrowing money for their studies, that involves neither banks nor the government.

Fynanz's basic service is called the OpenLoan. Students (U.S. citizens or permanent residents) can take out an OpenLoan for their educational expenses only: tuition, room and board, books, computer, and associated living expenses. Individual loans range from $2500 to $20,000. Students can borrow up to $120,000 for an undergraduate degree or $160,000 for a graduate degree. OpenLoans have long-term repayment terms: Balances of less than $5000 run for 10 years; loans of $5000 or more have 20-year terms.

Fynanz's terms may be generous, but the company isn't crazy. If a borrower is under the age of 21, without a verifiable income, or employed for fewer than 2 years, the loans must be cosigned. The cosigners, most often parents, must meet the criteria for an individual loan. Fynanz charges an upfront fee for borrowers and the company does not claim to have the lowest interest rates. In fact, the Fynanz site encourages borrowers to first check out federal student loans, which usually have lower rates, before borrowing from Fynanz.

There's one more requirement for students: Fynanz gives each student a grade, called a Fynanz Academic Credit Score, or FACS. FACS is an index that quantifies academic achievement and loan history; the company says it's a better indicator of creditworthiness than the traditional credit score. FACS helps determine the interest rate that the borrower pays to the lender. In general, the company says, the higher the FACS, the lower the risk to the lender, and thus the lower the interest rate to the borrower.

Once approved and FACS-graded, students can then enter the Fynanz marketplace, where lenders evaluate the borrowers and bid on lending money to students. Students create and post profiles discussing their academic backgrounds, work history, extracurricular activities, FACS score, and loan requirements. The profiles can also include photos. (Here's a hint: Be more judicious in your choice of photos on Fynanz than on Facebook.)

Lenders can be anyone who wants to put their money directly into the education of individual students, but Fynanz also takes some of the risk out of the deal. While lenders can be total strangers to the students, Fynanz encourages family and friends to bid on the loans to help create competition and drive down the interest rate. This part of the Fynanz service adopts the microcredit idea of social pressure to encourage loan repayment. The experience of Grameen Bank and other microlenders suggests borrowers are less likely to default on a loan from someone they know than a total stranger. To further encourage lenders to use the marketplace, Fynanz guarantees the loan from 50 to 100% based on the borrower's FACS grade.

Please note that because Fynanz is a new service, it still needs to get approval from most state authorities, and right now it's available only to borrowers who are residents of New York and Florida. Borrowers from New York and Florida can attend a university in any state, and lenders likewise can come from any state. The company plans to enlarge its operating area as it gains states' approvals.

Will the Fynanz idea succeed?  Only time will tell, but it seems like a better business proposition than sub-prime mortgages.

Hat tip: TechCrunch.


Christopher Penn, chief technology officer of the Student Loan Network and founder of the Financial Aid Podcast, has created what he calls a social media résumé that applies a panoply of Web 2.0 technologies to the challenge of telling the world about himself and his accomplishments. Penn assembled the site using Google Page Creator, a simplified Web site design tool from Google.  He offers his résumé as a model for anyone who wants to take a similar approach.

You can't help but be impressed with what Penn has combined on one Web page. The centerpiece, literally, is an introductory video, surrounded by links to his personal Web sites, his LinkedIn profile, work-related Web sites, bookmark sites (e.g.,, StumbleUpon), his instant-messaging addresses, his Twitter link, RSS feed subscriptions, and a drop-down menu of 14 more social bookmarks. If you're a traditionalist and want a résumé you can print on paper, there's a link to a PDF copy of his LinkedIn profile, and if you need that personal, real-time connection, he lists his telephone number (which doubles as a fax number, in case you chicken out from a voice call).

While I like bells and whistles as much as anyone, you have to wonder whether a résumé of this kind will get you in the door for an interview any faster than the traditional printed page. Dave Jensen, who writes the Science Careers' Tooling Up column, talked about résumés and cover letters just last month. While not denying its importance in the overall process, Jensen says "a good résumé is better than a great résumé because it's out there working for you while the great one is still being analyzed and revised." Also, the résumé, according to Jensen, should address in some way the needs of the hiring company. It's hard to do that with even the most impressive Web technology, unless you want to design a different Web site for every job you apply for.

Penn's social-media résumé may be a great advert for people in the Web 2.0 business, but it has LOOK-AT-ME written all over it. It's impressive in its own right, but Penn still needs to explain how he will help a hiring organization make money or cut costs.

Hat-tip: Shifting Careers blog

An article by Jeffrey Mervis in this week's News Focus section of Science magazine provides the back-story on NSF's proposed expansion of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The NSF budget request for 2009, if approved, would expand the number of graduate fellowships by 700.

The idea for the program expansion is based in part on scholarship by Richard Freeman of Harvard's National Bureau of Economic Research, which showed that such an expansion the would lure many bright students into science. (In a survey of Harvard undergraduates, 40% said a federal fellowship would lead them to graduate school, compared to 18% who already were planning to go.)

What's interesting is that Freeman himself does not advocate expanding the scientific workforce (See his article on Science Careers, "Thanks for the Great Postdoc Bargain", where he says, "Two to three decades ago, the U.S. rewarded postdocs with a reasonably good chance of being hired as a principal investigator. Sorry, but we can no longer carry out that part of the bargain. ...there are just too many postdocs for us to absorb them as tenured faculty." Freeman's research is being views piecemeal, without an eye on the bigger picture: Where will the people those fellowships bring into science end up?

Clearly there's a disconnect here, so we're looking into it further. Beryl Benderly will report back in a Science Careers article on 4 April.        

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today a new $300 milion program to recognize the best biomedical scientists still starting up their careers. Through this Early Career Scientist Program, HHMI aims to support outstanding researchers with 2 to 6 years experience running their own labs.

At this stage in their careers, as the program announcement notes, researchers have often run through their institution's start-up funding and must find the money to keep their labs going. With NIH money becoming tighter, more biomedical scientists are looking for alternative sources, resulting in greater competition for a limited number of grants.

HHMI hopes to provide up to 70 of the best early-career scientists with a full year's salary and benefits for up to 3 years. Awardees are expected to devote 3/4 of their time on research, with the remainder spent on teaching, mentoring, patient care, or other non-research duties. There are important restrictions, including a list of some 200 eligible institutions, so candidates should read the announcement carefully. Applicants must submit both a letter of intent, due 30 April, and a full proposal by 10 June 2008.

GrantsNet has an overview of the program, will full details available on the HHMI Web site.

Update, 11 March: We removed the word 'grant' from the title and first paragraph, when we learned that recipients become HHMI employees for the period of the award.

Are you a gamer and a scientist? Ever wonder where Dr. Mario got his medical degree? If so, you might be interested in this post, at Jacks of Science. Among the honorees: Dr. Oak, of Pokemon fame, and Professor William Birkin, the notorious virologist from Resident Evil, who combined Progenitor-Ebola with leach DNA to create the infamous T-virus, which turns anything it infects into a zombie.

Sunday's Slashdot Daily Newsletter directs us to an editorial in the journal Medical Hypothesis proposing large cash prizes for breakthroughs in targeted areas of science.

In "Stimulating revolutionary science with mega-cash prizes," the journal's editor-in-chief and a member of its editorial advisory board "argue that the most ambitious science is intrinsically riskier science, more likely to fail."


It is almost always a safer career strategy for the best scientists to seek to extend knowledge more modestly and to build incrementally on existing ideas and methods. Therefore, higher rewards for success are a necessary incentive to encourage top scientists to work on the most important scientific problems, ones where the solution has potentially revolutionary implications. We suggest that mega-cash prizes (measured in tens of millions of dollars) are a suitable reward for those individuals (or institutions) whose work has triggered radically new directions in science.

In February, John Travis, currently the head of the International office for Science's news department, wrote about a workshop in Maastricht on this topic. The article -- you'll need a Science subscription or site license to view it, by the way -- lists some existing prizes and recounts discussions from the meeting.

Apparently, offering a prize is not a panacea. As Travis notes in closing the article, "Organizers offered a €1500 award for the best paper on using monetary prizes to stimulate private investment in medical research, but no entries have been submitted thus far."

According to an article in Chemical and Engineering News this week, seven U.S.-educated scientists working in Germany have been charged with impersonating a doctor because they used "Dr." before their names on Web sites and business cards. The maximum penalty for the crime is one year in jail.

German law, it says here, prohibits anyone who didn't receive their doctorate from a German or European Union institution from using the title "Dr." One of the scientists interviewed for the article was able to get the charge dismissed, but others are still waiting. "More than anything, this is a big annoyance," says David G. Heckel, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, and one of the scientists who's been charged. "But there is also the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen."

You can read the full article here.

In last month's special feature on mentoring, Science Careers contributing editor Elisabeth Pain talked to Jan West, the manager of the Women's Engineering Society in the U.K., who advises readers to get career advice from multiple sources instead of relying on just one mentor. Recently on Yahoo Finance, author Jim Citrin advises working professionals to take a similar approach to major career decisions, a process he calls building your own board of directors.

Citrin says creation of a personal board -- a small circle of trusted advisers -- is a time-honored practice, used by notables from Alexander the Great to today. Citrin tells how 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie developed such a personal network, which acted as a sounding board to help Carnegie make key business decisions. Carnegie's contemporary Napoleon Hill, an early motivational writer, called these collections of trusted advisers "master mind groups."  Carnegie used them to challenge assumptions, develop alternative courses of action, and consider new strategies.

You need to be selective and demanding, says Citrin, when assembling your personal board. In addition to your regular mentors, find people inside and outside your workplace who can give sound advice: friends and family who have been accurate and candid in the past, as well as consultants or analysts you know and trust that cover your industry. He recommends seeking from this group an honest and direct assessment of your own strengths, weaknesses, and plans.

Citrin notes as well that interactions with your board work both ways. Just as they help you out, you need to return the favor. He says the benefits can be both professional and psychological. You get good advice;  they become invested in your success. And, adds Citrin, the results can change the course of your career and even your life.

If you're looking for a nice way to end your workday, you may want to take a look at the pictures taken as part of the national competition for scientific photography, organized by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). For the 5th consecutive year, Fotciencia is aiming to bring science closer to the public by encouraging scientists to submit pictures with short, explanatory texts (in Spanish). These have now been published on the Fotciencia Web site, along with the names of the winners. Those of you residing in Spain or planning a visit some time in 2008 may also want to check the cities the road exhibition will visit this year.

March 4, 2008

The Perfect Reference

Last week Marci Alboher, the New York Times Shifting Careers blogger, listed the qualities she considers essential for an employment reference. Alboher says the perfect people to provide references should ...

  • Think highly of you, and you're certain of that fact
  • Understand the context in which the reference is given, i.e., the environment in which you work and your role in that world
  • Will take  the task seriously, even if you do not have time to brief this person beforehand; Alboher urges that you still make the time to brief your references
  • Will know how to present your weaknesses as strengths
  • Express themselves well, either speaking or writing, depending on how that reference is requested
Alboher adds that a reference with a fancy or prestigious title doesn't hurt, but make sure these other qualities are covered first.