Science Careers Blog

July 2009

At the group blog Career Hub, Sital Ruparelia offers a list of 21 networking tips for job seekers. Networking seems simple and natural enough, but there's a skill to it, and Ruparelia's tips may help even experienced networkers.

Networking is something that you need pursue systematically and professionally. While you need to be yourself and spontaneous when meeting with people (two of the tips on the list), Ruparelia says you need a strategy and discipline to be successful at it. Some of his tips:

  • Be clear about your objectives and what you want (and don't want)
  • Ask lots of open questions - who? what? how? when?
  • Listen twice as much as you talk
  • Focus on the quality of relationships rather than the number of contacts you've got
Many of the tips point out that successful networkers give of themselves to others, often asking for little or nothing in return ....
  • Be generous in sharing ideas, resources, contacts
  • Take a genuine interest in other people, their challenges and their goals (and not just your own needs)
  • Keep asking "How can I help you?" rather than "How can you help me?
  • Share and help others without expecting anything back
Ruparelia urges networking job-hunters to take risks in order to expand their networks outside their circles of contacts ...
  • Network with a wide range of contacts outside your immediate connections
  • Keep nudging yourself outside your confort zone  
He recommends using online networking tools, but don't expect them to substitute for real, face-to-face contact ...
  • Ensure you have an online presence and are using social media platforms to establish an online brand (e.g., your own blog, etc.)
  • Limit the time you spend on social media platforms. They can be great fun, but also a great drain on your time
Ruparelia urges job seekers to remember that networking can do more for your career than just find a job, and that networking is just the start of the process of building contacts ...
  • Think long-term relationships rather than short-term job leads and opportunities
  • If you're not going to follow up religiously, don't bother networking
If you're new to networking, Dick van Vlooten's series for Science's Next Wave, the predecessor to Science Careers, in 2003-2005, can help you understand networking's basic principles.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) now offers a series of webinars on the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program, which encourages U.S. undergraduate students to study abroad. Gilman Scholarships aim to diversify the composition of typical study-abroad cohorts by giving preference to the atypical students, including those in the sciences and engineering.

Studying overseas can enrich a student's academic development and enhance career prospects as well, but for many students, the financial barriers can be daunting. The Gilman program funds more than 1200 scholarships a year of up to $5000 (the average award is about $4000) covering tuition, room and board, books, local transportation, insurance, and airfare. Recipients must be awardees of Pell Grants, or have been approved for a Pell Grant, a student at a 4-year college or community college, and accepted into a study-abroad program offering credits toward graduation. Pell Grants are a federal program awarded on the basis of financial need, determined by a formula covering family income and assets.

An objective of the Gilman program (funded by the U.S. State Department, but administered by IIE), is to diversify the population of American undergrads who study abroad. It gives preference to science and engineering students, who are generally under-represented among the numbers of students who go overseas. The program also gives preference to students want to study in regions other than Europe and Australia, as well as ethnic minorities and the disabled. In addition, the Gilman program requires students to do a follow-on service project when returning to the U.S.

IIE offers a series of webinars, given by the program administrators, which provide details about Gilman Scholarships; the next webinar is scheduled for 11 August. The application deadline for the spring 2010 round of Gilman awards is 6 October 2009.

July 30, 2009

RIP: A Quiet Hero

The New York Times reports the death of Gerald Gardner, a geophysicist who helped develop methods to locate oil using seismic vibrations. He died of leukemia at 83.

Gardner also developed the statistics used to support a landmark lawsuit against a Pittsburgh newspaper that led to a 1973 Supreme Court decision that rendered illegal the longstanding practice of posting separate ads for jobs intended for men and for women. The statistics showed that the practice led to disparities in pay, among other inequities.

The European Commission has launched a feasibility study of pan-European pension funds for researchers, according to a statement (if a blog entry is considered a statement) from Janez Potočnik, European commissioner for research.

The idea is to make it easier for researchers to contribute to, and ultimately collect, a pension fund no matter what country they are or have previously worked in. Science Careers outlined these problems last year in "A Comfortable Retirement." That article summed up the issues nicely:

Although the European Union (E.U.) has made it possible for scientists to cross borders for work almost seamlessly, scientists can be penalized for that mobility when they retire. At fault is the lack of consistent laws regarding pensions across countries: Some don't allow people who take positions outside of their native countries to pay into the system during years spent abroad, and others even penalize them for leaving by cutting their pension payouts drastically. Even when scientists are allowed to pay into pension schemes in the countries in which they work, keeping track of all of them can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Communication among pension agencies is slow and sometimes nonexistent. A retired scientist might have to collect funds from several countries.

A May 2008 European Commission communication, "Better Careers and More Mobility: European Partnership for Researchers," outlined the potential benefits of a pan-European pension fund:

Pension providers should be encouraged to open up pan-EU pension schemes targeted to researchers and companies should be encouraged to use pension providers in other EU Member States. This would allow mobile researchers to contribute to the same supplementary pension fund while working in different EU countries and still comply with the different social, labour and pension legislation in the participating Member States. This will require the possibility of opting out where researchers are obliged to participate in a domestic pension fund by law.

According to Potočnik, the feasibility study will look at how to best meet the needs of researchers while complementing the established pension schemes in member countries. The original tender for the study listed it as an 11-month contract (which was awarded to Hewitt Associates), so, if the study stays on schedule, expect results next summer.

"For me, the link between the work in this area and securing the sustainability of our future research economy is clear," Potočnik writes. "A more mobile, more professionally secure and confident European research workforce is in everyone's interest. And this is especially important when research careers are more 'mobile' than most and are often based on short-term contracts. We owe it to researchers!"

At the end of May, we commented  -- favorably -- on the campaign by philanthropies of the late fashion designer Geoffrey Beene to attract young people to science. That campaign, called Rock Stars of Science, featured a photoshoot in GQ, the men's fashion magazine, combining real rock stars (e.g., Will.I.Am and Sheryl Crow) with real big-name scientists, including Francis Collins, since nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health.

The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) took note of the fact that the only scientific rock stars portrayed were male, and the association is none too pleased. AWIS posted messages on its own Facebook group page and on the Science Careers fan page (Facebook membership required), saying, "If you haven't seen it and been outraged by it yet, check out the horrid new 'Rock Stars of Science' campaign launched by Geoffrey Beene."

Despite their outrage,  AWIS suggests taking part in one aspect of the campaign, which encourages visitors to nominate scientists for rock-star status.  AWIS is urging its members to add women to Geoffrey Beene's band.

UPDATE, 28 July: Corrected the full name of the AWIS organization. Thanks, Science Lady.

Our colleagues at ScienceInsider yesterday posted news about the 350 postdoctoral fellows at Rutgers University voting to form a union, a vote certified on Tuesday by New Jersey's public employment relation's commission. The postdocs' union will join a labor council on the Rutgers campus that includes the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, which already represent faculty and graduate staff.

Forming a union is the first step, but now the hard work of negotiating a labor agreement begins. Science Careers columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly has chronicled the status of postdocs for 6 years, including formation of unions at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) and the University of California system. While postdocs have advanced degrees and do work that's typical of professional staff, they are also trainees, whether they are on fellowships or in grant-funded positions. This dual role is often used to justify low postdoc pay, and postdoc job security often depends on supervisor's ability to maintain research-grant funding. Foreign postdocs, including those on H-1B visas, are susceptible to abuse.

What can Rutgers's postdocs expect from its union? The experience of nearby UCHC may provide a clue. As Benderly reported in 2006, the postdoc union at UCHC negotiated an agreement on bread-and-butter issues, such as higher salaries, retirement benefits, and regular, structured employment reviews. While executives at UCHC claimed higher salaries would mean fewer postdocs, as of 2006 the number of positions remained about the same as before. Also, predictions of more problems between unionized postdocs and supervisors did not materialize. In fact, one postdoc leader noted that the contract brought "better respect from PIs".

These last few days have put me in a pensive and sentimental mood. I'm a child of the 1960's, 5 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Those were times when people were excited about science and jobs were--apparently--abundant. Stephen Shafroth, a senior colleague during my physics years (we also co-edited an esoteric book together), told me once (if memory serves) that he had 7 offers after his Ph.D., with no postdoc. That would have been, I think, in the early 1970s, not long after Apollo 11. Stephen was a good physicist, but he was not Einstein. Those were good times to be a physicist.

Today, multiple offers are relatively rare, and only a minority of scientists who pursue academic careers ever attain them. Our recent worldwide economic woes, and the resulting state-university budget cuts and private-university endowment losses, have made things quite a bit worse.  The sputtering drug pipeline means poor prospects in the pharmaceuticals industry, and the generally weak economy means generally weak private-sector employment.

Which is why it gives me such great pleasure this week to illustrate, on Science Careers, not one but two career paths where prospects are good and multiple offers are not rare.

The first area--as illustrated by Chelsea Wald--is research on mathematics education, which offers excellent opportunities in--and, surprisingly, beyond--academia.

The second area doesn't really have a name, but you might call it network science. As Siri Carpenter shows us, this new field--or set of fields--offers excellent job prospects across many disciplines.  How often do you find a discipline that's equally loved by physicists, ecologists, sociologists, and whatever you call people who study e-mail and cell phones?  Even the Department of Homeland Security, and all the branches of the military, are interested in network science.

It's a tough economy, and people in traditional fields are feeling the pain. So it's nice to be able to show off at some areas of science that offer real professional promise. We'll see what other bright spots we can turn up in the coming months.
Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric Corporation, caused a stir with a comment made in his keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management conference on 28 June. "There's no such thing as work-life balance," said Welch, who added "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Welch, who has been married three times, elaborated, saying "We'd love to have more women moving up faster, But they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one." The Wall Street Journal's "Juggle" blog on balancing life and work said audience reactions, mainly human-resources managers and specialists, were mixed. "When people are not visible, it does hurt," said one attendee, referring to the out-of-sight/out-of-mind risks employees face when they leave the workplace for extended periods of time. Another audience member noted that many women have children after they join management ranks, which allows them to return to their careers already in progress.

Many bloggers reacted to Welch's comments as well. Conor Friedersdorf, guest blogging yesterday for Andrew Sullivan, had some of the more interesting comments. Friedersdorf says that if someone is penalized for temporarily stepping off the corporate ladder, the problem is with the ladder, not the employee, and that can eventually hurt the enterprise. "Doesn't Mr. Welch's approach artificially limit the number of qualified applicants considered for top jobs where the applicant pool is already smaller than optimal?" asks Friedsdorf.  "Doesn't it prevent some people with singular, extreme talent from ever being considered?" He adds that it's no coincidence that CEOs "lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships, dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc."

This issue is particularly meaningful to scientists, who find themselves wanting to start families at the same time in their careers (graduate school, postdoc, or early academic or professional post) when they are expected to have high research output. Juggling these demands is a continuing interest on Science Careers. We most recently looked at how balancing career and family affects women physician-scientist trainees.

July 20, 2009

Studying Humans in Space

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. But four decades later, how much do we know about how space flight affects the human body?

A new master's degree in human space exploration sciences at the University of Houston (UH) aims to open up the science behind human spaceflight. According to a cleverly timed press release, the new course will cover human physiology in space and how humans may cope with environments on Mars and the moon. It will also teach techniques for building and testing hardware used in space flight, management skills, and the history of the space program.

The course, it says here, is aimed at a variety of people, from students hoping to continue into Ph.D.s in human spaceflight to current space industry workers looking to broaden their knowledge. Course faculty will include NASA's Gary Kitmacher, an expert in astronaut health and habitat; Johnson Space Center's Charles Layne, a human coordination expert; and William Paloski, a UH professor of health and human performance and former NASA researcher in how space flight affects postural stability of astronauts.

Although this may be one of only a handful of degrees devoted to the subject, there are several research groups around the world studying the effects of space flight on the body. Here are some of them:
Space Life Sciences division, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
Universities Space Research Association's Division of Space Life Sciences (DSLS), Houston, Texas
National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Houston, Texas
Cleveland Clinic Center for Space Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio
Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology and Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee
Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Köln, Germany
The Yuri Gagarin Russian State Science Research Cosmonauts Training Centre, Moscow

-Claire Thomas

The technology trade magazine Information Week reports that some 20,000 H-1B visas, used to bring high-skilled temporary workers to the United States, are still available for the current fiscal year. Immigration law sets an annual quota of 65,000 H-1B visas, and to date the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received 44,900 visa petitions.

That number--65,000--applies to skilled workers at any level of educational attainment. A separate quota of 20,000, reserved for foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions, was met soon after they became available in April 2009.   In the 2 previous years, the quota for all H-1B visas, requested by companies seeking to hire skilled foreign staff, was met within a few days.

One reason for the lower demand may be sharp cut-backs by Indian outsourcing companies. Infosys, an Indian technology company with a large outsourcing business, told the Business Standard newspaper that it has filed 405 visa applications so far this year, well down from 4,800 the company requested last year. The newspaper says Infosys's two main competitors, Wipro and TCS, are also believed to have asked for far fewer H-1B visas, but the companies did not divulge any numbers.

The H-1B program has recently come under increasing scrutiny, with support for the program diminishing on Capitol Hill.  

Susan J. Ainsworth, a Dallas-based correspondent for C&E News,  has written a nice article about corporate flexible-work policies.

Postdocs in chemistry who are interested in becoming better science communicators are invited to apply for a spot at the Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute, which will be held 15-19 September in Seattle. The workshop is sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS), the National Science Foundation, and the University of Washington.

The goal of the workshop--says a short item in the ACS publication C&E News--is to teach chemists to communicate better with journalists, policy makers, and the public. Topics will include handling media interviews, pitching freelance articles, writing or the Web, and explaining science to non-scientists, among others. Radio and podcasts will be covered as well.

More information is available from Deborah L. Illman. Applications received before 24 August will receive priority, the item says. All expenses will be paid, including travel expenses, plus a stipend.
The Wall Street Journal today tells that more workers are delaying their retirement plans, largely due to last year's financial meltdown, which wiped out their nest eggs.  The Journal says many companies aren't complaining about having experienced workers staying longer on the job. Yet this presents an obstacle to the advancement of younger workers, leading some enterprises to take imaginative steps to ensure advancement opportunities.

As of June, the Journal reports, more than 1 in 4 (27%) of workers were age 55 or over, which means that under current rules they will be eligible to start collecting Social Security and Medicare within the next 10 years. But many of those workers don't plan on retiring when their turn comes.  In a survey of workers age 25 and over, conducted earlier this year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, some three-quarters (74%) of the respondents plan to retire at age 65 or older, or not at all. That's up from about 6 in 10 (62%) of workers just 2 years ago.

For many employers, keeping experienced hands on board delays the impending headache of replacing large numbers of retiring boomers, but not everyone in management is celebrating. Among those who have serious concerns are people concerned about the future of the scientific workforce. The Journal quotes David Dobkin, dean of the faculty at Princeton University, who says fewer than half of the typical number of faculty are considering retirement, which Dobkin fears will result in fewer openings and institutional stagnation in many departments. That's a serious problem for early career scientists seeking faculty posts, and, as the feature in Science Careers last month pointed out, many tenured faculty face the challenge of going stale, and need something to take their careers in a new direction.

Some companies have found interesting ways of dealing with this problem. IBM is attacking the senior worker glut with online tools to boost its internal mentoring program that encourages older workers to share knowledge with their younger counterparts. While this kind of mentoring isn't new, IBM's program adds an interesting wrinkle, creating a reverse-mentoring channel to help older workers learn from their younger colleagues about topics younger workers know best, such as social networking.

Other companies are creating new opportunities in their organizations that keep the older workers gainfully employed but allow them to make contributions in different ways. One example is Jones Edmunds & Associates Inc., an engineering company in Gainesville, Florida, which has created career tracks with lateral or even downward mobility, to train senior managers in new skills and open opportunities for younger staff. The program's manager says that senior managers are willing to take these new opportunities with the expectation that they will have the opportunity to mentor their younger associates.

Full disclosure: The author is bumping up against Medicare age, but has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

All this week, Vitae will be publishing new articles daily on research careers and the recession. The first article, written by career adviser Fiona Christie from the University of Salford, has some good general tips: know your sector; know the status of research funding in your country and at your institution; use the careers service at your institution as a resource; and know yourself, your skills, and your limitations. Read the entire article here, and watch this page for new articles throughout the week.

Elizabeth Wilkinson at the University of Manchester has also put together a series of recession-related articles and discussions here. Wilkinson (who recently spoke to us for an article on social networking) also maintains the Manchester Postgraduate Careers Blog.

For a few recession-related Science Careers articles, see Tooling Up: The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009; In Person: Finding Opportunities in a Dysfunctional Job Market; and Financial Crisis Reshaping the Life Sciences Industry.

July 10, 2009

On Inspiration

This week's Darwin Festival is drawing to a close in Cambridge. It's been an amazing week of lectures, discussions, plays, and performances all to celebrate Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday.

All of us at Science Careers tend to ask people what or who inspired them to go into science. Some people cite Darwin as their inspiration; they are more likely to say that his life's work is inspirational. There's another name that comes up frequently, particularly here in the U.K.: David Attenborough.

Also Cambridge-educated (he studied geology and zoology at Clare College), Attenborough is best known as a television presenter. Off and on for 50 years, he's written and presented countless programs about the natural world -- among his most famous are Life on Earth (and the entire "Life" series), The First Eden, and Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives. Earlier this year he hosted a show called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. His excitement and fascination with the natural world shows through in his programs, and he's brought the the natural world to the TV screens of generations of viewers, young and old.

Now 83 years old, Attenborough was the special guest at a sold-out dinner last night at King's College, Cambridge. "Above all, Darwin demonstrated ... that we are members of the natural world, that we're not separate from the natural world, that we're subject to its laws. And if we deny that, we deny our responsibility to ... the future. Charles Darwin is indeed the man who put that in our minds, and for him we should all be grateful."

Why hold the Darwin Festival in Cambridge? Long before the HMS Beagle voyage, settling in Down House, or writing The Origin of Species, Darwin was an undergraduate theology student at Christ's College, Cambridge. Here he developed a love for the natural world, and studied under botany professor John Henslow. He collected beetles on the banks of the River Cam, a hobby he would continue for much of the rest of his life.

The festival has been a testament to the reach of his work: nobel laureates Paul Nurse and Harold Varmus spoke here this week; Lords Martin Rees and Robert May, current and former president, respectively, of the Royal Society, made appearances as well; as did evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. But the festival isn't just for scientists: Authors Terry Pratchett and Ian McEwan, among others, were here to discuss Darwin's influence on literature. At dinner last night I sat next to a lecturer in literature at a U.K. university who has written a book about Darwin in poetry that will be published this autumn. Darwin certainly influenced a wide variety of careers, both in science and out.

July 9, 2009

More Fun with Fungi

A note from a reader:


It was great to see fungi out in science careers as a career option!  Having working with fungi since an undergraduate I am often surprised at how little focus they get given the diversity of jobs related to mycology (from brewing, baking, pharmaceuticals, chemical industry, agriculture, forestry, academia, growing edible ones), so I am sure all people like myself who try to interest students in fungi will find the article a useful thing to wave about - it is already printed out and up in pride-of-place on my notice board outside the lab.

I was also interested to see the mycology labs and resources highlighted.  In case you ever write an update on this topic, one unique US fungal resource is the Fungal Genetics Stock Center here at the University of Missouri in Kansas City ( and housed next door to me.  The FGSC has been funded by the National Science Foundation for over 50 years, and distributes c. 30,000 strains of fungi at cost around the world every year, mostly to researchers interested in the genetics of fungi.  Fungi are excellent for genetic research since unlike plants and animals they normally have only one copy of each chromosome (this saves a ton of time): the FGSC even has the original strains used by Beadle and Tatum for which they were awarded the Nobel prize for showing one gene gives rise to one protein, done in the fungus Neurospora crassa, and they are more than happy to give them out to people!  The FGSC is not a big career option (they have 2-3 full time people), but their resources and distribution of materials (not to mention what must be nearly a record for continuous federal funding) further highlights the importance of mycology and potential careers in this area.

With best wishes,

Alexander Idnurm, Ph.D.
Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics
School of Biological Sciences
University of Missouri-Kansas City
I have never spent extended time working in a remote location (unless you count my home in Portland, Maine), but it has always been a fantasy of mine. I think a summer in McMurdo would suit me just fine, as long as I had some music.

Which is pretty much a non sequitur, but I'll leave it in. This video featuring scientist-dancers from the Toolik Field Station on the North Slope of Alaska performing Michael Jackson's Thriller brought a huge smile to my face. Note the nearly ubiquitous bug nets (which I suspect were functional and not merely decorative) and the pervasive lab gloves worn on one hand. Turn up the volume and run it full-screen.

Hat tip: C&E News.

Today's Wall Street Journal tells how some companies have begun making more use of their own Web sites, along with social network sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, to find new staff. In some cases, this shift in recruiting strategy comes at the expense of traditional advertising on job boards.

For years, companies have announced job opening on their Web sites and encouraged their employees to refer promising prospects for those openings. With social network sites, however, companies can use the Web to expand their exposure to prospects and still take advantage of personal referrals. If the enterprises can save a few bucks on not placing job ads, that's an added benefit.

The article tells how high-tech companies Adobe (graphics and publishing software) and Intuit (tax and accounting software) have started making more use of their own Web sites for recruiting.  Both companies tell the Journal that recruiting through their own sites better conveys the companies' values and culture, which are important factors for prospects to understand before applying. The Adobe site has videos showing a day in the life of employees, including one staffer who starts his day surfing at a 6:00 am. Adobe says it makes little use of job boards. The article quotes an Intuit manager who says the company will not abandon job boards completely--but wants to rely more on viral marketing.

The HR manager at Facebook says, not surprisingly, that the company uses the viral qualities of Facebook to find top talent. "One of our main philosophies is to get smart and talented people. They tend to be connected," she says, adding that about half of Facebook's new hires come through referrals. The article notes the experiences of food-service company Sodexo and online retailer in using Facebook and LinkedIn for referrals, with Sodexo claiming it saves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in job advertising.  

For applicants, getting connected means establishing an online presence on social network sites, using that presence to convey a professional image, and using the community features of the sites to make that presence known to prospective employers. The article offers hints on researching companies online, with sites like, to find companies that may be hiring people with your particular skills.

On Science Careers, Dave Jensen has discussed how LinkedIn can aid your job search, and Lucas Laursen has talked about social network sites for scientists.

Full disclosure: Science Careers has a job board and gains income from job advertising.

An article published last week by The Scientist looks at the short- and long-term consequences of scientific misconduct on the careers of those who perpetrated it.

In Life After Fraud, three scientists give their versions of the facts that led the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to declare them guilty of scientific fraud. These scientists were barred from applying for federal funds for up to 5 years, and their names appeared in official documents together with details of their wrongdoings.

While guilty scientists have their names removed from official blacklists once they've paid their dues, remaining traces of their wrongdoings on the Internet keep haunting them long afterwards. All three scientists in the article managed to stay in science, but they had to deal with a tarnished reputation, which sometimes led employers to withdraw job offers after doing a Google search.

In an accompanying editorial, The Scientist's editor and publisher Richard Gallagher finds that "the current ORI procedure for the investigation of fraud seems fair. And the range of penalties for the guilty look, if anything, too lenient." But Gallagher argues that scientists found guilty of scientific misconduct suffer harsher penalties than intended. "A debarment from receiving federal funds for 3 years can effectively turn into a life sentence for researchers, permanently shutting down opportunities and eliminating career advancement," he writes. Gallagher makes a controversial call for a new system of dealing with fraud that also allows the rehabilitation of offenders.


July 1, 2009

On Passion

I'm at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London this week. There are 900 journalists from all over the world here -- more than 70 countries, I heard. If you travel to science conferences, that's probably not impressive. But journalists tend to travel in packs -- by subject material (neuroscience, physics, geoscience, etc.) or by geography. It's rare to have this many folks together for the purpose of considering our profession.

There's not just journalists here, though. I had a conversation earlier today with a postdoc from the University of Dundee. Using Roberts money, the university provides funds to postdocs to travel to conferences outside their field to promote alternative careers. Cool, huh? She's here to check out science writing. I hope she doesn't go away thinking there's always this much free beer. (Seriously, though, if you're interested in science writing, check out our series of articles on the topic.)

One reason she's looking into science writing: She's not sure she's passionate about her research, and that passion is a huge key to success.

I just attended the announcement of the Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, given by Johnson and Johnson. This year's winner: Axel Ullrich, Ph.D., director of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. Translational research in his lab led to the development of the cancer drug Herceptin and genetically engineered human insulin. Here's what he had to say when I asked him what he tells postdocs that go through his lab:

"Look for what you really want to do. If you're not excited and passionate about solving a problem, then you will never succeed. If you design your career by rational parameters, ... you will never succeed. You have to be passionate about what you do. ... Don't say, 'there are so many competitors.' Don't worry about that. Go straight to the problem. This is what I did -- I had this built-in compass, and [with it] I never had any hesitation starting even the most difficult project."

Top advice, I'd say, whether you're in science or not.