Science Careers Blog

October 2009

It seems a bit nonsensical, but sometimes a good place to look for a job is with a company that just announced layoffs. That's the advice from Aleksandra Todorova this week in SmartMoney.

Todorova found a number of companies, including employers of scientists and engineers such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sun Microsystems, that had many advertised job openings at the time they announced substantial layoffs. When the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb announced layoffs of 113 full-time employees at two facilities in the U.S., it was still seeking applicants for 165 open jobs. Likewise, computer and software maker Sun Microsystems announced layoffs of up to 6,000 employees in November 2008, but Todorova still found the company trying to fill 43 openings.

John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Todorova that companies hiring and letting go staff at the same time is not unusual. "Larger companies especially," says Challenger, "are big, complex organizations, often with many different lines of business."

The reasons for simultaneous layoffs and hiring are varied. When companies consolidate facilities, for example, it may mean layoffs in one location but openings at the location where the combined units join forces. In some cases, the positions may move to the new location, but the people originally in those jobs decide to stay put.

At other enterprises, says Todorova, management uses restructuring to clean house, i.e., cut staff who are not performing up to expectations. A human resources consultant told Todorova that executives "are exploiting the economic environment to find great talent."

Similarly, companies use this opportunity to change corporate strategies, which can mean shedding jobs in older lines of business but adding positions in newer and growing fields. For example, firms in the energy business may be cutting back on work involving fossil fuels, but adding staff knowledgeable in renewable energy.

If you find yourself being considered by a company who recently announced layoffs, you still need to do your due diligence in making sure the job won't soon be on the chopping block. "If given the opportunity, says Todorova, "use a job interview to ask about the reason behind the recent layoffs and how they would affect the position you're pursuing."

As a science journalist, I've had the opportunity to interview several Nobel prize winners. Such high-profile scientists are usually pretty obsessed with their science and more than happy to talk about it all day. But it's one thing to ask a Nobel winner to explain how her research fits into our greater understanding of life. It's another to ask if she has any tips for balancing family life with lab life.

Yet I had just such an opportunity earlier this month when I got to listen in on a conference call of this year's four science/economics women Nobel laureates, convened by Science deputy news editor Jeff Mervis. Jeff started off with the policy-oriented issues: What immediate steps should be taken to increase the number of women going into science and improve conditions for those already in the field? Are gender-based awards useful? How is it possible for an organization such as the National Institutes of Health to launch an award competition and announce a class of grantees that is all men?

Once everyone had warmed up a bit, we started in with some more personal questions. For example: To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional lives to achieve a balance? Has there been anything that's helped you be successful in terms of managing your time?

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

On work-life balance:

- Elizabeth Blackburn, age 60, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "I think that the message of balance is somewhat overplayed, in my view, because if you're doing something intense like having a family and doing science, they're both intense things, and so this idea that somehow every day is sort of balanced I think it's really a bad message, actually, to try and send people. ... So I try and send the message, for goodness sake, don't go for balance. That sounds very boring to me, you know, in this sort of 9 to 5 and you're balancing your life. Go for these things intensely in the periods when you have to go for them and the balance will take care of itself over decades."

- Carol Grieder, age 48, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "It's actually very nice to be in science because what we're judged on in the end is how productive we are and what we get done and it's not necessarily 9 to 5, and so I feel like I do have a lot of freedom. You know, I'll go out for my son's play at school at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions. So it's a reason for people to choose science over some other careers that they might have."

- Ada Yonath, age 70, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry: "In my day-to-day life, I don't sit and think about this, it just comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I don't really sit and organize myself . ... It just happens. And I'm very happy that I have a very fantastic relationship with my daughter and granddaughter, although I'm not what is called a normal mother, if there is something like normal mother." 

On choosing family and career:

- Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, age 76, the first woman to ever receive the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: "Well, as a somewhat older participant, I had a clear decision and made a decision not to have a family because in earlier times that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish."

- Greider: "I come from the other spectrum in that I was able to see around me a number of women, including Liz, who were able to have children and have a career, and although there were many fewer women in the higher ranks of academia, there were still some to suggest that it could be done. So just in the same way that you have to go forward with experiments sometime, not knowing what's going to happen, I just went forward with the experiment of having kids and the career and trying to do both full-time."

- Blackburn: "I think there's a lot of conventional ideas about what it should be to be a mother and, you know, certain sorts of formulary and stereotypes are there and I really think that they're not terribly helpful, some of these ideas, because I really think children are busy, you know, scientists do get family lives that are, perhaps, different in some ways but not less good."

And my favorite part of the conversation: Learning that Blackburn's secret to balancing a successful scientific career and motherhood can be found in your grocer's freezer section. I asked the laureates if there's anything that's helped them be successful in terms of managing their time. "Is it time for me to tell the Bagel Bites story?" Blackburn asked. "It's about producing beautiful cookies or cupcakes with beautiful icing and you're up till 2 a.m. making them for your children. This is what motherhood is supposed to be like, right?

"Well, it turns out that if you go to your supermarket, you can buy these little Bagel Bite things, they're called commercially, and you put them in the oven and they have cheese on the top and they bubble and they're lovely and brown and taste wonderful. And you take them to any children's function, and the children swarm over them, they love them, ... and it takes 12 minutes in the oven to cook. So my feeling is there's plenty of time ... to catch the essence of what it is that people like mothers to do, but you don't have to do it in a very laborious, conventional way."

Read more highlights of the interview in this week's Science, listen to highlights in this week's Science podcast, or listen to the entire interview.

And, for more on work-life balance (if there is such a thing) and other related Science Careers articles, check out Work and Life in the Balance, Mind Matters: On Balance, Scientists as Parents, and Reflected Glory: Life With a Nobelist Parent,  

A great post over at our sister site, Science Insider, describes a new paper by B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Salzman of Georgetown University and the Urban Institute, respectively.

The new study makes a point that we at Science Careers have been making for years: If you care about science, you want to make sure that science remains an attractive career. Focusing on the supply side -- training more scientists -- as many do, runs the risk lowering salaries, causing working conditions to deteriorate, and making professional prospects less certain for people with scientific training. Do that, and fewer smart people will enter the field. It's a negative-feedback loop. Here's how my colleagues Yudhijit Bhattacharjee put it in the Science Insider entry:

The researchers--led by Lowell and Harold Salzman, a sociologist at the Urban Institute and Rutgers University, New Brunswick--argue that boosting the STEM pipeline may end up hurting the United States in the long-term.

This happens, they say,  by depressing wages in S&T fields and turning potential science and technology innovators into management professionals and hedge fund managers.

So how do you create a vibrant scientific economy? You invest more in science itself. There will be shortages. Salaries will rise. Science will once again be viewed as an elite career:

The way to promote US competitiveness in STEM fields is to "put more emphasis on the demand side," says Lowell, noting that U.S. colleges and universities produce three times more STEM graduates every year than the number of STEM jobs available. Cranking out even more STEM graduates, he says, does not give corporations any incentive to boost wages for STEM jobs, which would be one way to retain the highest-performing students in STEM.

Of course, many people in business don't like this approach because they want to be able to continue hiring scientists cheaply. It's short-sighted, but understandable:

Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable criticizes the new study, saying that it gives an illusion of a robust supply because it bundles all STEM fields together. There may be an oversupply in the life sciences and social sciences, she argues, but there is no question that there are shortages in engineering and the physical sciences. The findings "are not going to make us go back and re-examine everything we've been calling for," she says.

No question? The Conference Board reports that things are especially bad for engineers, with two online ads for every job opening. To compare, there is only one job-seeking health worker for every three opportunities posted in that sector.

October 27, 2009

Video Inspiration

I'm not a subscriber, but I'm an admirer of Make magazine. I love the whole DIY culture, and I'm confident it -- Make and DIY culture generally -- will plant many seeds that mature into scientists and engineers.

Make has just issued a press release promoting a new project. Called Elements of Humanity (and found at, the project comprises a dozen (so far) short video interviews with working scientists explaining what it was about science that first captured their attention and made them want to become scientists.

I've watched only two videos so far, but look forward to watching the rest. Good stuff. Recommended.

October 27, 2009

Reference Checks Going Deep

Employers are starting to take reference checks more seriously, often triggering exhaustive investigations of applicants' backgrounds and character, according to Eve Tahmincioglu, MSNBC's careers columnist. She likens the process now to guerrilla warfare, where conventional tactics no longer suffice.

"Three years ago, if you had a live body and no one really hated them, then they were hired," Peter Engel, an executive recruiter in New York, told Tahmincioglu. "Now they're really looking much more closely."

Employers now have more tools available to confirm what prospective hires told them on resumes and in interviews, says Tahmincioglu. HR departments and hiring managers are increasingly probing applicants claims about skills, and their conflicts with supervisors or co-workers.  One job-hunter told Tahmincioglu that a reference he provided was grilled by a prospective employer for a half-hour, focusing on job performance and particularly his weaknesses.

Another tool for guerrilla reference-checks are social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Hiring managers and HR departments are using the applicants' network contacts or friends to find co-workers NOT on the provided reference lists and bypassing the posted references often found on LinkedIn profiles. An executive currently in the process of filling several jobs told Tahmincioglu that he routinely checks 6 off-list references for each applicant under serious consideration, using LinkedIn profiles and contact lists.

Some employers get nervous about giving negative reports in reference checks, fearing legal action by former employees. But Tahmincioglu says companies are taking steps to  prevent that from happening, such as asking new hires to sign waivers stating that they will not sue the company if supervisors or co-workers say something negative about them in future reference checks.

Tahmincioglu lists a few ways for job-hunters to prepare for this closer examination:
- If you're in the job market, review your social network contacts and friends lists for co-workers who might give you less than a stellar reference, and if necessary, enable
the networks' privacy features to keep your contacts private.
- Call your references before the prospective employer can contact them to let them know about the job for your being considered and the kinds of tough questions they may ask.
- But be careful about over-coaching references on how to respond to probing questions about your background and relationships. HR departments are adept at noticing rehearsed answers.
- If a prospective employer asks to talk to former colleagues with whom you may have had problems, let the reference-checkers know in advance about the problems you had at the previous job. You want to limit the surprises the employer encounters during the reference checks.

In 1999, Peter Fiske offered readers of Science's Next Wave (the predecessor to Science Careers) tips on generating favorable reference letters in academic hiring. While the article is 10 years old, the advice is still good today.

In May 2008, Science Careers' Elisabeth Pain told of recruiting efforts by the European Space Agency (ESA) to find four new astronauts for upcoming missions. ESA is back this month, but this time they're seeking pretenders. ESA is looking for a team to simulate a 520-day mission to Mars. While ESA requires professional credentials of these volunteers, compensation will be in line with taking part in a clinical trial, and not a professional salary.

The crew of six chosen for this mission will live and work in a sealed facility in Moscow, Russia operated by ESA and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP). ESA and IBMP hope through this exercise to learn more about the psychological and medical toll on its crew members. The mission aims to simulate a 520-day space flight, including a 30-day visit to the Martian surface. During this surface-exploration phase of the simulated journey, half of the crew will move to a Martian simulation module and the main facility will be sealed off.

Candidates must be in the age range 20-50, in good health, no taller than 185 cm (about 6 feet), and fluent in English or Russian, the working languages of the mission. Candidates must have a background and work experience in medicine, biology, life-support systems engineering, computer engineering, electronic engineering, or mechanical engineering. Participants are restricted to nationals and residents of member countries in ESA's European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences: Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Norway, The Netherlands, Sweden and Canada.

The call for volunteers does not mention compensation, except for "a fixed compensation that is in line with international standards for participation in clinical studies." The deadline for applications is 5 November.

Hat-tip: Slashdot

October 23, 2009

Nailing the Video Interview

If you apply for a job in another city and are among the finalists for the position, don't be surprised if the employer asks you to take part in a video-conference interview rather than the traditional face-to-face session. Time Magazine this week offers tips to job-hunters who get face time with prospective employers over a video link.  

Travel budgets, both corporate and personal, cover fewer job interviews these days, and more home systems now have the equipment and software to support a video interview. But double-check to make sure your video camera and broadband network are up to the task. Like face-to-face interviews, video sessions take plenty of preparation, and maybe even more.

Former TV news anchor Bill McGowan tells Time that background noises and images need to be controlled. You obviously want to conduct the session out of range of a baby or a barking dog. Avoid having a bright light, even a large window, behind you, since that will cause shadows to darken your face. But sitting directly in front of a plain white wall, McGowan says, makes it look like you're in a police line-up. And, he recommends, "It's best to put away the Mad Men bar" in the background.

You can take steps to frame your appearance so that it portrays a professional image on the interviewer's screen. McGowan suggests sitting with your knees aimed at the corner of your computer screen -- assuming the camera is attached on top and in the mid-point of the screen's width -- with your head turned slightly to look at the camera.  Sit tall in the chair, but not too close to the camera. Priscilla Shanks, who coaches broadcast journalists, suggests that the first three shirt buttons should be visible to the viewer. Otherwise, the image on the other end resembles a tight close-up of a floating head on the screen.

As in the face-to-face interview, you want to make eye-contact with the interviewers. But in the video interview, the "eyes" are the camera lens, not the image on your screen. It may take some practice to replace eye contact with camera contact. Dress for the interview as if it were a face-to-face session. But avoid a plain white shirt, often considered part of the uniform for an in-person session. White shirts reflect too much light into the camera lens causing spots on the interviewer's screen. Muted colors, such as pastels, may work better.

And of course, be prepared to answer the same kind of questions as in any job interview.

Try to schedule the session with enough time to do a dry-run with friends. Check color balance and audio levels in advance, as well as your on-screen persona. Remember, real friends will tell you if you're not making a good impression.
For scientists and engineers between jobs, or for those with jobs but who may have some spare time, consulting work can keep skills sharp and morale high, and put a little coin in your pocket. Finding customers for your consulting practice, however, takes the same professionalism and perseverance as finding a job, Sital Ruparelia explains on the Career Hub blog.

How do you find consulting gigs? Ruparelia suggests tapping your network of contacts for leads. He speaks from experience. Ruparelia says that every consulting, freelance, or contract assignment he has landed in the past 6 years resulted from a referral or contact. Networking is a skill that takes time and practice to develop; Ruparelia advises readers to invest the time needed to cultivate a strong network;  he defines it as "building and maintaining genuine long-term relationships." With that network, Ruparelia says, you can "articulate the problems you can solve, the value you can offer, and the types of people and opportunities you want to attract".

To establish your expertise in the consulting marketplace, Ruparelia recommends getting your name known to client prospects by writing and speaking. Writing professional white papers or articles for publications can answer questions of potential clients such as, "[W]hat's your expertise? What are the problems that you are adept at fixing? What's the value you deliver?" With the explosion of blogs, there's a growing need for quality content, and if you're willing to accept increased exposure as compensation -- few blogs pay -- you can often find outlets to express your ideas.

Speaking engagements are like writing, Ruparelia says, in that they help build credentials and confidence among potential clients. Local professional organizations or service clubs often need speakers, if you have something to say in which they have an interest. Training classes sometimes like to book guest speakers, to provide a new face and voice to make the material fresher. And you can record the talks, Ruparelia says, then post the audio files on the Web as podcasts, extending their reach beyond the immediate audiences.

Ruparelia notes that networking, speaking, and writing all complement each other. Networking -- both personal and electronic -- gets your name better known in your field, which helps build readership of your articles or papers. The publication record, in turn, helps attract speaking opportunities. The result of all of this work, Ruparelia says, is an enhanced personal brand, which will pay off in your career development over the long term.

Peter Fiske, our Opportunities columnist, offers more ideas on consulting work, even as a postdoc or graduate student.

A Science Careers story on scientists getting The Entrepreneurial Bug two weeks ago tells about three academic researchers who started their own businesses, and includes advice to academics thinking about making the same career move. Today's Wall Street Journal provides a few more pointers for budding businesspeople from the academic world.

Brent Eastwood, an adjunct political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who started a political consulting company, tells the Journal's Alexandra Levit that academics should expect to encounter a mindset in the business world very different from the one they're used to on the university campus. "I've seen academics pitching to investors at venture-capital conferences get eaten alive," Brentwood says. "Professors aren't used to needing such a thick skin, and they have to develop it if they want to work in business."

The three researchers interviewed by Science Careers started their businesses early, as postdocs or junior faculty. Eastwood, however, recommends that university faculty time their entrepreneurial ambitions for the second half of their academic careers, after they have established their research, teaching, and publication credentials. Otherwise, if faculty members want to combine their academic and business careers -- as two of the researchers interviewed by Science Careers have done -- Eastwood advises "not to spread yourself too thin, or you risk getting passed over for tenure."

Faculty members considering a career with an already established business rather than starting their own should expect a different set of expectations and requirements. Cyndi Laurin, a business author and consultant, and a former faculty member in the College of Business at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, reminds academics that businesses have limited resources, particularly in tough times like these. In seeking out industry jobs, says Laurin, you have to show a record of results, particularly financial results. "Although your education, research, and publications are the high points of an academic résumé," Laurin says, "the business world wants to see how you've made a monetary difference to past employers."

Science Careers Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen offers advice each month to researchers considering business careers. Jensen's August 2009 column explores several misconceptions about industry often found among academics.

Most postdocs in the U.K. are generally satisfied with their current jobs and their work-life balance; however, up to a third of them don't feel that their wider contributions are appreciated, according to a new survey published by Vitae, the U.K.'s career development organization for postdocs (a.k.a. research staff) and graduate students.

The survey, which includes nearly 6000 responses, representing 16% of the total number of U.K. postdocs, from all disciplines -- not just science -- asked postdocs about their employment contracts, their job experience, experiences within their institutions, their career planning support, training and development, and their career aspirations.

Of those who responded:

  • 21% found their current positions by word of mouth only.
  • 71% feel they are integrated into their departmental research community.
  • 31% don't feel their efforts in managing staff and managing resources are appreciated.
  • 58% hope to have a career in higher education in 5 years' time that combines research and teaching.
  • 28% responded that they want to pursue a career outside of research.
  • 50% say they have a clear career plan.
In addition, 85% of the respondents had been postgraduate researchers for 1 to 5 years; 12.5% reported that they work part-time; and they're funded by a variety of mechanisms: 21% are funded by the institution, 38% by the research councils, 20% by charities, 6% by industry, 14% by the U.K. government, and 9% by the European Union or Commission.

The report's recommendations are mostly targeted at higher education institutions so they can best meet the needs of research staff. But if you'd like to have a look at the report to see how your answers might stack up against 6000 other postdocs, you can find the report on Vitae's Web site (links to PDF).

The European Commission has launched a public consultation on mobility opportunities in Europe following the release of its Green Paper, 'Promoting the Learning Abilities of Young People.'

The Green Paper focuses on all young people, not just scientists, but it can be an informative read for European scientists considering a move to another European country for the first time. The document refers to European mobility initiatives and information portals, and highlights aspects of relocation that you may not have considered, like the legal issues and the portability of grants and loans.

If you have experience with mobility around Europe, you can take part on the consultation until 15 December, and help new European policy enhance mobility experiences for other young scientists.


Monday's announcement of the Nobel prize in economics brought the number of women honored in this year's Nobel Prizes to five (out of 13 total): "The largest number ever to join the ranks in a single year," noted the Web site.

It's tough to know whether this is something to celebrate.

Let's set aside the gender imbalance for a moment and instead focus on the women:

On Monday, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the economics prize (officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) for her analysis of economic governance. (She's also a member of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors.) In an interview with Adam Smith from, Ostrom noted that economics is a male-dominated field. "I've attended economics sessions where I've been the only woman in the room," Ostrom said. "But that is slowly changing. I think there's a greater respect now that women can make a major contribution, and I would hope the recognition here is helping that along." (See also ScienceInsider's item on the economics prize.)

Last week, Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German writer, became the 12th woman (out of 106 recipients) to win the Literature prize. She, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," according to the Nobel committee.

Ada Yonath, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was the 4th woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on the structure and function of ribosomes. "I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science," she said in an interview last year. Indeed, the wisdom she had for those of us in the audience at last year's European Platform of Women Scientists Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused on the process of science rather than on any issue of gender:

"In the 27 years that I was working with ribosomes, ... I took away this fantastic piece of wisdom: According to some theory, almost anyone can be a genius if they focus on a single endeavor to the exclusion of all else," she said. "But how can people today maintain such focus when they face so many distractions? In my opinion, it can only be done by being allowed to work on demanding projects for relatively long periods, even when no physical results are emerging. We worked 20 years until we had the first structure [of ribosomes]. We had a huge puzzle to put together, and every piece was for us a big, gratifying moment."

In fact, it was a Nobel Prize-worthy puzzle. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the chemistry Nobel prize.)

Last but not least, this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine included Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Carol Grieder, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for their work on telomeres and telomerase. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the physiology or medicine Nobel prize.)

People often note that there the telomere field seems to be dominated by women. Grieder addressed this in her interview and in Tuesday's New York Times. I like what Blackburn had to say in her interview with "It's fairly close to the biological ratio of men and women. It's all the other fields that are aberrant. This is the normal field," she said, laughing.

Smith asked Blackburn if she worked to promote women in the science. "I've only actively promoted what we always hope is good science. It's not as if one would favor a woman researcher in this area over a man researcher in the area. Women have come into this field, perhaps because ... of the kinds of things that I've been doing, and Carol [has been doing]. We are women, and we tended to have women students and postdocs--not 100%; they tended to be 50-50 men and women, which is already higher than the usual ratio. There's a self-perpetuating aspect to that." She continued: "You want women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do."

Blackburn's comments reinforce the notion that a mentor who looks like you can have a positive effect. So, while it's hard to know whether to celebrate or bemoan the fact that, for the first time ever, 38% of the new Nobel laureates are women, I am happy that these women have been recognized and hope they will be inspiration for the current and emerging generation of women scientists.

Engineers and architects, like many professionals, face a continuing tough job market, but the student engineers and architects taking part in this year's Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC, display an enthusiasm for their work and technology that belies their current job prospects. Science Careers talked on Monday with a few of the competitors, who not only look forward to a career in working with alternative energy, but also want to change the way their professions are practiced.

The competition, held by the U.S. Department of Energy every 2-3 years, gives teams of student engineers and architects worldwide a chance to show off their skills in designing, building, and operating an attractive and energy-efficient home powered by the sun. This year's Solar Decathlon -- it's called a decathlon because judges rate the teams on 10 criteria -- brought together 20 teams from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The competition provides the participants with a venue for demonstrating their talents while highlighting the practicality of green construction and sustainable design.

TomRauch_PennState_150.jpgTom Rauch, a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University in University Park majoring in energy studies in the school's engineering and business departments, is on the Penn State team. Rauch hopes the Solar Decathlon and his studies lead to a career in industry where he can help "change the way we're doing manufacturing." A Pittsburgh native, Rauch comes from a family of coal and steel workers. He has already done an internship in the coal industry where he was able to see first-hand its production and engineering processes.

HEWarren_Alberta_150.jpg Helen Evans Warren, a masters degree candidate in environmental design from University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, is a member of Team Alberta, which is made up of participants from several institutions in that province. Warren also serves on the interior design faculty at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She plans to use her research and teaching roles to help generate alternative ways of approaching design and to "generate projects that make a difference." Alberta, Warren notes, now relies heavily on oil and gas but the competition can show how alternative energies can make a positive impact on the environment.

JoeRice_UWMilw_150.jpgJoe Rice, who is getting a masters degree in architecture at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, is one of 30 members of that institution's team in the competition. In his career, Rice wants to address "the unique challenge" of building sustainability in the design process, from the studio through the construction documents. While the competition focuses on homes, Rice says, the same sustainable practices can be applied to other structures such as offices and theaters.

The Solar Decathlon homes are on display 13-18 October 2009 (except for 14 October) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Winners of the competition will be awarded on 16 October.

Update, 14 October 2009: Jon Taplin, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at University of Southern California, makes the case for a "Green WPA", modeled after the New Deal's Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, to save a potential lost generation of young workers caught in the current recession.

Photos: A. Kotok

October 9, 2009

Ruth L. Kirschstein

The death of Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD, on October 6 has deprived young scientists of one of the best official friends they have ever had. In a trail-blazing half century at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Kirschstein served as acting and deputy director of NIH, an advisor to NIH directors, and the first female director of an institute. She used her knowledge and influence to advance the interests of young people aspiring to careers in science. She spoke out, organized meetings, and worked both in the foreground and behind the scenes to open opportunities for future generations of researchers.

Her work won her many honors. The two most relevant to young scientists came from the United States Congress, which in 2002 added her name to the title of the National Research Service Awards supporting biomedical students and postdocs, and the National Postdoctoral Association, which gave her its first Distinguished Service Award in 2004. Science Careers will offer its own appreciation of her life and work at a later date.

                                                                                     - Beryl Benderly
Today marks the launch of Science magazine's spinoff journal, Science Translational Medicine. One of the papers in the inaugural issue is by a group of Canadian researchers who have developed a "lab on a chip" device that can measure levels of the hormone estrogen in a tiny sample of blood or tissue. The researchers hope that this device can be used in the future to measure the risk of breast cancer--which is closely linked to estrogen levels--or the effectiveness of certain therapies that affect estrogen levels.

I heard about this paper on Tuesday in a teleconference for reporters. What struck me as the most interesting part of the research is the group of researchers themselves. The paper is the result of a collaboration between two research groups: A group of chemists and engineers, headed by Aaron Wheeler at the University of Toronto; and a group of clinical researchers, headed by physician-investigator Robert Casper at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The lead author of the paper is Noha Mousa, a Ph.D. student working with Casper. She's also a physician. It was her initiative that got the collaboration going: "Me and Dr. Casper ... have many patients on aromatase inhibitors as a preventive therapy, and we wanted to measure [estrogen levels]," Mousa said in the teleconference. "I contacted Aaron and I told him about the idea, and he said, we can give it a try. So we got together and made a diagram of the device." They brought in more collaborators and people from both labs to fine-tune the idea,  build the device, and eventually test it. "We developed it gradually, step by step," Mousa said. "I was in Dr. Wheeler's lab all the time, and really enjoyed that and learned a lot from it."

I think this paper illustrates a key goal of translational research: To bring together research groups who normally wouldn't work together to solve critical questions to improve human health. Indeed, Wheeler summed it up nicely: "We live in completely different worlds, and I've learned so much working with this other group," he said in the teleconference. "This has been the most fun I've had in science."

October 6, 2009

More Bell Labs Nobels

As if to underscore the greatness of the monopoly-era Bell Laboratories, as described in the current Taken for Granted article on Science Careers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today announced that half the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to two veterans of the fabled  research center. Willard Boyle, age 85, and George Smith, 79, share the prize with Charles Kao, 75, who did his groundbreaking research at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow, England. The three are honored for advances in the study of light that laid the foundations of crucial technologies.

According to the Nobel Prize Web site, Boyle and Smith split their half "for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit - the CCD sensor" used in digital photography, which took place at Bell Labs. Kao wins the other half "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication."

- Beryl Benderly

The European Commission recently released a book to celebrate the achievements of European women scientists of all times. "For much of human history, women were officially excluded from the scientific realm," Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research states on the book's Web page. Yet "many women, throughout the centuries, have managed to overcome their marginalisation and excel in their chosen field, making vital contributions to the sum of human knowledge."

The book, entitled Women in Science, tells the story of 40 women scientists, some of them well known and some others less so. The book is a reminder that "women scientists, even when the odds are stacked against them, are the equal of men. Celebrating the achievements of the women of yesteryear can provide young women today with role models and examples to aspire to in their quest for scientific excellence," reads the introduction.

You may read the book for free here or listen to the story of each woman in separate audio files.

If you're interested in learning more about Hypatia of Alexandria in particular, you'll even soon be able to watch part of her story in a totally unrelated initiative: Spanish film director Alejandro Amenábar has just made a new movie called Agora that explores the life and work of the Alexandrian astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher. (The movie is to hit Spanish cinema screens on 9 October.)

Maybe it's because I was trained as a scientist: Even as I've written, many times over several years, about the importance of interpersonal skills in employment, it always felt a little, well, soft. It was only recently that I figured out what bothered me about the advice I -- and everyone else -- was giving. It's too generic. GC-MS is a practical career skill: it allows you to accomplish a particular task. Javascript and Perl are practical career skills: ditto. Sharing small talk in the lunchroom, or managing not to get into a fist fight with the person at the next bench, are not career skills.

In this weekend's New York Times, I read something about interpersonal skills that really resonated with my own professional experiences.

For the "Corner Office" column, Adam Bryant interviewed Susan Lyne, the former CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, who is currently CEO of the Gilt Groupe, an online, members-only luxury-goods purveyor. That's about as far from science as you can get, but that doesn't make her advice irrelevant. The interview focuses on hiring and evaluating talent, mostly for senior-management positions.

There's much that's worth reading, but here's the part that got my attention:

"Somebody might be a great manager of a team but incapable of working across the company to get things done because they're competitive, or because of any number of reasons...

...there is very little [in the typical MBA training] about how to work with your peers where you need to get X done, and you need these other three departments to give you X amount of time in order to succeed at that.

The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilize people who are not their direct reports. Everyone can get their direct reports to work for them, but getting people who do not have to give you their time to engage and to support you and want you to succeed is something that is sorely missing from B-school courses."
That's just one interpersonal challenge--there are many others--but it's one that I, personally, have struggled with. How do you win, and deploy, the loyalty of people who don't report to you and are always very busy with other work? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Read the whole interview here.

For the past few months, Science Careers has tracked the number of online jobs advertised for scientists and engineers, as reported by The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute. In September, the number of ads for scientists and engineers declined, compared to August, with only the related field of medical practitioners and technicians recording an increase.

Among scientists, opportunities for life, physical, and social scientists advertised online declined only slightly from their August levels, from almost 71,000 in August to 70,300 in September, less than a 1% drop. The number of ads for those scientists had risen in both July and August compared to the previous month.

Online opportunities for computer scientists and mathematicians also dropped less than 1% to about 402,000 in September, but that still represents almost 4,000 fewer ads than in August. As with the life, physical, and social scientists, the number of ads for computer and math scientists rose in July and August.

The number of online ads for engineers and architects took a bigger hit in September. Ads for these jobs declined by 3,300 to about 114,000 from August to September, a decline of 2.8%. Unlike ads for scientists, opportunities in this category declined in July and August, compared to the previous month.

View image

In the related field of education workers -- including training and library staff at all levels -- online ads declined by more than 4,000 in September to about 63,000, a drop of more than 6%. The number of ads for education workers declined by about the same amount in August.

The Conference Board's report does not comment on seasonal variations within occupational categories, so we do not know if these declines normally happen at this time of year in these groups.

The only bright spot in The Conference Board report was in the number of online ads for the related category of health care practitioners and technicians (health care support staff are reported separately). The number of employment ads for these workers increased by 28,000 to almost 606,000 in September, a 4.8% increase. This increase was still only about half of the nearly 60,000 more job ads for this group in August.

The Conference Board computes a ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers in the job market for these categories, which offers an indicator of job market competitiveness for employers and job-seekers. A ratio of less than 1.0 means there are more jobs posted online than there are unemployed workers seeking those jobs. When the ratio exceeds 1.0, there are more job seekers than online opportunities. However, this ratio is computed for the previous month, since there's a one-month lag in capturing data on unemployed workers.

In August, people seeking work as health care practitioners and technicians had the most favorable job market with a ratio of 0.3, which means there were about 3 opportunities advertised for each job-seeker. Computer scientists and mathematicians also had more posted opportunities than job-hunters in August, with 1.7 jobs for each of the nearly 236,000 in this group seeking work.

Other scientific and engineering job seekers faced a more difficult market. People seeking jobs as life, physical, and social scientists were somewhat more numerous (83,100) than the number of online jobs posted (70,900). For architects and engineers, the number of job-hunters exceeded posted jobs by more than 2-to-1.  And for education, training, and library workers, the environment was downright dismal, with about 5 job seekers for each opportunity posted online.

While it is little consolation to education workers, their plight is not that much worse than the job market overall. Nationwide, the number of online opportunities declined by nearly 102,000 in September, with 4.3 unemployed job seekers for each advertised job in August.

UPDATE, 16 October 2009. Frank Tortorici and June Shelp of The Conference Board kindly tell us that their data that we report on are indeed seasonally adjusted. Here's what they say ...

"The occupational data that is provided in the [Help-Wanted OnLine Data Series] monthly release is seasonally adjusted.  In other words, for occupational categories like life, physical, and social scientists where the academic calendar is important the seasonally adjusted data would adjust for the seasonal swings that are typical for that occupation.  Similarly, the unemployment data for the occupations is also the seasonally adjusted data.  Seasonally adjusted data is typically the data that if reported in the major federal data series for employment and unemployment as it provides the clearest picture of month-to-month changes."

Few people know more about friendship than psychologist, blogger, and Science Careers columnist Irene S. Levine. Her new book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, tells how friendships between women begin, flourish, and end, with the breakup of best-friendships sometimes as painful as romantic endings. For the book, Levine conducted an online survey of some 1500 women, some of whom she says "poured their hearts out" telling of their friendships with other women.

We're proud of our colleague--that's enough reason to mention her new book here. But there's another reason: She also has lessons for the workplace.

Because the friendship of one woman with another can have an intensity rivaling that of romantic relationships, Levine urges women to enter workplace friendships cautiously. At a book-signing event last night in Rockville, Maryland (outside Washington, DC), Levine said close friendships at work can happen, but she recommends "building trust slowly" with your working colleagues.

Levine says that workplace relationships may not always be collegial, and can get complicated when supervisors and employees are involved. "Friends," says Levine, "can undermine you at work," when office politics and bureaucratic in-fighting create clashes with people you thought were your friends.


Levine has written her Mind Matters column on behavioral and social issues faced by early career scientists for Science Careers since 2005.

(Photo, A. Kotok)

October 1, 2009

Job Reference Myths

Here's a really important topic that I don't know much about--so I found this article on, with information provided by Heidi Allison, Managing Director at Allison and Taylor, a prominent reference-checking firm, so helpful. The article provides a useful perspective on the important issue of reference checking when you're looking for a job.

Just remember that in academia, all bets are off. Sure, rules and guidelines apply even here, but many professors don't know them--or if they do, ignore them. Consequently, references from university profs often go far beyond the typical name, rank, and serial number, for better or for worse.

One additional caution: Beware the letter than damns you with faint praise. As an undergraduate, I got badly sick one semester and received a very bad grade in a physics class. My professor in that class despised me. I took the course again as an independent study and got an A. Triumphantly, I asked that professor for a letter of recommendation as a way of addressing that blemish on my transcript.

Bad idea. He wrote a one-sentence recommendation saying that he was sure that "I would make a fine graduate student," or something. I got into grad school, he's probably dead by now, and my physics career has come and gone. But I admit it: I'm still a little bitter.