Science Careers Blog

December 2009

Several Science Careers articles and blog posts in the past year or so have encouraged job hunters to sharpen their online identities, since more employers now search the Web and social networks to find out more about their leading job candidates. To help with this task, the authors of a 2007 book on personal branding offer a Web-based service that reviews your online identity and lets you know if it needs fixing up.

William Arruda and Kirsten Dixson, both career consultants, provide an Online Identity Calculator that asks a few questions about your current employment and career goals, then steps you through a Google search of your name and its results. Based on the number and type of responses that show up in the search, the online calculator assigns you to a spot in one of four quadrants on a two-dimensional scale. The two dimensions are:
- Volume: number of returns in the search, and
- Relevance: if the returns are favorable vs. unfavorable or irrelevant.

If the search of your name has only a few returns and they do not say good things about you, you fall in the Digitally Dissed quadrant. If the search yields a lot of returns, but they are still not favorable, you're really in trouble: the Digitally Disastrous quadrant. In either of these categories, you need to get those negative items removed or start generating content that says good things about you and your work; examples -- a LinkedIn profile or thoughtful comments on leading blogs.

If your name search yields only a few returns but they are generally favorable, Arruda and Dixson say you are Digitally Dabbling. In this group, your online identity still needs work, but you're in better shape than the people with unfavorable details in their searches. And if you have both high volume and favorable content in your name search, you've reached Digitally Distinct status. Arruda and Dixson warn, however, that even at this stage -- what they call "the nirvana of online identity" -- you still need to monitor your online presence, in case negative information pops up.

There's a fifth category: Digitally Disguised. You're assigned to this category if the search yields nothing and you don't even make into the chart. Since most science grad students and postdocs today are identified somewhere on their institutions' Web sites, they should have little risk of totally falling off the chart.

Be aware that you need to give your e-mail address at the beginning of the review, and you get a follow-up message from the authors' consulting firm when you complete the process. You can chose to unsubscribe from further mailings, however.

In May on this blog, we told how the state of Florida had expanded the number of community colleges offering bachelor's degrees, many in science and technology. Now California is considering a similar idea, according to an article by Matt Krupnick last week in the Contra Costa Times, published in northern California.

Up to now, California has made a sharp distinction between its four-year colleges and universities and community colleges that only offer associate's degrees or certificates. But the state's budget crisis and the resulting deep cuts in education funding are driving at least one state lawmaker to reconsider this division. Assemblyman Marty Block of San Diego, the article says, raised the issue at a hearing earlier this month on California's higher education master plan. He is considering introducing a bill in the legislature enabling the state's community colleges to offer 4-year degrees.

Block said that budget cuts forced San Diego State University to deny admission to many deserving California residents. "We have a lot of well-respected community colleges down in San Diego, and they think they could do a fine job offering those next two years to students, at least in certain disciplines."

Florida community colleges already offer bachelor's degrees in science education and public safety -- the latter including forensic-science courses. Kenneth Walker, president of Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida, which offers both 2-year and 4-year degrees, told the newspaper that bachelor's degrees at his institution cost a little more than its 2-year programs but are still much less expensive than universities.

Even if Block's proposal passes, it will probably take a while before the state's community colleges could start offering bachelor's degrees. The Contra Costa Times notes that California's 110-campus system of community colleges is already overflowing with its current 3,000,000 students. The newspaper also says it would be difficult to keep costs of a 4-year degree close to the current $26 per credit hour now charged for community college students.

Hat tip: Washington Monthly

December 22, 2009

Aunt Hillary Needs You

Nina Federoff, the science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, recently made a pitch for scientists to serve in the State Department, telling how scientists can serve as diplomats without venturing too far from their research specialties. She was speaking at the Science and Technology Policy Leadership Seminar, put on by AAAS, publisher of Science Careers, held 16-20 November in Washington, DC.

Federoff said partnerships between science and U.S. diplomacy began during the Cold War and focused largely on weapons matters. But since then, science-diplomacy collaborations have broadened to cover issues such as climate change and economic development, where the expertise of scientists is needed to develop, conduct, and explain complex policies.

Most people interested in a diplomatic career in the State Department would need to go through the Foreign Service Officer (FSO) selection process, which includes a written examination followed by a personal narrative essay, and group-skills assessment. As Federoff noted, however, scientists have other ways of working with the State Department for short periods of time without going through the FSO process.

One approach Federoff mentioned is the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program, which includes a track for diplomacy, security, and development. Fellows serve for 1 year in a professional position at State or in other foreign-affairs or national security agencies. Applicants must have completed their doctorates and be U.S. citizens; dual-citizenship is OK.  They can be at any career stage. The 2010 call for applicants has closed, but watch for the next call next fall.

Another route to State that Federoff mentioned is the Jefferson Science Fellowship program, which is offered by the National Academies. Jefferson Fellows, too, serve 1-year assignments, either in the State Department or the Agency for International Development, and must be U.S. citizens. However, this program is open to tenured faculty only. Jefferson Fellows agree to be available for short-term projects for five years following the fellowship period. The deadline for applications to the next class of Jefferson Fellows is 15 January 2010.

Disclosure: Alan Kotok serves on the selection panel for AAAS Diplomacy, Security, and Development Fellows.

December 16, 2009

The microscope doctor

Jim Janoso has created a very nice niche for himself. He is the microscope doctor. His patients: hard working microscopes in field stations in the most remote areas of the world. Microscopes that work day in and day out in the dust, on the ice, under extemes of temperature. Microscopes that should not, -- cannot -- fail. His crusade: to help scientists see the mysteries of their tiny world, better. His tools: a large trunk crammed with lenses, cleansing solutions, tons of specialized tissues, tiny screws and screwdrivers, and a huge spirit of adventure.

Housecalls include visits to research stations, ships, labs and outposts everywhere. He is especially fond of his Antarctic visits. This is his third time on The Ice. He has already performed surgeries on microscopes in the South Pole and McMurdo, and now he's spending a whole month at Palmer Station.

Janoso is a mechanical engineer and has held a variety of jobs, from the aerospace industry to the forest service. He had the vision, in 2003, to buy a small company, Northern Focus Optical, which was devoted to fixing small microscopes in high schools in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. He took it to new heights by refocusing on the higher-end microscopes of science.

Janoso always finds some battered microscopes that needs his attention, like those of our transport vessel the Laurence M. Gould. As the boat rocks in the tall waves of the Drake Passage, Jim keeps working, taking apart layer after layer of lenses and precision optics. If he can't find a tool, he'll make it, or use something designed for a different purpose. Where, if not here, is the adventure?

All of us here at Palmer go to Jim for our optical worries. He has scanned many of our cameras and birding binoculars.  He is also an excellent hands-on sailor, an asset on our almost daily zodiac expeditions.

I bett Scott and Shackleton and the other polar explorers would have loved to have someone like Jim Janoso on board back in the heroic age of exploration.

rachel-small.jpgRachel Armstrong defies categorization. Trained as a physician, Armstrong practiced medicine for about 6 years before leaving to work in pharmaceutical communications and to pursue artistic collaborations. Now a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, she was a 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Global Fellow, where her talk centered on her current work on "metabolic materials" to solve architectural challenges -- such as growing a synthetic reef under Venice to save it from rising water levels.

So, it's next to impossible to describe what she does in a few words -- and that's deliberate: "Once you start becoming categorized, you start restricting your available options to solve problems," she told an audience at the Wellcome Collection in London earlier this month.

The work she does now is part synthetic biology, part chemistry, part architecture, all with a healthy dose of creativity: "I'm driven by the fundamental creativity of science," she said. "We hear about the rational side of science, we don't really get to hear about the emotional commitment that scientists make to their research. It is not your rational brain that keeps you in the lab until 11 o'clock at night."

Armstrong loved both biology and art as a kid, but was nudged toward the sciences in school. "By the time I went through school, I was told that sciences was where I wanted to be. So by the time I'd reached university and enrolled in medical sciences, I hadn't even thought about what the outcome would be -- that I'd end up as a doctor."

She found that, while she loved interacting with patients, she felt a sort of ethical conflict in practicing medicine. "The tension I felt was practicing by protocol as opposed to practicing from first principles," she said. "That's where my sense of an ethical conflict came from. You go into medicine as a complete idealist, but then you end up with someone else's politics."

When she left medicine, she worked as a multimedia producer in the pharmaceutical industry. At the same time, she started collaborating with artists such as Orlan and Stelarc. "I used the creative aspects of science to ask the questions that interested me, but outside the laboratory."

Her interest and curiosity converged in architecture. She had been invited to teach students about the impact of technology on the body, she says, but "I realized that rather than making buildings that were body-centric, the paradigm could be reversed so that we could consider our architecture as a kind of artificial ecology," she told me in a follow-up e-mail this week. "This was really exciting as it allowed me to think about the synthetic biology questions that I loved in a new way. Not only was the science that I enjoyed now accessible in a social (rather than a laboratory) space but could be challenged at a whole new level of scale."

At the Wellcome Collection talk, she joked that when she left medicine, she basically had no qualifications as a scientist. "You're good for nothing," she quipped. So I asked her by e-mail this week how she made herself into an expert in this niche of living architecture:

"By having a vision and pursuing it with passion, despite the obstacles and contradictions of not really 'fitting' in with any readily recognizable discipline. But I would also say that I am lucky. I think we are in the midst of a change in the way that we view the world," she wrote. "As we realize that most things are not based on Cartesian mechanics which assumes that objects are made of the sum of their parts, nothing more, we now are having to admit that 'life' is much more complex and interconnected, so we are having to talk across disciplines and fields of expertise and cross-fertilize our knowledge."

Photo credit: Wellcome Images

December 14, 2009

Extreme Science

It's snowing heavily today. (A year ago, instead of snow, it rained cats and dogs here at Palmer.) The icebergs on the bay are covered by a frosting, like fine powdered sugar, and the sea has blue and green brash ice that sings like broken crystals as the water moves underneath. Visibility is just a few hundred yards.

Even so, we went out water sampling with Maggie Waldron from the Marine Biological Laboratory. Twice a week, Maggie collects water in a contraption similar to the Nansen bottles that are widely used in oceanography. Each bottles is mostly a tube with springs and caps that open and close as the bottle is lowered to stops at five different depths between 0 and 50 meters. Maggie collects always at the same two locations, named B and E. So far, she has collected more than 200 samples.

"We want to see what happens with microorganisms, like bacteria, in these locations as the Summer progresses", she says. "As soon as we get back to the lab  we start processing them, ...  before the environmental conditions in the bottles change too much. I start filtering the nitrogen right on the boat".

The zodiac for this job is larger than the ones we have used so far. It has a small crane and it is powered by a 70-horse outboard engine, which allows it to go over medium-sized pieces of brash ice. For the other boats, this brash ice is like a minefield.

Working in the middle of the ocean, under a snowfall,  at -4 degrees celcius, is difficult. Doing so while wearing cumbersome gloves -- pushing buttons and entering data in laptops, or in my case, when operating video and still cameras -- can be a small ordeal. Moving gear in and out of a dry bag is a task. Keeping camera lenses clean is even more difficult. And of course, when you spot a penguin on an iceberg everything has to be done at once.
The other two scientists on board today are Alex Kahl and Brian Gaas from Rutgers University. They are collecting information about the quality and quantity of light that phytoplankton receives in these waters. These photosynthetic algae are the base of the food chain in the seas. Alex and Brian are deploying two devices laden with sensors that will measure the extent to which the particles suspended in the water column are absorbing, reflecting, and scattering sunlight. The instruments scan between the surface and 100 meters deep.
The snow is relentless. It accumulates on everything. Our fingers are numb with cold; mine actually hurt. The scientists go on with their work, telling jokes and talking about the hot lunch that awaits at the station as they check salinity and temperature. These parameters, they explain, will be studied along with everything else: the quantity of plankton in the water. How healthy the krill and bacteria are, and what the penguins are eating.

Because this is such a hostile environment, says Alex, the life chain here in Antarctica is less complex in the upper levels of organisms.  Later, he explained what he means in an online chat on the NPR Web site. "The greatest difference between this food chain and that of non-polar oceans is the energy that is put into the system. The phytoplankton -- the krill's food -- can only introduce biomass -- that is, energy -- into the system when it has enough light. That means during the Austral summer.

"This makes one think of the enormous impact of the sea-ice variability.  It is basically the key to the whole system. Both the krill and the adelies need this ice to survive. But if the sea ice  continues to recede to the south there won't be enough light during the winter for the phytoplankton to grow, which would leave the adelies in the dark, so to speak".

Three hours after we leave the station, our fingers are useless. We return to the ranch, our  eyes filled with visions of icebergs in an extraordinary array of textures and shapes and characters. This is truly science in the extreme. And I love it.

With the end of the year coming up, many people are taking time off, school terms are ending, and it may seem like a good time to put the job hunt on hold for a while.

Eve Tahmincioglu, careers columnist at MSNBC,  thinks this is the right time to ramp up some aspects of your job search, or at least to take it in a different direction.

Tahmincioglu gives seven holiday-time hints job hunters, many of which can apply to the rest of the year as well. Here are a few of those tips:

- Party hearty, with networking in mind. "Go to every party you can so you can get out of the house," Tahmincioglu says. She quotes the director of the office of career services at Eastern Connecticut State University who advises accepting as many party invitations as possible to reconnect with people you know and connect with people you don't. It is not a time be picky. In this economy holiday events put on by professional, community, or political groups -- or individuals -- can put you in contact with people you may not otherwise meet. Use the opportunity to let these people know who you are.

- Give and ye shall receive. It's the season of giving, Tahmincioglu says -- a reminder that networking is a two-way street, that helping other job hunters builds reciprocity and develops  trusting relationships with others in your network. Dick van Vlootten spells out in detail how this works in a 2004 article in Science's Next Wave, the predecessor to Science Careers.

- Spruce up the online image. What comes up first or second when you put your name into search engines? If the search returns information that isn't completely flattering, you need to take action -- immediately. On this blog, we've discussed how more companies are using social network sites like LinkedIn or Facebook to identify candidate leads and complement reference checks. Tahmincioglu also recommends putting meaningful and intelligent comments on blogs read widely in your industry, which will improve your online impression when potential employers go searching.

- Spruce up the physical image. Give yourself the gift of looking great in that first interview in 2010. Use the downtime to get more rest, get a haircut, clean the interview suit, and start an exercise routine if you already don't have one (particularly if you take to heart the partying advice given above).

- Mellow out until 1/1/2010. You can use the downtime at the end of the year to chill yourself, as well as the champagne, Tahmincioglu says. She quotes on expert who calls stress "battery acid on the brain". Irene S. Levine has devoted the past few articles in her Mind Matters column on Science Careers to dealing with stress, including her column earlier this month on making good use of downtime, like the kind we find at the end of year.

December 13, 2009

Ambushed by Icebergs

This morning we were ambushed by icebergs. We woke up and realized we were prisoners of large chunks of ice that completely blocked the entrance to our tiny harbor for zodiacs here at Palmer. The station sits on a small, rocky shore, with a glacier behind it. Our only means of transportation are these zodiacs, and there is no other way to get in and out of the station but through our small harbor.


Now that our driveway is blocked and we are temporarily trapped, it is interesting to see what happens in here. Science continues, but to a slower tune, while a crab-eater seal sleeps on the very same iceberg that ambushed everybody. The "birders", who are used to going out every single day, no matter what, walk to and fro, settling finally into rare all-day desk work. The biologists who study microorganisms and phytoplankton in the water column come to terms with not sampling today.

But everybody enjoys a minivacation, taking a few minutes longer at the lunch table, reading, enjoying the fantastic luxury of a hot tub overlooking glaciers, and taking lots of pictures -- Palmer has more cameras per capita than any place I know, and several amazing photographers.

One of them is Zenobia "Zee" Evans, who is in charge of building maintenance and construction. She offers her black and white photos for a Sunday workshop called "art at the bar". The workshop is a cool way to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings in a new way: by learning how to colorize a photo, drawing or painting in watercolors.

Thanks to the icebergs, we also got to do more lab work than usual and, finally, sit in the lounge for a good movie and popcorn. The lounge at Palmer feels like a private social club, with comfortable leather recliners and a ton of movies and books.

The wind has started to blow from the east. That means the icebergs will be blown into the bay and out of the harbor, perhaps overnight. It also means we might get bad weather, or just tons of snow. Or maybe a radiant sun. This is Antarctica: Things change in the time it takes to take off your shades.

Yesterday we wrote a new chapter in polar communications: the first-ever live wireless internet video conference from Torgersen island, at the Palmer Archipelago, in Antarctica, and the first ever involving 5 parties simultaneously from Palmer Station. It was an outreach effort I came up with several months ago together with the Maloka Science Museum in Bogota, Colombia ( Thanks to the use of the free "ooVoo" videoconferencing software, we transmitted live to science museums in Colombia, Mexico and Chile, where some 400 people, child and adult, saw and heard us and asked questions. Others were able to follow it online.

The Palmer Station IT people, including Jeff Otten and Ken Kloppenborg, were very gracious about the whole thing. They pointed an antenna from the station to Torgersen, went out there to test the system, and then went back again in a heavy snowfall for the actual broadcast, which lasted over an hour. Blog-BiologaMaggieWaldronyAngelaVideoconferenciaTorgersonIsland_Web.jpg

Biologist Maggie Waldron (in the photo, wirh me) was at my side, helping answer some of the kids' questions, with one of the penguin colonies in the background. This was a hit with the children hundreds of miles away, as we had a curious penguin that kept coming to see us, to the children's delight. The laptop was placed inside a cardboard box with a fleece over the keyboard. This low-tech approach protected the laptop while allowing me to see the eager faces in the audiences at the science museums.

It was very rewarding for me because I know we touched a few minds with the issues of Antarctica. Can't think of a better way to contribute to the issue of global warming.

If you are a "birder" at Palmer Station like Kristen Gorman or Jen Blum, your day starts early with a quick breakfast, getting your gear in order, donning your "float coat", getting on the zodiac, and heading to one of the several lovely islands in the Palmer Archipelago. Their job sounds way cool: They get to spend their days surrounded by penguins, skuas, giant petrels, and antarctic cormorans, in the open air, no desk work (until the night, when data needs to be put in to the system).

But appearances deceive. Yes, these young researchers spend their Antarctic Summer days surrounded by penguins and giant petrels and they do love their job. But the work is hard. To get to the birds they must climb steep rocky outcrops, or walk long distances in fresh snow, postholing to their knees, carrying stuff. It looks fun until you have tried it a couple of times. In my case at least, the heavy float coat, the heavy boots, the heavy cameras, the heavy waistline, the wind, the sun, the snow, the sea, all conspired to make it quite a workout.

KrstenGorman-left-jen blum-rightinTorgersonIslandwithSkuaNest.jpg

Kristen and Jen have to observe closely what happens in all these bird colonies. They measure and weigh eggs and chicks, make periodic censuses of the colonies, and take careful notes as to who dies, who is born, who eats whom. Are the parents rearing the chicks properly? are the chicks getting enough to eat? Are the skuas having a better chance to steal eggs and chicks that are not well supervised by distressed parents who have to swim farther out to get dinner? What is the effect of the decrease in the sea ice on the penguin populations, specifically the adelies, which are totally dependent on the ice, both to eat the krill underneath it and to rest on it pretty much like a polar bear would?

For the past 30 years, at least, the leading bird researcher at Palmer, Dr. William Fraser, has been focusing on the ecology of these birds in the Western Peninsula. And even though adelies are still an abundant species, researchers have seen their populations drop to a third of their previous levels. Painstakingly collecting this data day in and day out, Kristen and Jen are contributing to the process of acquiring a deep understanding of this primitive yet wonderful Antarctic ecosystem, which begins with phytoplankton and ends with whales and and encompasses everything in between.

And, oh, yes, they also get to place their hands directly under the soft belly of a mother skua, who courteously allows them to borrow their eggs for a few seconds. Photos: Courtesy of Chris Neill.



December 11, 2009

Defining Your Unique Talents

Career coach Sital Ruparelia had a post last month on his blog about defining your unique talents. Ruparlia defines unique talents as your natural abilities plus your unique way of expressing those abilities.

By identifying these unique talents, Ruparelia says, you can start defining what makes you different and better from other job hunters, which can help your resumé and cover letter stand out. And after landing a job, you can use the same approach to identify your unique contribution to your employer, something that will come in handy when it's time for performance review and salary-raise negotiations.

To find out your natural abilities, Ruparelia asks 13 questions, some straightforward and some more probing. The more straightforward questions include ...
- What's the work you've done effortlessly ever since you can remember?
- What's work or activities energize you (rather than tiring you) after you've completed them?
- What types of problems would your friends, colleagues and family pay you to fix out of their own pockets?
- What type of tasks and activities make you completely lose track of time?

Some of the more probing questions that aim for underlying talents are ...
- What do you do when no one is looking? Ruparelia believes that one of the clues to finding happiness in a job is what you did in the past when you were only interested in your own satisfaction and not in meeting the expectations of a teacher, co-worker, or family member. Think back 5, 10, or 15 years and ask yourself what professionally-related activities really made you happy.
- The 20/10 test, which Ruparelia takes from the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. This test has two questions: (1) If you inherited $20 million right now, would you spend your days the same way you spend them now? (2) If you knew that you had only 10 years left to live, would you stick with your current job or career? If the answers to these questions are "no", what you would do instead?

To uncover your unique way of expressing these special abilities, Ruparelia asks 5 questions, including these:
- What's unique about the way you express those abilities?
- What things make you stand out when you're with your peers? (positive or negative)
- What's the quirkiest thing about you?

Ruparelia says this process can take time and requires brutal honesty and introspection. But once you have identified them you can find organizations and people that can benefit from the unique talents you have to offer.

A nationwide U.S. survey of chief information officers (CIOs) shows that more employers now plan to hire rather than lay off IT professionals in the first quarter of 2010, with most hiring for entry-level and junior staff in full-time jobs.

The survey found nine in 10 CIOs (89%) plan to keep staffing at about their current levels, but 7% say they will increase the number of employers while 4% expect to decrease their workforce. While the percentage of companies expected to hire is the lowest in two years, the anticipated percentage of layoffs is also the lowest since the first quarter of 2009. In the previous survey -- which asked about hiring plans for the current quarter -- the CIOs anticipating layoffs equaled the number of those expected to hire, at 6% each.

Of the CIOs with hiring plans, the vast majority (81%) plan to hire junior-level staff next quarter, divided about evenly between those with 2 years of experience or less (41%) and those with 2 to 5 years of experience (40%). One in five CIOs who plan to hire new staff expect to recruit senior-level professionals, defined as those with more than 5 years experience.

A majority of the CIOs (58%) who plan to hire next quarter expect to recruit full-time workers, with almost 3 in 10 (28%) expecting to use a mix of full-time and contract hires. Only about 1 in 10 CIOs plan to bring in only contractors.

The survey asked about broad functional expertise and specific IT skills most in demand by CIOs. The functional expertise CIOs consider the most challenging to find among skilled professionals is networking -- technical, not interpersonal -- cited by 1 in 5 respondents (19%).  Another 13% of CIOs say security expertise and 10% say applications development are tough to find in today's workforce.

Specific IT skills, as opposed to functional expertise, cited as most in demand by half or more of the CIO respondents are network administration (70%), end-user desktop support (66%), Windows operating system administration (62%), database management (58%), and wireless network management (52%).

The Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report, released last week, is based on telephone interviews with 1400 CIOs during October 2009, randomly selected from companies with 100 employees or more. Robert Half, a staffing company, has conducted the survey quarterly since 1995.

In November 2009, the number of online job ads increased for computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, while opportunities for other science and related jobs remained flat or decreased. The cohort of unemployed science and engineering job-hunters generally declined, however, which at least made their task of finding a job no worse than before. The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute, provides these data, which are tracked monthly by Science Careers.

Online postings for computer scientists and mathematicians increased by 35,400 in November, an 8.6% jump and one of the bright spots overall in The Conference Board's November report.  Online job ads for engineers and architects inched up by 2600 to 116,100 in November, that category's first monthly gain since July, when Science Careers began tracking these data.

However, the number of opportunities posted for other science and related positions either stayed about the same as October or declined. Online ads for life, physical, and social science jobs fell in November by 1800 to 66,800. Online postings for jobs in the related category of healthcare practitioners and technicians fell by nearly 36,000 in November to 497,400, although the drop was half the size of the October decline. The number of education, training, and library job ads stayed about the same as October, gaining only 700 to 68,500.

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The Conference Board report also includes a ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers in the job market for these categories, an indicator of job-market competitiveness. The most current unemployment data, taken from Bureau of Labor Statistics' reports, are a month older than the job ads numbers; so this month the unemployment numbers re from October 2009. Thus the ratios calculated below are from October, a month earlier than the numbers cited above.

Among the science, engineering, and related groups tracked by Science Careers, the number of unemployed job-seekers declined in October, much as we saw in September. (The reports do not give reasons for declining numbers of job-seekers.) For computer scientists and mathematicians, the number of unemployed job-hunters in October dropped by nearly a third to 159,400. Meanwhile, the number online ads increased by 7,500 for these workers, which made this market one of the tightest for any group in the country: more than 2.5 computer scientist or mathematician jobs for each unemployed person looking for work.

The number of unemployed life, physical, and social science job-hunters also declined in October to 61,200, a 14% decline. This drop helped offset a decline the number of online job ads in October for these scientists, which kept the ratio of unemployed job-seekers to online ads about at about 1-to-1. The number of unemployed engineers and architects looking for work also declined by about 20,000 in October, maintaining a less-favorable (for job-seekers) ratio of two job-hunters for each online job ad.

In the related category of healthcare practioners and technicians, the number of unemployed workers looking for a job in October dropped by 35% or nearly 78,000, which more than offset the 71,100 decline in online ads that month. The market for healthcare professionals and technicians remains one of the most favorable for job-hunters, with 3.7 jobs for each unemployed job-seeker. The number of unemployed education, library, and training staff fell by 7100 in October, which more than offset the decline in job ads (4900) that month. However, the job market ratio for this group remains one of the most unfavorable for job hunters, with 6.4 unemployed workers for each online opportunity.

Overall, the number of online job ads in the U.S. increased by 106,500 in November to about 3.4 million. That jump in new opportunities may improve the overall job-market ratio, when that number is calculated early next month. Meanwhile, the latest overall numbers are from October, when there were 4.8 unemployed workers (up from 4.5 in September) for each online job ad.

Last night was "open mic" here at Palmer Station.  The cozy lounge with the leather chairs and book cases was transformed into a theater, complete with drums, electric guitars, microphones, and a keyboard. It was an amazing display of talent; at least half the station either plays an instrument or sings or composes or writes incredibly clever lyrics and have skills other than their professional reason to be here. It made me feel drab and gray!

MBL research assistant Dan Whiteley, for example, composed the funniest acappella rap, about a minor accident on board an inflatable boat--the "zodiac attack." A still-nameless band, led by engineer Brian Nelson, performed the fastest Michael Billie Jean ever. A fellow journalist, NPR science Producer Jason Orfanon, who plays in a rock band in Washington, DC, sang one of his own compositions and played keyboard. Even our pi, MBL ecologist Chris Neill, graciously crooned Barrett's Privateers, a Canadian folk song by Stan Rogers.
These folks at Palmer are having too much fun. The windows had to be covered with black trash bags to keep out the sun (it was late after all) despite one of Antarctica's splendid sunsets. Inside the bar (which has a billiard table, a disco, and walls covered with pictures of visiting ships from the past) the evening proceeded with beers and shots with cool names I forgot already.

Palmer -- its atmosphere and lifestyle -- gets under your skin. I like the call names for the boating parties, which change every day: Titanic (for our first outing), Ice Crusaders, Gorman's Down Jacket, Campers, and of course, as of last night, Zodiac Attack.

It is snowing now and seven Adelie penguins adorn the rocks, and three or four gentoos. The increasing number of the gentoos in these parts means, according to bird experts Kristen Gorman and Jen Blum, that sea ice has been melting. As it does, it leaves open spaces that the normally more northern gentoos need to forage as they porpoise through the surface of the seas. Adelies, on the other hand, have it tougher since they need the ice to rest on as they come and go to their feeding areas. Time to stop writing and get into the hot tub. With the snow falling it will be quite an experience.

A scientific career is, for many of us, one of the most intense endeavors that we undertake.  It both captures and defines our lives.  As a scientist, you often think and worry about your work when you are out of the laboratory -- even while lying in bed at night.  You experience waves of enthusiasm, rebelliousness, and even self-doubt as you continually weigh your efforts.  You are sometimes haunted by the feeling that your results justify your existence.  Yet no matter the extreme stresses that come with the work, the benefits of gaining new knowledge and insight into the natural world bring rewards that make other aspects of everyday life dull and drab in comparison. 

A successful career in science depends on many factors beyond native abilities, skills, education, and experience.  The importance of mentors and mentoring has been greatly emphasized in academic centers;  the need for wise and dedicated counselors and teachers is self-evident.  The necessity for colleagues, collaboration, and networking is well understood.

But the importance of friendship can often be taken for granted.  The intangibles that build professional relationships into the knowledge, trust, and bonds of friendship are complicated and deep.  Certainly they involve elements of equality, unselfishness, and concern.  The components of friendship are many and hard to define.  Out of the multitude of definitions for friendship, a favorite of mine is "one who knows all about you and loves you all the same."  It contains more than a grain of truth.

I was strongly reminded of the importance of friendship in my own career as a visual scientist by the recent death of Ruth Kirschstein (See Retrospective, Science 13 November 2009: Vol. 326, p. 947, and Beryl Benderly's recent tribute in Science Careers).  My years as a Clinical Fellow at the NIH in the 1960s provided me with training and direction that were important in ensuing decades.  Although assigned to an ophthalmology and visual science section at the NIH, I was given sufficient "elective" time to find my way to the laboratory of Alan Rabson, a rising star in experiential pathology.  Here I was introduced to viral oncology and became grounded in the fundamentals of pathology, tissue culture, viral transformation, and electron microscopy. 

To know and be mentored by Al Rabson was to know Ruth Kirschstein, his wife, for they were an inseparable team.  She too was in the early stages of her distinguished career in research and administration.  Their interest and support, as well as gracious hospitality, made my years at the NIH a very special time that has been an inspiration for me ever since. 

I later returned for visits to NIH and stayed in contact with both of them.  We shared scientific and personal updates and sought and offered advice to each other as opportunities and adversities presented themselves.  As the decision tree in my scientific career unfolded, their friendship was a resource I came to treasure. 

In recent years, when my own career took an administrative turn and I spent time meeting my Masters of Health Administration requirement with an internship in the NIH Director's Office, I came to appreciate fully and benefit from their idealism and vision.  Their friendship and the friendship of others has been a major factor in the advancements and enjoyments that I have experienced throughout my career.  
For individuals starting a scientific career today, the stresses and complexities of science are certainly more intense than 40 years ago.  But the opportunities to build friendships are there if one takes the time and makes the effort.  When such an opportunity arises, I implore you to go beyond a mentor-student, role-model, or colleague-to-colleague relationship and build a lasting friendship. Such friendships will enrich and support your career.  Friendships formed and continued early in your career have a strength and value that more than justifies the effort.  

December 4, 2009

Learning British Culture

"Nobody queues like the British," Crispin Harris said recently to an audience of career advisers. At the time, the 50 of us in the room were, in fact, standing in a queue -- a single-file line that snaked around the room, formed within seconds from a chaotic group milling about.

The significance of this might be lost on some, but to an expat (like me), standing in a queue to, say, get on a bus is a uniquely British behavior. Harris and his colleague Pete Bailie are co-directors of VOX Coaching, which runs courses and workshops on giving presentations, networking, and managing relationships. They've recently teamed up with the University of Manchester to develop a course on British culture. The point of the queuing exercise was to emphasize that recognizing such subtle, ahem, cues about behavior can be a key to understanding a person's and a country's culture.

"Very often people just find the English hard to read," Harris said in an interview after a workshop, "Culture Club: Why Are the British Like That?" at the Vitae Researcher Development Conference held in September at the University of Warwick. "It's not that they find the behavior difficult or challenging or threatening; it's that they find it incomprehensible. They can't read it, so they can't learn."

Recognizing cultural differences in behaviors and ways of conducting business can help people interact better with the others around them, Bailie added. "A lot of the information that we're giving off is through our vocal tone and our body language, and that's where we make judgments about people," Bailie said. "So you have to think, OK, what of that is them personally, and what is them culturally?"

This comes into play particularly in the lab, both with supervisor relationships and with relationships with lab peers, who may be from very different regions of the world and have to work closely together. "In terms of management style, the British management style is to give quite indirect suggestions, often with a bit of humor, in a very roundabout way, and then muddle through, whereas the model in Germany or the USA or Japan is very different," Bailie said. "In the States, communication is much more direct and ... people appreciate a bit more inspiration and a bit of sell. In Britain, that really doesn't go down well."

At the September session, Bailie and Harris handed out a worksheet that divided certain cultural characteristics into three groups: linear active, multi-active, and reactive. Do the people around you talk half the time, talk most of the time, or listen most of the time? Are they polite but direct, emotional, or polite and indirect? Do they use limited body language, unlimited body language, or subtle body language?

Acknowledging these types of differences in the people around you is the goal of Bailie and Harris workshops, rather than telling people how to adapt their behavior when they come to Britain, Harris emphasized. "We're not saying that people will learn how they should behave," Harris said. "[They will] just understand some of the processes whereby they will learn by observing, by questioning, by asking for help, and by trying out different things."

This morning I took part in a local career event organized by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) Barcelona and the Parc Científic Barcelona (PCB). This career event, entitled 'Career progression in science -- options beyond the bench' took an unusual format that I think worked really well. 

In a 1-hour session, 7 speakers each talked about their own career transition for 5-10 minutes. A good breadth of career options were represented; among the speakers were a research and innovation manager, an entrepreneur, an investment manager, a science communicator, a European grant program officer, a patent attorney, and a science journalist (that was me).

It was interesting to see the many common themes that emerged from these presentations:  the realization at Ph.D. or postdoctoral level that a career in science is not the right path, either because one doesn't enjoy some particular aspects of research or because one isn't a first-division researcher; the risk that leaving a career in academia represents; the many small steps one has to make to stir his or her career in a new direction; the readiness to experience different jobs and countries; and the importance of continuing to have a wide range of professional experiences even after the transition. 

After these presentations, we all went into a coffee room where each speaker was allocated a table. Attendees were then left free to go and chat with any speaker they were interested in. The smell of coffee and the nice pastries helped give this session an informal and interactive feel.

One theme that kept coming back around my table was, how do you break into science journalism? Should I go for a journalism course or start working right away? Should I get a job or go freelance? These are all legitimate questions, but impossible to answer decisively. I felt I was being asked for a kind of recipe for baking a science journalism career.

My response: try and explore a range of opportunities that is as broad as possible. This will help you get to know the sector and can help you decide whether this is really what you want to do. If you are in the lucky position of having to choose between different opportunities, pick the one that best suits your aspirations and personal circumstances.

Altogether, this informal session lasted for 2 hours, and all of the speakers were kept busy with a constant stream of questions. Both speakers and attendants seemed really pleased with the event. I certainly was.

December 2, 2009

Breakfast in Antarctica

It is 7:30 a.m. (we're on Chile time) and the smell of freshly baked bread fills the galley at Palmer Station, the only U.S. polar station north of the Antarctic Circle, and the only one on the Antarctic Peninsula. Groups of people gather around a few tables enjoying what I have to describe as a gourmet buffet breakfast where no trimming is spared: omelets made to order; still-fresh fruit from the latest visit of the ARSV Laurence Gould; hot muffins; one or two exotic dishes from last night's dinner -- all topped off by a cappuccino that no coffee house in the world need envy.

Not every polar station has a Cordon-Bleu trained chef.

"The toughest part is the planning ahead," says Head Chef Stacie Murray, who decided long ago to use her superb training to pamper the palates of people working in extreme locations. She has spent time cooking in Greenland, the North Pole, and the South Pacific. "I have to make sure I order every winter what I will be needing for the Summer. And that includes the food, cooking utensils, pots and pans, glassware, etc." If she forgets to add something to that shopping list, she'll likely have to do without it until the next season, or at least the next boat load.

Stacie's logistics challenge is but an afterthought for the 36 to 44 scientists and support personnel who enjoy their meals as they scan the spectacular Arthur Harbor in search of whales, seals and penguins. This is how the day begins for a scientist or contractor working at Palmer Station. After the splendid breakfast, pepole head off to the lab or the office; others embark on Zodiac boats to collect water for its microbes, krill, or phytoplankton, or data on seabirds.

These scientists constitute the four LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) groups currently working on Palmer and administered through an NSF grant by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. LTER's mission is to gather, season after season, data on how this amazing ecosystem responds to climate change.

How can you tell it has warmed up? I ask Z -- Zenobia Evans, the jovial maintenance & construction coordinator at the station.

"See that peak behind the Marr glacier, on whose piedmont sits Palmer Station?"

I gaze at a small tabletop that is now bathed in the loveliest pinks and yellows of the Antarctic sunset.

"It used to be almost invisible behind the glacier's dome. Now you can see it well".

I go to bed (late as usual; I blame the never-ending light) still mesmerized by the beauty of this place. I can see the glacier without having to lift my head from the pillow. Its tortured surface and cobalt blue crevasses make me think of Nathaniel B. Palmer, possibly the first American explorer to sight the Peninsula, in the 1820's.

The discomforts those sealers and explorers went through to survive down here contrast almost absurdly with my navy blue comforter and Stacie's roast beef 'au jus'.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded $16 million to 23 universities for its Med Into Grad initiative, a program that integrates clinical medicine into the graduate school curriculum. Each of the winning institutions will receive up to $700,000 over 4 years.

The Med Into Grad program began in 2005 with awards to 13 schools with the goal of finding out "how graduate schools could provide doctoral students the skills necessary to investigate the scientific mechanisms of disease and translate scientific discoveries into clinically relevant treatments, diagnostics, and public health practices--and whether such programs would attract students," it says in HHMI's press release on the new grants.

Just how the universities use those funds varies. For example, the press release notes, "Some schools, such as Baylor College of Medicine and Cleveland Clinic/Case Western Reserve University, are creating entirely new doctoral programs that teach clinically relevant topics in the classroom, in the clinic, and in the laboratory. Others, such as the University of California, Davis, designed a series of extra classes and clinical experiences for students interested in clinical research. These students can earn a master's degree or emphasize translational research in their studies."

The new awards include those original 13 schools and add 12 more. (Click here for a full list of all participating institutes.) We've written about some of the Med Into Grad programs and the students in them in Basic Scientists in the Clinic, Programs Aim to Train Translational Scientists, and Carving a Career in Translational Research.

Disclosure: HHMI is a partner in CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, a joint project of Science Careers and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Sitting where I am, at a desk in my own cozy room at Palmer Station, overlooking a magnificent bluish iceberg in the middle of the Antarctic Peninsula, December 1st seems an especially meaningful day: 50 years ago today, 12 nations sat down and signed the Antarctic Treaty, designating this achingly beautiful white continent as one for all humanity, a whole continent devoted to science, not to war or mining. It has worked out well. But now that Antarctica is at the crux of practically all climate change issues, I can't but hope we continue to protect this amazing world of ice.

It is a bit strange to feel so far from the rest of the world and yet be the center of issues, as I am sure Antarctica will be at the forefront of discussions at the next UN's climate change conference in Copenhagen, on December 7th.

Scientists here, however, didn't seem to ponder too much about the specialness of the day, at least not out loud. Instead, they took advantage of the radiant sunny, windless, downright perfect and hot day, and scrambled on black zodiacs to go visit penguins and whales and elephant seals in the gloriously glassy waters of the Palmer Archipelago. We science writers obliged and followed suit.