Science Careers Blog

February 2010

February 26, 2010

Video on ERC Grantees

The science video channel AthenaWeb features a nice documentary on several young researchers who have won Starting Grants from the European Research Council. The video, entitled 'Bringing Great Ideas To Life: The European Research Council (ERC)' was supported with ERC funding.

Science is "an attitude," Fotis C. Kafatos (who has since stepped down as ERC President, replaced by Helga Nowotny) says in the video. "It's not just important to know what's already known but to learn and discover what is not known.  So we really have to trust the young. We have to give them the message that Europe encourages them to come and stay... and help Europe be one of the major science centers in the world."

A former beer-brewing engineer now studying pheromones of amphibians using fake frogs; a cello player studying  how our hearing and touch senses work at the molecular level; an economist looking at the impact of media coverage on how hard local politicians work; and a geologist who simulates earthquakes inside the lab, are among the profilees. 

At the time of the recording, 600 ERC Starting Grant agreements had been signed. "If you have a bright idea, and if you want to start an independent career, then apply to the ERC grants and we will help you... to bring this great idea to life," concluded Dr Jack Metthey, ad interim Director of the ERC Executive Agency.


A Web site to help educators in the geosciences advance their careers and professionalize their teaching has won an award for online resources in education from American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The Web site, titled On the Cutting Edge, hosted at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota offers guidance to students on preparing for a career in geoscience education and advice to new faculty on advancing their research and professionalizing their teaching.

For geoscience teachers at any level, the site provides detailed tips on course and curriculum development, including outlines of substantive topics, such as mineralogy, paleontology, and structural geology. The site also addresses topics with public policy implications such as climate change and human health.

On the Cutting Edge is a project of National Association of Geoscience Teachers and funded in part by a grant from National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education. The site developed out of a series of workshops in 2002. An article in this week's Science magazine (subscription required) tells more about the site.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education was designed to honor and promote the originators of the best online materials available to science educators. Nomination for the 2010 prize close on 31 March. AAAS is the publisher of Science magazine and Science Careers.

We write about dual-scientist couples every so often, since scientists do have a knack for pairing off with each other. This month, we've published two articles on dual-scientist couples in which both partners work in the same -- or a very similar -- field.

Today we've posted a profile of physician-scientists Deepali Kumar at Atul Humar, transplant infectious disease specialists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. When I spoke to them earlier this month, they offered this advice on working with your partner: "If you're going to work together as a couple, you really, really have to like each other and get along well," Atul said. "A lot of people tell me, 'oh, if I had to work with my wife all day, I think I'd go crazy.' For us it's just not the case. I think we work really well together."

Earlier this month in A Husband and Wife Play Science on the Same Team, we noted that Michael Crickmore and Dragana Rogulja had different interests when they started out in science, but their work and research questions now regularly overlap. An excerpt:

Even as their research interests have converged, Crickmore and Rogulja have tried to keep their careers and professional identities separate. They decided, for example, not to include each other as co-authors on their papers even though "we easily could have been," Crickmore says. "Dragana reads my manuscripts more than my boss." It's not rivalry, they say: They simply think they can help each other more if they keep some distance. "My secret weapon is that Dragana is both my adviser and my postdoc," Crickmore says. They even have complementary traits, they say: Crickmore obsesses over the details of problems whereas Rogulja likes to zoom out to see the big picture.

You might think we planned these stories around Valentine's Day, but really it just worked out that way. Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle did plan his Valentine's Day article: an excellent profile of Wadih Arap and Renata Pasqualini, both based at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center where they study the unique molecular signatures of blood vessels. Medical oncologist Christopher Logothetis had a nice observation about the couple: "They feed off of each other and it creates a synergy," he said in the Chronicle article. "Him being a physician, her being a pure scientist, he's more pragmatic, and she's more of a risk-taker. Together, they're a perfect match."

February 24, 2010

Job Hunting in Campaign Mode

To get your job search organized and energized, sometimes you need to take a step back and view it from a different perspective. On the Career Hub blog this week, résumé coach Louise Fletcher suggests that job hunters think about the task as a campaign, such as a political or marketing campaign.

According to Fletcher, the language we use frames the way we behave in the job hunt. If you consider a job search as a succession of job applications, you can get into a passive rut. "Applying sounds weak," says Fletcher. "It makes us sound subservient -- we are asking for something when we apply for it."

Instead, Fletcher suggests, you should approach job hunting as a campaign, much like political candidates when they run for office. "When a politician runs a campaign, he is engaged in the act of marketing. He is deploying a variety of strategies in order to communicate his value. He is being creative. He is engaging other people. He is offering solutions."

So how does this translate into job hunting? Fletcher recommends:
- Keeping your lines of communication open with peers and recruiters, even if you're not looking for a job. Networking doesn't stop even when you're in a job you like.
- Choosing language for your résumé that describes the value you added to your employers, not just the duties you carried out.
- Contacting employers you want to work for even if they do not have positions advertised that you fit, which means finding people to contact and figuring out where and how to contact them.
- Approaching interviews with a set of solutions rather than merely answering the interviewer's questions. This means at least helping to set the agenda of the interview, which takes initiative and a certain amount of risk. It also means approaching the interview as a conversation between equals rather than as what Fletcher calls "terrifying rirtuals".

About a year ago, Dave Jensen's must-read Tooling Up column, "The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009" urged job hunters to take a positive attitude. Fletcher's advice adds to that positive attitude a different, more assertive mindset for attacking the job of finding a job.

A story in the New York Times tells how Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts now accepts videos as optional supplements to the traditional application forms and essays. Some 1,000 of the 15,000 applicants took up Tufts on the video offer, including some clever mathematics and engineering candidates.

The article quotes Tufts's dean of undergraduate admissions, Lee Coffin, who got the idea last spring when watching a YouTube video someone had sent him. "I thought, 'If this kid applied to Tufts, I'd admit him in a minute, without anything else," Coffin told the Times.

In the past, Tufts has encouraged unorthodox thinking in their application essays, and this year applicants used the one-minute videos to demonstrate their creativity, as well as expertise with the medium. Many of the videos played on the elephant theme -- the school mascot is an elephant -- but engineering candidate Michael Klinker took the idea further. He built a miniature remote-control helicopter shaped like an elephant and filmed it -- technically, his father did the filming -- as it flew around his back yard.

Applicant Amelia Downs sent a video that combined her passions for mathematics and dance, with choreographed representations of common statistical charts such as bar graph, scatter plot, and (my favorite), pie chart.

Coffin says the videos are optional, and the only way they can hurt an applicant is if, in Coffin's words, "there was something really disgusting."

One of Tufts's concerns was that the videos would give one more advantage to affluent applicants -- yet two-thirds of the submissions were sent in by financial aid candidates.

The Times includes 12 samples of the Tufts videos with the article.

Another Science Careers session held at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego last Friday afternoon aimed to give women and underrepresented minority scientists some practical tips on boosting their chances to get onto the next rung of the academic career ladder.  Instead of spinning a narrative, I'm just highlighing some of the main points the speakers made in their presentation.


Dr Hind Saidani-Scott, Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering at Bristol University, U.K.:

  • I do not like defeats. I have always been a fighter and you need to be one if you want to succeed.
  • If you have a problem (racism, harassment, discrimination) tackle it when it occurs.
  • Do not use [family tasks] as an excuse to miss meetings or deadlines.
  • Just keep going. The more you achieve, the easiest it becomes.
  • As women you will have huge challenges to overcome. But if we want things to improve, we have to learn from our experiences and try to help others in similar situations instead of saying 'we overcame these problems [ourselves], so let them do it the hard way.'


Regents and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University

  • MULTIPLE mentors (research, inspirational, savvy, etc.)
  • Mentors at a DISTANCE are essential  (phone, skype ...)
  • Isolation and Stress are the Biggest Challenges at every single step
  • Membership in a real community of professionals of your type
  • Regular Access to Professional Development Programs
  • Sacrifices may only be truly understood by your peers. Need to stay connected to a community of your own scientific peers--they can be your support group and the best INITIAL source of information


Associate Professor of African American Studies & Sociology Kerry Ann Rockquemore, University of Illinois at Chicago (You may find Professor Rockquemore's entire presentation, 'Playing to Win', on her web site

  • Know how your institution works organizationally and the unwritten Rules of Engagement
  • Align time and priorities, develop a strategic plan, learn how to manage conflict
  • Know what you need and get it from the BEST source
  • Many core needs can be met outside of traditional mentoring relationships
  • Be strategic with "mentors" so that you get from them the things only they can give you
  • There are resources for your support, but you have to pro-actively seek them out

Dr JoAnn Moody, Faculty Development and Diversity Specialist in San Diego (The tex below are excerpts from a document Professor Moody distributed on the day and is a summary from Professor Moody's 2009 booklet 'Solo Faculty: Improving Retention and Reducing Stress". More information can be found on her Web site

Predictable stressors and complex dynamics faced by a 'solo' ("one of a numerical few")

  • Standing for a stereotype and a group ("I somehow represent my whole tribe")
  • Heightened visibility and feeling in the spotlight
  • Awkward moments, micro-agressions (both deliberate and non-deliberate)
  • Solo often has to sort through 'What did that comment mean? ... Or Am I being too sensitive?
  • Performance pressures

Follow the money that drives science research in the United States, and more often than not you'll end up in Washington, D.C. The dollars don't reach labs on their own, though: Institutions, interest groups, and individuals help legislators decide what to fund -- and science competes with every other federal program for resources.

This year scientific research is one of the few areas slated to gain ground in the proposed federal budget, but that budget is not law yet. "If people want to see the research and development funding increase they're going to need to get up there and say, 'Look we feel that we need those increases, they're vital for the future, they're vital for job creation [and] our future economic competitiveness,'" said Bob Simon, staff director of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at a session of the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, on Saturday in San Diego, California.

Along with Tobin Smith, associate vice-president for federal relations of the Association of American Universities, Simon laid out a map of the roads through which scientists can offer their insight to their elected officials in Congress. Smith, who described his job, with his tongue in his cheek, as "cross-cultural communications," said that for scientists to help policymakers they need to make the effort: "You're scientists, you don't have time...but you can learn to navigate it just as if you were going to a foreign country."

Simon explained that most legislators leave the nitty gritty of science policymaking to legislative assistants, who are based in D.C. offices. Scientists can start by reaching out to "Constituent Services Representatives" -- a senator or representative's ears to the ground in their home district or state offices. These people can help a scientist reach the right legislative assistant in D.C. Legislative assistants act as gatekeepers for the committees they serve, helping decide who can testify before a committee, for instance. Home offices, university lobbyists, and professional-society lobbyists often organize springtime group visits called "fly-ins," where constituent groups can meet with committee staff in D.C., Simon said.
Knowing who to speak with and when are important: No legislative aide wants to hear advice on a vote the week after it takes place, Smith noted, but the way scientists communicate with legislative aides is also critical. "Build a relationship," he advised, instead of just barging in with a data set and an opinion. He cited the example of one university that organized science-outreach days on campus on behalf of their representative, who was then able to take credit for promoting science. He also advised catching legislators at their home offices, where they often feel more comfortable and have less hectic schedules than in the capital.

Legislative Committees Scientists Should Know

House of Representatives: Science and Technology, Energy & Commerce, Natural Resources, Homeland Security, Appropriations, Ways & Means

Senate: Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Environment and Public Works, Energy and Natural Resources, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Appropriations, Finance

Both speakers stressed the importance of putting science in context in clear, simple language for government decision-makers, very few of whom have a science background. "Science is only one piece of the policy-making puzzle," Smith said.  Legislators think on electoral timeframes and must weigh economic and security issues, and public opinion, whereas scientists usually think more about a decision's long-term impact. Yet the public still has great respect for scientists, and when they -- scientists -- speak in a unified, clear voice, the public and their leaders take notice. It may not be easy to bridge the language barrier, Smith said, but if they take the time to cultivate a better understanding of how to reach legislators and their staff, scientists have the potential to make a big impact.

-    Lucas Laursen

February 20, 2010

Getting Closer to the Clinic

In a career session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego yesterday, Associate Dean for Physician-Scientist Training at UCSD School of Medicine Ajit Varki and Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, discussed job opportunities for Ph.D. scientists in clinical and translational research and related topics.


If I had to convey just one message from the workshop, it would be: if you are passionate about alleviating the burden of human disease and are willing to step onto new ground, there has never been a better time to enter clinical and translational research.


In the last several decades, a unique culture has developed in the United States in which many medical doctors pursue research. This culture has been well supplemented by M.D.-Ph.D. dual-degree programs. But the number of physician-scientists has been declining sharply over the years, and even if they were to expand, M.D.-Ph.D. programs would find it difficult to fill the open slots. The resut: "There are huge opportunities for Ph.D. scientists who want to train and affiliate with medics," Varki said.


Increasingly, disease-specific programs and Clinical and Translational Translational Science Awards (CTSA) programs are being put in place to help nurture careers in translational science among Ph.D. scientists. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) also offers Career Awards at the Scientific Interface for scientists with a background in the physical, mathematical, or computational sciences addressing biological questions. Still, "there is not a very good mechanism in place right now" to get into the field "if you haven't got an M.D.," Varki said. As a Ph.D. scientist, "You have to make it up for yourself."


This is not necessarily a bad thing, pointed out Jim Austin, Science Careers Editor and PI of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, who was moderating the session. This also means that opportunities are wide open: "Start with a disciplinary training, see how it relates to medical applications, and go and find it."


Look for "opportunities where you feel you can have an impact," Topol said. For example, you could develop a particular area of expertise related to a disease or a biological pathway, and build up on that, he added.


Importantly, don't sell yourself short if you have no specialized training in a medical-related field, intervened Bill Galey, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, from the audience. Other scientific disciplines, like chemistry, physics, computer sciences, and mathematics are all be relevant to translational research. Medical imaging and nanotechnology are two examples of emerging areas needing physical scientists, and "as biology gets more quantitative, there is a greater need for people trained with that kind of quantitative skills," Galey said.


The best way to get in is to find a postdoc in the lab of a top-notch physician-scientist, Varki said. "You have to convince them that you really care, are serious, and want to give it a shot," Austin added. Also key is to spend some time in medical schools or in the clinic. At UCSD, for example, Ph.D. students are attached to clinical divisions for 3 months "to really feel... and smell what goes on at the medical side," Varki said. Some medical departments are too busy to do research, but more and more of them are now looking for researchers, Topol added. "It could be a department that doesn't do intensive research, but supports the research."


As you progress in your translational research career, make sure to remain open-minded about opportunities as they come up. "Keep it flexible because you never know where science and medicine [will] get you," Varki said. For example, Topol, who trained as a cardiologist, pioneered the clinical use of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), an enzyme involved in the breakdown of blood clots, after hearing about tPA in a journal club. When that project "hit the wall," Topol started thinking: "'Why not get into the genetics of heart attack'," he says. "You've got fantastic project opportunities," Topol added. You just have to go and find them.


Another topic that came up for discussion during the workshop was the leaky pipeline for women. While during medical school, there is gender neutrality, but there is "never parity in those interested in research," Galey said. There is a general perception among women that combining an academic career with a clinical career and a family is very hard, he added. But "research is not inconsistent with family." Galey said, "It is much easier to tell your lab that you need to leave" to take your kid to the doctor "rather than a waiting room with lots of patients."


"Women need to stand up and say what needs to be done rather then having a few guys" trying to raise the issue, said Varki, who wrote an opinion piece on the need for on-site childcare facilities in the American Society for Cell Biology (ACSB) Newsletter a couple of years ago.


"The more you move towards patients, the more complicated it gets," Varki said. And getting a physician-Ph.D. position is in no way as competitive as getting a faculty position in the more traditional disciplines, he added.


Certainly, "The most exciting time in biomedical research is now," Topol said.


In a career workshop at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego Friday morning, Victoria McGovern of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund promised the audience three tips on how to improve their academic writing. But she gave many more than three.  

McGovern kicked things off by inviting attendees to present their research to the person sitting next to them. Everyone immediately seemed happily engaged. Then, after a few minutes, McGovern asked if there was anyone in the audience who felt dread about writing. A few hands rose. "We are sociable animals," McGovern then said. "Writing allows you to communicate to more people than talking does." Yet, it's much the same thing. The message: Though many people are intimidated by writing, it's much the same as explaining something to an acquaintance.

Whether you are writing a dissertation, an abstract, or a paper, "science is all about telling stories." McGovern said. She urged scientists to think about the results they want to communicate as a novel or a movie with "a hero, a conflict, and a moment." She took the example of malaria research, where the malarian pathogen would be the bad guy and the conflict a struggle for survival between two species--the malaria pathogens and humans.

When telling your story, keep an engaging tone by leaning toward the active, she suggested. Scientists started writing using a lot of passive tense (using formulas like "it was discovered..." and so on) to remove themselves from the picture. "People didn't want to seem grandiose" about their discoveries." But the passive voice must not be overdone, she said.

Then, read aloud what you have written, even if it seems goofy. "English and most other languages have a rythm to them," McGovern says. Reading aloud, even if English is not your native language, will help you detect when you go astray by using too much passive or just too many words.  "Don't spend lots of space to say something... Don't inflate things." Just "communicate real things to real people."

Just try to relax, she suggested. "It's just communicating with other people."

Finally, practice your writing by talking about your science with your family, friends, and anyone who will listen to you. "There is not much in science that cannot be expressed in simple language," McGovern said. Tell them what it's about, why it matters, what changes things, and where you intend to go from here.

Remember when you had a big break and went back home or told your family on the phone? "Bring that excitement into your scientific communication." 


It isn't every day that an intern working at a government agency can analyze the costs and benefits of a livestock disease-tracking program, then go out and throw a baseball 95 miles per hour with pin-point accuracy. That day has arrived: Ross Ohlendorf, a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and 2006 graduate of Princeton University, spent part of the off-season this winter as a volunteer intern with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C.

Ohlendorf earned his degree from Princeton in operations research and financial engineering, a program that combines engineering, mathematics, and economics. For his senior thesis, Ohlendorf combined these academic disciplines with his baseball background to compare the future financial return to a major league team of rookie signing bonuses, as opposed to signing a veteran player as a free agent  -- after the player's contract is up. At Princeton, Ohlendorf's achievements on the field and in class (including a 3.75 GPA) earned him the George Mueller award in 2006, awarded to a senior who excels in both engineering and intercollegiate athletics.

Ohlendorf became a fourth-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, but was soon traded to the New York Yankees. Towards the end of the 2008 season, Ohlendorf was then traded to the Pirates and in 2009 became a starter, achieving an 11-10 record and a 3.92 earned-run average in 29 games. The hard-throwing right-hander is one of only 40 pitchers in all of baseball history to ever strike out three batters in an inning with the minimum of 9 pitches, joining such greats as Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.

His celebrity status helped Ohlendorf land the internship at USDA. He sent his resume to Doug McKalip, an assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native and Pirates fan. But Ohlendorf's family also owns a cattle ranch in Texas, where he helped manage a herd of longhorn cattle. Because of that combination, McKalip told the New York Times, "Ross was especially qualified."

From October through mid-December, Ohlendorf analyzed the USDA program that traces diseases in livestock  -- cattle, swine, sheep, goats -- and poultry. He also analyzed the insurance costs facing farmers who take part in the program. He worked at USDA in the mornings, reserving the afternoons for working out.

Ohlendorf and other Pirate pitchers began their 2010 spring training workouts yesterday in Bradenton, Florida, where Ohlendorf hopes to add a change-up pitch to his fast ball and slider.

The first event I attented at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego was the Science Careers Speed Networking Breakfast hosted by Science Careers Outreach Project Director  Brianna Blaser. I had never taken part in speed networking before, neither in speed dating for that matter, and once I got into it I found the event not only useful but also a lot of fun.

As attendees came in and served themselves to breakfast, Brianna quickly set up the rules of the game: pairs of participants would meet around a table for 4 minutes, after which she would blow a whistle for us all to swap networking partners.

The first person I met turned out to be hugely interesting. An Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California-Irvine, Mike Mulligan told me of how he helped Ph.D. students deal with mental health problems during their scientific training. I would have interviewed him right here and then, but after Brianna whistled several times I decided to be disciplined and leave it for another time.

Next I met Suthesh Sivapalaratnam, an M.D. doing a Ph.D. at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Suthesh is Chair of Aprove, the PhD-student association of AMC Graduate School, and he told me about the initiatives the association has been putting in place to give a professional and social network to young scientists.   

I also touched base with a representant of the Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), a journal entirely run by undergrads. With more than 10 years of existence, JYI gives undergrads an opportunity to submit their research for publication, be involved in the peer-review process, and write news and features articles. 

As I got into the pace of speed networking, l met many other people whose work seemed less directly relevant to my own work and interests, but whith whom I had a fascinating chat nonetheless and swapped business cards in case a common interest would come up later on.  

Starting at 7.30am, I would have thought that many (including myself) would have preferred taking their morning coffee in silence rather than starting chatting away with complete strangers. But the event offered many instant rewards beyond the caffeine-kick, and was an excellent way to get into a networking mood for the rest of the meeting.





February 17, 2010

Role of Collegiality in Tenure

Sparked by the faculty-meeting shooting in Huntsville, Alabama, Janet Stemwedel, on her blog Adventures in Ethics and Science, raised the role collegiality should play in making tenure decisions. Stemwedel puts her position on the issue right in the blog post title: "Collegiality matters".

You shouldn't have to be the life of the party or a good drinking-buddy to get tenure, she says. But Stemwedel underscores the consequences for someone lacking in social skills when it comes time to make the tenure decision: "People smart enough (in terms of both intellect and wisdom) that you'd want to be colleagues with them for 20 or 30 years are not going to happily grant tenure to someone who is an absolute pain in the ass, who shirks shared responsibility, or who poisons morale in your department."

Stemwedel acknowledges that establishing baselines or criteria for collegiality is tricky. There are no objective measures, and it's entirely possible to use lack of an ability to get along with colleagues as a way of masking discrimination.The ability to schmooze should not trump publishing and teaching accomplishments, she adds. Nonetheless, Stemwedel says, "The ability to work with your colleagues is part of the job." (original emphasis). If you can't or won't do that part of your job, she says, then don't expect your colleagues to want you around for the rest of their careers

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) offers guidance to universities on incorporating the factor of collegiality in tenure decisions. AAUP argues against establishing collegiality as a separate criterion, but encourages collegiality as a factor in attaining the required standard in the primary criteria of scholarship, teaching, and service, in tenure decisions. 

As you can imagine, an extended thread of comments follows the blog post, including some comments with the heat turned up. Some comments echo Stemwedel's concerns about the imprecise nature of collegiality, while others point to the faculty member's ability to get funding, which can trump all other criteria. One comment, however, stands out ...

Early in my career, I voted yes on a tenure decision when I should have voted no. After I realized this, I considered how I should proceed in the future. I decided that if I had to think about whether a person should be tenured or promoted, I would vote no. I am well convinced I voted correctly in every instance after making this decision.

Several years ago, during an internship in the NIH Director's office, while fulfilling a requirement for my Master's of Health Administration, I learned an interesting fact. In an internal review of when and why researchers falter in their request for NIH R01 grants, it was determined that revised applications become increasingly necessary after the 3rd 3-5 year cycle, and rejections peak after the 4th and 5th cycle. At that point in their careers, researchers are often no longer at the cutting edge in their field and, despite the benefits of experience and accomplishments, are less competitive for NIH grants.

For these applicants, there is a need to retool: to learn new techniques, gain new skills, and get fresh insights and ideas. One of the most efficient and enjoyable ways to do this is to take a sabbatical year. The origin of the term sabbatical is a "year during which land remained fallow, observed every year by the ancient Jews" (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed. p. 1082). In modern academic parlance, it means a leave of absence with financial support given to tenured faculty member for the purposes research in a new venue, academic study and writing,  and related travel. However, from there the working definition diverges, depending on the university and department you're with.

Having a more competitive faculty member with his or her battery recharged would seem to be in the best interests of both the institution and scientist, but institutions don't always encourage sabbaticals, or support them well. I spent the first half of my career at Harvard; I've spent the last half (so far) at the University of Wisconsin. At Harvard, sabbaticals were encouraged, facilitated, and well supported. At Wisconsin, sabbaticals are less common and, in the medical school at least, require outside funding and considerably more advance planning, personal effort, and perseverance. A university's policy toward sabbaticals depends on precedent and culture, as well as finances and manpower issues. If you have a sabbatical in mind, the time to explore an institution's policies on sabbaticals is during your recruitment.

In my experience, a successful sabbatical requires at least 3 years of planning. First, you must figure out what you expect from the experience, your personal goals for the sabbatical. Then you have to match them up with the available opportunities, finding the best people and environment to help you achieve your goals. The best way of investigating this is professional interactions at meetings, conferences, and collaborations, and preliminary, exploratory visits. You may need to visit several labs before you find the right situation, or it may be obvious early on which situation is best. You may select a laboratory half a world away, but you could also end up in another laboratory on your own campus.

Traditionally, home institutions will support a semester away at full pay or an entire academic year at half pay. Departmental and institutional support varies widely; you may need to find supplemental support, especially for a year-long sabbatical, through the host institution or a funding agency. Happily, targeted support for sabbaticals from government agencies and foundations is generally not difficult to obtain, and is often generous. Almost all are posted on the Internet and easy to find and apply for.

Well in advance of granting leave, all institutions require that the faculty member make provisions for the supervision of his or her laboratory and the fulfillment of teaching and administrative responsibilities. You may need to twist your colleague's arms or do some horse trading. It is also important to know what the host lab expects. Often you're expected to teach as well as learn, which can come as a shock if you haven't worked this out ahead of time.

My own experience has been that housing is not a problem if the sabbatical term is spent at a major institution. At any one time, a portion of an institution's faculty is on sabbatical, and many institutions own faculty housing, so there are good housing options available at reasonable cost; housing can be arranged through the institution's housing office. Sometimes, though, housing arrangements aren't made until the last minute; it can be disconcerting not knowing where you will live.

Your home institution is likely to require written assurance that you'll return after the sabbatical and remain for a year or two -- which could be inconvenient if your very successful sabbatical leads another institution to offer you your dream job soon after your return.

Is sabbatical worth all the trouble? My answer is an emphatic YES. Ask the scientist who just returned from a sabbatical -- which is a very good place to start your planning.
As more details emerge about the shooting at University of Alabama in Huntsville that killed three members of the school's biology faculty and wounded three others, the biology department is trying to pull together and keep functioning. Today's New York Times describes how the department is trying to cope.

Last December, Sara Coelho described for Science Careers how two labs at universities in the U.K. dealt with the deaths of individual faculty members, in both cases by natural causes. Coelho distilled from her interviews six steps that labs and departments can take when a death occurs, with recovery being the first step.

The shooting left 4 holes to fill -- the three faculty members who were killed, and the shooter. Three more were hospitalized -- and only one of those has since been released. Among those still hospitalized is Stephanie Monticciolo, the department's administrator, who, colleagues told the Times, was the one on the team who "doles out hugs and birthday reminders".

University president David Williams told ABC News that a campus memorial service is planned for Friday. Beyond that formal observance, department colleagues, particularly those that witnessed the shooting first-hand, will likely need counseling to deal with the events. Students, too, are likely to be affected. Among the lessons Coelho learned from the people she interviewed is not to push the grief aside, and to seek help if you feel in trouble. Other steps include looking after your personal health, planning ahead, communicating with your colleagues colleagues, staying focused on your research -- but also staying open to new opportunities.

This week, the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) announced that it will commit up to £15 million (about US$23 million) to training in food security research and development through its Advanced Training Partnerships scheme. "The scheme will support the development of staff within the sector and help companies with succession planning in niche skill areas. Collaboration between training providers and industry partners will ensure that high level skills relevant to crops, livestock, and food are employed throughout the development pipeline," it says here.

It's a timely announcement, as Science Magazine devotes much of this week's issue to the critical issue of food security -- that is, ensuring an adequate food supply for the world's population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The coverage includes reviews, perspective articles, a special news package, and an editorial. This week's Science podcast is devoted entirely to food security.

Science Careers pitched in with two articles on the topic: An overview piece, Careers in Food Security Span Several Disciplines, by Wales-based writer Cath Janes, and a profile, Plant Geneticist Cultivating a Future for Peanut Farming in Uganda, written by freelance writer Gaia Vince.

The articles both illustrate the multidisciplinary nature of a career in food security. "You have to ask yourself how you can get into food security," U.K. science adviser John Beddington told Janes. "There are lots of disciplines relating to food security, and that makes it an attractive career. Yet you have to understand the science as well as how your work is applicable to food producers in tackling a lack of water or their fight against pests."

Greetings to those of you coming to the blog from the Working in the Media event at the University of Cambridge! And hello to everyone else, too. :) Below is a round-up of articles and resources on science writing, editing, and similar careers. Enjoy!

Articles from Science Careers:

Starting a Career in Science Writing

Careers in Science Editing: Feature Index
This feature contains more than two dozen profiles of scientists who have found careers in scientific editing, whether it's at book publishers, journals, or international agencies.

Getting the Message Across: Scientists in Public Relations
More than a dozen profiles of scientists who've found rewarding work in public relations at agencies and scientific organizations.

Science Broadcasting: Feature Index
Scientists from around the world talk about working in radio and television, whether it's full time or an occasional thing.

Careers in Medical Writing: Opening Doors *Feature Index*
Medical writing includes many different types of jobs, from working in biotech companies to regulatory agencies. This collection of essays covers some of these diverse jobs. We also revisited this topic more recently in Working as a Medical Writer.

Associations and Other Resources:

The Association of British Science Writers has some useful resources, including its booklet, "So you want to be a science writer".

The World Federation of Science Journalists has an online course in science journalism, with modules written by experts in each topic.

The European Commission has published the European Guide to Science Journalism Training, which does what it says on the tin.

If you'd like to try out a career in the media, why not apply for a media fellowship? The two largest programs available are the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program and the British Science Association Media Fellowships. (The deadline for the AAAS fellowship has unfortunately passed (it was Jan. 15), but the deadline for the British Science Association fellowship is March 2.)

I've just stumbled on Better Posters -- a blog on scientific poster design from Zen Faulkes (aka DoctorZen), a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Pan-American. All the advice is top-notch, and he critiques real posters from real conferences -- and in some cases actually revises them.

While general advice on oral presentations is common (if not always sound), specific information on how to make a good poster is rare.

DoctorZen also runs the blog NeuroDojo, which also sometimes includes scientific career advice.

(Please follow me on Twitter: @SciCareerEditor )

Yale University announced last week it would reduce the number of applicants admitted to its graduate schools by up to 15%, which would directly hit doctoral programs and could affect the conduct of research on the Yale campus. The admissions cut is one of 10 measures unveiled last Wednesday that Yale says it needs to respond to a 26% drop in the university's endowment caused by the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey said in a letter that the Graduate School would reduce its admission of new students in the 2010-2011 academic year by 10-15%. In Friday's Yale Daily News, reporters Vivian Yee and Lauren Rosenthal said that the reduction would fall almost entirely on doctoral students, since unlike doctoral candidates, masters degree students pay tuition. Levin told the Daily News that the university spends $65,000 to $70,000 a year on fellowships and stipends to support each doctoral student. Also in their Wednesday letter Levin and Salovey announced a 2% increase in those stipends.

Chairs of science faculties at Yale said the admission cut might cause more financial problems than it solves. "Reducing the number of graduate students in the sciences is unfortunate and short-sighted," Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department (EB&B) Chair Richard Prum tells the Daily News. Prum says his department received a surge of grants from the federal stimulus program, which include funds for paying graduate students. "Even though the income of our grants has gone up," says Prum, "the number of graduate students we're able to accept has gone down."

Computer Science chair Avi Silberschatz tells the Daily News he has a similar situation. Silberschatz noted that if these projects are not delivered, it may be difficult to win future grants.

Among current students, the Daily News found a mixed reaction to the announcement. Cynthia Chang an E&EB doctoral candidate tells the reporters that the proposed enrollment cuts would be "a huge detriment to our department and to any department." However, Mark Klee, an economics student they interviewed, likes the increased stipends in the proposal. "I think that cutting down on admissions as opposed to cutting down on stipends is probably the right way to go," Klee says.

Hat tip:  Washington Monthly

At Science Careers, we've written a lot about dual-career -- and especially dual-scientist -- couples. The most recent example is the excellent piece by Chelsea Wald, A Husband and Wife Play Science on the Same Team.

This article started me wondering what other current, prominent scientist-couples are out there,  with both partners making important contributions to science. I quickly realized that I don't know very many. The example that comes immediately to mind is Eva Silverstein and Shamit Kachru, who moved together last year from Stanford University to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB. Another example is Amy Palmer and Alexis Templeton, both at the University of Colorado, whom I wrote about in 2005. This article in The Scientist lists three more couples. And there are, of course, several important historical examples (including very recent history, like Kirschstein and Rabson), but that's not my focus here.

What other important, current scientist-couples can you think of where both are currently making important contributions to science?

(Please follow me on Twitter @SciCareerEditor )

February 8, 2010

If You Can't See It, Mime It

The January issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society includes an interesting article by Tim Chartier about the convergence of mime and mathematics in his professional life. Chartier obtained a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2001, and is currently an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Davidson College in North Carolina. In his spare time, Chartier is also an arts performer. He trained in mime and physical theater; Marcel Marceau was one of his professors.

Chartier describes how he uses mime to convey mathematical concepts to a lay audience, including schoolchildren. "My mathematical mime leans heavily on that performing art's ability to embody the invisible," he writes. His mime-sketches "enabl[e] an audience to place an abstract concept into a story." In one of those sketches, Chartier provokes discussion about infinity after tripping over an invisible rope of infinite length in both directions. As he tries pulling the rope to find out what is at the end of it and is pulled back, he enters a tug-of-war and eventually cuts the rope into two pieces out of frustration. When asking the audience how long is the rope remaining in his hand, "My favourite answers generally come from children, which have included, 'very long', 'half as long', and, of course, 'infinitely long'," he says. "Mime speaks in its silence, often leaving echoing, unspoken words in the audience's consciousness... An invisible rope left on the performance floor pulls one into struggles regarding cardinality and the infinite."

Chartier sees many similarities between mime and mathematics. A sketch can "reflect what mathematicians often do prior to writing a proof -- analyze simple examples and look for trends in cases of increasing complexity," he writes. Also, "Mathematicians can be silenced by elegant proofs of simpler concepts and somehow dissatisfied with seemingly clumsy proofs of complex material. The pleasure brought about by a good proof can similarly be evoked through the performing arts -- in this case, through a mimetic translation of mathematical thoughts."


To Chartier, the two worlds are inseparable. "As mathematicians, our intellectual world is commonly abstract and invisible. We create a narrative of our intellectual thought through our written words. For me, mime is another, quite different but surprisingly similar, way of journeying through this logical field. Best of all, this art creates a road map that invites mathematician and nonmathematician alike to travel alongside me -- often in silence, with occasional laughter."

The January issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society is dedicated to the interface between mathematics and the arts.

The excellent physics-and-math blog Not Even Wrong, published by Columbia mathematician Peter Woit (who has a book with the same name as the blog), has an interesting post about an analysis of the job market in high-energy theoretical physics. The post describes data compiled by Erich Poppitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of Toronto. Poppitz's analysis is available as a pdf download. The data were taken from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill maintained at UC Davis; Poppitz insists that there's no guarantee of accuracy. 

Among Poppitz's interesting conclusions (most of them noted by Woit) are these:
  • A typical recent year brought 20 new faculty appointments in high-energy theoretical physics in the United States; over the last 16 years the average number of new U.S. appointments in the field is about 17. The best recent year was 2007, when 28 new high-energy theory faculty were hired.
  • Two years later, in 2009, U.S. universities made just 9 new faculty appointments. 
  • In the same year, Princeton University alone hired 8 new postdocs in theoretical particle physics, so that one university cohort could nearly fill all of America's theoretical physics faculty slots in a bad year. The stats don't say how many postdoc appointments there were nationwide.
  • If you want a job in high-energy theory, the numbers suggest, you'd better get your Ph.D. from one of a handful of universities, since that's where most new faculty members come from. And all six are in America: Princeton (24 new Princeton Ph.D.s were hired into faculty slots over the last 16 years), Harvard (19), Berkeley (18), Stanford (13), MIT (12), or the University of Texas (10). Those six schools produced 35% of all new high-energy theory faculty members since 1994; the other 180-or-so positions were distributed among another 76 or so universities throughout the world.
  • Another key to getting hired is to choose your subfield carefully. "You pretty much have to work in cosmology or phenomenology to have some sort of job prospects," since no one is hiring at the more formal end of the field, Woit writes.
(Follow my science-career-related posts on Twitter @SciCareerEditor)

In September, we reported on the U.S. House of Representatives passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act and sending it on to the Senate, where many observers expected it to move quickly, as it did in the House. The New York Times reports this morning that the bill has bogged down in the Senate thanks to aggressive lobbying by private lenders and the Senate's changing politics.

The bill would end the role banks and and other private lenders play in making student loans. Students now can borrow money from private lenders through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provides subsidies and guarantees to banks and other lenders. Students or their families can also borrow directly from the U.S. government's Federal Direct Loan Program. The bill would fold all lending into the Direct Loan program, leaving the private sector with a much-reduced servicing role.

The bill would also redirect the anticipated $87 billion in savings over 10 years from ending the private-lender subsidies to more funding for Pell grant scholarship and Perkins loans that students can get through their institutions.

The student loan industry, led by Sallie Mae, the largest student-lending company, was not about to let that $87 billion go without a fight, says the Times.

Sallie Mae has plenty to lose if the bill goes through. The company spent $8 million on lobbying last year, the Times says. It originated $21.7 billion in federally-subsidized loans in 2009, compared to $3.2 billion in private loans last year. The company held town-hall meetings, circulated petitions, and button-holed legislators to stress the legislation's impact on jobs. Sallie Mae says it stands to lose some 2,300 jobs if the bill becomes law.

The Times quoted anonymous sources who say that some Senators are wavering, particularly fiscal conservatives and those in states where the lenders operate, including Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, and Pennsylvania. The industry claims the bill amounts to a federal takeover of the student loan industry, an argument that gets the attention of conservatives. Adding one more Republican senator in Scott Brown of Massachusetts helps the lenders' cause as well, says the Times.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Times that they anticipated the industry's push-back and the administration is stepping up its own lobbying in the Senate. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama told cheering Democrats, "To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans." Republicans remained silent during that part of the speech.

Today, Science Careers launches a new beta of our Facebook application, which allows science (and Science) fans to give the gift of science -- for free! If you're not familiar with Facebook gifts, they're little virtual objects -- like 'Viva la Evolucion!', an animated picture of a monkey evolving to a modern man; and 'Positive reaction' featuring a bubbling beaker. Kind of like those little Valentine candy hearts, but with science and, well, without the sweetness. Or the hearts.

The best thing about these gifts is that they come from Science Careers. The next best thing is that they're kind of cute. After that, the next best thing is that they're free.  The only bad thing is that you have to be a member of Facebook to send or receive them, which is inevitable since Facebook is the only place they really exist.

Science Careers has been active in social media at least since 2007, when I dedicated my personal profile on Facebook to Science Careers. Since then we've grown our presence in social media, building a Facebook fan page with some 6,100 fans and a Twitter feed with more than 600 followers. Science Careers editor Jim Austin has just set up a new Twitter feed, @SciCareerEditor, offering his followers a sort of mini editorial page focused on careers in science, with commentary and information on scientific careers in 140 characters or less. It's just a day old, and he desperately needs followers!

Oh, and please try out our new Facebook gift application. Send Science Careers gifts to your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think.

According to a story published today by Zoë Corbyn in the Times Higher Education supplement, the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom has urged its principal investigators (PIs) to keep a better check on the originality of draft papers written by younger scientists.

The faculty's research strategy committee recently recommended "appropriate supervision of postdoctoral staff, 'including the previewing of draft papers' and the use of 'native English-speaking staff to support junior colleagues," Corbyn writes. The recommendation follows a case of plagiarism that led to the withdrawal of a paper that had been published last July. As explained by the faculty's dean of research, "the postdoc had inappropriately copied a large piece of text, and the principal investigator... had not checked his work," Corbyn reports.

Close mentoring and good training are needed to help young scientists learn proper procedures -- some plagiarism is unintentional -- and adopt appropriate ethical standards. But there is something in the recommendation that makes me a little uneasy. While it puts the onus on the PI to guarantee original research and writing, it seems to imply that only early-career scientists are prone to plagiarism. 

To me, a more appropriate recommendation would be to encourage and train both PIs and young scientists on how to avoid, detect, and report plagiarism -- by their younger AND their older colleagues.

Read the full THE story here.

A press release from Robert Madore, the Director of Region 9A of the United Auto Workers says that postdocs at 3 University of Massachusetts campuses have voted to unionize.

According to the press release, a majority of the 300 postdocs at the Dartmouth, Amherst, and Boston campuses of the University of Massachusetts "have signed cards authorizing UMass Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/United Auto Workers (UMass PRO/UAW) to represent them in collective bargaining, triggering a process that will require the university to negotiate over wages, health insurance, job security, and other workplace issues." The release says that a certification petition has been filed with the Massachusetts Division of Labor Relations.

This is the same union that is in currently in negotiations with the University of California on behalf of some 5000 postdocs at that institution. We'll have more about those negotiations in this week's "Taken for Granted" column, which will be posted tomorrow afternoon on Science Careers. 

At the Career Hub blog today, career consultant Billie Sucher unveiled her top-ten list of illegal or inappropriate interview questions that her clients said they were asked in 2009.  Sucher noted that the items she listed were those she could post; there were still other doozies not fit for a family-oriented blog.

Here's a sample ...

- You're too pretty to hire...productivity would drop with you around.
- Has it ever occurred to you to dumb yourself down a little?
- We noticed you're driving a Mercedes...convince us you need this job.

And my personal favorite ...

- You remind me of my grandpa...he's in his 60's.

Enjoy the full list for yourself.  

Sucher refers readers to human-resources guru Alison Doyle, who blogs about job-searching on About.Com, for background on interview questions prohibited by law. Doyle says "employers should not be asking about your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preferences or age," and offers advice on what to do if confronted with one of these gems, such as ...

- Are those your real fingernails or are they fake?

The number of online job ads for science, engineering, and related occupations continued to climb in January 2010. But as reported last month, plenty of unemployed job seekers are returning to the job market to keep the hunt for these jobs at least as competitive as before. The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute, provides these data, which are tracked monthly by Science Careers.

Online job ads

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Jobs in computer science and mathematics continue to lead the other groups in the numbers of new positions posted online. In January, more than 40,000 new ads for these jobs were recorded, a 9% increase over December and the biggest monthly gain since Science Careers began tracking these data in July 2009. Online ads for engineers and architects increased by more than 10,000 or 8% in January, the third monthly gain in a row and also the largest increase in new ads since July 2009. Likewise, posted ads for the life, physical, and social sciences increased by nearly 4,000, a 5% jump and the second consecutive monthly gain for this group.

Ads for jobs related to science and engineering work also showed healthy increases in January. Postings for health care practitioners and technical positions, one of the few employment bright spots during this recession, increased by more than 24,000, a 5% jump. Online ads for education, training, and library workers at all levels increased by nearly 11,000 in January, an increase of 14%, its largest monthly gain since the Science Careers tracking began in July.

Job market competitiveness

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The Conference Board provides a gauge of job-market competitiveness -- a ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers in the job market -- for these categories. However, the most up-to-date unemployment data, taken from Bureau of Labor Statistics' reports, are a month older than the job-ad numbers, so the ratios calculated below are from December 2009, a month earlier than the numbers cited above.

During December, the number of unemployed job-seekers added to the labor market in three of the five science, engineering and related categories increased to match the number of increased job ads that month, keeping the the ratio of job hunters to ads at about the same level as November. The number of unemployed engineers and architects looking for work in December remained at about double the number of online ads for these positions. However, two categories continued to enjoy the enviable condition of having more job ads than unemployed workers: There were 2.8 computer science and mathematics ads, and 3.3 health care practitioner and technician ads, for each unemployed job-hunter in those categories, about the same as the previous month.

For life, physical, and social science job seekers, their job market became somewhat more competitive in December. That month saw more than 20,000 life, physical, and social science job hunters added to the market, while only 4,500 more job adds were posted. This imbalance increased the ratio of job-hunters to posted jobs from 1.2 in November to 1.4 in December. Earlier in 2009, there were about equal numbers of job-seekers and online job ads in this category, but the trend the last two months of 2009 was towards more candidates rather than more jobs.

Among education, training, and library workers, the trend is moving in the favor of job-hunters, but the market for these staff remains bleak. In September there were seven job hunters for each education, training, and library job ad. By December, that ratio had dropped below six (5.8) unemployed workers for each job ad. Despite the encouraging trend, this is the only category of the five tracked by Science Careers with a job market ratio greater than the U.S. as a whole.

For the U.S. overall, the number of posted job ads jumped nearly 382,000 in January, a 10.5% gain. In December, the number of online job ads outpaced the number of unemployed workers looking for jobs, which brought down the job-seeker to job ratio to 4.2 from 4.5 in November.

Readers interested in knowing how science fared in the President's (U.S.) budget request should check out Science Insider, from Science's news department. SI is posting frequent updates and analysis of the proposal. The news for science is generally very good for such a tight budget year.