Science Careers Blog

October 2010

In a 2004 ruling affecting Brown University, the National Labor Relations Board voted not to permit unions for graduate assistants at the universities under its authority -- that is, the nation's private campuses.  On Monday, a 2-to-1 majority of NLRB members dominated by Democrats -- the 2004 board had a Republican majority -- voted to grant a hearing to graduate assistants attempting to unionize at New York University (NYU). The hearing will determine whether their unionization drive can go forward.  The majority cited differences in the circumstances at Brown and NYU, reports Inside Higher Education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the authors of majority opinion wrote that there were "compelling reasons" to reconsider the 2004 decision.

The so-called Brown University decision of 2004 covered private universities across the nation and found that graduate assistants are primarily students, not employees, and therefore ineligible for unionization.  Public universities are governed not by the federal NLRB but by state laws covering public employees.  Some states permit graduate students to organize unions.

Union proponents consider Monday's vote a promising sign of a possible change ahead. The decision was praised by the UAW, the national union that is working to organize the NYU graduate assistants, and the American Federal of Teachers, which is also active in campus organizing.  Of course, NYU, which opposes unionization of its grad assistants, disagreed with the decision.  Stay tuned for what could be a long legal battle resulting in a decision that, anyway, some future board could later overturn.

How can we get more members of the underrepresented gender into selective science-based educational programs?  One Canadian medical school re-adjusted its admission criteria to de-emphasize the area where the underrepresented gender does not perform as well. Correcting a former "over-emphasis on grade point average," admissions committee chair Harold Reiter of McMaster University medical school told the Toronto Globe and Mail, made it possible to admit more men.

Yes, more men.  North of the border, where the majority of medical students and of doctors under 35 are women, female med school applicants outnumber males by more than a third.  But because medical schools seem to want to maintain a gender balance in enrollment, men reportedly have an easier time getting in despite apparently lower grades. 

After all the decades of studies explaining the neurological, endocrinological and evolutionary roots of females' natural inferiority in science and math studies, women applicants' inconvenient propensity to outperform their male counterparts in pre-med courses has galvanized the attention of Canada's educational leaders, according to the newspaper.  Medical planners reportedly worry about a looming labor shortage caused by women doctors' tendency to work fewer hours than men, at least during the child-rearing years.  Education experts also fear that female majorities will make the medical profession unattractive to men.  "If it looks like a woman's program, you'll have trouble attracting both men and women," says Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning, quoted in the Globe and Mail.

Here's an alternative proposal: Men could assume more household responsibilities so that female physicians with families could work longer days.  Another: Encourage young people to disregard the gender makeup of professions in making their career choices.  No word yet on whether educational authorities will push for these solutions, too 

Scope, the blog from the Stanford University School of Medicine, posted the video below this week of Stanford scientists Carla Shatz and Helen Blau. According to the video, Shatz and Blau met in 1978 when they became the first women to be hired on Stanford medical school's basic science faculty as part of an affirmative action initiative. The video doesn't dwell on this, though, and instead lets the women talk about their research careers, and their friendship over the years. Well worth the 7 minutes to watch.

Hat tip: Dr. Shock MD PhD

The European Research Council (ERC) announced the results of its third Starting Grants competition this week.

Altogether, 427 early-career researchers won a total of about €580 million that they will use to establish independent labs in Europe. Launched in 2007, the Starting Grants offer researchers of any nationality and age, and with between 2 and 12 years post-Ph.D. experience, as much as €2million over 5 years to build a research team anywhere in Europe.

On average, this year's ERC awardees are 36 years old. A little more than a quarter of them (26.5% compared to 23% last year) are women. Host institutions are in 21 countries, with the United Kingdom (79), France (71), and Germany (67) attracting the most grantees. Looking at research areas, 45.7% of the winning proposals are in physical sciences and engineering, 35.8% in life sciences, and 22.2% in social sciences and humanities.

A total of 2873 scientists applied for the grant this year, a 14% increase over last year but far below the more than 9,000 applications drawn by the first ERC call. With the ERC budget for the grants rising 40% this year, this year's success rate reached 15%. The budget for these grants is expected to continue to rise.

You can browse the list of winners by country or research domain (social sciences and humanities, / life sciences, / physical sciences and engineering). More statistics can also be found here. The deadline for applications in physical sciences and engineering has already closed, but life scientists may apply until 9 November 2010, and social scientists and humanists have until 24 November.
Timothy Cordes graduated as valedictorian of his class at the University of Notre Dame. He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin (UW) where he recently earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biomolecular chemistry. He is currently a resident physician in the psychiatry department while fulfilling his role as a husband and father. Tim is blind. That this uncommon constellation of accomplishments can occur is notable. Ten or twenty years ago, it would have been impossible.

Twenty years ago, while serving as a faculty pre-med advisor at Harvard College, I was assigned a candidate for medical school admission: a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, an outstanding student, a basketball player, personable, and impressive in every way. He was a "dream" candidate with one exception: He had been born deaf. Our efforts to gain his admission to medical school were a nightmare. Despite personal communications to medical school deans and admission directors, as well as letters from his professors attesting to his abilities, all doors were closed. He entered a Ph.D. program in pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and, following postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), now does exciting research in the field of congenital deafness.
Recently, I was reminded of this experience when I sat down for a mentoring session with a second year medical student here in Madison. "I'll need to see your lips," the student cautioned me as we began our conversation, "I'm congenitally deaf."

I've just learned about an app for the iPad and the iPhone that allows users to locate and apply for federal jobs. And once you've applied for a job, you can receive status updates through the app. says that currently more than 30,000 jobs are posted, and searchable via the app. You can also be notified via the app about new jobs that match your search criteria.

I own an iPhone, so I gave it a try. I didn't apply for any jobs, so I can't report on the status updates, but I can report on the search capability. First, it's very easy to use -- easier and less confusing than the USAJobs Web site. Search results appear almost instantly, and there are lots of them, though the total number is not reported. Searching on the word "editor" yielded 102 positions, mostly technical writing/editing positions including dozens at Navy field offices nationwide. Searching on "microbiologist" yielded 34 results, all from the Army, the Navy, or the Food and Drug Administration. Searching on "physicist" yielded 108 jobs -- again, many of them at U.S. Navy field offices.  You can refine your search based on salary, grade, location, and 9 other criteria. And once a list of jobs is displayed, you can click on a button to display them on a map. A nifty feature.

The app seems pretty robust, though it did crash on me once. Users rate it 3 starts out of 5. Commonly reported flaws include crashing and problems signing in. (I didn't try signing in.)

If you're interested in government employment, this could be a useful tool.

It's often said that people with IT degrees can really clean up in the job market, but few do so quite as literally as Sam Fanning.  Earning his bachelors last year in network and IT administration from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Fanning unsuccessfully sought work is his field.  Finally, he accepted the only thing he could find, a position with his alma mater as a custodian--not of a computer network, as he had hoped, but the kind that cleans the campus buildings.  

The benefits provided by his unionized full-time night-shift janitor job include free tuition, which Fanning is reportedly considering using to pursue graduate work.  His greatest frustration, he tells the Chronicle, is that he is not using his technical skills and potential, which he believes may be hurting his applications for jobs in his field. He hopes to get further education to improve his chances.

Fanning's situation is so iconic of these times that it seems that if reporter Don Troop hadn't found him, someone would have had to make him up. It may be, of course, that Michigan's exceptionally bad economy is responsible for Fanning's inability to find more suitable work.  But across the country these days, large numbers of technically trained Americans, both recent graduates and older people with years of experience, lack opportunities to use the skills and abilities they developed at considerable cost in time, work and tuition.  For Fanning, making the $500 monthly payments on his $35,000 student debt takes a sizable chunk of his hourly $13.01.

Despite the continuing drumbeat from many political and educational figures that technically trained people have highly marketable skills, and, indeed, that the country needs many more such workers, that clearly is untrue not only for Fanning but even for many who have credentials far more prestigious than his.  To take just one admittedly anecdotal example, this reporter recently attended a small funeral for a very elderly emeritus professor at which the 30 or so mourners included two men with science degrees from top-tier universities--one of them a high school math teacher recently laid off because of budget cuts and the other a university lab worker let go when a grant was not renewed.  Neither lives in an area with especially high unemployment.

The bottom line for policy makers: getting people to train in science and technology is not enough.  Those who follow that educational route must realize that they have no guarantee of employment that uses their skills.  Ant the nation needs to give real, serious attention to seeing that more of them can translate their training and education into viable careers that use that hard-earned knowledge.

There's a new word going around to describe the rivalry that mothers feel toward one another: "mompetition."

It's elucidated in a hilarious new series of viral cartoons, in which an uptight mom and a laid-back mom try to one-up each other on the playground.

If the charged dialogues bear a resemblance -- in tone, if not in subject matter -- to those between rivals at scientific meetings, it might not be a coincidence.

Mompetition's creator, Valerie Stone Hawthorne, holds a doctorate in cancer biology and cell biology, according to a recent Time article. She is now a stay-at-home mother of 2-year-old twins.

"Competition is a way to regain what they had in the work world," Stone Hawthorne says in the article, referring to mothers who have traded careers for child-rearing. "We want to impress each other because we need validation."

Scientific facts make an occasional appearance in the videos, thanks to the laid-back mom (whom Stone Hawthorne most resembles, although she admits to having some of the uptight mom in her, too). The uptight mom then ignores or distorts them.

"Have you seen the news?" asks the uptight mom in her robotic, Type A voice. "Almost all children are kidnapped and killed at some point in their lives."

"That is not true. Only one in .0000007 children are," replies the laid-back mom (also sounding somewhat robotic).

"I know. I am scared."

In an era when many scientists find it difficult to follow the straight career path they once envisioned, the life of mathematics great Benoit Mandelbrot, who died last week at 85, offers proof that there's more than one road to success.  Following a route as unconventional as his intellect, he achieved renown as the developer of fractal geometry, an important figure in chaos theory, and a contributor to physics, finance, and other fields.

He did so largely outside of the academic world and, as the Washington Post reports, lived a life strongly touched by chaos. Reportedly, he was once turned down for an academic post because he would not confine himself to a single subject.  His career, he said, quoted in the New York Times, followed "a very crooked line."  In this respect, it provides an example for others trying to find their way.

Born Jewish in Poland in 1924, he moved as a child with his family to Paris to escape Nazi persecution, but spent much of his adolescence evading capture after the Germans invaded France.  Despite a checkered secondary education, in his twenties he earned a masters degree in aeronautics and a doctorate in mathematics and did a postdoctoral fellowship under John von Neumann. For the bulk of his career, Mandelbrot worked at IBM.  Decades later, in his sixties, he joined the Yale faculty, becoming, he joked, the oldest person to get academic tenure, which he attained in his 70s.  

Though few can match Mandelbrot in brilliance, his life and career offer a lesson for today's early-career scientists, few of whom are likely to find their route to success wide, straight, and well paved.

In August, the number of job ads online in all employment categories increased significantly but modestly, while the number of ads in science-related categories declined, but very slightly.

And  in August -- the last month for which detailed unemployment data is available -- an increase in the number of unemployed people looking for work, coupled with a decline in the number of online job ads, resulted in an uptick in the ratio of job-seekers to online job ads, overall and in all science-related categories combined. That means that, in terms of competitiveness, the job market got slightly worse for job seekers.

This August performance is consistent with a steady upward trend, lasting about 15 months so far, in the strength of the job market for scientists. That, anyway, is our interpretation of the numbers from the Conference Board, released earlier this month.

The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute, provides these data, which are tracked monthly by Science Careers.

Online job ads

In September, the number of online job ads posted in the science-related categories we track declined by 5300 compared to August, a much better performance than last month's 42,600 decline. In percentage terms, this decline is very small, just 0.4% month over month. 

Taking a longer view reveals progress. In all the categories we track, 219,700 more job ads were posted in August 2010 than were posted a year earlier, an increase of about 18%. Keep reading to learn how the numbers break down by category.

In percentage terms, the best performing category last month was architecture and engineering, which showed a 5.4% increase in the number of posted ads -- 9200 more ads in September than in August. Compared to September 2009, the increase was an impressive 57%.

Also having a good month was computer and mathematical science, which added 15,200 ads, an increase of 2.7%. Year over year, this is a 46% increase in the number of online ads.

It was a down month in the category of greatest interest to most Science Careers readers: life, physical, and social science. Ads in this category declined 5.2%, or 4800. That's 25% higher than a year earlier. 

The category health-care practitioners and technical had its third straight bad month, with online job ads falling 4.8%. This is the only category where the number of ads this month is smaller than it was a year earlier, and the difference is substantial, about 14.6%.  

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Job market competitiveness

The Conference Board computes a job-market competitiveness measure, the ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers in the job market for various categories. But because the most up-to-date unemployment data, taken from Bureau of Labor Statistics' reports, are a month older than the numbers for online job ads, the ratios calculated below are from August 2010, so they're a month older than the numbers for online job ads described above. We report the ratio of job seekers to job ads in each category, so a lower number means better opportunity. 

In August, in the number of job ads in all categories dipped, as did the number of ads in science-related categories. The new Conference Board report reveals that these gains were accompanied by an increase in the the number of unemployed job seekers. The result: Combining all science-related categories, the ratio of job seekers to job ads got a little worse, climbing back to 0.7 job seekers per online employment ad after one month at 0.6. In all these categories, there were, in August, approximately 2 job seekers for every 3 ads.

In August, as measured by changes in this ratio, the best performance was in the category Science Careers readers care most about, life, physical, and social science. Here, an increase in the number of job ads (remember, these numbers are from August, not September, when the number of ads declined), coupled to a decline in the number of unemployed people looking for work, resulted in a ratio of 0.7 job seekers per job add, fully two tenths better than July's 0.9.

In contrast, education, training, and library had a very bad month in August thanks to a huge increase -- 32% month over month -- in the number of unemployed people seeking work. This took the ratio of job seekers per ad all the way back up to 4.7, from 3.6 a month before. 

Another category that made a notable move in July is computer and mathematical science, which saw the ratio of job seekers to online ads decline from 0.4 to 0.3. With 3 ads for every job seeker, that starts to look like a pretty tight market; then again, this is the category where job ads are the most likely to be posted online.

There was no change in the ratio of job seekers to job ads in any of the other science-related categories.

Except for education, training, and library (which includes science-related jobs but also jobs with nothing to do with science), the ratio of job-seekers to ads in the science-related categories we track remains far better than the average across the whole economy. In July, the average for these science-related categories was 0.7 job seekers per online job ad. For the economy as a whole, the ratio was 3.5, which is slightly worse than July's 3.4. It may seem like a very tough job market, but over all in these science-related categories the odds of landing a job were nearly 5 times better in August than the odds the average job seeker encountered.

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Jim Austin Tweets as @SciCareerEditor

A query from Irene Levine, our Mind Matters columnist:

Scientists Dealing with a Troubled Colleague
I would like to interview scientists or science trainees who have encountered a troubled colleague. For example, the colleague may have been depressed, had marital problems, abused substances, had an anger-management problem, etc., that interfered with productivity and/or office morale. When faced with such a situation, what did you do? Did you tell someone else? If so, when? What happened as a consequence? How do you strike the right balance between being a colleague and a friend? If you have been the troubled colleague, I would love to hear your experience, too. Contact: Irene S. Levine, irene-at-irenelevine-dot-com .

Recently, I applied for a job online. No, I'm not looking for a change. I was following up on a tip from an online acquaintance who had described her own experience applying to this organization. The process of applying, she wrote to me in an e-mail, squelched any enthusiasm she might have had about working there. I was curious, so I tried it.

When I talk about applying online, I'm not talking about registering on a Web site then uploading a cover letter and CV in pdf or Word formats. I'm talking about a Web app where you fill in several pages of forms and answer multiple-choice questions. It took me a couple of hours to complete the application.

My conclusion: I agree completely with my online acquaintance. The process was disheartening. Even though I'm not looking for work, there's always a little thrill that comes from new possibilities. But by the time I was finished, I knew I didn't want to work for that organization. Here's why.

Looking for a job is a stressful and difficult business, but it has its rewards. It encourages you to think hard about your capabilities and to reinvent yourself. You're called upon to present yourself at your honest best, which can lead you to look at yourself in new ways. When applying for a particular job, you have to think hard about how you might fit the position, an exercise that allows you to see how useful your skills could be in a new context. It's a creative process. It can all be very encouraging, and it can make you more productive and employable.

Dave Jensen has often encouraged job applicants to customize their applications to match particular openings, and I concur. This may mean rejiggering a CV or resume, but mostly this work happens in the cover letter. The cover letter is where you put on your best face. It's an opportunity for reinvention, to reintroduce yourself to the world (OK, strictly speaking, to reinvent yourself for a particular employer). And a cover letter, of course, is not a work of fiction: It's a genuine rethinking of your capabilities, an honest attempt to bridge the gap between the work you've done before and the work you'd like to do. It's a creative act.

As I worked my way through this online application, I kept wondering: When do I get to the point where I submit my cover letter? When will I have the opportunity to make my best case, to present myself on my terms?

That opportunity never came. There was no cover letter. First, I filled in some personal information. Then I described my educational experience, and then my work experience, via a series of multiple-choice questions and online forms. The core of the application was a series of very specific questions aimed at discovering whether I had ever done precisely the kind of work the new position would require me to do. The cumulative effect was skeptical and severe. When I was done I felt I had been raked over coals.

Have you ever had an interview with the interviewer didn't seem to respect you -- who seemed suspicious about all of your claims and challenged everything you said? Just replace the human being on the other side of the desk with a Web app, and that'll give you an idea of what it felt like. I was being called on to justify myself, not on my terms as I would have done in a cover letter, but on theirs. To a Web app. 

Hey, I get it. I can see the advantages for the employer. It's probably a rather efficient way of screening out applicants who don't have the necessary education or experience, and they probably get lots of those. It may also screen out people who don't really want the job. There's something to be said for hiring motivated, job-seekers, but read on.

What they don't seem to realize -- or perhaps they just don't care -- is that they do not hold all the cards. Job-seekers have some say in the matter. Just as employers decide who they want to hire, job-seekers decide where they want to work. Smart, creative scientists have opinions and options. If you use an alienating online job app, the desperate will still apply, and perhaps take the job if offered. But those with alternatives and self-respect will look elsewhere for work. This organization is likely to lose its best candidates.

Furthermore, the application process sets the tone for all that follows. I understood clearly from this exercise that if I were to go to work for that organization, I would be expected to stay in line, to do exactly what I was told to do. I understood -- or at least inferred -- that creative work would be discouraged. I doubt that's a message they want to send to their future employees. 

This online job app sent me a very clear message: We do not respect you or your experience. We are going to dictate the terms here. If you have a problem with this, work elsewhere.

Which is precisely what I intend to do, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

October 11, 2010

Nice work if you can get it

Today's announcement of the Nobel Prize in economics may have a particular resonance for the many young scientists trying to move to the next step in their careers.  Peter Diamond of MIT, Dale Mortensen of Northwestern, and Christopher Pissarides of London School of Economics shared the honor for models that mathematically explicate something countless job seekers--or, for that matter, would-be employers--already know.  Finding the right position or the right worker is not something that happens automatically, but instead itself involves a lot of work, or, as the economists put it, "friction." 

Before the laureate trios' research, economic theory apparently assumed that the market for workers functions rather like the ones for wheat or oil you learned about in Economics 101, where buyers and sellers easily find each other and agree on a price based on supply and demand.

But, of course, as anyone who has sent out futile resumes could have told them, landing a suitable job involves, first and foremost, finding out where appropriate vacancies may lurk and crafting an application that fits the employer's needs.  This takes information that can be difficult or impossible to obtain, especially if no means exist for the two sides of the employment equation to exchange information effectively and efficiently.

This is certainly the case for many non-academic positions in scientific and technical fields.  And it may in part account for the oft-noted discrepancy between the perception of job seekers, who see a glutted market, and those employers who complain that they cannot find the workers they need. (Other observers of course argue that the "shortages" companies suffer are not of qualified people, but of qualified people willing to work for what they want to pay.)  Still, a good deal of information "friction" undoubtedly exists and if it could be reduced, quite a number of people on both sides would probably be a lot happier.

Professor Diamond has lately been experiencing considerable friction in a job search of his own.  Nominated by President Obama in April to the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, he has been blocked Senate Republicans.  But, as thousands of young scientists could have told him, getting a good job isn't easy.

October 8, 2010

U.S. Employment Stagnates

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in September continued to plod along, neither crashing or noticeably improving.

Over all, employment was down 92,000. That's a meaningful number, but the losses were on the government-employment side, where 77,000 temporary census workers finished their assignments, and local governments continued to shed workers to deal with budget shortfalls. Public-sector job losses totaled 159,000.

The news in the private sector is a little better. There, employment increased by 64,000, numerically about half the number of new jobs the economy needed to create to employ the new adults entering the workforce, although it's more than offset, of course, by those public-sector job losses.

So, while the unemployment rate remained the same at 9.6%, U.S. employment lost some a little ground last month, but not too much.

The health care sector had a decent month, adding 24,000 jobs. Employment services added 28,000 jobs, most of them in the temporary-employment industry. Manufacturing was flat, and jobs in the construction sector trended down modestly.

September, in other words, was another lost month for U.S. employment. But there is some reason for hope: In recent months our analysis of online employment ads, which is based on data from the Conference Board, clearly indicates that companies are starting to hire again, even if that trend hasn't yet born fruit in the BLS statistics. We don't have September numbers yet, but they should be available soon, and when they are, we'll report them.

October 6, 2010

Wanna Skip the Postdoc?

If so, do we have the plan for you -- if you're good enough.

ScienceInsider is reporting that NIH has announced a 5-year, $60 million pilot project to fund recent Ph.D.s for their first faculty posts. All they have to do is find an institution willing to sponsor them.

NIH Director Francis Collins announced the new program -- dubbed the Early Independence Award Program, in a Nature Commentary.

October 4, 2010

And the Winner Is....

It is now possible to watch the Nobel Prize announcements live from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm right after the awarding institutions have made their vote. 

Robert G. Edwards was announced today as the 2010 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine "for the development of in vitro fertilization." Tomorrow this year's physics laureates will be announced, Wednesday in chemistry, and Thursday, literature. Friday we'll know who gets the peace prize, and next Monday the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. 

Check out the exact times on the Nobel Prize web site. You may also use the site to congratulate the new laureates or ask them questions; answers will be posted in December.  

A friend of mine who has an important non-academic job in the world of science once told me with gratitude how her wonderful mentor helped her leave academe.  My friend was struggling with the unwelcome discovery that, after investing a substantial portion of her young life in preparing to be a researcher, she actually did not enjoy bench work.  Finally, after observing her for a while, the lab chief took her aside and confided, "You know, dear, there's more to life than this."  Liberated from guilt and a sense of failure, my friend sought out and found the career she loves.

Decades later, she still recognizes her huge debt to the wise professor who thought the young person more important than the project.  But taking this attitude, writes Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University in a perceptive essay in today's Chronicle of Higher Education, is the responsibility of every faculty member. "If you love them, let them go freely," he advises his fellow professors.  "Our job is to lead students toward the finish line, but it's also to let them choose their own finish line."  

Cassuto is writing specifically about graduate students who do not finish their dissertations, but the points he makes apply equally to people who do finish their doctorates and then decide, perhaps during a postdoc appointment, that staying on the conventional academic track is not for them.  "Erasing the stigma...starts with us," Cassuto continues."...If we teach ...that a decision and not a failing, we can start to erase the stigma that so wrongly attends withdrawal" from academe.

If you've been kicking yourself for missing the deadline for nominating yourself or someone else for the Kauffman Foundation's Postdoctoral Entrepreneur awards, you've got a second chance.  The nomination deadline has been extended from the original drop-dead date of September 27 until next Monday, 11 October.  The deadline for submitting completed applications has been extended from today until October 18.

In cooperation with the National Postdoctoral Association, the Kauffman Foundation gives two annual prizes, $10,000 for an established entrepreneur who has created a company and $2,500 for an emerging entrepreneur in the process of doing so.  All contestants must have been postdocs in the United States and must be working on commercializing intellectual property from their research.  Details and nomination and application materials are available here.