Science Careers Blog

November 2010

New research appearing this week in Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also the publisher of Science Careers) suggests that reaffirming  personal values in a simple writing exercise could help women overcome sexist stereotypes.

The study (subscription required), led by psychologist Akira Miyake of the University of Colorado at Boulder, looked at 399 male and female college students in a 15-week introductory physics class. During the first and fourth weeks, a group of students were asked to write for 15 minutes about personal values such as family and friends that were important to them. The researchers found that women who had taken part in the value-affirming exercise went on to obtain better grades than women in the control group, who wrote about their least important values. No real difference was found for male students, reducing the well-documented gender gap in physics exams performance.

Improvement of academic performance following the value-affirming exercise was most striking for women who subscribed to the stereotype that men are better at physics. Looking at the control group, the researchers also found that the more female students believed in the stereotype, the worse their grades. Such pattern disappeared in the value-affirming group however.

"The fact that we found a large reduction in the gender gap for affirmed women tells you that some psychological processes are affecting women's performance on exams and how powerful those influences are," Miyake says in a press release. "Writing self-affirming essays improved the affirmed women's exam performances by alleviating their anxiety related to being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science."

It's hard to extrapolate research results to other situations, and Miyake is quick to point out that however promising such value-affirming approaches are "not a silver bullet that magically makes the gender achievement gap disappear altogether." But it seems a simple and short enough exercise to want to give it a try when facing a situation with sexist stereotypes attached, being taking an exam or doing research in a male-dominated environment.
For academic scientists with an idea they think might have commercial potential, figuring out whether and how to move it from the university lab to the marketplace is a formidable challenge.  Andrew Hargadon, the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Davis, and director of the university's Center for Entrepreneurship, offers insight into the process in a series of entries on his blog.  Intended for university researchers, the series began on November 16 with the essay "Getting Started."  This and succeeding entries focus on "the first of three critical moments in the life of a new venture -- entrepreneurial leap...when the original entrepreneurs make the decision to start a new venture or not,"  Hargadon writes. The series is "intended to help aspiring entrepreneurs...see and make the right decisions at the right time." 

November 23, 2010

Be Bold

Daring to follow untraveled paths in science can be both daunting and risky for young scientists. Yet boldness is a common, key ingredient in the careers of the most successful scientists.

In these days of self-doubt, it's good to recall words from Thomas Waldmann, who since 1973 has been chief of the Metabolism Branch at the U.S. National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. When asked about the best approach to being a scientific leader, Waldmann recommends:

"First, choose young scientists who show originality in their thinking and almost have a maverick mind. They have to be bright, hardworking and [able to] work in a team."

Assuming you work in labs led by PIs with the same philosophy as Waldmann, boldness and competence should be rewarded.

"Then, as the administrator, give them the resources and a large amount of independence. Show enthusiasm and support for their activities."

The full interview was published last Wednesday in The Washington Post.

Science Careers explored this theme at length in Anne Sasso's Audacity in Science series.

November 19, 2010

Making proposals shine

Of all the career skills that a scientist needs, the ability to construct winning grant proposals is among the most crucial.  Having served as rapporteur (the person who writes the reports sent back to grant applicants) at meetings of high-powered federal study sections, this reporter has observed how relatively small matters of style and presentation can help move a proposal toward the top or the bottom of the pile. 

That's because the researchers tasked with digesting and judging hundreds of pages of dense, information-packed prose in a matter of days often (though they usually don't admit it) appear to succumb to simple brain fatigue.  To get through that huge stack of often dry details, they may find themselves relying on surrogate markers of quality having to do not with the science itself but with the way it's presented.

In Friday's Inside Higher Education, an anonymous scientist fresh from service on a study section comes clean with would-be grantees.  Writing as the Prodigal Academic, she or he offers ten tips that any applicant can use to lighten the reviewer's burden and make a proposal stand out from the verbose and disorganized dross.  These pointers all have to do with making it easy for reviewers to figure out what you've done and what you want to do.  You already know your science is great.  Your goal in writing your proposal is to help reviewers stay on task long enough to see exactly why that's true.  From conversations I've heard in the privacy of the study section, the Prodigal Academic's ten tips could certainly help.

For more advice on the same topic, this time from an NSF panel member, also read NSF Grant Reviewer Tells All, by Science Careers' own Pam L. Member. Yes, that's a pseudonym.

Does your research in nutrition, biochemistry, plant science, or other food-related field suggest a product with commercial potential?  Do you wish you could find out how to move your idea from the lab to the market?  Or do you want to move yourself from academe to industry? 

If any of these things describes you or your research, the Food + Health Entrepreneurship Academy, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Davis, may provide the opportunity you seek.  

The five-day academy, which begins January 31 at the UC Davis campus, will provide "focused lectures, practical exercises, networking sessions, and hands-on experiences" for grad students, postdocs and faculty members seeking either to turn research results into commercial opportunities or to prepare for a move to industry, according the the Center's website.  Applications are due January 1.  Cost for university-affiliated individuals is $150 with meals but without lodging, or $250 with meals and a shared room in a hotel near the program.

1.    Learn on whose shoulders you stand.

On February 5, 1676, Isaac Newton wrote a letter to his rival and adviser, Robert Hooke, which he concluded with his famous aphorism: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Two hundred years later another great scientist, the French physiologist Claude Bernard, enlarged on these words: "Great men have been compared to giants upon whose shoulders pygmies have climbed, who nevertheless see further than they. This simply means the science makes progress subsequently to the appearance of great men, and precisely because of their influence. The result is that their successors know many more scientific facts than the great men themselves had in their day. But a great man is, none the less, still a great man, that is to say, a giant."

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a coalition that includes the American Association of University Professors and a dozen or so other academic and higher education groups, has developed an online survey of non-tenure-track faculty members, the Survey of Contingent Faculty Members, Instructors, and Researchers. You can learn more about the coalition and  the survey at

Because the Department of Education does not track these positions, data is hard to come by. So far, the coalition has recieved about 20,000 responses to the survey so far, but the sciences underrepresented, so they're hoping to hear from more scientists.

They've also made a cute video:

October was an excellent month for online job ads in the core scientific categories, suggesting a healthy employment market, according to the Help Wanted Online report from The Conference Board. In the Life, Physical, and Social Sciences category, the number of ads was up 8.6%, or 7,500 ads. That's the biggest month-over-month gain in this category -- and the largest total number of online ads -- since we started tracking in June 2009. From September to October a year ago, the number of ads fell by 2.4%. This October's online ads were up 26,900 ads -- 38.5% -- over last October's 68,600 ads.

Totaling all categories, online ads were up 2.6% (113,700 ads) over September, the biggest monthly jump since April. There were 4,409,797 ads in October, the most in any month since August 2008, before the financial crisis sent the job market into a meltdown.

In all science-related categories, ads were up 4.3% compared to September, the biggest gain since March. The number of ads increased in every science-related category.

A more thorough analysis of the new report from the Conference Board will follow soon.