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Science Careers Blog

January 2011

January 31, 2011

Freeing Tunisian Science

The images of vast popular uprisings in Arab capitals that have riveted the world's attention in recent days appear to have little to do with science.  But, reports Nature's Declan Butler, the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his replacement with a transitional government promises a new era of intellectual and scientific freedom.  Tunisian scientists he spoke with are jubilant at the prospect of new-found liberty and the end of stultifying, government-imposed nepotism in universities and research institutions. 

Thanks to the policies of Ben Ali's predecessor, Tunisia has one of the Arab world's stronger scientific establishments, Nature notes.  And the transitional government's newly appointed secretary of state for higher education, Fouzia Charfi, foresees continued support for scientific research as well as university reforms to emphasize creativity and entrepreneurship and better prepare graduates for the job market.  "There is no point in having degrees that lead nowhere," she told Nature.  Change will take time, she notes, but, given her own background as both a teacher of physics and the widow of an education minister who was also a leader of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, she already seems to embody the vision of a promising future that animates many in Tunisia's scientific scene.

Yes, it looks like the recovery in the job market is finally here. Sure, something could still go wrong -- as it did about this time last year, after a promising January. And yes, it's true that over the last few days some major layoffs were announced at pharmaceutical companies. But according to the Help Wanted Online survey -- conducted by The Conference Board and tracked by Science Careers -- we've nearly bounced back from 2+ awful years.

According to the Conference Board survey, the number of job ads posted online increased by 439,000 in January compared to December 2010. That's an increase of more than 10% and the biggest increase since Science Careers began tracking these numbers in May 2008. It's also the biggest percentage increase since January 2010 -- and, yes, that proved to be a false start, so perhaps I should be a little too cautious in my pronouncements.

But I'll leave caution to June Shelp, the vice president of The Conference Board. "The very strong seasonal gain to start 2011 is welcome news following seven months of essentially flat U.S. labor demand," Shelp said, quoted in a Conference Board press release. "Last year, after a promising start (up about 350,000 in January 2010), labor demand fizzled, and the last half of 2010 was actually flat with no appreciable gains in job demand. Hopefully the January 2011 increase suggests that employers are seeing a pickup in their businesses and labor demand will continue to improve throughout this year."

Let's look at the numbers in more detail. After the downturn that started in April 2007, driven by the financial crisis, the number of online job ads fell by about 1.8 million, hitting a low point 2 years later in April 2009. Since then, 1.44 million ads -- about 80% of what was lost -- have been added back. One more month like January 2010 and we'll have caught up completely, according to the help-wanted-online metric.

The category most relevant to Science Careers readers -- life, physical, and social sciences -- mirrored the market as a whole: The number of online ads rose by 10.6% month over month. In computer and mathematical science, the number of online ads increased by 11.7%. In the category "healthcare practitioners and technical," the increase was nearly 15%. Online job ads in the architecture and engineering category grew by 14.6%. Even the "education, training, and library" category, which had been especially laggardly of late, rose by more than 13%. All these numbers are month over month. 

There's more to report. Unfortunately (for me, not for you) The Conference Board is improving its methodology, which makes comparisons to our older data useless. However, all the data reported above, for January and for December, are based completely on the new methodology so the comparisons should be sound. The Conference Board is releasing the whole time series in revised form, which will allow us to update our older charts to make them consistent with the new methodology. But the revised time series won't be available until early February. That means you will have to wait a while for even more details.

As I was surfing admittedly random Web sites this morning, I came across this article on the self-help Web site PickTheBrain.com on how to get into "the habit of putting ideas into action now," as the article's author and Web site editor Erin Falconer puts it.

The article offers 7 ways of jumping into action, which are largely applicable whatever your professional field may be. While you may have heard some of the advice before, it's the sort of advice that bears repeating every now and then.

My favorite: 

"Remember that ideas alone don't bring success - Ideas are important, but they're only valuable after they've been implemented. One average idea that's been put into action is more valuable than a dozen brilliant ideas that you're saving for 'some other day' or the 'right opportunity'."

You may read the whole article on PickTheBrain.com.


That's the well-argued and well-documented opinion of Norman Matloff, the University of California-Davis computer science professor who is also a widely respected, very astute, Chinese-speaking scholar of technical workforce issues.  President Obama "and his advisers don't have a clue" as to the real source of the jobs problem facing America, he states in the latest issue of the occasional e-newsletter that he writes on issues surrounding offshoring.  

All the science fairs and incentives to math teachers in the world won't have the slightest effect on jobs, Matloff explains, because the quality of American education has nothing to do with the loss of technical work to cheaper competitors. It is, he believes, "unconscionable/tragic" to imply that they do. "The basic problem [is] the willingness of American firms to locate all, or large sections, of their operations elsewhere in the world, and to hire foreign workers for those jobs they choose to keep in the U.S" -- as well as policies that do not discourage them from doing so.  And Obama's proposed remedies will do absolutely nothing about either.

But why settle for my rehash of Matloff's illuminating observations when you can read the original article here?

Having just returned from India, I can certainly vouch for the fact, asserted by retired Lockheed chairman Norm Augustine in Forbesthat Indians, among citizens of certain other foreign countries, share "a belief that the path to success is paved with science and engineering."  Middle class Indian parents, in fact, seem obsessed with the idea that their children should study engineering.  Countless institutions, from dingy storefronts in small rural towns to major urban universities, claim to offer that precious opportunity.  A myriad of cram schools, in addition, litter the country's highways and byways with signs claiming to prepare students to ace the exams that, as these ads assure nervous moms and dads, will indubitably pave the way to upward mobility.

The same, Augustine laments, is not the case in the United States. "Part of the problem," he argues, is American parents' apparent "lack of priority...on core education [as well as] problems inherent in our public education system."  Having spent a number of years as a middle class American parent, however, and also having known others of the breed, I have not observed any lack of desire to provide children the tools for career advancement in adult life.  To the contrary, middle class Americans are every bit as interested as their Indian counterparts in giving their children the best possible opportunities.

But here's the difference: In India, a degree in science or engineering really can be a ticket to serious upward mobility, the difference between one's child spending life in a broken-down country town or in a sleek office and beautiful home in a classy urban neighborhood, the parents enjoying major, lifelong bragging rights, potentially large dowry payments, and -- because of the still widely prevalent joint family system -- a far better standard of living.  

In the United States, none of this is true.  Indians obsess about science and engineering, and they're frank about this, not because they have an inherent love of the subjects (though some may, of course).  Rather, these courses of study are the absolute best routes to the pinnacle of many people's career aspirations: a lucrative job with one of the prestigious multinational corporations that have filled Bangalore with flashy high-rises and traffic jams of late-model private cars and are now doing likewise for the nearby, lower-rent garden city of Mysore.  

American kids also used to flock to science and engineering -- say, back in the early days of the space program.  Then, the field provided glamor, challenge, security, prestige, and good pay.  The same phenomenon occurred for journalism careers in the 1970s, during the blaze of publicity enjoyed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.  Who wouldn't want to earn good money in a career portrayed on the big screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (in the case of reporters) or by Tom Hanks and Sam Shepard (in the case of rocket engineers)? Indian movies and TV, incidentally, glamorize young techies in just the same way.

But  today, a science degree is no longer an American's path to glamor and fortune.  Instead, it is often a ticket to low-paid, 70 hour weeks as a postdoc in somebody elses university lab.  An engineering degree appears to many to be an invitation to spend a relatively short career worrying about when your job will be shipped to India, or when a younger person with more recent training (who can afford to work cheaper) will take your place.  The "negative impression" of science careers that Augustine laments as widespread among American youth  is richly deserved.  Why should an American smart enough to master those difficult disciplines invest his or her youth and promise in such a chancy undertaking?

For an Indian student, of course, the calculus, as it were, is entirely different.  A topflight science or engineering graduate has a good chance of landing a very good job, as well as a very good marital match negotiated by his or her status-crazed parents. A degree from a top program may even lead to a temporary -- or maybe even permanent -- visa to the United States. (It's worth noting, though, that some spoilsports in India are starting to suggest that even this job market -- the Indian one -- is becoming glutted by a combination of homegrown holders of mediocre degrees and of expired temporary visas returning from the US).

What is the cause of the imbalance between the US and Indian aspirations?  Many in the US (who get less publicity than Mr. Augustine) argue that it is the policies of Mr. Augustine's own fellow business executives, who have for years been outsourcing work from America and suppressing technical pay here almost as energetically as Indian students have been cramming for their tests.  The recent Gathering Storm, Revisted, report of the National Academies frankly admits as much.  

If Augustine wants talented young Americans once again to become scientists and engineers, rather than, say, neurosurgeons or investment analysts or intellectual property lawyers, these critics suggest, he could take a more realistic course than defaming their increasingly anxious parents.  He could, for example, devote some of his formidable energy and influence to restoring the incentives -- real incentives; career opportunities worthy of many years of study -- that will once again attract America's best into those careers.  Storm, Revisted, helpfully suggests that tax and visa policies that now favor corporations at the expense of American technical jobs might be a good place to start.

I've got a rather conservative list of stuff for you this week:

Those of you who blog, Tweet, participate in social networks, and so on may have seen buzz this week about the Science Online conference (Twitter hashtag: #scio11), held last weekend in North Carolina. I wasn't there (though I have been to Science Online London the past two years), so I won't attempt to report on the surely excellent topics discussed there. But, as is often the case for a meeting of people who contribute regularly to the Interwebs, you can learn a lot by perusing the Web site, wiki, tweets, and videos of sessions. I do know at least two of our correspondents were there and there will be a forthcoming Science Careers article from the meeting. Stay tuned.

One tweet I did pick up on from #scio11 noted a new list of so called Diversity Bloggers, assembled by the folks at MinorityPostdoc.org. Their list includes our very own Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, whose column was a blog of sorts before blogs were en vogue.

Late last week, The Times' science magazine Eureka hosted a Eureka Live event at the Wellcome Collection on women in science. I was gutted to miss the event, as two of the speakers are among my favorites to listen to on this topic. They are Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, and Ottoline Leyser, Professor of Biology at the University of York. Leyser is a recent winner of the Rosalind Franklin Award, and with her prize she put together "Mothers in Science: 64 ways to have it all" (free PDF download).

Fortunately, blogger Della wrote a summary of the event, touching on the themes of parenthood, competitiveness, social cues, and perception. Donald herself wrote a follow-up post on her own blog specifically on the theme of confidence, as the idea that women lack confidence in their credentials came up at the Eureka Live event. But in her post, Donald keeps the discussion gender-neutral and offers advice on confidence in presentations, job interviews, etc. "The key thing if you do lack self-confidence is not to let it undermine your accomplishments, but learn to fake an inner strength when in public," she concludes.

That's probably more than you wanted to know about what I did *not* do in the last week. In early February you'll hear about what's keeping me chained to my desk. Meanwhile, here are a few more interesting links:

On the research misconduct beat, the British Medical Journal this week published its third (and last) installment of journalist Brian Deer's investigation into Andrew Wakefield and misconduct in his research attempting to link the MMR vaccine and autism. "Thirteen years later, we are only now beginning to understand the root causes of the multiple system failures involved in the Wakefield incident," writes Douglas J. Opel of Seattle Children's Research Institute in a related editorial. "We must strengthen our ability to investigate research-adverse events. We need to use the tools and techniques available to protect the safety of patients in the clinical realm to protect research subjects. We also need to rethink and reform our customs and culture. The disastrous impact that Wakefield's study has had on vaccine coverage, recrudescence of disease, public trust, and, most of all, science, requires that we do so in haste."

The Duke Chronicle published an article looking at recently released documents in the misconduct case against Anil Potti, formerly a cancer genomics researcher at Duke. "According to the documents, the National Cancer Institute continued to raise questions about the research and its use as justification for clinical trials at Duke even after a Duke review concluded in late December 2009 that the trials could continue," the article states. "The information in the NCI documents is another indication of the growing doubts about Potti's research in the months leading up to his suspension and resignation." Science covered some of the issues in August; Nature published an extensive article last week.

If you haven't already checked it out, I highly recommend this week's Science Careers article Balancing Professional Aspirations With Family, in which our European editor Elisabeth Pain talks to neuroscientist John Apergis-Schoute about putting family before his scientific career.


The award of the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to Robert G. Edwards honors an achievement that was world famous the minute it happened and remains so to this day. With Patrick Steptoe, his late collaborator, Edwards did the pioneering work that resulted in the birth, on July 25, 1978, at Oldham General Hospital in England, of Louise Brown, history's first "test tube" baby. Her Ceasarean delivery was both a scientific triumph and a worldwide, stop-the-presses, headline story.

Few Westerners -- including this reporter -- realized that less than 3 months after that epoch-making event, on October 3, 1978, the world's second test-tube birth took place in Calcutta, India. A team headed by physician Subhas Mukherjee (often also spelled Subhash Mukhopadhyay) conceived in vitro and delivered a baby girl they identified by the pseudonym "Durga," after a Hindu goddess who embodies the female creative force, but whose actual name is Kanupriya Agarwal.  Mukherjee had devised a method different from -- and, in the opinion of some, superior to -- that used by the English team.

But unlike Steptoe and Edwards, Mukherjee's countrymen did not acclaim his achievement. Instead, the Indian scientific establishment doubted his claims. He was investigated by an official scientific committee that included no one qualified to evaluate his work. Then he was vilified for fraud and prevented from presenting his work to the international scientific community. Humiliated and dispirited, he committed suicide in 1981. Not until a quarter century after "Durga's" birth did the Indian scientific world recognize his achievement, largely through the efforts of the man previously credited with India's first test-tube birth, T C Anand Kumar. The tragic tale was popularized in an Indian movie.

Mukherjee always claimed that, had he received the support rather than the opposition of India's scientific establishment, he could have beaten the British team to the first IVF birth. And even today, writes journalist Shobha John in the Sunday Times of India for January 16, 2011, an "Indian crab syndrome" -- the tendency to pull down to the common level anyone trying to follow an innovative course -- explains why, in the words of G P Talwar, founder-director of India's National Institute of Immunology, "research at Indian universities rarely comes up with path-breaking work." John adds, "doctors admit the going is tough in the Indian universe of scientific and medical research."

"Heads of department (HoDs) put up opposition to anything unconventional and are part of expert groups which one can't fight against," Talwar observes. "Staff selection maybe biased and meritorious students may find it hard to survive and prosper unless they have a godfather, [Talwar] says," John writes. John further quotes Anoop Misra, director and head of the department of diabetes and metabolic diseases at Fortis Hospitals in Delhi, to the effect that bureaucratic foot dragging and infighting can delay research for months.

How widespread the "crab syndrome" is in India is not clear. It is clear, however, that the phenomenon is not unique to that country. Unconventional discoveries by Western scientists have also met with disbelief and even scorn. The prion and the connection of Heliobacter pylori to stomach ulcers are just two prominent examples of advances that met strong initial resistance. Steptoe and Edwards also faced skepticism, and worse, before they succeeded.

But if John's interpretation is correct, India would need, as John puts it, "institutional reforms and a process to keep department heads in check" if it wants to unleash the full talents of its scientists.

January 19, 2011

Patently Courageous

The death of Gertrude Neumark Rothschild on November 11 at the age of 83 ended a remarkable, though at times insufficiently recognized, scientific career and an equally remarkable campaign to obtain the recognition and economic remuneration that her accomplishments deserved.  Professor emerita of materials science and engineering at Columbia University at the time of her death, Rothschild had made essential contributions to the development of the LED screens that are now so ubiquitous as to go all but unnoticed.

Also unnoticed by many for many years were the patents that Rothschild held on her work. Like most women scientists of her own and earlier generations, who generally worked in fields overwhelmingly dominated by men, she long failed to get credit equal to that of men with commensurate  attainments -- a pattern most famously played out in the life of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin's now-famous "photograph 51" was an important basis for the formulation of the structure of DNA that earned the 1962 Nobel Prize for James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin died of cancer at the age of 37, several years before the Nobel was awarded, without receiving the recognition she deserved.

Rothschild, however, lived to vindicate her contributions.  She sued, and prevailed over, major corporations that had infringed her patents, receiving millions of dollars in settlements.  "People thought that because she was a woman" -- and one who stood only 5 feet tall -- "they could just walk all over her.  She would say, 'They're being unfair and I'm not going to let them get away with that,'" said her Columbia colleague I. Cevdet Noyan, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Money, however, was never the main motivation for her lawsuits, friends say; rather, she was motivated by a drive for justice. In both her pathbreaking scientific work and her unshakable determination to defend her right to recognition, Gertrude Neumark Rothschild blazed a trail for other women scientists to follow.

January is pilgrimage season in southern India.  Across the region, one sees bands of people dressed in specially colored traditional garments making their way toward holy places on foot or in buses and vans festooned with banners and flower garlands.  The most popular of these sites -- in fact, one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the world -- is the mountaintop temple at Sabarimala in the state of Kerala, which is devoted to the Hindu god Ayyappa, son of the god Vishnu and an avatar (manifestation) of the god Shiva.  Tens of millions visit each year -- more than the state's population of 30 million -- and their number has increased rapidly in recent years because of the deity's growing popularity with young people. Last Friday, tens of thousands of black-clad devotees were climbing the forested route to the temple when an as yet undetermined traffic incident sparked a stampede that killed 102.

Some of the bands of black-clad pilgrims trekking toward Sabarimala, with religious articles on their heads, are organized groups of technology workers from Bangalore, about 400 miles away. The Sunday Times of India reports that colleagues from IBM, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, and other high-tech firms band together each year band to make the pilgrimage. These international companies recruit technically trained employees regardless of caste, religion or place of origin. Their offices consist of mixed work groups who often use English as the common language. Although women of reproductive age are not allowed to participate, the rites at Sabarimala are open to men of all castes and religions, unlike most other places of worship in India, making the Sabarimala trek especially suitable to Bangalore's high-tech pilgrims.

Embarking on the journey properly requires 41 days of spiritual preparation, including regular worship at temple and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, fish, meat, shaving, haircuts and sexual relations.  Business trips reportedly prevent some prospective pilgrims from adhering to the full regimen, but many undertake the pilgrimage anyway.  That's because, as one Oracle executive and regular Sabarimala devotee told the Sunday Times of India, it is precisely the stress of high-pressure technical work that makes the spiritual respite of the pilgrimage so valuable and appreciated.     

The University of Kentucky has settled the religious discrimination suit brought by astronomer Martin Gaskell, who claimed he was denied a job for which he was highly qualified because of his Christian beliefs. One search committee member, for example, had described him as "potentially evangelical."  Gaskell accepted a settlement of $125,000. The university did not admit wrongdoing.  The issue, which has attracted national attention, had been scheduled to come to trial in federal court on February 8.   

According to Gaskell's attorney, Francis Manion, as quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the sum compensates Gaskell for the income he would have earned as founding director of the university's new observatory.  Manion declared Gaskell "happy with the settlement" because he was "not looking for anything other than to to cover his financial losses."  Gaskell has meanwhile accepted a position at the University of Valparaiso in Chile. The university defended its hiring process as "fundamentally sound" and noted that the "lengthy trial" that would have occurred "would not have served anybody's best interests."  One suspects it especially would not have served the interests of the university's reputation.

January 17, 2011

Learning from Mistakes

One of my favorite headlines on a Science Careers article is Disasters of the Famous, in which we asked some now-prominent scientists about their laboratory mistakes. A surprising number of the anecdotes involve fire. But the point is, all of them overcame those setbacks and mistakes to go on to have successful scientific careers.

In August in the inaugural issue of iBioMagazine, Science's editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts recalls in a video presentation how 5 years' worth of his Ph.D. research experiments failed, and he went on to fail his oral exam.

It worked out for Alberts in the end: He went on to become a prominent cell biologist, served as president of the National Academy of Sciences, and is one of the original authors of the textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell. "Success doesn't teach you much. Failure teaches you a lot," he says in the iBioMagazine video (below). Study your failures very carefully, he says: Those who are successful don't make the same mistake twice.

 

In 2008, we published a profile of Cambridge scientist Tony Kouzarides, who spoke honestly about his struggles with his research during his Ph.D. and postdoc, most of which was unpublishable. "Spend as much time as you like thinking about the experiment because if you waste your time doing the wrong experiment, you might as well not do it at all," advises Kouzarides, who is now a group leader at the Gurdon Institute.

An item in the Wall Street Journal last May offered up an example from the corporate world: Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire co-founder of private equity firm Blackstone Group LP, got kicked out of MIT for plagiarizing a paper from another student.

"The humiliating expulsion made Peterson realize he should avoid 'self-serving rationalizations about questionable behavior,'" the author writes in the article. "He instead asked himself: 'What would a person I admire greatly think about this behavior?'" The result, Peterson says, has framed his business practices since.

"To rebound from early mistakes, you need time to reflect constructively," Joann S. Lublin writes in the WSJ article.

And, if you don't want to take their word for it, you could listen to Michael Jordan:





Wow, 2011. I'm still not used to typing that. I'll stop marveling at the new year soon, I promise.

Anyway, here's a tour around the web this week for career- and career development-related items of note:

*This week's Science has an editorial, Boosting Minorities in Science, from Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Because the

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minority groups underrepresented in science and engineering are the most rapidly growing in the U.S. population, the country must develop strategies to harness this resource to grow a robust science and engineering workforce and remain globally competitive," he writes. One place to start is to focus on retention of minority students who start, but don't finish, science and science-related degrees. Another is to focus on mentoring.

*A group of HHMI-funded investigators write an Education Forum this week called Changing the Culture of Science Education at Research Universities. "To establish an academic culture that encourages science faculty to be equally committed to their teaching and research missions, universities must more broadly and effectively recognize, reward, and support the efforts of researchers who are also excellent and dedicated teachers," they write. They then propose 7 ways in which universities can accomplish this.

*Teachers, check out this report on an intervention that improved test scores: Researchers asked college and high school students to write about their anxiety about taking an exam before taking the exam. These students ended up performing better on the exam itself than a control group that didn't complete a writing exercise. You can listen to a podcast interview with the author.

As usual, the fine folks at Science Insider have been busy:

*The National Research Council issued a report calling for the National Institutes of Health to "maintain or even increase the number of graduate students and postdocs it supports," Jocelyn Kaiser reports. Recommendations include increasing the postdoc stipend to $45,000 per year and increasing the Medical Scientist Training Program to train M.D.-Ph.D.s by 20%.

Other Science Insider items of note:

*This week's issue of Nature has a news feature that looks at the state of science in Romania and Bulgaria, both of which joined the European Union in 2007 and, according to the article, occupy positions at the bottom of the league tables for research expenditure and output. "Romanian scientists working outside the country say that the changes give them hope of some day being able to continue their research careers back home. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian diaspora despairs," Alison Abbott reports. Also see our recent article on nearby Turkey, which apparently is doing quite a bit better.  

*In his World View column in Nature, Colin Macilwain writes about how universities are faring in the era of tight budgets. "While governments defend research spending, they are simultaneously slashing public funding for universities, where most research takes place," he writes.

*Nature Jobs this week takes a look at scientists with disabilities.

*This week's PLoS Computational Biology features an editorial from Philip E. Bourne, of the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science at the University of California San Diego, called Ten Simple Rules for Getting Ahead as a Computational Biologist in Academia. "This is not just about you, but an opportunity to educate a broad committee on what is important in our field. Use that opportunity well, for it will serve future generations of computational biologists," he writes.

*For those interested in clinical and translational research, the organization FasterCures has issued a white paper called Crossing Over the Valley of Death, which emphasizes the importance of translational research in the drug development process. The report also identifies some of the major challenges in translational research and offers some solutions.

*As always, there are many insightful posts in the blogosphere about science career development. This week I'll point you to just one: How to Ask For Help on the American Chemical Society blog. This is an important topic, and, as Lisa Balbes (who has written for Science Careers) points out, it's one many of us are not very good at. "Building your own professional network, one person at a time, will hold you in good stead when you next need to ask for help.  And knowing what to ask for will make it easy for them to help you find it," Balbes writes.

*Last but not least, check out the new articles on Science Careers. First up is a profile of veterinarian-scientist Laura Richman, whose research at the National Zoo ultimately led her to become interested in human translational medicine. Now she's in charge of translational science R&D at a biotech company. Her story is an excellent illustration that career paths can lead in unexpected directions and that, rather than worrying about following in the footsteps of people before you, you should focus on following your interests and passions.

*We've also got a historical perspective on two African-American brothers who were chemists during the 1930s-1960s. Larry and William Knox achieved success despite discrimination against them. "Perhaps the strongest message of all is that science moves forward via the contributions of many scientists of all stripes, not only the great names -- a fact that a proper reading of the history of science must acknowledge," the authors write.


Introduction
 
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is widely regarded as the father of modern physics. For those of us old enough to have seen him in person, listen to him speak in public or on the radio, and read his writings when they were current, these memories are precious. In addition to being a great theoretical physicist he was looked upon as a philosopher and statesman. His intellectual interests and profound observations extended widely into the other sciences and the social aspects of human endeavor. In the 21st century he remains one of the most influential and iconic thinkers of all time.

Einstein is possibly the most frequently quoted figure in the history of science, but as is often noted, many of these quotations are of dubious authenticity. Alice Calaprice, a senior editor at the Princeton University Press, has worked with the Einstein papers at the Institute for Advanced Study for more than 30 years. In 1996, she published a volume entitled The Quotable Einstein, a comprehensive, meticulously referenced, annotated, and carefully arranged compilation of Einstein's quotes. For 2011, Calaprice has enlarged this to The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a nearly 600-page volume of approximately 1600 quotations--the "final" and definitive edition.

On a recent visit to Princeton, I had the good fortune to obtain an advanced copy of this work and delighted in it as I have in few other books. I have selected and arranged these quotations to simulate an interview with Einstein, circa 1955, on the topic of science careers.

My colleagues in AAAS's Office of Public Programs are staging an event at the upcoming AAAS meeting in Washington, DC, that will undoubtedly be of great interest to many Science Careers readers.

The workshop -- Responsible Research Practices in a Changing Research Environment -- will take place on Thursday, 17 February 2011. Among the questions the workshop will consider are these:

  • What are the ethical challenges and range of responses associated with research collaborations across national borders?
  • What preparation should researchers have to engage effectively with the media?
  • What do increasing public demands for more socially accountable research imply for the social responsibilities of scientists?
  • What should scientists consider when deciding whether, and if so, how, to engage in policy advocacy? What are the professional and societal risks associated with advocacy? What are the appropriate boundaries of "responsible advocacy"?
Professional improvisational actors will enact scenes that illustrate issues that workshop participants are facing currently or expect to face in the future; then various participant‐suggested solutions to those issues will be enacted.

The agenda is posted at http://www.aaas.org/spp/sfrl/workshop‐on‐responsible‐research‐practices‐2011.shtml#Agenda. Direct all queries to Dr. Mark S. Frankel at mfrankel@aaas.org

To register for the workshop, for which there is a $25.00 fee, go to http://registration2.experient‐inc.com/showAAA111/Default.aspx. Follow the steps for "General Attendee." Registrants have the option of selecting only the workshop or choosing also to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting.

January 12, 2011

Bangalored

The minute you get off a plane at Bangalore (or, more correctly, Bangaluru), you know you're someplace different from the general run of Indian cities.  The terminal is sleek, immaculate, and elegant, devoid of the mild chaos that generally seems to characterize Indian public places.  The drivers and guides waiting to pick up their expected arriving passengers hold signs not for tour companies but for international corporations.  The expressway out of the airport is up-to-date and full of private passenger cars and modern taxicabs rather than the motorbikes and tiny motorcycle based vehicles that serve as taxis in other places.  There's not a cow or an elephant (not usual sights on Indian streets and roads) to be seen.

Your correspondent did not get to spend much time in the city that Indians proudly call their Silicon Valley, but the high-tech prosperity of this digital boom town was obvious in the plush high rises and modern office buildings, not to mention the heavy traffic and billboards advertising lavish residential properties. The influence of this influx of good jobs is obvious throughout the country, in the countless schools and colleges, ranging from fine universities to small places in country towns, that claim to provide education in the arcane arts of high tech.  In addition, ubiquitous billboards promise academic success for graduates of these institutions.. 

Holders of engineering, medical, and other technical degrees, especially those "well-settled" with "MNCs" (multinational corporations), also dominate the matrimonial ads that are a standard feature of Indian newspapers.  In these ads, the parents of both men and women tout their eligible children's undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Families demand nothing less of the prospective spouses who answer their ads. In addition to the traditional proper caste standing and horoscope, some even specify a desired medical specialty.

The tech-based wealth of Bangalore is so great that the city has begun to suffer from the ills that eventually affect all boom towns.  Bangalore has grown from about 2 million people to an estimated 5.7 million in just the past decade. Crowding, traffic, and high costs, especially for real estate, are daily realities.  The high cost of living is forcing companies to raise salaries in order to continue attracting desirable employees to Bangalore.

American technical workers whose jobs have been "Bangalored," -- outsourced to India -- may enjoy the irony that increasing pay is already causing some Bangalore-based jobs to be "Phillipined" or "Vietnamed."  Those countries have educated populations that in the former case generally know English and in the latter have a language that uses the Roman alphabet, which makes it much easier for them to learn the language than their Far Eastern competitors.  A couple of years ago, an engineering professor in Vietnam told me of plans to create a "mini-Bangalore" in Saigon.

Some Indian observers note, however, that the jobs moving from nation to nation are generally filled by lower-level scientific and tech workers.  The heavy-duty research, they say, remains in the United States.


According to a recent review of the provision of career development and transferable skills training to doctoral students and research staff in the United Kingdom, over the years the country has positioned itself as an international leader, thanks in part to the 2002 'SET for Success' report and the government money that followed. 

Written by Sir Gareth Roberts, 'SET for Success' report recommended offering doctoral researchers about 2 weeks' training each year in transferable skills. Another recommendation was for research organizations to help postdoctoral researchers develop and follow individual career plans. Since 2003, Research Councils UK (RCUK) have been distributing about 20 million per year to research institutions so they would offer such support.

What has been achieved with this 'Roberts' Money' and what remains to be done has been the object of an independent review commissioned by RCUK and released last week. The review, led by Chair of the Inter-Company Academic Relations Group at the Confederation of British Industry Alison Hodge, found that U.K. research organizations have been putting in place a wide range of training programs in topics like data recording and analysis, paper and grant writing, communication skills, and CV writing and offering work placements in other organizations. 

"PhD students now have more encouragement for and flexibility over what and how they acquire their skills," the review reads. While about one in ten research organizations reported offering extensive transferable skills training to doctoral researchers in 2004, that number jumped to about three quarters in 2009. "Career development and training in transferable skills, as part of the preparation of PhD students for the job market, is starting to emerge in research organisations as a recognised and essential part of many doctorates in the UK," the review reads. The 'Roberts' money' has also "helped PhD students to identify and express more clearly what their skills are and helped them to relate better to career opportunities outside academia."

Provision of additional skills training to research staff is progressing more slowly, the panel found. More than one in three research organizations offered training in transferable skills in 2009 to their research staff, compared to fewer than one in ten in 2004. "While the quantity and quality of provision has increased significantly, this is still not yet a routine part of staff development practices." The review notes that slower progress may be due in part to the higher priority research staff place on specializing in their field and publishing and to a lack of encouragement from Principle Investigators. Nonetheless, the review concludes, the "'Roberts' money' has had a significant impact on raising the professionalism of research as a career; in particular it has encouraged research staff to take ownership for their personal continuing professional development." 

The panel encouraged further progress in getting companies that employ scientists involved, as originally intended in the 'SET for Success' report. The panel expressed "serious concern" about "the relatively limited systematic interaction between research organisations and employers ... either in setting or implementing skills development programmes." Without widespread external engagement, "the focus of career development and skills training is unlikely to match the rapidly changing external environments and associated opportunities for the majority of researchers." 

What the future holds is unclear. The 'Roberts' Money' will run out in March, which means the end of specific, lump-sum funding for research organizations. But last March, RCUK announced that "The Research Councils anticipate that funding for researcher development will be increasingly embedded into their normal training and research grant mechanisms." RCUK expects research organizations to include the costs of training for doctoral researchers into their teaching fees (and will raise the amount of its training grants accordingly). As for the training of research staff on grants, RCUK expects research organizations to incorporate such programs into their normal activities. RCUK plans to issue further guidance soon.

"The panel does, however, see risks that the internationally recognised high standing achieved in such matters in the UK may be lost with uncertainties over future funding mechanisms," Hodge wrote in the review's foreword. The panel urged RCUK "to ensure that specific funding and other initiatives continue to stimulate and reinforce the development of transferable skills and support for career development" while urging other funding bodies to get on board and research organizations to sustain their efforts. 

A lot is at stake. Institutions warned the panel that "the impending reductions in university funding may well result in less emphasis on career development and generic skills training. In some instances it was even stated that all such activities would completely cease if dedicated funding were to cease," the review reads. And that, indeed, is what will probably happen.

You may read the full review and background documents on the RCUK Web site.

Congratulations on making it through the first work week of 2011! Did you start with a clean desk like I did? Is it already covered in papers, magazines, and to-do lists, like mine is?

Well done.

Here is a (biased, as per usual) selection of the week's career-related tidbits:

* GenomeWeb's Daily Scan found a great link at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: new examples of "exceptional" R01 applications in the shorter format. NIAID has also published a new article in its New Investigator Series called "Start Writing Your Application." If you are a checklist person, this article is for you.

* Speaking of grant writing, The Scientist's blog Naturally Selected this week writes about the Three deadly sins of grant writing. "Write highly dense, technical prose that is designed only for a specialist in your field to read," Morgan Giddings cites as her first sin. The bottom line of all of her list is to make your reviewer's job easy.

* Last Friday, the Augusta Chronicle profiled David Pollock and Jennifer Pollock, a dual-scientist couple at the Medical College of Georgia who work together on translational research related to kidney diseases, among other research questions. "The key that's allowed us to be successful is the fact that Jennifer has all this expertise in an area that I don't have," David Pollock said in the article. "And I'd like to think I have expertise that she doesn't have, although I think she's learned more about what I do than the other way around."

* The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article this week on moving abroad, written by a historian who moved form the U.S. to England (a move that I'm well familiar with). "In any long-distance move, you can expect many headaches. When moving abroad, expect a multiplication of hassles, large and small," the author writes. I'll second that.

In Nature Jobs this week, Paul Smaglik writes a 'where are they now' article that follows up with scientists who wrote journal entries for Nature. "One writer called her scientific career a "winding road". Today, many of those writers would add that the road also presents potholes, detours and dead ends," Smaglik writes.

* Science Insider this week summarized a white paper from a group of MIT researchers on what the group calls "convergence": "Their report defines convergence as 'the merging of distinct technologies, processing disciplines, or devices into a unified whole that creates a host of new pathways and opportunities' by combining life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering," Insider reports.

* Also this week, Insider took a look at the America COMPETES act, which President Obama signed into law this week. The act has implications for training and career development money from the National Science Foundation. "It's a reaffirmation of the value of integrating research and training at our universities," says Debra Stewart, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools, in the Insider article. "It's what has made our research enterprise the best in the world, and it says that we are still on the right track."

* In Science this week, editor in chief Bruce Alberts introduces a new prize to recognize "outstanding 'modules' for teaching introductory college science courses that can readily spread to other settings and schools," Alberts writes. "Science is looking for lessons in which students become invested in exploring questions through activities that are at least partially of their own design. Instead of a typical laboratory exercise that begins with an explanation and results in one correct answer, an inquiry-based lesson might begin with a scenario or question and then require students to propose possible solutions and design some of their own experiments."

* In the News section of Science, writer John Bohannon takes a look at some pilot projects for virtual peer review panels. "Can the hard work of grant review be done without face-to-face meetings?," Bohannon asks. "With budgets tightening, scientific organizations like NSF are exploring ways to reduce the number of their physical meetings. Proponents see it as a win-win scenario, saving not only time and money but also carbon emissions. Whether the technology is up to the task is another matter."

* And of course, you should check out this week's stories on Science Careers: Taken for Granted: Stormy Weather and Seizing Career Opportunities in Turkey.

Have a good week!


With Christmas over and the New Year here, you may feel like the next holidays are far away. But enjoying some time away from the lab and furthering your science are not necessarily incompatible, writes Vanessa Schipani in this month's The Scientist. A short vacation with your colleagues, Schipani writes, will help you know them better and make it easier to work well together. 

Here's an excerpt of the article relating the experience of William Lensch, a senior scientist in the George Q. Daley laboratory at Children's Hospital Boston in Massachussets. The lab spends 3 days skiing together in Stowe, Vermont, every other year.

Developing a thick skin is essential for meetings in the Daley Lab, says Lensch... Without the  personal comfort level the group has acquired by spending time together socially, the level of honesty they express in their meetings would be difficult, says Lensch. When you know your lab mates well, 'they're not going to take it personally' when you criticize their data, he says. 'They've seen you in the morning in a bathrobe.'

You can read the whole article at The Scientist's Web site. 

January 4, 2011

Impressions from India

This correspondent is currently touring South India.  Even here, amid the splendor of the temples and monuments, the hubbub of the bazaars, and the razzle-dazzle of 21st century cities, there seems to be no getting away from issues surrounding early science careers.  On the plane from New York to New Delhi, for example, I encountered a young chemist I'll call Ashok, on his way home from 2 years as a postdoc in a mid-tier university in the Northeastern United States. 

Ashok earned his Ph.D. in his native India. He would have preferred to stay in the United States when his postdoc ended (his PI lost a grant).  The end of Ashok's postdoc meant the end of his his visa, and without a new position he could not remain in the United States.  He had hoped to find a job with an American company but did not succeed.  He doesn't have a job lined up in India, either; he will start looking soon after he arrives.  He's not sure how good his prospects are of landing a desirable position. 

Ashok's impression from friends at home (that is, in India) is that the job market for scientists there has gotten worse of late.  He reports that Chinese postdoc friends in the States were saying the same thing about conditions at home.  In Ashok's opinion, the American young-scientist glut is spilling over into the big supplier countries, China and India, as postdocs return home after their time in the United States. 

I have no way of knowing whether Ashoks' impression is correct or why he did not get the American job he hoped for. Of course, the Great Recession has made finding jobs harder for nearly everyone, scientists -- foreign and domestic -- included.  Beyond that are the usual questions: Does he have a good publication record?  Is his field in demand?  Does his PI have good connections in relevant industries?  These questions did not get answered during a chance conversation across the aisle in the economy section of a jam-packed commercial jet.  But I suspect that Ashok, who seemed serious and intelligent, is not alone in his view of life in the middle reaches of the American postdoc scene. His opinions are not definitive -- as he surely would admit -- or based in rigorous research, but they should not be ignored, either.

 P. Thrihurthy, president of the Computer Society of India (CSI), is more sanguine on the subject of scientific employment in India.  There are "plenty" of jobs for computer scientists and IT graduates, he is quoted as saying in the education supplement of The Hindu, South India's leading newspaper. But in his opinion, the article states, to be "100 percent employable" technically trained people need exposure to a broader range of subjects, especially management, with an emphasis on "real-life scenarios."  CSI offers a range of educational opportunities including "industry-oriented professional development for new graduates" and continuing education for mid-career workers. Thrimurthy's opinion echoes that of American proponents of broader training for technical and scientific graduates seeking opportunities in industry.

Ashok told me he spent his American sojourn at the laboratory bench, not learning management skills.  Perhaps if he'd had an opportunity to familiarize himself with some of the practical aspects of industry, his job search would have been more successful.


Several career-related stories came out during or just before the holidays. I thought I'd round some of them up in case you missed them. Keep in mind that I'm sampling only the publications and blogs I read regularly!

* The Friday before Christmas week, the White House released a guidance for federal agencies on developing policies on scientific integrity. A mere 4 pages long and 17 months late, Science Insider says, the guidance suggests 4 areas in which agencies should develop clear integrity policies: the foundations of scientific integrity in government, public communication about science, the use of advisory committees, and the professional development of scientists. (See also our recent articles on research integrity.)

* Science journalist Elizabeth Pennisi did a follow-up interview with scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, lead author of the arsenic bacteria paper published online in Science in December that quickly came under heavy criticism, both for the hype surrounding it and for the science itself. "Since the press conference, my life has been really busy and stressful," Wolfe-Simon tells Pennisi. "We thought that our findings would generate some discussion, but we didn't anticipate the reaction we saw."

* Also on Science Insider, Jeff Mervis reported that Congress failed to reauthorize the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technical Transfer (STTR) programs, both of which are intended to move scientific discoveries into the market. The future of the programs, whose current authorization expires January 31, 2011, is uncertain.

A couple of items of note from the 24 December issue of Science:

* An article in the News section summarizes the upcoming federal court case of an astrophysicist who claims he wasn't hired by a university because he's an evangelical Christian. Beryl Benderly has written about the case on the Science Careers Blog.

* This week's Policy Forum, The Challenge of Feeding Scientific Advice into Policy-Making, presents three case studies that illustrate general principles that can guide scientists and policy-makers in interactions with each other and the public.

* In the 23 December issue of Nature, Nancy Baron, zoologist and science outreach director of COMPASS (Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea), writes about the importance of scientists' communication skills. "For scientists who would be agents of change, communication is not an add-on. It is central to their enterprise. ... Yet learning to communicate is a critical life skill not typically taught as part of scientific training. It should be."

* The Wall Street Journal's Career Journal had a post on Scoring Unlisted Jobs - using the oft-cited statistic that some 80% of jobs are never advertised. This is something Dave Jensen, our Tooling Up columnist, tells you, too, most recently in A Job-Search Plan for the Person Without One (Part One) and A Job-Search Plan for the Person Without One (Part 2).

* Finally, The Scientist has an opinion piece from immunologist Douglas Green on what it takes to publish a paper, get a grant, or get a job. His two-word advice: "Astonish us." "A favored application has astonished the reviewers, who can be very forgiving about mistakes, chancy experiments, and the occasional missing control if they are convinced that the work has a real chance of affecting how we think about something important," Green writes.