Science Careers Blog

February 2011

Today NIH celebrates the 4th annual Rare Disease Day, which makes it the perfect time to remember the sudden and totally unexpected death, on 13 September 2009, of Malcolm Casadaban, a 60-year-old associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and microbiology at the University of Chicago.  On Friday, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the researcher died from the bizarre intersection of not one but two rare diseases.

A specialist on researching Yersinia pestisthe bacterium that causes plague, Casadaban fell ill on 10 September with symptoms a doctor diagnosed as the flu.  Casabadan sought no further medical care at that point.  Three days later, however, he was rushed to a hospital by ambulance with symptoms that included severe shortness of breath.  Doctors first treated him for heart failure and then, after tests, for infection.  Twelve hours after arriving at the emergency room, he received a breathing tube. An hour later, he died.

To the shock and horror of Casabadan's colleagues, tests soon revealed that he had perished from the bacterium he had devoted years to studying.  But this did not appear to be a death caused by careless or  sloppy technique, such as those on which Science Careers has repeatedly reported in the past.  The bacterium Casabadan worked with had been carefully altered to make it harmless to humans.  Standards of safety in the lab were high, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and records revealed no other cases of work-related illness or accident among workers there.  Although the route of infection was a mystery, over 90 of Casabadan's co-workers, relatives, and other associates received prophylactic treatment in the week following his death, and no one else has shown any sign of the disease.  Tests showed that the bacterium had not mutated to become virulent.

Our colleagues at Science Insider have spotted a report from the San Diego Union-Tribune about a protest outside the office of UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox over the firing of a postdoc. The gathering of 35 protesters was broken up by police. No one's saying why the postdoc was fired, but she Wilda Helen, a stem-cell researcher from Indonesia -- says, "My supervisor has made false allegations about my work."

Helen's visa was scheduled to expire automatically, but she won a reprieve that ends on Sunday, just two days from now. The postdoc-union contract requires an arbitration hearing; the protesters were pressing the university to schedule that hearing before Helen is sent home.

For more information, read the original article and the ScienceInsider post.

If you are a basic scientist, you probably work in a setting that is far away from the clinic -- literally and figuratively. Yet some of your research could benefit patients. The challenges are recognizing that potential and translating it into something that can be used by medical doctors, device and pharmaceutical companies, or patients. 

To address these challenges, Science Careers teamed up with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for a workshop called "Can Your Basic Research Contribute to Cures? Translational Research for Ph.D.s." Organized by Science Careers Editor Jim Austin, the workshop was held in Washington D.C. last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science and Science Careers). The session was chaired by Kate Travis, Editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, an online career development community within Science Careers. 

On the panel were three early-career and established translational scientists: Sridevi Sarma, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Computational Medicine (ICM) in ‚Ä®Baltimore, Maryland, who uses her engineering background to develop computer models of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson's disease; Kasey Vickers, a biomedical scientist currently studying the mechanisms underlying atherosclerosis as a postdoc at the  National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda, Maryland; and Laura Richman, a former veterinary pathologist whose current job as vice president for research and development for translational sciences at biotech company MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is to coordinate research projects and develop clinical trials (Richman was recently profiled on Science Careers).

Below are some of the key points the panelists made:

Those embarking on a career in medicine or medical research are doing so at a time of tremendous change and challenge. In the span of 4 years, how are medical schools to simultaneously teach the exponentially expanding body of knowledge garnered by medical and basic science research, introduce students to new technologies and drugs that are revolutionizing diagnostic and therapeutic options, and train physicians to work effectively in an increasingly complex health care system? Last year the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of  Teaching published a book based on an in-depth study and blueprint for a major overhaul of medical education entitled Educating Physicians:  A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency by Molly Cooke, David Irby, and Bridget O' Brien, three well credentialed medical educators (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010).

This study is compelling because it follows a template established a century earlier when the Carnegie Foundation carried out a study that revolutionized American medical education. Known as the Flexner Report, it established the basis for the curriculum and the standards for medical education that continue to the present day. To understand the changes called for in the 2010 Carnegie Foundation study, it is necessary to review the 1910 Flexner Study, including why it was done, what it reported, and the structure it created.

February 22, 2011

More on Culture and Misconduct

Some months back, Science Careers looked into research exploring the relationship between academic misconduct and social structure.  Studies by Andrew Schrank of the University of New Mexico and Cheol-Sung Lee of the University of Chicago had identified structural features of universities in some East Asian countries that they say contribute to higher rates of dishonesty in research.

Now an article in the journal Human Organization amplifies the discussion.  "Stereotypes of Asian students as being more prone to plagiarize are frequently found in the literature," write Daniel E. Martin and Asha Rao of California State University-East Bay and co-author LLoyd Sloan, whose affiliation was not mentioned.  Their research examined plagiarism among students to find any cultural connection.  The results do reveal "significant differences" among students in the likelihood to plagiarize, but these did not relate to students' ethnic backgrounds, they report. Rather, the key factor is acculturation to American standards.  The authors therefore see "significant implications for training and managing international students and workers."

February 21, 2011

Researchers Are Not Rock Stars

Researchers have a lot in common with punk rockers, claims Alison McCook in The Scientist.  "Creativity, do-it-yourself individualism, anti-establismentarianism, and attitude" are not only "the central tenets of punk music," she writes, but "should sound very familiar" to "many scientists." 

Punk is "about the freedom to express what you want to express," McCook quotes Milo Aukerman, whom she describes as "a plant researcher at DuPont and lead singer with of legendary punk band The Descendents.  In many ways, research is the same," she continues.  "More so than in other professions, scientists can set their own schedules and decide what they want to study."

Well, maybe the relative handful of today's scientists with secure, well-paid academic research positions.  But for many more researchers -- for example, the scores of thousands of postdocs toiling on their lab chiefs' projects -- the ability to exercise such decisions probably seems like a distant rumor rather than a feature of their work lives.

In one important respect, however -- though not any that McCook mentions -- scientists do strongly resemble musicians in popular genres.  Both groups compete in what economists call tournament fields.  As noted a few months back in Science Careers, such professions afford huge rewards, often including fame, wealth, and stardom, to a very small number of people.  They also relegate the rest, including many whose abilities and accomplishments come close to matching those of the big winners, to obscurity and inferior opportunities.

In other words, the few researchers able boldly to pursue their own ideas are, to the many scientists now struggling to start or get on with independent research careers,  as such punk idols as the Ramones or Sex Pistols are to the countless would-be rock stars playing in their garages or at local venues.  Only a small percentage of these hopefuls will ever hit the big time.  The rest, know matter how talented or hard working they may be, will never get the big break that leads to stardom.

From the standpoint of the disappointed candidate, the process of hiring new faculty members is not only frustrating but also opaque and mysterious.  "Why did they not even consider my application?," ask some also-ran applicants.  "Why did they string me along for so long and put me through all that if I didn't have any real shot at the job?," moan others.

In a thoughtful and informative essay in Inside Higher Ed, a search committee veteran, Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College in Illinois, attempts to clarify the thought processes and actions of the people on the receiving end of those huge stacks of applications.  To the most basic question, "What did I do wrong?", he offers a compassionate answer:  "Probably nothing.  Candidates sometimes do make mistakes.  Most of the time, however, your application and indeed your entire educational and career path looks admirable, even highly impressive to us.  In fact, you often exacerbate our impostor's syndrome....  Believe me, we know we could not get our current jobs now with the CVs we had then."  

After discussing a number of considerations that weigh in decisions, he adds, "None of this, of course, is any real help or comfort."  But maybe it does help just a bit to know how things look from the other side.

Do you have a green technology that you want to commercialize but don't know how?  The Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California-Davis may have the answer you seek. Its Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy, scheduled for June 13 through 17, is designed to teach students, postdocs, faculty members, and other researchers the ins and outs of moving a technologies from the lab to market.  

The program costs $150 for for those with university affiliations, which covers a shared room and most meals in addition to instruction.  Participants must pay their own travel to Davis. Applications are due by May 13.  You'll find application information here.

It has become something of a cliche that professors and PIs ought to encourage their grad students and postdocs to consider careers outside of academe and even to help ease the transition.  But how can academics who has spent all of their working lives on campus be helpful in a process they have not themselves experienced?

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Julie Miller Vick of the University of Pennsylvania's Office of Career Services and Jennifer S. Furlong of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources offers some practical advice.  "Letting students know that it's OK" to think about careers outside of academe is the key, they say.  To do that, departments can take such steps as posting information about alumni in off-campus careers on bulletin boards and inviting some of these people to give talks about their work.  "It helps if the department strongly encourages, or even requires" attendance at these events, Vick and Furlong note.  "Having the department play a role in organizing or publicizing the events can go a long way in legitimizing nonacademic career possibilities." 

Other things faculty members can do, according to the authors: Help students and postdocs analyze how their skills can be applied in non-academic settings, and refer them to information and resources about careers and job-hunting techniques.  (To do so, of course, the professors first have to take the time to learn about such resources themselves.)  The article mentions books and Web sites where this search can begin.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is seeking applicants for its Entrepreneurship Research Boot Camp (ERBC) to be held in Cambridge, MA, from July 28 through 31.  Supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffmann Foundation, the all-expenses-paid program will present "intensive" instruction by prominent professors from a variety of American and Canadian universities.  "Meant to promote research interest" in entrepreneurship, ERBC is especially suited to grad students, postdocs and "early-career assistant professors," according to an NBER statement.  Participants are expected "to read a syllabus of over 50 papers" before arriving.  Application information is available here.  The deadline is March 26.

Here's a bit of Mad-Men-era fun: a page from a 1960 employment manual for Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), courtesy of Kawtar Hafidi and ANL's wisttalk mailing list, on which I lurk. (I hope they don't throw me off the list when they see this.) Employees, the manual states, are allowed to work overtime, but if they expect to work more than 60 hours in a week, they'll need to make arrangements with the Business Manager's office first. That's the rule for employees.

Having laid out the rules for employees, the manual moves on to a separate category, female employees. Read on, and click on the image below to view a larger, easier-to-read version:

Screen shot 2011-02-16 at 12.57.07 PM.pngI'd love to know how many women Argonne employed on the scientific staff in 1960 and what working there (or at any national lab) was like for them.
Since we posted an article on the Postdoctoral Professional Masters program of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) last week, Science Careers has spoken with the two remaining scientists who have obtained the degree thus far.  With 100% coverage of the program's graduates to date, we can report that all have found it very useful for making the transition from biomedical bench research to applied areas such as product development and regulatory affairs.  All, furthermore, recommend it to other scientists seeking to make that switch.

"I'd always had the idea in mind that I didn't want to do research and discovery work for the rest of my life," says molecular neuroscientist Linda Soo Hoo, who is now development and technical manager at the pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences.  Instead, she hoped to use her science to help produce treatments that would aid patients in the real world. "I saw myself personally transitioning my career but I didn't have anything on my resume to give people confidence that I'm not just a lab rat," says Soo Hoo, who pursued the PPM program part-time while working as a postdoc at UCLA.  "The stereotype [in industry] is that [a postdoc is] a lab rat, don't have social skills."

The program's "biggest selling point" is the opportunity to "immerse yourself" in the culture of industry, which is very different from that of academe, and to "start talking differently."  Most postdocs attempting to move over to industry do so through the "very narrow window" of bench research, she continues.  PPM training, however, allows one to "change the resume to transition from bench research to something more managerial."  For Soo Hoo, the real downside of her KGI experience was her long commute from one end of Los Angeles to the other.

The program gives students a broad perspective on the complex process of turning science into treatments, she adds.  This allows them to understand how the particular job functions they may choose contribute to the larger goal of "helping patients" -- knowledge she believes gives work much greater meaning.

Molecular biologist Yvonne Klaue, the first person to receive the PPM degree, shares these goals with Soo Hoo and the other PPM alumni.  She is the only graduate not employed in industry.  Instead, she accepted a position as research associate in the lab of KGI professor Angelika Niemz.

Even so, Klaue sees her PPM training as crucial to her work.  "In industry this would be called research and development," she says.  She is working on developing a prototype of a low-cost device that health care personnel in developing countries can use at point of care to diagnose tuberculosis, herpes simplex, and other infections. 

Despite the academic setting, the patent issues that Klaue studied during her PPM training are fundamental to the project's ultimate success.  Patent law is not something that Ph.D.s learn in graduate school, or that academic scientists generally think about because "you're not thinking of commercializing," she says. But in product development it plays a central role. "The product we're developing is supposed to be cheap. If you have to pay [licensing] fees [for use of patented technology]. it brings the price up enormously."  

Learning about budgeting and accounting has great utility for her future career, she says. Many academic scientists "do not know how to manage their group when it comes to money."

For Klaue, both the academic world, with the intellectual freedom it offers, and the commercial world, with its ability to tranform discoveries into products, have attractions.   She does not plan to return to basic research, however.  "I really want to get a product," she says.  In the type of work she does now, "you actually see your product becoming a real thing." 

Still, she notes, it can be "hard to make the step" from the bench to the PPM program.  But for scientists interested in moving into more applied areas, she thinks the degree is worthwhile.  "I'd definitely do it again," she says.

Still, it's not for everyone," Klaue says. And anyone considering the PPM should inquire about "the strengths of the program and see if it's a fit," Soo Hoo advises. But all the graduates so far have told us that for scientists who share its goals, the program, which Soo Hoo calls a "speciality boutique business-oriented school for the biosciences," can open up valuable opportunities.

February 10, 2011

Gender and ERC Grants

Yesterday, the European Research Council (ERC) Scientific Council announced a plan to redress the gender balance among ERC grantees. 

Since it started giving out funding in 2007, the ERC has allocated about a fifth of its grants to women. Altogether, women represent about 26% of the early-career researchers who obtained a Starting Grant over the years and 12% of the senior researchers who obtained an Advanced Grant. "Broadly speaking, these ratios also reflect the proportion of women in research careers in Europe," the press release stated. But the ERC has decided it needs to be better.

The ERC Scientific Council Gender Equality Plan aims to tackle all gender issues along the application pipeline. First, the ERC will try and raise awareness of its grants among excellent female researchers in order to get more of them to apply; up to now, 30% of starting-grant applications and 14% of advanced-grant applications have come from women, according to the press release. Next, the ERC wants to guard against gender biases during the evaluation process by: making sure eligibility and evaluation criteria are fair for men and women; including more women on ERC evaluation panels; discussing gender issues with the panels (such as how to evaluate career breaks and unconventional research career paths). The ERC will also try and encourage the ERC grantees' host institution to pay for family-related costs, like childcare, for ERC grantees. 

"Women and men are equally able to perform excellent frontier research. The aim is to take into account and confront structural gender differences, so that the ERC can fulfil its mission to support excellent frontier researchers across Europe, irrespective of nationality, gender, or age," the ERC Scientific Council stated in its gender equality plan. 

What accounts for women's intensively studied "underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science"?  Not "sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing and hiring," write Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Claims about such practices, though once spot-on, are "no longer valid," they state. Women, in fact, now fare slightly better than men in the competition for tenure-track positions. Efforts to root out a problem that no longer exists therefore waste resources that could far more profitably be focused on the real sources of underrepresentation, the authors argue.

Strategies based on "current, as opposed to historical findings" about causes need to focus not on ending overt discrimination but on making institutions "responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes," especially those related to childbearing and family life, Ceci and Williams believe.

They also note scientifically talented women's tendency to prefer careers that emphasize "people as opposed to things" and therefore to enter such fields as medicine and biology rather than computer science or physics. "To the extent that women's choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem," they write. "However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women's talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem." If it exists, they say, solving it will require directing resources toward the real causes in effect today, not toward those that existed in the past.

February 2, 2011

Too Many Chemists?

It's been clear for years that the labor market for biomedical scientists is glutted with more Ph.D.s than can find decent jobs.  Is the same now happening to chemists?  In a thoughtful article in Chemical & Engineering NewsBethany Halford finds in the affirmative.  With the number of new Ph.D.s rising, despite "record levels" of unemployment among chemists, "the view from the trenches looks fairly dire," she writes. 

"Assessing the demand for PhD chemists is trickier than pegging supply," Halford observes, as she evaluates the utility of the statistical means used to measure and predict the chemistry workforce.  Indications are, though, that "demand for all chemical professionals will be sluggish in the decade to come."  Whether and how the academic chemistry community will respond to this situation is an open question, she continues.  Though some professors have begun to raise issue, for many others the discussion has yet to begin.  Halford's examination could help get it underway.

February 1, 2011

How Do PIs Pick Postdocs?

For a young scientist hoping eventually get a faculty job, landing a postdoc appointment in the lab of a prestigious, well-connected principal investigator (PI) is a crucial first step. For insights into how some lab chiefs who meet those criteria select the aspiring researchers who work for them, check out an article in the current HHMI Bulletin (published by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute). Author Kendall Powell spoke with a number of HHMI investigators about their (widely varying) approaches to interviewing, hiring, and supervising postdocs.

Not surprisingly, having prestigious publications, doing brilliantly in interviews, and being personable, flexible, and enterprising rank high for many of the PIs. Personal referrals from former advisers well known and respected by the hiring PI carry great weight, but standard reference letters -- which tend, in the words of one source, to be "interpretively ambiguous" rather than informative -- do not. Sweating the small stuff -- such as writing a notably careful and creative cover letter -- can reportedly also help swing a decision.