Science Careers Blog

March 2011

On January 16, 2009, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) lab technician Sherharbano "Sheri" Sangji died of burns she had sustained over 2 weeks earlier from a fire in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran.  Yesterday, UCLA announced the creation of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety.  "Believed to be the first of its kind in the country," the center will do research on ways to improve safety in laboratories, at universities and other organizations, says the UCLA press release.

In 2009, the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety cited and fined UCLA for "serious" safety violations in the fatal incident, including failing to provide appropriate training and protective attire.  Since then, UCLA has reformed its safety practices.

The new center "fills an important gap" in knowledge about what safety regulations work, says Nancy Wayne, UCLA's associate vice chancellor for research, in a video that accompanies the release.  The center's goals, she says, are to support research in lab safety, develop best practices based that knowledge that can be applied at UCLA and the other University of California campuses, and provide information to help other universities and organizations improve their safety practices. 

The press release, which alludes to Sangji's death but mentions neither her name nor the circumstances that led to the needless fatality, cites the importance of empirical data in improving standards.   Wayne, in the video, also mentions the importance of getting principal investigators to understand why lab-safety standards are important. 

For lab chiefs in industry, that question does not arise.  They generally know from the outset of their employment that a serious safety incident will mean major harm to their careers.  This is not the case in academe, where powerful PIs who bring their universities large grants generally operate with much impunity.  

With $400,000 in initial funding from offices of  UCLA's  chancellor and the University of California's president, the center will seek grant funding to support research.  But will it be able to bring real change to what many safety experts believe is a deep-seated cultural problem on campuses?

Without doubt, the center will endeavor to produce and publish findings with the potential to increase safety.  But real change will not come unless the academic culture also changes to make protection of the people working in labs a truly top priority, alongside publications and grants.  Accomplishing that will require new incentives and serious buy-in from university administrators and research funders.  If the new center can help encourage that, it will be valuable indeed.

It's gratifying indeed when people who really know what they're talking about agree with what one has been saying for a long time.  So it is with a commentary by Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News, that underscores points that Science Careers has mentioned a lot more than once.  Commenting on the summary of a workshop held by the Council for Chemical Research, he highlights the four recommendations that emerged from the program.  Two echo favorite Science Careers themes.

One of them, that graduate schools should "require or at least strongly encourage internships as part of the Ph.D. program," seems fairly obvious and unexceptional in light of the widespread current interest in scientists developing "soft skills."

But the other recommendation is much less expected, long overdue, and, potentially, of the utmost -- indeed, of literally vital -- importance.  It advises graduate programs to "share industry/government lab nonproprietary training curricula on intellectual property, ethics, safety, etc."  In plain English, this means that graduate students should be taught the safety standards required in industrial and government labs, which, as Science Careers has repeatedly reported, are far stricter than those prevalent in academic labs.  As the former chair of the United States Chemical Safety Board, John Bresland, told Science Careers a year ago, this discrepancy is an issue needs systematic attention.

Indeed, Baum writes, "The difference between the safety culture of academia and that of industry and government labs is apparent in the workshop report."  One reason that industrial employers prefer to hire chemists who have done industry internships, the report notes, is that they have already been taught the safety standards routinely enforced in industrial labs.

Given the horrific incidents that have maimed or killed people working in university labs in recent years -- including the totally needless 2009 death of 23-year-old Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji from burns sustained while working in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles -- this recommendation would doubtlessly save lives and prevent future suffering. Hooray for the Council for Chemical Research panel for making it!  Graduate schools everywhere should implement it immediately, not only in their chemistry labs, but everywhere scientists work.

ScienceInsider, our sister blog focused on science policy, reports on the findings of a new study released yesterday by the British Royal Society that identifies today's big research producers around the globe and tracks the growth of international scientific collaborations.

Criticism is mounting of the plan by the medical school of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to sell to 10 seats in each year's entering class to Saudi Arabia at $75,000 each.  As previously reported on this blog, Dean Tom Marrie argued that there were "no downsides" to admitting English-speaking Saudi students with North American bachelor's degrees in exchange for cold cash to make up for funding cuts by the provincial government.

Among those who disagree is Dr. Noura Hassan, vice president of the Federation of Canadian Medical Students, according to the Telegraph-Journal of Fredericton in the nearby province of New Brunswick.  "We think it's important that all new seats be dedicated to improving the health Care system for Canadians," she said.  Under the plan announced by Marrie, the Saudi students would return to their home country after receiving their medical degrees.  

 The main reasons cited by politicians and doctors skeptical of the plan are shortages of both doctors to serve rural areas of Atlantic Canada and places in medical schools where more such doctors can be trained, the paper notes.  Marrie has argued that the 10 seats the Saudis would occupy are not otherwise needed because of expansion of the Dalhousie medical school.  In most places, of course, the suggestion that there are more medical school places than are needed to train doctors for domestic service would be met with skepticism.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Scientists who know how to put together successful grant proposals now have a new career option.  Rather than doing the research themselves, they can use their analyzing, organizing, communicating and persuading skills to help other scientists win funding.  In other words, writes Jacob E. Levin, assistant vice chancellor for research at the University of California-Irvine in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they can become research-development professionals.

As the incoming president of the newly organized National Organization of Research Development Professionals, Levin notes that, though only months old, the "fledgling" professional association has already enrolled more than 200 dues-paying members.  Scientists who, like himself, enjoy "the discussion and communication of science perhaps even more than the practice of bench science itself," or than the complications of managing a lab, may instead want to consider joining him in spending their careers "helping people formulate and finance their research and doing what we can to make things a success.  It's a good feeling," he writes.

ScienceInsider, our sister site, has posted about a new grant program from the European Research Council (ERC) to provide up to €150,000 to help scientists who already have ERC grants to help bring their science to market.

As America's and the world's pre-eminent scientific and technological university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has long projected an image of geeky masculinity inhospitable to women.  Fifteen years ago, a mere 15 of its more than 200 tenured science professors were women, as were only 2 of its tenured engineering professors. So, for a current female faculty member to state that "I feel supported, included, and protected from gross inequities by the network of tenured women faculty and by the now many more enlightened male administrators and colleagues who are aware of these issues" signals "stunning progress" in improving the position of women at the school, according to a recently issued Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, 2011.

With an introduction by MIT President Susan Hockfield, herself an emblem of the change described, the document updates reports on women faculty in the science and engineering schools issued in 1999 and 2002, respectively.  Those earlier reports highlighted the feelings of marginalization and the instances of outright discrimination experienced by the relatively few women who had then attained senior faculty status at MIT.  

The current report details such successes as increasing the percentage of women science faculty from 8% in 1995 to 19% today, and of engineering faculty from 7% in 1995 to the current 16%; "removal of the stigma of women bearing children" while on the faculty; "making the use of family leave policies standard practice for female (and male) faculty throughout MIT;" "more equitable distribution of resources and rewards," including appointment of women to leadership positions including deanships and department chairs; and "change in attitudes among some male faculty."

As that "some" indicates, however, the report found that various issues troublesome to women persist.  What many women see as removal of bias, for example, appears to at least some men as special allowances for a privileged minority.  And many women still feel excluded from various professional circles dominated by men. 

Some also find that stereotyping endures, "especially among older male faculty." And, with the empirical acuity so characteristic of a great scientific institution, one faculty member observed that "the biological constraint of pregnancy and childbirth is gender specific" -- an inequity that even MIT's improved family policies cannot wholly erase.  Furthermore, the desire to have a female viewpoint represented on most or all faculty committees can impose a serious burden of service on female faculty members, who still constitute only a relatively small percentage of MIT's professors, some women complained.

The report includes a discussion of issues that still need work as well as recommendations for further changes.  But as to the progress thus far accomplished, the overall message echoes a comment reportedly made by several senior women (and, by the way, endorsed by this reporter), "Who would have thought it possible in our lifetime?"

ScienceInsider has posted a post about an interesting (and generous) postdoc fellowship program from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DoE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which combines a mentored research experience with "a young person's perspective." Applicants must propose two separate projects, one that's underway in a prospective mentor's lab and another that's original and maybe a little crazy.

DoE expects to make twenty awards in nine areas: energy efficiency for buildings, industry, and vehicles, and renewable energy using biomass, hydrogen and fuel cells, geothermal, solar, water, and wind power. Other parts of DoE may copy the program.

One of the most promising and rewarding career choices for the student contemplating a professional life in clinical medical research is that of a primary care physician scientist. As U.S. managed care evolves, the primary care physician (PCP) is assuming an increasingly prominent and responsible role in the healthcare system. The PCP is generally the first medical practitioner contacted by a patient. The PCP does the initial evaluation; acts as the collaborator and facilitator in referrals to specialists; coordinates the care among specialists, clinics, laboratories, and hospitals; and provides long term management of most patients. From an economic standpoint, the PCP is the "gatekeeper" who regulates access to costly consultations, studies, and procedures. Approximately one-third of practicing physicians in the United States are PCPs.

So where does the research come in? Modern medicine is increasingly oriented toward evidence-based practice; that is, treating patients according to methods and means that have been scientifically demonstrated to be the best choices. To achieve evidence-based practice requires practice-based evidence. PCPs are in the right place to provide this -- to study the effectiveness of medical care and the translation of innovation from the laboratory to the bedside and the community. However, to accomplish this, prospective PCP-scientists need additional training and research capability that goes beyond the standard training provided to become a PCP, training that is both available and well supported.

Much like the famous poster by James Montgomery Flagg, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has issued a call for Americans to help meet some of the nation's most critical defense needs.  But unlike the iconic image of Uncle Sam, she is calling for scientists and engineers, not soldiers.  The nation must "engage our best scientific talent in support of our common security," she writes in an essay in Inside Higher Education. In it, she also provides specific information on research and employment opportunities available to scientists and engineers in a variety of fields and at a variety of career stages.  

"Three areas, in particular,...stand out" as currently needing scientific and engineering expertise: aviation and airport security, the challenge of gleaning useful information in real time from the "millions-- billions- of data points" now available, and "securing our cyber networks and critical infrastructure," she writes.  "I believe there are many scientists and engineers interested in working on scientific issues for the public benefit who, perhaps, have never considered the idea of government service."  Now, Napolitano suggests, is an excellent time for them to explore the possibility.

The essay summarizes a lecture entitled "The Future of Science as Public Service" that she gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 14.  You can read the lecture in full here or watch it here.

March 18, 2011

"An Internal Brain Drain"

The United States is suffering from a serious scientific and technological workforce problem that harms innovation, according to Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis computer science department. But it is not the supposed shortage of American scientists and engineers widely bemoaned by politicians and industry representatives.

Rather, because of "an internal brain drain" of able Americans out of scientific and technical fields, "we are wasting our talent," he told he told an audience of legal and immigration experts, IT workers, and scientists at a March 18 policy briefing held at the Georgetown University Law School. This loss of talent largely results from the nation's policy of admitting large number of scientists, IT workers, and computer engineers, he said.

 Entitled "Are they they best and brightest?  Analysis of employer-sponsored tech immigrants," the talk was arranged by the Institute for the Study of International Migration of Georgetown's school of foreign service.  Matloff's answer to that question is a resounding No. Despite widely publicized claims that foreign tech workers and scientists represent exceptional ability and are thus vital to American innovation, Matloff called that argument merely "a good sound byte for lobbyists" supporting industry proposals for higher visa caps. The data, on the other hand, indicate that those admitted are no more able, productive, or innovative than America's homegrown talent, he said.

In fact, Matloff went on, the nation is "wasting the innovation" that Americans could create because they are being driven from technical and scientific fields by the influx of foreigners.  "There are a lot of good people who are displaced," he said. In the tech field, this does not occur because of  talent, education, productivity or ability but with age, and ultimately with pay, he stated.  Employers prefer to bring in young foreign workers who are cheaper in preference to employing experienced Americans who are more expensive.  In a number of tech companies, a majority of workers are foreign-born while many Americans being displaced "are of good quality."    Over 20 years ago, he noted, experts predicted that encouraging immigration would discourage citizens from entering these fields.  

"It's an issue of money....It's all due to an oversupply of people" created by immigration policies, he said. The issues applies to both the IT industry and scientific research, he added.  One result is that young American "would have to be crazy to go into lab science today," he said.  "No study except for industry studies has ever shown a shortage" of scientific or technical workers, he said.  One indication of non-shortage is that "salaries are flat," whereas in a shortage situation they should rise.

For women in engineering, workplace climate issues are pervasive and continue to be a key reason they leave the field, reports a new survey of more than 3700 women engineering graduates from 30 U.S. institutions. One in three women who have left the field report working in uncivil, disrespectful environments, where colleagues and supervisors frequently undermine their work, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study found.

The survey -- aimed at trying to understand why 20% of engineering school graduates but only 11% of practicing engineers are women -- asked women in engineering jobs and those who had left the field about their job experience, training and development opportunities, and work climate.

Of those who left (1086 women):

  • Nearly half said they left because of working conditions; they report experiencing too much travel, low salaries, and a lack of personal advancement.
  • One-third report leaving because of the work culture; including treatment by boss or supervisors, and more generally a lack of female-friendly culture in the workplace.
  • Independently of those categories, 25% of the respondents reported leaving their jobs to spend more time with their family.

Of those who stayed (2099 women):

  • Most say that they have supportive supervisors and co-workers.
  • Women who report that they are undermined by their co-workers and work in cultures characterized by condescending, patronizing treatment are the least committed to staying.
  • Women who report that they are overworked both at home and work, and who were treated in a condescending manner, report experiencing considerable work-life conflict.

The report, published by the Project on Women Engineers' Retention (POWER), was careful to underscore that there was no difference between groups in their interests, confidence in their abilities, nor in their expectations of positive outcomes from performing a task.

The report's authors, Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggest that organizations and companies must find ways to better recognize positive contributions from women in engineering, root out undermining behaviors in the workplace, and foster an environment where colleagues and supervisors support women. Fouad and Singh suggest that changing the workplace environment could be done through formal mentoring programs and by providing forums for informal mentoring.

A video, summary of the report, and PDF are available on the Center for the Study of the Workplace Web site.

- Jennifer Carpenter

Bloomberg is reporting that, this morning, former Yale animal-care worker Raymond Clark III pleaded guilty to murder and attempted sexual assault in the killing of Annie Le, a Yale pharmacology graduate student. According to Bloomberg, Clark agreed to a plea deal in which he would spend 44 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for 20 May.

Advanced postdocs or new assistant professors who belong to underrepresented minorities and have "demonstrated research productivity" are invited to apply for one of the 6 Postdoctoral Professional Development and Enrichment Awards presented annually by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).  Each winner receives $3000 in unrestricted career development funds plus $2500 in travel funds.

Applicants must be US citizens or permanent residents and members of one of the FASEB constituent societies.   The deadline is May 31.  Application information is here.

March 15, 2011

Seats for Sale

With universities across North America facing grim economic times, one Canadian institution has come up with a novel -- if controversial -- approach to filling its fiscal hole, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has announced a plan to sell places in its medical school to Saudi Arabia for $75,000 each.

In exchange for the money, ten Saudi students will enroll at Dalhousie each year "for the foreseeable future," the Chronicle quotes medical school dean Tom Marrie.  They will, he said, meet the same standards as other applicants, speak fluent English, hold North American college degrees, and return home to do their residencies.  "There are no downsides," Marrie continued. "We are confident they will fit in well with our student bodies."  Although the infusion of Saudi cash would undoubtedly help the Dalhousie deal with financial problems, some Nova Scotia politicians reportedly a lot less enamored with the proposed deal.

The recession is taking a toll on both the employment prospects and the starting salaries of newly minted chemists, according to a sobering article in Chemical & Engineering News. Just-reported results from the 2009 edition of the American Chemical Society's annual survey of new graduates reveal higher unemployment rates than a year earlier, at all degree levels. Among bachelor's degree holders, joblessness rose a percentage point over the previous year, to 15%.  Ph.D. unemployment rose 2 percentage points to 9%.  But unemployment among master's degree graduates nearly doubled, from 10% to 18%, in a single year.  

Meanwhile, the percentage of the employed holding full-time and permanent positions fell.  Overall,C&E noted, "survey respondents of all degree levels [were] significantly less employed than the national average" of workers.  These national unemployment figures  mask large numbers of workers so discouraged that they have given up the hunt for work; it could be that the recent graduates surveyed by C&EN have not yet had enough time to give up hope.

Given these conditions, C&EN expressed "relief" that starting salaries for new bachelor's and doctoral graduates fell only 5%, while those of new master's degree graduates,  counterintuitively, rose 15%.  The article also details the sectors where employed graduates have found jobs -- at all degree levels, about half in academe -- and the areas of chemistry in which they specialized.  Since universities and colleges are hiring very few faculty members, one can only surmise that many of those jobs are for postdoc, other soft-money research positions, or non-tenure-track teaching posts. Because of the dire financial position of many academic institutions as well as continuing "layoffs of scientists in the pharmaceutical industry," it's obvious, as the article predicts, that future surveys will most likely reveal further "downward trends" in both pay and employment.

India has ambitious plans for expanding its higher education system.  But to reach its goal of making higher education available to one in five young Indians by 2020, the country needs a million qualified college teachers -- far more than its own universities can produce.  "The most promising way" the country can "fill this gap is to recruit back" some of the thousands of its citizens who are now doing or have done graduate study in the United States, says a report issued Monday by Rutgers University, Penn State University, and the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Mumbai.  Entitled "Will They Return?", the report concludes that for the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 Indians now doing graduate study in the United States, the short answer is "Yes."  Over 90% of those the report surveyed indicated they are willing, and in some cases eager, to return home to pursue their careers.  

The report's authors, David Finegold, dean of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations; B. Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute currently visiting at Penn State; and Rutgers doctoral student Anne-Laure Winkler surveyed a sample of Indians who have done graduate work in the US and are currently either grad students, postdocs, or employees of various concerns in the United States and India.  Most are scientists or engineers and nearly all came to the United States seeking high-quality teaching and involvement in cutting-edge research.

The study's "most striking finding," the report states, is the "openness" of the "vast majority" of respondents to pursuing their careers in their homeland.  Under 10% expressed a strong desire not to return, although most wished to stay in the United States for at least a few years. Family ties and "a desire to give back to the motherland" were the strongest attractions of returning to India, while "corruption, red tape and the academic work environment" in India -- especially inadequately attractive research opportunities -- were the most often cited reasons to stay in the U.S.

From the standpoint of educational planners in India, therefore, "a great opportunity exists to attract this group back to India," states the report.  It also discusses other factors motivating decisions to stay or return and offers suggestions for making India a more attractive place for these highly educated individuals to choose to pursue their careers.

With the current European Union funding framework program for research (FP7) drawing to 
an end in 2013, the European Commission is drafting a new strategy to cover the next funding period, based on the objectives of the EU's Europe 2020 strategy for growth. A public consultation was launched mid-February. 

One important change in the EU's funding strategy after 2013 would be the design of a Common Strategic Framework for research and innovation, which up to now have largely been funded through separate initiatives. The idea is that the new framework "would enable 
the development of a simpler and more efficient structure and a streamlined set of 
funding instruments covering the full innovation chain in a seamless manner," the Green Paper reads. Particular questions the European Commission wants your opinion upon are: "How should the Common Strategic Framework make EU research and innovation funding more attractive and easy to access for participants?"; "How should EU funding best cover the full innovation cycle?"; and "What should be the measures of success for EU research and innovation funding?" 

Regarding research priorities, the European Commission plans a greater focus on societal challenges like an aging population, climate change, and declining natural resources, but asks "How should a stronger focus on societal challenges affect the balance between
curiosity-driven research and agenda-driven activities?" Also for your consideration: "How could EU research and innovation activities attract greater interest and involvement of citizens and civil society?"

The European Commission is also looking into how to boost Europe's competitiveness through a more effective transfer of research results to market. "How should industrial participation in EU research and innovation programmes be strengthened?" the Green Paper asks. "How should intellectual property rules governing EU funding strike the right balance between competitiveness aspects and the need for access to and dissemination of scientific results?"

Even more directly relevant to early-career researchers is another area of debate that focuses on Europe's science base. Some of the questions here for you: "How should the role of the European Research Council be strengthened in supporting world class excellence?"; "How should the role of Marie Curie Actions be strengthened in promoting researcher mobility and developing attractive careers?"; "What actions should be taken at EU level to further strengthen the role of women in science and innovation?"

You have until 20 May to take part into the debate.

Lennard J. Davis sounds like the kind of professor every graduate student should wish to have. "An important part of my job is to make sure that my graduate students get their own jobs," he writes in a frank and eye-opening essay in Chronicle of HIgher Education.  He puts his all-too-rare attitude into practice right from the get-go, he reports, by "talking the turkey of job placement as soon as they walk in door and tell me they want to do a Ph.D."

"First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever it is at the time." he explains.  "I don't sugarcoat the dismal nature of, say, today's academic market."  And then Davis, who claims to "have had very good success in placing my graduate students," starts to prepare the newcomer to map a strategy for finding that job.  "I make it clear that the first thing that they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market."

Every major decision about one's graduate study should have the ultimate goal of qualifying for that potential job, he says, including selection of the dissertation topic and the members of one's committee.   A number of the specific points that he makes about publication and other milestones of the academic life apply primarily to the humanities.  His general approach, however, which includes seeking out contacts and sizing up opportunities in terms of the ultimate goal, would benefit any graduate student in any field.  

And in addition to plotting grand strategy, he explains how he helps his students sweat the potentially all-important small stuff, such as writing letters of application that are neither too "shy about pushing their unique qualities" nor "too brash."  His attitude about the real responsibilities involved in mentoring graduate students should be, as he put it earlier, among the "minimum requirements" for any faculty member coming into contact with aspiring academics.

But then it's probably no surprise that Davis has a broad, comprehensive, and rather original view of the professorial role.  The Chronicle describes him as a "professor of English, medical education, and human development and disability at the University of Illinois at Chicago."  He is clearly a man who thinks for himself -- and about his students. Every grad student and professor in every field would benefit from reading this essay, the former to see what sort of guidance they ought to be receiving and the latter to examine honestly whether they are doing right by the young people who entrust their hopes and future to their professors' care.

I'd like to take the occasion of the International Women's Day to share one thought that has stuck with me since I heard Alice Huang's presidential address at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science and Science Careers) in Washington D.C. 

One of the points Huang made during her talk was that one can help women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated disciplines by "understanding the diverse motivations that make a student commit to a life in science." Huang described in particular how faculty at Carnegie Mellon University's School Of Computer Science were able to solve women-retention problems in a course on algorithms by reframing it. 

"The faculty initially did not think that the students who dropped out could hack it," Huang said. "But, on closer examination... they found that women had lost interest because they did not see what algorithms were good for or why they needed to learn how to design a variety of complicated algorithms." The faculty decided to focus the first session of the course on how algorithms may be used to help social causes. "Once this began, the retention rate for women increased so much so that now all professors spend the first class introducing their courses by discussing the applied relevance of the material that will be presented," she added. "I admit, I was really relieved to find that the women could hack it." 

Huang's example of how important it is to tap into women's interests was echoed by a research paper published earlier that month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. In one of the studies reported in the paper, first-author Sylvie Kerger of the University of Luxembourg asked 134 boys and 160 girls, aged 14, to rate their interest in different applied topics without being told that they pertained to scientific fields like IT, statistics, and physics. "There was clear evidence that applying female friendly topics" -- specifically, providing a real social context or relating it to a real issue, like forest decline -- "increased girls' interest in these scientific disciplines," Kreger said in a press release. In contrast, boys' interest decreased when this was done.

Assuming that men and women continue to have predominantly different interests in how their research is applied later in life, here's my thought: There are differences between individuals of the same gender of course, but couldn't women scientists use these differences to find a niche for themselves that their male colleagues may not necessarily have thought of? It is still difficult for women to work in male-dominated fields in many ways, but the culture has changed drastically in the last several decades and there is now more space for new ideas and individuality. Couldn't what has traditionally been a disadvantage -- being a minority -- be turned into an untapped source of creativity at the time of developing a rewarding research career? 

One example that jumps to mind is Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (whom I've profiled previously on Science Careers).  Of course Vitoriano has male colleagues, but she's developed an unusual career for herself designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations and volunteering in university cooperation and rural development projects.


In time for the International Year of Chemistry 2011, the German Chemical Society (GDCh) has published a 72-page booklet in German on choosing and pursuing careers in chemistry and related fields. In it, chemists write in the first person about their careers and everyday life in a variety of work environments, including academia, large industry, small business, and freelance consulting.

The booklet also highlights non-traditional careers such as journalism and teaching. At the end, it offers practical tips on job searches, interviewing, and workplace etiquette. The society will pass out the booklet at its events and has also made it available for download in pdf format.

If you are a Ph.D. candidate or received your Ph.D within the last 2 years, and if you are looking for new avenues to do interesting work for industry, you may be interested in entering for the 'PhD Challenge.'

Organized by PhD Talent, a Paris-based Ph.D. students' association launched in March 2010 to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology transfer, the PhD Challenge presents Ph.D. students with an opportunity to form multidisciplinary teams online to tackle a company's specific need.

After pre-selection in late April, online teams will be invited to propose their most innovative solutions during a 2-day contest to be held in June in Paris. The members of the winning team will have 15,000 euros to share between them, with the second and third runner-up teams receiving 5,000 and 3,000 euros, respectively.

There's more information on the PhD Challenge Web site, especially in the Terms and Conditions section at the bottom of the page).

For many of us, technology has blurred the boundaries between work and home. Some colleagues check their e-mail the minute they get home from the office; others sleep with a smart phone on their nightstand. (Me: I'm not saying.) But the etiquette in deciding whether to contact someone at home or after hours -- by phone, e-mail, or text -- about work-related matters is tricky. How well do you know her? How burning is the issue? How much will it intrude on his home life?

According to a new study in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, another factor you may want to throw into your decision-making is gender. University of Toronto researchers reported on data from a national survey of Americans and found that frequent contacts by supervisors, co-workers, and clients outside the workplace affects women more profoundly than it does men.

"Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men," says lead author Paul Glavin, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at U of T. "However, this wasn't the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress."

Importantly, this study looked at frequent (perhaps, too-frequent) contact. Also relevant but not mentioned in the study is that some forms of contact are more intrusive than others. E-mails are are much easier to ignore than phone calls, for example.

Well, actually, we have--repeatedly and over quite an number of years. 

For quite a long time now, Science Careers has been pushing the ideas that Jennifer Rohn advocates in an essay in Nature News.  We've done this as recently as two weeks ago and in January, and on other occasions too numerous to list.  

Following Harvard economist Richard Freeman and collaborators, we have noted, ad nauseum, it seems to me, that the scientific labor market has a tournament structure.  

Following numerous prominent figures, most recently Stanford University president John Hennessy, we have observed with humdrum regularity that a career ladder that provides security, standing, and appropriate compensation to academic researchers who are not faculty members is desperately needed to do justice by young scientists -- and to take advantage of their expensively acquired skills.  This reporter has also on occasion been among those expressing these views elsewhere.

In doing so, we are echoing a substantial chorus of informed experts who, for reasons we have also endeavored to explain, get far too little general publicity.  Still, these are very important issues that are insufficiently understood both inside and outside the scientific world, and especially among policy makers.  It's always nice, therefore, when new voices join the chorus.

When John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960, many observers said that the suave and photogenic Kennedy's mastery of the medium during the nation's first televised presidential debate gave him the winning edge.  With Skype now widely replacing the telephone in first interviews for faculty positions, academic applicants face the same challenge of making a favorable professional impression on the screen.  In an essay in Chronicle of Higher Education, communications professor Stephen Winzenburg describes his experience as a televised-interview novice and offers useful hints.  He did well enough, by the way, to land face-to-face interviews on two of his first three tries.  Check out the readers' comments, too, for other good advice.

Last week saw the release of a new, free, online strategy game whose aim is to inspire more European young people to choose research careers. Produced by Austrian companies Biolution and TPM Games, 'Power of Research' was funded with more than 600.000 euros from the European Commission and been endorsed by several Nobel Prize winners and research institutes around Europe.

I was intrigued and more than willing to try out 'Power of Research' for myself even though, admittedly, I'm not much of a game player. My verdict a few days in: Overall, the game does a great job of introducing players to the world of research, but there are some career, technical, and scientific aspects that I think should be improved.

Faculty positions may be scarce in the United States, but a number of countries with rapidly rising economies and academic aspirations are energetically hiring professors from abroad.  South Korea, for example, has a World Class University Project, funded by the government to the tune of $725 million last year alone, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Chief among the project's goals is hiring foreign faculty. Last year 59 of foreigners joined the faculty of Seoul National University and thousands now teach in the country.

The salaries for foreign professors newly hired in Korea now match what they would make in similar jobs at home, or about twice what their Korean colleagues earn, the Chronicle reports. Programs, and even whole campuses, that teach in English help the new arrivals to fit in and help their students to prepare to compete in the global economy.  Nevertheless, professors from abroad may "experience deep culture shock as they try to acclimatize to life in a still overwhelmingly homogeneous and hierarchical academic culture," writes reporter David McNeill.  Korean society, furthermore, has little experience with foreigners.  One university has developed robots to teach English in order to overcome the "problems" involved in using teachers who are native speakers of the language.

Still, says one Korean university president quoted in article, "As long as our professors do good work, there is no discrimination.  We welcome everyone, including foreigners."  And if the country's ambitious plans to develop world-class universities do come to pass, Koreans will become accustomed to having many more foreign faculty on their campuses.

The lack of role models who resemble themselves has long been cited as a factor that can hamper minority students' success in the academic world.  But, according to a new study reported in Inside Higher Ed, when it comes to landing those coveted faculty jobs at research universities, just the opposite appears to be true.  Having a white male graduate school mentor, it turns out, greatly improves the chances that a minority PhD will get one of those plum posts.

Researchers at the American Sociological Association studied the participants in its Minority Fellowship Program, who are topflight grad students in sociology, the great majority of them black or Latino and a smaller number Asian.  Over 60% are female.

Of the fellowship holders whose dissertation advisers were white men, a whopping 37% got hired as faculty members at research universities, as opposed to only 7% of those whose advisers were either female or non-white or both.  These results, which the ASA finds "a bit sensitive," the article says, appear to reflect the fact that the upper reaches of academe, where the best-connected professors reside, are still disproportionately populated by white males.  

These results, of course, apply only to sociology.  Given the demographic structure of the academic world, however, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the same pattern also held for other disciplines and for grad students of other ethniticies.  "We don't want people to think it's bad to have a minority mentor," the article quotes lead researcher Roberta Spalter-Roth, ASA's director of research, as saying.  Still, she notes, it appears to be white guys who are helping minority scholars get ahead in academe.