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Science Careers Blog

May 2011

Throughout the month of May, Science Careers published a feature series exploring academic careers in healthy aging research. We profiled several researchers studying how to help people age successfully and independently, from the perspective of genetics, sociology and psychology, engineering, and neurology.

If you're an early-career researcher already working in the field or would like to find out more about healthy aging research, you may want to attend the annual conference of the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The AAL Forum 2011 will take place in Lecce, Italy, between 26 and 28 September 2011.

The conference will feature a 'Young researchers' and PhD workshop - research on innovative solutions for the elderly' (YR-RISE reloaded) on the first day.  Early-career scientists investigating technical solutions for older adults are invited to submit an abstract for a poster or a short oral presentation. The workshop is organized along 5 different tracks: computing and serious games; social inclusion, mobility, and networking; ambient assistance and robotics;  neurotechnologies; and all other research topics. You have until 30 June 2011 to submit your abstract.

ScienceInsider reports that a panel has recommended that the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) scrap its current "glue grant" program, which has invested $368 million to facilitate large collaborations since it started in 2000, about 1.8% of the NIGMS budget.

 "So what went awry?" asks ScienceInsider. "The report points to inadequate oversight by NIGMS, goals set by the groups that were "inflexible" or "too sweeping or too narrow," "missing expertise," and poor outreach to the rest of the scientific community. One common weakness was databases. Often investigators generated data, for example, on the functions of molecules, that weren't easily converted into computer-readable form for use by the broader scientific community, Preusch says. 'They were figuring it out as they went along,' Preusch says."

Science Careers explored biomedical data sharing in a recent article.

Read more about the panel's recommendation at ScienceInsider


Research Councils UK (RCUK) have just released a video showing how the public can benefit from interacting with researchers, and how researchers can benefit from engaging with the public. 

The 7-minute movie includes interviews with researchers and members of the public during a public debate about future energy scenarios held as part of the York Festival of Science and Technology. The movie is nicely done and addresses important points -- it is well worth the watch.

I was a teenager when I had my first frustrating post-interview interaction. I had interviewed for a summer job at a company that described itself as an "engineering firm." That description can mean many things, but this was the kind of engineering firm that mainly does land surveys for road construction and real-estate transactions. I liked the idea of spending the summer outside doing real work and getting sunburned. The interview went fine and I aced their simple math test. I thought I was a shoe-in.

Weeks passed and no one contacted me. I called the office weekly for updates. They were evasive. After the fourth or fifth phone call I became indignant: If they wouldn't hire someone as smart as me, surely they owed me an explanation.  Obviously they didn't think so.

John Travis, an editor in Science's news department, alerted me to an interview with Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and currently head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), on the Washington Post employment blog The Federal Coach. McNutt has been a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Stanford University, and she has served as the president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Produced by Tom Fox, the Federal Coach focuses on leadership in a federal-government context. But many of the issues raised are relevant to management in other settings, including academic labs. The blog can also be read productively by non-managers for clues about how things work and how managers expect them to comport themselves.

Fox asks McNutt to describe lessons about leadership that she's learned as chief scientist on oceanographic expeditions. First, she responds, you have to be meticulously well prepared, since you can't easily go back and grab something you forgot. Second, you have to work harder than (or at least as hard as) everyone else on the team. Third, on a research cruise you can't pull rank: You have to treat everyone well. There's lots more advice, some clichéd and some surprising:
  • If you don't fail often, you're not taking enough chances.
  •  The hardest thing about being the first woman director of the USGS is getting past the label.
  • "Except for the fact that the directors happened to be men for many years, [the USGS] was mostly run by women anyway."
  • Motivating people during natural disasters is easy; what's hard is motivating them during normal times. "How do we maintain that spirit of cooperation, collaboration and sense of purpose when we don't have a crisis?" McNutt asks.
  • The most critical event in her development as a leader was becoming a mother.
I encourage you to read beyond this entry, even if you have no plans to seek employment with the federal government. The next entry, for example, is about "Dealing with Debbie Downer", the person on your team who is always saying negative things, imperiling team morale. Fox's refrshing advice: Pay attention. Find out if the negativity is  justified. If it is, fix the problem. If it's not ... well, read on for more advice.

A debate has lately been brewing in educational circles about whether a college or graduate education is really worth the price, given the ever-rising cost of tuition.  If those loans and savings are bankrolling college degrees in science and, especially, in engineering, the answer is decidedly yes.  That's according to a fascinating new report, based on census data, from Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce.  What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,  by Anthony Carnevale and co-authors, shows that it matters a great deal to future earnings what a college student majors in.  The undisputed winner in the financial return  department is a petroleum engineering. Thanks to a current boom in the field, the median income for those with bachelor's degrees in petroleum engineering is a whopping $120,000.

Matthew Stremlau, a postdoc at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., also has experience doing research in China, at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and Peking University.  Writing on the op-ed page of the Washington Posthe advises fellow young scientists unable to achieve academic science careers in the United States to seek opportunity abroad.   Countries that also include Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore are currently quite hospitable to foreign scientific talent, he notes.  That's not bad given that in the United States, "Only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though many more would like to," he writes.  "Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether."

Stremlau's description of the current prospects for young scientists in the United States is certainly accurate, but he misconstrues the cause for their plight.  "Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country," he claims.  He then blames recent cuts in "public funding for science and technology" for the current desperately tight academic job market. 

In fact, it has been been many more than 20 years since the majority of young American biomedical scientists have routinely had the opportunity to start labs of their own. According to Bridges to Independence, published by the National Academies Press in 2005,  in the early 1990s there were already almost 12,000 biomed PhDs aged 35 or younger in the United States, but fewer than 2000 of the tenure-track positions that allow scientists to launch secure, independent academic research careers.  (That's fewer than 2000 positions altogether, not 2000 openings at any one time.  Only a much smaller number of openings became available each year.)  By 2001, the young PhDs numbered almost 18,000, but the number of suitable tenure-track positions had barely budged.  Even twenty years ago, therefore, many fewer than "most" young biomedical scientists got to fulfill their dream of a lab of their own.

Inside Higher Ed blogs that an exposé of ethical infractions by medical faculty that was published by ProPublica has prodded medical schools to tighten their enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules. Stanford University, for example, has disciplined 5 faculty members who, despite university policies to the contrary, took money from drug companies for giving talks.  

ProPublica had reported in December that medical schools' stated ethical policies often were going unenforced.  Among the schools mentioned in that report, and now reportedly examining or strengthening their policies, are the Universities of Colorado, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and California-San Francisco.

With the academic job market in United States overcrowded, and this year's American hiring season nearing its end, the aptly named Katrina Gulliver suggests that aspirants to faculty positions can expand their pool of opportunities by seeking openings in other countries.  Gulliver, who has held posts in Europe, Asia, and Australia, has never been imprisoned by tiny people or kept as a pet by gargantuan farmers. But she has encountered cultural differences that matter in an international job search. Gulliver offers enlightening advice on how to do this in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is making it possible for more foreign students to extend their visas and stay in the United States for "optional practical training."  By doing so, it is also giving companies an economic reason to hire them in place of comparable Americans, says David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research institute in Washington, DC.  Because neither the holders of these extensions nor those who employ them will have to make Social Security or Medicare contributions, "companies would get a 7.56 percent discount by hiring a foreign student under this program, something that creates an 'unequal playing field' for other college grads," reports Fox News.

This "gives the employer a bonus for hiring the foreign worker," which will make "some people very attractive," says North in the article.

"The Immigration and Customs Enforcement [part of DHS] statement announcing the expansion said the change is meant to 'address shortages in certain high tech sectors of talented scientists,'" the article continues.  For those talented scientists who don't pay Social Security taxes because they can't find work in a brutal job market, the existence of this talent shortage may also come as news.

Gregg Treinish, a man whose hiking credentials include a stroll along most of the Andes, took part in the Appalachian Trail Days event last weekend with an unusual sense of purpose. On a previous hike, he "felt selfish and ... realized that was a shared feeling amongst hikers and mountaineers," Treinish says.  That feeling, together with a stint studying wildlife biology at Montana State University, gave him an original idea: to offer adventurers the opportunity to share with scientists something that even those who travel light routinely take with them on their adventures: their eyes and ears. Now, wherever he goes, Treinish recruits fellow adventurers for his new organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ACS).

Plenty of researchers seek to include helpful citizens in their projects, as I wrote last year for Science Careers ("Collaborating with Citizen Scientists"), but ACS, launched in November 2010, may be the first dedicated matchmaker, removing some of the recruiting burden from scientists.

On Friday the British Royal Society launched a study to look at how the scientific community can best manage scientific information to improve research quality and boost public trust.

The study, named 'Science as a public enterprise: opening up scientific information', will look at issues like how to make scientific information more accessible, the risks and benefits of open data, and the responsibility of scientists. 

"It is not just scientists who want to be able to see inside scientific datasets, to see how robust they are and ask difficult questions about their implications. Science has to adapt," geoscientist Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh, who is in charge of leading the study, stated in a press release. "The impact of science on people's lives, and the implications of scientific assessments for society and the economy are now so great that people won't just believe scientists when they say 'trust me, I'm an expert.'"

You have until 5 August 2011 to send your input. Details on how to do so can be found in the Royal Society's call for evidence


With apologies to the great poet John Milton for butchering his immortal words (those who followed Dan Albert's recent advice to include humanities in their education may recognize my paraphrase of Milton's majestic "On His Blindness"), I'd like to call attention to an intriguing set of charts issued by the Association for Women in Science as part of their project on Recognition of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (I learned of this from Inside Higher Ed.)

One chart shows that among the 72 people it elected to membership this year, the National Academy of Sciences deemed only 9 women worthy of the honor.  A second chart reveals that when women do win recognition from major scientific societies, they are much more likely to get prizes for service than for scholarship.  "In many societies," AWIS observes, "the proportion of female scholarly award winners is smaller than the proportion of female Ph.D.s awarded 20-40 years ago [and] female full professors in the field...."  

Now, why does the fact that women are doing the work but not getting the honors somehow not surprise me?  And what, if anything, does this tell about, er, blindness?

President Obama's May 10 speech in El Paso moved immigration reform back into the political spotlight, and with it the perennial debate about the H-1B visa, which is heavily used both in academe to recruit postdocs and in the IT industry to import workers and for outsourcing. Though many argue that admitting technically trained foreigners on temporary work permits benefits the United States, Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that just the opposite is true. "Instead of providing foreign workers who complement the American workforce, employers are bringing in workers who substitute for Americans," he told the Economic Times, a leading Indian publication.  

Echoing remarks he made in March 31 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Hira said, "It is wrong to equate the profits of U.S.-based companies with America's national interest." In the Economic Times interview he also quoted former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-CT), one of the creators of the H-1B, as saying "If I knew in 1990 what I know today about the use of [the H-1B] for outsourcing, I wouldn't have drafted it so that staffing companies of that sort could have used it."

Incidentally, I happened to hear about Hira's comments from an American engineer with many years of experience who was recently laid off from his long-term job. "Profits are at record levels," Hira noted in the interview, "but the labour market is still not creating enough jobs." 

For many young scientists aspiring to academic careers, learning to be an effective teacher can present a considerable challenge. For many, developing that ability takes years of practice.

Now, a study published in Science (links to free summary; subscription required for full text) finds that postdocs without significant teaching experience can outperform experienced and well-regarded senior professors at teaching physics to undergraduates.

Louis Deslauriers of the University of British Columbia and coauthors compared what two groups of engineering students learned when the groups were taught the same physics material through different instructional methods.

It is common to hear undergraduates and recent college graduates preparing for a career in science complain: "I think I wasted a lot of time in college being forced to take humanities classes that had nothing to do with my area of study." This is one of many manifestations of the ongoing centuries-long battle over the relationship between the sciences and the humanities.

From a historical point of view, until the mid-19th century, the humanities (i.e., grammar, rhetoric, history, literature, languages, and moral philosophy) held the upper hand. At Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the gold standard models for American education, the areas of study consisted mainly of classics, mathematics, or divinity.

However, in 1847 Yale College broke with this tradition and formed the School of Applied Chemistry. This became the Yale Scientific School and in 1861 it was renamed the Sheffield Scientific School. Sheffield's 3-year undergraduate program focused on chemistry, engineering, and independent research. It offered the best scientific training in America. The "Sheffs" studied and lived apart from other undergraduates taking the classic curriculum and roomed together in the "college yard." The two groups did not mingle. The old truism that a classical education assured success was being challenged. Science had begun its separation and was ascending vis-a-vis the liberal arts in American universities.

The need for science majors to take courses in the humanities has been contentious ever since. The required core curriculum at most colleges and universities has atrophied over the years, while at the same time governmental funds for support of any new research in the humanities has dried up. Authorities both within and outside of science have expressed concern that scientists do not learn enough about the humanities -- to the detriment of society.

In this environment, it's difficult for the undergraduate to determine the desirability of taking courses in the humanities -- or which and how many to take. In fact, some applicants to college regard a strong core curriculum requirement as a negative factor, opting instead for programs with a minimum number of required core courses and maximum flexibility.

All this considered, I would offer the following 10 reasons why students pursuing science careers should augment their education with a strong foundation in the humanities.

Getting along with your colleagues may not only be good for your work satisfaction and productivity, it could be good for your health, too.

That's according to a new study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, that looked at the medical history of more than 800 people working in finance, insurance, public services, health care, and manufacturing companies between 1988 and 2008.

The team of researchers, led by Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University in Israel, looked at peer social support in terms of the participants' perception of how supportive and friendly their colleagues were to them. The researchers found that a high level of peer social support was associated with a lower risk of mortality. When also looking at the participants' age, they found peer social support to have a protective effect only for people aged between 38 and 43. Interestingly, support from supervisors was not associated with mortality rate.

The Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI) has established an online Lab Safety Memorial Wall to preserve the memory of individuals killed while working on scientific research. At present the Wall lists some 70 incidents over the past 8 decades that have claimed more than 200 lives.

"The real problem is that we forget that these are real people, real lives, real families, real situations," says Christina Dillard, assistant director of the nonprofit institute based in Natick, Massachusetts, in an interview with Science Careers. LSI aims to raise awareness of the need for lab safety by restoring the humanity to the victims, many of whose names appear to have been lost to the historic record.   

LSI hopes the project will help to expand the record of those who have died in laboratory incidents. Dillard encourages anyone who has information that can "fill in the blanks" in the existing list of events or "tell us about ones that we have missed" to write to memorialwall@labsafetyinstitute.org with names or details of an any lab incident that "resulted in someone losing their life."

This week's two Science Careers stories offer an interesting juxtaposition. First, there's Mitch Leslie's profile of Liz Cirulli, a young researcher who, when she's not raising king snakes, is trying to help figure out what factors allow some people to live long, healthy lives. Next there's Beryl Benderly's column, Taken for Granted: When Will They Ever Learn?, which focuses on the early, senseless death of a different young researcher, Michelle Dufault, in a machine shop accident.

On the one hand we have a vibrant young person doing research aimed at extending and improving the lives of older people. On the other hand we have a brilliant young woman who will never have an opportunity to grow old.

Beryl's column -- like two previous columns (here and here) -- focused on laboratory safety and the inadequate emphasis placed on it by faculty members, administrators, and academic institutions. As in two other recent incidents that Benderly describes, Dufault's death was avoidable. Compliance with well-known safety standards -- never working alone with dangerous machinery; tying back hair securely when working with a lathe -- would have ensured her survival.

When I was in graduate school, studying physics, I did many potentially hazardous things. I once was shocked rather badly by an old vacuum pump that had been mis-wired, hot and ground wires reversed in a trap unwittingly set by some student, postdoc, or faculty member years or decades earlier. I survived. In a typical sample-prep day I worked with hydroflouric acid, molten quartz, intense UV radiation, gamma rays, and halogen gases -- all part of the same procedure. I could have died or been seriously injured in any number of ways. But I survived. (For the record, I always utilized appropriate safety gear.)

In editing Beryl's column I found myself, reflexively, defending academic institutions with familiar arguments. Science is sometimes dangerous, I argued, so get used to it. We can't afford to be over-cautious. We can't let bureaucracy (for isn't that what the Health and Safety Office is?) get in the way of doing good science. Sterile, immaculate spaces and over-cautious researchers do not promote scientific discovery. And so on.

As Beryl had no trouble convincing me, my reflexive response was wrong. I was employing the wrong metaphor. Safety isn't a straight-jacket, inhibiting discovery. Safety is professionalism. Safety is being properly trained to do the work you're doing, and doing it with meticulous attention. You learn it and forget it, like a pianist's technique.

I am reminded of an old science friend, a German mountaineer, the most experienced and accomplished "alpinist" I have known. When in the mountains he always carries a heavy pack, full of essential safety and rescue gear. He has been involved in -- and prepared for -- several rescues of climbers and others who were less skilled and less prepared than he was.

I am reminded too of my experience, years ago, working in a well-run nuclear power plant. For the employees there -- electricians, mechanical experts, engineers, others -- donning safety gear and doing it properly, doing all the necessary contamination swipes, monitoring radiation levels, and ensuring proper shielding, was habitual. Safety was a manifestation of their meticulous attention to detail. It was part of their professionalism and they took pride in it.

It's natural for young people to be incautious. An aversion to risk aversion is a characteristic that makes young scientists so valuable. And that's precisely why it's so important for those who are older, wiser, and -- hopefully -- more cautious to protect them. We accomplish that by training them. 

Taking unnecessary risks is not an indication of bravery.  It indicates, rather, a lack of skill. It's to be expected in young people but its unforgivable in the people charged with keeping those young people safe. Dufault and the other young scientists Beryl's column mentions died or were injured because no one had taken the time to teach them the proper, careful way that science should be practiced.  No one had taught them the most essential professional skill of all: how to stay alive.

The last time this blog mentioned the role of religion in an academic career, it was to consider the case of astronomer Martin Gaskell, whom the University of Kentucky did not hire, reportedly because of his religious beliefs.  But what of the opposite situation, becoming a faculty member who does not share the faith commitment of a college or university that has explicit religious ties?  

With all the votes in Canada's federal election now counted, former postdoc Peter Ferguson, whom Science Careers profiled last month, did not win the Parliamentary seat for the southern Ontario riding (electoral district) of London West.  He did, however, make a pretty impressive showing for a candidate whose campaign, he told us by e-mail, consisted of "all volunteers (not a single paid staff member) and...spent about 1/3 of what the other two leading parties did locally."

According to CBC News, Peter Ferguson, candidate of the New Democratic Party (NDP) got 25.9% of the vote in a five-way race, coming in third behind Ed Holder, the incumbent and candidate of the Conservative Party, who got 44.5%, and Doug Ferguson (no relation), the candidate of the Liberal Party, who got 26.78%, or 543 more votes than Peter Ferguson.  The Conservatives swept southern Ontario and the province at large, taking 73 of its 106  seats with 44.4% of the vote as against 25.6% for the second-place NDP.   The Conservatives also won a convincing majority of seats nationwide --167 of the total of 308 -- with NDP coming in second with 102, the party's "best electoral result ever," Peter Ferguson says.

Peter Ferguson is far from the only former academic to run (or, as Canadians say, stand) for office this year.  Both Jack Layton, leader of the NDP and now of the Parliamentary opposition, and Michael Ignatieff, who led the badly defeated Liberals, are Ph.D.s and former professors, Layton of political science and Ignatieff of history.  Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister and leader of the victorious Conservatives, has a masters degree in economics and has also given university lectures.

After Peter Ferguson winds down his campaign -- including, he told us, donning his orange rain parka (the NDP's official color) to 'help gather up election signs and meet up with my team for the post-mortem" -- we hope to get some observations from him about his experiences as scientist in politics.

EDIT: We've added a link to the interview with Shirley Tighman in the HHMI Bulletin, which is now public.

Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman is in a position to make a major impact on the lives and prospects of many young scientists.  As chair of the newly announced National Institutes of Health panel that will look into the future of the US biomedical workforce, she believes that "changes must be made if we are to sustain the vibrancy of the U.S. biomedical workforce," according to an interview in the May HHMI Bulletin. (The issue is now publicly available.)

"The root of the problem" is overproduction of Ph.D.s, she continues, and, if nothing changes, the situation stands to worsen in the years to come.  But, she adds, helpful "changes could be made to the structure of the typical biomedical research laboratory."  Specifically, she suggests reducing the number of trainees, who currently outnumber technicians 10 to 1,  and increasing the number of "permanent employees.... We need to explore such options."

One issue that will need careful examination is how to make any such change stick.  Using grad students and postdocs is much cheaper than paying the salaries that would give permanent employees a decent career ladder as well as career-style benefits. Cost, of course, is why PIs use grad students and postdocs in such numbers, turning ostensible trainees into cheap labor.  Will the NIH panel bite the bullet and favor paying permanent employees an appropriate wage?  Will it consider ways to get budget-conscious PIs to adopt this more expensive approach?

The answers to these questions lie in the future.  For now, Tilghman's comments are encouraging, implying as they do not only some new thinking but, potentially, some new career opportunities for scientists.