Science Careers Blog

June 2011

Following a period of modest growth, online job ads were down slightly in June, according to the latest report from the Conference Board, released today. 

The Spanish Federation of Young Investigators (FJI)/Precarios today denounced delays and errors in the allocation of international fellowships for Spanish postdocs. "The terrible management of the postdoctoral grants maintains more than a thousand young investigators in an unsustainable situation," says the press release (translated from Spanish by this blogger). FJI/Precarios is a Spanish umbrella association that was created in 2000 to improve the working conditions of early-career researchers in Spain.

A decision last week by a regional official of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may make it more likely that graduate student assistants at private universities will be allowed to form unions. The decision was reported today in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Technically, the ruling was a win for New York University (NYU) in that a petition brought by an NYU graduate student organization was dismissed. But, in rendering this judgment, Elbert F. Tellem, acting director of the NLRB regional office in Manhattan, concluded that graduate assistants have a "dual relationship" with the university that is "both academic and economic" and "does not necessarily preclude a finding of employee status." Tellem's opinion opens the way for the NLRB to revisit a 2004 decision that held, in a party-line vote, that graduate student assistants cannot unionize.

Only one NLRB member remains from that 2004 board -- chairman Wilma B. Liebman, who was first appointed by President Bill Clinton and was reappointed by President George W. Bush. Two other current members were recess appointments by President Barack Obama. Both have strong union connections. The fourth current member is a Republican appointee. The nomination of Terence F. Flynn, who was nominated by Obama but has served as general counsel to two Republican NLRB members, is pending before the Senate.

In the announcement, the RI framed the issue like this: "It's the scientists and the engineers who will ultimately develop and build the supply of clean energy we will need, the artificial organisms key to future  biotech, and the robotics crucial to our growing strength in the space sector. But young scientists are fed up with short term contracts, poor salaries and uncertain career progression. Do the 'great and the good' have their interests at heart?"

The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) reported on the event, highlighting the questions posed by the audience and answers given by David Willetts, the U.K. Minister of State for Universities and Science. You may also listen to the entire debate in a podcast posted on the POD delusion Web site. 

Now the SCI wants to hear your views. You can take part in a forum discussion, or simply vote on whether you agree or not that young researchers have been let down by the establishment.  

The Phi Beta Kappa Society's Key Reporter presents a wrap-up of recent reports discussing the situation of women in science, one of which we previously covered on this blog.  Pomona College biologist Laura L. Mays Hoopes concludes that "although women have come a long way as incipient or actual scientists, more work remains to be done for them to feel like full-fledged members of the scientific community."

The article includes links to the reports and also to an interesting self-test for implicit bias (which is often cited as a factor discouraging girls and women from advancing in science).  In addition, befitting a society of top college students, it gives full bibliographic citations.  (One of these, however, contains a spelling error -- not quite A-plus work, Phi Bet!)

Eight computer science experts discuss, in the New York Times "Room for Debate" feature, the meaning of a new boom in interest in the subject that appears to be happening on American campuses.  What does growing enrollment in the field mean for students, the economic outlook, and the field itself?   Contributors include such stalwarts of the science labor force debates as Vivek Wadhwa, who has gigs at University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard and Duke Universities, and computer science professor Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis. Numerous knowledgeable readers add astute comments.

 "If we want a real Sputnik moment, we need to create the same demand -- and excitement -- we had for engineers and scientists in the 60s, when it seemed the nation's survival was at stake," Wadhwa writes.  That's only one of illuminating points the contributors make about what differentiates the days of "The Right Stuff" from those of "The Social Network" -- and what those differences may mean for the future.

Some new regulations for student visas in the United Kingdom go into effect on 4 July. Among the changes is the need for visa applicants to declare that they have the necessary funds to support themselves during their course of study (though a fast-track application process will be put in place for "low risk students" coming from certain countries). One important change is that only postgraduate students whose course lasts more than 12 months, as well as government-sponsored students, will be able to bring dependents to the United Kingdom. 

As reported today by Europa Press, three of Spain's most prominent biomedical researchers have called for more public-private partnerships to support the education of the next generation of Spanish scientists.

The three Spanish researchers are Pedro Alonso, Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Health Research (CRESIB); Valentín Fuster, Director of the Spanish National Centre for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC) in Madrid and the Zena and Michael A. Wiener Cardiovascular Institute at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York; and Mariano Barbacid, Director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre. The declarations were made at the 2nd Conference on Biomedical Diagnostics at the Hospital Infanta Sofía de San Sebastián de los Reyes, near Madrid.

Alonso suggested promoting public-private partnerships to encourage scientific vocations in young people before they reach university, "as is done in football schools," Europa Press reports. One such example already exists in Spain, Alonso said, pointing to the CNIC, which runs the ACERCATE program for high school students to be introduced to the scientific method. Fuster explained that the CNIC was able to put in place such programs thanks to private funding, with Barbacid adding that this was "a model to follow."

You can read the whole report (in Spanish) on Europa Press.

Science students and postdocs from China are a significant presence in university labs and graduate and undergraduate programs across North America and Europe. Would fewer of China's excellent aspiring scientists go abroad to study if more of the universities at home met international standards of research and, especially, undergraduate and graduate teaching?

Qingshi Zhu, a prominent chemist, education reform advocate and president of South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), the country's newest university, believes that the answer is yes, according to an intriguing article in Chemical & Engineering News. Keeping highly talented students and postdocs in China's academic labs would, he notes, help boost the country's overall research effort. The institution Zhu heads, which currently is seeking accreditation, is based on a different model from China's older institutions and is designed to aim for world standards.

Bureaucracy, politics, and pressure to publish have stifled previous improvement efforts, including some by Zhu himself, reports Shawna Williams from Chengdu, China. Can SUSTC succeed in demonstrating a new model that could provide more Chinese students with world-class education without leaving home? It's too soon to tell, Williams notes, although Zhu is optimistic. The outcome of this effort, and the influence it may have on other institutions in China, could affect decisions by talented Chinese students and postdocs about where to seek their educations -- which would affect universities around the world.

A pair of essays in Inside Higher Ed by Yale University biology professor Stephen C. Stearns offers clear-eyed and sometimes counter-intuitive advice on how to succeed in graduate school. The first essay emphasizes the importance of knowing one's own mind and taking responsibility for one's graduate career. "Nobody cares about you" -- in the sense that no one is constantly looking out for you -- and "psychological problems are the biggest barrier" are two central messages; Stearns also suggests ways of coping. [Editor's Note: It's not online yet, but look for our article "Mind Matters: Resilience," which will be posted Thursday afternoon. When it's posted you'll be able to access it at]

Stearns adds that one should stay alert for and open to opportunities other than sticking it out all the way to the PhD. Some such possibilities may work out much better for you in the long run. "There are a lot of interesting things to do in life besides being a scientist," he notes, "and in some the job market is a lot better."

But as long as you are in grad school, his second essay offers a straightforward approach to meeting one of the real challenges of building a scientific career: learning to write effectively. First, he suggests that to hone your skills you "write a proposal and get it criticized." He explains why and how to do this, and how it will help to advance both your education and your career. He also suggests that you "start publishing early" because unless you are an author of "substantial articles in internationally recognized, refereed journals, can forget a career in science." Harsh words, perhaps, but sound advice. For learning how to do this, Stearns again lays out some very useful suggestions.

June 8, 2011

The Rennaissance Man

There's a great post by Ed Yong at Discover's Not Exactly Rocket Science about Erez Lieberman Aiden, a polymath scientist who, at 31, has a joint appointment between Harvard and MIT. I wish we had published it.

On Twitter: @SciCareerEditor

When Rosalyn Yalow was young, her mother often expressed gratitude that the girl "chose to do acceptable things," Yalow recalled many years later.  Yalow was such "stubborn, determined" girl that, she continued, "if I had chosen otherwise, no one could have deflected me from my path." Fortunately Yalow, who died on May 30 at the age of 89, chose the acceptable -- if, at the time, highly unconventional -- path of science. But, as she recounted in her Nobel Prize autobiography, it took all the stubbornness and determination she could muster, plus the aid of some very supportive teachers and the good luck of the World War II draft, for her to achieve the career that made her, in 1977, only the second female laureate in medicine or physiology.

She also achieved the life she wanted beyond science.  She felt a "duty to speak to young women, to encourage them to have careers, and particularly careers in science," according to the Washington Post.  But she also advised that "all women scientists should marry, rear children, cook and clean in order to achieve fulfillment, to be a complete woman."  Live-in hired help supplemented her own domestic efforts while her two children were small.  Her daughter, the Post reported, considered her "a pretty wonderful mother."

What is the common element in many catastrophic safety failures, ranging from the explosion that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 to the needless deaths of Sheri Sangji at UCLA in 2009 and Michele Dufault at Yale in April of this year?

A penetrating analysis in chapter 12 of the independent experts' report on last year's Upper Big Branch mine disaster, in which 29 miners perished, suggests an illuminating answer: the "normalization of deviance." (I learned of this chapter, by the way, from the blog of Jillian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News.) This interpretation derives from research into the Challenger disaster presented by Columbia University sociologist Diane Vaughan in her 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA.It is important because it goes beyond the usual explanations of academic laboratory safety incidents, which often blame the lack of a safety culture. Rather, it suggests something more pernicious: the presence of cultures not only indifferent but actually inimical to good safety practices.

Scientific funding bodies often must either balance or choose between two funding-related imperatives: providing opportunity for scientific up-and-comers and ensuring generous support for members of an established, productive scientific elite. With its latest funding program, the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust shifts towards the productive elite, providing big grants to a few scientific stars at a handful of top institutions using money freed up by canceling smaller funding programs.There are, however, a few up-and-comers on its list of new grantees.

Colin MacIlwain reports in the latest Science that 27 Wellcome Trust Investigators -- 7 in the first 5 years of their first faculty appointments -- will share £57 million. Similar (but smaller) competitions will follow. Eventually, the trust plans to support more than 300 scientists at similar levels.

The U.K.'s Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is inviting nominations for the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award 2011. The award aims to recognize the best female engineer under 30 years of age currently working in the United Kingdom. Among the qualities the IET is looking for are being an "energetic and technically excellent professional", "a high achiever", "a problem solver", "a team player"-- and being charismatic. 

The awardee will receive £1000 and a trophy, which will be presented during a national ceremony in London in December. The awardee will be called upon throughout the year to act as an ambassador at high-profile events, which the EIT says will give her a chance to network and boost her career.

Two runner-up awards will also be presented, one to an engineer "who has followed an apprentice route" and the other to an engineer "who has followed a graduate route." The former will be awarded the Mary George Prize, the latter the Women's Engineering Society Prize. Both  will "have opportunities to attend high profile events and meet the influential people in our industry."

You may nominate yourself or others through the EIT Web site. Deadline: 29 July.

Nina Dudnik, a molecular biologist from Harvard, is the founder and CEO of the Boston-based Seeding Labs. The non-profit organization tries to bridge the resource gap between research labs in the U.S. and the developing world, starting with lab equipment. Dudnik is on the Massachusetts High Tech council's list of women to watch in 2011.

Dudnik did a research stint in the Africa Rice Center in Cote d'Ivoire, in 2000, as a Fulbright scholar. During her time there she realized, she says, that the technicians at the lab -- some of whom did not have a college degree -- were just as skilled at scientific work as scientists in richer countries. But they lacked material resources to go further.

When she returned to the U.S., she spoke with colleagues about this resource crunch. She told them about African researchers who would carefully rinse out disposable pipette tips and re-use them several times.

Dudnik realized she could help, even as a student. She and her lab friends set about scouring Harvard labs for old but serviceable scientific equipment, which Harvard researchers often leave in the hallway right outside their labs. Their first shipment went to schools in South America. As word got around, other researchers began to contact them with donations. In 2007, Dudnick received the Echoing Green fellowship to launch Seeding Labs and expand its operations. In 2010, Nina became a TED Global Fellow. Today she has left the bench, pursuing a career as a full-time social entrepreneur.

Here's how Seeding Labs works: Researchers from labs in the developing world send an application listing their equipment needs. When a match is found for items on their list, they pay a small fee -- a small percentage of the equipment's original cost -- to cover shipping and handling costs. The buyer is responsible for clearing the equipment through customs. Seeding Labs also helps recipients get training to fix the equipment when it breaks. Thus far, Dudnik has worked with labs in 16 countries, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Working in a lab can be a very social experience, but it isn't always. The more social part of science is limited to a small subset of people, says Dudnik who likes to be around people. "Running Seeding Labs, I get to spend time with an incredible range of people across the world and across many sectors. On any given day, I might talk to a pharmaceutical executive in Boston, a bench scientist in Ghana, a student in Cambridge or Kenya, social media marketers, lawyers, accountants, [or] warehouse managers," she says. "I learn so much every day, and get to have conversations I never imagined."
                        - Vijaysree Venkatraman

It probably shouldn't come as a surprise to physical scientists finishing up their Ph.D. that choosing a postdoc position requires doing more of same thing one did in graduate school: research.  That's the basic message Rice University physics and astronomy professor Douglas Natelson imparts in an article on "Picking a Postdoc Post" in Inside Higher Ed.  Careful investigation of the opportunities and practices in different fields is crucial to finding a suitable spot.  So are "word of mouth and self-motivation," Natelson says.

Among the issues a would-be postdoc should investigate: the structure of funding within a given field (because it can differ across disciplines) and the possible existence of "hidden" opportunities that may not have been advertised. Natelson advises taking the initiative and writing to scientists whose work appears exciting, even if they haven't announced a vacancy.  

Beyond scoping out the market, getting a clear picture of one's own goals and preferences is also vital to finding a good fit.  Do you want to stay close to your dissertation subject or move toward another field?  Are you aiming for academe or industry?  And, perhaps most important, what is it you want out of a postdoc experience? 

For more advice on choosing a postdoc, in physical science or any other scientific field, read our own take in "A Perfect Postdoc: A Primer".