Science Careers Blog

July 2011

Moving from invention to commercializing it is a tough process, one for which scientists are often ill-prepared. In an article published yesterday on, Ph.D.-holder and licensed patent law practitioner Nadya Reingand offers academics practical advice on whether and how to embark on the process. 

In her article, Reingand helps academics decide whether they should attempt to commercialize their invention by explaining how to assess whether their inventions are "novel, profitable, owned by you." Reingand goes on to highlight the traditional lack of training for academics as one of the main challenges of commercialization, pointing readers to sources of help as well as specialized courses and workshops. She also alerts readers to the thorny issue of ownership in the context of student inventions.

"Although it is very satisfying to see an invention become a commercial success (and the monetary rewards are also nice!), this process usually takes a long time and much perseverance. Continuing research is often more fun," Reingand writes. Yet, with external funding becoming an increasingly important criteria in the evaluation of scientists by their universities, "rather than complaining about commercialization, individual scientist-inventors should focus on turning inventions into a rewarding part of their careers," Reingand continues. 

You can read the entire article here.

July 28, 2011

Apps as Academic Tools

An article published today in The Times Higher Education discusses how apps developed for smartphones are becoming increasingly valuable for academics in their jobs. "As well as research, apps are being used by academics to help with teaching and administration, and as a new way to engage with the public," writes Times Higher Education reporter Sarah Cunnane.

Cunnane gives the example of how Ph.D. student George MacKerron developed an app to gather field data for his research into how people's environments affect their happiness: every now and then the app prompts mobile phone users to record their states of mind while simultaneously taking note of their location and the level of surrounding noise. 

But academics do not necessarily need to be involved in developing apps to benefit from them. Cunnane mentions freely available apps like Evernote, which makes it easier and more efficient for academics to manage information. "Evernote allows users to take 'notes' in the form of sounds, pictures, text, websites or even handwritten sentences that can then be sorted into folders, tagged and edited," Cunnane writes.

Read the full article for more apps of interest to academics as well advice on how to develop your own app. 

July 28, 2011

Dissing the Doctorate

In case you missed it (as I did, until just now): Science Careers columnist Adam Ruben published his grad-student rap "Dissing the Doctorate" in the Education Life supplement of the New York Times on Sunday. You can access it online here.

If you're not already a regular reader, you should check out "Experimental Error," Ruben's monthly humor column for Science Careers.

For Ph.D.s who aspire to academic careers that include a lot of teaching, the challenge of learning how to conduct courses and organize lab work appropriate to undergraduates can be a considerable challenge.  Most grad schools and postdoc positions ignore pedagogy entirely, viewing time spent away from research as time wasted.   Nonetheless, several types of postdoctoral opportunities include structured experience standing in front of a classroom, plus mentoring in how to do it well, according to  an article in the August HHMI Bulletin.  These range from so-called teaching postdocs at liberal arts colleges that emphasize instructing undergraduates to programs that add an element of teaching experience to postdoc positions heavy on research.

"If people want to go into academic positions, a pure teaching postdoc can be fatal," says Joe Handelsman of Yale University, quoted in the article.  Even scientists aiming for careers on undergraduate faculties need a solid research record because, the article warns, "schools at all levels -- liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, and major research universities -- look first at research" when they hire.  But the data also appear to indicate that participants in combined research and teaching programs can do well at landing faculty jobs.  For a consideration of these program's pros and cons, check out the article here.

Michelle Dufault, the 22-year-old Yale University undergraduate physics student who died on April 12 while working on a physics project, has become the namesake of an asteroid.  Her hair became fatally entangled in a lathe she was using, apparently alone and late at night, in the university's Sterling Chemical Laboratory.  The Yale physics department yesterday announced the astronomical memorial, formally known as Asteroid Dufault.  The citation, composed by department chair C. Megan Urry, called Michelle an "outstanding astronomy and physics student" who was "passionate about science and about encouraging others, especially young women, to pursue science careers."

Investigations of the circumstances of Dufault's death are apparently still pending.

Though it was published months ago, I just recently came across a revealing interview by Jyllian Kemsley of Chemical & Engineering News on the subject of lab safety.  Timothy Gallagher is chair of the chemistry department at the University of Bristol in England and a real stickler for safety procedures in his labs.  Admitting that he is a reformed offender who as a postdoc suffered two research-related hospitalizations, Gallagher considers safety rules so important that he routinely -- and instantly -- bans from his labs any student or postdoc who doesn't comply.

No one is permitted to work alone or out of the sight of another person at any time. Period. Everyone must carry out a risk assessment every time they undertake a procedure.  But, Gallagher admits, even such consistent vigilance cannot prevent every mishap.  Unexpected events can -- and have -- caused injuries in his lab.  Making people feel constantly responsible for their own and their colleagues' safety is key to a lab that's as accident-free as possible, he believes. Safe practices, he adds, don't hamper but rather "enhance" scientific work.

The European Union is inviting applications for its first EU Prizes for Women Innovators, which will reward three women entrepreneurs for their "innovative work in any field or business."

To be eligible, women entrepreneurs must be residing in the EU or an associated country and have founded or co-founded a company before 1 January 2009. The applicant or her company must also have received EU funding for research projects. More detail on the eligibility criteria can be found on the European Commission Web site

There will be three prizes, of €100 000, €50 000, and €25 000, respectively. Applications will be judged according to the originality and marketability of the developed product or service, its economic and social relevance for Europe, and the scientific content of the innovation, which the applicant must have contributed to researching. 

Deadline for submission: 5 p.m. on 20 September 2011 (Brussels time).

For more information and to apply, check out the European Commission Web site.

Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner -- two behavioral and population ecologists, both research fellows at the Institute of Zoology in London -- argue in the Guardian Higher Education Network that what is needed for greater gender equality in science is not to attract more girls to science, but rather to help more women scientists stay. 

So, you think that a stellar academic record, terrific publications, a brilliant presentation, and enthusiastic recommendations will be enough to land you that faculty job?  Not so, says University of Utah computer scientist Matt Might in an essay in Inside Higher Ed.  Any number of unexpected screwups can derail your plans and degrade your performance on that all-important campus visit.  In addition to the obvious intellectual wherewithall, he suggests you bring an array of gadgets that he says can help prevent disaster and improve your outcome.

Want to make sure that your presentation slides are available no matter what and that they work in conjunction with the school's equipment?   That you appear dynamic and in control during your talk? That you can find your away around to explore the strange city where the campus is located--and that might be your home if you get the job?  That you can maximize your work time while you wait to change planes?  Might knows just the gizmo that can fill the bill.

July 20, 2011

Science in the Movies

Writing a blog post the other day, about the reaction of British scientist and filmmaker Christopher Riley to the last American space shuttle flight, got me thinking more generally about pop culture representations of science and scientists during the heyday of the space program. As I mentioned in that item, the image of space flight was very positive and the astronauts were portrayed in the media as handsome, virile, virtuous, all-American boys who also just happened to be experts at science and engineering. John Glenn, the photogenic Midwestern small-town boy who was the first American to orbit the earth, became an instant national celebrity in 1962. Twelve years later, after he retired from NASA, he won a seat in to the United States Senate from his native Ohio, which he kept for the next 25 years.

Beyond the exploits of the real astronauts, "Star Trek" and the TV epic of the starship Enterprise began in September 1966, almost three years ahead of the first manned moon landing in July, 1969. The landing, which "won" the space race with the Russians, was broadcast to astonished hundreds of millions around the world and brought the space program incalculable prestige and admiration. Millions of Americans (this reporter included) stayed up all night to catch the event "live from the surface of the moon," and many millions more in foreign countries saw it live in their respective time zones.

The European Research Council (ERC) today launched its fifth call for the ERC Starting Grants, which are designed to support outstanding early-career scientists as they set up or consolidate their independent research teams in Europe.

Awarded annually, the ERC Starting Grants scheme gives early-career scientists up to €2
million for up to 5 years to enable "them to get early scientific and professional independence," the ERC press release says. To be eligible scientists must have between 2 and 12 years of postdoctoral experience. All nationalities are eligible, but candidates must be hosted by a university or research center in one of the 27 EU Members states, or one of the 13 associated countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Iceland, Israel, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, FYR of Macedonia, Norway, Republic of Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland, or Turkey).

The Spanish Ministries for Science and Innovation and for Labor and Immigration today announced that they will jointly fund the initial training in research, development, and innovation of Ph.D.-holders and university graduates after recruitment by industry. The program is part of a national effort to boost innovation in Spanish industry. 

The initiative is part of the INNCORPORA funding program, which offers companies, scientific parks, and technological centers loans and grants to facilitate the employment of innovation-oriented staff from Ph.D.-holders to technicians, and support their training. The INNCORPORA initiative, which was launched in 2010, includes the Torres Quevedo program for the employment of Ph.D.-holders and the Titulados Universitarios program for technologists with a university diploma. This year, the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation has more than  440 million euros at its disposal to promote the employment of innovation-oriented staff and the competitiveness of the Spanish industry.  

"The objective is to equip the new hires with the training that the company needs in terms of R&D and innovation [and] with the capacities to generate new ideas, knowledge about opportunities for public funding, patents, internationalization, etc," the press release says (in Spanish).

It used to be that mothers counseled their kids not to brag.  But in academe, as in the rest of our Facebook- and Twitter-obsessed society, the days of genteel modesty are over.  In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee of Bowdoin College advise that "one of the most important things" a young would-be faculty member can do to advance a career is to get the word about publications out to influential senior members of his or her field.  

Letting aspring academics think that mere merit, hard work, excellence, and achievement will bring the advancement they seek is a "cruel disservice," write Connelly and Ghodsee, who recommend much more focused and strategic efforts toward this end. As evidence, they mention an economics study that found that gender did not affect the ratings or acceptances of submitted manuscripts, but "'mutual affiliation' of author and journal editors and co-editors" did.  In other words, you'll have a better chance of being published if the people making the decisions know you and your work.

Last Tuesday, the American Council on Education (ACE) released a report on the legal issues surrounding faculty retirement in U.S. higher education institutions. 

While tenured faculty in the United States are free to choose when to retire (since mandatory retirement was abolished in 1994), higher-education institutions may offer retirement incentive programs. Because "Higher education institutions face increasingly complex legal challenges," ACE produced a report -- called 'Supporting the Culminating Stages of Faculty Careers: Legal Issues' and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation -- assessing faculty's civil rights and employment and tax issues in the context of retirement.   

July 14, 2011

Time to Buy a House?

Buying a house is one of those life decisions that can have great repercussions, for good and bad, on a scientific career. It may for example be very tempting for new Ph.D. graduates to buy a house as soon as they get their first position, but they would be well-advised to hang on just a little longer, Gene C. Fant Jr. writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"The itch to get out of apartment living is too much for many folks to put up with for much longer. Add to this the current buyers' market and low interest rates in many locales and the hunt is on pretty early in the year," Fant Jr. writes. But you may want to wait until you know your workload if the house needs much refurbishing, or until you are sure that you like your new institution. "Relocating with a house to sell is a very steep challenge," Fant Jr. writes. 

Read the full article and readers' comments on the Chronicle.

With graduate employees and temporary, part-time, or non-tenure-track faculty now reportedly constituting 73 percent of those teaching in America's colleges and universities, obtaining affordable health insurance--or, often, any insurance at all--can be a challenge for many in academia. Now, however, reports Inside Higher Ed, a nation-wide organization for adjuncts and contingent faculty known as the New Faculty Majority (NFM) is making health insurance available to its members in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Membership in NFM is open to everyone who wishes to join and costs $15 a year. Though the coverage is "limited" and "less than that offered with traditional employer-sponsored group benefits, it's a step in the right direction," says the NFM website.

You can learn the details here.
The notorious scientific fraud of former Columbia University chemist Bengü Sezen harmed a lot more than scientific knowledge, reports William G. Schulz in Chemical & Engineering News on July 7. The graduate work and Ph.D. prospects of three other young would-be scientists working along with Sezen in the lab of their mutual mentor became collateral damage in Sezen's spectacular deceit.

Two "lengthy reports" by the university and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services reveal Sezen's "massive and sustained effort...over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results," Schulz reports. The elaborate and skillful deception, for which she was ultimately found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct, goes all the way back to the work for her Ph.D., which Columbia University is seeking to withdraw. 

July 8, 2011

A Giant Leap for PhDs?

In an open letter to President Obama published in The Guardian, scientist-filmmaker Christopher Riley of London University mourns the passage of the United States manned space-flight program and notes the positive effect that the once-glamorous effort had on young Americans' propensity to pursue Ph.D.s in the physical sciences.  

Whether having astronauts aboard would contribute more to science than sending out unmanned vehicles is something I can't judge, but Riley is right about something else: In the heyday of the space program, those at the cutting edge of technology were viewed not as bespectacled geeks but as the hunky ideal of every red-blooded American boy.

Microsoft's presentation software -- PowerPoint -- is almost universally used at scientific (and other) conferences, but not everyone is a fan. Many scientists have criticized PowerPoint's static and often overcrowded bullet points.

As reported by Peter Sayer in an article published yesterday in CIO magazine, Swiss public-speaking trainer Matthias Poehm dislikes PowerPoint so much that he founded a new political party -- Switzerland's Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) -- and is gathering signatures to call for a referendum on the ban of PowerPoint around the country.

As an editor (and former scientist), I've had many discussions over the years with my wife, a chemistry professor, about the challenges she faces in teaching writing-intensive introductory science courses. her challenge reflects a recent trend toward teaching writing in the context of particular subjects, including scientific subjects. It's all perfectly normal if the subject is economics, history, or literature -- but not so much in the natural sciences. Teaching science students to write as they learn about science is hard, especially for faculty members who have never thought much about how to teach writing. They can do it, and do it well, but it takes a lot of work.

An article today in Inside Higher Education describes some of the challenges MIT's math department faced when called upon to teach writing in their courses. It's quite an interesting discussion of differences among different types of writing, such as the "artful variation" often used in non-technical writing to break up monotony -- but which can lead to confusion in mathematical (and other scientific) writing because technical readers assume you must have a good reason -- something more concrete than the desire to be artful -- for using a different word.

Also mentioned in the piece is a Web site under development by MIT mathematics faculty members and sponsored by NSF, "that is meant to be a forum for those teaching communication skills to mathematics students. Faculty will be able to crowdsource their ideas, post lessons, exercises and classroom examples, reflect on their experiences, and develop some consensus about what works."

The striking characteristics of the nutritional sciences are its long and colorful history, its broad scope and complexity, its ability to integrate with other scientific disciplines, and the excellent opportunities it offers for a scientific career.

Its long history includes the first written nutritional research study -- reported in the Book of the Prophet Daniel, in the Bible. In Chapter 1, Daniel and his companions, captives of King Nebuchadnezzar, disdain the food and wine they are offered from the royal table and request a diet of vegetables and water. After a 10-day "clinical trial," they look healthier and better fed than the "control" group eating from the royal table. As a reward, the King admits the group into his service.

The broad scope of the nutritional sciences is well documented by the information provided by the more than 160 graduate programs offering advanced degrees in the field. Nutritional sciences encompass all aspects of an organism's interaction with food, and can be investigated at levels ranging from molecules to populations.

An op-ed in today's New York Post, by Josh Bloom, director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council of Science and Health, expresses dismay over diminished prospects for scientists in the United States, and astonishment at continuing efforts to sell science as a career in the face of diminished prospects:
The folks at Scientific American have launched "1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days" -- a program to bring together scientists, teachers and students to improve America's "dismal" showing among wealthy countries (27th out of 29) in graduating college students with degrees in science or engineering. I'm sure they mean well -- but, at least as it applies to the field of chemistry, "1,000 Unemployed Scientists Living With Their Parents at Age 35 While Working at the Gap" would be a better name.
Bloom, who says he spent 20 years working in drug discovery, focuses on the pharmaceutical industry and blames that industry's decline -- and the resulting layoffs and off-shoring of research -- for the sad state of science careers in the United States.

According to an analysis article published yesterday by Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), job trends in the global chemical industry remained flat in 2010.

C&EN reports that in 2010 the U.S. chemical industry workforce fell by 2.5% -- representing 20,000 jobs -- following an average loss of 2.0% per year since 2000. The pharmaceutical sector had it especially bad, with U.S. pharmas laying off additional 54,000 employees in 2010 on top of previous years' layoffs, C&EN adds. Pretty much the same picture emerged from Europe and Japan. "Although 2010 marked the return of demand and earnings for the global chemical industry, there was no corresponding growth in employment," C&EN says.

But there are some green patches. 

A recent study of how well prepared science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) graduates in the United Kingdom feel when looking for a job, and of what motivates them, revealed that:

  • Graduates find extra-curricular activities to be the best way to develop their competencies outside of their degree. 
  • STEM graduates feel least confident in their leadership and self-evaluation abilities. 
  • Applicants' confidence in all competencies drops during a stressful situation, such as job interviews. 
  • A lack of experience concerns graduates most when they're looking for a job. 
  • About three quarters of STEM graduates take the opinions of their friends, family, or lecturers into consideration when choosing a career. 
  • Personal fulfillment is the most important aspect influencing STEM graduates when choosing their first job. 
The study was driven by Teach First, an independent charity that trains teachers and ambassadors to reduce education inequalities for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The data -- drawn from two surveys of around 15,500 students -- were provided by trendence, a Berlin-based research institute specialized in student-perception surveys. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institute of Physics, the Ogden Trust, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust were also involved.

Read the press release for more information.