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Science Careers Blog

May 2012

Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced the creation of a new $26 million funding mechanism, the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge, that will fund approximately 12 projects designed to spur innovation-based manufacturing and leverage technology into new companies and jobs. Funding for the program comes from six federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration, the Small Business Administration, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Amid the #whatihadfordinner hash-tags and the inane ramblings of B-list celebrities, there's a thriving, useful, and potentially career-boosting culture on Twitter that scientists can tap into. A panel of scientists and science writers held a workshop earlier this week at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., to share their advice and perspective on how scientists can use Twitter to communicate their science more effectively and connect with fellow researchers. Among the advice:

  • Use direct messages or Twitter "mentions" to reach out to prominent scientists. Many of them won't respond to phone calls or e-mails, but they're more than happy to strike up a conversation on Twitter. --Jamie Vernon, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow - @JLVernonPhD
  • Listen to people's complaints and criticisms on Twitter. It's a often more polite environment than the comment sections of blogs, and the public appreciates knowing that you're taking their criticisms seriously. --Danielle Brigada, manager of social media at the National Wildlife Federation - @starfocus
  • Tweeting in real time can be an interesting way to cover an event. If you do a real-time tweeting experiment and something doesn't work, scientists following you might be able to help diagnose the problem. --Matt Hartings, chemistry professor at American University - @sciencegeist
  • Tweeting about your research and its implications can help shift the public's image of what a scientist is and about the value of scientific research and evidence. --John Ohab, public affairs specialist at the Naval Research Laboratory - @johnohab
  • If you think your work has been misrepresented in the media, use Twitter to set the record straight or respond to criticism. --Maria-José Viñas, science writer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - @mjvinas
You can follow me and my perspectives on science career issues at @Michael_B_Price, and Science Careers more generally at @MyScienceCareer. Jim Austin, the Editor of Science Careers, tweets as @SciCareerEditor.

The Debate Club at US News has taken up an issue dear to our hearts here at Science Careers: the STEM labor force: The 25 March edition focuses on the widely publicized proposals to "staple a green card" to every scientific and technical diploma earned in the United States in order to meet a purported shortage of STEM graduates.

Seven writers square off on the issue, several of whom--Ron Hira, Norm Matloff, and Hal Salzman--will be familiar to many Science Careers readers. These three are widely respected as scholars of STEM labor force issues--in stark contrast to the figures from business and industry who regularly argue for increasing the current supply of cheap, highly skilled scientific and technical labor.

Hira, Matloff, and Salzman, two other writers (one of whom US News misleadingly counts as favoring the overall "stapling" proposal) present cogent, well-documented arguments against any such blanket action. They show that no shortage of able STEM graduates exists in the United States and why the proposal would harm both the already overcrowded U.S. STEM labor force and the nation's ability to attract talented Americans to STEM fields.

The writers who strongly favor the proposal are a politician and a representative of a small-business lobby. 

One wonders why the debate includes no representatives of the large tech firms and universities that are the usual advocates of admitting more foreign STEM workers. Did they not wish to defend their position in writing against the arguments of true experts?

But you needn't take my word for any of this. You can find all the articles here.

Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News conveys a safety alert, first reported 21 May, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry department concerning an explosion in one of its labs. The incident is reportedly under investigation; the alert (included in the linked article) provides a fairly technical account of the kind of research that was being done in the lab.

What's important from our point of view is this: "Fortunately, because the researcher was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and working in front of a sliding blast shield, only minor injuries resulted from the explosion," the alert states.

Dangerous accidents are a reality of scientific experimentation, but it's great to report this kind of news for a change.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) in Singapore is inviting scientists under 40 years of age to apply for a generous fellowship to carry out independent research in the country.

The Singapore NRF Fellowships offer tenure-track faculty positions that come with a salary package equivalent to that of a local assistant professor and a research grant of up to $2.4 million over 5 years. These are individual fellowships, so researchers get to choose the host institution; NRF Fellows will be able to lead their own teams at the institution of their choice, as long as it's in Singapore. Shortlisted candidates will be invited in January to visit local research organizations for a week, before the final interview, so they may discuss support for their research and choose potential host institutions.

Now in its sixth round, the Fellowship scheme welcomes research proposals in computer science, all branches of engineering, medicine, life sciences, and natural/physical sciences. To apply you must have a Ph.D. and postdoctoral experience. Scientists of all nationalities are eligible.

More information about the scheme and how to apply can be found on the NRF Web site.

Deadline for application: 15 August 2012. The announcement of short-listed candidates will be no later than 30 November 2012.

We've just reported on a scientist-founded satirical group called Americans for a More American America. Now Inside Higher Ed is reporting in a serious vein on what I suppose could be called "Indians for a More Indian India." It's a proposed plan for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in the northern city of Kanpur -- one of the celebrated IITs that are the country's most prestigious scientific universities -- establish an office in the United States to lure some of the many Indian-born scientists working or studying on American campuses back home to faculty posts in their native country.

Unlike at comparable institutions in the U.S., where hiring is highly competitive, at IIT Kanpur, one in three faculty slots goes unfilled, writes Inside Higher Ed's Kaustuv Basu. This faculty shortage reportedly limits the courses and research projects the institution can undertake. 

Low salaries and high levels of bureaucracy are major factors that discourage many Indian Ph.D.s from returning to become professors in their home country. The office, tentatively slated for Washington, D.C., or New York City, would have access to private funds to boost the salaries offered to new hires at the government-supported IIT.

Plans to establish the office are not yet definite, and whether it could succeed at its mission is even less clear. However, given the current debate over high-skill immigration in the United States, it's interesting to speculate on what might happen if the office does succeed in attracting talent to IIT. Who would fill the positions that homeward-bound Indians vacate? What effect might their departure have on the brutally tight faculty job market here in the United States? If expanded faculties allow more extensive offerings at the IITs, would fewer Indians come here as students, postdocs or professors in the first place?

Should the office actually come into existence, I suspect that many people in both countries will be watching with great interest.
This presidential election year, super PACs, political actions committees that can accept unlimited contributions and make independent campaign expenditures, have proliferated to support candidates of all ideological stripes.  Among the least likely superpacs is Americans for a More American America (AFAMAA), established by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) postdoc Michael Invernale.

Tracy Ainsworth, who wrote this week's In Person essay on combining a science career with family in Australia, sent me an e-mail describing her experiences, which I reproduce here with her permission:
Last year I was part of a group of female scientists that spoke with several girls high schools about science as a career. One of the discussion points the students raised was the career not supporting women having families. I came away asking myself, how have we done this? How is it high school students are questioning if the career is possible. Also over the past few years I have seen many graduates leave science at the end of a PhD, not because they don't enjoy the science but because they don't like the career. It is a very sad thing, both for the people who are not following their interest into science and for the career to miss out on what they could have contributed.

In the last decade in Australia institutions and the Research Councils have begun to turn things around with a few significant policy shifts. For example, the ROPE system (Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence) allows researches applying for grants to discuss their research outputs as relative to the opportunities they have had to undertake research.  The tide here has also changed on the idea that if you intend to have kids you are not serious about your career. I feel that my work takes me more seriously because I remain actively engaged in contributing. I know that, if I do well, I am part of my group doing well, and I feel they support me 100%. I don't think I could ask for more. But departments/institutions gain from supporting women in these years - why train someone else to leave when you can have productive people who are good at what they do staying productive.

In between having my 2 children I decided I wanted to stay in a research-only role in the near future. Not because I think tenure and family are prohibitive, but I decided I didn't want that career just yet (I am a much better researcher than I am an educator). Waiting to start having a family was risky and what I learned from my experiences was that I couldn't force my life to fit career expectations established by another generation at a time when the career was different. I want my career to fit my expectations and my life. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime, not just kids. I would say to anyone who thinks having a family is bad for their science, to look at their CV and ignore the past year, 2 years or even seven years, and ask themselves if not having that section of their CV means they would no longer be a good scientist or that the science they did before is no longer good. It doesn't!  I feel it is possible to find another way to achieve a long career in science and academia, and policies here in Australia, do make a difference. Both attitudes and opportunities are changing.

Science Careers is a great resource and place to find inspiration, and does make a difference for many people in the early stages of their career. I wrote the essay late at night (on my iPhone), while up with my 4month old because I was reading the Science Careers app while he as feeding. I was inspired to speak up about my recent post-doctoral experiences and how they have changed how I approach my career in science.

Baffled by U.S. high-skill immigration policy? A report issued by the Congressional Research Service on 11 May provides a clear, concise, balanced, and brief overview of the programs and policy issues in this highly contentious area, as well as a history of the legislation affecting it. One interesting fact: about 10% of the H-1B visas issued for 2011 were for work at universities.  Another fact: though a number of bills to make changes in the current situation have been introduced, none has advanced as far as to clear a committee, which is a vital step toward a bill becoming law. In other words, nothing to bring about any changes has happened yet.
A small but poignant dramatic moment occurs whenever the researcher--young or old--opens the e-mail containing a decision letter about his or her latest research article and knows the fate of it has been largely decided by the advice of anonymous reviewers. Inevitably, we bless or curse those reviewers--but I suggest that you join them and do it early in your career.  

Kathleen Bongiovanni is "pretty low on the totem pole" at the Seattle Children's Research Institute and, being a program manager, is not even technically a researcher. But a "passing comment" made by a senior medical expert gave her an idea that has already merited a $100,000 research grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It may eventually be developed into a simple test that could save the lives of millions of premature babies in poor countries, reports Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, a website that reports on global health.

Nobody believed a young program manager like Bongiovanni could win a research grant from a prestigious foundation, but she applied anyway. Now she's preparing to begin her study and  is even traveling to Uganda to look into organizing a pilot project there.

Bongiovanni's brainwave occurred when, during a meeting, neonatologist Tom Hansen, MD, mentioned a test for respiratory distress that can kill premature babies that was used early in his career, but which has now been superseded in the United States by high-tech monitoring  methods. In the "old days," Hansen said, doctors tested babies for the conditions by mixing alcohol with fluid obtained by amniocentesis. If the mixture was bubbly, the baby's lungs were healthy. If not, the baby was in respiratory distress.

"My idea was to revamp the old test so that it can be used with oral fluid from a newborn's mouth," the article quotes Bongiovanni. "I thought to myself that this could be really useful in poor countries." Thanks to her gumption in applying for a Gates Grand Challenges grant, she now has the chance to find out. And if she's right, countless babies may survive infancy who otherwise wouldn't.

It's wonderful that something so cheap and simple might do so much good. And it's possibly even more wonderful that someone of low academic status, whose colleagues "expressed doubt" (to put it mildly, I'll bet) that she could succeed in attracting funding, will actually have the chance to put her elegant insight to the test. Who knows what brilliant ideas are hatching among people "not qualified" to receive funding? Here's hoping that Bongiovanni was right; not only about her chances of winning the grant, but about saving babies as well.
As the academic science world awaits the next development in the case against UCLA and Patrick Harran over the death of Sheri Sangji, chemical safety expert Russ Phifer has been looking at the efforts UCLA has been making to improve safety in its labs. Writing at Chemical & Engineering News, he reviews the work of the University of California's Center for Laboratory Safety, founded in the wake of the catastrophe.  He also introduces Petros Yiannikouros, UCLA's new chemical hygeine officer, whose hiring, Phifer said, is part of UCLA's effort "to fundamentally change its safety culture."

After spending "a number of hours" with Yiannikouros, Phifer finds him not only technically well qualified but also "engaging, communicative, and fun to talk with"--all qualities needed to help him convince errant lab chiefs to change their ways.  "It is clearly a challenge to get principal investigators to 'buy in' to structured safety behavior," Phifer writes, "but it looks like Yannikouros has the tools to do that at UCLA."

That's good news, and also ought to be an example to other institutions.


Where can a scientist in his early 30s make major advances in a cutting-edge field while enjoying stimulating colleagues, intellectual freedom, and the resources to take risks?  According to a short article in the print Metro section of today's Washington Post, as well as a longer online piece, the answer is the federal government, specifically the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Building a successful, lifelong career in a technical field requires the strategic development of a range of skills, a resilient network, and a solid professional reputation, John Meredith, former president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), advised on 5 May at the IEEE-USA annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Meredith described how these principles helped him build his own successful, 40-year career with a number of prominent companies. While Meredith went through times of economic upheaval in specific industries, he has never been laid off, he said.

Now retired from a career that included work in nuclear energy and integrated circuits, Meredith remains an active volunteer at IEEE and a member of the board of the IEEE Foundation. His presentation was aimed at engineers but the ideas he outlined will serve anyone with advanced scientific or technical training who seeks a successful industrial career.

Richard Din, A 25-year-old research associate working in a San Francisco, California, Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center lab, died 28 April apparently due to a bacterial infection contracted at the lab. Details about the death were released last week and our sister publication, Science Insider, has full coverage.

Din was working with the bacterium Neisseria meningiditis, a biosafety level 2 pathogen that can trigger fatal meningococcal disease. It's not clear yet how Din became infected with N. meningiditis, nor is it known whether appropriate safety measures were in place and being followed. A preliminary internal investigation found no problems with the biosafety hood under which Din was studying the bacterium.

The lab remains closed while local and federal investigators from the VA, the Department of Public Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration carry out further inspections. Stay tuned for more details as they come available.

Actually, that headline is a take-off on the long-time Dupont slogan, but it encapsulates the possible result of a pilot program announced 31 April by the Dow chemical company and the University of Minnesota to improve safety in the university's chemistry and chemical engineering labs.  As Jyllian Kemsley reports at Chemical & Engineering News, the program will focus on "building and sustaining a good safety culture," although "neither Down nor UMN comes to the program with the expectation that the university will duplicate Dow's safety program."

"This unique safety partnership"--in the words of a university release--will extend to through the summer and will try to address, among other issues, the training problems caused by the high rate of arrivals and departures in academic labs. The program will also involve a "Joint Safety Team" composed of safety officers from every chemical engineering and chemical research group on the campus and will expose university people to Dow's best practices, with the goal of adapting them to academic research.

With industry widely recognized as enforcing much higher lab safety standards than academic institutions, this effort appears to hold real promise for improving safety practices at UMN, and perhaps even as a model for other institutions. We will never how many hideous incidents the program may prevent, but the students, postdocs, and researchers who improve their practices because of it might wish to consider a paraphrase of another advertising slogan long popular in days gone by:  The lives they save may be their own.

This blog post was edited on 7 May.

Often missing from the discussion over whether there are too many Ph.D. scientists being produced and too few jobs available in academia for them are empirical data on whether those scientists do, in fact, desire academic positions--and whether that desire changes over time. 

"We always assume that people want to get academic positions and not many get them, and so we think, 'Oh, they all want it and there's a big imbalance,' " says Henry Sauermann, a behavioral economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "But maybe nobody really wants them. Maybe those people, when they've watched their advisers, have realized that it's a really tough job, not much time for research, a lot of time spent writing grants and so on. It could go either way. We don't really know what these preferences look like." 

In a paper out today in the Public Library of Science ONE, Sauermann and his colleague  Michael Roach, a decision scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, weigh in with some findings that could be important for framing future discussions: As students progress through their doctoral programs, they become less and less likely to want an academic job after they graduate.

To find that out, the researchers surveyed 4109 Ph.D. students across 39 tier-one U.S. research universities on their career preferences and how attractive they viewed academic, industry, government, and other career options. The students were enrolled in the life sciences (59% of those surveyed), physics (23%), or chemistry (18%).

Sauermann and Roach found that, on average, students in the later stage of their Ph.D. programs (defined as those actively looking for a job or planning to do so within the next year), held less favorable views of faculty teaching and research jobs than did students in earlier stages. While faculty research was rated the overall most attractive career path for all respondents in both the life sciences and physics, the percentage of life sciences students who rated faculty-research positions as either "attractive" or "extremely attractive" fell from 78% in early-stage students to 67% in later-stage students. In physics, those numbers fell from 81% to 72%. In chemistry, where the majority of students rated industry jobs as "most attractive," those who rated faculty-research jobs as "attractive" or "extremely attractive" fell from 62% to 47%, while those who preferred a job in industry jumped from 70% in early-stage students to 76% in late-stage students.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced today at a joint press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the launch of edX, a system of online courses that will be available to learners worldwide. MIT's previously announced MITx program has been folded into the new program, which will use an open-source platform and may eventually also carry courses from other institutions.

MITx made big news and launched much speculation and rumination earlier this year when it announced that it would allow online students to earn certificates for courses they successfully complete online through the program, after paying a small fee. Many observers have wondered what this new credential might do to the value of taking on-campus courses at MIT and other institutions around the world. In response to an question posed online by this reporter (and maybe others), MIT's Anant Agarwal, who will direct edX, said that the first MITx course, which is currently ongoing, allows students to earn grades and a completion certificate. He implied, but did not state outright, that the same would be true for edX courses.

A major theme of today's news conference was that edX will provide researchers the opportunity to study the mechanism of learning in order to strengthen education for students on the two Cambridge campuses. Speakers also noted that many details still need to be worked out, including a financing model for the non-profit undertaking.

There will be a lot more to learn as this project unfolds, so stay tuned.
Beginning July 1, the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) of Claremont, California, will house the office that manages review of graduate programs for official recognition and affiliation as Professional Science Masters (PSM) programs, gathers information about programs and their graduates, and controls use of the registered PSM logo. KGI won the contract to run the office handling these functions, which have until now been carried out by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

As James Sterling of KGI, and Carol Lynch and Sally Francis of CGS, explain in an article in the May issue of the CGS Grad Edge newsletter, affiliation with the PSM program does not constitute accreditation of curricula and programs, but rather recognition that they comply with a set of formal guidelines that have been developed by CGS. 

Full-scale, separate accreditation of PSM programs, apart from the overall accreditation of the their home institutions, is not necessary, the article asserts. "The PSM is a professional degree but there is no single clearly-identified profession that graduates enter, and there is no single profession whose interests warrant licensure of PSM graduates or accreditation of this degree. Therefore, in contrast to many professions, there is no need for an independent accreditation organization. Similarly, there is no single type of risk that is presented to the customers of the employers of PSM graduates that could lead to a specific form of malpractice, the need for licensing, or the need for specific continuing education requirements for PSM graduates."   

There does exist, however, "a perceived need to ensure that a new program [calling itself a PSM program] meets [the official guidelines] and that some form of re-affiliation review system be in place" to guarantee that existing programs continue to meet them as well. The new office at KGI will carry out these functions. It will also manage the www.sciencemasters.com website used as the central repository for information about PSM programs.

Hallmarks of PSM programs, which generally run two years, include close cooperation with advisers from industry, extensive mentored experience for students in industrial settings, and a curriculum that combines study of both a scientific discipline with study of business, management, regulatory affairs, or other topics relevant to a specific science-based industry. About 250 PSMs currently exist, up from 80 in 2006. In the academic year 2010-2011, 173 graduates received PSM degrees, and about 5500 students were enrolled in programs at the beginning of the current academic year.

In addition, the new office at KGI will continue efforts to increase awareness of the PSM degree and its benefits among both potential students and company human resources officials nationally, KGI president Sheldon Schuster told Science Careers in an interview.
Like many upstanding universities, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has long aspired to take good care of its postdocs. That includes paying them decently. But, also like other universities, it had a ways to go to achieve that objective.

Penn's stated goal has been to close the gap between the stipends that National Institutes of Health (NIH) NRSA postdoctoral fellows receive and what employee postdocs--most of whom are paid from research grants--receive.

According to a post by Steven J. Fluharty, Penn's Senior Vice Provost for Research, the university's minimum postdoctoral stipend from 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2013 will be exactly the same as current NRSA stipend levels.

It must be mentioned that these stipends remain absurdly low relative to postdocs' skills and training. That's evidence of postdocs' commitment to science, and of a glut of expert labor that threatens to turn science into a low-wage profession: a dangerous and scary possibility. But it still represents significant progress.

Yet, it's troubling to note that despite their sacrifices--which most make in anticipation of an academic career--only a minority of these postdocs will ever attain a tenure-track faculty post at a college or university.

How can you make your application for that grant, fellowship, job, or award stand out from the great pile of other applications the judges will read? Hester Blum of Penn State University has read more than (gasp!) 740 such documents in the past year, and she offers some sage, judge's-eye-view advice on how to catch her attention at Inside Higher Ed

Some major points: 
  • Be specific and give examples. How, exactly, will you use the money or equipment or whatever? Clearly the judges already know you believe you're qualified and deserving, but exactly why should they agree?
  • Make sure the people who write your recommendations actually know your work, not just your personality. The judges are sure you're a swell person, but that isn't why they're giving the award.
  • Only list things on your CV that have actually happened. That paper under consideration at the International Journal of Really Prestigious Research might never see print or pixels.
"I really do love to read applications for things and am ever keen to learn more about what everyone is working on," Blum writes. "The more specific and detailed you are, the more successful you will be, and the more I will learn."

But don't take it from me.  Read her own specific and detailed advice here.