Science Careers Blog

November 2012

November 30, 2012

GQ Endorses Geek Chic

Have you heard that "geek chic" is a hot trend these days?  That the guys (and gals) who rule technology and science also rule the fashion world?  Well now it's official.  GQ, the arbiter of masculine style whose motto is "Look sharp. Live smart," has chosen the Mars Rover team--those men and women who landed Curiosity on the red planet--as its Men of the Year for 2012. And yes, you heard that right: This year's "Men of the Year" team includes women. 

There's a picture of the entire team, resplendent in their blue NASA polo shirts, which don't look to me like the cutting edge of style, but who am I to say?  There are pictures of the team's leaders decked out in slightly more upscale ensembles featuring blue dress shirts by Brooks Brothers.  These shots include the team's two main fashionistas,  Bobak Ferdowsi and Adam Steltzner, whose tonsorial fashion statements garnered world-wide attention (and for Ferdowsi, many tweeted marriage proposals) at the time of the landing back in August. The GQ piece, by the way, also includes an interesting first-person account of the unforgettable night of the landing.

If you want to plan your own look accordingly, check out the article here.

I'm not a consistent Twitterer, but I do maintain a Twitter feed as @SciCareerEditor.  Lately, I've been really busy and haven't tweeted much, but when I checked in this morning I saw a tweet directed my way (by mentioning my twitter handle) from Sanford Buhrnam Medical Research Institute (@SanfordBurnham on Twitter), which has locations in Florida and California. The purpose of the tweet was to draw attention to a post on their Beaker blog, titled Four 'secrets' to success in science.

The blog post documents an encounter in which a student asks an unnamed "old professor" to reveal the secrets of his success. After some unconvincing humility, the professor agrees to share "four things that have kept me going for such a long time. But they're not secrets. They're just things that everybody knows, but doesn't want to think about because they are hard truths to face."

If you aspire to a career in academic science--or any other demanding career, since much of the advice applies broadly--please do read the post. But here, as a sort of teaser, I'll give you the short version:
  1. Put in the time. Be willing to work harder and longer than everyone else.
  2. Be productive (not just busy).
  3. Solve problems. It happens frequently: Your adviser presents you with a half-baked, silly idea that she or he thinks is brilliant and you know right away isn't going to work. When this happens, don't just tell the boss it can't be done and move on. Instead, go solve those problems. Make it--or something like it--work.
  4. Look at the big picture--but also focus. This is one of the hardest things to pull off due to the sheer quantity of information you have to master. It's enough for a young scientist just to learn the fine details of a narrow area; to also keep up with the field really well, so that you know where your work fits and can recognize it when opportunities arise, requires reading and understanding a much wider literature. That's not easy to do. Do it anyway.
I welcome you to follow me on Twitter, at @SciCareerEditor. For a broader, less personal, and more reliable feed (that also includes ads for open jobs), check out @MyScienceCareer.

"There is no single solution to maximize the presence and potential of women in university research," declares a report issued 21 November by the Council of Canadian Academies.  The prestigious body undertook this study of gender issues in academe after the Canadian government established a program of ultra-high-status and extremely well-financed professorships called the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and asked its universities to nominate likely candidates. Not one of the eminent academics the universities nominated was female.

Entitled Strengthening Canada's Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension and written by a panel of prominent university figures, the report found a web of factors to explain why, though women outnumber men in undergraduate and masters programs and nearly equal their numbers in doctoral programs, the proportion of females shrinks with each step up the faculty career ladder.

California state investigator Brian Baudendistel continued his testimony on 20 November in the hearing to determine whether UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran will stand trial on felony charges of occupational safety violations that resulted in the death of Sheri Sangji. From a detailed summary of his statements during his first day testifying (19 November) by Michael Torrice at Chemical & Engineering News, it appears that Baudendistel recounted information in the 95-page investigative report he prepared for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. 

Also testifying on 20 November was chemical safety expert Neal Langerman. Sangji "absolutely did not have sufficient skill, knowledge or training to be handling tert-Butyllium," Langerman testified, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He added that the Harran lab lacked appropriate equipment and protective clothing.

Because of scheduling issues, cross examination will take place on 18 December, the Mercury News reports.

Brian Baudendistel, the California state investigator who wrote a damning report on the events leading to fire that fatally injured Sheri Sangji, testified on 19 November during the second day of the hearing to determine whether University of California-Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran will stand trial on felony charges arising from Sangji's death. Harran has pleaded not guilty to charges of felony violations of occupational safety laws leading to the fatality.  

Baudendistel provided details about the inadequate attempts of a postdoc from China, who spoke no English and had received no safety training in Harran's lab, to douse the flames that had engulfed Sangji's clothing, according to the Contra Costa Times. Harran's lawyers had previously attempted to disqualify Baudendistel, a Senior Special Investigator at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, as a witness on the grounds that he had been involved in a murder while a teenager. The judge rejected this tactic, which the Los Angeles Times has termed "bizarre." 

The defense had good reason to want Baudendistel struck from the prosecution's witness list. His highly detailed, 44,000 word technical report on the incident and the procedures and practices in Harran's lab concluded with this sentence: "If Dr. Harran had utilized standard operating procedure as required and would have properly trained Victim Sangji, and assured that clothing appropriate for the work was worn to protect her from inadvertent exposure to tert-Butyl lithium, Victim Sangji's death would have been prevented."

Baudendistel's testimony resumes at 1:30 pm Pacific Time on 20 November. For more detail, see Jylian Kemsley and Michael Torrice's extensive coverage at the C&EN blog, The Safety Zone.

A hearing to determine whether UCLA professor Patrick Harran will stand trial on charges of felony violations of the California occupational safety law, in the events leading to the death of research assistant Sheri Sangji, began in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, 16 November. 

Dr. Peter Grossman of the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, CA,  testified about the extent of her burns, which covered 48.5 percent of her body, according to Westwood-Century City Patch. He also described her severe pain and the numerous surgical procedures that she underwent in the approximately 2 weeks between the fire that injured her and her death on January 16, 2009 at the age of 23.  

The hearing will resume at 1:30 Pacific time on Monday, 19 November.

Shortly after returning for the lame duck session, the Senate on 13 November unanimously passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which the House passed some months ago. Now awaiting the president's signature, the legislation "offers an array of new protections for [federal] employees who reliably report waste, fraud and abuse, while distinguishing such whistleblowing from disagreements over legitimate policy decisions," reports Charles Clark at Government Executive.

Among the government workers whom the new act protects from "retaliation in the form of firing, demotion, blackballing, etc.," are the many scientists employed in a wide range of federal agencies and laboratories, notes Jane Robbins at Inside Higher Ed. It explicitly protects them from "retaliation for reporting a reasonable belief of 'censorship related to research, analysis or technical information' " or " 'any effort to distort, misrepresent or suppress' " findings if such "censorship is or could be unlawful; wasteful; represents gross mismanagement or abuse of authority; or 'a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety,' " she continues.

Federal scientists have a particular need for the Act's protections because they can comprehend, evaluate, and report on highly technical issues and information that are "opaque to others," she states. Indeed, she adds, disputes at scientific agencies were among the factors that led to a strong bipartisan impetus for the law's passage.

For more than 40% of American college faculty members--those who have part-time adjunct positions--obtaining medical insurance and paying for medical care can present serious challenges.  One example is Don Haussler, a "popular math instructor at  Kansas City Kansas Community College" (KCKCC) who urgently needs a hip replacement he cannot afford, Inside Higher Ed reports.

After watching his teacher suffer through months of increasing pain, and learning that Haussler would need a wheelchair if he couldn't get the costly surgery soon, Kenneth Herrington, a 33-year old Navy veteran who is double majoring in chemistry and biology, decided "to do something to help him," the student tells the Wyandotte Daily News.

Almost two years ago, Science Careers reported on the first graduates to receive the Postdoctoral Professional Masters degree from the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, California.   At that time, all four members of the initial class had landed well-paying jobs.   Since then, alumni of the innovative one-year program, which trains Ph.D. scientists and engineers in management and teamwork with a focus on the bioscience industry, have continued to find good employment  opportunities, according to Steven Casper, KGI's associate dean of faculty development.

All but one of the program's dozen 2012 graduates, and all members of the preceding 2011 class, are working in a range of fields including regulatory affairs, consultancy, advanced quality research, and more, Casper says in a phone interview.   The remaining graduate, who chose to spend several months after graduation traveling abroad, has begun a job search after returning home.

A glut of graduate degrees is a major issue in the U.S. scientific labor market, according to many observers.  Now, rapid growth in the number of graduate students in China has Chinese education officials concerned about employment opportunities and academic quality, reports Yojama Sharma at University World News

Graduate enrollments in China have more than doubled in the last 10 years, from 220,00 to 517,000, the article states.  To accommodate the increase, individual faculty members are reportedly taking on more graduate students, and job opportunities for degree holders have not kept pace.

Data from 30 Chinese universities analyzed by the Research Center for Chinese Science Evaluation at Wuhan university show that about a sixth of professors supervise more than ten graduate students and that a tenth of the professors supervise 20 or more grad students.   Supervising so many students undermines professors' ability to maintain the academic quality of graduate programs,  says Qui Junping, research center's head, in the article.  Qin believes that a ratio of 3 to 6 students per professor would allow the faculty to maintain high standards.

What prospects do these graduate students have when they finish their educations? Not good ones, according to Xiong Bingqi of the 21st Century Education Institute in Beijjing: "There aren't many research jobs out there in the market," he says.

Fueling the rise in grad student enrollment is the belief, widespread in China, that advanced  degrees greatly enhance young people's career prospects.  Not so, the article says: Holders of newly minted graduate degrees suffer higher unemployment rates than new holders of bachelors degrees.  You can find the article here.

We don't often post about upcoming events, but today two events have caught my attention: the New York work-life lecture by Alice Huang and, now, an American Chemical Society webinar, Doctoral Glut Dilemma: Are There Solutions?

Just as with the Huang event, what caught my attention is the personnel: If I were to select a panel to address this issue, these two--Georgia State economist Paula Stephan and NBER/Harvard economist Richard Freeman--would be right at the top of the list. Both have contributed to Science Careers articles (Stephan: Freeman), and Freeman has himself written for Science Careers on three occasions. Note, in particular, Beryl Benderly's review of Stephan's recent book.

The Webinar will take place tomorrow (Thursday, 8 November) at 2 pm. It's free, but you need to register to reserve bandwidth.

In the past we've written about the role of science and scientists in politics, and suggested that more people with scientific and technical training should think about seeking elective office. The results of the 2012 election indicate that science issues may have played a role in some Congressional races. 

Four of the five House members that the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has called the "Flat Earth Five" seem likely to lose their re-election bids following a $1.5 million LCV campaign against the prominent climate change deniers. As of mid-day on 7 October, voters had returned Dan Banishek, (R-Michigan) to office, but by a narrow margin.  Francisco Canseco (R-Texas) and Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) had been defeated.  And Dan Lungren (R-California) and Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) were trailing their challengers but had not conceded.

Also, as our sister blog notes, physicist Bill Foster (D-Illinois) was re-elected to Congress by a wide margin with the help of scientists from across the nation who donated almost $400,000 to his campaign.

Does this mean that large numbers of scientists should abandon the lab for the campaign trail?  Not necessarily.  But we think it shows that voters in many parts of the country welcome straight talk on scientific issues.  And who's better equipped to give it to them than scientists?

Those of you in the New York area with interest in science and work-life balance will be interested in this event scheduled for Friday evening, 9 November. Alice Huang will be presenting a lecture, "Life Lessons and Work-Life Balance," followed by a networking reception, at New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, located at 12 Waverly Place. The event is free for New York Metro members of AWIS; otherwise it costs $10, or $5 if you are a student. If you decide to attend, you'll want to register in advance.

Dr Huang, as you may know, is a microbiologist and virologist, formerly of Harvard but now at Caltech; she is also a recent former president of AAAS. What makes her lecture on work-life balance especially interesting to me (though unfortunately I won't be able to attend) is that she shares an enduring marriage to another prominent scientist, the Nobel Laureate (and Robert A. Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech) David Baltimore. (Baltimore, too, is a former AAAS president.) Baltimore was also Huang's postdoc adviser, back when I was perhaps 3 years old. The two have been married since 1968 and have a daughter together. Intriguingly, Huang also has a private pilot's license.

If you attend the event, please report back with a short account of the most interesting things you learned. We'd love to publish it on our blog.

Across the country, academic scientists are struggling with tight budgets for equipment and staff. In the North Carolina Piedmont town of Kannapolis, however, researchers affiliated with half a dozen universities and several corporations work in bright, modern laboratory buildings whose decor, equipment, and scientific resources verge on the lavish. Once the home of Cannon Towels, the former mill town demolished its textile plants in the early 2000s and has undergone a startling transformation into an imposing, even grandiose, city of science, thanks to the vision and dollars of billionaire industrialist, philanthropist and diet enthusiast David H. Murdock.

Born in 1923, Murdock never finished high school but proved an exceptionally adept student of business. Beginning at age 22, the young army veteran built up $1200 in loans into holdings that today include Dole Foods and extensive real estate, earning him a place among the Forbes 400 richest persons. As he nears his 90th birthday, he enjoys excellent health, for which he credits a diet high in fruits and vegetables. His conviction about the importance of eating the right foods inspired him to create in Kannapolis a unique scientific institution dedicated to studying the relationship between nutrition and health, the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC).

The National Postdoctoral Association has extended the deadline for its 2012 Survey of Postdoctoral Scholars until 12 November. The information collected in such surveys is vital to understanding and improving the training postdocs receive and the context they work in, so please participate.