Science Careers Blog

December 2012

In the wake of the Connecticut elementary school massacre, scientists in a number of disciplines are probably wondering how they can put their expertise to work finding ways to prevent such horrors from happening again. But it appears they shouldn't look to the federal government for help funding any firearm-injury-related research. That's because "in the 1990s, politicians backed by the NRA [National Rifle Association] attacked researchers for publishing data on firearms research," reports Slate"For good measure, they also went after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for funding the research."

"From 1986 to 1996, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored high-quality, peer reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun violence," wrote Jay Dickey, a former Arkansas Republican congressman and NRA spokesperson, and co-author Mark Rosenberg in the Washington Post in July 2012. Findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, disproved the gun lobby's orthodoxy about supposed safety benefits of gun ownership.

Final testimony in the preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court to determine whether University of California-Los Angeles professor Patrick Harran will stand trial in the death of Sheri Sangji ended on 18 December.  The hearing started in November, but the final two days of testimony were postponed until 17 and 18 December because of scheduling difficulties.  Two witnesses who had begun testifying in November, California state occupational safety investigator Brian Baudendistel, author of a report highly critical of Harran, and lab safety expert Neal Langerman, resumed their testimony and completed it this week.

Judge Lisa Lench did not announce a decision on whether to proceed to trial.  Instead, according to the Associated Press, she ruled that she would hear arguments on the question on 15 February. 

There's a thorough summary of the hearing at the C&E News blog The Safety Zone. An account of the final day can be found here.

The newest annual report from the National Science Foundation on recipients of doctorates from American universities reveals disturbing employment trends among scientists and engineers: Fewer are finding jobs and more are doing postdocs.

December 17, 2012

Academics As Free Agents

In today's tight job market, it's common for people in a wide range of fields to earn their livelihoods as freelancers. Now, thanks to rapid expansion of online education, academics are being added to the mix, as "freelance professors," reports Inside Higher Ed.

Why do women scientists publish less than their male colleagues?   A study appearing in  PLOS ONE  on 12 December suggests an answer: women get a "lower level of institutional support" from their universities. 

Jordi Duch of Northwestern University and her co-authors took a circuitous route to this conclusion.  They compared the publication rates of male and female research university faculty in chemical engineering, chemistry, ecology, industrial engineering, material science, molecular biology, and psychology. These seven disciplines vary considerably in the amount of resources that scientists need to do research, as measured by what they typically spend in a year.  At the low end is industrial engineering, in which much of the work is "theoretical and computational in nature" and "faculty tend to train a small number of students at a time."  At the high end is molecular biology, which requires extensive labs, lots of expensive equipment, and, often, numerous grad students and postdocs to do the bench work.

Because of their relatively small requirements,industrial engineering faculty "do not need to compete against one another for limited resources," the authors state. The "institutional support" needed to do battle for funding is therefore a relatively unimportant "factor in productivity" in the field, the authors suggest.  For molecular biologists, on the other hand, winning large competitive grants is crucial to supporting their labs.  "Institutionally granted resources or institutional support for securing large grants" are vital to this competition and therefore become "crucial components of academic success," the authors write.

A new report from the American Chemical Society (ACS) recommends sweeping changes in graduate education to prepare chemists to face 21st century conditions. Entitled Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences and issued 10 December, the "deep and thorough analysis of the state of graduate education" takes a bold look at the current state of university education and concludes that it "has not kept pace with the significant changes in the world's economic, political and social environment since the end of World War II, when the current system of graduate education was formed."

The document's major recommendations comprises five major and long overdue reforms, which, by the way, are also applicable to other disciplines--and worthy of the attention of other disciplinary societies:
  • Graduate training must prepare students for careers outside of academe. This will require training in the skills needed to communicate effectively with both scientists and non-scientists and to work together on teams, and an understanding of science-related ethics.
  • A new method of financing graduate study is needed that does not depend on faculty members' research grants. The current system, the report notes, relies "too heavily on individual research grants and involves serious conflicts between the education of graduate students and the needs for productivity and accountability in grant-supported research." Funders and universities should "take steps toward decoupling more student-support funds from specific research projects."
  • "Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices."  This requires a culture of safety led from "the top of the institution" and strongly supported by faculty.
  • Departments must balance the number of students they graduate with "genuine opportunities for them." Producing a surplus of graduates "does injustice to the investments made by students and society."  The number of "truly attractive opportunities" awaiting graduates must be "paramount in determining the scale and balance of any program. A large undergraduate teaching need [or, presumably, need for lab workers] is not sufficient justification for a large graduate program." Departments should assign faculty or hire "other professionals" to do work that fills its own needs.
  • Postdocs "should be treated as the professional scientists and engineers they are. A postdoctoral appointment should be a period of accelerated professional growth that, by design, enhances scientific independence and future career opportunities."
Bravo, ACS Presidential Commission! Looks like you've read our minds, and we couldn't have said any of this better ourselves. Now, here's hoping universities follow your advice--a far more questionable matter, given the great financial and other interests involved. But the report is a great first step.

I've given only the briefest of overviews here. The 60-page study digs into the many issues its analysis raises and offers a host of suggestions. We will also be digging into this work at a later date, so please stay tuned. In the meantime, you can read this excellent document here.

December 10, 2012

Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace

Today, Google is marking the 197th birthday of a pioneering woman scientist--Augusta Ada King, Lady Lovelace--with a Google Doodle dedicated to her.

In her own time Lovelace was a giant--and not only because she's Lord Byron's child. Lovelace's mother, Annabella Milbanke, herself a gifted student of mathematics, apparently feared Byron's influence and "raised her under a strict diet of science, logic, and mathematics," according to, a Web site dedicated to Lovelace and other women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). 

Lovelace's mentor, Mary Somerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, who asked her to translate an Italian-language paper that described his "analytical engine." Her notes for the project--and later an expanded version of the translation that she wrote--include what many consider to be the first computer programs, the first algorithms intended to be executed by a machine. For this reason, she is often called the first computer programmer. According to the newspaper The Guardian, Babbage described Lovelace as "the enchantress of numbers."

Science-related doodles are not rare. In recent weeks, Google has dedicated doodles to the Danish physicist Neils Bohr and the Australian pharmacologist Howard Florey, on their birthdays.

Lovelace died young, at 36, of cancer.

December 8, 2012

Give the Gift of Lab Safety

Are you looking for the perfect present for those bench scientists on your list? Here's an idea. Cafe Press, a purveyor of logo-trimmed giftware, offers online an extensive line of shirts, PJs, bags, packs, mugs, water bottles, mousepads, card holders, and more emblazoned with the motto "Got PPE? Your safety is nothing to experiment with." What better way to show your favorite researchers that you care enough to remind them to don their personal protective equipment before working in the lab! It doesn't matter where your special scientist comes from or what language she speaks. Gear is available with the logo translated into French, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, and more--even Tagalog.

Great to see lab safety becoming a fashion statement!
Writing for ScienceInsider, our sister blog, Science Careers writer Michael Price describes a new program from the U.S. National Science Foundation:
Yesterday, NSF officials unveiled the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program as part of a celebration of the 60th anniversary of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Launched in 1952 as the agency's flagship effort to strengthen U.S. graduate training in the sciences, GRFP has funded more than 46,500 budding scientists, including 40 eventual Nobel Prize winners.

The GROW program is intended to address the increasingly international scope of research, said NSF Director Subra Suresh. "Global enterprise doesn't have any borders," he said. "Innovation doesn't have any borders. Funding doesn't have any borders."
Visit ScienceInsider to learn more about the new program.

We recently reported on the lack of health insurance coverage for many of the nation's adjunct faculty members (40% of America's higher education teacher force.)  With the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), the issue is becoming more complicated, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The new law requires employers to provide healthcare coverage, or pay a tax, for full-time employees, defined as those working 30 hours a week or more.  Some institutions have begun preemptively limiting the hours adjuncts can teach, to keep them out of the full time pool.  Some observers believe those steps are premature; the rules institutions should use to determine how many hours a faculty member works "[aren't] fully defined yet," according to Craig Smith, director of higher education of the American Federation of Teachers, quoted in the article.  Does the total include only instruction hours? Advising and office hours?  Preparation time?  How should the law account for "part-time" adjuncts who spend more time in the classroom than faculty members considered full time?

As consternation--and caps on adjunct hours--spread in academe, the U.S. Treasury Department, with advice from teachers unions and, presumably, other interested parties, is studying the issue.  It will be issuing regulations to guide employers by the end of the year, the article states.

December 4, 2012

The Goldberg Variation

Mixing science and religion can be problematic, but not for robotics and mechanical engineering students at the Technion, Israel's technical university in Haifa.  Though the original Hanukkah story involves Greeks, not geeks, the Technion technologists devised a high-tech method of carrying out the holiday's central ritual, lighting the eight candles on the menorah.  Taking its inspiration from a noted 20th century Jewish technological innovator, Reuben Lucius Goldberg, their method uses a robot assisted by helium balloons, Lego blocks, nitroglycerin and assorted other materials.  You can see a demonstration, complete with musical accompaniment, here, or get details of the design here. The 8-day holiday, by the way, starts Saturday evening, 8 December.

A hat tip to my friend, science journalist Joel Shurkin, for alerting Science Careers to this breaking story.

December 3, 2012

What's In a (Prize) Name?

Prestigious science prizes play an important role in advancing and validating the careers of productive researchers. The names of those awards, however, often have complex relationships to the science that they honor. Alfred Nobel, for example, whose eponymous awards stand at the pinnacle of international renown, was a highly successful industrialist who trained as a chemical engineer and made a major fortune developing nitroglycerine as a commercially viable explosive. Albert Lasker, memorialized by the highly coveted prizes whose winners are widely regarded as the farm team for the Nobels, was a prodigiously successful advertising man who played a major role in popularizing cigarette smoking, especially among women. His wife Mary did crucial advocacy work for the development of the National Institutes of Health.

Recently, two lesser known but still prestigious awards, each named for an individual with a complicated relationship to science, have been in the news. One connection is deeply human and the other is, ethically, highly controversial. On 29 November, Rockefeller University in New York presented the former, the annual Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, to Joan Steitz of Yale University for her work advancing knowledge of RNA. The $50,000 award is given each year to a distinguished female biomedical researcher. It was established by 2000 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard, who used his portion of the Nobel monetary prize to honor the memory of the mother who died giving birth to him. He wants to provide the recognition afforded by a prestigious prize in order to reduce bias against women in science.