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Science Careers Blog

Academic Careers: May 2011

Throughout the month of May, Science Careers published a feature series exploring academic careers in healthy aging research. We profiled several researchers studying how to help people age successfully and independently, from the perspective of genetics, sociology and psychology, engineering, and neurology.

If you're an early-career researcher already working in the field or would like to find out more about healthy aging research, you may want to attend the annual conference of the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The AAL Forum 2011 will take place in Lecce, Italy, between 26 and 28 September 2011.

The conference will feature a 'Young researchers' and PhD workshop - research on innovative solutions for the elderly' (YR-RISE reloaded) on the first day.  Early-career scientists investigating technical solutions for older adults are invited to submit an abstract for a poster or a short oral presentation. The workshop is organized along 5 different tracks: computing and serious games; social inclusion, mobility, and networking; ambient assistance and robotics;  neurotechnologies; and all other research topics. You have until 30 June 2011 to submit your abstract.

Research Councils UK (RCUK) have just released a video showing how the public can benefit from interacting with researchers, and how researchers can benefit from engaging with the public. 

The 7-minute movie includes interviews with researchers and members of the public during a public debate about future energy scenarios held as part of the York Festival of Science and Technology. The movie is nicely done and addresses important points -- it is well worth the watch.

Gregg Treinish, a man whose hiking credentials include a stroll along most of the Andes, took part in the Appalachian Trail Days event last weekend with an unusual sense of purpose. On a previous hike, he "felt selfish and ... realized that was a shared feeling amongst hikers and mountaineers," Treinish says.  That feeling, together with a stint studying wildlife biology at Montana State University, gave him an original idea: to offer adventurers the opportunity to share with scientists something that even those who travel light routinely take with them on their adventures: their eyes and ears. Now, wherever he goes, Treinish recruits fellow adventurers for his new organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ACS).

Plenty of researchers seek to include helpful citizens in their projects, as I wrote last year for Science Careers ("Collaborating with Citizen Scientists"), but ACS, launched in November 2010, may be the first dedicated matchmaker, removing some of the recruiting burden from scientists.

On Friday the British Royal Society launched a study to look at how the scientific community can best manage scientific information to improve research quality and boost public trust.

The study, named 'Science as a public enterprise: opening up scientific information', will look at issues like how to make scientific information more accessible, the risks and benefits of open data, and the responsibility of scientists. 

"It is not just scientists who want to be able to see inside scientific datasets, to see how robust they are and ask difficult questions about their implications. Science has to adapt," geoscientist Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh, who is in charge of leading the study, stated in a press release. "The impact of science on people's lives, and the implications of scientific assessments for society and the economy are now so great that people won't just believe scientists when they say 'trust me, I'm an expert.'"

You have until 5 August 2011 to send your input. Details on how to do so can be found in the Royal Society's call for evidence


For many young scientists aspiring to academic careers, learning to be an effective teacher can present a considerable challenge. For many, developing that ability takes years of practice.

Now, a study published in Science (links to free summary; subscription required for full text) finds that postdocs without significant teaching experience can outperform experienced and well-regarded senior professors at teaching physics to undergraduates.

Louis Deslauriers of the University of British Columbia and coauthors compared what two groups of engineering students learned when the groups were taught the same physics material through different instructional methods.

It is common to hear undergraduates and recent college graduates preparing for a career in science complain: "I think I wasted a lot of time in college being forced to take humanities classes that had nothing to do with my area of study." This is one of many manifestations of the ongoing centuries-long battle over the relationship between the sciences and the humanities.

From a historical point of view, until the mid-19th century, the humanities (i.e., grammar, rhetoric, history, literature, languages, and moral philosophy) held the upper hand. At Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the gold standard models for American education, the areas of study consisted mainly of classics, mathematics, or divinity.

However, in 1847 Yale College broke with this tradition and formed the School of Applied Chemistry. This became the Yale Scientific School and in 1861 it was renamed the Sheffield Scientific School. Sheffield's 3-year undergraduate program focused on chemistry, engineering, and independent research. It offered the best scientific training in America. The "Sheffs" studied and lived apart from other undergraduates taking the classic curriculum and roomed together in the "college yard." The two groups did not mingle. The old truism that a classical education assured success was being challenged. Science had begun its separation and was ascending vis-a-vis the liberal arts in American universities.

The need for science majors to take courses in the humanities has been contentious ever since. The required core curriculum at most colleges and universities has atrophied over the years, while at the same time governmental funds for support of any new research in the humanities has dried up. Authorities both within and outside of science have expressed concern that scientists do not learn enough about the humanities -- to the detriment of society.

In this environment, it's difficult for the undergraduate to determine the desirability of taking courses in the humanities -- or which and how many to take. In fact, some applicants to college regard a strong core curriculum requirement as a negative factor, opting instead for programs with a minimum number of required core courses and maximum flexibility.

All this considered, I would offer the following 10 reasons why students pursuing science careers should augment their education with a strong foundation in the humanities.

Getting along with your colleagues may not only be good for your work satisfaction and productivity, it could be good for your health, too.

That's according to a new study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, that looked at the medical history of more than 800 people working in finance, insurance, public services, health care, and manufacturing companies between 1988 and 2008.

The team of researchers, led by Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University in Israel, looked at peer social support in terms of the participants' perception of how supportive and friendly their colleagues were to them. The researchers found that a high level of peer social support was associated with a lower risk of mortality. When also looking at the participants' age, they found peer social support to have a protective effect only for people aged between 38 and 43. Interestingly, support from supervisors was not associated with mortality rate.