Science Careers Blog

Americas: March 2008

There is probably no more difficult decision for new parents than finding day care.  A few companies, according to USA Today, are offering employees a novel solution to this vexing problem: bring your baby to your desk.

Some companies apparently allow parents to have their babies, generally kids not yet at the crawling stage,  with them in their offices or cubicles. Most of these companies described work in office environments, such as advertising agencies and consulting firms.  However, Francine Gemperle, one of the parents interviewed, is a researcher at Maya Design, a consultancy and research lab in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gemperle took her son Milo to work every day for 6 weeks after returning from maternity leave. She set up a compact bassinet next to her desk, kept a supply of blankets handy, and used the rest room to change diapers. 

While Maya Design lets staff members bring in their babies up to age 6 months, the company does not allow infants with fevers higher than 100, and parents have to sign a liability waiver. Gemberle also prepared her coworkers for the experience. Before bringing in young Milo, she alerted everyone within 15-20 feet of her cubicle that they would hear baby noises during the day.

The practice of having young children at work apparently is gaining traction. The article cites the Society for Human Resource Management, which says the number of companies allowing babies in the workplace at least occasionally rose to 29% last year, up from 22% in 2006. Advocates for employees bringing their babies to work say it removes a huge psychological and financial burden from parents, reduces turnover, and increases loyalty to the company.

But detractors find the noise and attention given to babies distracting, and company lawyers get nervous about potential liability. Plus, if the parent is your supervisor, how do you tell her the baby is making a racket?

"The playground bully has grown up and gotten a job." That's how the New York Times health blog started a brief entry on 11 March that generated a heavy response (nearly 400 comments), and resulted in follow-up posts on 24 March and 25 March. As Science Careers columnist Irene Levine also noted in a 2006 article on this topic, bullies are causing problems in a lot of workplaces, including academia. Like the response to the Times blog posts, Levine's article continues to be among our most read articles.

One of the difficulties in identifying bullying behavior is its insidious nature. Unlike the playground bully, the workplace bully uses psychological rather than physical punishment. What may at first seem like insensitivity or bad manners can in fact be a way of intimidating coworkers. Public put-downs, glaring, interrupting when speaking, taking credit for others' contributions, and spreading gossip or rumors are examples of the nasty tricks bullies use to belittle and embarrass colleagues. The New York Times and Levine's article have more examples.

Levine's article for Science Careers focuses on bullies in supervisory positions, who use their positions of authority to intimidate staff and students in their labs or classes. But as the Times notes, bullies can appear in the next cublicle (or lab bench) as well as the corner office.  Wherever they occur, bullies take a toll on individuals' self-esteem and mental health. It costs organizations as well, with more turnover, higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and the threat of legal action.

Apparently, workplace bullying is common. According to a Zogby International survey released last Fall and cited by the Times, some 37% of American workers say they have experienced bullying on the job. Many victims of bullying are tempted to just swallow the insults, but as both Levine and the Times pieces suggest, you don't have to suffer in silence. Levine suggests finding the courage to confront the bully in a professional manner. If that doesn't work, take it up the chain of command.

Levine also suggests that you find confidants inside the office, or among friends or family, to provide advice and support. Also, don't forget the Science Careers Forum, where other participants and forum advisers can offer advice. If all else fails, make plans to change jobs.

An article this week in Canada's National Post newspaper says that universities across Canada report increasing use of their mental health counseling services in recent years.  Queens University in Kingston, Ontario says the number of patients seeking counseling has tripled in the past 10 years, and Simon Fraser University, with three campuses in British Columbia, reports a 30% increase in one year alone.

Mike Condra, who heads counseling services at Queens University, says mental health is the fastest growing problem faced by his office, which also deals with academic issues, physical health, and student disabilities. At Queens, campus counselors are still seeing new patients quickly to determine if they are in immediate danger. But non-emergency follow-up visits with a psychiatrist are backlogged for as long as three months.  What worries Condra further is that there are probably many more students who need help but who aren't seeking treatment.

The problem apparently is not limited to Canada. The article cites the 2006 National College Health Assessment survey conducted on U.S. campuses that showed about a third (35%) of students reported feeling depressed at least once in the previous year to such an extent that they could not function. The survey also said about 10% of respondents seriously considered suicide. Some 88% of the survey's respondents were undergraduates.

The experts quoted in the article could not agree on a cause for the increased demand. Melanie Drew, director of health services at Concordia University in Montreal attributes much of the increase to higher expectations and more financial pressures. A student in the social work department (who was once a patient at the school's counseling facilities) started a drop-in screening kiosk at Simon Fraser University. She says about 70 percent of her clients are international students, who face cross-cultural problems on top of everything else.

But not all experts in the field, at least in Canada, are convinced that the demand for services means more mental health problems. Stanley Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia attributes the increased demand to rising awareness among students that counseling is available and they are taking advantage of the service. "People are often going for assistance for distress, as opposed to disorder," says Kutcher. "The bar is lower."

As we've noted in Science Careers over the years, even scientists can get the blues, including those in the U.K. and Belgium.  If you think you need help, get help. Let the counselors tell you there's nothing wrong.

Hat tip: Education News


In these days of tightening credit and Wall Street nervousness about new ways of lending money, introducing an innovative online student loan service seems courageous indeed. But that is what Fynanz, Inc. has recently done. Fynanz takes the social network idea, and combines elements of eBay auctions and microcredit to offer students a new way of borrowing money for their studies, that involves neither banks nor the government.

Fynanz's basic service is called the OpenLoan. Students (U.S. citizens or permanent residents) can take out an OpenLoan for their educational expenses only: tuition, room and board, books, computer, and associated living expenses. Individual loans range from $2500 to $20,000. Students can borrow up to $120,000 for an undergraduate degree or $160,000 for a graduate degree. OpenLoans have long-term repayment terms: Balances of less than $5000 run for 10 years; loans of $5000 or more have 20-year terms.

Fynanz's terms may be generous, but the company isn't crazy. If a borrower is under the age of 21, without a verifiable income, or employed for fewer than 2 years, the loans must be cosigned. The cosigners, most often parents, must meet the criteria for an individual loan. Fynanz charges an upfront fee for borrowers and the company does not claim to have the lowest interest rates. In fact, the Fynanz site encourages borrowers to first check out federal student loans, which usually have lower rates, before borrowing from Fynanz.

There's one more requirement for students: Fynanz gives each student a grade, called a Fynanz Academic Credit Score, or FACS. FACS is an index that quantifies academic achievement and loan history; the company says it's a better indicator of creditworthiness than the traditional credit score. FACS helps determine the interest rate that the borrower pays to the lender. In general, the company says, the higher the FACS, the lower the risk to the lender, and thus the lower the interest rate to the borrower.

Once approved and FACS-graded, students can then enter the Fynanz marketplace, where lenders evaluate the borrowers and bid on lending money to students. Students create and post profiles discussing their academic backgrounds, work history, extracurricular activities, FACS score, and loan requirements. The profiles can also include photos. (Here's a hint: Be more judicious in your choice of photos on Fynanz than on Facebook.)

Lenders can be anyone who wants to put their money directly into the education of individual students, but Fynanz also takes some of the risk out of the deal. While lenders can be total strangers to the students, Fynanz encourages family and friends to bid on the loans to help create competition and drive down the interest rate. This part of the Fynanz service adopts the microcredit idea of social pressure to encourage loan repayment. The experience of Grameen Bank and other microlenders suggests borrowers are less likely to default on a loan from someone they know than a total stranger. To further encourage lenders to use the marketplace, Fynanz guarantees the loan from 50 to 100% based on the borrower's FACS grade.

Please note that because Fynanz is a new service, it still needs to get approval from most state authorities, and right now it's available only to borrowers who are residents of New York and Florida. Borrowers from New York and Florida can attend a university in any state, and lenders likewise can come from any state. The company plans to enlarge its operating area as it gains states' approvals.

Will the Fynanz idea succeed?  Only time will tell, but it seems like a better business proposition than sub-prime mortgages.

Hat tip: TechCrunch.


Christopher Penn, chief technology officer of the Student Loan Network and founder of the Financial Aid Podcast, has created what he calls a social media résumé that applies a panoply of Web 2.0 technologies to the challenge of telling the world about himself and his accomplishments. Penn assembled the site using Google Page Creator, a simplified Web site design tool from Google.  He offers his résumé as a model for anyone who wants to take a similar approach.

You can't help but be impressed with what Penn has combined on one Web page. The centerpiece, literally, is an introductory video, surrounded by links to his personal Web sites, his LinkedIn profile, work-related Web sites, bookmark sites (e.g.,, StumbleUpon), his instant-messaging addresses, his Twitter link, RSS feed subscriptions, and a drop-down menu of 14 more social bookmarks. If you're a traditionalist and want a résumé you can print on paper, there's a link to a PDF copy of his LinkedIn profile, and if you need that personal, real-time connection, he lists his telephone number (which doubles as a fax number, in case you chicken out from a voice call).

While I like bells and whistles as much as anyone, you have to wonder whether a résumé of this kind will get you in the door for an interview any faster than the traditional printed page. Dave Jensen, who writes the Science Careers' Tooling Up column, talked about résumés and cover letters just last month. While not denying its importance in the overall process, Jensen says "a good résumé is better than a great résumé because it's out there working for you while the great one is still being analyzed and revised." Also, the résumé, according to Jensen, should address in some way the needs of the hiring company. It's hard to do that with even the most impressive Web technology, unless you want to design a different Web site for every job you apply for.

Penn's social-media résumé may be a great advert for people in the Web 2.0 business, but it has LOOK-AT-ME written all over it. It's impressive in its own right, but Penn still needs to explain how he will help a hiring organization make money or cut costs.

Hat-tip: Shifting Careers blog

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today a new $300 milion program to recognize the best biomedical scientists still starting up their careers. Through this Early Career Scientist Program, HHMI aims to support outstanding researchers with 2 to 6 years experience running their own labs.

At this stage in their careers, as the program announcement notes, researchers have often run through their institution's start-up funding and must find the money to keep their labs going. With NIH money becoming tighter, more biomedical scientists are looking for alternative sources, resulting in greater competition for a limited number of grants.

HHMI hopes to provide up to 70 of the best early-career scientists with a full year's salary and benefits for up to 3 years. Awardees are expected to devote 3/4 of their time on research, with the remainder spent on teaching, mentoring, patient care, or other non-research duties. There are important restrictions, including a list of some 200 eligible institutions, so candidates should read the announcement carefully. Applicants must submit both a letter of intent, due 30 April, and a full proposal by 10 June 2008.

GrantsNet has an overview of the program, will full details available on the HHMI Web site.

Update, 11 March: We removed the word 'grant' from the title and first paragraph, when we learned that recipients become HHMI employees for the period of the award.