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Science Careers Blog

Americas: October 2008

In early December, three German research organizations are offering information sessions in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles about research and research training in Germany. The sessions, called "Research Careers Made in Germany: Explore Opportunities in German Academia," will include representatives of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH).

The meetings are aimed at current and prospective Ph.D. students, postdocs, and faculty. The presenters will discuss Germany's Excellence Initiative to promote university research and support young scientists. The meetings will also cover the academic job market in Germany and opportunities for international collaboration.

Here's the schedule for the sessions ...

Washington DC:
  Monday, 1 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
  German Historical Institute
  1607 New Hampshire Avenue NW
  Washington, DC 20009

San Francisco:
    Tuesday, 2 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
    Goethe-Institut
    530 Bush Street
    San Francisco, CA 94108

Los Angeles:
    Thursday, 4 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
    Goethe-Institut
    5750 Wilshire Boulevard
    Los Angeles, CA 90036

To enroll in one of the meetings, send an e-mail to daadsf@daad.org by Monday, 24 November 2008. DAAD asks enrollees to put "Info Session SF," "Info Session LA," or "Info Session DC" in the subject line. More details are available on the DAAD-New York Web site.

In an abrupt reversal, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced late Friday it will rely on its own information technology staff to implement the 21st century G.I. Bill rather than contracting out the work. As recently as 3 weeks ago, VA officials told Congress that they needed outside help to meet the tight deadlines in the bill.

VA's press release said the department did not receive enough proposals from
qualified private companies to do the work. VA Secretary Dr. James B. Peake cited "external misconceptions" over the scope of the work that made vendors reluctant to bid. Peake added, however, that "VA can and will deliver the benefits program on time."

The new G.I. Bill, which Science Careers has followed since it was passed in June, makes a university education much more affordable for returning service members and has the potential at least of expanding the size and diversity of American science and engineering talent. VA originally planned to computerize many operational aspects of the bill's implementation and outsource the development of those systems, largely because of the mandated 1 August 2009 start date.

On 23 September,
VA Assistant Deputy Under Secretary Keith Pedigo told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that "VA is seeking contractor support to implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill because we do not believe that we could deliver the systems necessary to administer the program within the time required utilizing our existing information technology (IT) resources." Friday's announcement indicates VA has the in-house staff needed to deliver the systems.

ScienceOnline09 holds its third annual blogging conference on Saturday and Sunday, 17-18 January 2009, in Research Triangle Park, NC. The event covers blogging in science--a subject obviously near and dear--but it also branches into issues that can help researchers communicate with colleagues and the general public.

For bloggers, the conference covers practical topics such as working with multi-media formats and intellectual property issues, as well as the prospects of actually getting paid for your blogging. The event has sessions on more general issues of science communication: the Semantic Web, putting one's lab notebook online, differences between print and online rhetoric, and the role of art and illustration in scientific media. Plus there are panels on race and gender issues in science, the open access movement, and social networking, among others. If you think a critical issue is not being covered, the conference organizers say they are still open to suggestions for other topics.

The event has lab and museum tours on the preceding Friday 16 January, along with networking opportunities throughout the weekend.

Hat tip: Danielle Lee , who is leading one of the conference sessions.

We've learned plenty in the past few weeks about economic conditions, government policies, and bank mergers, but we don't often hear how ordinary people working in the sciences are coping with hard financial times. You can find one of those stories at "I’ve Paid For This Twice Already ..." , a blog by a Ph.D. geneticist working part-time to support her family of four.

The blogger, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells how her family learned to live frugally and pay down their combined student loans and credit card debt. When her husband lost his job, she became the family's sole source of income. She and her husband were forced to make drastic changes in lifestyle, but their key decision was to abandon credit cards. They had relied before on credit cards to bail them out each month, which added to a crushing debt burden. Even after he found new employment about 6 months later, they decided to keep to their strict financial regimen.

In June 2007 she started the blog, which includes a summary of their current finances and progress in paying down their debt. At that time, she and her husband had nearly $36,500 in debt;  as of 23 September they had cut to about $15,000. The blog tells about their methods of getting control of their finances: making a complete inventory of assets and liabilities, living within a budget, and paying down the principal on loans any time they could. The blog gives tips on living frugally, which at this point in our history is not a bad idea for anyone.

The title of the blog, by the way, comes from her estimation that using credit cards for purchases increases costs to such an extent that you end up paying twice the amount on the price tag.

Hat tip: Laura Rowley Money & Happiness

October 3, 2008

Be True to Your School

Summer offers students a chance to make a little money, have fun, goof off, or--as in the case of 10 recent alumni of Eleanor Roosevelt High School (ERHS) in Greenbelt, Maryland--redesign the school's engineering curriculum.

One of the elite institutions in Prince George's County, Maryland, with rigorous enrollment requirements and often a waiting list, ERHS asked a group of its recent graduates to spend 6 weeks this past summer bringing its engineering curriculum up to date.

About one-third of ERHS's 2700 students take part in the school's science and technology magnet program. The program requires all freshman to take two introductory engineering classes, but those classes had changed little since they started in 1976. Located north and east of Washington, DC, Prince George's County is 63% African-American, making the program a key source of minority talent in science and technology for universities.

Jane Hemelt, coordinator of the science and technology program, recognized the need for a new curriculum, but like many public schools, needed help finding the resources--skilled staff and money--to make it happen. For the skilled staff, Hemelt called on Rocco Mennella, a mathematics faculty member at ERHS who also teaches at nearby Catholic University and Prince George's Community College. Mennella had already recruited a group of recent ERHS graduates to tutor university pre-calculus students over the summer. Hemelt convinced Mennella and his tutors to help with the curriculum upgrade as well. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) provided a grant.

Those former ERHS students returned from some of the country's leading institutions: Caltech, MIT, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, and University of Maryland. As the project got underway and the students and faculty adviser began exchanging ideas, Mennella decided to step out of the picture let the students run the show. The students got input from some 50 engineering professors and fashioned a program with academic rigor, combining physics, math, and computer science. The classes expose students to civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, adding practical hands-on exercises (e.g., designing the Taj Mahal, building an SUV) to provide a dose of reality as well as some fun.

HHMI's Web site tells more about this program. There's no indication if the ERHS grads were also able to sneak in a sun tan.

The financial crisis in the United States has started to affect operations of smaller colleges and universities. The New York Times reported yesterday that Wachovia Bank has limited access to a fund used by many smaller institutions for short-term financing of their day-to-day operations. This move has forced some institutions to scramble to find the money for payroll and other immediate obligations.

Until Monday, Wachovia Bank served as the trustee for the Commonfund, where some 1,000 institutions in the U.S. deposited their cash receipts, then drew out funds using lines of credit to pay staff, purchase supplies, and conduct other day-to-day transactions. On Monday, according to the Times, Wachovia resigned from its trustee role with Commonfund. The bank also limited access by institutions to the estimated $9.3 billion in the Commonfund to 10 percent of their accounts' value. On Tuesday, Commonfund was able to sell some of its government-backed securities to increase its liquidity.

For institutions depending on Commonfund, Monday's announcement hit hard. The University of Vermont says that half of its liquid assets--some $79 million--are in Commonfund. The University of Akron had $800,000 in Commonfund, but could withdraw only $80,000 when it heard the fund was in trouble. Many institutions have been forced to negotiate separate lines of credit with other institutions at a time when credit is tightening.

Wachovia was one of the banks hit particularly hard  by the financial crisis. Citigroup announced this week the purchase of Wachovia's banking operations. Commonfund had invested its funds in high-rated government and corporate bonds, avoiding the the mortgage-backed securities considered among the root causes of the financial crisis. But the central role of Wachovia with Commonfund appears to have crippled the fund's work.

The Times also reports that Boston University, while not a Commonfund participant, announced a freeze on hiring and new capital projects as a precaution, given the uncertain financial conditions.

UPDATE, 3 October 2008: Associated Press reports this morning that Wells Fargo & Co. will acquire all of Wachovia's assets, pushing aside the earlier deal with Citigroup.