Science Careers Blog

Americas: November 2009

After I posted that last blog entry, I decided I should provide a little more information. What's the point of the expedition that Posada-Swafford is participating in. In part, at least, the scientists are hunting fossils. Posada-Swafford writes in an e-mail:

We will arrive in Punta Arenas tomorrow and on the 23rd will sail to Seymour Island to install the paleontologists' camp, will hang out with them (hopefully walking around in search on dinos and mammals) and sail to Palmer Station 2 days later.

The paleontologists are Ross MacPhee of the Natural History Museum in New York and Matt Lamanna, a long time friend (what a coincidence!) from Carnegie, an expert in Patagonic dinos. They are going to look for clues of mammals and hopefully a dino from a specific geologic era that will give evidence of a land bridge between South America and Antarctica and Australia. Very cool. Wouldn't it be fabulous if we found something new?

Over the next few weeks, Angela Posada-Swafford will be sending dispatches from her fossil-hunting journey to the coldest continent. Posada-Swafford is a Miami, Florida-based science journalist who has built quite a reputation writing mainly for the Spanish-language market.

"I am doing A LOT of things with this trip," she writes, via e-mail. "We are doing (and this is first for NSF at Palmer and indeed, in Antarctica) a series of 6-party live video conferences with science museums and educational institutions in 3 Latin American countries (Colombia, Chile and either Mexico or Uruguay)." She continues:
The loveliest thing is that I managed to involve in the conferences this isolated, forgotten community in the Colombian pacific jungles, the Universidad del Choco, and are so thrilled at the idea of just seeing the ice! They are asking a thousand questions already.

Only once before had NSF allowed streaming video and that was for 10-minute reporting for the Ophrah Winfrey show. But now they are going full one or more hours per video conference and I have decided that I want 2 of them, one week apart. The kids at the different museums get to ask questions as I tell them all about the station's LTER research (long term ecological research), climate change from the molecular to penguin levels, etc.

Here are the links, also, to two websites that are following my expedition to the detail, through my own dispatches, which will come in every day with pictures, audio and video. They are doing an animated map of the trip, and a zillion more things, which already started with my chronicles of the preparations for the trip. I haven't left and there are already many comments.

This is a great opportunity to talk science to people! One of the links is for my magazine in Spain, MUY INTERESANTE. The second one is for the very sophicticated science museum in Bogota, Colombia, which is orchestrating the video conferences in Latin America:

The videoconferences can be seen at the Maloka website in real time and later, as they'll be recorded. The dates are:

  • Saturday 5 December at 2 p.m. U.S. eastern time (4 p.m. Palmer time)
  • Saturday 12 December at the same time.
(Saturdays are good for the children in Latin America and they are also good for the Palmer scientists who will take those days off!)
In addition to talking science to people, Posada-Swafford will also be sending us regular updates, posted on our blog, telling us about the scientists she meets and what it's like to do science in Antarctica.

A new summer internship program allows U.S. undergraduate students -- and Indonesian students enrolled in U.S. degree programs -- to study, live, and work in Indonesia while learning about the administration of not-for-profit organizations.  The internships include positions in fields such as environmental protection and public health.

The Freeman Indonesia Nonprofit Internship Program is a 9-week educational opportunity that stretches from 15 June through 17 August 2010. The program includes a unique partnership feature, where 10 Indonesian students seeking degrees at U.S. colleges will be paired with 10 U.S. undergraduates. Interns will live in the cities of Jakarta, Bandung, or Yogyakarta and be immersed in Indonesian culture.

Awardees will gain real-world experience working in an Indonesian not-for-profit organization.  U.S. students are required to complete a credit-bearing Indonesian language and culture course in Indonesia during the internship. Indonesian students are required to complete an online course related to nongovernmental organization administration. Once American students return to the United States, they are expected to share their experiences with others, and find ways to incorporate the skills that they learned into their careers.

Arranged by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and Indonesian International Education Foundation, the program is open to U.S. and Indonesian citizens who are enrolled as full-time sophomores or juniors in U.S. degree programs. Applicants should be pursuing their first bachelor's degrees at U.S. colleges or universities. All program-related expenses will be covered.  

The deadline for applications to the Freeman Indonesia Nonprofit Internship Program is 15 February 2010. Visit GrantsNet or the Institute of International Education's Web site for more information.

For the first time in 5 weeks, the number of new flu cases at American colleges and universities has dropped, according to a tracking survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA). The survey, which tracks influenza-like illnesses on campuses, reported 6373 new cases in the week ending 13 November at the 263 reporting institutions, a drop of 27% from the week earlier.

The 263 institutions taking part in the survey cover a campus population of almost 3,000,000, and the number of new cases represents what ACHA calls an "attack-rate" of 21.3 cases per 10,000 people served.  That rate is down from 29 cases per 10,000 a week earlier.

Despite the drop, the survey still found flu to be a widespread problem on campus. Some 249 of the 263 institutions, or 95%, reported at least one new case in the last week. During that week, 12 of the cases required hospitalization and 2 patients died.

The drop in the number of new cases was the first weekly decline and the lowest attack rate since 9 October. Yet the rate has dropped before, since ACHA started tracking new flu illnesses, in early September and again in late October, only to start rising again soon thereafter.

The ACHA survey tracks all flu cases, using the CDC definition of influenza-like illnesses: both a fever of 100 degress (F) or higher, and a cough or sore throat. The survey does not break out the types of flu diagnosed, H1N1 or seasonal varieties. However, according to the CDC as of the first week of November, all but a handful of new flu cases were H1N1.

ComputerWorld magazine reported yesterday that U.S. immigration authorities have ramped up their field inspections for H-1B visa violations. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R, Ia.) that it will conduct some 25,000 inspections of workplaces hiring staff under the H-1B program in the current fiscal year, which began in October.

H-1B visas, which admit non-immigrant skilled workers for a limited number of years, have come under fire recently because of allegations that American companies use the visas to bring in foreign workers, including many engineers and scientists, to avoid hiring higher-salaried American staff. In addition, during the past year evidence has emerged of increasing fraud and abuse of individual visa holders, on which Beryl Benderly has reported for Science Careers. The Science Careers blog has also noted reduced demand for H-1B visas during 2009 and diminishing political support for the program.

Earlier this month, Grassley, a frequent critic of H-1B visas, wrote a letter to USCIS requesting more enforcement of the rules, noting incidents in Iowa where companies brought in foreign workers under the program even though the jobs that the companies identified in their H-1B petitions were no longer available. Grassley also pointed to incidents where companies hired H-1B visa holders then outsourced them to other work sites, another rules violation.

ComputerWorld says that Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS, told Grassley that the inspections will determine "whether the location of employment actually exists and if a beneficiary is employed at the location specified, performing the duties as described, and paid the salary as identified in the petition." The 25,000 inspections planned for this fiscal year is nearly a five-fold increase over the 5,200 conducted last year.

The number of science and engineering students from abroad jumped 20% at American institutions in the 2008-09 academic year, with the biggest gains recorded in engineering and computer science. Science and engineering students now comprise about half of all international students in the U.S. and nearly two-thirds of international graduate students.

According to the Open Doors survey, conducted annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE, funded by the U.S. Department of State), the number of science and engineering students increased from about 267,000 in the 2007-08 academic year to about 319,000 in 2008-09, an increase of nearly 20%.  That's about half (48%) of the 671,600 international students in the United States in 2008-09, up from 43% of the total in the previous year.

Except for agriculture, international students in all the scientific and engineering categories increased by double-digit percentages in 2008-09. Engineering and computer/information science students increased by about a quarter (24%), while life, physical, social, and health science disciplines all increased between 14-17%. The number of agricultural students from abroad stayed about the same as in 2007-08.

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Nearly two-thirds (65%) of international graduate students at American universities during the 2008-09 study science or engineering. About a quarter (24%) of international graduate students are in engineering programs and 13% of international graduate students are in the physical and life sciences. About 11% of international graduate students are studying mathematics or computer science,  and 9% of international graduate students are in the social sciences.

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About 4 in 10 international undergraduates are in science or engineering programs. Some 12% of international undergrads are studying engineering, while nearly 1 in 10 (9%) are majoring in the social sciences. About 5-7% each are in undergraduate physical/life science, mathematics/computer science, or health programs.

Overall, the number of international students in the U.S. increased by nearly 8% in 2008-09, to 671,600. Of the total, about 41% come from India, China, or South Korea. The number of students from China increased by about 21% year over year. Vietnamese students increased by 46%, to about 12,800, compared to 2007-08 -- the largest increase for any country. (IIE did not provide country breakdowns by field of study.)

Attaining a Ph.D. degree takes commitment and perseverance, as any Ph.D. candidate can attest. But the way Nicholas Kristoff tells it, in yesterday's New York Times Tererai Trent, a plant pathologist and Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, demonstrated commitment and perseverance in the quest that few students at American universities are expected to endure.

Now 44, Trent came from a village in rural Zimbabwe, where, as tradition dictates, she was married off to a much older man at age 11. Most girls subjected to such conditions have ended up illiterate and poor, tending to small plots of land or herds of livestock. But 12 years after her marriage, Jo Luck, president of the rural aid organization Heifer International, visited Trent's village, and encouraged the village women to talk about their dreams and at least try to make them a reality.

Trent wrote down her dreams -- to go the United States and get an education -- on a scrap of paper, put the paper in a box, and buried it under a pile of rocks. Heifer International gave her a goat and she began to make extra money selling its milk. Later, she went to work for Heifer International and other aid groups as a community organizer in Zimbabwe. When she finished secondary school, the income saved up from her work at Heifer International helped her enroll at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, in 1998.

You're probably imaging smooth sailing for Trent the rest of the way. Think again. By the time she started school she had 5 children that she was not ready to abandon to their traditional and abusive father. Her husband agreed to let the children go with her to Oklahoma, but on one condition: that he could come along as well. The airfares soaked up much Trent's savings, Kristoff says, and she and her family lived in a ramshackle trailer with little income -- with nothing but beatings from a frustrated and abusive husband to welcome her home after class.

Financial and other help came, eventually, from a university colleague and the Stillwater community, and that help enabled her to complete her B.A. degree in agricultural education -- and to get her husband deported. When he would return later, frail and suffering from AIDS, Trent took him back in until he died of the disease. (Kristoff says Trent tested negative for the HIV virus.)

Trent continued at Oklahoma State, getting an M.S. degree in plant pathology, marrying her current husband, plant pathologist Mark Trent, and becoming Heifer International's Deputy Director for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation. Her interest in assessing effectiveness led her to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Western Michigan University, in evaluation. Her dissertation is called, "Toward an Integral Systematic Evaluation Approach in the Face of HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries."

She returned once to her village in Zimbabwe and found the pile of rocks under which she buried the box with her goals written down, Kristoff says, and she checks off her goals as they are achieved. Trent checked off the last item after defending her Ph.D. dissertation. The degree will be awarded in December.

Whether it's good news or bad news depends on your perspective. A new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) shows that physics degree production is up dramatically. The most recent data are from 2006.

* In 2006, 5373 students earned bachelor's degrees in physics, up 5% over the previous year and 47% over 1999.

* That same year, 1380 physics Ph.D.s were granted, up 11% over the year before and 26% over 2004.

* Undergraduate astronomy degrees was up 98% in 2006, over 1997.

AIP also released a Focus on Astronomy Degrees, with slightly more recent data. These data showed the number of astronomy bachelor's degrees dipping in 2007 compared to a year earlier.

Those of you who were too young to experience the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 may soon  witness the metaphorical crumbling of another diplomatic wall: the U.S. embargo on Cuba. This time science may be at the leading edge.

As Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis described last week in Science Careers, the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago opened up many opportunities for scientists in Eastern Europe to travel to the West for study and research. In Cuba, the United States is playing catch-up, since Cuba already has normal diplomatic and economic relations with most other nations. But right now there's a delegation of American scientists and policy experts visiting Cuba, as reported last night by our colleagues at Science Insider.

The goal of the U.S. delegation, says a news release from AAAS (publisher of Science Careers) is "to explore research issues and multilateral science venues that might be conducive to U.S.-Cuba scientific cooperation."

While many such delegations are long on rhetoric and short on action, this group of visitors may benefit from something of a tropical thaw. Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and one of the delegation members, says in a Washington Note blog post that the atmospherics between the U.S. Interests Section in Havana -- the U.S. does not have an official Embassy there -- and the Cuban government have improved tangibly. "There is a marked, highly noticeable change in the attitude and 'posture' of the Cuban government towards US State Department and other US officials assigned to the embassy-lite operation in Havana," he says. "Cuban authorities, apparently, are engaging the U.S. government personnel constructively -- and this just didn't happen before" This is one of several indicators Clemons found pointing toward more bi-lateral cooperation.

Clemons separately highlights Cuba's use of its medical schools and staff as diplomatic tools, which he feels could serve as a template for exchanges between Cuba and the United States. Cuba in recent years sent has teams of its doctors to help local populations recover from natural disasters in Pakistan and elsewhere. Partially as a result of those early contacts, Pakistan has since established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Today, Pakistani students attend the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.

Last month on this blog, we talked about more employers using reference checks as part of thorough investigations into applicants' pasts. Today's Wall Street Journal says that employers are taking that process further to include checks of arrests and convictions, which applicants must be prepared to explain or remove from their records.

You say you're not a criminal?  What about that campus demonstration and sit-in where the police arrested everyone blocking the entrance to a building on disorderly conduct charges? Or what about the traffic stop, where the officer found a joint in the back seat of the car you were driving? Perhaps you ended up paying a fine or even having the charges dropped; there are still traces of those arrests on official records that may come up when an employer starts looking into your past.

Arrests in the United States are hardly uncommon. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told the Journal that an estimated 60% of American men have been arrested, up from 50% in 1967, which he attributes to more arrests for minor drug and domestic violence cases. The Journal highlights Department of Justice figures showing that arrests for pot possession more than tripled, to 1.8 million, between 1980 and 2007.

Granted, arrests are different from convictions, and the Journal cites the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says employers cannot make hiring decisions based on arrests that did not result in convictions. Still -- when a hiring manager is faced with a choice between two equally qualified candidates, only one of whom has an arrest record, who is more likely to get the nod?

In some states you can petition the authorities to clear past arrest records for minor crimes, which means having the official records of your arrest erased (expunged is the legal term) blocked, or sealed.  The processes and categories of offenses vary from state to state, but more often than not, you'll need to hire an attorney.  A Chicago attorney, Tamara Holder, specializes in such cases for Illinois residents, and advertises her record-clearing services on a Web site. The Journal says legal-aid organizations and public defenders offices can also be enlisted to help.

The process is neither quick nor fool-proof. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's pardons board handles record-clearing cases, and faces a 3-year backlog in requests. A new law in that state allows local courts to process the petitions, which could speed things up a bit. Even after the official record is expunged, sealed, or whatever, iit may take some time for commercial public records databases -- some with fees as low as $10 a search -- to catch up.

If you have an arrest record, even if it has been cleared, you may want to disclose the information before the employer finds it in a background check. "If someone has a criminal history, we can work with them," a Chicago-area executive told the Journal. "But if they have one and lie to us, that's pretty ominous."

In a New York Times Economix column this week, Steven Greenhouse tells about the large percentage of American workers do not get paid if they stay home sick. As a result, with the H1N1 and seasonal flu viruses among us, we can expect to encounter many people during the workday in less than the best of health.

Fortunately, for science and engineering professionals and technicians, a large majority of our employers provide paid sick leave. Greenhouse cites Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data showing that 85% or more of teachers, management, business, professional, and government workers can take off if they are sick and get paid for at least some of those days.

We often come into contact with other people at our jobs who do not have this benefit. Take, for example, the truck driver delivering new lab equipment. Only about half (54%) of transportation and material moving employees get paid sick leave.  Or how about the salespeople who drop in to talk about new products or services: Only a few more of those workers (56%) can stay home when sick and get paid for it.

The further down the pay scale you go, the less likely you find paid sick leave. For people in the lowest wage quartile, less than 4 in 10 (37%) get paid sick leave. That group includes many of the maintenance, cleaning, and security staff we rely on every day. In comparison, 86% of the top wage quartile have paid sick leave. One notable exception among the higher-paid group are health care professionals, whose compensation is based on the number of patients they see. If they stay home when not feeling well, it gets reflected in their take-home pay.

The size of the organization you work for also makes a difference. Only about half (52%) of the workers at companies with fewer than 100 employees get paid sick leave, compared to 8 in 10 staff (80%) at companies of 500 employees or more.

These disparities in sick leave make it all the more important to take the necessary precautions to stay healthy during this flu season, not just for ourselves, but also for everyone we interact with. And dude, that means you.

A Wall Street Journal reader wrote to Toddi Gutner, one of the newspaper's careers advisers, about a question uppermost in the minds of job-hunters over the age of 40: How do you deal with your age in interviews and resumes? The reader said, in his question published today, that he received conflicting advice from people he trusted.

While most Science Careers' readers are early-career scientists, this is not a far-fetched issue for some of our readers. Among our Facebook fans, for example, 6% are age 45 or older. Our  Science Careers story last week about the career of Patricia Alireza, who earned a Ph.D. in physics at the age of 45 after raising a family, got a few "thumbs up" on our Facebook page.

In one respect, the current tough job market may give older job-hunters an advantage. "This is a good time to position yourself as a deeply competent and confident professional in your area of expertise and experience," Rabia de Lande Long, a consultant and executive coach told Gutner. "In uncertain economic times, employers can be drawn more to experienced workers who join with ready-to-use skills and a shallow learning curve."

One specific question the reader asked was whether to include the dates of college degrees on your resume, since they enable hiring managers can calculate your age. Gutner says that in most cases it's a good idea to include the dates. If you don't, it suggests that you have something to hide, which would raise even more questions among H.R. departments and hiring managers. Plus, employers frequently verify dates of previous employment and educational attainment, so there is little reason to hide the dates on your resume.

If you are in your mid-50s and older, be prepared for more resistance among hiring managers. But there are ways to deal with it. A flattering photo on your LinkedIn profile may dispel some doubts. But more importantly, says career coach de Lande Long, you want to use your cover letter to differentiate yourself from the common perception of older candidates, "by showing results, (understanding of) technology and demonstrate ease in interacting with colleagues of all ages," she says.

Another professional advises older job-seekers to avoid the 'been there, done that' attitude. Instead, show interest, commitment, enthusiasm and energy. "If you're bored with your profession, you can be sure that comes through in an interview," says Susan Chadick, a principal at Chadick Ellig, an executive-search firm serving small and mid-size companies and startups.