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Science Careers Blog

Beryl Lieff Benderly: February 2012

The residency programs that train new physicians to practice medicine will begin to change in July 2013, according to an announcement by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). The requirements of the so-called Next Accreditation System will increase attention to such skills and personal characteristics as the ability to communicate with patients and to exhibit a high level of professionalism. The system will focus on fostering  "the actual behaviors you should see in order to be confident that resident physicians are progressing to the point where they will be ready to practice on their own," according to Carol Aschenbrener, chief medical education officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The change is necessary because under the 31-year-old existing system, "program requirements have become prescriptive, and opportunities for innovation have progressively disappeared," write ACGME CEO Thomas Nasca and co-authors in the New England Journal of Medicine.  "As administrative burdens have grown, program directors have been forced to manage programs rather than mentor residents." The new system, however, will aim to "take the best of the current system and [enhance] it with a more explicit focus on attributes of the learning environment that carry over into a lifetime of practice in a clinical specialty."

February 28, 2012

Who Watches the Watchers?

On 13 February, Celltex Therapeutics Corporation, a Houston, Texas, stem cell company, announced the appointment of Glenn McGee as its new "president of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives." The "internationally respected bioethicist" would be responsible "for assuring that all of the firm's work...will meet the highest ethical standards....," said the company release. "We wanted Glenn at Celltex because...we have been determined to do things right," said Celltex chairman and CEO David Eller, quoted in the release.

Earlier in the month, we reported on President Obama's online conversation with Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed engineer.  The president expressed surprise at Wedel's 3-year effort to find work because, he said, industrial leaders have told him "they don't have enough highly skilled engineers."

We have belatedly learned that the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column has examined the president's claims about the employment situation in engineering and given him One Pinocchio for his comments to Mrs. Wedel.  The Post's Pinocchio Scale ranges from one Pinocchio for "Some shading of the facts.  Selective telling of the truth.  Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." The Post awards four Pinocchios for "whoppers."

The employment outlook in the semiconductor industry, where Mr. Wedel worked, looks "bleak heading into 2020, and the president should have known that,"  the Fact Checker writes.  The president earned his Pinocchio "for suggesting that demand remains high for engineers in high-tech industries.  He can't gloss over this area of unemployment."

Failure to maintain equipment properly has apparently resulted in another academic lab safety incident, but one that, fortunately, caused no injuries, reports Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News. On 23 January, undergraduates in a physical chemistry class at the University of California, Davis, were working with a piece of equipment called a bomb calorimeter when it exploded. (Despite its name, that is not supposed to happen.) The lid of the metal instrument was "forcibly propelled upward" until it hit the ceiling and other metal fragments and pieces of a mercury thermometer were sprayed into the room, according to a report on the event by a university chemical hygiene officer.

Entitled "Lesson Learned, UC Davis Chemistry Event, Oxygen Bomb Calorimeter Failure," the report attributes the explosion most probably to the failure of a valve seat within the calorimeter. The manufacturer, the report states, "recommends that all O-rings and valve seats be replaced annually or after 5000 firings....With proper maintenance, these particular calorimeters can operate safely and accurately for decades." The machine's serial number "indicates that it was manufactured in 1985," but "there are no records of routine maintenance" of the device however.

A 1985 manufacture date does make the calorimeter 23 years younger than the lathe that killed undergraduate physics student Michele Dufault at Yale University in April 2011, which had also apparently gone decades without servicing. Of course it's possible, perhaps even likely, that the O-rings and valve seats may have been replaced at some point during the now-defunct calorimeter's 27-year life. The lack of records, however, makes a proper maintenance schedule highly unlikely.

The "lesson" that those responsible for labs at UC Davis and many other universities need to learn from this incident--or re-learn after the unnecessary death of Dufault--is that servicing equipment in a timely manner is a potentially life-and-death responsibility. The fact that the academic science world doesn't have once again to express shock and sorrow over yet another needless death or injury following this incident is pretty much a matter of luck rather than anything the university did to assure safety.

As the academic job interview season approaches, two hiring committee veterans offer good advice for making the campus visit work for rather than against you.  Common mistakes that applicants make, these faculty members explain, can not only lose them a specific opportunity but also damage their career prospects later on.

Looking for a science or technology career that (according to the employer, at least) offers challenging work, good pay and fringe benefits, long-term security, and the chance to make a real difference? If so, you might want to consider working for the U.S. federal government, which employs scientists, engineers, and technologists of every kind as researchers, science administrators, and in other roles in dozens of agencies across the nation and around the world. U.S. citizenship is generally required, though non-citizens can be hired in certain circumstances.  

For many job seekers, the complexity and apparent opacity of the federal hiring process can pose a challenge. To help orient scientists to the often unfamiliar federal job market, a number of agencies have joined forces in a Web site called INSPIRE that is aimed specifically at answering scientists' questions about whether and how to seek a position with the feds. Its features include interviews with federally employed scientists, engineers, and technologists working in a number of fields as well as links that explain how federal hiring works, what federal employment offers, how to find agencies that want your skills, and where to get additional information.

In August 2010, postdocs at the University of California's ten campuses ratified their union's first 5-year contract. Now, after its first full calendar year under the pact, the union known as UAW Local  5810 is looking back with satisfaction at its accomplishments. These include the "first-ever guaranteed experience-based raises upon reappointment" and a 2% increase in the overall wage scale for 2012, according to the union's website.

The union also helped individual postdocs resolve issues involving back pay, vacation time, attempts to terminate postdoc appointments because of pregnancy, and other instances of unwarranted termination, the website continues. Advocacy efforts included pressing the California Congressional delegation to oppose cuts to research funding and to support comprehensive immigration reform.
We're happy to report that the graduate student injured in a laboratory explosion at the University of Sydney suffered injuries "not as serious as initially reported in the news media" in Australia, according to University of Sydney chemistry professor Gregory Warr.  "The student has advised me that he is happy to share that he is recovering well, has spoken to a number of colleagues and has been out of bed and walking around," Warr tells Science Careers by e-mail.  "He will have a skin graft on one area later this week, and expects to be discharged after the weekend."  No one else was injured in the blast, which "occurred in a small research laboratory," Warr writes.

An investigation into the cause of the incident is underway, Warr continues, and should "be finalized in a few days."  Warr offered to provide additional information after the investigation is complete.

A laboratory explosion in the chemistry building of the University of Sydney, Australia, severely injured a 29-year-old research student (equivalent to a graduate student), reported the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 11 February.  Emergency personnel brought the man by helicopter to a burn unit with burns over 40 percent of his body.  A search of the websites of Australian news media and the university yielded no further information on either his condition or the cause of the incident.

Burns over 40 percent of the victim's body sounds eerily reminiscent of the lab fire injuries that killed Sheri Sangji in 2009.  Here's hoping that this student makes a good recovery.

Few things count as much in landing an academic job or fellowship as terrific letters of recommendation from professors or lab supervisors who love you and your work.  Maximizing your chances of getting someone to compose such an encomium requires an understanding of both strategy and etiquette, writes Yale professor Chris Blattman in an essay on Inside Higher Ed.

The key strategic issue is selecting the right people to ask to write your letters, a task Blattman suggests you approach with "seriousness and care."  "Strong letters usually come from long and close relationships with faculty," he explains.  But writing them is far from trivial from the faculty member's point of view.  "Since we often write these letters to our colleagues in the same pool of colleges and employers," professors "take [writing] these letters seriously."  After all, "our reputations are at stake."

The essay covers such points as the criteria faculty members use to decide whom to write letters for, the number of writers an applicant should seek, and the etiquette of making the task as easy as possible for the faculty member and of providing the information he or she will need to give the most favorable possible account of your qualifications.  You can find Blattman's thoughtful advice here.

As we have noted several times, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is a leading critic of the H-1B visa and the co-sponsor, along with Senator Dick Durban (D-Illinois), of a bill to reform and tighten the rules governing the high-skill temporary visa. Grassley is also the Ranking Member -- the senior member of the minority party -- of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. On 7 February he sent a letter to President Obama about the response the president gave last week to the plight of Mrs. Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed Texas engineer, during an online town meeting.

A while back, we reported on how lucrative patents boost the incomes of some inventive faculty members.  Highly profitable discoveries, of course, can also mean major paydays for the universities where the research took place.

Now the New York Times reports that the potential payoff of "groundbreaking research" has sparked a lawsuit by a University of Pennsylvania cancer institute against the president of the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.  Penn's Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute alleges that Craig B. Thompson "chose to abscond with the fruits" of work he did while at Penn.  Thompson denies the accusation.

The article calls the tangle between the prestigious institution and the major researcher a "billion-dollar dispute" and gives other examples of the big bucks at stake in certain struggles over the ownership of research.

We recently reported on an article in Salon, a site well know for its liberal, pro-Democratic views, that discusses the politics of President Obama's conversation with Jennifer Wedel, who is  currently the nation's most famous wife of an unemployed engineer.  In the interests of journalistic even-handedness, we'd also like to draw your attention to a piece by Mark Krikorian that appears on the conservative, pro-Republican National Review Online (NRO).

Though it's said here in Washington that the two ends of the political spectrum can't agree on what day of the week it is, these two articles have a lot in common.  Where Salon speaks of "Obama's high-tech labor lies,"  NRO cites the "phony 'missile-gap' style panic about U.S. competitiveness created by lobbyists for tech companies that desire cheap labor."

Right and left seeing nearly eye-to-eye on an important issue?  You heard it here first!

In its October 2011 report on the 2010 lab explosion at Texas Tech University (TTU) that maimed a graduate student, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board leveled blistering criticisms against the the university's lab-safety culture.  According to pair of front-page articles on 5 January in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, the experience has led TTU  and some other Texas universities to make changes in how they think about and deal with safety. 

Ever since President Obama's spoke with Jennifer Wedel, the Texas woman whose engineer husband has been unemployed for 3 years, during an online "town hall" last week, the internet has been alive with comments about the president's apparently puzzled reaction to her husband's plight.  Over at Salon today, in an article titled "Obama's high-tech labor lies," David Sirota offers an explanation of  the politics the situation.  To wit: Why would a president who proclaims himself devoted to American technological and scientific progress and prides himself on his policy prowess appear ignorant of some pretty basic economic realities?  And why would his press secretary, who had time to check the fact, repeat the same line?

(PS.  I, like a number of other writers, have misspelled the Wedel's name.  My apologies.)

Yesterday, this blog discussed what appeared to be promising developments in the national discussion of the scientific and engineering labor market. A new report from the National Institutes of Health indicates that the agency is getting the picture that oversupply rather than shortage is the big problem. But President Obama, not so much. His online encounter on 30 January with Jennifer Weddell, the wife of an unemployed microprocessor engineer, appeared to create an opportunity for him to take in this idea.

A subsequent briefing by White House press secretary Jay Carney reveals, however, that this apparently did not come to pass. Answering a reporter's question, Carney indicates that the White House regards Ms. Weddell's out-of-work husband as an anomalous individual case and not an indicator of any larger phenomenon possibly related to the number of H-1B visas awarded. "Business leaders," he says, tell the White House that shortages exist, and the White House apparently believes them.

Ms. Weddell did her spunky best to bring her message to the president. Why don't other hard-pressed engineers and scientists try to do the same?

The arraignment of Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on criminal charges arising from the death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji, originally scheduled for today, has been postponed until March 7. After a brief discussion in Los Angeles County Superior Court this morning, a judge announced the delay, which "will allow plea negotiations to continue between prosecutors and the defendants," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Amazing things have been happening in recent days in the national discussion of the scientific and technical labor force. As Science Careers has reported, the National Institutes of Health issued a report stating that oversupply of scientists is a chief concern among those working in the biomedical job market, and even suggesting that supporting fewer students and postdocs could help alleviate the problem.  

Perhaps even more more significantly, President Obama, a staunch advocate of the view that America produces too few scientists and engineers, came face to face -- apparently for the first time -- with the reality of highly trained but out-of-work Americans.

At an online "town hall" coversation with ordinary citizens held January 30, Jennifer Weddell, the wife of a Texas engineer who has been out of work for 3 years, asked a question that's on the minds of many similarly situated Americans: "Why does the government continue to extend the H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?"

Obama began to tell Mrs. Weddell that, although there is generally a great demand for engineers across the country, some specialties, such as civil engineering, are less in demand due to the depressed construction industry. When she told him that her unemployed husband is a specialist in semiconductors, the President appeared puzzled. "The word we're getting is that somebody like this should be getting work right away," he said.

The key to the condundrum, as Unversity of California-Davis computer professor Norman Matloff suggests, is that Mrs. Weddell's husband is not one of the young, cheap, newly minted graduates who get the great bulk of the H-1B visas. Instead, he is a professional with 10 years of experience, and therefore an expectation of higher pay. Mr. Weddell (assuming he shares a surname with his wife) has probably reached the crucial mid-to-late 30s, when high-tech companies begin sloughing workers off.

Obama did not seem to get the big picture during his brief interchange with Mrs. Weddell, who showed real gumption in standing her ground when the President spoke of the purported technical skills shortage and the supposedly vigorous demand for technically trained personnel. Obama appeared to see the questioner's husband as a special case and asked Ms. Weddell to send her husband's resume so that White House staff could look into what was wrong.  

So here's the really crucial question: Will they look beyond this single fruitless job search? Will they see only a lone individual whom they can help get hired through industry connections? Or will they begin to appreciate Mr. Weddell for what he really is, a victim of a serious national problem that Obama simply does not seem to understand?

"The word we're getting" most likely comes from the employers who benefit from policies that glut the scientific and technical labor markets, and not from the many struggling scientific and technical workers like Mr. Weddell, or from scholars like Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who know the effects of these policies on many American workers. As Matloff observes, industry figures will probably race to find a good position for Mr. Weddell so that the White House need not probe deeper and discover what is really going on. The President's staff needs to look not only at Mr. Weddell's credentials, but at the voluminous literature on the disastrous state of the scientific and technical labor market.

So, hats off to the gutsy Mrs. Weddell, not only for what she did for her lucky husband but for what she tried to do for people like him across the country. Because of her, there's at least a chance that the views of the scientists and engineers caught in the glut may get through to the White House. Here's hoping that Obama gets the full picture, and not just the impression that the Weddells alone need special help. What he would learn will contradict many of his own statements on the dearth of scientific and technical expertise in this country. But the President is a highly intelligent man with an inquiring mind, and this really isn't rocket science. On this issue, he and the nation need him to hear the whole truth.

Yesterday, Science Careers reported on the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on the career issues that most concern biomedical scientists. (Topping the list--no surprise to Science Careers--is one we have been highlighting for years: the "imbalance between supply and demand", which the report calls "vast.") The report summarizes the comments sent by hundreds of scientists working inside and outside NIH.

There's also an additional chance for scientists to tell what they think. In January, NIH announced that it wants to hear from scientists on another topic: increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. A Request for Information invites scientists to share their opinions and ideas on how to "cultivate diversity" throughout the educational process and early stages of a career, the role of mentors and roles models, ways to encourage more scientists from underrepresented minorities to compete for NIH funding, and more.  

The comment period closes on February 24. Full details on how to convey your views on this topic to NIH are here.

Asking scientists for their throughts and insights on the important issues that affect their careers and then publishing the results is a great idea. But even more significant will be what NIH actually does about the opinions and suggestions the scientists have sent. As Michael Price and Jim Austin have already noted on this blog, the report on the concerns of biomedical scientists includes a recommendation to "[r]educe the number of students and post-doctoral fellows supported," presumably to help slow the production of career-seeking scientists in the future. Will they actually follow up on this? Will something really be done about the current mess? We'll be watching.