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Science Careers Blog

Editor's Blog: October 2011

October 28, 2011

Finding Where You Fit

In a recent BioTechniques (Vol. 51, No. 4), Kristie Nybo interviews Barry Honig, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Director of the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, all at Columbia University.

Honig has made important contributions to the development of tools for structural biology, though I know him -- though not very well -- as a computational biologist.

For me, the interesting part of the interview was the first, after Nybo asks, "In building your career, what was your most significant obstacle." His answer: He was so interdisciplinary that it was difficult for him to find a home.

Honig earned his Ph.D. in chemical physics, then switched to biology for his postdoc. "But when I finished my postdoc," he says, "I encountered a form of cultural bias that still exists to a lesser extent today: physicists and chemists viewed working in biology as  a lower level activity while biologists, rightfully, said I wasn't a real biologist. Consequently, I couldn't find a job."

"Was I a chemist? A biologist? What department would I be comfortable in?," he asked himself. "It was a long struggle, and one I still see today with young people doing interdisciplinary research."  Eventually he made his way to Columbia, where he found a very comfortable fit.

I'm attending the Michigan regional meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association. At a reception last night, I was sitting with four scientists; of the five of us, four had interesting scientist-spouse-related stories:
  • A chancellor's spouse had been an enzymologist, became a cancer researcher, and just finished law school to become a patent attorney.
  • A faculty member's spouse had accepted a faculty position (after a "dual-career" search), became a journal editor, then moved over into the technical side of journal work, serving up science-journal content online.
  • A faculty member's spouse had completed a dual-degree program (M.D./Ph.D.) overseas, and was in the process of doing a new residency in the United States.
  • A physicist (me) had followed a spouse who had received a faculty position, then made a career transition into writing and editing.
It never fails to surprise me how often scientists end up in relationships with other scientists and then have to deal with dual-career complexities. In this case, three of four situations had been resolved satisfactorily (with both partners happily employed), and the fourth seemed to be approaching a happy outcome.

What will the future of science look like? How will your generation mold the way science is practiced? Have ideas? Young scientists, we want to hear from you! Add your voice to the pages of Science by answering this question: How will the practice of science change in your lifetime?  What will improve and what new challenges will emerge?

Please take the survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NextGen1sc

Deadline for submissions is 18 November 2011. A selection of the best responses will be published in the 6 January 2012 issue of Science. Submissions should be 250 words or less.  Anonymous submissions will not be considered. 



Sister site ScienceInsider (SI) is reporting a new scheme in Sweden that aims to provide generous funding to postdocs from around the world to help them move into faculty positions at Swedish universities. The SI post, written by Science Careers contributing editor Elisabeth Pain, says that Sweden plans to offer 25 awards each year for the next 5 years, worth about 7.5 million SEK each -- that's about €820,000 or $1.14 million -- to be paid out over 5 years. That adds up to a total cost of about 937.5 million SEK, or $142 million. It's a private program, funded by the non-profit Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

To put those figures in perspective, consider that the gross domestic product of the United States is about 35 times that of Sweden. A proportionate commitment to early-career researchers in the United States would fund 4200 awards altogether -- 840 per year for 5 years -- at more than a million dollars each, dwarfing the closest U.S. equivalent program, NIH's Pathway to Independence. The "Pathway" program makes between 150 and 200 awards available each year to postdocs in the biomedical sciences.