Science Careers Blog

Elisabeth Pain

A survey carried out at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) suggests that the majority of researchers see interacting with patients' associations in a positive light. The preliminary results were presented today at the French senate as part of a conference gathering INSERM and patients' associations.

Yesterday, the French government announced the adoption of a charter aimed at helping France reach true gender equality in higher education.

The "Charter for Equality" (link goes to PDF) was put together by the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), the Conference of Grandes Ecoles (CGE), and the Conference of the Directors of French Engineering Schools (CDEFI), which together represent 300 universities and other higher education institutions in France. The charter is articulated around the wish to include gender-issues considerations at all levels within institutions; keep track of gender statistics; raise awareness of gender equality issues among staff and students; prevent all forms of gender violence; and use "non-sexist, non-discriminatory, non-stereotyped" language in institutional communication.

A new study that looked at data from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) found
that scientific misconduct occurs all along the academic career ladder, and that male
researchers are more likely to engage in misconduct than their female counterparts.

In the study, which was published today in the online open-access journal mBio®, Ferric Fang of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, Joan Bennett of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City analyzed the findings of the cases of misconduct investigated by ORI. Based on the ORI annual reports, the study's authors found a total of 228 individuals to have committed misconduct since 1994.

Last month, Science Careers profiled three young scientists who contributed to proving the existence of the long-sought Higgs Boson, at the European particle physics laboratory (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. Science declared the discovery the Breakthrough of the Year for 2012.

But this isn't the only thing young scientists at CERN have been up to. A small group of physics Ph.D. students and postdocs have been shooting a 75-minute zombie movie set at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

In their latest sampling of U.K. industry, released today, business lobbying organization CBI and recruitment specialists Harvey Nash have found a cautious but continuing trend toward growing employment, with job prospects looking especially good for highly-trained people and college graduates.

There was, apparently, a brief moment in history when almost everyone who entered a Ph.D. program ended up in a faculty position shortly after graduation. That moment is long past: Today it takes years of postdoctoral experience before most Ph.D.s can compete for a faculty job, and those jobs are now so scarce that the majority of recently graduated scientists end up in careers off the faculty track.

This realization has spurred several national, institutional, and grassroots efforts to help young scientists develop careers, both inside and outside academia. One approach to the problem is online tools to help scientists assess their skills and career goals and develop an individual professional development plan. For example, in 2009 the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association released the NPA Postdoctoral Core Competencies Toolkit "as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors," says the NPA Web site.

Then in 2011 the U.K. organization Vitae launched The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which "articulates the knowledge, behaviors and attributes of successful researchers and encourages all researchers to realize their potential," Vitae says. The organization, which receives support from Research Councils UK (RCUK), works towards promoting the personal, professional, and career development of research students and staff members at research institutions. Last week, at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2012 in Manchester, Vitae entered a new era by releasing a Web application called the RDF Professional Development Planner, which, Vitae announced in a press release, is aimed at helping researchers use the RDF as a basis "to identify their expertise and capabilities, plan their professional development, set personal targets, and demonstrate evidence of success." The online planner, which replaces Vitae's free but less user-friendly Excel RDF Planner Prototype, will also signpost training and development resources offered to researchers in U.K. institutions. The RDF planner will be available by institutional subscription; Vitae plans to offer individual subscriptions later this year. Meanwhile, Vitae is inviting everyone interested to take part in their pilot phase

September 10, 2012

New ERC Starting Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) today announced the results of the fifth funding round of its Starting Grants. According to an ERC press release, this year 536 early-career
researchers have been selected to share almost €800 million to establish their independent labs in Europe.

Starting in 2007, the ERC has been offering grants of up to €2 million each for up to 5
years to researchers with between 2 and 12 years of postdoctoral experience. Researchers may be of any nationality, but they must be based or willing to move to Europe.

This year, the ERC received a total of 4741 applications, representing a 16% uptick compared to last year (the numbers of applications tend to vary substantially from year to year, with 42% more in 2011 than in 2010, and 14% more in 2010 than in 2009, for example). But with the ERC's budget for the Starting Grants also rising by more than 19% this year, even with the rise in applicants, the success rate only dropped from 12% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2012.

Two more interesting developments that were announced at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin are the publication of a peer review guide for young researchers and the launch of a global umbrella organization for research staff associations.  

Produced by Sense About Science's Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network, Peer review: The nuts and bolts explains the peer review process, offers tips to new reviewers, and discusses the advantages and limitations of peer review. On the same day of the ESOF session, VoYS released an open letter to Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council of England, advocating recognition of peer review activities within the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a new system in the United Kingdom that is intended to replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the evaluation of U.K. higher education institutions.

"Recognising reviewing as part of the REF would ensure that it is prioritised and safeguarded by university departments in the longer term so that these activities will continue to be a significant part of the contribution we make to scholarly publishing throughout our lives. More immediately it will ensure that reviewing is approached professionally and seriously, enabling senior researchers to spend time mentoring early career researchers like ourselves in these activities," the young researchers argued in the open letter.

The second development at ESOF was the announcement on Sunday of the launch of the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations (ICoRSA). ICoRSA "serves to nurture communities of researchers and provides a global voice for research staff and postdoctoral scholars." So far, the consortium has 16 members, 9 of them young researchers associations from around the world. 

As announced last Friday during the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, and reported by our colleagues on Science Now, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission are putting in place a new initiative to help young scientists across the two sides of the Atlantic enter closer research collaborations.

The idea is to give NSF-funded early career scientists the opportunity to come to Europe to
work in the lab of their European Research Council-funded counterparts. The ERC will invite its young PIs to host NSF-funded researchers and engineers, and on the U.S. side NSF will seek proposals for collaboration from junior faculty supported with a NSF CAREER award and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellows. 

Further details are to be announced, but the winners of the U.S. call are to be incorporated in the ERC-funded teams for 6 to 12 months, where they will receive ERC support like other members of the team. NSF will cover travel costs for U.S. scientists (and their families), and CAREER grantees will be able to keep their NSF grants running during their visit to Europe. As reported by Science Now, about 100 awards will be offered. 

"Connecting U.S. and European researchers with shared interests and complementary strengths will advance the frontiers of science and engineering and address societal challenges," NSF Director Subra Suresh stated. This is an opportunity for U.S. early career scientists and engineers to gain international experience and exposure for their research, he added.

On 16 April th ;European non-profit researchers' association Euroscience launched a survey exploring the working conditions and career development of young researchers. The aim: to fill in gaps in comparable data across European countries to better identify the career needs of young researchers and help improve their situations. So far, about 1900 Masters' students, Ph.D. candidates, postdocs, and industry employees have taken part.

Yesterday, on the last day of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, Pauline Mattsson of the Karolinksa Institutet in Stockholm in Sweden, David Feltz of Euroscience in Strasbourg, France, and Niki Vermeulen of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, presented some preliminary data from the survey.

Here are some of the main results that are emerging:

Maybe I've just not been to the right conferences before, but it has always seemed to me that references to personal life don't fit well in the context of scientific conferences.

But here in Dublin at ESOF 2012 I have seen several speakers use examples drawn from family life to convey a scientific message or concept. I found the strategy effective at driving home a point and helping the audience remember it. It also helped me relate to the speaker on a deeper level and made me want to listen closer.

Last time I talked to Romanian chemist Daniel Funeriu, he was a group leader in chemical biology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and vice-president of the Romanian presidential commission for science and education. This was 2009 when I was researching an article as part of a Science Careers feature examining how science had fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years ago. 

Romania's government had recently launched an initiative offering scientists with a foreign affiliation up to €1.5 million to spend half of their time at a Romanian host institution for 3 years. Back then, Funeriu called the initiative "a step forward" even though he noted that the application forms were "extremely unfriendly. ... Many people are put off by the bureaucratic requests." 

Funeriu got a chance to change the system from the inside when he became Minister of Education, Research, Youth, and Sports in Romania in December 2009. Today, he is Adviser to the President of Romania on education and science issues, a position he took in February 2012 following a change of government. 

During a session at ESOF 2012 in Dublin, Funeriu talked about his own career path and shared the lessons he learned from his unusual experience both as a researcher and politician.

Today saw the launch of the 5th Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF), a pan-European and biannual conference mixing science, technology, society, and culture that this year is being held in Dublin, Ireland between 11 and 15 July. 

The opening keynote address was given by Jules Hoffmann, a professor of immunology at the University of Strasbourg and research director at the French National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Hoffmann, who has dedicated his career to understanding the mechanisms underlying antimicrobial defenses in the fruit fly Drosophila, won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his contribution to "discovering the sensors of innate immunity." 

There are three points I would like to convey from Hoffmann's talk, From Insects to Mammals: Reflections on a European Journey Through Basic Research on Immune Defenses:

When aspiring science writers ask me for advice on how to make the transition from the lab to the press room, I often say that a great way to get started is to take part in writing competitions. With so much else going on, it can be hard for early-career scientists to find a focus for their writing--but without that experience they cannot know for sure whether science writing is a good career choice. Competitions offer a topic (however general), a deadline, and short-term incentives, providing a focus for your science-communication efforts.

Chemistry World's Chemistry World Science Writing Competition 2012 is open to students and early career scientists anywhere in the world. You can enter in one (or both) of two categories: writing and multimedia. As you would expect, you must write or talk about the chemical sciences. The deadline is midnight UK time, 31 August.

Winners in each category will see their entry published on Chemistry World and receive a £300 cash prize. Runners-up--one in each category--will receive a £100 cash prize. 

The winners will be announced during an evening reception in London at The Chemistry Centre on 10 October. Twenty shortlisted entrants will be invited to join the reception (but overnight accommodations will be reimbursed only if you are traveling to London from more that 2.5 hours away).

More information can be found on the competition's Web site. The FAQ also offers sound advice on science writing and multimedia communication.

The European Commission is running a consultation on how to improve immigration rules on the entry and residence of non-EU-national researchers, students, unremunerated trainees, and volunteers in Europe. You may offer your views whatever your citizenship and current situation.

"Questions regarding visa, EU mobility rules, or labour market access are areas in which the EU could possibly initiate further improvements for students, researchers and potentially other groups," the consultation Web site says. "Respondents are invited to point to areas in which in their view there is a particular EU added value that could be created or improved."

The current legal rules regarding the entry of students and researchers from outside the EU for more 3 months, and their mobility between the Member States, were defined in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The Commission now wants to revise these rules, starting with the release in 2011 of two reports--one for students and the other for researchers--evaluating the implementation of the rules and how well they fulfill their potential.
"We would like to know about any obstacles faced by non-EU nationals concerned when trying to access the EU. You are kindly invited to propose ideas about how to remove these obstacles and further develop the EU as a place to study, carry out research, volunteer, and participate in school pupil exchanges or unpaid training," the consultation Web site says.

The consultation is up until 23 August.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) in Singapore is inviting scientists under 40 years of age to apply for a generous fellowship to carry out independent research in the country.

The Singapore NRF Fellowships offer tenure-track faculty positions that come with a salary package equivalent to that of a local assistant professor and a research grant of up to $2.4 million over 5 years. These are individual fellowships, so researchers get to choose the host institution; NRF Fellows will be able to lead their own teams at the institution of their choice, as long as it's in Singapore. Shortlisted candidates will be invited in January to visit local research organizations for a week, before the final interview, so they may discuss support for their research and choose potential host institutions.

Now in its sixth round, the Fellowship scheme welcomes research proposals in computer science, all branches of engineering, medicine, life sciences, and natural/physical sciences. To apply you must have a Ph.D. and postdoctoral experience. Scientists of all nationalities are eligible.

More information about the scheme and how to apply can be found on the NRF Web site.

Deadline for application: 15 August 2012. The announcement of short-listed candidates will be no later than 30 November 2012.

In its fifth edition, the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) will be held this year in Dublin, Ireland on 11-15 July. ESOF is a biennial event showcasing European science and innovation.  The forum gathers researchers in all scientific fields, industry people, and government representatives. You can check out the programs for scientific and career development sessions on the ESOF 2012 Dublin Web site.

Travel grants from various organizations are being made available for early-career scientists wishing to come to ESOF2012. To apply for some of these grants, you need to register with ESOF. Currently, Euroscience, the Swiss Embassy in Ireland, and the Swedish Research Council are for example offering the joint Early-Stage Researcher travel grants. (The deadline is 10 May 2012.)

Other organizations are offering travel grants. You can keep track of these through news announcements on the ESOF Web site or through their Twitter feed (@ESOFHub). Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), for example, is  invites early-career researchers in Belgium to apply, and the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation (DASTI) will soon open a call for early-career researchers based in Denmark.

The Spanish Federation of Young Investigators (FJI/Precarios) is looking for volunteers to produce a video contrasting the situation of Spanish scientists abroad and at home. As reported recently on Science Careers, early-career scientists in Spain are concerned that the current economic context and forthcoming funding cuts are likely to derail their careers at home.

Spanish scientists abroad are invited to record their own answers to a series of questions including:
- "How do you think the research, development, and innovation in Spain compares to the country where you work? What do you think is failing here [In Spain]?"
- "Do you believe that you are more valued as an investigator in another country than in your own?"
- "Do you see what is currently occurring as a brain drain, or it is less serious than this?"
- "What real possibilities do you believe you would have to continue developing your research career in Spain?"

Information on how to contribute a video can be found on the FJI/Precarios Web site.

Together with the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies, the researchers' association Investigación Digna, and the trade union CCOO, FJI/Precarios also recently released a petition against the funding cuts and hiring freeze announced for 2012.

Today, the United Kingdom Home Office announced stricter rules that will make it more difficult for holders of temporary work visas to settle in the U.K. after 6 years of residence -- but they made an exception for scientists.

"Exceptionally talented people, investors and entrepreneurs will continue to have the option to stay, while skilled temporary workers wanting to apply for settlement will have to earn at least £35,000 or the going rate for their job, whichever is higher," the Home Office said in the announcement. However, "Migrants doing jobs where there is a domestic skills shortage, as well as scientists and researchers in PhD level roles, will be exempt from the £35,000 threshold." 
"Research can take many years and leading international researchers need assurance from the outset that our immigration system will allow them to complete their work so long as it continues to benefit the UK's economy and society," commented Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, which represents 20 major universities in the United Kingdom. "We are pleased that today's announcement means those researchers in the early stages of their career can bring their skills here and continue their work safe in the knowledge they can stay as long as their work is of value to the UK." 
The new settlement rules are part of an overhaul of the U.K. visa system which aims to reduce immigration, including changes to student visas that were initiated last year.

One of the approaches tried over the years to help women access the higher rungs of the political, business, and academic career ladders have been "affirmative action programs," where women are given an advantage when competing for promotion. Such measures have been controversial, however, with critics alleging that they hamper the chances of filling higher-up positions with the best available candidates. 

Research performed by Loukas Balafoutas and Matthias Sutter, economists of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and published today in Science (subscription required) challenges the foundation of such criticism.

January 31, 2012

25 Years of Erasmus

Erasmus, the European Commission's flagship program for training and education, will be 25 years old this year. To date, the program has allowed nearly three million students to study or do a work placement in another EU country.

Around 60 European universities, research institutions, funding agencies, and umbrella organizations gathered today in Barcelona (and will continue to meet tomorrow) to discuss how they can improve the working conditions they offer to researchers. 

Are you, or do you intend to become, a medicinal chemist? Derek Lowe, author of the pharma industry blog In the Pipeline, discusses in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters the forces that have been challenging the place of the profession in the pharma industry over the last 25 years. 

Lowe's conclusion:
The days when you could make a reliable living doing methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile work in the United States or Western Europe are gone .... There's still a lot of that work that needs to be done, but it is getting done somewhere else, and as long as "somewhere else" operates more cheaply and reasonably on time, that situation will not change.
Lowe advises medicinal chemists to strive to be all but ordinary if they want to survive in today's tough job market.
Medicinal chemists have to offer their employers something that cannot be had more cheaply in Shanghai or Bangalore. New techniques, proficiency with new equipment, ideas that have not become commodified yet: Those seem to be the only form of insurance, and even then, they are not always enough.
With the pharmaceuticals industry increasingly shifting away from medicinal chemistry and toward biotechnology to create new drugs, Lowe also sees room for medicinal chemists to develop new skills at the interface between the two disciplines:
There are plenty of interfaces between small-molecule chemistry and biologics: drug-protein conjugates, aptamers, chemically stabilized proteins and oligonucleotides, carbohydrates, modified enzymes, and more. These things are going to need the synthetic organic expertise that we can bring.
Tough times are ahead, but medicinal chemists should take heart in their adaptability, Lowe adds.
Medicinal chemists do not specialize as much as biologists do .... We should be using this to our advantage, expanding the limits of our science, helping to drive these areas of study, and making them our own. No one else is better placed to do it.
You can read the full article here.

We interviewed Lowe, among other experts, in our recent Science Careers articles assessing the state of the pharma industry and giving job search advice.

Early-career scientists need to have a broad view of where their research field is heading so that they can choose a niche where they can make important and innovative contributions, and eventually establish themselves as independent researchers.

In the field of aging research, this challenge has been made a little easier by the release of the FUTURAGE Road Map, which is to constitute the European research agenda for aging over the next decade. Funded by the European Union, the FUTURAGE two-year consultation gathers the opinions of the field's research leaders, medical professionals, policy makers, industry, and older people across Europe to identify seven priority research themes illustrated by specific research questions.

The seven priority themes are:
  • healthy aging for more life in years;
  • maintaining and regaining mental capacity;
  • inclusion and participation in the community and in the labour market;
  • guaranteeing the quality and sustainability of social protection systems;
  • aging well at home and in community environments;
  • unequal aging and age-related inequalities;
  • biogerontology: from mechanisms to interventions.
You can find the full Road Map here

Earlier this year Science Careers ran a monthly series with a Focus on Aging for advice on how to develop a career in one of the many fields pertaining to aging research.

Published in the 4 November 2011 issue of our sister publication Science is an essay written by Tiago Branco, the 2011 Grand Prize winner of the Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology.

Launched in 2002, the annual and international competition invites young neurobiologists to write a 1,000-word essay based on research they have done in the last three years. The winner gets his or her essay published in Science together with a $25,000 cash prize. The 2011 award will be presented during the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on 12 November in Washington, D.C.

Branco, a postdoctoral fellow at the University College London Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research in the United Kingdom, received a medical degree from Lisbon University in Portugal followed by a Ph.D. in neuroscience from University College London. His essay -- "The Language of Dendrites" -- won Branco recognition "for his outstanding contributions to research into how single neurons in the brain can compute and convert information into behavior," the prize announcement says. 

The other finalists for the prize were Aaron Gitler, Assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Roger Clem, who recently accepted an appointment to assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

For more information about the prize and how to apply for next year's round, see the Science Web site.

In a column published yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Ian Miller, a 65-year-old professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, discusses the effects of aging on his scholarly performance.

This later career stage -- where one is confronted with additional difficulties to staying productive and, in due time, with the decision to step down -- is almost as difficult to navigate as launching an academic career in the first place. In June, Science Careers offered advice on how to avoid retirement or to map the route to retirement. Retirement raises many career, financial, health, and psychological issues, and Miller's uncompromising look at his own academic performance -- he is plagued by the late onset of attention-deficit disorder and self-doubt -- is a great complement to our June articles.

You may read Miller's honest and beautifully written account here.
As highlighted by our sister site Science Insider, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) today released a report outlining the working conditions of doctoral researchers in 12 European countries (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden).

Among the most striking findings is the discrepancy in funding available to Ph.D. candidates across the various countries. Science Insider writes: 

In the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, 90% or more of doctoral students receive some form of scholarship or salary for their work. But in several other countries, 20% to 30% don't receive anything, and in Austria that percentage can rise to 46%. "We did not expect the lack of funding to be so extensive," says Karoline Holländer, a former president of Eurodoc and a co-author of the report. "Many doctoral candidates have to find other sources of income to live on."

Another surprising finding concerned doctoral candidates' perceptions of gender bias in academia. According to Science Insider:

Surprisingly, more men than women said they were at a disadvantage in academia because of their gender. In Finland, for instance, 78% of men felt that their sex was "very much" a disadvantage, whereas only 37% of women did. "We have no explanation for this," says Holländer, who adds that the next round of the survey, to be conducted in 3 to 5 years, may ask further questions on the topic.

You can read the whole Science Insider article here.

Some of the report's other interesting findings include:

  • Most early-career researchers in Norway (91%), Croatia and the Netherlands (89%), Sweden (76%), and Slovenia (73%) are given a short-term employment contract while they work toward their Ph.D.s. Other countries had relatively high percentages of doctoral researchers with no employment contracts of any kind: Austria (25%), Spain (24%), Portugal (18.5%), Finland and Germany (17%), and France and Slovenia (12%).
  • Fewer than one in 10 Ph.D. candidates were aware of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the recruitment of researchers, which outlines the roles, responsibilities, and rights of researchers and their employers. The exceptions are Spain (23% knew of them), France (14%) and Portugal (12%). 
  • Most respondents in all the countries surveyed reported having access to training courses during their doctorate programs, but a significant proportion of respondents in Portugal (38%), Germany (37%), Slovenia (32%), Croatia (23%), and Austria (21%) reported not receiving any kind of formal training.
  • In all of the countries surveyed, the majority of doctoral researchers found their supervisor supportive or very supportive. 
  • Whether doctoral candidates can put a contract on hold and get paid while on paternity/maternity leave differs widely across countries.
  • Nonetheless, many doctoral researchers feel pressured to postpone taking parental leave; Spain (18.3%), Germany (30%), and France (34.2%) showed the fewest respondents who felt such pressure.
Eurodoc presented the report at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France this afternoon. You can read the full report on the Eurodoc Web site. You can also catch up on the event on Twitter @Eurodoc: #strasbourg11.

September 13, 2011

New ERC Starting Grants Awarded

On Friday, the European Research Council (ERC) announced the winners of its Starting Grants, which offer early-career investigators up to 2 million euros over 5 years to help them establish or build up their research groups at European institutions.

Now in its fourth year, the program awarded more than 670 million euros to 480 early-career researchers. This year's competition was considerably more competitive than last year's; the ERC received 42% more applications than last year (from 2873 to 4080), but funding was up just 15% -- a nice rise, but insufficient to keep up with the increase in the number of applications. The result: a 12% success rate.

It can be hard for researchers in the economic and social sciences and humanities to know what funding opportunities are available for them within the 7th European Research Framework Programme (FP7), especially beyond the Theme 8, "Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities." The netT4society project (funded by the EU) has just released a report listing current calls in other research areas that are relevant to the socio-economic sciences and humanities; examples include health, nanosciences, and environment. The report, entitled "Opportunities for Researchers in the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities," can be found on the net4society Web site. The report will be updated each year as new funding opportunities arise in FP7 and other European Research Area initiatives.

Vitae, a U.K. organization promoting the personal and professional development of researchers, has released a podcast with highlights from the first day of the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2011 currently unfolding in Manchester. The event gathers research organizations, funding bodies, career development staff, and researchers to discuss policy and practice in researcher development.  

Among the news highlighted in the podcast: the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) which Vitae developed in the U.K. to help individual researchers and research institutions with their professional development is now undergoing trials across Europe as part of a project funded by the European Science Foundation. (See our previous blog entry for some quick background on the RDF).   

August 31, 2011

Dance Your Ph.D.

It's official: The 2011 'Dance your Ph.D.' contest is now on.

Launched by the "Gonzo Scientist" (Science columnist John Bohannon) and sponsored by Science, the annual contest challenges scientists to explain their doctoral work to a lay audience through the medium of dance. Scientists from any discipline with a Ph.D. or working toward one are invited to apply. There are four categories -- physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences -- each with a cash prize of $500. Whoever wins the 'Best Ph.D. Dance of 2011' gets an extra $500 and a paid trip to Brussels to attend the TEDxBrussels event in Belgium this November.

You have until 10 October to submit your dance video. More information on how to enter the contest on the Gonzo Labs Web site.

Come on, it's fun!

Tseen Khoo, a research grant developer at a Melbourne university with 5 years' experience editing an academic journal, gives some tips on how to deal with journal editors on The Research Whisperer blog. 

Khoo's blog post "is a plea for a basic level of etiquette when submitting your work for consideration," she writes. In 'Build your journal karma' (which she alternatively entitled 'How not to piss off editors'), Khoo reminds academics of basic yet too-often-forgotten rules on how to be "professional and considerate" with journal editors, like sticking to deadlines, honoring your commitments, following the house rules, and delivering a finished product. 

Hat Tip: Guardian Higher Education Network

Alastair Matheson, a science studies scholar based in the United Kingdom and Canada with more than 15 years' experience as a freelance consultant and medical writer for pharmaceuticals and medical communications companies, takes an uncompromising look at industry's unethical publication practices in this week's issue of PLoS Medicine. 

"The current ICMJE" -- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors -- "guidelines provide pharmaceutical and medical communications companies with the opportunity to sequester their contributions in the small print of publications, despite bearing responsibility for conception, design, and analysis of many studies, retaining control of databases, and frequently writing manuscripts, scheduling publications, and selecting journals," Matheson writes in his PLoS Medicine Perspective article.

This week's PLoS Medicine offers a rare personal account of the ethical conflicts that can come with a medical writing career. The account was provided by Linda Logdberg, who worked as a medical writer for medical communications companies for 11 years, performing writing jobs contracted by pharmaceutical, biomedical, and medical device companies. She left the medical writing industry in 2006 and is now a high school science teacher at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia. 

In 'Being the Ghost in the Machine: A Medical Ghostwriter's Personal View', Logdberg explains why and how she went into medical writing, the factors that kept her in the business, and the ethical concerns that finally forced her out.

An article published today on Inside Higher Ed reports new findings on how scientific careers affect family decisions. "Nearly half of female faculty members in top science departments wish they'd had more children, but didn't because of their careers, while about a quarter of their male counterparts feel the same way," the article says. 

The study, which was performed by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University in Houston and Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, looked at the marital status, number of children, and weekly hours spent at work of more than 3,400 scientists across all careers stages in top university departments. 

Anecdotally, cases of nepotism in Italian academic institutions appear to abound, but just how widespread the phenomenon is has been difficult to pin down. A statistical study published today in PLoS One suggests that nepotistic practices are rampant in Italy, with medicine and industrial engineering among the most inbred disciplines. 

"I often meet other Italian immigrants abroad, and the first 20 minutes of conversation are regularly spent complaining about the state of disarray of academic institutions in Italy," including nepotism, writes the study's author, Stefano Allesina, an Italian researcher who holds an assistant professorship in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago's Computation Institute in Illinois, in an e-mail to Science Careers. So, upon coming across a public database of Italian researchers, Allesina could "not resist the urge of checking if it's really 'a few bad apples' (as the Ministry and other politicians always say) or not," he says.

Between 9 August 2011 and 31 March 2012, the United Kingdom intends to give as many as 1000 visas to "exceptionally talented leaders in the fields of science, humanities, engineering and the arts," in a new visa category: Tier 1 (Exceptional talent). The announcement was made by the UK Border Agency on 20 July.

The Careers blog for postgraduates from the United Kingdom's University of Salford yesterday published an entry highlighting the writing, memory, and organizational difficulties faced by students with dyslexia. The entry was prompted by word circulating in social media about a series of videos produced by Emma Jefferies on how she coped with dyslexia while doing a Ph.D. in design, which she obtained last year.

Jefferies's series of 8 videos is well worth watching, as it offers a rare insider's perspective on the challenges (and even some positives) associated with dyslexia, practical advice on how to cope with the condition, and the attitudes of peers and supervisors who supported Jefferies during her Ph.D. You can watch Jefferies's 'DpH: The Dyslexic PhD' on her Web site.

The Careers blog for postgraduates' entry goes on to provide a list of the services the University of Salford offers students with dyslexia. Nowadays, most universities offer support services to students with such special needs. If you need help, ask your careers services or office of student affairs about the range of services that your university offers.

The Careers blog for postgraduates points to additional sources of information about dyslexia.

You can read the entire entry here

Moving from invention to commercializing it is a tough process, one for which scientists are often ill-prepared. In an article published yesterday on, Ph.D.-holder and licensed patent law practitioner Nadya Reingand offers academics practical advice on whether and how to embark on the process. 

In her article, Reingand helps academics decide whether they should attempt to commercialize their invention by explaining how to assess whether their inventions are "novel, profitable, owned by you." Reingand goes on to highlight the traditional lack of training for academics as one of the main challenges of commercialization, pointing readers to sources of help as well as specialized courses and workshops. She also alerts readers to the thorny issue of ownership in the context of student inventions.

"Although it is very satisfying to see an invention become a commercial success (and the monetary rewards are also nice!), this process usually takes a long time and much perseverance. Continuing research is often more fun," Reingand writes. Yet, with external funding becoming an increasingly important criteria in the evaluation of scientists by their universities, "rather than complaining about commercialization, individual scientist-inventors should focus on turning inventions into a rewarding part of their careers," Reingand continues. 

You can read the entire article here.

July 28, 2011

Apps as Academic Tools

An article published today in The Times Higher Education discusses how apps developed for smartphones are becoming increasingly valuable for academics in their jobs. "As well as research, apps are being used by academics to help with teaching and administration, and as a new way to engage with the public," writes Times Higher Education reporter Sarah Cunnane.

Cunnane gives the example of how Ph.D. student George MacKerron developed an app to gather field data for his research into how people's environments affect their happiness: every now and then the app prompts mobile phone users to record their states of mind while simultaneously taking note of their location and the level of surrounding noise. 

But academics do not necessarily need to be involved in developing apps to benefit from them. Cunnane mentions freely available apps like Evernote, which makes it easier and more efficient for academics to manage information. "Evernote allows users to take 'notes' in the form of sounds, pictures, text, websites or even handwritten sentences that can then be sorted into folders, tagged and edited," Cunnane writes.

Read the full article for more apps of interest to academics as well advice on how to develop your own app. 

The European Union is inviting applications for its first EU Prizes for Women Innovators, which will reward three women entrepreneurs for their "innovative work in any field or business."

To be eligible, women entrepreneurs must be residing in the EU or an associated country and have founded or co-founded a company before 1 January 2009. The applicant or her company must also have received EU funding for research projects. More detail on the eligibility criteria can be found on the European Commission Web site

There will be three prizes, of €100 000, €50 000, and €25 000, respectively. Applications will be judged according to the originality and marketability of the developed product or service, its economic and social relevance for Europe, and the scientific content of the innovation, which the applicant must have contributed to researching. 

Deadline for submission: 5 p.m. on 20 September 2011 (Brussels time).

For more information and to apply, check out the European Commission Web site.

Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner -- two behavioral and population ecologists, both research fellows at the Institute of Zoology in London -- argue in the Guardian Higher Education Network that what is needed for greater gender equality in science is not to attract more girls to science, but rather to help more women scientists stay. 

The European Research Council (ERC) today launched its fifth call for the ERC Starting Grants, which are designed to support outstanding early-career scientists as they set up or consolidate their independent research teams in Europe.

Awarded annually, the ERC Starting Grants scheme gives early-career scientists up to €2
million for up to 5 years to enable "them to get early scientific and professional independence," the ERC press release says. To be eligible scientists must have between 2 and 12 years of postdoctoral experience. All nationalities are eligible, but candidates must be hosted by a university or research center in one of the 27 EU Members states, or one of the 13 associated countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Iceland, Israel, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, FYR of Macedonia, Norway, Republic of Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland, or Turkey).

The Spanish Ministries for Science and Innovation and for Labor and Immigration today announced that they will jointly fund the initial training in research, development, and innovation of Ph.D.-holders and university graduates after recruitment by industry. The program is part of a national effort to boost innovation in Spanish industry. 

The initiative is part of the INNCORPORA funding program, which offers companies, scientific parks, and technological centers loans and grants to facilitate the employment of innovation-oriented staff from Ph.D.-holders to technicians, and support their training. The INNCORPORA initiative, which was launched in 2010, includes the Torres Quevedo program for the employment of Ph.D.-holders and the Titulados Universitarios program for technologists with a university diploma. This year, the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation has more than  440 million euros at its disposal to promote the employment of innovation-oriented staff and the competitiveness of the Spanish industry.  

"The objective is to equip the new hires with the training that the company needs in terms of R&D and innovation [and] with the capacities to generate new ideas, knowledge about opportunities for public funding, patents, internationalization, etc," the press release says (in Spanish).

Last Tuesday, the American Council on Education (ACE) released a report on the legal issues surrounding faculty retirement in U.S. higher education institutions. 

While tenured faculty in the United States are free to choose when to retire (since mandatory retirement was abolished in 1994), higher-education institutions may offer retirement incentive programs. Because "Higher education institutions face increasingly complex legal challenges," ACE produced a report -- called 'Supporting the Culminating Stages of Faculty Careers: Legal Issues' and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation -- assessing faculty's civil rights and employment and tax issues in the context of retirement.   

July 14, 2011

Time to Buy a House?

Buying a house is one of those life decisions that can have great repercussions, for good and bad, on a scientific career. It may for example be very tempting for new Ph.D. graduates to buy a house as soon as they get their first position, but they would be well-advised to hang on just a little longer, Gene C. Fant Jr. writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"The itch to get out of apartment living is too much for many folks to put up with for much longer. Add to this the current buyers' market and low interest rates in many locales and the hunt is on pretty early in the year," Fant Jr. writes. But you may want to wait until you know your workload if the house needs much refurbishing, or until you are sure that you like your new institution. "Relocating with a house to sell is a very steep challenge," Fant Jr. writes. 

Read the full article and readers' comments on the Chronicle.

Microsoft's presentation software -- PowerPoint -- is almost universally used at scientific (and other) conferences, but not everyone is a fan. Many scientists have criticized PowerPoint's static and often overcrowded bullet points.

As reported by Peter Sayer in an article published yesterday in CIO magazine, Swiss public-speaking trainer Matthias Poehm dislikes PowerPoint so much that he founded a new political party -- Switzerland's Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) -- and is gathering signatures to call for a referendum on the ban of PowerPoint around the country.

According to an analysis article published yesterday by Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), job trends in the global chemical industry remained flat in 2010.

C&EN reports that in 2010 the U.S. chemical industry workforce fell by 2.5% -- representing 20,000 jobs -- following an average loss of 2.0% per year since 2000. The pharmaceutical sector had it especially bad, with U.S. pharmas laying off additional 54,000 employees in 2010 on top of previous years' layoffs, C&EN adds. Pretty much the same picture emerged from Europe and Japan. "Although 2010 marked the return of demand and earnings for the global chemical industry, there was no corresponding growth in employment," C&EN says.

But there are some green patches. 

A recent study of how well prepared science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) graduates in the United Kingdom feel when looking for a job, and of what motivates them, revealed that:

  • Graduates find extra-curricular activities to be the best way to develop their competencies outside of their degree. 
  • STEM graduates feel least confident in their leadership and self-evaluation abilities. 
  • Applicants' confidence in all competencies drops during a stressful situation, such as job interviews. 
  • A lack of experience concerns graduates most when they're looking for a job. 
  • About three quarters of STEM graduates take the opinions of their friends, family, or lecturers into consideration when choosing a career. 
  • Personal fulfillment is the most important aspect influencing STEM graduates when choosing their first job. 
The study was driven by Teach First, an independent charity that trains teachers and ambassadors to reduce education inequalities for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The data -- drawn from two surveys of around 15,500 students -- were provided by trendence, a Berlin-based research institute specialized in student-perception surveys. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institute of Physics, the Ogden Trust, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust were also involved.

Read the press release for more information.

The Spanish Federation of Young Investigators (FJI)/Precarios today denounced delays and errors in the allocation of international fellowships for Spanish postdocs. "The terrible management of the postdoctoral grants maintains more than a thousand young investigators in an unsustainable situation," says the press release (translated from Spanish by this blogger). FJI/Precarios is a Spanish umbrella association that was created in 2000 to improve the working conditions of early-career researchers in Spain.

In the announcement, the RI framed the issue like this: "It's the scientists and the engineers who will ultimately develop and build the supply of clean energy we will need, the artificial organisms key to future  biotech, and the robotics crucial to our growing strength in the space sector. But young scientists are fed up with short term contracts, poor salaries and uncertain career progression. Do the 'great and the good' have their interests at heart?"

The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) reported on the event, highlighting the questions posed by the audience and answers given by David Willetts, the U.K. Minister of State for Universities and Science. You may also listen to the entire debate in a podcast posted on the POD delusion Web site. 

Now the SCI wants to hear your views. You can take part in a forum discussion, or simply vote on whether you agree or not that young researchers have been let down by the establishment.  

Some new regulations for student visas in the United Kingdom go into effect on 4 July. Among the changes is the need for visa applicants to declare that they have the necessary funds to support themselves during their course of study (though a fast-track application process will be put in place for "low risk students" coming from certain countries). One important change is that only postgraduate students whose course lasts more than 12 months, as well as government-sponsored students, will be able to bring dependents to the United Kingdom. 

As reported today by Europa Press, three of Spain's most prominent biomedical researchers have called for more public-private partnerships to support the education of the next generation of Spanish scientists.

The three Spanish researchers are Pedro Alonso, Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Health Research (CRESIB); Valentín Fuster, Director of the Spanish National Centre for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC) in Madrid and the Zena and Michael A. Wiener Cardiovascular Institute at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York; and Mariano Barbacid, Director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre. The declarations were made at the 2nd Conference on Biomedical Diagnostics at the Hospital Infanta Sofía de San Sebastián de los Reyes, near Madrid.

Alonso suggested promoting public-private partnerships to encourage scientific vocations in young people before they reach university, "as is done in football schools," Europa Press reports. One such example already exists in Spain, Alonso said, pointing to the CNIC, which runs the ACERCATE program for high school students to be introduced to the scientific method. Fuster explained that the CNIC was able to put in place such programs thanks to private funding, with Barbacid adding that this was "a model to follow."

You can read the whole report (in Spanish) on Europa Press.

The U.K.'s Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is inviting nominations for the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award 2011. The award aims to recognize the best female engineer under 30 years of age currently working in the United Kingdom. Among the qualities the IET is looking for are being an "energetic and technically excellent professional", "a high achiever", "a problem solver", "a team player"-- and being charismatic. 

The awardee will receive £1000 and a trophy, which will be presented during a national ceremony in London in December. The awardee will be called upon throughout the year to act as an ambassador at high-profile events, which the EIT says will give her a chance to network and boost her career.

Two runner-up awards will also be presented, one to an engineer "who has followed an apprentice route" and the other to an engineer "who has followed a graduate route." The former will be awarded the Mary George Prize, the latter the Women's Engineering Society Prize. Both  will "have opportunities to attend high profile events and meet the influential people in our industry."

You may nominate yourself or others through the EIT Web site. Deadline: 29 July.

Throughout the month of May, Science Careers published a feature series exploring academic careers in healthy aging research. We profiled several researchers studying how to help people age successfully and independently, from the perspective of genetics, sociology and psychology, engineering, and neurology.

If you're an early-career researcher already working in the field or would like to find out more about healthy aging research, you may want to attend the annual conference of the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The AAL Forum 2011 will take place in Lecce, Italy, between 26 and 28 September 2011.

The conference will feature a 'Young researchers' and PhD workshop - research on innovative solutions for the elderly' (YR-RISE reloaded) on the first day.  Early-career scientists investigating technical solutions for older adults are invited to submit an abstract for a poster or a short oral presentation. The workshop is organized along 5 different tracks: computing and serious games; social inclusion, mobility, and networking; ambient assistance and robotics;  neurotechnologies; and all other research topics. You have until 30 June 2011 to submit your abstract.

Research Councils UK (RCUK) have just released a video showing how the public can benefit from interacting with researchers, and how researchers can benefit from engaging with the public. 

The 7-minute movie includes interviews with researchers and members of the public during a public debate about future energy scenarios held as part of the York Festival of Science and Technology. The movie is nicely done and addresses important points -- it is well worth the watch.

On Friday the British Royal Society launched a study to look at how the scientific community can best manage scientific information to improve research quality and boost public trust.

The study, named 'Science as a public enterprise: opening up scientific information', will look at issues like how to make scientific information more accessible, the risks and benefits of open data, and the responsibility of scientists. 

"It is not just scientists who want to be able to see inside scientific datasets, to see how robust they are and ask difficult questions about their implications. Science has to adapt," geoscientist Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh, who is in charge of leading the study, stated in a press release. "The impact of science on people's lives, and the implications of scientific assessments for society and the economy are now so great that people won't just believe scientists when they say 'trust me, I'm an expert.'"

You have until 5 August 2011 to send your input. Details on how to do so can be found in the Royal Society's call for evidence

Getting along with your colleagues may not only be good for your work satisfaction and productivity, it could be good for your health, too.

That's according to a new study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, that looked at the medical history of more than 800 people working in finance, insurance, public services, health care, and manufacturing companies between 1988 and 2008.

The team of researchers, led by Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University in Israel, looked at peer social support in terms of the participants' perception of how supportive and friendly their colleagues were to them. The researchers found that a high level of peer social support was associated with a lower risk of mortality. When also looking at the participants' age, they found peer social support to have a protective effect only for people aged between 38 and 43. Interestingly, support from supervisors was not associated with mortality rate.

The European Science Foundation (ESF) today released a document expressing basic core principles and good practice guidelines for the peer review of funding proposals. The European Peer Review Guide (links to PDF) is intended mainly to help European funding bodies improve and harmonize their peer review procedures, but young scientists can learn a lot by skimming the document. 

For those new to the funding system, the Guide provides an overview on the different types of funding programs in place around Europe and can help you decide which ones are the most appropriate for you to apply to. The Guide also offers a peek into the peer-review system and processes, and highlights the key criteria your application will be judged by.

If you're further along in your career, the Guide gives you insight in what it takes to be solicited as a peer reviewer. It also offers you a broad view of the grant evaluation process and a sense of your role and responsibilities. You will also find advice on how to handle and score applications for different types of funding. The guide highlights key conditions of the peer-review process you must comply with, such as integrity, absence of conflicts of interest, and respect for confidentiality. 

"By virtue of involving human judgment, even the same peer review procedures can have variable outcomes," Cristina Marras of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) stated in a press release. "Peer review is the most widely used method for distributing research funding. So ... the Guide can help us minimise this inherent variability as much as possible; furthermore, it fosters harmonisation in international peer review."

The European Peer Review Guide was produced with input from more than 30 national research funding and research-performing organizations  in 23 countries, including the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Commission.The Guide can be downloaded from the ESF Web site.  

Developing into a successful researcher takes much more than learning science. Yes, it requires you to gain technical skills and knowledge in your field. But it also requires some less tangible attributes: an ability to see the bigger picture and to work well with others, an understanding of professional and ethical standards, and many other things. Vitae, a U.K. organization promoting the personal and professional development of researchers, has developed an excellent planning tool to help you make progress on all of these fronts. 

Vitae's Professional Development Planner has divided the skills that researchers need in order to be effective into four major areas: knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; research governance and organization; and engagement, influence and impact. The Planner can be downloaded for free as an Excel sheet that will allow you to determine which skills you should focus on at what stage, and to come up with an action plan. The Professional Development Planner is accompanied with a screencast that will take you through the process, and examples of how other researchers have used the Planner.

The Professional Development Planner is a resource that was developed by Vitae as part of a broader initiative called the Researcher Development Framework (RDF). Launched in September, 2010, the RDF identified the "knowledge, behaviours and attitudes of researchers" described above and encourages researchers "to aspire to excellence through achieving higher levels of development," the Vitae Web site reads. 

In addition to developing researchers, the RDF is designed to help PIs in their mentoring role, and U.K. higher education institutions in supporting researchers' development. According to a survey carried out by Vitae in February, 62% of 42 U.K. responding higher education institutions were using the RDF principles, and another 29% planned to begin using them. 

The Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation (MICINN) announced earlier this week that non-European visiting scientists will now be able to obtain residence and work permits within 45 days instead of the current 90.

To get such a permit, you first need to find and sign a hosting agreement with an accredited university, national research institute, or other research center in Spain. The permit will cover the entire duration of the research project.

The changes to the Spanish Immigration Law were adopted by the Council of Ministers last Friday. The new regulations aim to "facilitate the employment and attraction of international talent and improve the mobility of researchers," according to the press release

About a fifth of the Ph.D. degree holders currently employed within the Spanish research system with MICINN support are foreigners. 54.8% of them come from Europe. 

Hopefully, your workplace is a happy place, but with the pressure to produce results, the need to share consumers and equipment, and the cabin-fever effect, we all know that sometimes anger can just burst out. If you're the PI or a lab mate, what do you do?

A study published in this month's issue of Human Relations suggests that the best way to react is to show compassion, offering support rather than retaliating with sanctions. The study, performed by human resources management researchers Deanna Geddes of Temple University in Philadelphia and Lisa Stickney of the University of Baltimore in Maryland, analyzed workplace situations in which 194 people witnessed boots of anger. 

"The researchers found no connection between firing an irate employee and solving underlying workplace problems," the press release states. On the contrary, "Geddes and Stickney also found that even a single act of support by a manager or co-worker and the angered employee can improve workplace tension." 

On the other hand, in their paper Geddes and Stickney also conclude that "When companies choose to sanction organizational members expressing deviant anger, these actions may divert attention and resources from correcting the initial, anger-provoking event that triggered the employee's emotional outburst." This might be a missed opportunity. "Some of the most transformational conversations come about through expressed anger," Geddes said in the press release.

How to cope with frustration and manage conflict in the lab are two topics that our Mind Matters expert Irene S. Levine has been offering advice on in past columns.

In an article published on University World News at the end of March, two German industry organizations claim that German industry is facing an acute shortage of scientists and engineers. The two organizations are the Confederation of German Industry (BDI), which describes itself as "the voice of German industry" and claims to represent 100,000 businesses, and the Confederation of German Employers Associations (BDA), an umbrella organization for employer's groups.

"German industry has warned of the need to tackle a shortage of staff in mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and engineering, to stop economic momentum from stalling. Industry federations have put the swelling skills shortfall at 117,000 people in the four fields," the article reads. Where does that number come from? Oliver Koppel, a science and engineering (S&E) labor market expert at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), explains in an e-mail interview with Science Careers that "The figure ... represents the aggregate difference between vacancies and unemployment in S&E jobs ... as of February 2011," The original source is a report put together by the IW and the German Federal Employment Agency
The article points to high student drop-out rates as part of the problem, citing figures from the German higher education statistics agency Hochschul Informations System GmbH, which put the drop-out to  28% in math, informatics, natural sciences, and engineering. 

Read the full article here.

April 6, 2011

How Would You Name It?

The European Commission has been scratching its head about what to call the new EU research and innovation funding program. They're asking for help. The new funding program will replace the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) after 2013.

Provided you're not an employee of one of the European institutions or a direct family member, you are invited to enter the ongoing competition for the new name. Your proposal "should be easily associated with research and innovation, while also being original, memorable, either usable in a wide range of languages or easily translatable, and easy to pronounce and spell," the European Commission Web site reads

The three best suggestions will be selected by an international jury and further voted on by the public. The winner, to be announced on 10 June, will get an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels for the European Innovation Convention later this year.

Entries will be accepted until midnight Central European Summer Time on 10 May to send your proposal. 

A Chronicle of Higher Education column published last Sunday discusses what personal qualities make it easier for expatriates to adapt and thrive in a new culture and environment. The column was written by Rudolph Young, the human resources director for the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates.  

Young highlights "extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability" as the "big five personality factors" that contribute most to success abroad. When assessing expatriates, Young also looks at "how effective people are at working in intercultural situations, stress-management ability, personal hardiness (ability to cope with negative events in a resilient and resourceful manner), and emotional intelligence (the ability to gauge an appropriate and constructive emotional response)," Young writes.

The costs of not adapting can be very high both for the expatriate and the hiring institution. For the employee, the consequences of an unfortunate move can "include unemployment, delayed career development, damaged relationships, and interruptions in their children's education," Young writes. As for hiring institutions, "Relocation, housing, education assistance, travel, and repatriation can make the cost of hiring an expatriate triple that of a domestic employee."

Young suggests assessing job applicants' personality during selection to better evaluate the risks and help recruits adjust to their new living and working environment with an individual development plan.

Read the full article here

Then consider taking part in this year's European Satellite Navigation Competition (ESNC). 
The aim of the competition -- initiated by a center called Anwendungszentrum GmbH Oberpfaffenhofen, which gathers companies, entrepreneurs, and research institutions -- is to support promising ideas for commercial applications of satellite navigation. Anwendungszentrum GmbH Oberpfaffenhofen is located near Munich, Germany.

Applicants' business ideas will be evaluated regionally, by expert panels. Applicants may  compete separately for seven special topic prizes and  a prototyping prize, all sponsored by companies and research organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA). 

Prizes differ by region and by topic, but may include a cash award, support from a business incubator, technical assistance, coaching, access to data and user communities, and the opportunity to present your idea to industry. A "Galileo Master" will also be selected across all categories to receive a grant of 20,000 euros and access to a six-month incubation program.

Look on the ESNC Web site for further information on the competition. If you can, also attend the ESNC International Kick-off Conference in London on 11 May, as this will be a rare chance to get advice from experts and past winners.  

You have until 30 June 12:00 p.m. CET to submit your idea.

ScienceInsider, our sister blog focused on science policy, reports on the findings of a new study released yesterday by the British Royal Society that identifies today's big research producers around the globe and tracks the growth of international scientific collaborations.

With the current European Union funding framework program for research (FP7) drawing to 
an end in 2013, the European Commission is drafting a new strategy to cover the next funding period, based on the objectives of the EU's Europe 2020 strategy for growth. A public consultation was launched mid-February. 

One important change in the EU's funding strategy after 2013 would be the design of a Common Strategic Framework for research and innovation, which up to now have largely been funded through separate initiatives. The idea is that the new framework "would enable 
the development of a simpler and more efficient structure and a streamlined set of 
funding instruments covering the full innovation chain in a seamless manner," the Green Paper reads. Particular questions the European Commission wants your opinion upon are: "How should the Common Strategic Framework make EU research and innovation funding more attractive and easy to access for participants?"; "How should EU funding best cover the full innovation cycle?"; and "What should be the measures of success for EU research and innovation funding?" 

Regarding research priorities, the European Commission plans a greater focus on societal challenges like an aging population, climate change, and declining natural resources, but asks "How should a stronger focus on societal challenges affect the balance between
curiosity-driven research and agenda-driven activities?" Also for your consideration: "How could EU research and innovation activities attract greater interest and involvement of citizens and civil society?"

The European Commission is also looking into how to boost Europe's competitiveness through a more effective transfer of research results to market. "How should industrial participation in EU research and innovation programmes be strengthened?" the Green Paper asks. "How should intellectual property rules governing EU funding strike the right balance between competitiveness aspects and the need for access to and dissemination of scientific results?"

Even more directly relevant to early-career researchers is another area of debate that focuses on Europe's science base. Some of the questions here for you: "How should the role of the European Research Council be strengthened in supporting world class excellence?"; "How should the role of Marie Curie Actions be strengthened in promoting researcher mobility and developing attractive careers?"; "What actions should be taken at EU level to further strengthen the role of women in science and innovation?"

You have until 20 May to take part into the debate.

I'd like to take the occasion of the International Women's Day to share one thought that has stuck with me since I heard Alice Huang's presidential address at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science and Science Careers) in Washington D.C. 

One of the points Huang made during her talk was that one can help women to succeed in traditionally male-dominated disciplines by "understanding the diverse motivations that make a student commit to a life in science." Huang described in particular how faculty at Carnegie Mellon University's School Of Computer Science were able to solve women-retention problems in a course on algorithms by reframing it. 

"The faculty initially did not think that the students who dropped out could hack it," Huang said. "But, on closer examination... they found that women had lost interest because they did not see what algorithms were good for or why they needed to learn how to design a variety of complicated algorithms." The faculty decided to focus the first session of the course on how algorithms may be used to help social causes. "Once this began, the retention rate for women increased so much so that now all professors spend the first class introducing their courses by discussing the applied relevance of the material that will be presented," she added. "I admit, I was really relieved to find that the women could hack it." 

Huang's example of how important it is to tap into women's interests was echoed by a research paper published earlier that month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. In one of the studies reported in the paper, first-author Sylvie Kerger of the University of Luxembourg asked 134 boys and 160 girls, aged 14, to rate their interest in different applied topics without being told that they pertained to scientific fields like IT, statistics, and physics. "There was clear evidence that applying female friendly topics" -- specifically, providing a real social context or relating it to a real issue, like forest decline -- "increased girls' interest in these scientific disciplines," Kreger said in a press release. In contrast, boys' interest decreased when this was done.

Assuming that men and women continue to have predominantly different interests in how their research is applied later in life, here's my thought: There are differences between individuals of the same gender of course, but couldn't women scientists use these differences to find a niche for themselves that their male colleagues may not necessarily have thought of? It is still difficult for women to work in male-dominated fields in many ways, but the culture has changed drastically in the last several decades and there is now more space for new ideas and individuality. Couldn't what has traditionally been a disadvantage -- being a minority -- be turned into an untapped source of creativity at the time of developing a rewarding research career? 

One example that jumps to mind is Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (whom I've profiled previously on Science Careers).  Of course Vitoriano has male colleagues, but she's developed an unusual career for herself designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations and volunteering in university cooperation and rural development projects.

If you are a Ph.D. candidate or received your Ph.D within the last 2 years, and if you are looking for new avenues to do interesting work for industry, you may be interested in entering for the 'PhD Challenge.'

Organized by PhD Talent, a Paris-based Ph.D. students' association launched in March 2010 to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology transfer, the PhD Challenge presents Ph.D. students with an opportunity to form multidisciplinary teams online to tackle a company's specific need.

After pre-selection in late April, online teams will be invited to propose their most innovative solutions during a 2-day contest to be held in June in Paris. The members of the winning team will have 15,000 euros to share between them, with the second and third runner-up teams receiving 5,000 and 3,000 euros, respectively.

There's more information on the PhD Challenge Web site, especially in the Terms and Conditions section at the bottom of the page).

Last week saw the release of a new, free, online strategy game whose aim is to inspire more European young people to choose research careers. Produced by Austrian companies Biolution and TPM Games, 'Power of Research' was funded with more than 600.000 euros from the European Commission and been endorsed by several Nobel Prize winners and research institutes around Europe.

I was intrigued and more than willing to try out 'Power of Research' for myself even though, admittedly, I'm not much of a game player. My verdict a few days in: Overall, the game does a great job of introducing players to the world of research, but there are some career, technical, and scientific aspects that I think should be improved.

If you are a basic scientist, you probably work in a setting that is far away from the clinic -- literally and figuratively. Yet some of your research could benefit patients. The challenges are recognizing that potential and translating it into something that can be used by medical doctors, device and pharmaceutical companies, or patients. 

To address these challenges, Science Careers teamed up with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for a workshop called "Can Your Basic Research Contribute to Cures? Translational Research for Ph.D.s." Organized by Science Careers Editor Jim Austin, the workshop was held in Washington D.C. last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science and Science Careers). The session was chaired by Kate Travis, Editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, an online career development community within Science Careers. 

On the panel were three early-career and established translational scientists: Sridevi Sarma, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Computational Medicine (ICM) in 
Baltimore, Maryland, who uses her engineering background to develop computer models of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson's disease; Kasey Vickers, a biomedical scientist currently studying the mechanisms underlying atherosclerosis as a postdoc at the  National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda, Maryland; and Laura Richman, a former veterinary pathologist whose current job as vice president for research and development for translational sciences at biotech company MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is to coordinate research projects and develop clinical trials (Richman was recently profiled on Science Careers).

Below are some of the key points the panelists made:

February 10, 2011

Gender and ERC Grants

Yesterday, the European Research Council (ERC) Scientific Council announced a plan to redress the gender balance among ERC grantees. 

Since it started giving out funding in 2007, the ERC has allocated about a fifth of its grants to women. Altogether, women represent about 26% of the early-career researchers who obtained a Starting Grant over the years and 12% of the senior researchers who obtained an Advanced Grant. "Broadly speaking, these ratios also reflect the proportion of women in research careers in Europe," the press release stated. But the ERC has decided it needs to be better.

The ERC Scientific Council Gender Equality Plan aims to tackle all gender issues along the application pipeline. First, the ERC will try and raise awareness of its grants among excellent female researchers in order to get more of them to apply; up to now, 30% of starting-grant applications and 14% of advanced-grant applications have come from women, according to the press release. Next, the ERC wants to guard against gender biases during the evaluation process by: making sure eligibility and evaluation criteria are fair for men and women; including more women on ERC evaluation panels; discussing gender issues with the panels (such as how to evaluate career breaks and unconventional research career paths). The ERC will also try and encourage the ERC grantees' host institution to pay for family-related costs, like childcare, for ERC grantees. 

"Women and men are equally able to perform excellent frontier research. The aim is to take into account and confront structural gender differences, so that the ERC can fulfil its mission to support excellent frontier researchers across Europe, irrespective of nationality, gender, or age," the ERC Scientific Council stated in its gender equality plan. 

As I was surfing admittedly random Web sites this morning, I came across this article on the self-help Web site on how to get into "the habit of putting ideas into action now," as the article's author and Web site editor Erin Falconer puts it.

The article offers 7 ways of jumping into action, which are largely applicable whatever your professional field may be. While you may have heard some of the advice before, it's the sort of advice that bears repeating every now and then.

My favorite: 

"Remember that ideas alone don't bring success - Ideas are important, but they're only valuable after they've been implemented. One average idea that's been put into action is more valuable than a dozen brilliant ideas that you're saving for 'some other day' or the 'right opportunity'."

You may read the whole article on

According to a recent review of the provision of career development and transferable skills training to doctoral students and research staff in the United Kingdom, over the years the country has positioned itself as an international leader, thanks in part to the 2002 'SET for Success' report and the government money that followed. 

Written by Sir Gareth Roberts, 'SET for Success' report recommended offering doctoral researchers about 2 weeks' training each year in transferable skills. Another recommendation was for research organizations to help postdoctoral researchers develop and follow individual career plans. Since 2003, Research Councils UK (RCUK) have been distributing about 20 million per year to research institutions so they would offer such support.

What has been achieved with this 'Roberts' Money' and what remains to be done has been the object of an independent review commissioned by RCUK and released last week. The review, led by Chair of the Inter-Company Academic Relations Group at the Confederation of British Industry Alison Hodge, found that U.K. research organizations have been putting in place a wide range of training programs in topics like data recording and analysis, paper and grant writing, communication skills, and CV writing and offering work placements in other organizations. 

"PhD students now have more encouragement for and flexibility over what and how they acquire their skills," the review reads. While about one in ten research organizations reported offering extensive transferable skills training to doctoral researchers in 2004, that number jumped to about three quarters in 2009. "Career development and training in transferable skills, as part of the preparation of PhD students for the job market, is starting to emerge in research organisations as a recognised and essential part of many doctorates in the UK," the review reads. The 'Roberts' money' has also "helped PhD students to identify and express more clearly what their skills are and helped them to relate better to career opportunities outside academia."

Provision of additional skills training to research staff is progressing more slowly, the panel found. More than one in three research organizations offered training in transferable skills in 2009 to their research staff, compared to fewer than one in ten in 2004. "While the quantity and quality of provision has increased significantly, this is still not yet a routine part of staff development practices." The review notes that slower progress may be due in part to the higher priority research staff place on specializing in their field and publishing and to a lack of encouragement from Principle Investigators. Nonetheless, the review concludes, the "'Roberts' money' has had a significant impact on raising the professionalism of research as a career; in particular it has encouraged research staff to take ownership for their personal continuing professional development." 

The panel encouraged further progress in getting companies that employ scientists involved, as originally intended in the 'SET for Success' report. The panel expressed "serious concern" about "the relatively limited systematic interaction between research organisations and employers ... either in setting or implementing skills development programmes." Without widespread external engagement, "the focus of career development and skills training is unlikely to match the rapidly changing external environments and associated opportunities for the majority of researchers." 

What the future holds is unclear. The 'Roberts' Money' will run out in March, which means the end of specific, lump-sum funding for research organizations. But last March, RCUK announced that "The Research Councils anticipate that funding for researcher development will be increasingly embedded into their normal training and research grant mechanisms." RCUK expects research organizations to include the costs of training for doctoral researchers into their teaching fees (and will raise the amount of its training grants accordingly). As for the training of research staff on grants, RCUK expects research organizations to incorporate such programs into their normal activities. RCUK plans to issue further guidance soon.

"The panel does, however, see risks that the internationally recognised high standing achieved in such matters in the UK may be lost with uncertainties over future funding mechanisms," Hodge wrote in the review's foreword. The panel urged RCUK "to ensure that specific funding and other initiatives continue to stimulate and reinforce the development of transferable skills and support for career development" while urging other funding bodies to get on board and research organizations to sustain their efforts. 

A lot is at stake. Institutions warned the panel that "the impending reductions in university funding may well result in less emphasis on career development and generic skills training. In some instances it was even stated that all such activities would completely cease if dedicated funding were to cease," the review reads. And that, indeed, is what will probably happen.

You may read the full review and background documents on the RCUK Web site.
With Christmas over and the New Year here, you may feel like the next holidays are far away. But enjoying some time away from the lab and furthering your science are not necessarily incompatible, writes Vanessa Schipani in this month's The Scientist. A short vacation with your colleagues, Schipani writes, will help you know them better and make it easier to work well together. 

Here's an excerpt of the article relating the experience of William Lensch, a senior scientist in the George Q. Daley laboratory at Children's Hospital Boston in Massachussets. The lab spends 3 days skiing together in Stowe, Vermont, every other year.

Developing a thick skin is essential for meetings in the Daley Lab, says Lensch... Without the  personal comfort level the group has acquired by spending time together socially, the level of honesty they express in their meetings would be difficult, says Lensch. When you know your lab mates well, 'they're not going to take it personally' when you criticize their data, he says. 'They've seen you in the morning in a bathrobe.'

You can read the whole article at The Scientist's Web site. 

December 22, 2010

The Impact of Working Close

Thanks to the Internet, today researchers have many ways to collaborate remotely. Several studies have shown that international collaborations tend to produce higher-impact papers than local collaborations. But new research suggests that when you look closely at those local collaborations, close interactions between key authors boosts the number of times articles are cited after publication. 

Led by Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts and published last week in PLoS ONE, the study determined the location of collaborating Harvard biomedical scientists in 35,000 published articles. Kohane's team then analyzed the effect of distance between the Harvard collaborators -- whether they were located in the same building, on the same campus, or across different campuses -- on each paper's citations.

"Essentially, at all of these scales, the closer the first and last author are located, the more  impactful that paper is as measured by how much more it is cited," said Kohane, quoted in a press release. "Despite all of the profound advances in information technology, such as video conferencing, we found that physical proximity still matters for research productivity and impact." 

2 December was the official launch date of OpenAIRE -- Open Access Infrastructure for Research in Europe -- providing researchers with open access to publications emerging from research funded by the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The 2-week-old site is still small, but it's growing quickly.

The launch of OpenAIRE is the latest part of a European Commission pilot initiative to encourage open access to the research it funds. Since August 2008, EC-funded researchers in the fields of energy, environment (including climate change), health, information and communication technologies, and research infrastructure have been required to make their peer-reviewed research articles freely available in an institutional or subject-based repository within 6 months of publication. Researchers in social and socioeconomic sciences and the humanities are given 12 months.

OpenAIRE aims to be a one-stop shop for exploring EC-funded research articles in those repositories as well as articles that did not find an open home. As I write this entry, about 200 papers are available online. Articles can be browsed by year, scientific area, or language.

For more information on the EC open access pilot project and OpenAIRE, see the OpenAIRE Web site.

It may be a tough thing to do, but tenure-track faculty members need to recognize and put an end to relationships with "dead weights, negatives, dispensers of bad advice, draggers-down of your conscience, and saboteurs of your labors," writes David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article published last Monday. Above all, good academic friends will offer honest feedback and be upbeat. "Friends should be there for one another in times of trouble. But if someone seems hellbent on sinking his or her own career, it won't help you to join in on the downslide," Perlmutter adds.

Perlmutter analyzes other hallmarks of unproductive friendships in the world of academia and gives some tips on how to end them gracefully. You can read the full article here.

For more on the added value and perils of laboratory friendships across hierarchical ranks, check out this past column from our Mind Matters columnist Irene S. Levine.

As we highlighted in a recent Science Careers article, most researchers have to make judgments in their day-to-day practice of research that have ethical implications. While falsification/fabrication of data, and plagiarism, are largely seen as unforgivable scientific sins, junior researchers are routinely confronted with decisions about how they carry out and report research that could either be seen as appropriate, questionable, or unethical depending on where they draw the line.

In an Inside Higher Ed column published last Friday, Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University Perry A. Zirkel analyzes a possible case of self-plagiarism after stumbling across two research articles that were published in different journals the same year and shared one author, together with big chunks of text. "Yet neither article cited the other," Zirkel writes.

In his discussion of the case, Zirkel makes an important distinction between self-plagiarism and text recycling. I would like to pass it along here as food for thought.

"Exploring relevant writings... I found that the issue of self-plagiarism is better understood in terms of specific parsing within the more general concept of plagiarism," Zirkel writes. In particular, "as Scanlon has explained, ... self-plagiarism poses the problem of imposture, not theft. Here, imposture refers to padding, churning, over-crediting, or, in Bird's words, 'implying that the author is more productive than is actually the case.'"

Text recycling is a grayer area, Zirkel says. "The blurry boundary for text recycling as an ethical matter appears to be not only the amount but also the nature of the material duplicated without attribution,"Zirkel adds. "For example, repeating significant parts of the literature review or the methodology is far less shady than is doing the same for the core, i.e., the results, of the study." Zirkel refers to codes of conduct and journal guidelines that prohibit publishing old data as new and advocate transparency.

Zirkel's column also highlights how difficult it can be to pinpoint actual sins and enforce sanctions. Putting the issues under the microscope, as Zirkel does, is an essential step in helping the scientific community put an end to questionable practices.

New research appearing this week in Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also the publisher of Science Careers) suggests that reaffirming  personal values in a simple writing exercise could help women overcome sexist stereotypes.

The study (subscription required), led by psychologist Akira Miyake of the University of Colorado at Boulder, looked at 399 male and female college students in a 15-week introductory physics class. During the first and fourth weeks, a group of students were asked to write for 15 minutes about personal values such as family and friends that were important to them. The researchers found that women who had taken part in the value-affirming exercise went on to obtain better grades than women in the control group, who wrote about their least important values. No real difference was found for male students, reducing the well-documented gender gap in physics exams performance.

Improvement of academic performance following the value-affirming exercise was most striking for women who subscribed to the stereotype that men are better at physics. Looking at the control group, the researchers also found that the more female students believed in the stereotype, the worse their grades. Such pattern disappeared in the value-affirming group however.

"The fact that we found a large reduction in the gender gap for affirmed women tells you that some psychological processes are affecting women's performance on exams and how powerful those influences are," Miyake says in a press release. "Writing self-affirming essays improved the affirmed women's exam performances by alleviating their anxiety related to being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science."

It's hard to extrapolate research results to other situations, and Miyake is quick to point out that however promising such value-affirming approaches are "not a silver bullet that magically makes the gender achievement gap disappear altogether." But it seems a simple and short enough exercise to want to give it a try when facing a situation with sexist stereotypes attached, being taking an exam or doing research in a male-dominated environment.

November 23, 2010

Be Bold

Daring to follow untraveled paths in science can be both daunting and risky for young scientists. Yet boldness is a common, key ingredient in the careers of the most successful scientists.

In these days of self-doubt, it's good to recall words from Thomas Waldmann, who since 1973 has been chief of the Metabolism Branch at the U.S. National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. When asked about the best approach to being a scientific leader, Waldmann recommends:

"First, choose young scientists who show originality in their thinking and almost have a maverick mind. They have to be bright, hardworking and [able to] work in a team."

Assuming you work in labs led by PIs with the same philosophy as Waldmann, boldness and competence should be rewarded.

"Then, as the administrator, give them the resources and a large amount of independence. Show enthusiasm and support for their activities."

The full interview was published last Wednesday in The Washington Post.

Science Careers explored this theme at length in Anne Sasso's Audacity in Science series.

The European Research Council (ERC) announced the results of its third Starting Grants competition this week.

Altogether, 427 early-career researchers won a total of about €580 million that they will use to establish independent labs in Europe. Launched in 2007, the Starting Grants offer researchers of any nationality and age, and with between 2 and 12 years post-Ph.D. experience, as much as €2million over 5 years to build a research team anywhere in Europe.

On average, this year's ERC awardees are 36 years old. A little more than a quarter of them (26.5% compared to 23% last year) are women. Host institutions are in 21 countries, with the United Kingdom (79), France (71), and Germany (67) attracting the most grantees. Looking at research areas, 45.7% of the winning proposals are in physical sciences and engineering, 35.8% in life sciences, and 22.2% in social sciences and humanities.

A total of 2873 scientists applied for the grant this year, a 14% increase over last year but far below the more than 9,000 applications drawn by the first ERC call. With the ERC budget for the grants rising 40% this year, this year's success rate reached 15%. The budget for these grants is expected to continue to rise.

You can browse the list of winners by country or research domain (social sciences and humanities, / life sciences, / physical sciences and engineering). More statistics can also be found here. The deadline for applications in physical sciences and engineering has already closed, but life scientists may apply until 9 November 2010, and social scientists and humanists have until 24 November.

October 4, 2010

And the Winner Is....

It is now possible to watch the Nobel Prize announcements live from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm right after the awarding institutions have made their vote. 

Robert G. Edwards was announced today as the 2010 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine "for the development of in vitro fertilization." Tomorrow this year's physics laureates will be announced, Wednesday in chemistry, and Thursday, literature. Friday we'll know who gets the peace prize, and next Monday the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. 

Check out the exact times on the Nobel Prize web site. You may also use the site to congratulate the new laureates or ask them questions; answers will be posted in December.  

September 8, 2010

Cinema Science Festival

If you're a big fan of the big screen and happen to be near the French city of Bordeaux between 30 November and 5 December this year, you may want to attend the Cinémascience film festival that will be taking place there and then.

In its third year, the Cinémascience festival is organized by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) with the aim of making science accessible to the public. The week-long event features new and old fiction movies shot all over the world that relate, in some ways, to science and research; the connection can sometimes be remote. The screening is followed by a discussion involving the public, researchers in the field, and members of the film crew.

Read this past Science article by Martin Enserink on Cinémascience and other science film festivals around the world (Subscription required).

You may feel that, once you've got tenure and set up your lab and life in a place you like, your scientific career will go on forever. But while it's quite common for professors in the United States to remain active and productive researchers in older age, national laws and cultural traditions make it much more difficult for professors in Europe to do the same.

A recent article in The Scientist highlights the difficulties professors face if they wish to continue running a lab beyond the retirement age imposed by many European countries: "When a recently retired colleague warned [former Karolinska Institutet professor Jan-Åke] Gustafsson, who was quickly approaching Sweden's upper mandatory retirement age of 67, that emeritus professors aren't taken seriously in Sweden, he began to realize it was all too true. Emeritus colleagues received fewer and shorter grants and were more segregated from their departments," the article states.

For many well-established professors, the only way to keep their research going at full speed, if at all, is to start all over again overseas. Of course, you're much more marketable and can land much more prestigious positions if you've got a life-long career's worth of achievements on your CV. But the advice that the later-career professors offer for starting over at a new institution strike me as applicable to scientists at the beginning of their careers. Here's some of their advice:

Research your options
"'Start early, at around 60, to really think about what you want to do,' says Gustafsson... Gustafsson talked with colleagues about the pros and cons of becoming an emeritus professor before making his decision, and once he was sure, began his search for a new institution several years before reaching retirement age." 

Plan ahead
"Careful planning will allow you to avoid the worst aspect of moving - the loss of productivity, says Gustafsson. 'Organize the move efficiently, starting with the administrative details, a year before,' he says."

Don't burn any bridges
"As [former University of Helsinki, Finland Albert] de la Chapelle dissolved his lab in preparation for the move, able to only bring a few junior faculty members with him, he was faced with seven dependent doctoral candidates still at Helsinki. 'We had to really scramble to get their lives organized and get them co-mentors in Finland,' says de la Chapelle... But it was worth it: Today, those graduate students remain his key ties back to the university, he says."

Forced retirement is one reason why you may have to unwillingly leave your institution, at least in Europe, but in these days of economic recession even tenured professors have been made redundant. This makes it all the more important to keep your career-development skills well-honed all along the way for when you might need them.

You can read the full article on The Scientist's Web site.

Monica J. Harris, a social psychologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, made a compelling case in yesterday's issue of Inside Higher Ed that the number of Ph.D. students should be reduced. 

Harris, who has been the committee chair or co-chair for 13 Ph.D. students in her 23 years of professorship, has become increasingly concerned in the recent years about the dire career prospects for young scientists in academia, she writes in the opinion piece

"Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn't sustainable. We're not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today's economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well."

Until recently, the way Harris dealt with the poor academic job market was by warning prospective graduate students against the difficulties ahead as they came to her office seeking to take the first step toward a tenure-track position, she says. But seeing a staggering number of strong applicants compete in recent faculty searches at her institution got her wondering

"what would come of the countless others in the pool who had decent, even impressive, vitas but simply couldn't vault to the top of a short list? And would the students I train be able to compete at such a level? At this stage of my career, I'm publishing steadily but not spectacularly. I feel I can offer students excellent training in research methodology and theory, but I am no longer confident that will be enough to propel them to the top of a short list for the kinds of jobs they came into graduate school wanting."

Harris has decided that her "full disclosure" strategy is no longer adequate. A few weeks ago, she decided not to accept any more Ph.D. students until the job market shows signs of recovery. Meanwhile, she plans to take on honors undergraduates in spite of their greater need for supervision, collaborate with other colleagues who have Ph.D. students, and move her scholarship in new directions.

"Knowing that prospective students apply to graduate school of their own free will, with hope in their hearts and stardust in their eyes, doesn't absolve faculty of some portion of responsibility for the current crisis. ...  I think I will sleep better knowing that I am no longer contributing to an academic job market that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme on the verge of falling apart."

Harris's opinion piece was met with readers' comments that ranged from the very critical to the very supportive. 

I applaud Harris's ethical approach and her sense of professional responsibility. But in the course of the articles I have written for Science Careers, I've met countless young scientists who made satisfying careers for themselves in academia and in all kinds of alternative sectors. Some of them had a Ph.D. supervisor far less nurturing than Harris. Others started out in research in obscure or obsolete areas, entered the hottest of the research fields, or set their hearts on career alternatives no less competitive than academic science.

The job market is tough and probably always will be. The best solution, I think, is not deliberate population control but full disclosure. Make sure prospective Ph.D. candidates know the odds of succeeding in academia and are aware of the range of career alternatives open to them if they should fail in, or decide not to pursue, an academic career. 

But let them make the choice, because we cannot know ahead of time who will fail, who will find their dream job at a research university, who will solve our energy problems or cure some horrific disease, or who will end up happy in a career they had never heard of when embarking on a Ph.D. Whether or not one stays in academia, one develops many valuable and marketable skills while training to be a researcher. And sometimes you have to go through the process to know what you want to do in life. 

Bioinformaticians at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain report having developed a new methodology they hope will save other researchers time when searching for bioinformatics resources on the Internet.

Nowadays, biomedical researchers are spoiled by an abundance of online databases, software, and other resources, but identifying them and learning how to use them can take too much time.

The Madrid team, led by Víctor Maojo, developed a new tool that is able to retrieve and automatically classify bioinformatics resources according to their application domain and functionality by scanning the existing scientific literature. When running the tool on 400 articles in the ISI Web of Knowledge, the team retrieved nearly 95% of the available resources. The tool is designed to update its index of resources automatically.

The best part is that the team has made the new methodology available to everyone via a Web application called BioInformatics Resource Inventory (B.I.R.I.). BIRI allows the whole scientific community to search for bioinformatics resources by name, category, and domain. 

It's free, so you may try it for yourself.

(Speaking of informatics, check out today's CTSciNet profile of Lynn Bry of Harvard Medical School, who developed CRIMSON, which makes access to tissue samples much faster and cheaper.)

Anyone who's ever taken a general aptitude or specific mental ability test will know that these can turn up wacky career suggestions. But if you go beyond the specific suggestions, such tests can also often tell you something about what matters to you or what you would enjoy doing in your professional life. 

One day, perhaps, there may be a new test type that provides vocational guidance, according to research recently published in BMC Research Notes. Using brain imaging, a team of researchers tried to correlate brain networks with ability factors such as general intelligence, speed of reasoning, and test scores among 40 individuals seeking vocational guidance. The team was able to detect different gray-matter correlates depending on whether the tests assessed general or more specific mental abilities.

"A person's pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is related to their brain structure, so there is a possibility that brain scans could provide unique information that would be helpful for vocational choice. Our current results form a basis to investigate this further," said first-author Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, in a press release.

Perhaps. Still, the image that comes to our mind is of Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat, the magical hat that read the mind and heart of every new freshman at Hogwarts School of Magic. It's fine for fantasy books -- but applied to the real world the notion seems too ambitious and greedily reductionist. It seems, for example, to overlook the fact that some people do great work not by following our strengths and pursuing our particular aptitudes, but by working to overcome our weaknesses. It's not unusual, especially in science, for especially creative work to arise from a new perspective on an old problem; any approach that tries to channel us into neurologically determined professional silos would, we think, inhibit that.

It's important to remember that even the magical sorting hat had a difficult time deciding whether to assign Harry to Gryffindor or Slytherin -- precisely due to the idiosyncratic blend of personal attributes that eventually made him great.

-by Elisabeth Pain and Jim Austin

Time to put your dancing shoes on: The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest is up again!

Launched in 2008 by Science's Gonzo Scientist, the Dance Your Ph.D. Competition invites scientists from all walks of life to put their Ph.D. research topic into dance form. Videos will be judged by an interdisciplinary panel on scientific and artistic merit and on the creative combination of the science and arts.

The deadline to enter is 1 September, and the finalists in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Social Sciences categories will be announced later that month. Finalist videos will be screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City in October, and the winners will be announced and prizes awarded then and there. Above all, the contest is meant to be fun, but it's also an opportunity to earn some cash: There's a $500 prize up for grabs in each category, with the winner of the 'Best Ph.D. Dance of All' getting an extra $500.

Find more detail and lots of tips on how to enter on the Gonzo Scientist's Web site and take part in ongoing discussion on the Dance your Ph.D.Contest Facebook page.

esof-th.pngIn addition to the funding workshop (with the video now available on the ESOF Web site), Science Careers organized a session on alternative careers during the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week. For those of you who couldn't attend, here's a quick guide from my colleagues Brianna Blaser and Ric Weibl on how to find love away from the bench should research not be for you:

  • Reflecting on Your Preferences 
There are many differences among employment sectors (and particular jobs), including wages and benefits, work-life balance, how you relate with colleagues, and the focus of your daily duties. For example, "Some people really very much enjoy focusing down on the details... Other people are like global thinkers. They want to solve big problems," Weibl said. So you first need to find out a little more about you and what you enjoy doing. Taking career inventories, writing pros and cons lists, or writing a journal may all help you in this process. 

  • Researching Your Options 

Once you know what you want, you have to match it with what you find out is out there. "The first person many of us think of turning to when we want to talk about our careers is our PI, and you may have a productive conversation with your PI about your career, but it may also be that they really have a specific career in mind for you and so they don't want to have an open and honest and frank conversation with you... It may also be that they don't know a lot about other career options" outside of research, Blaser said. Searching Science Careers and other careers Web sites, reading books, talking to career service professionals, looking at job ads in journals, and networking are all good approaches to mapping the career landscape.

  • Conducting Informational Interviews

You can also get a lot of information by talking to people who are already in fields you might be interested in. Ask for a few minutes of a person's time, by e-mail, phone, or a face-to-face meeting. Prepare for the encounter ahead of time. "The CEO is very busy and has a lot of other things to do than being an informant to a young scientist trying to figure out where his life is going to go," Weibl said. Ask quick and open-ended questions that go to the point, like, 'What attracted you to this field?', 'Describe a typical day or week', and 'How do I locate positions in this field?'. Afterwards, "Always write a thank-you note," Weibl said. "Handwritten thank-you notes are special. I keep them on a wall in my office." They also help people remember you down the line, Weibl added.

Always try and carry out multiple interviews by asking the people you talk to whether they could give you some referrals. "Listen carefully," Weibl said. Sometimes the advice is good, sometimes it is not so good. Use your critical skills. A theme will start to emerge, he added.

  • Making the Transition

Training expectations and career paths are different in academia and other sectors, so this is something that you need to find out. Assess the skills you already have and figure out what other skills you will need to get into your new field of choice. Volunteering, doing an internship, getting a fellowship, gaining additional training, and taking a part-time or temporary job will all help you get in.

  • Talking to Your Supervisor

Some day you'll have to walk in and tell your supervisor that you don't want to stay in academia. "They've invested in you; you've invested in them," Weibl said. This is a "difficult conversation that you must have at some point with your adviser." It can help to realize that "this is about you, not about them", and that you are not the only person who has these doubts about whether or not to become an academic scientist. "It's not unusual for your adviser to actually surprise you with a very positive and supportive response, but you're going to have to talk to that person, and you're going to have to own that decision," Weibl added.

It may not feel like it at the time, but take this as a time of opportunity. "We have this plan maybe when we start grad school that we are going to be this great researcher, we're going to become an academic, get tenure. But things might go differently, and that' s not necessarily a failure," Blaser said. "It's a time to re-evaluate and figure out where you want to go." 

The slides of the complete talk can be viewed on the Science Careers Web site, and a video is available on the ESOF Web site.

esof-th.pngAs I was queuing for lunch at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week, I started talking to a young scientist from FarAwayCountry A. She was writing her Ph.D. thesis and looking for a postdoc in Europe, seeing a research experience abroad as a key step in her career. But she also saw such a period as a "make or break" time in her relationship. Her non-scientist boyfriend had a great career lined up in FarAwayCountry A. How they would juggle the two careers was a source of arguments, she told me.

As it happened, juggling dual careers was the topic of a session organized at ESOF by the Marie Curie Fellows Association (MCFA), an association gathering scientists who received a mobility research training grant (a Marie Curie Fellowship) from the European Commission. "As a researcher, you are always required to be mobile," said the session's moderator Maria-Antonietta Buccheri. But it can be "difficult to reconcile mobility with family life." According to recent surveys, this is an issue that more and more scientists are facing as the number of dual-career couples is raising, she added. 

Buccheri outlined several typical ways couples deal with dual careers. A common strategy is what Buccheri referred to as the "hierarchical" model, in which couples decide to favor the career with the better prospects and opportunities. Because women are typically younger and, hence, at earlier stages of their careers, usually "the leading career is the male career," Buccheri said. In contrast, some couples take an "individualistic" strategy "in which everybody follows their own career and the relationship plays a second role," she continued. Another model still is to adopt an "egalitarian" approach where each "partner is ready to make compromises for a rewarding career for both partners." 

It "mainly depends on you and the compromise that you are ready to make," said Manuela Giovanetti, a senior researcher at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom, who shared her story during the session. "At the beginning, I chose my career and I was satisfied," said Giovanetti, who over the years gained research experience in the Republic of Panama, Germany, the United States, and Spain. But "at a certain point, I started to have a relationship," she said. "That is why I accepted ... to come back to Italy" -- knowing that when her 3-year postdoc came to an end she would be left with little opportunity to find a more stable position, she said. 

After a couple of years of unemployment, "We decided [to resume] my career, which meant being mobile again," Giovanetti continued. She obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship to go to Belfast. The new situation -- maintaining two houses and traveling to see each other -- was difficult and expensive. "The expenses doubled," Giovanetti said. Frequent travel sapped time and energy; the situation was "really stressful. "If you want to be a dual-career couple, you need a lot of money ... and a lot of enthusiasm both in the work you are doing and the relationship that you are keeping."

"The situations are different for each couple, and even for [a given] couple, the situation changes according to the life cycle," Buccheri said. There are signs that institutions are willing to help. In the United States in particular, some universities have dual-career offices or "brokers" whose role is to help partners -- whether academic scientists or not -- find jobs, Buccheri said. As part of the Swiss Federal Equal Opportunity at Universities Programme, universities in Switzerland have started offering temporary positions to help following partners progress in their careers and created a new kind of high-level position in which the two partners share the research and teaching load. It is "the same money as one position, but they can split the burden of the job. The shared position is considered in the C.V. as a full position," Buccheri said. 

Much more common are dual-hiring strategies, in which universities offer positions to the partner according to his or her specialization, Buccheri said. Be aware of your power to negotiate. Say, "'It is a very good position, but I have a partner," Giovanetti said. One of the risks "is that the trailing spouse is always considered a trailing spouse, someone who is less prepared and maybe giving less to the university," Buccheri said.

Being the one who follows doesn't necessarily mean harming your career. When her husband followed her to the United Kingdom so that she could take an 18-month Marie Curie Fellowship in London during her Ph.D., it opened new doors for him, said Giovanna Avellis of InnovaPuglia, a company in the Apulia region fostering local innovation. Her husband, then a professor of combinatorics, took a leave from his university to study in the British Library and pursue a secondary interest of his in "the origin of formal thinking, [of the] formal manipulation of signs by humans like in logic and computation," Avellis said. This topic has since become his primary research and teaching interest. "After 20 years spent playing with numerical signs, he wants to spend the next 20 years understanding the origin," Avellis said. 

The Marie Curie Fellowships are already offering great support to dual-career couples, but the MCFA is currently putting together a report with suggestions to the European Commission on how the program may be improved. They are soon to launch a survey on related issues -- keep an eye on their Web site to take part.


One of the sessions organized by Science Careers this week at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy aimed to give young scientists a leg up in the increasingly competitive race for funds. The workshop offered advice from three different perspectives -- a national research council, an international funding organization, and a winner of a Starting Grant from the European Research Council -- which I summarize below:

  • Identifying a Grant Program

Identify existing funding programs well in advance. "For each step in your career, there is a program that fits. Look carefully, and find the right one," said Markus Behnke, a program officer in the Chemistry and Process Engineering Division of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Bonn. 

Make sure you check out the details: the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), for example, ` only funds basic biology research with a focus on interdisciplinary and international collaborations. "We are very different from national research councils, though we are not a foundation," said Guntram Bauer, Director of Fellowships at HFSP in Strasbourg, France. "So first learn about the organization and its philosophy," Bauer added. Even when looking at opportunities within the same body, "Carefully read the guidelines, because they all are different and [there is a] rapid program turnover."

You should "Tailor your proposal according to the specific objectives of the program," Bauer said. But only up to a point: "Read carefully the grant call and see if your idea fits that kind of call... If you have any doubt, call and ask questions. It could be the wrong grant," said Vittoria Colizza, an ERC Starting Grant winner who leads the Computational Epidemiology Lab at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI Foundation) in Turin, Italy. 

  • Finding a Good Research Idea

How much is expected of you depends on your career stage, but ultimately what you need is a good idea. Yet be aware that "to have a good idea is not good enough. You have to have it clear in your mind," Colizza said. 

For many funding bodies, good also means bold. ERC grants in particular require an ambitious project, which "by definition is risky and tricky," Colizza said. This means that you also need to prove your ability to seeing it through: "Say out aloud what is the problem, what are the risks, and how you think you are going to cope with them," she added. 

To get one of the ERC Starting Grants, which target young researchers aiming to become independent, you also need to develop a broader vision. At this point in their careers, "many have a vision limited to the day after. This cannot work. Think about the papers you'll be writing in the next 5 years," Colizza SAID. 

  • Finding a Host Institution

The host institution is especially important if you're applying for an individual fellowship: You have to demonstrate that this is really the right place for you, Behnke said. So explain your reasons for picking your host (to learn a new technique or follow a new research direction, for example) and how this fits into your career plans (your host may agree to you running a small team within the lab). This implies discussing the project with your host before hand and going to visit them to check out the equipment, Behnke added.  

  • Positioning Yourself

Know yourself and your competitors in the field, especially for an ERC Starting Grant. You should be able to say, "'Yes, there are several groups who do that in this way. I can do it in that way'," Colizza said. Also explain what it is going to bring to the community and demonstrate your ability and willingness to collaborate, she added. "Show that don't want to play solo, that you are able to reach out." 

If you are working in an interdisciplinary field, be prepared "to prove that you are the right person" for the project, said Colizza, who is a physicist studying the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Time and again she had to make the case to reviewers for why, even though she was not a biomedical doctor, not a biologist, and not a biostatistician, she could do the research. Demonstrate that you've got the training and are bringing something new and innovative, she said. 

  • Demonstrating Your Other Skills

To get an ERC Starting Grant in particular, you also need to demonstrate your ability to manage a research group. "If you are able to do very good science, this is not enough to get a grant. [You need] to convince [reviewers] that you are able to succeed in the project. This is science plus managing science," Colizza said. If you have supervised a few students in the past, assisted younger researchers, or taught classes, "all this helps," she added. "If you are still junior and nobody gives you enough independence, try to find some space because it gives you experience" that you can then add in into your application. 

  • Crafting Your Summary

Arguably, one of the most important bits in your application is the proposal's summary. "You can be a winner immediately if you convince people" in your summary, DFG's Behnke said. "Some say it's only the summary that's carefully analyzed by reviewers." 

So, what makes a good summary? Make it understandable to people who may not be experts in your field, Behnke explained. Keep it as short as possible. Regarding content, in a DFG application, for example, you will be expected to show that you can fill in a knowledge gap, and you also need to lay out your preliminary work, working hypotheses, and approaches to finding a solution. You should also define your research's key points and milestones, Behnke added.

  • Writing a Good Application

Give your C.V. a clear structure, and do not list articles that are 'in prep.' "Most people try to fill up the list with many, many publications, even if they are not written... Reviewers do not like it," Behnke said. "Add only the most relevant papers," he added, bearing in mind that reviewers have no time to figure out what is a poster and what is a peer-reviewed publication.

Be aware that many of the skills and strengths that are relevant in a grant application are "not something that you prove with a lot of publications," Colizza said. "You really need to write what you have been doing... [Reviewers] have to read it explicitly, not between the lines ... that you are proactive on carrying out your ideas," for example.

In your research proposal, when reviewing the state of the art in the field, "Make sure it is self-explanatory. Reviewers shouldn't have to read the literature to figure out the research," Behnke said. All the way through, be clear and precise: Detail what you aim to do and how, the timing, all the budget issues, and what you are going to do besides hiring staff, Colizza said. For example, when presenting the time line, break down your project into modules that build upon each other, Behnke added. 

 "All of this nicely, smoothly integrated and very, very clear, " Colizza said. This implies using simple language. "If you try to be a poet, you may hurt yourself. Just write plain and simple English. It can be really convincing," Bauer added.

  • Giving (no more than) What You're Being Asked

Expect funding bodies to ask for different things. The Young Investigators' Grant program run by the HFSP, which targets teams of 2-4 members all within 5 years of starting their independent position, for example offers a fixed amount of money relative to the size of the team. At the HFSP, reviewers "don't discuss the budget, just the science," Bauer said. No need either to include preliminary data, as the research should be "hypothesis-driven," Bauer added. Make sure you write a new application for each body. And "if we see a grant with milestones, we know it is a cheap copy of an ERC grant." 

  • Dealing With Rejection

If you're nut successful, "Take it easy. Don't take it personally. This is about science," Behnke said. If you feel there has been some bias, "phone the agency. It may happen," Behnke said. Above all, "don't be discouraged." You can resubmit, and notes from reviewers can greatly help you improve your application. Also get in touch with the agency to discuss future directions, Bauer recommended. 

If you want to start an organization aimed at encouraging and supporting young scientists, get senior scientists involved. This was one of the key messages of a presentation by Jenny Baeseman of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) at this weekend's Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy.

APECS was born out of the involvement of young scientists in the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), a story told on Science Careers in April 2008. Among the goals of the polar year "was to expand the polar community," said David Carlson of the International Polar Year program office in the United Kingdom. "There was nothing in the system preventing young scientists to come with ideas and say, 'we want to be the next generation of polar scientists.'" And that's effectively what the founders of APECS did.

penguins_h1.jpgAPECS started out with no budget but a lot of enthusiasm and the support of the IPY program office, Baeseman said. Its early members used free tools such as Google Groups and Skype to organize themselves and start creating an active community of young polar scientists. But "from the very beginning, we decided that it is great that young people get together... but we don't want to be by ourselves," Baeseman said. "We wanted to learn from senior researchers ... to continue the continuum of knowledge."

In 2008, APECS signed a memorandum of understanding with two large international polar organizations -- the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) -- that gave them recognition as the primary organization for young polar researchers. This "gave us institutional recognition, even though we were just was a Google Group and Web site," Baeseman said.

APECS soon started organizing career development activities at other organizations' meetings, inviting senior polar researchers to sit on discussion panels and share their experience. "And then we all go for a beer and it gets nice and lively," Baeseman said. APECS also runs discussion forums and technical workshops in which "we invite experts to come and give advice... Nothing that we do is by ourselves," she said. It is "always with senior researchers."

APECS runs a mentorship program with a database of senior scientists interested in mentoring younger researchers. This makes it easier to find the right connections if, say, you're a young scientist in Norway who wants to go and work in Germany, Baeseman said. "You know they are willing to support you," she said. The organization also hosts virtual poster sessions on their Web site, which they like to think of as "the Facebook of polar science," Baeseman said. 

Today APECS is tied into several international organizations, gets involved in science policy, organizes its own conferences, and runs education and outreach activities. "When you're a grad student you're trained to do the science, you're not trained to be a scientist," Baeseman said. "We help to provide the training to be a scientist."

While Baeseman credits the success of APECS to dedicated volunteers, support from established organizations, and support from senior researchers devoted to promoting young researchers, Baeseman's own dedication to the organization belongs on that list. When Science Careers first met Baeseman at a 2007 conference in Lindau, Germany, she was a tenure-track faculty member at Kent State University. "I decided that the tenure track wasn't for me," she said.

The opportunity came up to go to the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States in Fairbanks, Alaska, to continue to develop APECS, so she took it. Toward the end of that time, the association put out a call to individual countries to host an international office for APECS. Norway stepped forward, and Baeseman now lives there and works full time as director of APECS.

She continues to do some research for a National Science Foundation grant she received while she was in Fairbanks; she published a research paper and wrote a book chapter this year. "I think it's important that when you start to make this transition from a research career to something else that you try to keep a foot in the research door."

At the same time, her devotion to APECS and its mission has provided her with a new career: "You have to find your talent and figure out where you can help science the most, and for me I think it's the administration level, helping scientists make science happen."

-by Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis

As reported by Dan Clery in this week's issue of Science, there is a pending shake-up in the landscape of pan-European research organizations: The European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs) and the European Science Foundation (ESF) are planning a merger.

EUROHORCs' national science funding agencies collectively control about 25 billion per year -- an 85% share of the overall research money available in Europe (the European Union contributes a 5% share). But, as Clery notes, EUROHORCs has no headquarters or staff. On the other hand, ESF, which has an annual budget of 50 million a year, has more than 120 staff members in Strasbourg, France, has been funding research, supporting networks and conferences, and developing science policy for decades. 

The two pan-European bodies got to collaborate in response to EU's efforts to develop the European Research Area (ERA), which aims to facilitate the mobility of researchers through the harmonization of career structures and funding systems across Europe. EUROHORCs and ESF together issued a roadmap on how the ERA might be achieved, but they realized their voice would be stronger and clearer if the two bodies merged.

Among the planned changes would be a greater role in science policy development and in joint funding coordination for the new organization -- tentatively called the European Research Organization. ESF would stop distributing money (which came mostly from EUROHORCs members).

You may read the whole article on the Science Web site (subscription required).


Tenure-track faculty are more at risk of suffering burnout from their teaching duties than their tenured and non-tenure track counterparts, according to a study presented yesterday at the American Association of University Professors annual conference in Washington. Articles on the study appear in today's Inside Higher Ed and yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education.

The research is based on a survey carried out in 2008 by then Ph.D. candidate Janie Crosmer of Texas Woman's University. Crosmer analyzed self-reported burnout among 411 full-time U.S. professors, half of whom were tenured, a quarter non-tenured, and another quarter on the tenure track. Burnout levels were measured in terms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (defined as "An unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one's service, care, treatment or instruction") and perceptions of personal accomplishment.

Crosmer found that, overall, faculty members are not more burned out than the average working population. But a closer analysis of the data revealed differences depending on the career stage of the faculty respondents. The survey tool measured emotional exhaustion on a scale of 0-54; 14-23 was average burnout and 24 and higher was a high degree of burnout. Tenure-track faculty reported an average level of emotional exhaustion of 22.3, well above the tenured faculty's 20.9 and non tenure-track faculty's 16.4. Women seemed more at risk than men, scoring a 20.9 average compared to 18.5 for men.

And while no significant differences were detected in the level of professional satisfaction between the 3 different career stages, tenure-track faculty (including men and women) experienced the highest level of depersonalization, compared to tenured professors and non-tenure track faculty, Inside Higher Ed's article reports. 

In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Crosmer mentions the "Lack of time, poorly prepared students, cumbersome bureaucratic rules, high self expectations, unclear institutional expectations, and low salary" as the key reasons for burnout. And she attributed the greater emotional exhaustion of women to "gender expectations: You have to be a wife, a mother, a caretaker, and a professor all at once."

Still, The Chronicle reports, Crosmer offered one solution to help reduce burnout: "If departments would adopt collectivistic values. It's sometimes hard for professors to feel like they're in a community, a community where they can share the workload. If one faculty member is really busy working on getting a grant, for instance, maybe a colleague could step up and teach their classes. If faculty members didn't feel like they had to do it all, that they had someone within their community to turn to, I think that would help."

Some follow-up comments dismissed the idea as unrealistic. The commenter 'Porcupine' for example saw pre-tenure competition as an important factor to burnout and a very good reason for not asking for help: "If I were to ask an untenured colleague to teach my classes so that I can work on a grant, the colleague would rub their hands together in glee, because I would have given them great ammunition in the ongoing competition, not to mention endless opportunities for snarky remarks - clearly I am not up to the job if I need to ask for help. I simply wouldn't mention it to a tenured colleague, because they might see my asking for help as a reason to vote against my tenure case."

And even if you're well-intentioned and want to help, often you simply can't afford the luxury, also commented 'northwest'. "Let's get past this notion that somewhere in our schedules we have 'extra' time to share and start talking about hiring some of the unemployed and underemployed PhDs to help reduce our loads to manageable levels."

Nonetheless, I think Crosmer's suggestion is well worth exploring. How much flexibility you may have in juggling your duties probably depends a great deal on your particular situation, colleagues, and institution. Admittedly, she is at the tenured level, but when I recently talked to Begoña Vittoriano, a successful and appreciated scientist at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain who combines her mathematical research with development cooperation activities in poor countries, she mentioned to me that she sometimes swaps teaching duties with colleagues to make some of her traveling possible.



A new academy honoring outstanding early-career scientists from around the world has just been launched under the auspices of the InterAcademy Panel for International Issues (IAP). In an editorial published this week in Science (subscription required), 6 founding members of the Global Young Academy (GYA) present the new organization. 

Members to the GYA will all be scientists in their mid-thirties, nominated by senior scientists in their country and selected by international peer-review. The GYA will be capped at 200 members and membership will be for just 4 years to prevent the aging of the organization's membership. Currently, the GYA counts more than 100 young scientists from 40 different countries.   

One central aim of the GYA is to spur creation of national young scientist academies that "encourage and empower their members to engage in interdisciplinary research, communicate science to society, and provide advice on national science policies, especially those affecting young scientists," the founding members write in the Editorial. Importantly, the GYA also aims to foster scientific exchange and collaborations between talented young scientists from the developed and developing world.  

But the organization's main motivation is to put more focus on the accomplishments of younger scientists, countering what the editorial writers perceive to be a bias towards older, established scientists. "Senior scientists receive most of the resources available for scientific research, and younger scientists rarely receive societal recognition for their work. This situation is growing worse as life expectancies and retirement ages increase, along with the average age for attaining scientific independence." Perhaps as a consequence, they say, "science is typically not a top career choice." The Global Young Academy is a means of providing some recognition for the best young scientists globally.

A popular way of mustering innovative and fresh ideas is to hold a brainstorming session -- but according to a paper published recently in Applied Cognitive Psychology, this may not be the best approach. The study, which was carried out by Nicholas Kohn of the University of Texas at Arlington and Steven Smith of Texas A&M University, suggests that instead of enhancing creativity, brainstorming sessions may give rise to a "collaborative fixation" on certain ideas.

In keeping with previous studies, the authors first found that participants produced fewer ideas, in total, when taking part in a brainstorming session than if they had been working separately. The difference was as high as 44% in the first 5 minutes of a brainstorming session. The authors also found that when working separately participants explored a greater variety of ideas, up to 55% more idea categories than during brainstorming sessions. 

In a second experiment, the researchers found that participants in a brainstorming session tended to conform "to ideas to which they were exposed, and the rate of conformity increased as the number of ideas exposed increased," the authors wrote in their paper. "Fixation to other people's ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative," Kohn explains in an accompanying press release

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should ban brainstorming sessions from your lab meetings. You might just need to adjust the format. It seems odd, but, depending on what you want to achieve, the best approach might be to put everyone in a separate room.

"Assuming it is desirable to have a wide variety of ideas or solutions to a problem... then one should split the brainstorming group into non-interacting individuals, avoiding a group session," the authors write in their research paper. "On the other hand, if the goal is to explore a few categories in depth, then interacting among the members should be encouraged. Also, taking a break might help alleviate fixation, leading to an improvement in ideation, especially in terms of the quantity and variety of ideas."


Over the next one or two decades, research infrastructure in Europe could begin to look very different. For the coming generation of scientists, that means new challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

As the Sixth European Conference on Research Infrastructures (ECRI2010), which took place in Barcelona earlier this week, once more demonstrated, ambitions can be simple, but implementation is slow and complex.

Europe is planning to build or upgrade 44 large-scale pan-European research facilities, all of them listed in a roadmap document released in 2008 by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). The list of projects includes, for example, the so-called new Global Ocean Observing Infrastructure (EURO-ARGO), the new European Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Laboratory Infrastructure (ECCSEL), and upgrades to the European Life Science Infrastructure for Biological Information (ELIXIR).

The open, competitive process of selecting these projects for new facilities means that the next generation of European scientists should have access to first-rate instruments to pursue research of pan-European interest. Researchers can also expect to be granted access to these new facilities on a competitive basis, and Europe has money to pay for such travel costs.

The opening of these new research facilities should provide new training and research opportunities. For example, the European X-ray Free Electron Laser (European XFEL), which is being built near Hamburg, Germany, is expected to start operation in 2014 and have a workforce of 300 people. Some postdoc and engineering positions are already posted on the project's Web site.

"Construction of a large-scale facility requires always highly specialized and trained scientists, engineers, technicians, managers," Michel van der Rest, Chair of the European association of national Research Facilities open to international access (ERF), said during ECRI2010. If you take a job in a facility under construction, you should be willing to see your job evolve as the facility moves into an operation and maintenance phase. "Short-term and long-term staff exchanges and staff mobility are key parameters to maintain competence and motivation," van der Rest added. He and other speakers highlighted the need for a better legal framework including portable pension schemes to promote international mobility.

Several speakers at the ECRI conference highlighted what they described as largely unaddressed training gaps. For example, as science requires increasingly complex and expensive bits of equipment, the next generation of researchers should be prepared to go and carry out their experiments in large-scale facilities scattered not only around Europe but also all over the world, said founding ESFRI member John Wood. "You need to look at how you are going to train these young people in that [global] environment," where e-infrastructure and mobility will become key aspects of the job.

Another training gap is in the skills needed to manage large research facilities. As Carlos Losada, Director General of the ESADE Business School, said in his talk, pan-European research infrastructures require 3 kinds of management: at the level of the facility itself, at the level of relationships with other facilities, companies, providers, and clients, and -- the third level -- within the broader context of the European Research Area. "Each of these levels has different types of leadership" and requires "different management competencies," Losada said. "Scientists with a solid level of knowledge management and developed competencies in managing is probably the best solution."

The conference left me feeling that the opportunities a more international environment offers  young scientists largely outweigh the challenges. If you know what kind of research may be hot and doable in the future or if you are able to anticipate shortages in transferable skills, it could well be that in 10 or 20 years' time you have positioned yourself to become a leader in your area, whether scientific or managerial. But you have to be willing to get the training you will need by yourself . 

The "training of young scientists, engineers, and technicians in line with the needs of the upcoming large scale facilities should be a priority. The ESFRI roadmap should be used to anticipate the needs of technical expertise at the european level," van der Rest said. 


Another article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education today and written by Mary Ann Mason, co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security, looks at how over the years women have won, and lost, lawsuits for tenure denial based on sex discrimination.  

The laws are there: "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, or religion. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII and prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions," Mason writes in the article. "What protection those laws offer has been the subject of evolving interpretation by federal courts," however, and it has become "more difficult for a plaintiff in a tenure case to prove discrimination" these last 20 years.

Even if you are successful, the price may just be too high to pay. "In practice, few plaintiffs are reinstated, and most compensation packages do not financially justify the enormous time and expense of the lawsuit and the shame of replaying a failure in the public eye. Colleagues may avoid you, and you may [be] tagged with the odious label of 'troublemaker,' which almost guarantees you will not receive another job offer," Mason writes.

On the positive side, Mason adds, the women who brought up and won lawsuits have contributed to creating a more open tenure procedure where candidates are today better informed of their rights. Still lacking, however, are equal opportunities to mentoring and the creation of a flexible tenure-track.

"Even with a fair, open process and family-responsive policies to help parents (still a distant goal at most universities), there will always be those who suffer the cruel sting of denial. I don't think the answer is abolishing the tenure system... Instead, let's just get on with making a good system a fair system for men and women," concludes Mason.

Case No. 1: You're an assistant professor, married with young children, at a small liberal-arts college... It's been a long year, and you're looking forward to... that long-neglected family vacation. Then your chair... announces that a senior colleague has unexpectedly retired: Can you cover her classes over the summer?

Case No. 2: You have been invited for an on-campus interview for a tenure-track position. At the get-acquainted dinner, the conversation focuses on elementary schools and the best place to hold an 8-year-old's birthday party. One of the committee members turns to you and asks, "So, do you have children?"

An article written by David D. Perlmutter and published today in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at "When and How to Use the Other 'F' Word" -- Family, that is -- at work. 

"For most of us, but especially for probationary faculty members, family dynamics affect career success. Talking about those issues, however, is risky," Perlmutter writes. In his article, Perlmutter outlines adequate ways to respond in the two situations described above, and preconises not using family as an excuse to bypass faculty obligations, speaking about your family in moderation, and being willing to hear about some family stories even if you don't have kids yourself.

Read the whole article.


February 26, 2010

Video on ERC Grantees

The science video channel AthenaWeb features a nice documentary on several young researchers who have won Starting Grants from the European Research Council. The video, entitled 'Bringing Great Ideas To Life: The European Research Council (ERC)' was supported with ERC funding.

Science is "an attitude," Fotis C. Kafatos (who has since stepped down as ERC President, replaced by Helga Nowotny) says in the video. "It's not just important to know what's already known but to learn and discover what is not known.  So we really have to trust the young. We have to give them the message that Europe encourages them to come and stay... and help Europe be one of the major science centers in the world."

A former beer-brewing engineer now studying pheromones of amphibians using fake frogs; a cello player studying  how our hearing and touch senses work at the molecular level; an economist looking at the impact of media coverage on how hard local politicians work; and a geologist who simulates earthquakes inside the lab, are among the profilees. 

At the time of the recording, 600 ERC Starting Grant agreements had been signed. "If you have a bright idea, and if you want to start an independent career, then apply to the ERC grants and we will help you... to bring this great idea to life," concluded Dr Jack Metthey, ad interim Director of the ERC Executive Agency.


Another Science Careers session held at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego last Friday afternoon aimed to give women and underrepresented minority scientists some practical tips on boosting their chances to get onto the next rung of the academic career ladder.  Instead of spinning a narrative, I'm just highlighing some of the main points the speakers made in their presentation.


Dr Hind Saidani-Scott, Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering at Bristol University, U.K.:

  • I do not like defeats. I have always been a fighter and you need to be one if you want to succeed.
  • If you have a problem (racism, harassment, discrimination) tackle it when it occurs.
  • Do not use [family tasks] as an excuse to miss meetings or deadlines.
  • Just keep going. The more you achieve, the easiest it becomes.
  • As women you will have huge challenges to overcome. But if we want things to improve, we have to learn from our experiences and try to help others in similar situations instead of saying 'we overcame these problems [ourselves], so let them do it the hard way.'


Regents and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University

  • MULTIPLE mentors (research, inspirational, savvy, etc.)
  • Mentors at a DISTANCE are essential  (phone, skype ...)
  • Isolation and Stress are the Biggest Challenges at every single step
  • Membership in a real community of professionals of your type
  • Regular Access to Professional Development Programs
  • Sacrifices may only be truly understood by your peers. Need to stay connected to a community of your own scientific peers--they can be your support group and the best INITIAL source of information


Associate Professor of African American Studies & Sociology Kerry Ann Rockquemore, University of Illinois at Chicago (You may find Professor Rockquemore's entire presentation, 'Playing to Win', on her web site

  • Know how your institution works organizationally and the unwritten Rules of Engagement
  • Align time and priorities, develop a strategic plan, learn how to manage conflict
  • Know what you need and get it from the BEST source
  • Many core needs can be met outside of traditional mentoring relationships
  • Be strategic with "mentors" so that you get from them the things only they can give you
  • There are resources for your support, but you have to pro-actively seek them out

Dr JoAnn Moody, Faculty Development and Diversity Specialist in San Diego (The tex below are excerpts from a document Professor Moody distributed on the day and is a summary from Professor Moody's 2009 booklet 'Solo Faculty: Improving Retention and Reducing Stress". More information can be found on her Web site

Predictable stressors and complex dynamics faced by a 'solo' ("one of a numerical few")

  • Standing for a stereotype and a group ("I somehow represent my whole tribe")
  • Heightened visibility and feeling in the spotlight
  • Awkward moments, micro-agressions (both deliberate and non-deliberate)
  • Solo often has to sort through 'What did that comment mean? ... Or Am I being too sensitive?
  • Performance pressures

February 20, 2010

Getting Closer to the Clinic

In a career session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego yesterday, Associate Dean for Physician-Scientist Training at UCSD School of Medicine Ajit Varki and Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, discussed job opportunities for Ph.D. scientists in clinical and translational research and related topics.


If I had to convey just one message from the workshop, it would be: if you are passionate about alleviating the burden of human disease and are willing to step onto new ground, there has never been a better time to enter clinical and translational research.


In the last several decades, a unique culture has developed in the United States in which many medical doctors pursue research. This culture has been well supplemented by M.D.-Ph.D. dual-degree programs. But the number of physician-scientists has been declining sharply over the years, and even if they were to expand, M.D.-Ph.D. programs would find it difficult to fill the open slots. The resut: "There are huge opportunities for Ph.D. scientists who want to train and affiliate with medics," Varki said.


Increasingly, disease-specific programs and Clinical and Translational Translational Science Awards (CTSA) programs are being put in place to help nurture careers in translational science among Ph.D. scientists. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) also offers Career Awards at the Scientific Interface for scientists with a background in the physical, mathematical, or computational sciences addressing biological questions. Still, "there is not a very good mechanism in place right now" to get into the field "if you haven't got an M.D.," Varki said. As a Ph.D. scientist, "You have to make it up for yourself."


This is not necessarily a bad thing, pointed out Jim Austin, Science Careers Editor and PI of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, who was moderating the session. This also means that opportunities are wide open: "Start with a disciplinary training, see how it relates to medical applications, and go and find it."


Look for "opportunities where you feel you can have an impact," Topol said. For example, you could develop a particular area of expertise related to a disease or a biological pathway, and build up on that, he added.


Importantly, don't sell yourself short if you have no specialized training in a medical-related field, intervened Bill Galey, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, from the audience. Other scientific disciplines, like chemistry, physics, computer sciences, and mathematics are all be relevant to translational research. Medical imaging and nanotechnology are two examples of emerging areas needing physical scientists, and "as biology gets more quantitative, there is a greater need for people trained with that kind of quantitative skills," Galey said.


The best way to get in is to find a postdoc in the lab of a top-notch physician-scientist, Varki said. "You have to convince them that you really care, are serious, and want to give it a shot," Austin added. Also key is to spend some time in medical schools or in the clinic. At UCSD, for example, Ph.D. students are attached to clinical divisions for 3 months "to really feel... and smell what goes on at the medical side," Varki said. Some medical departments are too busy to do research, but more and more of them are now looking for researchers, Topol added. "It could be a department that doesn't do intensive research, but supports the research."


As you progress in your translational research career, make sure to remain open-minded about opportunities as they come up. "Keep it flexible because you never know where science and medicine [will] get you," Varki said. For example, Topol, who trained as a cardiologist, pioneered the clinical use of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), an enzyme involved in the breakdown of blood clots, after hearing about tPA in a journal club. When that project "hit the wall," Topol started thinking: "'Why not get into the genetics of heart attack'," he says. "You've got fantastic project opportunities," Topol added. You just have to go and find them.


Another topic that came up for discussion during the workshop was the leaky pipeline for women. While during medical school, there is gender neutrality, but there is "never parity in those interested in research," Galey said. There is a general perception among women that combining an academic career with a clinical career and a family is very hard, he added. But "research is not inconsistent with family." Galey said, "It is much easier to tell your lab that you need to leave" to take your kid to the doctor "rather than a waiting room with lots of patients."


"Women need to stand up and say what needs to be done rather then having a few guys" trying to raise the issue, said Varki, who wrote an opinion piece on the need for on-site childcare facilities in the American Society for Cell Biology (ACSB) Newsletter a couple of years ago.


"The more you move towards patients, the more complicated it gets," Varki said. And getting a physician-Ph.D. position is in no way as competitive as getting a faculty position in the more traditional disciplines, he added.


Certainly, "The most exciting time in biomedical research is now," Topol said.


In a career workshop at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego Friday morning, Victoria McGovern of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund promised the audience three tips on how to improve their academic writing. But she gave many more than three.  

McGovern kicked things off by inviting attendees to present their research to the person sitting next to them. Everyone immediately seemed happily engaged. Then, after a few minutes, McGovern asked if there was anyone in the audience who felt dread about writing. A few hands rose. "We are sociable animals," McGovern then said. "Writing allows you to communicate to more people than talking does." Yet, it's much the same thing. The message: Though many people are intimidated by writing, it's much the same as explaining something to an acquaintance.

Whether you are writing a dissertation, an abstract, or a paper, "science is all about telling stories." McGovern said. She urged scientists to think about the results they want to communicate as a novel or a movie with "a hero, a conflict, and a moment." She took the example of malaria research, where the malarian pathogen would be the bad guy and the conflict a struggle for survival between two species--the malaria pathogens and humans.

When telling your story, keep an engaging tone by leaning toward the active, she suggested. Scientists started writing using a lot of passive tense (using formulas like "it was discovered..." and so on) to remove themselves from the picture. "People didn't want to seem grandiose" about their discoveries." But the passive voice must not be overdone, she said.

Then, read aloud what you have written, even if it seems goofy. "English and most other languages have a rythm to them," McGovern says. Reading aloud, even if English is not your native language, will help you detect when you go astray by using too much passive or just too many words.  "Don't spend lots of space to say something... Don't inflate things." Just "communicate real things to real people."

Just try to relax, she suggested. "It's just communicating with other people."

Finally, practice your writing by talking about your science with your family, friends, and anyone who will listen to you. "There is not much in science that cannot be expressed in simple language," McGovern said. Tell them what it's about, why it matters, what changes things, and where you intend to go from here.

Remember when you had a big break and went back home or told your family on the phone? "Bring that excitement into your scientific communication." 


The first event I attented at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego was the Science Careers Speed Networking Breakfast hosted by Science Careers Outreach Project Director  Brianna Blaser. I had never taken part in speed networking before, neither in speed dating for that matter, and once I got into it I found the event not only useful but also a lot of fun.

As attendees came in and served themselves to breakfast, Brianna quickly set up the rules of the game: pairs of participants would meet around a table for 4 minutes, after which she would blow a whistle for us all to swap networking partners.

The first person I met turned out to be hugely interesting. An Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California-Irvine, Mike Mulligan told me of how he helped Ph.D. students deal with mental health problems during their scientific training. I would have interviewed him right here and then, but after Brianna whistled several times I decided to be disciplined and leave it for another time.

Next I met Suthesh Sivapalaratnam, an M.D. doing a Ph.D. at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Suthesh is Chair of Aprove, the PhD-student association of AMC Graduate School, and he told me about the initiatives the association has been putting in place to give a professional and social network to young scientists.   

I also touched base with a representant of the Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), a journal entirely run by undergrads. With more than 10 years of existence, JYI gives undergrads an opportunity to submit their research for publication, be involved in the peer-review process, and write news and features articles. 

As I got into the pace of speed networking, l met many other people whose work seemed less directly relevant to my own work and interests, but whith whom I had a fascinating chat nonetheless and swapped business cards in case a common interest would come up later on.  

Starting at 7.30am, I would have thought that many (including myself) would have preferred taking their morning coffee in silence rather than starting chatting away with complete strangers. But the event offered many instant rewards beyond the caffeine-kick, and was an excellent way to get into a networking mood for the rest of the meeting.





February 8, 2010

If You Can't See It, Mime It

The January issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society includes an interesting article by Tim Chartier about the convergence of mime and mathematics in his professional life. Chartier obtained a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2001, and is currently an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Davidson College in North Carolina. In his spare time, Chartier is also an arts performer. He trained in mime and physical theater; Marcel Marceau was one of his professors.

Chartier describes how he uses mime to convey mathematical concepts to a lay audience, including schoolchildren. "My mathematical mime leans heavily on that performing art's ability to embody the invisible," he writes. His mime-sketches "enabl[e] an audience to place an abstract concept into a story." In one of those sketches, Chartier provokes discussion about infinity after tripping over an invisible rope of infinite length in both directions. As he tries pulling the rope to find out what is at the end of it and is pulled back, he enters a tug-of-war and eventually cuts the rope into two pieces out of frustration. When asking the audience how long is the rope remaining in his hand, "My favourite answers generally come from children, which have included, 'very long', 'half as long', and, of course, 'infinitely long'," he says. "Mime speaks in its silence, often leaving echoing, unspoken words in the audience's consciousness... An invisible rope left on the performance floor pulls one into struggles regarding cardinality and the infinite."

Chartier sees many similarities between mime and mathematics. A sketch can "reflect what mathematicians often do prior to writing a proof -- analyze simple examples and look for trends in cases of increasing complexity," he writes. Also, "Mathematicians can be silenced by elegant proofs of simpler concepts and somehow dissatisfied with seemingly clumsy proofs of complex material. The pleasure brought about by a good proof can similarly be evoked through the performing arts -- in this case, through a mimetic translation of mathematical thoughts."


To Chartier, the two worlds are inseparable. "As mathematicians, our intellectual world is commonly abstract and invisible. We create a narrative of our intellectual thought through our written words. For me, mime is another, quite different but surprisingly similar, way of journeying through this logical field. Best of all, this art creates a road map that invites mathematician and nonmathematician alike to travel alongside me -- often in silence, with occasional laughter."

The January issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society is dedicated to the interface between mathematics and the arts.

According to a story published today by Zoë Corbyn in the Times Higher Education supplement, the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom has urged its principal investigators (PIs) to keep a better check on the originality of draft papers written by younger scientists.

The faculty's research strategy committee recently recommended "appropriate supervision of postdoctoral staff, 'including the previewing of draft papers' and the use of 'native English-speaking staff to support junior colleagues," Corbyn writes. The recommendation follows a case of plagiarism that led to the withdrawal of a paper that had been published last July. As explained by the faculty's dean of research, "the postdoc had inappropriately copied a large piece of text, and the principal investigator... had not checked his work," Corbyn reports.

Close mentoring and good training are needed to help young scientists learn proper procedures -- some plagiarism is unintentional -- and adopt appropriate ethical standards. But there is something in the recommendation that makes me a little uneasy. While it puts the onus on the PI to guarantee original research and writing, it seems to imply that only early-career scientists are prone to plagiarism. 

To me, a more appropriate recommendation would be to encourage and train both PIs and young scientists on how to avoid, detect, and report plagiarism -- by their younger AND their older colleagues.

Read the full THE story here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the story of how an undergraduate English teacher struck by a disability developed interactive ways to teach her students.

Elaine Smokewood, a 54-year-old English professor at Oklahoma City University in the United States, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease when she started losing her ability to speak and part of her mobility a couple of years ago. "Most professors believe they listen to their students, of course, and that they hold vibrant discussions in class," writes the aticle's author, Jeffrey R. Young. Smokewood was no exception, considering herself a "'highly interactive'" teacher, she told Young. "'But I still saw myself as the most important person in the room.'"

Disability forced Smokewood to give her classes from home, using a computer and a Web cam to display her image on a large monitor in the classroom, a videoconferencing system that shows her the students, and a speech synthesizer and typed text to talk to them.

The unusual setting made her a better teacher, Smokewood told Young. In particular, she became a better listener:

"I became a different kind of teacher than I had ever been--I became a teacher who actively listened," she wrote in a recent essay for the university's alumni newsletter. "I had in the past often confused listening with waiting for my students to stop talking so that I might resume the very important business of performing," she added. "I learned that if I listened carefully, thoughtfully, generously, and nonjudgmentally, my students would delight me with the complexity of their thinking, the depth of their insight, the delicious wickedness of their humor, and with their compassion, their wisdom, and their honesty."

Students are forced to participate much more in class: Smokewood makes them lead class discussions, quiz each others, and participate in an online forum discussion.

Her system may not work in all situations, Smokewood warns, especially for large or introductory classes. It seems to me it would also be difficult to implement in science classes, where traditionally there is less space for discussion and a greater need for equations, drawings, and demonstrations.

But listening more carefully to students and giving them a greater play in the classroom strikes me as a great way for teachers of all disciplines to better engage and prepare students.

Read the entire article here.


This morning I took part in a local career event organized by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) Barcelona and the Parc Científic Barcelona (PCB). This career event, entitled 'Career progression in science -- options beyond the bench' took an unusual format that I think worked really well. 

In a 1-hour session, 7 speakers each talked about their own career transition for 5-10 minutes. A good breadth of career options were represented; among the speakers were a research and innovation manager, an entrepreneur, an investment manager, a science communicator, a European grant program officer, a patent attorney, and a science journalist (that was me).

It was interesting to see the many common themes that emerged from these presentations:  the realization at Ph.D. or postdoctoral level that a career in science is not the right path, either because one doesn't enjoy some particular aspects of research or because one isn't a first-division researcher; the risk that leaving a career in academia represents; the many small steps one has to make to stir his or her career in a new direction; the readiness to experience different jobs and countries; and the importance of continuing to have a wide range of professional experiences even after the transition. 

After these presentations, we all went into a coffee room where each speaker was allocated a table. Attendees were then left free to go and chat with any speaker they were interested in. The smell of coffee and the nice pastries helped give this session an informal and interactive feel.

One theme that kept coming back around my table was, how do you break into science journalism? Should I go for a journalism course or start working right away? Should I get a job or go freelance? These are all legitimate questions, but impossible to answer decisively. I felt I was being asked for a kind of recipe for baking a science journalism career.

My response: try and explore a range of opportunities that is as broad as possible. This will help you get to know the sector and can help you decide whether this is really what you want to do. If you are in the lucky position of having to choose between different opportunities, pick the one that best suits your aspirations and personal circumstances.

Altogether, this informal session lasted for 2 hours, and all of the speakers were kept busy with a constant stream of questions. Both speakers and attendants seemed really pleased with the event. I certainly was.