Science Careers Blog

Europe: October 2009

As a science journalist, I've had the opportunity to interview several Nobel prize winners. Such high-profile scientists are usually pretty obsessed with their science and more than happy to talk about it all day. But it's one thing to ask a Nobel winner to explain how her research fits into our greater understanding of life. It's another to ask if she has any tips for balancing family life with lab life.

Yet I had just such an opportunity earlier this month when I got to listen in on a conference call of this year's four science/economics women Nobel laureates, convened by Science deputy news editor Jeff Mervis. Jeff started off with the policy-oriented issues: What immediate steps should be taken to increase the number of women going into science and improve conditions for those already in the field? Are gender-based awards useful? How is it possible for an organization such as the National Institutes of Health to launch an award competition and announce a class of grantees that is all men?

Once everyone had warmed up a bit, we started in with some more personal questions. For example: To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional lives to achieve a balance? Has there been anything that's helped you be successful in terms of managing your time?

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

On work-life balance:

- Elizabeth Blackburn, age 60, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "I think that the message of balance is somewhat overplayed, in my view, because if you're doing something intense like having a family and doing science, they're both intense things, and so this idea that somehow every day is sort of balanced I think it's really a bad message, actually, to try and send people. ... So I try and send the message, for goodness sake, don't go for balance. That sounds very boring to me, you know, in this sort of 9 to 5 and you're balancing your life. Go for these things intensely in the periods when you have to go for them and the balance will take care of itself over decades."

- Carol Grieder, age 48, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "It's actually very nice to be in science because what we're judged on in the end is how productive we are and what we get done and it's not necessarily 9 to 5, and so I feel like I do have a lot of freedom. You know, I'll go out for my son's play at school at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions. So it's a reason for people to choose science over some other careers that they might have."

- Ada Yonath, age 70, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry: "In my day-to-day life, I don't sit and think about this, it just comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I don't really sit and organize myself . ... It just happens. And I'm very happy that I have a very fantastic relationship with my daughter and granddaughter, although I'm not what is called a normal mother, if there is something like normal mother." 

On choosing family and career:

- Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, age 76, the first woman to ever receive the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: "Well, as a somewhat older participant, I had a clear decision and made a decision not to have a family because in earlier times that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish."

- Greider: "I come from the other spectrum in that I was able to see around me a number of women, including Liz, who were able to have children and have a career, and although there were many fewer women in the higher ranks of academia, there were still some to suggest that it could be done. So just in the same way that you have to go forward with experiments sometime, not knowing what's going to happen, I just went forward with the experiment of having kids and the career and trying to do both full-time."

- Blackburn: "I think there's a lot of conventional ideas about what it should be to be a mother and, you know, certain sorts of formulary and stereotypes are there and I really think that they're not terribly helpful, some of these ideas, because I really think children are busy, you know, scientists do get family lives that are, perhaps, different in some ways but not less good."

And my favorite part of the conversation: Learning that Blackburn's secret to balancing a successful scientific career and motherhood can be found in your grocer's freezer section. I asked the laureates if there's anything that's helped them be successful in terms of managing their time. "Is it time for me to tell the Bagel Bites story?" Blackburn asked. "It's about producing beautiful cookies or cupcakes with beautiful icing and you're up till 2 a.m. making them for your children. This is what motherhood is supposed to be like, right?

"Well, it turns out that if you go to your supermarket, you can buy these little Bagel Bite things, they're called commercially, and you put them in the oven and they have cheese on the top and they bubble and they're lovely and brown and taste wonderful. And you take them to any children's function, and the children swarm over them, they love them, ... and it takes 12 minutes in the oven to cook. So my feeling is there's plenty of time ... to catch the essence of what it is that people like mothers to do, but you don't have to do it in a very laborious, conventional way."

Read more highlights of the interview in this week's Science, listen to highlights in this week's Science podcast, or listen to the entire interview.

And, for more on work-life balance (if there is such a thing) and other related Science Careers articles, check out Work and Life in the Balance, Mind Matters: On Balance, Scientists as Parents, and Reflected Glory: Life With a Nobelist Parent,  

In May 2008, Science Careers' Elisabeth Pain told of recruiting efforts by the European Space Agency (ESA) to find four new astronauts for upcoming missions. ESA is back this month, but this time they're seeking pretenders. ESA is looking for a team to simulate a 520-day mission to Mars. While ESA requires professional credentials of these volunteers, compensation will be in line with taking part in a clinical trial, and not a professional salary.

The crew of six chosen for this mission will live and work in a sealed facility in Moscow, Russia operated by ESA and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP). ESA and IBMP hope through this exercise to learn more about the psychological and medical toll on its crew members. The mission aims to simulate a 520-day space flight, including a 30-day visit to the Martian surface. During this surface-exploration phase of the simulated journey, half of the crew will move to a Martian simulation module and the main facility will be sealed off.

Candidates must be in the age range 20-50, in good health, no taller than 185 cm (about 6 feet), and fluent in English or Russian, the working languages of the mission. Candidates must have a background and work experience in medicine, biology, life-support systems engineering, computer engineering, electronic engineering, or mechanical engineering. Participants are restricted to nationals and residents of member countries in ESA's European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences: Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Norway, The Netherlands, Sweden and Canada.

The call for volunteers does not mention compensation, except for "a fixed compensation that is in line with international standards for participation in clinical studies." The deadline for applications is 5 November.

Hat-tip: Slashdot

Most postdocs in the U.K. are generally satisfied with their current jobs and their work-life balance; however, up to a third of them don't feel that their wider contributions are appreciated, according to a new survey published by Vitae, the U.K.'s career development organization for postdocs (a.k.a. research staff) and graduate students.

The survey, which includes nearly 6000 responses, representing 16% of the total number of U.K. postdocs, from all disciplines -- not just science -- asked postdocs about their employment contracts, their job experience, experiences within their institutions, their career planning support, training and development, and their career aspirations.

Of those who responded:

  • 21% found their current positions by word of mouth only.
  • 71% feel they are integrated into their departmental research community.
  • 31% don't feel their efforts in managing staff and managing resources are appreciated.
  • 58% hope to have a career in higher education in 5 years' time that combines research and teaching.
  • 28% responded that they want to pursue a career outside of research.
  • 50% say they have a clear career plan.
In addition, 85% of the respondents had been postgraduate researchers for 1 to 5 years; 12.5% reported that they work part-time; and they're funded by a variety of mechanisms: 21% are funded by the institution, 38% by the research councils, 20% by charities, 6% by industry, 14% by the U.K. government, and 9% by the European Union or Commission.

The report's recommendations are mostly targeted at higher education institutions so they can best meet the needs of research staff. But if you'd like to have a look at the report to see how your answers might stack up against 6000 other postdocs, you can find the report on Vitae's Web site (links to PDF).

The European Commission has launched a public consultation on mobility opportunities in Europe following the release of its Green Paper, 'Promoting the Learning Abilities of Young People.'

The Green Paper focuses on all young people, not just scientists, but it can be an informative read for European scientists considering a move to another European country for the first time. The document refers to European mobility initiatives and information portals, and highlights aspects of relocation that you may not have considered, like the legal issues and the portability of grants and loans.

If you have experience with mobility around Europe, you can take part on the consultation until 15 December, and help new European policy enhance mobility experiences for other young scientists.


Monday's announcement of the Nobel prize in economics brought the number of women honored in this year's Nobel Prizes to five (out of 13 total): "The largest number ever to join the ranks in a single year," noted the Web site.

It's tough to know whether this is something to celebrate.

Let's set aside the gender imbalance for a moment and instead focus on the women:

On Monday, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the economics prize (officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) for her analysis of economic governance. (She's also a member of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors.) In an interview with Adam Smith from, Ostrom noted that economics is a male-dominated field. "I've attended economics sessions where I've been the only woman in the room," Ostrom said. "But that is slowly changing. I think there's a greater respect now that women can make a major contribution, and I would hope the recognition here is helping that along." (See also ScienceInsider's item on the economics prize.)

Last week, Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German writer, became the 12th woman (out of 106 recipients) to win the Literature prize. She, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," according to the Nobel committee.

Ada Yonath, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was the 4th woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on the structure and function of ribosomes. "I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science," she said in an interview last year. Indeed, the wisdom she had for those of us in the audience at last year's European Platform of Women Scientists Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused on the process of science rather than on any issue of gender:

"In the 27 years that I was working with ribosomes, ... I took away this fantastic piece of wisdom: According to some theory, almost anyone can be a genius if they focus on a single endeavor to the exclusion of all else," she said. "But how can people today maintain such focus when they face so many distractions? In my opinion, it can only be done by being allowed to work on demanding projects for relatively long periods, even when no physical results are emerging. We worked 20 years until we had the first structure [of ribosomes]. We had a huge puzzle to put together, and every piece was for us a big, gratifying moment."

In fact, it was a Nobel Prize-worthy puzzle. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the chemistry Nobel prize.)

Last but not least, this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine included Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Carol Grieder, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for their work on telomeres and telomerase. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the physiology or medicine Nobel prize.)

People often note that there the telomere field seems to be dominated by women. Grieder addressed this in her interview and in Tuesday's New York Times. I like what Blackburn had to say in her interview with "It's fairly close to the biological ratio of men and women. It's all the other fields that are aberrant. This is the normal field," she said, laughing.

Smith asked Blackburn if she worked to promote women in the science. "I've only actively promoted what we always hope is good science. It's not as if one would favor a woman researcher in this area over a man researcher in the area. Women have come into this field, perhaps because ... of the kinds of things that I've been doing, and Carol [has been doing]. We are women, and we tended to have women students and postdocs--not 100%; they tended to be 50-50 men and women, which is already higher than the usual ratio. There's a self-perpetuating aspect to that." She continued: "You want women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do."

Blackburn's comments reinforce the notion that a mentor who looks like you can have a positive effect. So, while it's hard to know whether to celebrate or bemoan the fact that, for the first time ever, 38% of the new Nobel laureates are women, I am happy that these women have been recognized and hope they will be inspiration for the current and emerging generation of women scientists.

The European Commission recently released a book to celebrate the achievements of European women scientists of all times. "For much of human history, women were officially excluded from the scientific realm," Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research states on the book's Web page. Yet "many women, throughout the centuries, have managed to overcome their marginalisation and excel in their chosen field, making vital contributions to the sum of human knowledge."

The book, entitled Women in Science, tells the story of 40 women scientists, some of them well known and some others less so. The book is a reminder that "women scientists, even when the odds are stacked against them, are the equal of men. Celebrating the achievements of the women of yesteryear can provide young women today with role models and examples to aspire to in their quest for scientific excellence," reads the introduction.

You may read the book for free here or listen to the story of each woman in separate audio files.

If you're interested in learning more about Hypatia of Alexandria in particular, you'll even soon be able to watch part of her story in a totally unrelated initiative: Spanish film director Alejandro Amenábar has just made a new movie called Agora that explores the life and work of the Alexandrian astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher. (The movie is to hit Spanish cinema screens on 9 October.)