Science Careers Blog


There's really nothing new in this Chronicle of Higher Education article--we've been offering similar advice forever--but reminders are always welcome of the importance of convincing a potential employer that you're eager for--even passionate about--the opportunity. This goes for industry jobs at least as much as academic ones. Nobody wants a new employee who comes in lacking enthusiasm.

Note that this doesn't mean you should get all bubbly or do lots of pretending. In fact, if you don't really want the job, you probably shouldn't be wasting their time or yours. Your "interviewing experience" might be costing another candidate--someone whose enthusiasm would more than offset your superior pedigree or whatever--a shot at a dream job, and your own time could be better spent seeking a position about which you're truly excited. If you don't want the job, get out of the way.

How did you get into science?

Are you doing what you first planned to do?

Which scientific question would you like to answer?

You can answer these questions and more (see below), as well as read other scientists' answers, as part of the 'A Scientist a Day' project, a labor of love from two German scientist-communicators. 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is widely regarded as the father of modern physics. For those of us old enough to have seen him in person, listen to him speak in public or on the radio, and read his writings when they were current, these memories are precious. In addition to being a great theoretical physicist he was looked upon as a philosopher and statesman. His intellectual interests and profound observations extended widely into the other sciences and the social aspects of human endeavor. In the 21st century he remains one of the most influential and iconic thinkers of all time.

Einstein is possibly the most frequently quoted figure in the history of science, but as is often noted, many of these quotations are of dubious authenticity. Alice Calaprice, a senior editor at the Princeton University Press, has worked with the Einstein papers at the Institute for Advanced Study for more than 30 years. In 1996, she published a volume entitled The Quotable Einstein, a comprehensive, meticulously referenced, annotated, and carefully arranged compilation of Einstein's quotes. For 2011, Calaprice has enlarged this to The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a nearly 600-page volume of approximately 1600 quotations--the "final" and definitive edition.

On a recent visit to Princeton, I had the good fortune to obtain an advanced copy of this work and delighted in it as I have in few other books. I have selected and arranged these quotations to simulate an interview with Einstein, circa 1955, on the topic of science careers.

August 31, 2010

Seeking Anxious Scientists

For an upcoming Mind Matters column for Science Careers, psychologist/writer Irene Levine is seeking stories from scientists and science trainees  about the impact anxiety has had on their professional productivity.

When do you get anxious? What symptoms do you experience? How has it affected your work? How do you deal with it? Has anxiety had a positive or negative impact on your career?

Can advisors/supervisors reduce -- or help their subordinates manage -- anxiety in the workplace? Or do they just make it worse?

Please e-mail Irene -- irene(at)irenelevine(dot)com -- with your thoughts and contact information. If you want to be anonymous in the article, that's okay. Check out Irene's previous columns at

Physician-scientist Peter Agre's biggest research contribution to date is his discovery of aquaporins, the proteins that regulate and facilitate the transport of water molecules across cell membranes. Aquaporins are important in physiological processes such as kidney concentration and spinal fluid secretion, and play a role in several diseases as well. Their discovery in the early 1990s earned Agre the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

These days, Agre, 61, is contributing to science in slightly different ways: by addressing infectious diseases in the Third World, and by promoting scientific diplomacy.


Agre, currently the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, is now using his basic science discoveries about aquaporins to understand the role the proteins play in the parasite that causes malaria. The goal is to find innovative ways to target and treat the disease, which causes nearly 1 million deaths annually, most of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

"About the year 2000, after we'd worked on aquaporins for almost a decade, we'd answered the questions we felt were most important," Agre said in an interview in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy. "It was a matter of doing some translational work ... . There were a lot of groups that are really good at cancer biology and neuroscience, but the Third World diseases are still largely neglected." The shift to disease-focused research represents a return to Agre's original humanitarian goals when he went into medicine. "It was always something I wanted to do -- to get involved in Third World medicine," he said. "I had ... hoped at about age 50 to make a new direction in science in Third World diseases, human rights, and areas I felt were important."

In the mid 2000s, Agre got involved in science advocacy and politics; he even considered a run for the U.S. Senate. He ultimately didn't pursue a political career, but he did find a different platform a couple of years later: In 2009, he became the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS - the publishers of Science, Science Translational Medicine, and Science Careers). In that role, he traveled to Cuba, North Korea, and Myanmar as a member of scientific delegations tasked with finding common scientific ground with these countries, which are at odds politically with the United States. In an editorial in the August 25 issue of Science Translational Medicine, Agre explains how such science diplomacy can have an impact on medicine in such developing countries.

"Clinical and translational medicine represents an important arena of investigation ripe for 21st-century science diplomacy, beginning with -- although by no means limited to -- infectious disease research," he and co-author Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, write. "As private American citizens, we brought a message of good will, formed by a shared interest in science and science-based solutions to problems, that would have been greeted with great suspicion if delivered by officials of the U.S. government." Agre and Turekian conclude by noting that addressing global health needs will require scientific cooperation that transcends political borders.

Agre embraces all the aspects of his career these days. "I love the job, I love the excitement," Agre said in the July interview. "It's a new adventure for an old scientist."

Listen to my conversation with Peter Agre, recorded in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy: 

Alternate link to mp3

Recently, A Science Careers story by Susan Gaidos profiled several researchers who have pioneered methods for gathering data with the help of non-scientists. Of course, not all contacts between scientists and knowledgeable non-scientists are as well coordinated as those. In fact, serendipitous, fleeting encounters can still be quite rewarding for researchers, both scientifically and personally.

An example comes from plant ecologist Andrea Lloyd of Middlebury College in Vermont. About 10 years ago, she was starting a project to study Arctic tree-line expansion on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska. The Arctic tree line is a latitudinal version of mountaintop tree lines -- if you go far enough north, the trees disappear. As the planet warms, Lloyd hypothesized, that tree line should move northward. She planned to study this using tree rings.

One of her first orders of business was to buy topographical maps in a store in Nome. There, an elderly local man -- an Inupiat subsistence hunter she came to know as Mr. Johnson -- asked her what she was doing. When she told him about her research question, he replied, "Well, you've come to the right place. I can tell you," Lloyd recalled during a discussion with journalists in Fairbanks last month. "It turns out he'd been driving this road past my study sites to his fishing camp every year for 40 or 50 years." He took the maps she had just bought and marked how the tree line had moved over those decades.

This chance encounter gave Lloyd a surprising reality check, not only on the question of tree-line expansion but on changes in the Arctic as a whole. "It was really striking to realize that what I thought of as this subtle change was something that people living in this landscape were seeing," she said. "Alaska is changing faster than we can study it in some ways."

It also started her thinking about the value of local people's knowledge, she told me later by e-mail. "I was really impressed by the precision of his observations -- not just a generic 'things are changing,' but precise details on how much and when. ... Science is a tremendously powerful tool for understanding the world, but local residents have the ability to make observations in a really different way than do scientists. For one thing, they're living in the landscape all year long, and thus see processes playing out over all of the seasons. I fly in at the start of the summer, spend a few weeks, and go home -- so I miss most of the important parts of the year. For another thing, local residents (and here I'm speaking generally about anyone living in a landscape, not just Alaskans), particularly those who are engaging in subsistence activities like hunting, fishing, gathering berries, tend to be looking more holistically at landscape change, and may thus see connections that I might miss, in my focus on whatever it is I'm studying."

Lloyd also began thinking about how to access this knowledge in a way that's not "extractive" -- just taking and not giving. For Lloyd, "it boils down to three R's: respect (for local residents and the knowledge they have worked hard to build over generations), relationships (between individual scientists and individual local residents, as well as between broader communities of scientists and local residents), and reciprocity."

Ideally, she says, scientists would take the time to build relationships over time, as the scientists in Gaidos' story did. But that's not possible for most scientists, including her. It is possible, however, to follow those principles even in short-lived partnerships, like the one with Mr. Johnson. For example, when a reporter called Lloyd about her work, she suggested that the reporter contact Mr. Johnson, "so that he retained control over his observations," she explained. "They weren't mine to share with the newspaper; they were his." The reporter followed her suggestion and featured Mr. Johnson in a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

To cap off her work, the next summer Lloyd sent a student to the Seward Peninsula to discuss the research with local teachers so that the information she gathered could be shared with the communities that were most directly affected.

Lloyd's work in the Seward Peninsula left her wanting more and deeper collaborations with local communities. She's now developing programs in Vermont, where she lives. But she hopes that her experience will encourage young scientists to connect with non-scientists, even if they only have a limited amount of time. "I wouldn't want young investigators to feel like the only way to work effectively with local communities is to move [there]," she writes. "It's not all or nothing."

esof-th.pngIt's pretty common for a scientist who participates in a press conference to appear in a news article that same day. And that was indeed the case for Elin Ekblom-Bak, who presented her ongoing work on the possible detrimental health effects of sitting for prolonged periods at a July 4 satellite event at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin, Italy. But it wasn't her research that made the headlines; it was the critical goal she scored the previous day in a soccer match against the former champions of a professional women's football (soccer) league in Sweden.

Elin Ekblom-Bak, from Ekblom-Bak, 29, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institute and the Astrand Laboratory of Work Physiology in the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. She's also a midfielder for a professional soccer team. It's a combination of activities that she finds complementary. "They're very similar, these two worlds," she says. "At the elite, national level, playing soccer is a competition -- you have to stand out, you have to be tough. Science is a tough world to show off your knowledge and  ... you have to dare to do things. It's really helped me being a soccer player at that level to get the mental strength" for science.

Her research did make headlines in January when she was the lead author on an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that outlined what has become the core hypothesis of her Ph.D.: That sedentary behavior may be harmful even in people who get regular exercise. In other words, working out hard several times a week may not compensate for the ill effects of a desk job. "We know that not exercising and prolonged sitting are two distinct behaviors," she says. There have been a handful of studies in this area (compared to thousands focused on physical activity and fitness), and animal studies suggest that prolonged inactivity -- 3 to 4 hours or more -- alters expression of lipoprotein lipase, which can affect, for example, muscle glucose levels, fatty acid metabolism, and cholesterol levels. Ekblom-Bak aims to clarify the role of prolonged sitting on long-term health using a population-based dataset at the Karolinska Institute. She plans to do some mechanistic studies as well, she says.

She got into health science and physiology because, as she says, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Her father is a professor of physiology, and Ekblom-Bak works in his group at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. "It's really fascinating to be able to work with him. I really adore that."

On the sports side of her life, she has been playing football since she was 4 years old. For her, though, it wasn't a matter of choosing between an academic career and a sports career: "I did not choose. I loved [soccer] too much. But I saw a lot of bad examples of girls playing football and when they were 35 years old they [had] two knee injuries and no job, no education, nothing." She trains in the afternoons and evenings, which leaves her mornings free to study and work on her research.

She juggles more than soccer balls and science. She and her husband (who is the chiropractor for her soccer team) have a 9-month old daughter. She also works as a television commentator for major soccer games, which has made her enough of a celebrity to warrant an article about her comeback after her daughter was born.

Her medium-term plans are to keep playing soccer and keep working on her research -- because both the soccer and science aspects of her life are unpredictable. "It's a tough world. You have to create your own opportunities, search for your own money and your own job," she says. "You have to have good luck to get a good opportunity. If you have the right spirit, I think you can do it."

June 30, 2010

To Ink or Not to Ink

The Jobacle blog today discusses the career implications of getting a tattoo. Sporting a colorful design somewhere on one's body has become much more common than it used to be, but what kind of message does that send to a potential employer when you walk into an interview?

If your tattoo is visible, as opposed to one of those body parts usually kept hidden, then you might have something to worry about. If the hiring manager is older or the employer is known to be conservative, you increase the risk of an upraised eyebrow. And if the job has public contact or management responsibilities, the employer may be concerned about the message the tattoo sends to people inside and outside the enterprise.

Jennifer Brown Banks, the Jobacle blogger, tells about a job-hunting friend who had little trouble getting interviews, but ran into problems during those interviews due to the ink visible on his neck and arms. When he finally got a job, the company asked him to wear long sleeves to cover at least the tattoos on his arms, even in scorching heat.

Something like a tattoo shouldn't make a difference in getting hired, but in a tough job market like the one we have today, little things can make the difference between getting hired and not getting hired.

That said, some scientists have really cool tattoos.

Even if you haven't heard of Linda Bartoshuk, you probably have heard of her research. Now a professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, Bartoshuk coined the term "supertasters" to describe the 25 percent of the population who have an unusually high number of taste buds,  affecting how food tastes. She has spent nearly 50 years studying psychophysics, the study of how physical stimuli from the environment lead to subjective experience, focused mostly on taste. In this week's Science (subscription required), correspondent John Bohannon writes about her career and her latest projects, including developing new evaluation methods for sensory research.

While Bartoshuk's research involves the senses, some of her stories are more likely to arouse your emotions: Now 71, Bartoshuk grew up in an era where women just didn't do science.  She faced blatant discrimination throughout her career. Here's an excerpt from the Science article:
As a girl born in mostly rural South Dakota in 1938, science was not high on the list of career options for Bartoshuk. But after reading every science-fiction book she could get her hands on, the young Bartoshuk dreamed of astronomy. Her high school had other plans for her. "They forced me to take secretary classes," she recalls with a wry smile. They did accede to Bartoshuk's request to take trigonometry, physics, and chemistry. "I was the only girl in the class, and I was as surprised as anyone when I got the highest grades." It helped her win a scholarship to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota -- her family couldn't afford the tuition otherwise -- and it was science ever after.

Bartoshuk says she abandoned astronomy when she learned that "women weren't allowed to use the big telescopes." She switched to the field that would become the scientific love of her life: psychophysics, the study of how physical stimuli from the environment -- sugar on your tongue, vibrations in your ear, heat on your skin -- lead to the mysterious phenomenon called subjective experience. ...

As a first-year graduate student at Brown University, Bartoshuk wanted to work with Carl Pfaffmann, the first to identify the nerves that send taste signals from the mouth to the brain. She vividly recalls her first conversation with the man who would become her Ph.D. adviser. "Pfaffmann told me point-blank that he didn't want women in his lab," Bartoshuk says. "They're always crying and washing their hair."
I spoke with Bartoshuk this week to learn more about the resistance she faced throughout her career. She spoke about her rocky relationship with her Ph.D. adviser, and how she managed to succeed in his lab. She talked about the discrimination she faced from the director of the research foundation where she worked. "The discrimination against me was so blatant that I had all kinds of social support," she says. "The more subtle discrimination is much much harder to live with, I think."

While she'll gladly share her stories, her path is not one to emulate, she says: "There's no moral here. I think I should have done things differently, and I didn't. In the era I lived in, it turned out that that was a survival path, and I can't tell you the sympathy I have for women who just don't get lucky like that."

It's clear from reading the Science article and from talking with her that she absolutely loves her research -- and that is the key to working in science, she says: "The fact is, you can't make luck happen. So my advice is, work in an area you love. If nothing else, you get to go to work every day and enjoy what you're doing."
Here is an edited version of our conversation:

[alternate link to mp3]

Or, listen through AudioBoo: