Jessica Polka

Jessica Polka

Jessica Polka is interested in the spatial organization of the bacterial cell. Having studied a plasmid-segregating actin homolog during her PhD with Dyche Mullins at UCSF, she is currently working on a natural and engineered bacterial compartments during a postdoc in Pam Silver's lab at the Harvard Medical School.

Friday, 21 November 2014 00:00

A Postdoc Is a Postdoc Is a Postdoc?

“Postdocs” may share a common colloquial (if not official) title, but their benefits and compensation actually vary widely from institution to institution.

This was a major finding of the National Postdoc Association (NPA)’s 2014 Institutional Policy Report . While we got a preview of the findings several months ago in Nature Careers, the full report was released just this month. The document contains data from 74 institutions; they are listed as respondents, but their individual policies are not disclosed. While I personally believe institutions should make this information readily available on an individual basis, the aggregate data provide some fascinating insights.

Friday, 07 November 2014 00:00

Poster Advice, Timeless and Otherwise

With the annual meeting fast approaching, it’s time once again to start putting together your poster.

There are innumerable websites offering advice on poster design (my favorite being Dr. Zen’s“Better Posters”), but most essentials are covered in Steve Block’s 1996 classic “ Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Printing.

Some advice definitely stands the test of time (and makes me wince at all my past transgressions).

As the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) purchasing power of the NIH has fallen by 25% over the last decade, there’s been a lot of debate about how the biomedical workforce should adjust to the changing landscape. This reduction in NIH funding is imposing a hard limit on the number and size of stably funded academic research labs. And combined with the fact that there are far more trainees than available academic faculty positions , one option is to reduce the number of trainees. 

Friday, 29 August 2014 00:00

How Competitive Should Science Be?

Intense competition in the biomedical sciences has been a hot topic recently, pinned as everything from the impetus to commit fraud to a symptom of the overall unsustainability of the research ecosystem. It drives us to hide our findings until publication, chase down scientific fads, and leave negative data to languish.

There are many reasons for wanting to go to graduate school: You want to become a professor, you love pipetting colorless liquids, you really liked your biology classes in college, or you are burning with an insatiable desire to understand biological mechanisms. Whatever your reason, you should know what you're getting into: Not only does your future happiness depend on it, but this knowledge may also determine your success. Let me explain.

A collaborator and I are about to submit a manuscript, a process that is deeply satisfying. However, it also leads me to reflect on the inefficiencies of the current publishing system. For example:

● Traditional academic publishing is extremely expensive, and much of its cost goes to filling corporate coffers rather than paying for services necessary for publishing. For example, Elsevier alone pulled in $1.1 billion in profit in 2010, an astounding 36% of its total revenue. In an age of tightening budgets, this is probably not the best use of public funds.

Friday, 11 April 2014 00:00

Where Will a Biology PhD Take You?

Based primarily on the 2012 NIH Workforce report this infographic represents current workforce sizes and annual fluxes before and after a PhD in the biomedical sciences in the US. The picture is not as dire as that painted for the UK by this 2010 Royal Society report, but many of these figures are based on estimates and self-reporting. We'll have to wait for the NAS Postdoc Report for better data. In the meantime, that report's chair, Greg Petsko, has divulged some interesting tidbits in his iBiology talk: the data on postdocs are so poor, many institutions can't estimate the number of postdocs they have within an order of magnitude. Hopefully, clear data on these job markets will empower trainees to make better-informed career decisions.

Friday, 04 April 2014 00:00

Exotic Electronic Lab Notebooks

A few weeks ago, we heard about two of the most popular tools for maintaining a lab notebook: Evernote and OneNote (now available for Mac). I'm a devout OneNote user myself - for my needs, it's fantastic. Then again, I'm mostly just making in-line buffer calculations, linking to other documents, taking advantage of URL annotations on my copy and paste jobs, and using the Snipping Tool like it's going out of style. But what if I had more heavy duty data analysis to do, or computational projects to manage? As more and more biologists are building their own software tools, it makes sense to have a notebook that can interface with code in a more meaningful way.

Friday, 28 February 2014 08:15

Are You Still Reading PDFs? Try Lens

When reading a paper, I often find myself furiously flipping back and forth between the text and figures. This is most annoying when reviewing a manuscript, but the typeset pdf often isn't much better. One would think that html versions wouldn't have this problem, but in most cases only a tiny thumbnail is visible, and you have to open a popup or a new browser tab to really take a closer look. This is true even for the well-meaning PubReader format, which successfully replicates the experience of reading a large-print trifold brochure.

When I took the MBL Physiology course in Woods Hole, MA, in 2008, I couldn't have anticipated how powerfully it would stoke my passion for science. It was an unforgettable experience; techniques, frameworks, and values from the course continue to shape my scientific identity today.

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