Every scientist has had "that" conversation: the casual conversation with family members or friends that inevitably ends with eyes glazed over because of the seemingly esoteric and incomprehensible nature of what you do in the lab. Explaining your research can be challenging. The disconnect that follows these conversations with family and friends can be easily glossed over, but it is actually quite telling of the severe communication gap that is growing between scientists and the general public. COMPASS, ASCB's Committee for Postdocs and Students, has set a priority on efforts to close this gap.
On a cold morning in Nashville, Tennessee, Ron Vale, professor at the University of California San Francisco, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, recalls the story of the beginnings of iBiology. Vale's inspiration for iBiology dates back to 2006 while he was on a trip to India. Vale had the chance to talk to around 120 people from some of the country's leading scientific institutions. However, he kept thinking about the people who didn't have a chance to come to his talks. So he started to "think of new ways for people who are not in leading institutions to also have access to leading scientists" he said.
Are you a postdoc looking for an alternative career?
Have you considered tenure-track academic research?
This may sound funny on its face but the hard reality is nearly all science postdocs will go on to non-tenured positions, making academic research the real alternative career choice. What are postdocs to do when their goal of becoming a tenured professor begins to vanish in the mist? Is there really only one successful outcome for science PhD's? What about postdocs who decide the academy is not for them? Have they wasted their time? Are they – gasp – failed scientists? (More on that later).
"What are you going to do when you're finished?"
"Have you started looking for postdocs?"
"When you choose where to do a postdoc, you should consider..."
"Where will you do your postdoc?"
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.
James Watson became interested in science because of bird migration. He was six years old. Many years later he was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. What happened in between? Martin Chalfie was studying the genes required for touch sensitivity in C. elegans. And then he was awarded a Nobel Prize for developing GFP as a biomarker. How did he come up with that idea?
When I sat down to write this essay I intended to describe how bad graduate student stipends are, how overworked we are, and how graduate school is slowly killing our love for science. We often joke, at least in my department, that our stipends are so small that we effectively live below the poverty line (we are actually ~200% above the poverty line). The financial struggles of graduate students may be more pronounced in some cities than others but it is not the whole story. We graduate students knew what we would earn when we signed up for this gig, and I would guess that if we had to do it all over again, we would.
It used to make sense to paste data into a lab notebook. Western blots were exposed on film, DNA gel images were printed off, acrylamide gels were dried, and protocols were written by hand. However, with the increase in electronic data, lab notebooks are beginning to look like a cut-and-paste art project, with digital data printed out and taped into a physical notebook, and little (if any!) hand-written information.
The current funding environment is proving to be a very difficult hurdle for many. Although the grant situation at the moment is dire for nationals here in the US, it is and has always been a difficult task to get funding as an international student or postdoc. The lack of NIH opportunities for international students/postdocs decreases the chances of getting other grants, and some international graduate students and postdocs have a hard time joining labs because many PIs are looking to hire people with actual, rather than practically non-existent, funding potential.
After two years of being a postdoc at NIH, Obama still refuses to respond to my lunch invitations and I have yet to see Francis Collins play an acoustic set at a local pub. So not all of my expectations have come to fruition, though the experiences I have had have been a mixture of positive and negative.