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Improving Scientific Communication One Elevator Pitch at a Time

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 08-27-2014

Let’s face it, there are many scientists who are brilliant at the bench but tongue tied at the presenter’s podium. Unfortunately, while graduate school may adequately prepare students for a life of research, not enough emphasis is placed on improving communication skills which can be used to explain complicated research projects to the lay public. That is why it is refreshing to learn that schools such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have created competitions with the express goal of improving scientific communication.

To learn about other fantastic efforts aimed at improving scientific communication, read Science Speak which was published in the Scientists earlier this month.

Does the Gender Gap Exist in Biological Sciences?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 08-19-2014

In an analysis of a recent study published in Inside Higher Ed, author Scott Jaschik looks at the gender gap among tenured professors at research universities. According to the study, overall, males are far more likely to become tenured than their female counterparts, irrespective of their research output. Of course, the study claims that there are significant differences in the gender gap depending on the academic discipline. For example:

  • In sociology, women receive tenure 51% less often than men
  • In computer science, women receive tenure 55% less often than men
  • English is an exception to the rule-however, English is a female dominated discipline

Naturally, as a biologist, I wondered if such a gap exists between male and female scientists. My personal experience is that men and women are treated pretty much the same in the life sciences and I have never seen any gender bias or discrimination in all my years in the lab. Nonetheless, this is my personal experience and I wonder what the data shows.

Surfing the net for some data, I came across a blog post by Emma Pierson entitled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. While the article is not focused solely on the life sciences, it hits much closer to home than a study done on social scientists. What Emma Pierson found was depressing (in case you couldn’t already tell from the title). According to Emma’s research:

  • While female scientists are often the first author on the papers they write, they tend to publish fewer papers than male scientists and are less to be the final author on the study
  • men author 45% more papers that women
  • women have fewer scientific collaborations than their male counterparts

Interestingly, the article claims that the reason that females are credited on fewer papers is due to the fact that females are less likely to be PIs, (another depressing statistic), who are often credited on many more papers (due to their passive contribution…i.e. they “own” the lab) than non-PI scientists.

The article offers many explanations for these gaps and suggestions regarding how to close them. I suggest that you read the post for further details.

I would love to hear what your experience has been. Especially female scientists. Have you experienced gender discrimination in your career? Is the gender gap an equal opportunity offender in the biological sciences as well?

Children Ask “How Do I Become a Scientist?”

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 08-07-2014

The National Eye Institute at the NIH recently released a kids video series called “Ask a Scientist.” In this series, children who are curious about science, ask “bonafide” scientists their burning questions about science. In one video, a child asks Dr. Chris Thomas, a science writer, how to become a scientist. Dr. Thomas responds by saying that becoming a scientist “is easy” and all that kids need to do is to love nature and be curious about how things work. He also says that kids can hone their scientific skills by taking either science or art classes.

Putting aside the fact that the target audience for this video is young, school-aged children, do you feel that Chris’ response is an oversimplification of reality? Is science really all about nature and curiosity?

While I happen to agree with Dr. Thomas that curiosity lies at the heart of what it takes to become interested in science, I believe that hard work and perseverance are tantamount to scientific success. Think about all of those times that you’ve had to repeat experiments over and over just to get your p values to a publishable level!

Have a look at Chris’ video below and let us know what you think.

Smallpox Anyone?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-09-2014

First it was Anthrax and now it’s Smallpox!!! Last month, we told you about the CDC’s report that as many as 75 CDC scientists may have been exposed to Anthrax when a vial containing the deadly bacteria was accidentally transferred to a low level bio-hazard lab that was ill equipped to handle the stuff. Now, Science Insider is reporting that six vials of smallpox were found by an FDA scientist who was cleaning out his freezer! Apparently, the 60 something year old vials were stuffed in the back of this lab’s freezer or fridge in a poorly labeled cardboard box.

Folks, this is why you don’t store you lunch in the same fridge that you store your lab reagents. Imagine the headlines had the vials been mistaken for savory condiments. Scientist contracts smallpox while accidentally spreading it on his favorite sandwich.

It is also another reason not to buy cheap Sharpie pens. Vials must be labeled clearly and the label must last. Labeling your samples in a code that nobody understands is a surefire way to cause major pandemonium amongst current and future lab-mates. And if the label rubs off, what good was it to begin with? I bet that tens of hands (gloved and ungloved) have touched these poorly-labeled vials of smallpox over the decades.

The article in Science discusses the dangerous possibility that these vials could have fallen into the hands of terrorists and used as bio-weapons. But, as scientists, we should be more worried that the vials could have fallen on anybody’s hands and contaminated the entire lab! This is scary stuff.

To read the article in Science Insider visit Six vials of smallpox discovered in U.S. lab

Yesterday-Science Was Such and Easy Game to Play!

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-02-2014