Injured squid, rogue cancer cells, kids book review

It’s been a busy couple of months for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some really neat topics:

I wrote about injured squid for the Pain Research Forum.

I wrote about new cancer research targeting the so-called tumor “microenvironment” for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

I wrote a fun review of the children’s book “Enjoy Your Cells” for the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog. Thanks to my daughter Madeline for help with that one!

And I continue to write my weekly posts for AAAS Member Central, which you can view here. One of my recent favorites is “NIH holds contest for fixing bias in peer review (with cash prizes).”


Science under siege

Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)
Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)

In the United States, the vast majority of scientific studies are performed by federally funded scientists. Science funding was already tight before sequestration began and now the government shutdown is squeezing the system even tighter. This makes it a particularly difficult time to be a scientist in the U.S. (in fact 1/5 scientists have considered leaving the country all together).


AAAS Member Central has a new blog series that examines how sequestration is impacting various components of the scientific enterprise. It does a good job of highlighting the different populations affected by these funding cuts as well as the downstream consequences (decreased productivity, closing of labs, lay offs, strains on private foundations, etc.).

The series thus far:

Stanford grad student: Sequester will have economic consequences

How sequestration is affecting training program directors

Yale lab forced to reduce size by attrition (my interview with Yale professor Lawrence Rizzolo)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Conlon: R21 budgets reduced by 5 percent

Federal government shutdown

The partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1 has obvious impacts on the lives and research of the furloughed scientists  and support staff who work at the NIH, NSF, and NASA, but it has far-reaching downstream impacts as well.  To get a feel for the impact on scientists across the nation (and even internationally), you can check out discussions about the shutdown on Twitter (#shutscience) and on reddit (there are some really interesting discussions on this page). Some examples:

  • new patients will not be enrolled in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health
  • scientists can’t communicate with collaborators who are federal employees or receive supplies from them
  • new grant applications will not be processed, and the processing of existing grants may be drastically slowed
  • seasonal Forest Service scientists have been laid off
  • many government websites that scientists depend on are either not online or are not being updated (NIST resources, for example)
  • Forest Service permits that are required for field research are not being issued and scientists who do research at National Parks are locked out of their field sites (note: this can be a big deal because field work is often seasonal and cannot be stopped or rescheduled)
  • fishing surveys that determine future fish quotas will be incomplete

A silver lining?

Luckily, scientists are resilient, and some researchers are finding ways to continue to work and help their colleagues. For example, there are tales that scientists serving on grant review study sections this week are putting in valiant efforts to prevent the shutdown from slowing down review of their colleagues’ grants. And at least one professor is providing a mirror website for vital NSF forms. Hopefully these creative fixes won’t have to last for long, and the shutdown will end soon–for all our sakes.

Updated clips page

M mammals
My daughter checking out the large mammals at the Harvard Natural History Museum

I’ve updated the clips page with my posts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science blogs from the last few months.

Here are my most recent posts, which are currently available to everyone (older posts are viewable if you are a AAAS member):

Career exploration resources for grad students and postdocs Driving Force May 22nd, 2013

A look at the NIH sequestration policies Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Is the ‘High Quality Research Act’ the antithesis of science? Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Help budding scientists–be a Science Buddy! AAAS Serves May 10th, 2013

The ‘irreproducibility’ problem Driving Force May 1st, 2013

10 ways scientists can use Twitter and rehab for scientists?


10 ways scientists can benefit from Twitter
I’ll admit that when I first heard about Twitter, I didn’t really understand the fuss (in fact I may have said something like “that sounds like the stupidest idea ever—what could you possibly say in 140 characters?”). But a little over a year ago I listened to a webinar that convinced me to give it a shot.

At the beginning things were slow, and I often felt like I was shouting in an empty room (when not many people are ‘following’ you this feeling is natural). But gradually I developed a network—actually, several networks—that I’ve found really helpful for me personally and for my career. Continue reading…

Can rehab help scientists guilty of misconduct?
Could remediation work for researchers who have committed scientific misconduct? A new program run by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) aims to find out. Continue reading…

PhD parents: first to leave the pipeline?

A New York Times article posted yesterday presents a pretty convincing case for the financial reasons (and some other weighty reasons) not to have children. I learned about this article from the reaction posts by  and rxnm, which are also worth checking out. I had a pretty strong visceral reaction to these posts–probably because I’ve already been thinking about these issues a lot lately, especially about how parenting and biomedical academic science seem to mix like oil and water.

Few of my friends from high school, college, and graduate school have children, and few have described a desire to have them. Most of these people have advanced degrees (I really, really live in a bubble). When my husband and I decided to have a child, I began to feel like a teenage mother in my cohort. Even though we had many rational reasons for this decision, I still think it may be the craziest thing we’ve ever done. So I completely understand why many of my friends are forgoing the parenting adventure for other adventures (filled with less spit up and fewer toddler tantrums).

But what makes me sad is the feeling that I get that academic science is becoming less and less friendly to those of us who decide to become parents (especially without a stay-at-home parent in the mix). The group of biomedical PhDs that I know who have decided early on that a research career isn’t for them is largely made up of parents or people planning to become parents soon. And my anecdotal observations are supported by statistics–at least for women. According to the National Postdoctoral Association:

“Postdoc women who have had children since becoming postdocs are twice as likely as men who also have had children to change their career goal away from professor with a research emphasis. These women are also twice as likely to change their career goal from the professoriate as women who have not had children and have no future plans to have children (Goulden et al. 2009)”

I think this is because these mothers feel like they cannot compete. Dads with working spouses also feel the pressure. And realistically, when there is a glut of PhDs, the ones who can spend more time in lab are probably going to get more publications and have a higher chance of making it to the tenure track (TT) stage.  “Work harder, not smarter” can only take you so far.

This is not to say that children and academic science are incompatible. Many of the faculty in my department have kids and seem to balance things pretty well. But I think timing is important. My guess is that scientists who have their first child in graduate school or early in the postdoc stage are most at risk of leaking out of the pipeline early on. Here are some reasons why:

1) Academic nomads are often separated from extended families who could make childrearing less difficult and time consuming by helping with childcare.

2) Postdoctoral salaries often aren’t adjusted for cost of living. I know a postdoc in the Boston area who paid $1500/a month for three days of childcare a week. A divorced PhD dad with two kids told me he really wanted to do a postdoc after defending his PhD but just didn’t think he could support his kids on that pay. Perhaps this is one reason why many scientists want more children than they have.

3) PhD parents don’t think they have a shot at the golden (tenure track job) ticket. It’s publish or perish, baby. When you have 600 neuroscience PhDs competing for one TT spot, the odds are against those who can’t (or won’t) spend weekends in lab. As Eve Marder describes in this article, with longer and longer training periods looming ahead of them, many PhDs choose other paths. 

No one is forcing these people to have kids, and the choice to become a parent, like any choice, comes with consequences (consequences the New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning clearly point out). But I think it is sad that there are so many PhD parents who would be excellent professors and scientists who are leaving the pipeline early because they just don’t think they can cut it.

And simply due to the very biology that we all so love, women are more likely than men to be affected by this as they have a more limited fertility window. Indeed, the recent article “Top Recommendations from Top Women in Science” about policy changes to keep women in the pipeline does include many parent-friendly policies (although we now know we need to add addressing gender bias to that list). But I think the real answer comes in dealing with the jobs issue.

Perhaps it’s time to tighten the pipeline to begin with. Part-time postdoc positions won’t help women if these positions make them even less competitive for the few jobs that are out there. This is something no one (the NIH, graduate programs, PhD advisors, even students) seems to want to address. The other option is to create more staff scientist positions or to make more concrete training programs for hybrid or non-academic careers. If we want a happy, sustainable, gender-balanced workforce in the biomedical sciences there simply have to be jobs at the end for trainees (parents or not). So, in my mind, the answer is either fewer people in or more jobs out.