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Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers

The lack of women pursuing science careers has been a perennial hot topic. Unfortunately, scant progress has been observed in spite of a vast amount of effort on many fronts to address this inequality. Earlier this month, a special issue of Nature was devoted to the subject.

Coincidentally, an attempt to unearth possible causes of this disparity was a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science, entitled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” by Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny, from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan.

Although I’m likely to give this study short shrift by not going into enough detail, let’s focus on the source material. Here’s the full abstract of the original paper:

The pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers, in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM fields, compared with males. The current study tested whether individuals with high math and high verbal ability in 12th grade were more or less likely to choose STEM occupations than those with high math and moderate verbal ability. The 1,490 subjects participated in two waves of a national longitudinal study; one wave was when the subjects were in 12th grade, and the other was when they were 33 years old. Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.

Many previous studies by other researchers were cited as motivators behind some of the key questions this study poses. The study contains a number of controls that, to me at least, seem sensible and appropriate: Continue reading →

Awarding nontraditional chemistry

As has been reported at C&EN and elsewhere, the anxiously awaited 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work characterizing the structure and function of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

Here at CENtral Science, giddy Nobel fan boy David Kroll has followed up with two terrific posts (and promises yet another) about this year’s award, and Carmen Drahl, in the context of discussing a researcher’s two “families,” conducted an insightful interview with author Cheryl Renée Herbsman, daughter of Robert Lefkowitz.

The impact of this research cannot be overstated. GPCRs are huge, no question. Easily half the projects I’ve worked on in my career as a medicinal chemist have targeted GPCRs, and many of those that did not still contained one upstream or down in a broader signalling cascade.

In spite of the importance of this research, there has been some complaining about this year’s chemistry Nobel, and others given in recent years. The injured parties argue that the chemistry award is being somehow sullied by including work that isn’t really chemistry—by an overly strict definition. Last year’s award, which was for discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shechtman, was also criticized by some because it didn’t go to a “real chemist.” This attitude even caught the attention of Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, who viewed the Nobel Committee’s recent decisions “as a call to our profession to embrace the far and influential reach of chemistry.”

In the chemistry blogosphere, there were several calls to abandon this chemistry-purist attitude, including a very nice rebuke by Derek Lowe, who succinctly stated, “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.” Derek went on:

And that’s the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They’re chemicals.

In his blog, Chemjobber granted this argument, but is still uncomfortable with the notion. He wrote, “My main complaint against this trend of biology/biologists winning recent chemistry Nobel prizes is that it is beginning to distract from the non-life-sciences aspects of chemistry.”

I mention all this grumbling about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because a topic covered by this blog is so-called nontraditional careers in chemistry. So far be it from me to criticize the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry to chemistry research that some may view as nontraditional.

The beta-2 adrenergic receptor—a GPCR.

WARNING: Your body contains chemicals. Lots of them.
Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Breakthrough scientific research often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines. A key insight can be made by someone skilled in another field of science as they view an intractable problem from a previously unappreciated perspective.

Those of us who get worked up over media hysteria regarding things containing chemicals (the horror!) and are deeply critical of consumer products described as “chemical free” have long maintained that everything is made of chemicals. True enough. If so, then we can hardly complain if a Nobel Prize in chemistry is awarded for work in biology, because—repeat after me—biology is chemistry. And as David Kroll rightly pointed out, the tools necessary for elucidating the function of the earliest-understood GPCRs were chemical tools.

This is really nothing new. I’ve heard many times in my career that “all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics.” So…maybe there’s some room in the physics Nobel for some chemistry research? If that happens, will physicists grumble that their Nobel didn’t go to a “real physicist?”

Take what you can from where you are

I’m back in the lab!

I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!).

My internship was like a pit stop-- now I feel recharged and ready to finish strong. Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway

It actually feels good to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I’m still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn’t involve working at the bench.

But I’m excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong.

A much-needed break

The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained.

The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little.

Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer.

While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I’m really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!

A new attitude

As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I’m realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment.

Apparently changing your shoes can help change your 'tude. Another excuse to go shoe shopping! Photo credit: ShirleyRC

Formerly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery.

This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don’t love.

While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I’m becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin:

There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones.

That’s the attitude I’ve decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research.

It’s been about a week, and so far, so good.

To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I’ve put post-its around my desk.

One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity.

I’ve also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

I resolve to make the most of my last leg of grad school before moving on to pursuing a science writing career… wish me luck!

Let there be sight: A chemist opens her eyes to the world of optometry

 

Karen G. Carrasquillo, Ph.D., O.D., FAAO, chemist and optometrist at Boston Foundation for Sight. Courtesy photo

Ever touch a hot pepper and then touch your eye? It hurt, didn’t it?! That’s capsaicin binding to the pain receptors on your eye, which has more pain receptors per area than any other organ in your body— fascinating, huh?

Karen G. Carrasquillo certainly thinks so— she’s an optometrist at Boston Foundation for Sight. She remembers always being intrigued with the eye.

She also had a thing for chemistry and earned her Ph.D. in chemistry (2001) from the University of Puerto Rico. Towards the end of her degree program, she decided to go for clinical research and did a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in conjunction with the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

During her postdoc years, she realized that her dream job would be one that let her pursue original research on the eye, teach younger scientists and interact with patients.

The first step towards this career goal was to complete a doctoral degree in Optometry (New England College of Optometry, 2005). Since she already had a Ph.D., she qualified for the accelerated academic program. This was followed by a residency in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses at the New England College of Optometry.

Now she is an optometrist who specializes in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses and works in a clinic, the Boston Foundation for Sight, treating patients that suffer from corneal diseases.

“My career path, although it may seem like a divergent one, it really isn’t,” Karen said. “One thing led me to the other almost seamlessly.”

She initially thought she would focus exclusively on research on vision and the eye, but a desire “to interact with patients and provide them with a more tangible solution and help” led her to pursue the path to becoming a clinician.

“I see patients that suffer from severe corneal disease every day,” Karen said. “It’s very satisfying to see patients for which our treatment is most of the times their last resort and seeing how we can change their lives – we give them their lives back.”

Karen said the experiences and skills she acquired at each stage of her career all built on each other: Writing peer-reviewed journal articles, collaborating in research and teaching are all skills in her tool box, and she uses most of them on a daily basis as an eye doctor.

In addition to meeting with patients, Karen has a managerial role, working with ophthalmic technicians and managing daily clinical operations. Continue reading →

Chemist-turned-marketing director in the computer software industry

Profile: Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA

Electronic laboratory notebooks are the way of the future for scientific records, and Philip Skinner is helping pave the way for them.

Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA. Courtesy photo.

Philip is a field marketing director for PerkinElmer, where his current focus is promoting E-Notebook products to companies and laboratories.

But he wasn’t always in the software industry. He is a trained synthetic organic chemist who received his Ph.D. at the University of Durham in the North East of England and did a postdoc at ETH Zurich before landing a job in med chem.

While working in med chem, Philip helped asses E-Notebooks for his company. This experience helped him develop professional partnerships within the computer software industry. Little did he know that the time and effort invested would eventually develop into a full-time job just when he needed it.

In 2009, the pharmaceutical company where Philip had worked for eight years cut 40 percent of its staff and Philip was left unemployed. He spent nine months actively exploring other career options, including project management and consulting. Finally, the software company developing E-Notebooks decided to expand their sales team, and they offered Philip a job. Shortly after, he moved up in the company into a marketing position and is now a director of field marketing.

Philip said he would not have been so lucky had he not had the training and connections with the folks in the software industry.

“I met a lot of people networking, but I got this job from contacts I had made and nurtured for many years, and people I had actually worked in partnership with,” he said.

For the most part, he works from home, where he spends his time preparing for product demonstrations, participating in conference calls and talking with customers.

“One of my main roles is essentially a translator,” Philip said. “As an experienced lab scientist, I understand the way at least the drug discovery world works. I can speak with the scientists we are working with, but also to our software people.”

Will traditional lab notebooks soon be replaced with electronic lab notebooks? Photo credit: flickr user proteinbiochemist

To expand the company’s client base, Philip demo’s the products at trade shows and visits companies all over the country– so there is a good deal of travel with his job.

Philip said the best and worst part of his job is working from home since he said it makes it very difficult to maintain work/life separation. But he said he is very happy with his career move.

“I enjoy the work, I like the people, it gives me a lot of freedom,” he said. “I feel valued and useful… and I feel that I have somewhere I can actually grow.”

For chemists who may be interested in breaking into the software industry, Philip suggests doing research on both the companies and products, making connections with people in the field, and determining which entry positions into the company are a good place to start. Continue reading →

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

As it is, only a tiny fraction of Ph.D. chemists can bring their research skills to academia because professorship jobs are few and far between. Would the creation of professionalized post-doc positions be a win-win solution? Photo credit: flickr user mstephens7.

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem.

This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs:

“To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone…
The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the ‘tournament’ model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change…
“An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.”

In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision.

Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic.

Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced.

Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists.

The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research and not just be another set of hands.

But professionalized postdocs would reduce the number of spaces in the lab available to new grad students and postdocs. Isn’t that a bad thing?

If you would be as happy as this guy doing academic research long-term, but don't want the added duties of a professorship, a professionalized postdoc could be the ideal choice for you. Photo credit: flickr user Nomed Senkrad.

That’s a tricky question. As it is, too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs available, contributing to the high unemployment rates in science. Academia would benefit, several commenters said, by emulating the way medical schools manage their supply and demand problem. Every year, the number of students accepted is determined by the projected need for doctors. Yet in academia, undergrads are actively recruited to graduate school without consideration for their future job prospects, and this is a severe problem.

Hold on. I thought the U.S. was all gung-ho about convincing young people to go for science since we don’t have enough scientists. This blog post seemed to argue for the contrary.

But we need to make a distinction here: the shortage of scientists at the MS/BS level is a real problem, but the overabundance of PhD scientists is something entirely different. It’s a pyramid structure, where there are far more jobs for MS/BS-level scientists than for PhDs. Unemployed PhD scientists commonly find they are overqualified for many of the jobs out there.

Especially in academia, the number of spots are so few that only a tiny fraction of grad students and postdocs have a shot at becoming professors. Some would argue that it has as much to do with luck as it does hard work and research smarts. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

The point is this: academia would benefit from providing  long-term postdoc positions to PhD scientists who want a research career in academia but don’t want all the other responsibilities that come along with academia. Otherwise they will be forced to take their skills elsewhere and find work in other fields.

…not that exploring careers beyond the bench is a bad thing. That is, after all, what this blog is all about! But alternative careers away from the bench are not for everyone, hence, the proposal of this alternative career within academia.

If such a change could be wrought, I think it would be a win-win. PI’s would benefit from having seasoned researchers stick around for the long haul. Permadocs would happily pursue research careers in academia without the added pressures of being a professor. And the number of PhD scientists would go down, which would help our current supply and demand problem in chemistry.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

Doctoral Dilemma
Too many Ph.D.s?
Educating Ph.D. chemists
Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess

In transition again, but in the best possible way

Well, it actually happened, and I can’t believe my good fortune.

I have a job! And not just any job, but one in medicinal chemistry, in a similar role to the one I had before my, um, involuntary hiatus.

Vegas, baby! No, wait, that's wrong. Baltimore, baby! Photo credit: flickr user Union-Square

I’ve recently begun work at my new position. I’m now a Senior Research Chemist at The Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. I’m very excited, and couldn’t be happier.

Yes, I know, there’s nothing about this job that’s “nontraditional” at all for a chemist. It is a big change going from industry—Big Pharma, no less—to what is primarily an academic setting.

It is, of course, an even more drastic change moving from the ranks of the unemployed to the un-unemployed.

The only downside, if there is any, about my new job is the commute. Comparatively, though, it is a very minor inconvenience—I mean, I get to go home every night and be with my family. Many of my former colleagues, although employed, are not so fortunate in that regard.

To say that I’m extremely lucky is a huge understatement, particularly in this economy. As many of you know all too well, chemistry jobs are few and far between these days. I fully expected to move to a career outside the lab, if not outside chemistry altogether. I had worked on professional development activities, such as project management training, to prepare myself for such a move.

Being able to blog about what I’ve been going through has been very therapeutic, no question. It’s forced me to work through my feelings about becoming unemployed in a supportive (and very public) environment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to contribute this blog, and hope to continue doing so as long as the opportunity remains.

While I’m ecstatic about this turn of events, I also feel something bordering on survivor guilt.

It’s not that I feel undeserving—I am good at what I do. But many, many other people are, too. The fact that so many good chemists have had to leave the discipline hurts science as a whole.

To my former colleagues and other fellow chemists still trying to find a job—although I know all too well how difficult things are, try not to despair. There are positions out there—there’s just an insane amount of competition for each one.

I realize this is probably cold comfort to many of you who have been out of work far longer than I had been.

What can I offer in the way of advice? Looking back, I cannot understate the value of networking to help secure a position. Yes, this was a publicly posted position, but networking was instrumental in helping everything all come together.

As chemists, we often become immersed in our work, and as a result, our world becomes somewhat insular. Take some risk, and put yourself out there.

Networking is not as mysterious as some job search gurus would like to have you think. It’s simply talking, and more importantly, listening to people. Anyone you talk to, and I do mean anyone, has the potential of being only one or two degrees of separation away from a hiring manager. Even when not looking for a new position, it’s an opportunity to be a spokesperson for chemistry in general.

Hey, don't we all? Photo credit: flickr user hanjabanja

It also helps to find some way to accept the fact that your employer decided to let you go, whether it was a downsizing or a site closure. Move on, and don’t look back. Yes, you and your former colleagues were like family. You can, and should, still keep in touch and stay connected.

But you need to cut the tether to your former employer. If your drank heavily from the corporate kool-aid, purge yourself in some fashion—and realize that science is a separate entity.

It was a love of science that brought us all to where we now find ourselves, right? It wasn’t devotion to a corporation.

So, what can I do to earn what I now have?

I think it’s pretty simple, really. I will make a promise.

I pledge to not take this lightly in any way. Since chemistry positions are so scarce, I feel duty-bound to do my absolute best, do good science, keep learning, and enjoy every minute of it.

I would hope that all other chemists who currently find themselves employed feel a similar obligation.