Maintaining your personal infrastructure
Aug17

Maintaining your personal infrastructure

Recently, Christine announced her return to the lab after her internship. She wrote that she found she had a more positive attitude toward completing her graduate research after her much-needed break. I find that I’m similarly energized by my own return to the lab, although my circumstances are quite different. Since my current employer is just getting off the ground, there have been some long days, which haven’t left a great deal of time for much else. But it’s well worth it. The setting for my new position is quite different than my former one within a large chemistry group in Big Pharma. Gone is some of the infrastructure to support the day-to-day functioning of the lab from which I had the luxury of benefiting in my last role. Walk down to a supply room down the hall to get a box of gloves or pipettes? Nope. Place a call to laboratory services to have such-and-such piece of equipment sent out for maintenance? Not so much. Enjoy a leisurely brunch on the deck of my yacht? Not likely. Oh, wait—that never happened. Those of us in this much smaller group will serve as a significant portion of our infrastructure (once our current arrangement of sharing lab space is complete), along with our other duties. Having more to do is also a welcome change after more than four months of unemployment. I bring up the notion of infrastructure, as it has been fairly topical in recent years. In a broader context, it refers to the services, structures, and organizations necessary to support a society. You know, the kind of things one takes for granted every day. Much of the discussion regarding the infrastructure here in the U.S. has the word “crumbling” appearing with unfortunate frequency, particularly with the current condition of the economy. Although the topic in this context is very important, I believe each of us has our own personal infrastructure. Sure, there are the gadgets and conveniences that help us live our lives. I’m more interested in the part that is internal rather than external. It’s what keeps us anchored and helps us weather whatever storms come our way....and there will be storms, often without any warning. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself and build up your infrastructure. But how? Just about anything you do (assuming it’s not to someone else’s detriment) that helps you grow as person and feel positive about yourself can qualify. There are a few somewhat random things, though, that helped me get through my own stormy period, and continue to help me as I continue to acclimate into my new position. One...

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Bringing science to life through art and illustration
Aug05

Bringing science to life through art and illustration

Profile: Mary O’Reilly, Ph.D., science artist and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Mary O’Reilly is a Ph.D. chemist who wears lots of hats. Some days, she’s a freelance artist for her company, O’Reilly Science Art, working on assignments for various clients. Other days, she’s an adjunct assistant professor, teaching classes at the University of San Diego. But most days, she’s a little bit of both. As an undergrad at Purdue University, Mary found that she loved research, which led her to earn her Ph.D. from MIT (Biological Chemistry, 2006) with the goal of pursuing an academic career. During grad school, science art was Mary’s “Plan B” in case an academic job didn’t pan out. While working on a post-doc at Scripps Research Institute, she did some serious self-evaluating to figure out if academia was something she really wanted and would excel at. “In the end I decided that I could make the best contribution to science and gain the most personal fulfillment from a career in science illustration,” Mary said. “Once I was able to couple this with teaching, another creative pursuit with the goal of communicating science, everything just fell into place.” Her duties as a science artist include talking with clients about assignments, doing background research, making sketches, and creating illustrations and animations that communicate scientific concepts. The job also involves all the things that come along with running your own business, including writing license agreements, emailing, tracking hours, advertising, collecting payments and book-keeping. “My projects have spanned from creating a technical promotional poster for a biotech company to illustrating a collection of chemistry poetry,” she explained. As an adjunct professor, Mary spends her time preparing and giving lectures, meeting with students, writing and grading exams and the like. Mary explained how her two jobs complement each other well: “Illustration and animation make their way into my lectures, and alternatively, as I observe how students assimilate material, it informs the design aspect of my illustration work.” Side note: I bet her lecture slides, decked out with art and animations, are really sweet. “One of the reasons that I like my jobs is that no two days are the same,” Mary said. But balancing two jobs comes with a unique set of challenges, especially since neither job is the type that you can squeeze into a 9-to-5 type of schedule. “Freelance is not for everyone,” Mary said. “It is highly unpredictable and unstable, which is why many freelancers supplement with more consistent work, such as teaching.” Mary first got curious about science art as a career when she began wondering who made the artwork in scientific magazines....

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Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?
Jun20

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

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...

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A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing
Apr25

A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing

You may have been told at some point in your life that if you want to get a steady job in the future you should go into science, because that’s where the money is. With this line of thinking, Kelly Keating, who was just as interested in creative writing as she was science and math, opted for the “sure thing” in college and chose to major in chemistry. After a B.S., Ph.D., and several jobs that took her through academia, government and industry, she is now an Editor and Medical Writer for the Pharmaceutical Research Institute (PRI), a non-profit organization within the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY. Go figure, huh? While you couldn’t call Kelly’s path into medical writing “traditional”, I think all the twists and turns along the way make her story so interesting. And it turns out that it wasn’t a waste to have taken the long windy road to where she has ended up, because along the way she was picking up all kinds of skills, the transferrable kind I wrote about in my last post. Some people know what they want to do from the get-go and go after that. But most of us, I think, navigate and jump around from one thing to another until we figure out what we want. And that’s perfectly okay. So, as I was saying, Kelly’s story just goes to show that there’s no one way to break into a non-traditional science career. In a nutshell, here’s her career path leading up to medical writing: B.S. in chemistry (U.W. Madison, 1983) A few years of basic research Ph.D. in chemistry (U.C. Davis, 1991) Post-doc in NMR spectroscopy One year at small biotech company Visiting Scientist in an NMR group at a national lab NMR spectroscopist and lab manager for a larger pharmaceutical company Then, when she and her husband moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for his job, she started a freelance medical writing business and taught part-time at a local college. The toughest thing for Kelly initially was having no medical writing experience. It’s one of those Catch-22 things: you can’t get hired if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if you never get a job! By being willing to be flexible, Kelly got the experience she needed by doing some freelance grant and manuscript editing for the science departments at UIUC. When her husband received a great job opportunity in Albany, NY, they moved. Shortly after, she landed her current medical writing job. “And simply by luck the month we moved here the job I have...

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Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?
Mar29

Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?

“Bart, don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice.” –Marge Simpson This post is an outpouring of my thoughts and feelings about the whole “academia vs. alternative career” dilemma, arranged into lists to make them appear to have some level of organization. Take a look and let me know what you think! Alternative careers aside, what are some of the things that make grad students decide against academia (anything but academia!): I got caught in a bad project and want out… forever. (♪ “I want good data and a paper in Cell but I got a project straight from hell… whoa oh ohhhhh, caught in a bad project.” ♫) Great, now I have that song stuck in my head. I may not have had a bad project but my labmates were such meanies that I developed an aversion to all things research. (What, you mean it wasn’t funny when we wrapped all the items on your desk in foil and filled your desk drawers with packing peanuts when you were gone on vacation?) I married rich and will live off the income of my sugar-spouse. I like my life too much to sign it all away to the ever-growing list of academic responsibilities: research, grant writing, teaching, administrative stuff, meetings, recruiting, advising, group meetings, subgroup meetings, one-on-one meetings, conferences, writing papers (publish or perish!) and frequent world travel. Exciting for a single person without kids, not so much for someone who wants to actually see their spouse/family on occasion. I don’t want to put in ten years of schooling to get a job making marginally more per hour than the average person. I want to actually have kids before their child-bearing abilities have left me without a trace. I know, you can have kids before tenure, but from what I hear it makes it a lot harder (not surprising), especially if you don’t have a stay-at-home spouse. I don’t want to give up all my other hobbies forever and ever in the name of being a hard-core academic. Which leads me to… what’s the appeal of an “alternative career” in science? Working a job that you love and that combines multiple interests and passions into one (i.e. science and writing, medicine and art, technology and law, you get my drift). Having an 8-to-5 job so that you can make time for the rest of your life. All those hobbies that got put on hold when grad school happened, you can get them back again! The option of moving around. You have heard it said that once you leave academia it’s hard to come back...

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