Science diversified: Black researchers’ perspectives

In 2020 Antentor Hinton led an online initiative via the Cell Mentor platform to mark the achievements of 1000 Black scientists. The list includes the cell biologist and diversity champion Sandra Murray. “If it wasn’t for her, putting up with certain institutional challenges….I wouldn’t be able to have a postdoc at Iowa, nor be able to be mentored by an African American male”, says Hinton, an assistant professor who studies mitochondrial dynamics regulation during aging at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Carla Faria, a Brazilian laser physicist whose research group at University College London studies strong-field and attosecond-science, offers advice to scientists from under-represented groups on when to volunteer for workplace diversity initiatives. “You really have to ensure that time and the effort that you’re putting there is effective”, she says. “ And what is going to happen is that your white male counterparts are going to publish another paper while you are spending your time doing this”.

This episode is part of Science diversified, a seven-part podcast series which explores how having a more diverse range of researchers ultimately benefits not only the scientific enterprise, but also the wider world.

 

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Science diversified: The roads less travelled to research careers

In the past, many institutions produced similar types of scientists: researchers with a shared educational history who go straight from school to university then do a PhD and postdoctoral research.

But not everyone follows this path. We meet two researchers who forged research careers later in life, and took very different routes to get there.

How valuable has their previous life experience been in their current career? What skills did they learn along the way? And how did they overcome the obstacles they faced?

This episode is part of Science diversified, a seven-part podcast series exploring how having a more diverse range of researchers ultimately benefits not only the scientific enterprise, but also the wider world.

Each episode in this series concludes with a sponsored slot from the International Science Council (ISC) about how it is exploring diversity in science.

 

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The postdoc career journeys that date back to kindergarten

Many postdoctoral researchers can trace their career journey back to childhood experiences. In Pearl Ryder’s case it was spending lots of time outdoors in the rural area where she grew up, combined with the experience of having a sibling who experienced poor health.

Ryder, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, and founder of the Future PI Slack group, says: “It made me realize how important health is, and that there’s so little that we understand about the world.”

But is science, like some other professions a calling? Yes, says Christopher Hayter, who specializes in entrepreneurship, technology policy, higher education and science at Arizona State University in Phoenix. “There are professions that are a little bit different from your day-to-day job, something people gravitate towards, something bigger than themselves,” he says.

“It is often referred to as a calling. I think we could say that about a lot of scientists. It’s how they define themselves: ‘I’m a scientist.’ ‘I’m going to cure cancer.’ ‘I’m going to discover the next planet.’ When students transition from doctoral students to postdoc they are really doubling down on that identity.”

Michael Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, adds: “Being a scientist is overcoming a series of hurdles, and you need to see yourself as a scientist to get that internal motivation to keep going. You have to publish so much, get so many grants, teach so many courses. Having that identity and that motivation is really key to moving forward.”

Gould’s guests discuss how to maintain that motivation despite the setbacks, and how a scientist’s professional identity and career path is underpinned by the networks, mentors and transferable skills acquired during a postdoc.

 

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Planning a postdoc before moving to industry? Think again

Experience as a postdoctoral researcher might not fast-track your career outside academia, Julie Gould discovers.

Nessa Carey, a UK entrepreneur and technology-transfer professional whose career has straddled academia and industry, including a senior role at Pfizer, shares insider knowledge on how industry employers often view postdoctoral candidates. She also offers advice on CVs and preparing for interviews.

“It is very tempting sometimes for people to keep on postdoc-ing, especially if they have a lab head who has a lot of rolling budget and who likes having the same postdocs there, because they’re productive and they know them,” she says. “That’s great for the lab head. It’s typically very, very bad for the individual postdoc,” she adds.

Carey is joined by Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University in Massachusetts, who co-authored a 2017 paper about the impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine1.

According to the paper, published in Nature Biotechnology, employers did not financially value the training or skills obtained during postdoc training. “Based on these findings, the majority of PhDs would be financially better off if they skipped the postdoc entirely,” it concludes.

Malcolm Skingle, academic liaison at GlaxoSmithKline, adds: “You really will get people who have done their PhD, they’ve done a two-year postdoc, they think they’re pretty much going to run the world and single-handedly develop a drug.

“They have got no idea how difficult drug discovery is, and their place in that very big jigsaw.”

“And why don’t postdocs get great salaries straightaway? Well, actually, they haven’t proven themselves in our environment, where, if they’re any good, then their salaries will go up quite quickly.”

 

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The career costs of COVID-19: how postdocs and PhD students are paying the price

Closed labs and rescinded job offers have snatched away opportunities. How can science bounce back?

Earlier this year, Michael Moore was due to start a permanent faculty position in Michigan, a move to his “dream job” that would have brought him and his family of five children closer to where their grandparents live.

Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, contacted his prospective employer after hearing that job offers were being put on hold at many places as a result of the pandemic. He was later told that, as a result of continued funding uncertainty, all new hires were cancelled.

Pearl Ryder, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, and founder of the Future PI Slack channel, tells Gould that Moore’s situation is sadly not unusual. She adds:

“The group that has been most harmed by this pandemic are the youngest members of our profession, the graduate students who were hoping to move on to a postdoc … and the postdocs who were hoping to move on to new positions, but those new positions no longer exist.”

Can any positives be drawn from the pandemic? A kinder and more open research culture, perhaps? Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton University, New Jersey, thinks so.

 

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Stop the postdoc treadmill … I want to get off

Julie Gould investigates how brain drains and demographic time bombs are forcing some countries to rethink the postdoc.

The problems facing postdocs who are more than ready for life as an independent researcher are well documented. A lack of faculty positions forces many to spend years moving from one temporary contract to another, often internationally.

But moving abroad can rob many countries of talented researchers, particularly if they leave for good, says Melody Mentz-Coetzee, a senior researcher at the University of Pretoria’s centre for the advancement of scholarship in South Africa.

Her country faces exactly this problem — a situation she dates back to the late 1970s and early 1990s. “At this point, we started to see a lot of talented researchers being trained abroad, and many of those never returned home: the so-called brain drain in Africa,” Mentz-Coetzee tells Gould.

“Many institutions face a severe shortage of highly qualified staff, many of whom are older, close to retirement. So you do have this kind of a ‘missing middle’.”

Mentz-Coetzee describes an initiative across ten Carnegie-funded postdoc fellowship programmes on the African continent to help tackle the problem.

Shambhavi Naik, a former postdoc who turned to journalism and is now a research fellow at the Takshashila Institution’s technology and policy programme in Bengaluru, explores why talented graduate students who opted to develop their careers in India, rather than move abroad, are overlooked for faculty positions. Their motivation to stay at home is a wake-up call for science in India, she argues.

And Shirley Tilghman, emeritus professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, says the problem is a cultural one, and could be addressed by the development of staff-scientist roles to oversee technological change in the scientific enterprise.

“It’s about changing the mindset of each individual principal investigator, who kind of wants to circle the wagons and say, ‘Don’t mess with my stuff’. And that’s the culture we have to change,” she says.

 

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Why life as a postdoc is like a circling plane at LaGuardia Airport

What is a postdoc and why undertake one? Julie Gould gets some metaphorical answers to a complicated question.

“A postdoc is a scientist with training wheels,” says Jessica Esquivel, a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab, the particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. “It is a space where we can fumble, really start to flex our muscles in building innovative experiments and learn skills that we didn’t necessarily get to beef up while we were in graduate school.”

In the first episode of a six-part podcast series, Julie Gould seeks to define this key career stage by asking postdocs past and present why it attracts so many different job titles (37, at the last count), and how many years one should ideally devote to postdoctoral research before moving on. Also, what should come next, given the paucity of permanent posts in academia? Should you do a postdoc if you are planning a career in another sector?

“The only thing that you absolutely need a postdoc for is to go onto a tenured track faculty position,” says Bill Mahoney, associate dean for student and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Washington Graduate School in Seattle.

Shirley Tilghman, emeritus professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, returns to a metaphor coined before COVID-19 lockdowns changed New York’s heavily congested LaGuardia Airport. “Passengers were always finding themselves flying over LaGuardia, over and over and over round in circles.”

“Postdocs were experiencing essentially the same phenomenon, which is that they were longer and longer and longer in postdoctoral positions waiting for their turn to finally have a chance to land.”

 

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How to sell your public outreach ideas to funders

Funding agencies and societies love novel approaches to science communication. Here is some expert advice on how to grab their attention.

In the penultimate episode of this six-part series about science communication, dermatologist and immunologist Muzlifah Haniffa tells Pakinam Amer how art and poetry inspired her 2016 exhibition Inside Skin following a meeting with Linda Anderson, a professor of English and American literature at Newcastle University, UK.

Carla Ross, who leads the public engagement team at UK funder Wellcome, describes its 25 Trailblazers initiative to showcase excellence in science communication.

Trailblazer finalist Raphaela Kaisler tells Amer how she and colleagues crowdsourced potential research questions around child mental health in Austria.

And Gail Cardew, director of science and education at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, offers advice on how to set up public engagement programmes.

Finally, Joshua Chu-Tan recounts how he distilled his PhD research into 180 seconds as part of the Three Minute Thesis programme, and raised funds for his lab by running blindfold to highlight age-related macular degeneration, his research focus at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he is now a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer.

 

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Switching scientific disciplines

Moving to a new branch of science is scary, but learning new skills and collaborating with different colleagues can be exhilarating, Julie Gould discovers.

In the penultimate episode of this six-part series about physics careers, Julie Gould talks to Stuart Higgins, a research associate at Imperial College London, who switched from solid state physics to bioengineering, and Anna Lappala, who moved from biochemistry to physics.

How easy were these transitions, and what is their advice to others planning similar moves?

Higgins says: “It’s important to ask yourself why you want to make the transition. Do you want to apply the same skills or to learn new ones? Give yourself time to understand your motivation.”

Overall, the transition was “liberating,” he adds, allowing him to ask “basic, silly questions” of colleagues, who were very supportive of his situation and the learning curve he faced.

Lappala, a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, describes how she was initially terrified of people discovering she was not a “real physicist” and worked hard to learn about general physics, quantum field theory, and soft matter, among other things.

 

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The school physics talk that proved more popular than Lady Gaga’s boots

Media interest in particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider boosted Jon Butterworth’s interest in public engagement, reports Julie Gould.

Jon Butterworth developed a taste for public engagement after repeated media appearances related to his work on the ATLAS experiment, one of two Large Hadron Collider detectors at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab.

Butterworth, a physics professor at University College London, describes life at CERN, and how it felt to be one of 5154 authors listed in the 2015 paper that produced the most precise estimate yet of the mass of the Higgs boson.

As part of his public engagement activities, Butterworth was persuaded to auction an after-dinner lecture or school talk about the Higgs. The auction “lot” was part of a fundraising effort for his children’s primary school in north London.

“Someone else at the school was Lady Gaga’s designer and they brought along a pair of her boots,” he tells Julie Gould. “My talk went for more than Lady Gaga’s boots. I’m still doing it now. Interest hasn’t died away.

“The key thing is you have to be genuinely excited about your project. We’ve lowered the bar so more physics stories get into the news.

“If you tell your mum and dad now that you’re doing physics, you get kudos for it in the way you wouldn’t have done before,” he says.

Tom Weller taught physics for eight years at a west London school following his second postdoc at Harvard University, a career change triggered in part by the enjoyment he derived from organising children’s science parties. “They made me recognize how much I enjoyed explaining stuff that was fun and engaging,” he says in the fourth episode of this six-part podcast series about physics careers.

 

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