Sunday, September 28, 2014

When Scientists Give Up (On Academic Science)

A couple of recent articles published by NPR and Nature really hit home with me as well as with friends of mine.

The NPR article titled "When Scientists Give Up", I thought was a great piece. I know titles are tough, and I am certainly not without fault, but I thought it was a bit ridiculous (which is why I changed it to the title above).

In my opinion, "giving up" on research science (especially, but not limited to academic science) at this point in time is probably the smart move. The quotes by Glomski are meaningful, "You actually have to be much more conservative these days than you used to...and being that conservative I think ultimately hurts the scientific enterprise." "Society is losing out on the cutting-edge research that really is what pushes science forward." Eventually, this having to be conservative, and his more aggressive research not getting funded, drove him out of science at the age of 41 and he is planning on starting a distillery.

The Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler" comes to mind. "You've got to know when to hold them, no when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run." In the case of academic science careers, I would recommend running.

If you have questions, please use the comments section below!

Personally, there were numerous times during my PhD that I thought about running. At one point I was considering quitting and moving back home, taking a few college courses and becoming a high school or community college science teacher (I already had a MS at that point). I considered becoming a brewer (I think a lot of people have this "dream" now days). I considered getting more involved in community/charity work at places like this, where I already volunteered.

The problem in my mind with all this nonsense is that overall in the very long run the effect of numerous smart, motivated people scattering to the wind in an ivory tower diaspora should be positive. More science educators with more science education, more science people in brewing, distilling, art, film, business, etc. In the short term though, it is difficult, painful, and depressing to the people going through it.

The flip side of the NPR story is Randen Patterson, who once worked at a prestigious neuroscience lab before getting a tenure-track assistant professorship at Penn State University and then UC-Davis. Patterson is the more frightening of the two stories. A prodigy that dedicated himself to only the hardest and most cutting edge questions, he had the pedigree, the brain, the drive and never could secure funding as his research was deemed "too risky". He left to own/operate a small grocery store.

The NPR article suggests that there are no national statistics about how many people are giving up on academic science, but an NPR analysis of NIH data found that 3,400 scientists lost their sustaining grants between 2012 and 2013. I have mentioned this on the blog before, but I hate the idea that there is no measurables here.

At Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, where I received my PhD, they claimed that they were successfully training PhDs and Postdocs, had a great track record of training, etc. They didn't even have an alumni association! They didn't adequately keep track of their alumni, so how on earth could you claim that you were successful in their training?!?Every single one of them could have dropped out of academic science and the University wouldn't have known. PhD mills are real, and they are a problem.

The second article, published in Nature is an interesting spin on the concept of quitting academic science as well. It discusses researchers that got away, with the bend that it is not always the weakest that gets culled from the herd, but often it is the best that leaves the herd to find a better life.

The article cites a study of doctorate recipients conducted by the US National Science Foundation, nearly one-fifth of employed people with science and engineering PhDs were no longer working in science in 2010. Partially, this is due to lack of room at the top, but also things like money, family, or other opportunities for freedom, and self-fulfillment exist outside of science.

I left academic science research. I have taught, and worked in a public health/clinical setting, and I don't think I ever want to go back to an academic research setting. If I do go back to research, a government setting (NIH, USAMRIID, etc.) or industry setting would be preferred. The last thing I want, is to be locked into the ivory London tower of academic science.

  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
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  • HCV in Minot

    The North Dakota Department of Health has been dealing with an outbreak of  hepatitis C virus (HCV) in Minot, North Dakota. The outbreak was first noticed at a local nursing home, and all but two cases are related to ManorCare. Most recently, two cases have been identified outside of ManorCare at Somerset Court. Thus far, the total case number is at 47, 45 at ManorCare and two at Somerset Court. Since the investigation began last August 2013, the Health Department has tested at least 500 people for exposure to the virus.

    The ND Department of Health has stated that the HCV isolated from infected persons is genetically related and epidemiologically linked to the nursing home. The data coming from the investigation is minimal at this point, and I haven't seen anything reported on what they think the source is.

    If you have questions, please use the comments section below!

    HCV is typically transmitted by blood contact via transfusion or shared needle/sharps exposure. There have been past cases of HCV or HBV, hospital-acquired infections (iatrogenic) relating to glucose point of care testing, dialysis centers, or medication contamination by drug-abusing health care workers.

    I will definitely be watching this outbreak closely. Hopefully a source can be determined.

  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
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  • Friday, September 12, 2014

    Kitteh Rabies in North Dakota

    A kitten purchased from Amy's Pet Parade pet store in Minot, North Dakota tested positive for rabies last Friday (05 September 2014).
    Giles - Kitteh Model
    This has the potential to get really ugly. There were six kittens in the litter that were anonymously dropped off at the pet store 29 August 2014. Amy's Pet parade put the kittens on display the same day and the last kitten was sold this week.
    The number of people potentially exposed is very high. All six kittens were exposed (assuming the infection and initial exposure happened before they were dropped off at the store). If they were on display, numerous people probably handled them, including store workers. They were sold, which means that multiple families were potentially exposed, the list goes on and on.

    If you have questions, use the comments section below!

    The North Dakota Health Department is asking anyone who may have been exposed to saliva from the kittens by being bitten, licked, or scratched to contact the department's after-hours number at 701-220-0819.

    Rabies was a recent topic of discussion, as my father-in-law was visiting this week (he was a veterinarian in ND for 30+ years). We were discussing his "worst" case which was very similar to this one, only it was puppies. Apparently a puppy in a litter had been exposed and eventually developed rabies and died, all the other puppies had been sold or given away, there was a miscommunicaiton with the lab, and eventually it ended in some lawsuits and many people having to get vaccinated or tested.

    Rabies is a very nasty virus. 100% fatal in humans (I think there have been a handful of survivors, four due to the Milwaukee, or Modified Milwaukee Protocol). Luckily, in the United States, there are very few human fatalities due to great prevention and vaccination efforts. In countries like India however, roughly 20,000 people die of rabies yearly (world wide total is 50-60k yearly).

  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
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  • Thursday, September 11, 2014

    Department of Health Fulton County Georgia

    I wanted to quickly post two photos from the Department of Health and Wellness in Fulton County, Georgia. Two gorgeous pieces of art on the building. Nothing to say with this post besides how cool I think they look.

    • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
    • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
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    Post #6 Control Your Image (Social vs. Reality) - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

    You had one job!
    I am not a big "image" guy. I wasn't someone who cared too much about my appearance (I can rock a flannel shirt with the best of them). I certainly didn't care much what people thought. Okay, not entirely true. I cared what people thought, I worked very hard to please people and to make them think I was a hard worker, trustworthy, etc. Basically I tried my best to be a great person and I wanted people to see that. What I should clarify, is that I was horrible at self-promotion. Probably like most people, especially true for most graduate students who work in the life sciences, or any science for that matter. 

    I will paraphrase a Jack White quote; I don't necessarily feel like you deserve to know shit about me. I am a private person. That lack of presence makes it easy for people to fill in the blanks however they want.
    Jack White's Recording Studio - Very cool.
    The Microbiology Department at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science was extremely homogeneous. The other issue was, the tenured faculty that were there had zero cache. They weren't remotely up to date on research, or life outside of their four-walled office. 

    A student such as myself, who liked to get involved with organizations, who liked to be social, who liked to be athletic and be involved with intramural sports was constantly looked down upon because I was "distracted". No way could I possibly be a good student, or a good researcher if I was spending time on these other "foolish pursuits". I completely understand that there is a line. I do know some students who spent way too much time outside the lab, or when they were in the lab, they were using it as a home office. I know a lot of graduate students (and faculty) that are poor at time management and have terrible organizational skills. I am by no means perfect. But if I can be in the lab 8+ hours every day (and weekends), publish multiple first author and middle author papers, mentor numerous summer students, go the the gym, play intramural football, etc. all while being a good researcher, then what is the problem? 

    Haters gonna hate.

    This led to inevitable problems. To this day (two-plus years after finishing my PhD) when people ask me "how's it going" I still have to fight the urge to put my head down and respond with a brusque "busy".

    This concept is currently somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Numerous articles or opinion pieces on the work-ethic/culture in this country have suggested that a "cult of busy" exists, and is unhealthy.
    1. New York Times Opinion Piece - The Busy Trap
    2. Lifehacker - How to Escape the Cult of Busy
    3. Worksmart - Why You Need to stop Bragging About How Busy You Are
    The culture of busy was instilled in us students at RFUMS in the Microbiology department. There wasn't supposed to be breaks, vacations, or weekends. There also wasn't supposed to be lives, hobbies, significant others, etc. 

    I have quoted the line before, but our Department Chair told us graduate students (four males) at the start of our second year "Keep your balls in the freezer, graduate school is no time for relationships." 

    This was the culture of busy that was instilled in us. It always bothered me. I couldn't help but think of the great stories about great moments in science that were thought up on a night at the pub, or when Kary Mullis thought up PCR when driving down the California coastline one night. 
    If you have questions, use the comments section below!
    Numerous people talk about how they have their best ideas in the shower, or when they are gardening etc. Scientists need to relax, it isn't healthy to constantly work or to be constantly, actively thinking about their product. You need to reset, refocus, find your zen, whatever you want to call it sometimes things click into place when you aren't so focused.

    This is where the image control comes in. How do you do these things, when your "higher-ups" don't condone them?

    I don't know. That is the best answer I have. I hid. I blended in. I blocked or hid everyone on social media. I went silent. I didn't give them anything. That strategy didn't work, and it goes back to the Jack White quote. People filled in whatever they thought since I wasn't giving them any information.
    I think what can work is; 1. Not going into a lab or department where this is an issue. 2. If you must, or already are in the situation, get out in front of it. 
    1. Brag about how much you love the lab, your project, your lab mates, everything. Positive spin as much as possible.
    2. Bring up your project or science anytime you are in a conversation.
    3. Talk about how much you love science.
    4. Be a nerd about everything, about the school, about the department, about your project, etc.
    5. Drink the Kool-Aid, or at least pretend as best you can.
    6. Give people something to hang onto, but not too much. For example, when people ask what you do outside the lab, have some hobby that is respectable or understandable. I played sports, had friends and went to bars and concerts, etc. My adviser and department chair were of a different cultural background and had no understanding of my behavior. Initially, I should have told them I like to run, or garden, or photography, or play piano. That's it. Keep it simple, keep it limited to something they can respect, but maybe don't themselves do. 
    7. Don't discuss how much fun you have with your friends or family. Don't discuss how much you drank last weekend, or how you watched football all day. Don't say that you went to a baseball game, or spent the day at the beach. People will resent you, as I said above; haters gonna hate. You can flaunt it all you want, but in most situations, be prepared for the consequences. Department chairs who say things like "You are lucky I am giving you time off to go home for a funeral" or the "balls in the freezer" quote, aren't playing. Don't tempt them by showing them your amazing day at the beach. They hate joy, fun, and all things good and they are out to crush your soul. (Slight exaggeration...maybe.)
    Gus Presser - Livin'
    Above is a picture of an alternative mindst. You can just say "screw it" and do your thing, justify it by saying "those people don't know me, they don't control me, as long as I am getting my work done, they can't punish me, etc." Sometimes they do though. I have seen a lot of PhD students not finish, for various reasons, but some of them were precisely because they didn't understand that if they upset the wrong person, they would lose.

  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
  • Follow Lance @ldpsci
  • Science Macrocosm Forum