Archive for the ‘Being a scientist’ Category

Brazilian Science is Going Down

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Limbo. That is indeed a strong word. But this is the word I’ve used in an Interview for the journal Nature Medicine back in October of 2011 in an Issue that was focused on my home country, Brazil (for the full article check “Brazilians Lured Back Home With Research Funding And Stability”). At that time, I was in the United States (US) working as a Researcher during a crossroad, where the US economy was recovering from the crisis and NIH amongst other funding agencies were cutting down funding for Research all over the country. I’ve seen the Research Institute I was working for cut working force from 500 to approximately 150 people. And this replicated all over the US from 2009 until last year when I came back. As the Nature Medicine Feature Article pointed out in 2011, Brazil was winning on job security and with the availability of money for new Research Projects particularly in wealthy states such as São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, where most of the state’s sales tax is funneled into the region’s biggest Federal Universities (see also the Blog Post I’ve wrote in 2011 entitled “My thoughts on Biomedicine in Brazil“). The same year, my funding in the US was ending and I had no signs of getting more money to survive and do the cancer research I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. Well, after 4 years of that Interview to Nature Medicine, and back in Brazil things changed a lot. In the US, the research system is still struggling, but the economy is recovering, slowly but surely. Back in Brazil, where in 2011 the country was booming with investments and funding pouring out, together with stable jobs, the economy is going downhill in 2015. I am not an economist and don’t even know a lot about politics, but the situation in my home country is bad. Scientists are worried since not even the electricity bill is being paid in the top Federal Universities, where usually science is of good quality. As the Science Magazine pointed out in a recent article, the fiscal crisis has Brazilian scientists scrambling (for the complete article check “Fiscal Crisis Has Brazilian Scientists Scrambling”). Top Brazilian Scientists with approved budgets to finance their science and research are paralyzed and sometimes paying the bills from their own pocket. That is what Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel mentioned in the Science Magazine Interview and I can tell from my own experience that this is true. Battling a slumping economy and debt, Brazil’s Federal Government has taken an ax to spending, and it isn’t sparing science. To make things worse, the fluctuation of the ratio between the Brazilian currency Real and the Dollar is now outrageous, and since most reagents and equipment are imported, scientists here have problems making ends meet and paying the bills. This month, Nature Magazine featured in the News Section an article pointing out the problems in Brazil that are impacting in Science. Dr Octavio Franco, a famous Brazilian biochemist and researcher (we work in the same Program and Institution now at the capital of Brazil, Brasilia) pointed out that we were starting to do good quality science and then the crisis crashed the economy hitting hard the scientific community (see more at “Brazilian Science Paralyzed By Economic Slump”). He also pointed out that the whole Brazilian Scientific Ecosystem is in jeopardy since the economic packages and budget for the Funding Agencies have not been approved and for the ones that were approved the money never got to the bank. State budgets that are an increasingly important source of science funding in Brazil felt the pinch. Most states’ research funds come from a constitutionally mandated percentage of state revenues, which together amount to billions of Reais (the Brazilian Currency) each year. With the economy slowing down and the current political crisis, things are going downhill. On the words of Dr Franco, “2015 has been a big mess”. I came back to Brazil in the end of last year with hope and years of training at two top Universities in the US (Harvard and Northwestern Universities) and had trouble to find a job as a Professor and Researcher. Now, research is the second option for several scientists. But, Brazilians are strong and creative. Entrepreneurship is flourishing in Brazil and the current economic crisis and job insecurity with unemployment increasing creates an environment for Ideas and Start Ups. I am trying hard in both sectors  - Academia and Start Ups (this is a subject for another Blog Post…). As for the Brazilian Science, the Government is trying to find new sources of funding, especially loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to help researchers through the crisis, but Brazilian officials and lawmakers have yet to approve the deals. I think the word “Limbo” applies to the whole scientific community in Brazil right now. That is how it feels everywhere I go around here. As I mentioned in the Interview for Nature Medicine in 2011, I did came back to Brazil, but you never know. Things are very nebulous for scientists here. For now, I am hanging on in Brazil, but we will see what the tide brings next year…

Science is Broken: How, Why and When?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

The title of this blog post is something that has been discussed a lot in the last months. The scientific system is broken everywhere and there is no easy solution to fix it. Well, three years ago, in 2011, I wrote a blog post after an Interview to the scientific journal Nature Medicine (see my interview here “Brazilians lured back home with research funding and stability”) about differences on how to do science in the United States and Brazil. At that time, I was in a limbo and stayed there until now. (For my entire blog post check out “My thoughts on Biomedicine in Brazil”). At that time, things were already shaky and federal funding was collapsing with cuts from budgets and the economic crisis in the United States. Brazil had a good economic prognosis and growth. Guess what? I am back to Brazil after working as a Post-Doc, Research Scientist, etc, etc in the United States. I am back not because things in Brazil are or have been better in Academia or Science, because they are not. I am back because the United States is in a huge scientific crisis. A recent article in the Boston Globe discusses (check the entire article entitled “Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science”) that the lives of humble biomedical postdoctoral researchers was never easy mainly because of the obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade (exactly the timeframe I spent training in the United States). The long hours of work are not worth it for the expected reward and the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease is slim nowadays. There is a bulk of very well and smart post-docs with Ph.D.s in Biomedical Science that are getting stuck in the eternity of a “Post-Doctoral Fellow”. And if the person is lucky to have funds from the government, the laboratory they work or from family donations they can do science. If they do not have it, they are in a limbo. In my case, I am very thankful for the Maeve McNicholas Family that lost a daughter with a brain tumor and have donated resources and money for 7 years to maintain my research in Chicago (for more on the Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation and also to donate click here). Matt and Denise McNicholas are the most wonderful people I ever met. From a very sad and burdening fact – loosing a child – they created a Foundation under their child’s name and also constructed a park with Maeve’s name. This makes a big difference now that federal funding is getting slim (check this NPR piece on the situation right now “Top Scientists Suggest A Few Fixes For Medical Funding Crisis”). Foundations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates, The Michael J Fox, and others can and will make the difference right now. I am not sad because I left the United States and will start my career from zero in Brazil. I am just frustrated for a generation of young investigators that cannot share their ideas in a totally closed system from the Medieval times. Science is broken and needs a fix right now! I also created a group on Facebook named “Science is Broken” to help reshape this broken system. Things are so bad right now that a group of scientists even wrote an article in PNAS (a well respect journal from the United States Academy of Science) giving suggestions for fixing the broken scientific system since they see lots of bright people leaving science to pursue other careers. A whole generation of very bright and smart people will choose not to go in a scientific and academic career because all they hear is that scientists, especially Post-Docs, are struggling and will struggle for a long time. The authors of the PNAS piece (for the entire article check out “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”) discuss that the long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our scientific profession and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. The authors suggest that all the scientists; especially the ones with well-established laboratories, should rethink fundamental features of the whole biomedical research ecosystem. Specific suggestions are: 1) Planning for predictable and stable funding on science and 2) Bringing the biomedical enterprise in sustainable equilibrium by educating graduate students early on, by broadening the career path for young scientists, by changing the way post-doctoral fellows are trained and using more staff scientists. They also suggest a new way of evaluating the performance for scientific accomplishments of well-established researchers with more teaching and web-based tools. In addition, they question that the whole grant submission and analysis system needs to be changed. I believe the situation is really bad and complex. Since Medieval times science is done the same way. We need re-evaluations and changes that will impact now and not for future generations of researchers. The way things are going on in Academia, there will not be a next generation. People have lives, families and hobbies. Science is a devotion like religion for some, but things are changing. We, and by we I say all young scientists, have bills to pay and a whole life in front of us. We deserve respect and better paychecks! We deserve better opportunities! Science is broken but I will not follow this path. I am back in Brazil and will start a new life. Thank you America for these ten years of training at Harvard and Northwestern Universities and for not offering me a decent academic job in your land. I still have hope that this is not a goodbye forever. Changes are needed and time will tell if I will be back to the United States of America. For now, I will enjoy the weather and the summer in Brazil and fight for science here. (Photo by Toban Black)

Business Cards, Science and Personal Marketing

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The business card is a staple in most industries, it is how we show our face and who we are, but they are much less prevalent in science, particularly in the academic community. For many of us, the thought of handing out business cards congers up images of slimy douchebags at cheesy networking events. And when it comes to scientific events, everybody stares at you with a funny face. Yet, the reality is far from that fear.  The business card is a powerful professional tool that deserves serious consideration in all sectors, especially among scientists. Business cards are not just for business people. Consider the business card as a product of directed evolution in your career. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we spend a lot of time as scientists trying to figure out how to make our research stand out from the crowd, don’t have much time for networking needless to say distribute cards and make personal marketing.  We read the literature to figure out what’s been done in the past; we go to conferences to hear what others are working on and what is going on in our field; and we write grants targeting projects we think we can complete before anyone else.  It is indeed a stressful life with very few rewards and we all know it. That stuff is not easy at all. Yet, we often overlook the importance of standing out personally when meeting new colleagues, collaborators or potential employers. Luckily for us, most graduate students, postdocs and professors don’t use business cards.  Therefore, handing a card to a potential postdoctoral advisor will leave quite an impression.  In an industry like academic science where business cards are not provided to everyone upon hire, having one stands out. A card says you’re serious about your career path and take pride in doing it well. Building business cards involve two easy steps: 1) Design and 2) Production. For the first step of design, if you are in the academic sector, go to your Department and ask for one. Every institution is responsible to produce one to every scientist; even Ph.D. students and Post-Docs. If you are in the private sector, your boss needs to ask for a business card for you, so you can “show your face” when dealing with clients and/or in meetings. You can also design your own and there are plenty of websites and easy ways to do it. For example, BIZCard, Vistaprint and PrintsMadeEasy are three of the more well-known sites. Twenty bucks will get you more cards than you can give out and between frequent promotional deals on these sites, you can often get them much cheaper. I believe that scientists need and should have business cards. I have been to uncountable meetings and conferences where I would ask for somebody’s business card and the person would say “I do not have one. Do I need one?” These examples are mostly in the Academic Sector. Business cards represent your personal marketing and these days this could mean everything, even to get a new and better job. So, if you are a scientist, go ahead and make your own business card. It is about time!

My thoughts on biomedicine in Brazil

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

This blog post will focus on the recent cover of Nature Medicine discussing brazilian biomedicne and how the country – Brazil – has evolved in several fields but still lags behind in others (for a full story check the October issue of Nature Medicine). Well, I remember perfectly when I was studying in a private high school back in Brazil how difficult it was to enter in the best universities and get a degree (most of the universities are public and funded by the government, some are federal and some are state-funded). My high school was very good but expensive and my parents had a tight budget to maintain both me and my brother in one of these. Difficult times for them, but they made through it. It was also difficult to get into the public universities since we had (and still have) to do an exam (like in America, but here most universities are private). I passed the test and entered in one of the best universities there – the Federal University of Minas Gerais. I remember clearly that the first time I entered in one of the university’s building, it was falling apart… On the other hand, the parking lot of the university was full of fancy and expensive cars. The interpretation is that most students were rich and came from good schools. Moreover, when I started doing a training program in a laboratory inside the university, the infrastructure was awful compared to the ones I see in the USA. Well, I started my blog discussing about the Nature Medicine special and want to go back to this topic since I was interviewed for one of the articles (read the full story “Brazilians lured back home with research funding and stability”). There is no doubt that things in my home country are much better for academic research as discussed in these articles. Brazil contributes today with 2% of the world’s biomedical publication output; however this is slim compared to countries such as the USA and Germany. Even pharmaceutical companies are starting to invest in Brazil. Brazil is indeed becoming the 5th largest pharmaceutical market in the world (read the story “Brazilian drug companies hope to benefit from foreign investment”). I was brainstorming about this topic after reading all articles and came up with a list of pros and cons of doing academic research in each place. First, let’s start with the USA. Things that still attach me here are the quality of research that is done (even though we can expect the same in some places in Brazil such as the state of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and others), most laboratories are well-equipped, the environment is very competitive, publishing articles and patenting ideas is much faster and has little bureaucracy, and I see that the relationship between academic and private sectors is somewhat good and productive (one example is the Silicon Valley close to Stanford University where most tech companies are located, although MIT in Boston is also a good example). The cons that I can point today in the USA are the budget cuts by the government (believe me it is affecting everybody in academia), the tenure track system that is obsolete and broken (this is terrible for young scientist like me that are starting and have new ideas), and the system is very conservative giving a lot of priority to well-established scientists. In the case of my home country, I see a lot of improvement and the pros of coming back to do academic research there are that the system is improving with much more opportunities compared to the USA, more money is being spent with research (which is very little compared to the USA and Europe, but there was a huge increase during the past years), new companies (not just spinoff) are being created coming from academia (much more than before, but I believe that some started in the academic sector in the past; one example was Biobras that started in the 1970s in the Federal University of Minas Gerais). The government together with the Ministry of Science have created incentives and “packages” for young scientists to attract scientists abroad to come back and the stability in the job as an academic professor (which in the USA is not possible until you are tenured…) is also a plus. The cons of coming back are the same old problems I saw when I left. For example, the infrastructure in most places is terrible, the word “bureaucracy” works for everything and I mean everything; the salaries are still low (even though in the USA they are not outstanding…), the relationship between academic and private sectors are still bad, publishing articles and patenting ideas is a painful process and the most important issue for a citizen that was not touched in the Nature Medicine special – social problems and violence in the big centers are still frightening. The amount of poor and miserable people is still alarming and the percentage of people that goes to universities is low compared to the USA. I think Brazil’s economy and science as a whole has improved a lot, but it still has a lot of regulatory issues and problems that somehow keep me in the USA. These are just my thoughts on the American dream slipping away and the idea of coming back starting to tingle. One lesson I have learned is that no place is perfect and you always face difficulties and problems anywhere not just in science. If I am going back or staying here in America just time will tell. For now I am still here…

The dancing “noncoding” universe

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Today my blog post will be devoted to a very controversial topic not just in physics, but also in biology. For those who do not know, both biology and physics have what we call “dark matter”. Whereas cosmological dark matter represents the gravitational effects that cannot be explained by known bodies in the universe, genomic dark matter emerged from the application of new technologies to the analysis of the transcriptome (all genes expressed in a genome), and could not have been inferred from any known biological principle. In physics, it represents everything that is not matter (basically, matter is any substance which has mass and occupies space in the universe such as the planets, us, etc; and the “dark matter” represents everything else). In biology, it corresponds to regions of the DNA in living cells, especially humans, which are noncoding or do not code for proteins (our building blocks in the cells). The dark matter in both fields account for more than 90% when compared to matter in the case of physics and to regions of the DNA that produce functional elements such as proteins and regulatory RNAs in molecular biology. The term “dark matter” was postulated by a researcher named Fritz Zwicky in 1934 to account for evidence of “missing mass” in the galaxies. At first, researchers thought that both “dark matters” had no function or did not represent anything important, just something that was there. Nobody knew why. However, it is becoming clear that “dark matter” plays a central role in state-of-the-art modeling of structure formation and galaxy evolution in astronomy. The same way, in biology, parts of DNA that were considered “junk” probably have functional importance. Studies have been showing that more than 50% of eukaryotic genomes is transcribed into RNA, but these are not translated in proteins. A recent editorial piece from BMC Biology (“The noncoding universe”, BMC Biology 2011, 9: 52) have discussed this topic claiming that the “dark matter” of genomes probably have function and are evolutionarily important for humans. Maybe they could also explain human complexity (for more details see the article that I wrote about this topic – “Non-coding RNAs, epigenetics and complexity”. Gene 2008, 410: 9-17). The debate on the functionality of “noncoding” parts of genomes recently took central stage in several debates in the scientific community with articles and editorials covering this topic. Some believe most of the transcribed regions of genomes represent by-products of the transcription itself and have no function. Others believe non-coding regions generating non-coding RNAs are important for gene regulation and even in evolution. Growing evidence with examples of RNAs coming from the “dark matter” of the genome that are functional and have roles similar to that of proteins have surfaced. But what function really means in genomics? What can be a good definition for function? Well, if gene expression control relies on the expression of non-coding regions for genome stability, maybe genome stabilization could be assigned as a function. The controversy will continue for some time, but in my opinion the noncoding regions probably have roles we do not even imagine yet. Similarly to the “dark matter” of the universe in physics, noncoding parts of genomes are still full of mysteries. This is a very philosophical controversy – the same way the universe, which is big, has a “dark matter”, the very small in the cells, specifically the DNA, have the same conundrum. The next years will be very exciting since researchers in these fields will try to understand both “dark matters”. The future is promising for astronomy and molecular biology…I am excited with this debate!

Notes from a scientific meeting

Friday, April 8th, 2011

This blog post will be devoted to some thoughts and notes from a scientific meeting I just came back. It is always good to leave the laboratory environment and go to an international meeting full of new discoveries that can revolutionize fields such a cancer research. I am talking about the biggest cancer research meeting in the world, which is held every year with the objective of uniting cancer researchers  in one place to share and discuss ideas. This year it was in Florida, the sunny state in the United States. There are some points that I always like to take notes after coming back from such meetings. This year it was not different. The first topic for discussion is novelty. I have been going to this cancer research meeting for at least 5 years and I always see that there are not a lot of exciting discoveries and/or new drugs in development. I see old drugs being used in different ways or in combinations and also old compounds that are modified to cause less toxicity. This fact could be due to the cost of developing new drugs, what they say – the cost from bench to bedside. It is not new that blockbusters are in extinction and both pharma and biotech industries have to adapt to personalized medicine, that postulates the use of specific drugs (or a combination of them) for each patient or group of patients. In the last five years, I saw a big boom and trend towards RNA interference and microRNAs for drug development, but now it looks like things are changing again. Some years ago the promise was the anti-angiogenic approach, which was able to decipher angiogenic pathways that cancer cells use, but was unable to “cure” cancer. Well, science is in “waves”, I like to say. One researcher discovers something that becomes a field with a initiation, a high peak (or boom) and then fall into oblivion. Second note is something I am against: every year in this meeting (and other meetings I have been going to) the same exact researcher who is a leader in that field will be giving talks. There has not been a big change in the last years and “new” scientists with novel ideas and interesting things to say remain with a small space to talk or to present a poster. The scientific world needs a change. Maybe the fact that there have not been big discoveries and new exciting drugs under developed is because the same people will be always “dictating” the rules. The third and last note is intimately linked to the “wave” effect in science. One example is the fact that talks from renowned researchers will have a line and people standing in the room to watch while “new” fields that just emerged will have an empty room. A field that I saw crowded rooms was epigenetics and next generation sequencing applied to cancer research. Emerging trends that I saw empty rooms: long non-coding RNAs in cancer research (not microRNAs) and genetic syndromes that have as a consequence increased frequency of cancer in people that is affected (eg.: Li-Fraumeni Syndrome and cancer). The lesson I took home: waves are important but we have always to watch for the empty rooms. Maybe one of these topics will be the crowded room in the next five to ten years or so. Who knows…Let’s wait and see.

The impact of charity in Science and Medicine

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

I was always told that the power of a country is measured by several factors, but especially by its scientific and technological accomplishments. For years, the United States was the world’s science and technology leader. Graduate students like me wanted to come here to study, and often to then work. This was the “status quo” for a professional that wanted to get higher positions in their fields – come to the United States to do a specialization, MBA and even a Ph.D. However, this has been slipping as industrializing countries enhance their own R&D (Research and Development) capabilities and universities, and as terrorism fears make it harder to come here. In addition, the economic crisis that started in 2007-2008 in the United States has severely affected scientific funding and the advancement of technology and medicine, among other fields. The federal government squeezed R&D funding and this is affecting several fields that the United States has always dominated. One example is the National Space Agency (NASA) and the cuts in the budget that have impacted in the retirement of the Space Shuttle with no substitute for it. On the other hand, countries like China and India, had increased budgets in science and technology and have been threatening the United States. Even Brazil, as discussed in an article in Science Magazine (Regalado A. Brazilian Science: Riding a Gusher. Science. Vol. 330 no. 6009 pp. 1306-1312, 2010) is in the right direction, despite some social problems. All of these turnarounds in the United States economy has brought up something that American people do better than anybody – donation of huge sums of money to charity from foundations. Examples of Foundations with impact to the American society are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have been distributing grants to emerging countries for vaccine development for cholera and other diseases that are epidemic in third world countries, The Lance Armstrong Foundation that funds cancer research, The Michael J. Fox Foundation that donates money for Parkinson’s disease research, among others. We need to recognize that Americans do this better than anybody. They can intervene in political problems, get into conflicts that are nonsense such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but they are authentic patriots. So now let me tell a little about my history as a researcher here in the United States and how charity has changed my scientific life. Four years ago, when I was in Chicago doing research in cancers, a family that had lost their daughter for an aggressive brain tumor (she died when she was 3 years old – see video here) came to my boss since they had started a Foundation under their daughter’s name. The Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation, this was the name of the Foundation since their daughter’s name was Maeve, had just started and wanted to help researchers working studying brain tumors. Their child was treated in the institution I am working now so they came to us to talk about our research and visit the laboratory. Since this day, they had donated to our research almost half a million dollars (approximately 500,000.00 dollars) during 4 years. They gave me the honor to be the Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation Scholar and every year they promote an event to raise money for our research. The event is in a Park under Maeve’s name in the neighborhood that she lived in. This year they have donated 110,000.00 dollars to our research (see picture below).More importantly, this Foundation was initiated by a medium class family (not a rich family) and it was able to grow and spread the word not just in the Chicago area but in all the Illinois state. If it were not for their donations, we would be in financial trouble. These days are though times for researchers in the United States and charity plays a big role in maintaining several groups up and running. I believe that government agencies are still big players, but donation of money for research has grown since the economic crisis hit science and technology here. This is an example of something that americans do better than any country in the world, even in though times. Even with all the hate for americans all over the world because of the wars and their international political policy, americans are the most patriotic nation in the world. We should (and by we I mean the rest of the world) learn with these positive things Americans do. This is just one of the examples of the impact of charity in Science and Medicine in America. If you or your family have a story like this please post a comment here in this blog!

Peer review in science – “politically” correct?

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Peer Review Cartoon

This is a very interesting and controversial subject for scientists: why peer revision of scientific articles is so frustrating and time consuming? Like the cartoon illustration above, publishing our findings is not a very pleasant and enjoyable process. After spending months and sometimes years doing experimental procedures and collecting data (which are not easy tasks either…) we, as scientists, need to deal with decisions such as the journal that we will submit the article and the anxiety of acceptance or rejection of our work. Most importantly, some sort of “help” from politics is always needed. By this I mean that when you know the editor of the journal or somebody inside the editorial board it is much easier to get your article accepted for publication. It is like in any community; you need to be inside or even join the “club”. Metaphorically speaking, it is like in sports, journalism, or any other profession (well, not just in professions, but also in religion such as religious groups in which individuals help each other). It does not matter if your research and results are outstanding (and please I am not generalizing here); the most important component for success is who you know and how they could be of any help. Rejection of articles is part of the scientific game and like in anything in life sometimes it is not fair. I always question myself on why we spend a lot of effort and time to get the best results (luck is a very important factor here too) and the reviewers “kill” or destroy your article when you submit it for publication. Well, I believe that now there is no other way for the evaluation of science quality and importance; however we will need to come up with better and faster ways than the ones used by the system at the moment. Another disturbing fact is that sometimes you send the article for revision and the points of view of the reviewers are completely different. How could this be even if they have a different formation and opinion? Imagine that: you have nice results, write the article in a very concise way, and send it for publication expecting good suggestions to improve your research even if the article is rejected. Differently from expected, we get revisions that are nonsense from reviewers we don’t even know (peer revision is “confidential” – are they really confidential? I am starting to question that too…). You can suggest to the editor of the journal specific names of scientists that you want to revise your article (mainly people you know and that are respected in your field to give credibility to your work) and even tell the editor that others should not get the article in any circumstance mainly because of conflict of interests or the fact that they are competitors in that field among other reasons. Isn’t this too much of a political process? From my understanding pure science should be more independent from politics. Let’s go back in time and discuss Einstein’s theories and how he became famous. Of course at that time we had no globalization of social media like today; these were old times. Einstein wrote the “Theory of Relativity” when he was working in a Patent Office in Zurich (he wasn’t even linked or working in a laboratory or a major university at that time, but he always had this passion for physics and related fields). Of course, physics is all about theories, but other scientists needed to prove with experiments if he was right. At that time, he had trouble to publish his theory since he was unknown by the scientific community (or as I say here “club”). In fact, he was an outsider that struggled to make his ideas and theories accepted and even published. In the end, he was able to publish it and several years after that other scientists in the field started to show experimentally that he was right in mostly every detail. Some years after that, Einstein won the Nobel Prize and he was in the cover of several newspapers and magazines around the world. Using this example, what I want to show is that “the club” sometimes is so politically closed and incorrect that it does not give space for younger scientists that could have new and revolutionary ideas. The theories that Einstein proposed at that time changed paradigms and helped other fields to evolve improving our understanding of the world we live in. I believe that we, as a scientific community (and by “we” I mean both young and well-established researchers) have to come up with new ways for peer-revision. A trend that has just started is the “open access” publishing in which the access to articles is free, easier and less political. Articles are peer-reviewed in a different way and published faster. This could be the answer to a better and faster system for peer revision with less politics – a kind of “Science 2.0”. It will not be an easy task to change the system, but something has to be done. There is too much politics in science right now and this affects a lot of good researchers that are emerging out there. Not just in peer revision for article publication but also to get funding for research. Many scientists are giving up since they cannot expose their ideas easily, there is too much bureaucracy – in general it takes 6 months to 1 year (sometimes even more) to get an article published from submission, peer revision to acceptance and print (if it is accepted by the first journal you sent it). Young fellows like me are starting their careers and are unknown with no connections to “clubs” or any politics that could help them publish their research and spread their ideas. I can tell by personal experience that it is not easy, but this is how the system works for now. I can only evoke others like me and say: Young scientists unite – let’s change the peer review system right now! It is time for a change!

Tenure track, research track and other “tracks” – what is this all about?

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Tenure Track Transition - figureWhen you start your Post-Doctoral training after graduating you have no idea what expects you in the scientific world. That is what happened to me, after my graduation I was expecting to do a fast training in the US and then get a “real” job. However, things are not that simple in science. If nobody tells you exactly how the hierarchy works, especially in the academia, it is difficult to understand. Even if a Professor or a person that is a researcher for years try to explain how it works, it is not easy to understand. That was what happened to me – I was naive and thought that I would get a job fast after a Post-Doctoral training I did in Harvard. But I was wrong! I was invited to come to work in Chicago and was told that I would become a Faculty – in that case an Assistant Professor. The important thing I was not told at that time is that depending on the institution, they have two different “tracks”: one is the “Tenure track” and the other a “Research track”. After coming to Chicago, I started asking people around me what is the difference between these two tracks but nobody could explain me exactly how the system works, not even my boss. I realized that entering in the “Research Track” was not a good choice since I did a search myself and interestingly if you go to trough the “Research Track” position you can’t go back to the other track. And why is that? I still really do not know, but I try to understand. It is clear now that it is dependent on the academic institution you are working in. Most universities have just tenure tracks and research institutes and hospitals, etc have both or just the research track. Tenure track means you will need a strong commitment with your employee and you will need to write grants and get research money to the institution; the research track is less stressful since you do not need to bring research money to the institution; some institutions can give you the money you need to do the research and/or you need to be under the “umbrella” of some Professor or Principal investigator with grant money to pay your research and salary. I am learning in the last years during my training that the tenure track is a very difficult path, especially now with the American economic crisis. New Tenure track investigators have to bring research money to the institution they get a job in 3 years – for this they need to write grants like crazy and get the money somehow. Together with grant proposal writing, the new investigator in this track needs to manage the laboratory, get students, manage the finances of the laboratory (most places give the new investigator a start-up money that is good for 3 years). If you are not able to get any grant money (and for tenure track the NIH grants are a obligation to get based on how this system was built), the institution can fire you or deny the tenure (tenure meaning that you will move up in the hierarchy and become an Associate Professor; most tenure track positions you start as an Assistant Professor). On the other side, the research track is more flexible and varies a lot between institutions. This track means you have to depend on the money from the institution and/or the Principal Investigator you are working with. In addition, it means you are not independent and needs to do whatever your boss tells you – you can’t work in your own ideas. The research track position does not have any stability at all since if the money that covers your salary ends your boss can fire you if he has no grant money to pay your salary. Research track can be good or bad depending on the institution; tenure track is more stressful and you are by yourself with a big pressure to get research money to move up in the hierarchical scale. There are also other “tracks” that are very difficult to understand and these are mostly in research institutes; you can do your research and have appointments or chair as a Professor in Universities that are connected to this research center. All of these “tacks” are named Faculty since you have some link to the institution you work with. So now my question is: which track should we take? Well, it depends on what are your ambitions and where you want to go when staying in academia… One thing is for sure, to get a tenure track you need to be like a “genius” these days with a strong record of publication and/or publications in journals with a very high impact. However, be careful if a non-tenure track (research track) is offered to you since if you get this position, I really do not know why, this title is bad for your CV and in the long-term you will not be able to get tenure. My personal opinion is that all this “tracking” system is completely wrong and badly designed destroying the career of very good researchers with great potential to develop and discover important things in science. I am using this blog to say that NIH and all the scientific community needs to re-evaluate this whole system. Personally, I still don’t know which track I will decide to go, but I can tell that this decision does not depend just on you as a scientist – the scientific community somehow decides who stays and who doesn’t. But, isn’t that the same way in everything in life?; such as the way evolution works – the more adapted and fit stay and the weakest ones have to give up or “die”. Ecologically speaking the system works but we are human beings and need to be treated with more respect, especially when we study for several years to become a scientist.

The strange dynamics between academia and the private sector in science

Sunday, April 18th, 2010


Since I started my career as a scientist, one of the most strange things for me was the way academic and private sectors deal with each other. It is an interesting dynamics because scientists in academia, especially in the universities and non-profit research institutes have some kind of “prejudice-type of thing” against the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors and vice-versa. However, I think the prejudice is more obvious in the academia. Scientists from academia are very conservative in the way they approach the private sector. It is awkward when somebody from an academic laboratory tells the boss “I am leaving to work in a company and/or I have founded my own company”. It is a relationship such as the democrats and the republicans have with each other in politics – different approaches, different way of thinking and doing things, but sometimes they change sides and that is what happens in science too. Academic salaries are low and the tenure-track and non-tenure track positions are still a black hole for me. Interestingly if you go to the research or non-tenure track you can’t go back to the other track – this hierarchal standard in academia is very conservative and old; metaphorically speaking it is like in the old years when there were kings and the lower levels. It is a system very similar to the political hierarchy. In the other hand, salaries in the private sector are higher and the focus is different – all research that you are doing is focused in generating profits for the company. If you found your own company using venture capital, then having profit in the first years is an obligation to bring revenue back to the investors. The most interesting fact in the dynamics between the academic and private sectors is that industry is always using the discoveries made by scientists in the academic “so to speak” laboratories and their R&D generates products based on these discoveries. Most of the time they use data that is publicly available to design products that will be in the end marketed to the academia. Isn’t it a very strange dynamics? Biotech companies and even pharmaceutical companies come to academic labs and ask “What are you guys researching?” and “Can you tell us more details on your research?”. However, when you try to ask what the private sector is developing and the products they are testing in the R&D department it is always confidential since they patent mostly everything. Academic scientists can patent discoveries and inventions that are important too, my point is the way industry approaches the academic sector. They come to academic labs to learn what they are doing, get the discoveries that are already published in scientific journals for free most of the time and then use this information to develop products that academia will have to buy – it is like a circle: Academic discovery > R&D of industry generating a new product > academia buys the products. And, most interestingly is that every time they come up with a new product and make advertising on it, they say “Our product is the best in the market for this specific purpose!” – if more than one company is developing a product with the same application they will tell you this, so be careful and test the products. There has to be a constant testing of the products that are being released before using them in large-scale, especially the new products. In conclusion, I believe that we are in need for changes in the dynamics between academic and private sectors – in the end the private sector always makes profit with their products and the academic sector needs their products. However, the academic sector has to stop with the prejudice against people that decide to leave the university and work in a company since the academic system is totally broken, specially the brutal way the tenure-track positions work. I am using this blog as a way to show the disappointment that most scientists have with the academic sector and the way the system works – probably this is why several scientists give up this old-fashioned academic system to go to the industry. Even loving science, in the end of the month we all have bills to pay and need some time to enjoy our lives! So, don’t ever say something like “I will never work in the private sector, I am doing science in academia for the love of my profession…”, because this could happen. Who knows…We are all in constant metamorphosis and life is like a circle, similar to the dynamics between academia and the private sector.