Monthly Archives: November 2012

How does the 2012 election change policies on science, space & technology?

Every election year brings about changes to the US Senate and House of Representatives.  But for scientists, it’s important to pay attention to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  This committee presides over all federal, non-defense scientific research and development spending.  In other words, this committee has jurisdiction over NASA, DOE, NIH, NSF, and NOAA policy to make sure US tax dollars are being spent in accordance with committee views.  Despite the grand name, the committee actually has little power over how tax dollar are spent, which is decided by the Senate appropriations committee.  However, they do make important broad policy decisions and can conduct oversight hearings on the above mentioned agencies.

During this election year, let’s take a moment to reflect upon some of the current and outgoing members to this committee.  After all, 10 current members have either been defeated or are retiring.  That is almost a third of the committee and could lead to changes on how scientific policy is determined over the next couple of years.

Let’s start by bidding a glorious adieu to Congressman Todd Akin (R-Missouri) who lost his re-election campaign.  You might remember Congressman Akin’s recent viral comments on “legitimate rape” that he made on August 19, 2012.  I won’t subject our readers to his complete lack of human physiology, but if you’re interested in you can read it here.  If Congressman Akin is this clueless on 7th grade reproduction, I would hate to learn about his views on more complex scientific policy.  Thank you Missouri residents for driving US scientific policy forward one politician at a time.

Congressman Paul Broun (R-Georgia) who was unopposed in his recent re-election campaign is also a current member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  Congressman Broun believes that evolution, embryology and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”  These remarks actually prompted James Leebens-Mack, a plant biologists at the University of Georgia start a Facebook write-in campaign for Charles Darwin to run against Paul Broun.  Apparently being deceased for 130 years didn’t stop more than 4000 people from inking Darwin’s name against Congressman Broun in Dr. Leebens-Mack district.  Let’s hope Paul Broun will start paying attention to this portion of his constituents.

Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), the second oldest member of the US House of Representatives, and one of the few with a doctoral degree, lost re-election this past week.  Congressman Bartlett often backed increased funding for basic research especially in the area of renewable energy.  We’ll be lucky if a like-minded individual fills this seat.

The committee will most likely be welcoming back physicist Bill Foster (D-Illinois) who recently won election in his district and subsequently ousted a current committee member, Judy Biggert.  Foster was a former member of this committee during his seven year stint as a Congressman.  Science support actually played a large role in this election campaign since Foster’s Congressional district included the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

In addition, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is in the process of electing a new chair.  The current chair, Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) has reached his term limit for committee chair.  With Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, three conservative members have shown interest in the position including Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California), Lamar Smith (Texas), and James Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin).  James Sensenbrenner was previously chair of this committee during the Clinton administration.  Unfortunately, all three have denied climate change, so don’t expect major recommendations for clean energy from this committee anytime soon.

Let us know how you think membership changes to this committee will reflect US science policy in the upcoming years.

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While You Were at the Bench: Week 45

After studying a cohort of 18-26-year-olds with autosomal dominant mutations in presenilin 1 that predispose them to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have determined structural changes to several brain regions as well as CSF proteins indicative of increased amyloid beta.  This study has shown the earliest known biomarkers for AD, which could improve screening methods, diagnosis and treatment.

Using MRI, neuroscientists have determined that recent military veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, have decreased amygdala volume (the brain region associated with regulating fear).  The next step is determining if a smaller amygdala predisposes people to PTSD or is a result of experiencing traumatic events.

Researchers have discovered a second species of blind mole rat, Spalax (BMR), that has innate cancer resistance mediated through the release of interferon-beta.  This discover could lead to new therapies for treating carcinoma in humans.

Astronomers have discovered three planets 42 light years away from Earth that orbit their sun at a distance suitable for sustaining climate, liquid water, and possibly life.  Their discovery will spark additional observation from both land and spaced based telescopes.

A Goffin’s cockatoo named Figaro has been observed repeatedly shaping sticks to reach food placed outside of his habitat in Vienna, Austria.   Add this species to a quickly increasing list of animals observed using tools and demonstrating “higher intelligence.”

For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that an electronic device implanted into the inner ear of guinnea pigs can be powered by endocochlear potential without loss in hearing.  This study sets the foundation for creating a biological battery that can power biosensors or drug delivery systems for treating hearing loss.

Researchers at Harvard have successfully recapitulated pulmonary edema using human lung cells grown onto a polymer (organ-on-a-chip) that allows them to quickly screen potential drugs for toxicity and therapeutic efficacy.  I wonder if PETA is excited or angry that they’ll have nothing to complain about in the future?

Have a great weekend!

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You have your PhD, now what?

Recently, I have been asked by a number of my younger (in terms of degree, not necessarily age) friends and colleagues about how to find a postdoc, what to look for, and what questions to ask.  As I am currently in my third postdoc, I feel I am somewhat an expert on how to find a mentor and what makes for a good postdoc experience, and I am honored that people think enough of me and my career to ask.  So, the following are some tips based on my experiences…

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Before you do anything else, decide if a postdoc is really for you.  Sure, a postdoc seems like the next logical step.  Maybe your current PI is not supportive of a career outside academia or you have dreamed your entire life of running your own lab.  Whatever your circumstances are, make sure that your heart is in it.  The current world economic status does not make life easy for an academic scientist.  Grants are hard to come by.  Faculty positions are elusive.  There are plenty of hurdles that you have to jump over.  It is possible to be a successful academic, but if you aren’t committed, maybe you should think about an alternative career.  There are several options…medical science liaison, entrepreneur, policy, scientific writer, clinical research associate, industry, patent lawyer (with a law degree)…many of which pay more than being an academic researcher and have better hours.

 A new program designed by Science Careers called My Individual Development Plan is a great resource for scientists looking to pursue alternative career paths.   You can learn more about it here.

Start looking early! 

It is never too early to start making connections, thinking about how you would like your research career to evolve, and what you are willing to sacrifice (location?) to get what you really want (the ideal mentor?  a specific research project?).  This is especially important if you will be moving to a different country (you will need time to apply for the correct visas and other documents).  I suggest coming up with a short list of people you would like to work for or the type of research you would like to pursue (be as specific as possible) about a year in advance, if possible.  Start asking your current PI, your committee members, and other connections if they know the person or anyone at the university.  Get on LinkedIn and see if you know anyone that could make an introduction.  Make a point to introduce yourself at a conference and talk to their current and past students and postdocs.  These are the people that will give you an honest interpretation of the laboratory environment that you’re looking to enter.  Or better yet, visit to see if they have been reviewed or to search for PIs with good reviews at specific universities or by location.  The more information you have the better. 

Apply for your own funding.

If you have an idea for the research that you would like to do, apply for your own funding (most grants/awards have border restrictions, so be sure to check).  There are several avenues to obtain funding, not just federal.  Think outside the box.  You are much more appealing to PIs if your salary and/or research is already covered.  This might be the only way to work for your ideal PI since funding a post doctoral research takes a large chunk of funding from already tight budgets. 

Get everything in writing.

You are about to graduate or have recently received your degree.  You have a postdoc lined up.  Things are great!  Hopefully everything goes as planned, but be prepared for some bumps.  Before completely committing to a postdoc (or any position, for that matter) get a signed (by you and the PI and even another authority at the university if possible/appropriate) offer letter detailing anything and everything.  It should include your salary/year, the hours/week you are expected to work, the project you will be working on, the length of the commitment, the amount of paid vacation and sick days, where your funding will come from, and anything else you think might be important.  It should detail what is expected of you and what is expected of your supervisor.  This is not only for your benefit (you don’t want to pack up and move to another country only to realize that your new supervisor does not have the funds to support you…and I speak from experience on this one), but also for your new PIs benefit (the standards that you will be held to are spelled out).  I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Think ahead.

I personally think that experiencing a postdoc in another country is a wonderful idea.  It puts you outside your comfort zone, you get to look at your research from another point of view, you can start making worldwide collaborations, and you get a chance to travel and grow both personally and professionally.  However, if you decide to do this, the day you start your new position, is the day you should be thinking about your next.  Will this postdoc only last a year or two and then you will do another one?  Maybe you plan on staying there longer and then go straight into a faculty/professor/research position?  Whatever the case, know what will be expected of you to make the next transition.  Did you know that it can be harder to obtain funding from your country of citizenship if you do not currently reside/work there, even if you are planning on returning?  Even if you have a great research plan, you may need to be associated with a university in that country before you can get funded.  This could mean doing another postdoc before you get funded so that you can have a strong application for that faculty position.

There you have it.  That is my first round advice for researchers that will graduate soon or have recently received their PhD.  Please help others by leaving your comments and let me know if there are some other questions you want answered.

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While You Were at the Bench: Week 44

The hole in the ozone layer over Antartica reached its smallest maximal size in the last two decades.  NASA and NOA scientists believe the warmer temperatures in the Antartic this year helped reduce the damage to the ozone layer caused by chlorofluorocarbons.

Researchers have engineered a macromolecule that not only inhibits the IgE-Fc Receptor but also dissociates preformed ligand-receptor complexes. This could lead to a new class of fast-acting medication for acute allergic reactions.

Researchers at Stanford University have created the first all carbon solar cell.  While they acknowledge the efficiency (< 1%) is considerably lower than commercially available photovoltaic solar cells, the carbon-based thin film technique can dramatically reduce the cost associated with solar cells.

We already know that redhead, fair skinned individuals are more susceptible to melanoma caused by ultraviolet radiation.  However, new research in ginger mice suggests redheads might develop melanoma through a mechanism of oxidative damage without exposure to the sun.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have discovered that Notch signaling is essential for determining cell fate during embryogenesis in C. elegans.  Blocking this signal could lead to new ways of “growing” replacement organs for humans.

And in an update to a former post, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is being delayeddue to a complicated contract process.  The first scheduled energy producing experiments aren’t scheduled until 2027 or 2028.

A great place to go for a run.

Researchers in Montreal have shown that middle-aged, overweight individuals who exercised four days a week for four months not only lost weight, but also improved their cognitive function.  Now, put down that plate of poutine, visit, and hit the gym.

Have a great weekend!

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