Kevin Hascup

While You Were At the Bench: Week 39

In case you were glued to your lab bench, here is a roundup of this week in science.

The US House of Representatives fell 20 votes short of passing a bill that would allow foreign students with advanced degrees in STEM fields to obtain an employment-based green card.  Options???  Why not work 12 miles off shore.

Scientisits at UC Berkeley have discovered that cytokeratin found in the eye produce antimicrobial peptides.  This has the potential to lead to a new class of antimicrobial compounds.

This African spiny mouse can regrow skin complete with hair follicles and sweat glands similar to salamanders regrowing limbs.  The molecular mechanisms behind this phenomenon might be possible in humans.

Pregnant rats exposed to dioxin, a compound found in agent orange, promotes epigenetic mutations leading to increased instances of ovarian, prostate, and kidney diseases in F1-F3 generations.

For the first time, the radius of a black hole has been measured.  By linking together 3 radio dishes, scientists were able to observe matter surrounding the black hole referred to as the ”event horizon.”

As a scientist, I admire Einstein.  As a neuroscientist, I admire Einstein’s brain even more.  Now you can too!  Available on the iPad for $11.

Lucky number 113.  Japanese scientists have recently discovered the elusive atomic element 113.  Now they get first crack at naming rights.  Might I suggest Mothranium.

Have a great weekend and remember to check out RateMyPI.com!

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How Safe is GM Food?

What are the health effects of eating genetically modified food? 

That’s the question Séralini and colleagues sought to answer by studying rats fed Round-up tolerant genetically modified (GM) corn (with and without 0.1 ppb Roundup in water) for a period of two years.

Publishing their findings on September 19, 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology, rats fed GM corn had shorter life spans, severe liver and kidney damage, and developed large mammary tumors compared with control rats. 

This study has become a media firestorm both in the European Union and the United States.  The French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has requested that the National Agency for Health Safety review the study.  Austria has asked the EU to reconsider their approval process for safety of genetically modified food.  And, in the US, this research has provided strong support for California’s Proposition 37, an initiative to place labels on genetically modified food, something that is already required in at least 50 countries. 

But all might not be as it seems.   This study has come under criticism for several reasons.  First, the type of rat used, Sprague Dawley, is susceptible to developing mammary tumors when their diet is not properly controlled.  Second, the number of control rats used was low (n=20 males and females; 10 per sex) to draw definitive conclusions.  Third, rats fed the largest percentage of GM corn, had less severe symptoms compared with the lowest percentage group. 

Despite hundreds of peer-reviewed feeding studies supporting the safety of GM food, Séralini and colleagues have lumped GM food into cigarette smoking or bisphenol A consumption. 

Now, the question becomes not is GM food safe to eat, but rather how valid is this study?

Tim Worstall has provided an interesting argument to the topic.  Harlan, the provider of rats used in this study, has used genetically modified corn in their rat chow for the last ten years.  If GM corn was increasing the formation of tumors and causing liver and kidney necrosis in laboratory animals, scientists and veterinarians would have noticed these health concerns years ago.  Tim suggests we use common sense when examining the conclusions drawn from this study. 

Regardless, the media coverage following this study will help sway the court of public opinion against GM food.  As for myself, I agree with Tim.

Update: October 4, 2012
The European Food Safety Authority has determined that a French study supporting the toxic effects of genetically modified corn was poorly designed and therefore does not support the conclusions made in the paper. The authors have until October 12th to address concerns raised by the agency.

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“My” Individual Development Plan

There has been a lot of excitement about myIDP (Individual Development Plan) offered by Science CareersIn case you haven’t heard about this, myIDP is an interactive web-based career-planning tool developed to help graduate students and PhD level scientists determine potential career paths beyond the traditional tenure track scientist.  By answering a series of introspective questions regarding your scientific skills, interests and personal values, myIDP will match these to potential career opportunities and help you develop a career plan to reach your goals. 

I’ve read a lot of promising comments about this program, so I decided to take the time and create a career plan for myself.  While I have been working in product development for almost 1 year already (I’m stating this in the interest of full disclosure), I thought it might be interesting to see if I chose the best career for myself.   Who knows?   It’s never too late to mix things up.    

When you first go to myIDP you’re asked to create a new account with all the basic information including a username, email address and password.  Once an account has been created, you’re greeted with a flow chart explaining the steps to creating your individual development plan. 

The first step is a self-assessment designed to identify skills, interests and personal values.  Honest, introspection is required to answer these questions since the responses are used to help identify relevant career paths.  Each category contains several subcategories with a series of questions.  Questions are answered on a simple 1-5 rating scale.  Once you have completed each subcategory, responses are summarized into a table.  This table helps you to easily identify skills that need improvement and interests important to a future career. 

Once the self-assessment is complete, you are transitioned to the career exploration tab.  myIDP compares the answers to your self assessment to characteristics important to roughly 60 different career paths.  These careers are then ranked from best to worse fit based on how well they match your skills and interests self assessment.  Clicking on a specific career path, you are provided with numerous articles, books and even professional societies to join that will help you to learn more about each career.  An event planner lets you keep track of meetings or other gatherings for networking.  There is even a guide on how to conduct an informational interview with an industry expert that can help you better determine the pros and cons of a particular career path.

With a long term career goal (or two) selected, you have the option to create career, skills and project goals.  This feature helps you to set and achieve small steps to reaching your career goals.  These are turned into a 12 month planner to keep you on track.  Consider it your yearly committee meeting with yourself.

Finally, you can create your mentor team to provide you with personal and professional guidance.  Ideally, your PI should be involved in this process (I’ll touch on that later), but you should also try to have mentors from different backgrounds to provide unique perspectives.  This is essential for obtaining invaluable personal and career advice that will be essential to you meeting your goals. 

Overall thoughts?  This is an extremely intuitive and highly beneficial program that I strongly suggest for all graduate students and postdocs.   Of course, the earlier into your PhD career that you start this program, the more time you will have to develop a network that can help guide your career path.  It would be great if your PI was involved in every step of this process, and myIDP strongly suggests you include your PI in this career development training.  Unfortunately, some PI’s are more open to their students pursuing alternative career paths than others.  I’ve met plenty (and have worked for) PI’s that feel the only true path for a PhD is in academia and they will do little to nothing to help you advance outside of academia.  If this is the case, you will need to be more proactive and find a network of individuals willing to support you in alternative career goals. 

So, how did the myIDP match to my current product development career path?  Well it ranks fourth on the list.  Interestingly, the intellectual property career path (patent agent / attorney and technology transfer specialist) ranked just above product development.  That’s something I never considered as a career and know very little about this path.  But with the myIDP informational resources, I know where to learn about this career.  My number 1 and 2:  sales and marketing (medical liaisons or sales representatives) and science policy (public/government affairs or think tanks).  While I did consider some potential opportunities in sales and marketing, I really didn’t want to be on the road for extended periods of time away from my family.   Surprisingly though, entrepreneur was ranked rather low on my chart…don’t tell my RateMyPI.com co-founder.  

Speaking of RateMyPI.com, look for us to go live in a matter of days.  We’re just finishing some BETA testing.  Hopefully we can be instrumental in helping you meet your career goals as well.

P.S.  Happy National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week!

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2012 Postdoc Experience Survey

The results of the Science Careers biennial postdoctoral survey were released this past week.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this survey, Science Careers sent emails to 38,000 current and recent PhD’s worldwide asking them to rate and discuss criteria essential to a successful postdoctoral experience. 

What’s the take home message of this year’s survey?  Answer: the struggling economy is the driving force behind the results.  Ten percent of respondents were unemployed at the time of answering this survey.  Similar to the unemployment rate in the EU and slightly higher than the current 8.3% unemployment rate in the US.  This is probably the major reason why “advancement opportunities / career options” was selected as the most important factor, with  “funding / grants”,  “employer / situation”, “networking”,  and “mentoring” rounding out this year’s top five attributes to a successful postdoctoral research experience.   

One can easily make the case that any of these factors are integral to career success.  But I did notice a common theme; the importance of having a principal investigator able and willing to enhance these factors.  A PI to introduce you to network contacts for career advancement.  A PI that can teach you the ropes of successfully obtaining grant funding.  A PI that creates a comfortable work environment and helps you further your scientific career.   After all, isn’t that part of the responsibility of being in a tenure-track position; to nurture the growth of future scientists?

Principal investigators willing to train the next generation of scientists do exist.  This is evident in the success stories of several survey respondents interviewed for this article.   The difficult part is finding them and convincing them to take the time, energy, resources and money to train a young scientist even when the career choice is outside of academia.  But, what do you do when your PI is less than helpful?  That’s when you need to be proactive and create your own network of collaborators.  And today social media has made it easier than ever to keep in contact with collaborators and colleagues.  They can help you get a foot in the door for a potential job opportunity. 

Remember, it’s your career…take control of it.

The article can be found here, and it’s great reading for every scientist looking to further their careers.  If you have any other ideas for networking or what makes for a successful postdoc experience, please leave your comments below.

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