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No jobs in academe? Consider becoming a scientist-entrepreneur

Posted on April 14, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:


If academia represents intellectual freedom and independence, and industry represents job security and earning potential, then entrepreneurship is the best of both worlds.

In a biotech start-up, you are taking your own idea and framing it within the context of an applicable product. There is no more translational research than this, which epitomizes bench to bedside. Taking money from a private entity to get you started is not all that different from taking money from the federal government or not-for-profit organization (NPO); in fact, you will still need to do this as a private company. As for private investors – be it an angel investor, venture capitalist, or biotech/pharmaceutical company – they often give you significantly more money, with the added caveat that a private investor expects all of their financing to go toward product development and to gain returns within five years (on average). Federal and not-for-profit organization funds, on the other hand, are theoretically more tolerant of exploratory science with no concrete timeline, but, given the present funding climate, are practically no less concerned with clear and timely deliverables within the five-year grant cycle. Moreover, federal grants are often taxed heavily at the institutional overhead rate, and are increasingly diluted amongst multiple projects outside of the necessarily specific aims of the original grant application, which means progress on any given research project is a lot slower.

Besides constituting another major source of research funding, the process of taking a research project private is an incredible learning experience that exposes the principal investigators to career trajectories outside the narrow focus of “university professor.” Examples include intellectual property law, venture capital, management/strategy consulting, research contract organizations (not shown on Figure 5), and overlaps heavily with media and politics through company/industry analyst, regulatory consultancy and policy. As an entrepreneur you will be interacting closely with representatives in all of these industries, not to mention taking on the role of chief executive officer, chief scientific officer and chief operations officer for your own company. Most importantly, the contacts you’ll make along the way will open doors to careers most scientists do not know exist, and for which you are already ideally suited at this stage.


Your current job, be it graduate student or postdoc, while temporary, is stable enough – at least for the two- to three-year stretches afforded by most research grants – and sufficiently flexible to let you take business classes, and do the necessary legwork to see a new venture through. Vcs and angel investors love to invest in PhDs, and I am certain you have no shortage of ideas.

One major shortfall of academic training is that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are not taught to recognize and appreciate the skillset they develop. Nevertheless, that skillset is there, and it is entirely applicable to business. Grant applications are business plans, seminars are business pitches, and the competencies developed managing personnel (such as co-op and summer students, technicians, co-workers and mentors), accommodating budgetary requirements (such as grants, laboratory/operating costs, consumables, travel and salaries), establishing and negotiating collaborations, and meeting deadlines are all directly transferable to the board room.

As important as innovation is, great ideas are nothing without a strong supportive scaffold on which to plant their roots and grow, and collaboration is something graduate programs in the sciences teach well. Recognition of this is important and if you don’t have an immediately translatable technology in development, you can and should seek out great ideas emerging from different research laboratories, and lend your time and energy to see them through. This is an exceptional platform for academically-minded researchers to recruit support for commercially developing their projects and permit entrepreneurially-minded trainees to pursue their own project ideas outside the limited focus of the academic lab. Many very successful university professors have followed this model, and spun-off incredibly profitable companies run by their graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Robert Langer at MIT is a great example of this (read his personal account of translating discoveries in an academic lab). There is no better time.

Quarterly Summary: Record-setting number of guest posts

Posted on April 8, 2014 by

It’s taken nearly five years to build the Black Hole blog up to the point where we are having regular input from more than me + 1 (first Beth Snow and now Jonathan Thon) so this quarter it was especially nice to see numerous guest posts including a returning guest blogger. The goal of the blog has always been to have early career researchers writing about and researching topics that are near and dear to their hearts in order to get their issue a wider exposure (our blog’s readership includes funding agencies (national and international), university administrators, academics and policy makers in addition to hundreds of early career researchers).

I hope this month’s contributions will inspire others to step forward with their take on the education and training of early career researchers in the coming months. In the meantime, please browse through this quarter’s posts:

Guest Authors:  

Sonja B.

Kelly Holloway

Mark Lawson

Regular Authors:



Top 5 posts this quarter were:

As always, if you have any advice or comments regarding the site – please get in touch at as Jonathan and I are always looking for creative ways to explore new (and old!) topics. We hope that 2014 has started well for everyone.

Start creating career options for yourself

Posted on March 31, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

Creating options for yourself is important because even if you have a stellar CV, a supportive and connected mentor, and a long history of successful grantsmanship, including current funding; there still may not be a faculty position available for you when you are ready to leave. It’s hard to come by stats, but for the five faculty interviews I’ve been on there were nearly 250 applicants for each – every one of them as smart, capable, and driven as myself. Most biomedical departments, if they are hiring (a process which is increasingly sporadic, as senior faculty remain at their posts for longer) will open up one or two positions in the fall, and once filled, will not consider future candidates for another 5+ years. There is a very narrow window here, and the fit may not be there for you.

Life goes on.

Alternatively, and I have seen a lot of this recently, after making it through the selection process and into your 2nd and 3rd interview, you realize that the department is only able to provide you with a fraction of what you need to get going, and you are expected to make up the difference yourself. While anticipated to some degree, an over-reliance on external support to maintain your lab is increasingly risky given the current funding climate, and may still not be enough to see you through. What then? Do you turn the offer down, knowing it may be your only way out of a postdoc, or accept a research position that you may be forced to leave in three years if funding dries up?

Also consider that none of this is happening in a vacuum. Stay with me – it’s about to get dark.

At this stage most of us are in our early 30s, married or with a long-term partner, and increasingly wanting to settle down, improve our standard of living, and start a family – none of which seems possible with a $40K/year salary and student debt. The lack of career advancement, uncertainty of employment, and transitory nature of your last 10 years begin to take their psychological toll – it eventually happens to all of us. Crushing despair gives way to strong feelings of abandonment, disillusionment, and lack of self-worth. What you need is not to be told that everything will work itself out, as I’ve heard so many times in the past; what you need are concrete options.

In graduate school and through our post-doc we are taught, falsely, that there are only ever two: Academia or Industry. Why there should only be these two is beyond me, but few of us ever consider a 3rd, or 4th, or 5th… We are also taught that once you leave academia, there is no going back, and that this is a one-way road. This is also absolutely false.

Figure 5: Click on image to enlarge

Figure 5: Click on image to enlarge



For starters, a very proximal option, and arguably the smarter one for those of us wanting to become academic faculty, is medicine. There is a dire need for physicians with a strong grasp of the literature, logical reasoning and critical problem solving that is taught in graduate school. Medical school and residency combined are no longer than a post-doc and instructorship; subsequent employment is all but guaranteed, and this career path offers the best possible job security available and a significantly better salary. Moreover, you have the freedom following your residency, to become a researcher and do the exact same job you had intended, or dedicate yourself to seeing patients, if you find you prefer this. When grants dry up, as they will, you can take on a greater patient load to make up the difference in your salary, and will rarely need to worry about having to shut your lab down entirely.

My wife made this transition following her PhD in inorganic chemistry five years ago, and found she prefers the human interaction and immediate sense of value she derives from helping patients directly, and is the happiest she’s ever been for it.

In the interest of brevity, I have divided my continued discussion of individual career trajectories into two subsequent posts: entrepreneurship, and media/politics. Given how much research scientists already know about industry, this will not be discussed at present –- although I will be posting a dedicated series on that academic career trajectory in the near future.

Funding agencies risk driving away international scholars

Posted on March 26, 2014 by

Scientific research extends well beyond borders and its internationalization has been a major boon for collaboration and advancement. Last month, Switzerland made news by putting a cap on immigrant labour that would prevent mobility into their scientific research environment. This met with much criticism and resulted in the EU banning Swiss applications to its Horizon 2020 grant applications (a good account of the situation appeared in the Huffington Post earlier this week).

Movement amongst academic circles is a good thing – there is no doubt about that. Ideas, techniques, approaches and networks all need to be shared in order to facilitate the quick transfer of new research findings. The hard cap by Switzerland represents an extreme version of policy in the opposite direction, but it did stimulate me to ask the question: “Why should movement be associated with every stage of academic career?”

In this post, I suggest that we have gone too far in encouraging trainee relocation; individual national funding agencies risk losing international talent through an unjustified “need to move.” I do not doubt that staying at the same institution for many years can stifle the breadth of thinking and streamline approaches to solving questions (in a negative way), but hard rules about transplanting talent do not seem a prudent course of action. Many examples exist at the fellowship level (e.g., the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowships) which restrict applicants to those who wish to move countries.

Secondly, many schools (including Canadian schools) seem to employ a similar approach rather heavy handedly when it comes to hiring and they are often accused of not hiring their own graduates in what is viewed as an effort to validate themselves as an “academic destination.”

The cohort of researchers that are being ignored in such policies, however, are those that have already moved (sometimes multiple times) and major questions emerge: How many moves are sufficient? How much research is wasted by moving frequently?

Moving costs are not trivial

Yes, it costs money to move, but more importantly, it costs time. It is frustrating to watch established young investigators get evicted from their first academic posting despite excellent publications (a common practice at bigger institutions). It forces another portion of unproductive research time on these young scholars and amounts to a waste of major public funds.

A second source of incredible monetary wastage is that spent on recruiting people who have no intention of coming to another institution – I’ve been given the advice from several senior faculty to “get a job offer anywhere else” and then schools will finally pay attention to your application. This parlaying of offers and the subsequent politicking take up the valuable energies and efforts of young scholars in the prime of their careers – when they should be generating new ideas and research.

Researchers are people 

One thing that is often forgotten is that early career academics are in the middle of their lives – postdoctoral fellows often leave the country in which they’ve completed their PhD to acquire new training in a new environment. In the life sciences this often means a 3-6 year tenure in a different country in their late 20s to early 30s. Uprooting at this point is not ideal, especially if these scholars are married and have children or houses. Any decision to leave will be weighed carefully against a decision to simply “move home.” This is further compounded by the fact that most positions these days have no promise of permanence and may even result in yet another move five years after beginning one’s group.

As an international researcher, one gets encouraged by funding agencies to uproot from the place you’ve traveled to (very far away from home sometimes!) in order move to another institution within the same country (e.g., UK funders would much prefer me to move to Oxford, Manchester or London than stay in Cambridge). These types of rules at funding agencies actively discourage international scholars from remaining in the foreign country and do not recognize the fact that they have moved several times in the past and derived many of the benefits of moving already.

While I’ve picked out international scholars, the same logic applies to many other cohorts of people who would ideally stay in the same city for the next stage of career (e.g., parents or people who have “unmovable partners”). It is short-sighted policy making to discourage great scholars based on such circumstances and funding agencies should be hiring the best people, not simply those that fit the mobility mould.

Who am I? The serial entrepreneur

Posted on March 17, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland  that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:
An impactful scientific career.


2014-03-15 An Impactful Scientific Career - Figure 4

I am an instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

I received my PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British Columbia, Canada, where I worked closely with Canadian Blood Services to improve blood platelet processing and storage. I continued my research as a postdoctoral fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, where I studied platelet production in Joseph Italiano’s group. There I won a K99/R00 grant which prompted my promotion to instructor at Harvard (I would have been forced out of academia due to lack of funding otherwise), and now my research focuses on developing bio-mimetic microfluidic platforms to generate functional platelets and new targeted therapies for thrombocytopenia.

During this time I co-founded Factual Footage Inc., a science consultancy for the film and television industries, with the aim of ensuring scientific authenticity in the arts; Criterion Bioscience, an online resource for biotech investors, where I manage a scientific advisory board and oversee operations of the firm’s scientific review process; and most recently Platelet BioGenesis, a biotech company with the goal of producing the world’s first donor-independent human platelets for human infusion, which I started with my postdoctoral mentor (Figure 4).

2014-03-15 An Impactful Scientific Career - Figure 5

Figure 4: Click on Image to Enlarge


Throughout this time I have been an active political blogger, writing for University Affairs, a Canadian journal on higher education, under the blog series The Black Hole, which focuses on issues affecting early career scientists in Canada. I maintain this blog with Dr. David Kent, a Canadian on the other side of the pond, at the University of Cambridge. We post weekly, and I strongly invite you to visit this site often if you are interested in honest discussions on academic career advancement, higher education, and science policy issues. While Dave and I have very different approaches to career development, both of us are biomedical research scientists, and our articles comprise Canadian, American and European perspectives.

So getting back to the question at hand – I am you. We share an education, training, and early career trajectory, and most likely interests as well. I am also a serial entrepreneur, and my experience in this space, as well as my exposure to science policy as it affects early career scientists are worth recounting.

Lastly, I am a firm believer in social enterprise and ascribe passionately to the idea that if our goal is to improve human health and knowledge through discovery, we do so better together, by elevating one another, than by holding each other back.

This is why I am here.


 I’ve broken up my thesis into three major themes and I’ll try to stick to them.

  1. Creating options.
  2. Defining roles.
  3. The public scientist.

I want this to be an interactive discussion. I encourage you to post your questions and comments along the way, and that you continue this discussion throughout your long and prosperous careers. We are all better by elevating one another.

What should you do with your science PhD? Learn from others

Posted on March 10, 2014 by

Last week, I attended a lecture by Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics who preached about the “power of procrastination.” For those who have seen this lecture before, you may have left wondering whether his statements about what you do while procrastinating are true. He maintains that such oft-demonized activities are the process of discovering what you really want to do with your life, but not everyone has the same career potential associated with their procrastinating. However, I was also reminded what CIHR founding director Alan Bernstein once quipped about clever people – if their dream job doesn’t exist, they will create it. Such stories are difficult to find any precedent for, but a good step in that direction came last month with the release of a simple and fun website.

Eva Amsen of “The Node” fame (now at F1000) and Lou Woodley, creator of Cambridge’s BlueSci magazine, launched a new website called “My Sci Career” with the intention of gathering stories from scientists across the world about what careers they’ve pursued with a science degree. Several efforts have been previously made by individuals, graduate school committees, or universities to collate such stories, but none have really succeeded in building a one-stop shop for those wondering what they could do with an advanced degree in the sciences. The unique thing about this site is that it doesn’t have a defined stop point but rather it holds the potential to grow into a highly interactive and career-inspiring space for science trainees across the world.

Typically a series of articles are sponsored by an organization (such as the Node or even our age-old So you want to be a … series) or are confined to a careers booklet about the types of “non-academic” careers one could pursue. These resources are often hard to find and often get pursued only when someone sits down and says “I really need to find a new career.” The personal anecdotes that Eva and Lou are collating have the benefit of telling stories that may simply be a pleasant coffee break read rather than a mission to discover something.

The organization of the site is simple and seems effective in its current form. The stories are sorted by level of training and career type and even offers readers a stream of quotations to randomly click upon in a bid to find out what inspired individuals to make their bold career moves. Time will tell whether increased posts will burden the navigation, but hopefully Eva and Lou have big plans for how to keep stories easy to find and relevant for their readers. A couple of quick suggestions I would have are to build a more magazine feel (e.g., get some pictures, create a style, think New Yorker) and to regularly publicize popular posts so they do not get lost in the Internet ether. Great start so far though – I’m looking forward to seeing more!

Finally, if you’re a science graduate of any ilk and feel that you’ve undertaken a career path that might be interesting for others to hear about, why not consider writing up a post for Eva and Lou? Personal stories are pretty easy to write about, do not require extensive research and sometimes, they are all it takes to help guide a lonely soul into a fruitful and rewarding career.

An impactful scientific career

Posted on March 3, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland  that was coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. I was asked to share my experiences and story of my academic career in a period where global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most science.

This was an incredible honor for me (certainly one of the major highlights of my career), and while I may not have given the talk that was expected, I did give the talk that I felt needed to be heard. The address itself was very well received, and because of several requests to make it publicly available, I thought I would share it with you here.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts that I will be uploading bi-weekly. I hope you find them useful.


It’s past time to speak candidly about the realities of academic training, and share – genuinely – where it falls short regarding career advancement. I hope to provide an altogether different perspective from what you are used to hearing on the real value and promise of your education by sharing some of my own experiences. A lot of what I will say needs to be said, but this will not make it any easier to hear. I don’t want to pretend to tell you how you feel, or what to do – so I will tell you how I feel, and what I have done, in the hope that some of what I say will strike a chord and resonate.

For starters, you need to know that 86% of you will not hold tenure-track academic faculty positions. Figure 1 represents what your career pipeline actually looks like – with most of you entering a period of postdoctoral training before pursuing other research-focused career paths, or leaving basic research outright. What is shown here is a career trajectory plot, and it is extremely important that we remove all value judgments from these figures right now. Leaving academic science is not “failure.” In fact, quite the opposite is true, and the stronger case suggests that remaining on the academic trajectory is the mistake.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Click on image to enlarge.


Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that career prospects in academia will not improve any time soon. Figure 2 highlights the reason so few of you will become tenure-track academic faculty despite it being the only career in which most of us will ever receive formal training.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Click on image to enlarge.


And still: statistically, 72% of you expect to be principal investigators in academia and 92% of you expect to pursue a research-focused career path (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Click on image to enlarge.


I want to be crystal clear here. There is nothing wrong with choosing a career in academia – but choice necessitates options and I don’t believe options truly exist here. From day 1, academic scientists are taught to be academic professors by mentors who have only ever known this one track. Academic departments do not acknowledge that there are insufficient faculty slots to absorb their own trainees, and ironically provide little training support for the major career trajectories pursued by the vast majority of students passing through their halls, despite their primary educational mission. It’s not surprising that 72% of you want to be university professors, but what ensues is the illusion of free and informed choice, with a predictably crushing awakening. Without an offer in-hand from another employer, you are not so much choosing a career in science, as only ever being presented that one option – and your decision to pursue it blindly, however noble, is ill informed, and will end up doing you more harm than good.

It’s not a question of if you go on to do more with your degree and skill set, it’s when – and to be perfectly frank, there are better jobs out there.

Some of you need to be professors, but the rest of you can be so much more.

The trouble with the entrepreneurial mindset

Posted on February 24, 2014 by

Editors Note: The Black Hole team is delighted to have guest blogger Dr. Kelly Holloway share her thoughts on the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference and the dangers of pushing researchers toward an entrepreneurial mindset. Her research group focuses on this issue and others and their website is listed below.

The November 2013 meeting of the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) brought together hundreds of members of the private sector, government and academia to discuss new directions for a Canadian “innovation-based” economy. One mission of the conference, in its fifth iteration, is to mentor future science and innovation policy thinkers. Many of the panelists featured in a series of sessions aimed at early career scientists argued that emerging scientists need to be entrepreneurs; most PhDs will not get academic jobs, so they need to get better at courting the private sector.

As a conference participant I was not surprised by that message. It has been the prevailing theme at career-development sessions, in government reports and in the mainstream media. I am a postdoctoral researcher studying the commercialization of academic science, so I was particularly interested in the string of CSPC conference sessions aimed at the newbies in the crowd, with titles like “Is a PhD Really a Waste of Time?”; “From Pipeline to Network: Rethinking Graduate Training to Embrace Diversity and Promote Innovation” and “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle.” I found myself in rooms full of youngish-looking scientists anxiously awaiting answers, hoping for a “no,” that their PhD was not a waste of time. It turns out it isn’t. Not completely.

There were prevailing themes to these sessions, which their titles portend.

Theme 1: Few of you will get academic jobs, so suck it up and move on.
Okay no one actually said, “suck it up,” but one panelist, Ron Freedman of Impact Group did say that the number of people who will get a job as an academic is diminishingly small, “so just live with that.”

This argument is bolstered by reports with grim predictions for PhDs and postdoctoral researchers. According to figures from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the number of tenure track positions held by individuals under the age of 35 decreased from 35% in 1980 to 12% in 2005. At the same time, in the past 10 years the country has doubled the number of PhDs enrolled.

I enter panic mode when I hear these numbers, as my many years of graduate school suddenly appear entirely futile. But I can’t help turn to that very training I have acquired as a social scientist to question how these figures are put to us – as entrepreneurial peer pressure. The dearth of plum faculty positions is repeated consistently, a fixed and unavoidable fact – one which has come from nowhere and cannot be changed. In fact, it is the direct result of a transformation in higher education taking place over the past 30 plus years involving federal and provincial strategies that place more emphasis on private funding for research, provide fewer resources to support tenure-stream jobs, and offload enormous teaching responsibilities to contract faculty that have no job security, few benefits and, in most cases, ridiculously low pay.

This shift has been referred to as “corporatization” or “commercialization,” and subjected to ample criticism (Chan and Fisher 2009, Newson and Polster 2010, Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Turk 2000, 2008). But those historical transformations of the university did not enter into the CSPC discussions of the dilemma, put to emerging researchers as something they just have to live with.

Theme 2: Be an entrepreneur. Learn soft business skills.
Panelists consistently lamented the lack of what they called “soft skills” amongst graduate students and postdocs in the sciences: Leadership, communication, administration, creativity and interpersonal ability. For example, Nana Lee, coordinator for graduate professional development at the University of Toronto, claimed she can help PhDs communicate, manage their time, learn entrepreneurial skills, understand and apply ethical practices, and work effectively in teams and as leaders. The message is a little patronizing. Do graduate students not have experience working in teams (i.e., the laboratory?), planning and managing their time (i.e., researching, teaching, publishing, participating in departmental governance, conferencing, etc.), understanding and applying ethical practices (i.e., doing research and filling out grant applications)?

They may be lacking “entrepreneurial skills,” but PhDs aren’t training to be entrepreneurs. They are training to do high quality scientific research.

Theme 3: Don’t feel constrained by the expectations of academia.
A session called “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle” explored how to break down the divide between academia and the private sector by introducing the “entrepreneurial mindset.” Panelists argued universities must transform the “culture” of academia to be friendlier to the private sector and create better infrastructure in the academy to train emerging scientists in business skills. These speakers ignored differences in values, norms and ethics in the academic world and the business world. In the academic world, some scientists place a high value things like open access, peer review, academic freedom, science for the public good and ethics. In the business/industrial world, profit is the bottom line.

There are certainly excellent and well-meaning scientists working for this sector, but this does not mitigate the profit motive. When research is aimed at producing profit for a company’s shareholders, the quality of the research is by definition not the top priority. There are enough examples of research “mishaps” from the pharmaceutical industry to warrant concern. In this context, it is noteworthy that CSPC panelist Thomas Corr, CEO of Canada’s flagship model for university-industry research partnerships, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), stressed that the OCE’s involvement is guided more by economic considerations than the quality of the research.

There is a dangerous trajectory at play here – a science policy direction that undermines the importance of science in the public interest, or even science for the sake of knowledge – that values economic considerations over quality. Campaigns like Get Science Right have started to document the kinds of research that are not going to fare well in this economy, painting a bleak picture for the future if things do not change.

Kelly Holloway recently received her PhD in sociology from York University. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Dalhousie University, studying emerging health research and the commercialization of academic science – for more information about the project see: @kellyjholloway.

Intelligent designs for public education

Posted on February 13, 2014 by

We are very pleased to introduce a guest post from Dr. Mark Larson, an associate professor of biology at Augustana College, South Dakota. Mark is a distinguished scientist, a gifted lecturer and a strong advocate for science education. His article this week is particularly timely in light of recent events in the South Dakota Legislature.


Early in February 2014, a member of the South Dakota State Legislature submitted a bill for consideration that would prohibit administrators of public schools in South Dakota from reprimanding teachers who chose to teach their students about intelligent design in the science classroom. South Dakota is not the first place where such bills have been introduced. However, teaching of intelligent design has largely been outlawed after the Kitzmiller v. Dover case in 2005 which ruled that intelligent design was, in effect, biblical creationism in disguise.

While there are some scientists who are trying to promote intelligent design on scientific grounds, most proponents of the idea are unabashed in their view that evolution is the problem, and is particularly a problem from certain religious standpoints. It is not hard to conclude that most of the support for intelligent design is not from a scientific perspective, but a concern that evolution undermines the culture and values that certain Christian sects tightly adhere to. Thankfully, the bill was pulled from consideration shortly after it was introduced.  However, the need to defend evolution will never cease.

Editor’s Note: Below is Mark’s response to an op/ed piece that ran in South Dakota’s largest newspaper on February 6th.


As a professor at a private, church-based college, I am not compelled to follow any governmental decision about what can and cannot be taught in a public education setting. We are not bound by the precedent set by Edwards v. Aguilar (1987), which prohibited the teaching of literal biblical creationism as science in schools, or the findings of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005), which found that intelligent design was religious enough in nature and scientifically questionable as to not be acceptable in the science classroom.

We teach evolution for the simple reason that it is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life, and because evolution provides an underlying architecture that unifies all of biology. There are other ideas about how life came to be as it is (intelligent design is one), and there are scientists who are examining these possibilities. I won’t claim to know their motivations for doing so, religious or otherwise, and I won’t impugn their scientific acumen for exploring ideas off the beaten path. But their ideas must be subject to scrutiny, as all scientific ideas must be.

Under this scrutiny, the vast majority of scientists resoundingly reject the main premise of intelligent design – that if something looks designed, it is. Design proponents point to many cellular components as evidence for this idea, including blood clotting, the cellular immune system, and the main energy-producing protein in all cells. As we have learned more about these systems, there is surprising clarity and simple chemical explanations as to how these systems evolve. Not every scientist sees it this way – and in science, there is never 100% agreement. But to give equal footing to evolution and intelligent design has no basis in the scientific literature. To teach that evolution and intelligent design are in any way on equal footing is to basically discard the last 150 years of scientific progress. We do our students a tremendous disservice to claim the equality of scientific ideas that are not equal.

While evolution provides a powerful explanation for the diversity of life, the findings of evolution do not (and cannot) provide absolute proof as to the existence or non-existence of a higher power. While some people, scientists included, look at evolutionary biology and other aspects of science and conclude that there is no God, we don’t teach that either. However, there is no escaping that evolution does provide an explanation for the diversity of life on earth in a way that does not require a higher power’s intervention. Molecules following very basic chemical and physical principles come together in ways that are compatible with what we know of evolution. Organic molecules can form from inorganic precursors. RNA can be synthesized that self-replicates. Cells are organized in ways that are chemically spontaneous. Genes change and new cellular components arise in ways that are easily observable. Organisms show clear biological relationships to one another.

I am not naïve – I know that this can have profound implications.  If one believes that a higher power is responsible and necessary for life as we know it, the fact that evolution provides a model where no intelligent agent is necessary can be extremely disconcerting. This is not the intent of science.  Science’s only intent is to explain the unknown, and to follow the evidence wherever it may lead – separate from questions of meaning or purpose. The questions of “ultimate concern” do not change no matter what evolutionary biology tells us. We should not be fooled to believe that we are beholden to evolution in our examination of “how then shall we live.” Accordingly, we should not let this fear dictate how we teach our students in the science classroom.

We need to encourage formal and informal academic mentorships

Posted on February 5, 2014 by

Last spring I wrote an article called “Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check” which discussed the topic of a secondary mentorship program. The postdoctoral-fellow second mentor is something I’ve been pushing to create here in Cambridge. Many people find some type of mentorship on their own through departmental seminars, collaborations, conferences, etc. – but are all types of mentorship getting covered?

First of all, I had a short think about what the core components of a mentor should be in my own field of life sciences:

  • scientific – how to do scientific research, how to write papers/grants
  • network – how to engage other scientists (e.g., at conferences), how to review papers, how to publicize  research
  • career – how to make it in academia, when to apply (or not!) for grants/fellowships, when to leave the current post, non-academic career options

Much ink has been spilled on the lack of non-academic career mentoring and we’ve also written quite a lot about this on our site (“So you want to be a…” series, “What to do with a PhD“, Engaging Early”). However, this type of mentoring must be preceded by a real assessment of whether one should or should not be thinking about these options.

The “reality check”

The mentoring that virtually nobody in our line of research gets is perhaps the toughest to deliver and the toughest to hear: the reality check. It comes in two flavours: 1) you don’t have the necessary skills to become an independent group leader, and 2) you could be an independent group leader, but you have a whole set of other skills that could potentially be better applied elsewhere. I would maintain that the vast majority of early career researchers have very little mentorship in this area and the “reality check” could save quite a lot of teeth gnashing.

Some of the best mentors I’ve had in my own career have been question askers – the people who weasel out of me what I am motivated to do despite me not having made up my mind. They are informed (i.e., they understand the system), they are non-directive (they don’t say “if I were you, I would do X”), and they are invested in your success and happiness. This is not always your supervisor – in fact, it often isn’t – but is rather a good friend who has more experience and understands your situation.

Inevitably, some people figure this out for themselves and find these mentors throughout their career and it usually is not a formal relationship. However, many people never get a broad level of mentorship that covers all the needed areas, so many universities and postdoc associations are rumbling about how to make this happen for all researchers. The Catch-22 however is that this often requires a formalizing of a currently informal relationship.

Indeed, there are examples of very formal mentorship programs, such as at the National Institutes of Health, where the structure is mandated, the outcomes are measured and the frequency of interaction fairly prescribed. At most institutions this might meet with resistance due to the large time commitment for the mentor and could feel burdensome for those being mentored that already have established informal networks of mentors. We’d love to hear from people involved in formal mentorship programs as to whether there is value in such initiatives.

There are also many efforts by scientific societies to encourage early career scientists to meet established researchers (meet-the-expert lunches, social events at smaller conferences, selected trainee/fellow programs etc) though I would argue that most of these are geared toward identifying those on track for academic careers. So how do we get people advice on the missing reality check?

Overall, the simplest solution in my mind would be to cultivate an informal and low maintenance relationship between mentors and researchers which would require an identified willingness (maybe as simple as a list of people willing to be approached) and a mental preparedness on the part of both mentor and trainee.

Last week, the creators of the AAAS myIDP published an article that serves as a very useful reminder to people searching for mentors to not expect everything to be done for them. Mentors can be most effective when you know what questions you want to have answered and have given the issue some thought. If you’re at a career decision point, I’d advise a read and, as always, a click through the myIDP questionnaire to help identify your own motivations.