Friday, November 25, 2011

Highlights from the 2011 Society for Neuroscience Conference

Last week was the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C. If you’re unfamiliar, this conference is a meeting of over 31,000 neuroscientists to share their recent findings. The topics covered are seemingly limitless – they’ve got everything from synapse formation to the brain basis of neuropsychological disorders!

SfN, as it is called, is a great opportunity to meet with former colleagues and mentors, and it gives young scientists a chance to meet and impress potential future employers. Although it can be quite overwhelming (31,000 people for 5 days!), it gives you a chance to share your ideas and learn from people you normally don’t get to talk to.  This makes me think of a challenge facing scientists around the world: The enormity and complexity of interdisciplinary fields like neuroscience require us to communicate effectively about what we learn in our individual labs. For me the jury is still out on whether or not we are truly successful in this regard. But, conferences are a good start.

Some highlights from my visit:
  • A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that can scan TWO BRAINS at once! The engineering and mathematical challenge of this is too great to explain here. I cannot believe that people have been moderately successful at this! Why go through all the trouble? Although I’m still not sure it is completely worth it, the idea is that you can study people directly interacting with one another and simultaneously measure the brain activity in both people. This opens up a lot of doors in social neuroscience, if we can get it to work well…
  • An fMRI study found differences in how different brain regions interacted while people were performing a task under the threat of being shocked compared to when they knew they weren’t going to be shocked. Preliminary data show that these differences are relevant to who is resilient to developing post-traumatic stress disorder after they’re exposed to a traumatic event.
  •  One of the most impressive feats of the brain is the integration of information from multiple senses. I saw a lecture about a series of really cool studies that recorded monkeys’ brain activity while they were in a virtual reality environment in which their bodies moved either congruently or incongruently with the visual stimuli that they saw.
  • A panel about the obesity epidemic in the US, and how neuroscience can potentially help. This was one of my favorite events because it included both the traditional lecture style, but also gave audience members a chance to ask questions of five different scientists with different areas of expertise.
  • Too many other cool things to keep track of!
-Becky van den Honert
1st Year Psychology PhD candidate

Monday, November 21, 2011

Feedback on the D.C. Field Trip

As the organizer of the recent Science Policy Careers Field Trip to Washington, D.C., co-hosted by the Yale Student Science Diplomats and Yale's office of Graduate Career Services, I was SO excited to get feedback from the attendees about the trip!

Here's what some people had to say:
"I thought the event was really great overall -- very well-organized and good, informed speakers." 
"It was so informative and interesting." 
"We hit a pretty wide variety of actual careers/things people do/types of institutions people work at.  It was a great assortment, didn't feel like the same person/job over and over and over again." 
"I thoroughly enjoyed everything especially the visit to the NAS [National Academy of Sciences]. They gave great information on how best to obtain a policy fellowship."

I got some of the best feedback from our trip to the Pentagon:

"I had no idea there were so many jobs for PhDs at the Pentagon." 
"These people seemed to really focus their discussion on stuff that was pertinent."

And many also liked the panel from the National Academies:

"This was a really interesting career path that I wasn't even really aware of ... and this group seemed super enthusiastic."

This panel was supremely well-organized by Dr. Bill Berry, Director of the Board on Global Science and Technology Policy in the Department of Policy and Global Affairs at NAS. He made sure the speakers, who were all current and former Mirzayan Fellows, gave us "a good feel for the work they do on a daily basis and the type of people they hire."

One of the best things he did, though, was to skeddadle once we'd settled in. As one student noted, "This was great. The guy who left us with his underlings all alone needs a metal."

I also got some really helpful suggestions for next time, for example to give our panelists an outline of prepared questions so panelists don't ramble too much. We'll also try to invite more Yale alums to the cocktail party and to spend more time learning about think tanks. And while many people were really excited to hear from AAAS fellows, others were disappointed that we spent so much time on a fellowship only open to US citizens ("great if you were eligible…and less helpful if you were not").

Overall, this was a solid experience that opened up a lot of opportunities and connections for us. Networking aside, just learning about the fellowship opportunities, and seeing where we might eventually end up down the road, was exciting. Who knew there were so many jobs for PhDs in DC?

-Elizabeth Winograd-Cort
6th year MCDB PhD candidate
President of Yale Student Science Diplomats

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Yale scientists explore science policy career opportunities

Last month a group of 23 enthusiastic wannabe policy wonks [otherwise known as your lovable lab rats - current graduate students (like me!) and postdoctoral fellows] went on a two-day science policy careers field trip to Washington, D.C. The goal of this trip was to give science Ph.D. holders a glimpse of the various job opportunities available in the government that do not involve research at the bench. We attended a series of panels representing certain areas of policy in which scientists have successfully made an impact.

The first session took place at the Department of the Interior and was geared towards those with an ecology/zoology background. The panel included the Executive Director of the National Invasive Species Council, an ecologist at the US Environmental Protection Agency, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and former Science Adviser to Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior, and the senior manager at the Brookings institute for cross-program initiatives.  (Just a note about the Brookings Institute – it is a think tank with core research programs focusing on economy and foreign policy, but biologists could find a role there with regard to health policy and climate change). The highly qualified panelists described their career lifestyle, which involved a lot of writing, e-mailing, attending meetings, lobbying, editing reports, and ultimately persuading their political counterparts on the Hill to get certain acts and bills passed.  They stressed that fact that you’re in the big leagues at the Hill and offered the following advice on how to get the right job and succeed as a scientist in the political world.  

  • One must have an “in” to be even considered for a position.  If you just apply online on the USgov website, you can count on your application to not even make it past Human Resources. Also, when applying for jobs, don’t limit yourself to your subject area. You have a Ph.D. – you should be able to pick up things quickly! Most of the panelists said they underwent on-the-job training, but they did warn that some jobs do require a Ph.D. in a specific subject – just read the application carefully.
We eventually went to panels that addressed these fellowships later in the afternoon.
  • As a policy analyst, you are responsible for getting your agency’s name out there and convincing a committee to allocate a budget for your agency. Thus, with regard to job applications, selling yourself as a “people person” with the ability to work in a team is key.  
  • Effective communication with the media is also a very important aspect of a science policy analyst’s job. To help with this, the panel suggested taking media and lecture training classes and even videotaping yourself to improve your speech skills. 
We departed the Department of the Interior, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then headed over to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The panel there consisted of former AAAS and Mirzayan fellows who are now working at the Policy and Global Affairs (PGA) division at the NAS. I was really interested in this panel, as it involved dealing with international science diplomacy as well as promoting science education. I was fascinated with one panelist’s account of establishing science doctoral programs in developing countries. Just as the earlier panel at the Interior noted, policy jobs at the NAS involve lots of writing via compiling briefing books to inform various committees on the topic. The panel concluded by giving us three pieces of advice in order to successfully land and retain a job in science policy: 
  1. Practice writing, especially writing policy briefs
  2. Practice distilling interesting information into 1-2 pages
  3. Find out as much as you can about the Agency you’re applying to. 
This was a really engaging and informative panel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The final session for the day involved panelists who had been AAAS fellows. I won’t go much into detail about this, as most of the information is on the website, but it was interesting to hear about how the experience as a Congressional fellow (the most competitive position), differed from that of an Executive fellow.  The former is more of a generalist position and focuses on legislation while an Executive fellow may have more specific projects in the Departments of Health and Human Services (community and federal health, budgeting grants for biomedical research), State (opportunities to travel abroad), Education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] initiative), etc (for a complete listing, please click here). The AAAS fellowship is intended for someone who hasn’t had any prior formal policy training but has demonstrated a strong interest for science policy in their recent work/studies.  To apply, you must be a U.S. citizen and have defended your Ph.D. thesis before the application deadline.  The panelists seemed to have suggested that there is no preference for a fresh vs. a veteran Ph.D. applicant. Also present was a AAAS Mass Media fellow and a program coordinator. The 10-week summer program for anyone who is currently doing their graduate studies or has already graduated and who has previously not had extensive journalism experience. Pretty much you are assigned to a newspaper and have the position of a science staff writer. You work with a mentor, writing articles weekly; many fellows have generated front page articles!  This internship definitely sounds valuable for any scientist – honing those communication skills is vital for not only the political arena, but in academia as well (re: grant-writing)! However, the panelists advised us that writing in political world differs immensely from academia in that the conclusion is always stated first, which is what the politicians only care about, while the supporting evidence comes later. People just care about the sound bites and don’t have patience for the details, as is the case in academia. Time doesn’t stop in D.C., where changes are implemented everyday! 

In the evening we had a cocktail part with two AAAS fellows. One of them was my TA for my Virology class while I was an undergrad at Princeton! It was great catching up with him, and he offered a lot of great advice. Overall, it was a tiring but very informative day. 

The next morning we took the Metro to the Pentagon to visit some former AAAS fellows who are now working in the Department of Defense (DoD). Our contact is a former Yale graduate student, who gave us a casual tour around the Pentagon and then introduced us to the panelists. Although these jobs require more analytical skills such as crunching data for predicting the future usage of technology, practice of local and global diplomacy is still essential in relaying the analysis to both officials in the U.S. and foreign countries. The former scientists said they viewed their jobs as a way to bring a rational thought process to someone with a specific point of view and that the means of influence should be made on the premise of unbiased, observational assumptions. Additionally, they informed us that the DoD also has plenty of science and technology research lab positions that are poorly advertised in case one still wanted to do bench work research.

After the Pentagon session, we headed back to New Haven. I must admit, I wasn’t ready to part with D.C. – I loved the clean, uncrowded, and sophisticated vibe of the Federal district. There are many beautiful areas in this historic city, not to mention a medley of restaurants to whet your appetite during any part of the day! One can definitely sense the cultural and intellectual ambience (our cocktail party was at a bar called the Science Club!). Overall, I had a great time on this trip, and the panels definitely opened my eyes to an eclectic array of careers for Ph.Ds.  I definitely encourage every scientist to consider becoming a policy wonk. It’s so important to educate politicians as well as their constituents about the importance of science research because science can’t progress without the help of government funding and legislation. Ultimately, it is up to us to effectively bridge the gap between the lab and the Hill.

-Keerthi Shetty
3rd year Immunobiology Ph.D. candidate
If you're interested in learning about the science behind everyday stuff, be sure to check out my personal photo blog, A License to Science!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An inaugural post (a day after election day 2011)

Welcome to the Yale Science Diplomats blog!

The blog will be a space dedicated to telling the stories of the members of Yale Science Diplomats, a campus-based group concerned with science-based policy issues. We believe one of the best ways to improve science policy is through better science education, so the blog will include not only information about our sponsored activities, like our upcoming Science in the News series in the spring, but also fun news stories about science for all to read.

By definition, we now have the most time we'll ever have before the next election day, but November 6th, 2012 will come faster than we think. Please subscribe to our blog and follow us as we embark on another year of promoting evidence-based science policy and improving science education in the New Haven area.

-Jessica McDonald
6th year Immunobiology PhD candidate
YSD Blog Editor