Monday, June 17, 2013

Ph.D. to D.C.

“A good taste of everything” was the resounding enthusiasm heard after April’s Yale PhD student trek to Washington DC. A large group of graduate students (in fields ranging from Pharmacology to Astronomy to Microbiology) enjoyed a two-day trip to explore some career opportunities away from the bench. The Science Policy career options were ubiquitous, with a touch of risk management and research scientist jobs thrown in for good measure. The trip was generously organized by two enthusiastic members of the Yale Student Science Diplomats and Yale's office of Graduate Career Services members.

Day 1:

First stop on the tour was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) head-quarters. There, we were given the ins and outs of the coveted AAAS Science Policy fellowships. For a career in Science Policy, this stop was an informational bonanza, courtesy of the Director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology and the Project Director of Outreach/Recruitment, Professional Development and Alumni Engagement for AAAS. As well as plenty of reading material, we were bombarded with more career suggestions than we could chew on – in a mere two hours, at least. We were advised to use to find the careers what suit us best. More information can also be found at We also listened to talks from a couple of Science Policy Fellows, one of whom works for the Cancer Genome Atlas, National Institutes of Health. Her job allows her to have one foot in science and the other in policy -an ideal scenario for those of us who don’t want to be too far away from the actual science.

The need for scientific writing experience was stressed and would, unbeknownst to us, be a recurring theme throughout the trip. The take home message was that a career in science policy requires a science PhD, most likely followed by a postdoc and a AAAS fellowship. The main caveat was that Non-US citizens are ineligible for the fellowships and should look elsewhere e.g. the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Also, for those not interested in policy, the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program may be just the thing.

After a busy morning and rushed lunch, we scrambled back onto the Metro to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Crystal Drive. Here, we met a group led by a Yale Alumni. The Senior Biologist for the Environmental Fate and Effects Division, explained that her role mostly involved checking that newly patented pesticides meet EPA regulations. We also met a Toxicologist of Health Effects Division who assesses the long-term effects of certain pesticides while the short and long-term risk is calculated by the Risk Assessment and Regulation members of the Biopesticides division. Truly fascinating and informative stuff, even if they spend all day talking about various weed-killer! There appeared to be a lot of fluidity within the department – one could change roles with relative ease and this was commonplace. There was more emphasis on the use of scientific writing experience and the need to present complex data in a simplified way for these jobs. Most of the employees with PhDs had previously worked in academia or industry. That said, there was no indicator they won’t hire PhD graduates.

Day 2:

The next day, we made our way to the National Institute of Health (NIH). We were greeted by a panel of Yale Alumni. One was a Genetic Counselor with the Human Genome Institute and described how she helps and advises people living with genetic-defects. She explained that she felt she was close enough to the science and was really making an impact on patient’s lives. This was in contrast to Research Fellow in the for the Cell Biology and Metabolism program, this was very much a research and benchwork job. Another panel member was a Scientific Review Officer in the Mental Health and was largely responsible for accepting and rejecting various research funding applications. All members of the panel agreed that a postdoc was crucial – for all the aforementioned jobs. We were encouraged to apply for postdocs at the NIH as there is plenty of research funding and they can be 2 years long, not 5 years. The panel reminded us about importance of networking and having some scientific writing and leadership experience.

Following the panel, members of the NIH HR team provided some incredibly useful insight into the world of USAjobs. The website is used by anyone who wishes to apply for any jobs in the US government. However, non-US citizens need not bother – but are eligible for the postdoc positions. There appear to be many tricks of the trade when it comes to the application, so it is advisable to look up the job you want in advance and spend a few months molding your resume to match the criteria. Easy, right?

State Dept:
The next stop was the US State Dept. Here a panel of Yale and non-Yale PhD alumni literally WOW-ed us with their career path escapades. Their respective jobs in Science Policy did seem exciting and all carried various responsibilities depending on what department they were in. One common task was to turn complex data into a simple and palatable form for non-experts. This was true for the fellows in State for Oceans, Environment and Sciences and the Foreign Affairs Office. All the fellows admitted to working 10-12 hours a day and sleeping with their Blackberries. They had all done the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and expressed that it was key to their current policy positions. However, it was encouraging to hear that most of the panel members were not offered the AAAS fellowship the first year they applied. So, there is hope for those who are persistent. The people we met at the State Department all had similar personalities but very varied backgrounds. Perhaps it takes a certain ‘type’ of person to work there…someone without children, maybe.

After an amazing dinner at a local Spanish restaurant in the Federal district, we ended the trip in the bar called the ‘Science Club’ for drinks and hors d’oeuvres while listening to a few talks from the Food and Drug Administration. Although this was a brief glimpse into a life at the FDA, the Associate Director for Research at Center for Biologics Research (CBER) and the Deputy Director for Research at CBER, told us about the many fellowships and training opportunities we could apply for. They did not go into much detail about what their jobs actually entail but did encourage us to look up the training programs. For more details, see the Commissioners Fellowship Program and the ORISE Fellowships at

Overall, the experience was invaluable – from a networking and informational gathering perspective. 1 in 8 PhD students stays in academia – so it appears these agencies and the work they provide is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope the trip will continue to be an annual event.  For those of you who are not hell-bent on a career in academia should definitely attend. Even just to window-shop for a career. No purchasing required.

Olivia Kelada
Medical Physics PhD Candidate

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The US Needs More Comprehensive Guidelines for Laboratory Research on Highly Infectious Agents

Last month, researchers announced that they would resume work with potentially dangerous avian flu strains that had been modified in a way that allowed transmission between mammals. The initial discovery of the mutations leading to increased transmissibility caused an uproar among both scientists and the general public. The outcry reached such a pitch that the scientists agreed to a voluntary moratorium on their research. The stated reasons for the moratorium were twofold: to give enough time to explain the importance of the research to the public and to allow governmental agencies to assess if future work with the modified strains required additional security or protective gear. In some ways, the controversy over the modified H5N1 virus was a sequel to the outcry that occurred over the resurrection and sequencing of the 1918 influenza strain which, though dormant for many years, had been highly pathogenic and was responsible for a terrible pandemic both in the US and abroad. In 2005, researchers isolated fragments of the virus from a frozen specimen in Alaska, and used these pieces to reconstruct the viral genome. Many of the questions being asked today were also topics of discussion in 2005, leading one to wonder how many times this debate must surface before it is addressed in a systematic fashion. Since certainly research will surely continue on these and other highly contagious diseases, the US government must develop comprehensive guidelines to protect both the researchers and the public before the research is undertaken, rather than asking questions after the fact.    
Such regulations should cover the following points at a minimum:
  1. Should research funded by the NIH be subject to review to determine if the potential benefits of the work outweigh the risks before its undertaking? Without a doubt, this is a difficult question, as both the risks and benefits can hardly be accurately ascertained until the research is completed. Many researchers have lofty goals but research can fall short of actual concrete benefits. Officials in both the CDC and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases signed off on the resurrection of the 1918 virus, but it is not clear if this was the case for the modified H5N1 virus, though the researchers must have been aware of the some of the concern that would arise by modifying an existing, virulent strain of the virus. Even now that the work has been completed, it is hard to address the resulting benefits. The authors of the study have argued that identifying mutations that make the virus transmissible will be useful because it is possible to monitor mutations as they arise in the wild and if these particular mutations occur, their potential for destruction will be immediately identified and steps can be taken to contain those strains. However, criticism of the work with modified H5N1 virus has centered on the argument that the authors have merely determined a subset of the mutations that could cause the H5N1virus to become transmissible between mammals, and it is unknown how many other mutations or combinations of mutations could have a similar effect. Partial knowledge could actually lead to a false sense of security with regard to our understanding of the H5N1 virus.
  2. If such work is determined to be worth its potential risks, how can those risks be minimized? In other words, what precautions should be taken when working with the modified virus, particularly before a mutant virus is fully characterized? These precautions should aim to both protect laboratory workers and but also to prevent outside contamination or theft. Interestingly, even now that the risks have been partially assessed for the modified H5N1 virus, this issue is proving controversial. The US has not yet offered its guidelines for working with the virus, despite the passage of a year and resumption of work with the virus in other countries. For now, it appears that researchers in the US are willing to wait for these guidelines before resuming research, but they are losing time compared to their international counterparts. One can only hope that whatever guidelines are given will be broad enough to cover at additional research for the foreseeable future so that additional year long pauses will not be needed each time a new, more dangerous strain is created

  3. How widely should the identity of mutations that lead to greater virulence be shared? In the case of both the 1918 virus and the modified H5N1 viruses, the full extent of the genetic information was published in peer reviewed journals. Interestingly, in the case of the modified H5N1 viruses, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) initially recommended withholding publication of the specific mutations that increased transmissibility, a decision that broke with their previous decision to recommend publication of the 1918 flu sequence. However, the panel reversed their decision a few months later, recommending the publication of the identity of mutations go forward. Again, though the issue certainly merited careful consideration, it seems the lack of a comprehensive policy caused a delay in sharing useful information.
As the knowledge of these and other dangerous infectious agents grows, so does the potential for harm that accompanies some lines of research. At some point a line will have to be drawn on one or more of the issues listed above. That line should be determined before the work is performed, rather than forcing researchers to close Pandora’s box after it has been opened.  

Irene Reynolds Tebbs 
6th year, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pause Your PhD This Summer—And Try Out Science Reporting

Studio B at KUNC, my host site for the summer where I learned how to make science stories for the radio.

Reporting is a bit like doing scientific research—you don’t really know what it takes until you start doing it. Most scientists have never tried reporting, and are understandably nervous when their first breakthrough gets some media coverage. They don’t give a good interview, and a poorly trained reporter might not know how to properly translate obscure protein kinetics into something interesting—so the reporter botches it, exaggerating claims and getting facts wrong. The public—and science as a whole—loses.
That’s where the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program comes in. Unlike any other summer program I’m aware of, it’s a chance for graduate students to set down their pipettes (or test tubes, field samples, equations, or models) and see what it’s like for a reporter to get a good quote out of scientist, say, or simply just put that jargony sentence into, well, simple language (hint: it’s not always so simple).
The goal is not only to boost the quality of science journalism by injecting graduate students who know their science into the media landscape, but also to teach them how hard it can be—and what scientists need to do on their end to improve coverage.
Designed for science graduate students who are dedicated to improving science communication to the public, the fellowship carries the prestige of AAAS (the publisher of Science)—so future and current PIs aren’t frightened of your outside interests—and provides the hands-on experience that anyone contemplating a career change to journalism needs.
Fellows are paired up with a sponsor (mine was the very generous American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)), given a brief orientation in Washington, DC at the AAAS headquarters, and sent off to various news outlets for 10 weeks to report, write—and in my case record—science stories.
My host was the tiny but superb NPR affiliate station, KUNC, in Greeley, Colorado. Folks familiar with ‘science radio’ may be aware of WNYC’s wonderful Radiolab, an hour-long radio magazine of sorts that asks big questions and delves deep into science topics.
My projects were all much shorter—either a minute or two put into the local newscast, or slightly longer ‘feature’ stories slotted into our versions of NPR’s Morning Edition or the afternoon All Things Considered program.
The feature stories were my favorite. It was an absolute blast (and challenge) to walk into a lab or climb up into a field observation tower, talk to some scientists, capture ambient sounds, and turn it into a three to four minute radio story. (For more information on my specific experience you can read my report on page nine in the Nov/Dec edition of the ASPB newsletter.)
Other hosts from last year include traditional print newspaper behemoths like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, smaller regional papers (the Oregonian and the Raleigh News & Observer), as well as another Colorado radio station, Aspen Public Radio.
Not surprisingly, with the journalism world changing rapidly in the Internet era, all of us—regardless of the dominant media type of our hosts—also participated in some form of online component, from blogs and websites to social media tools.
With these technology advances in mind, it makes me very happy to announce that for the first time this year, AAAS is accepting applications via email! Here’s some more information and tips for those of you excited to become part of the next class of summer science reporters:
  • You don’t have to rely on snail mail this year, but that doesn’t mean you can delay—the deadline is January 15
  • Spend time on your writing sample, and emphasize your interest and commitment to science communication. Most of my classmates had gone out of their way to take a course or workshop in science writing, write for a campus publication, or author their own blog. (Being involved with the Science Diplomats counts, too!)
  • For Yalies who want to wait another year before applying, a great place to start is Carl Zimmer’s short workshop offered through the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department. It’s a solid introduction to the basic skills required of science writers, and this year begins on January 28.
  • For another take from the 2012 Chicago Tribune fellow, see Jessica M. Morrison's blog post in Scientific American.

Jessica McDonald 
Immunobiology PhD Candidate 
2012 AAAS Mass Media Fellow