Podcast: Family life, career life: making it work
Transitioning from academia to industry is a common direction for a career move. But it is possible to move the other way, even as a mother of five children?
In this podcast we share Paula Littlejohn’s story. Paula started her microbiology PhD at the University of British Columbia, Canada, a year ago, after a decade in industry and having five children. We find out how she juggled the demands of an academic career alongside motherhood.
Love is in the air as St Valentine’s Day looms. Lorna MacEachern, a PhD and postdoc career counsellor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, highlights some of the similarities between between a research career and a relationship.
Ask an expert
In this month’s Q&A we have a question from molecular biology PhD researcher Suleen Raad from the University of Montreal about how to move into science communication.
And the answer comes from Bonnie Schmidt, director and founder of Let’s Talk Science, a charitable organisation in Canada that helps encourage young children to study science, technology, engineering and maths-based subjects.
If you’ve got a science-career related question for us, send it in to naturejobseditor at Nature dot com and we will do our best to find someone to answer it for you.
Julie Gould is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.
How to make undergraduate research worthwhile
Practices might differ from country to country, but undergraduate students can be better served in research, says Shaun Khoo. One of the things that excited me about taking up a Canadian postdoctoral position was that, for the first time, I would get a chance to work with and mentor enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. I looked forward to the chance to gain mentorship skills while helping out future scientists, and maybe, eventually, freeing up some of my own time. As an Australian, I had never been pressured to volunteer in a lab — most Australian students don’t do any undergraduate research unless they enroll in an extra honours year, because the law prohibits unpaid student placements that are not a course requirement. This hasn’t held back overall research productivity in Australia, but it is a stark contrast to the North American environment, where many undergraduates feel pressure to get research experience as soon as they begin university. Most graduate medical students, for example, have previous research experience, and North American graduate schools have come to expect this from applicants. In Canada, nearly 90% of graduate medical students have past research experience1. Numerous articles extol2,3,4 the virtues of undergraduate research experience, but, unfortunately, evidence supporting the benefits of undergraduate research is limited. Most studies on the topic rely exclusively on self-reports that are corroborated less than 10% of the time by studies using more-direct measurements. For example, surveys find that undergraduate student researchers say that they have developed data-analysis skills — something that would normally involve lots of practical work — yet, when interviewed, most of them admit to never having done any data analysis. Like many postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, I spend most of my time with undergraduate students working on technical skills that they might need to work in the lab, but that don’t necessarily improve their conceptual understanding. For example, if I teach a student how to use a cryostat, they might become proficient in slicing brains, but they won’t necessarily learn how synaptic transmission works. Even if we manage to instil excitement for the intricacies of research in our undergraduate students, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority that continue in academic research, there will be no permanent jobs — we might just be saddling our undergraduates with unrealistic expectations. So how do we avoid wasting our time as mentors and our students’ time as learners and researchers? Here are my suggestions. Consider long-term goals. Undergraduate students should reflect on how their research experiences will prepare them for professional success. Should they be aiming for research experiences that are based on their courses, because it will better improve their understanding of scientific concepts? Will a given opportunity help them to reach their career goals by getting into a professional graduate programme? Can they commit to staying with a research programme long enough to become effective and potentially be a co-author? Acknowledge and offset opportunity cost. Undergraduate research requires significant time investments from both students and research supervisors. Undertaking such research might mean forgoing paid employment or other experiences, such as student societies, sport, performing arts or campus journalism and politics. Mentors can help undergraduate students by facilitating summer-scholarship applications or finding ways for students to get course credit for their work. Train for diverse careers. Most undergraduate students will pursue non-research careers or join professional graduate programmes. Those who try to continue in academia will eventually face a bleak post-PhD academic job market. Just as PhD students need preparation for a wide range of careers, so do undergraduate students need to build a transferable skill set. Mentors can encourage undergraduate students to build communication skills by, for example, encouraging them to present in lab meetings, or facilitating teamwork by having groups of undergraduate students complete a project together. Improve undergraduate research experiences. There’s limited non-anecdotal evidence that undergraduate research improves a given lab’s research productivity, or even student learning, but such research isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Before undergraduate students pad their CVs with research experience, they should reflect on what they will achieve by conducting research, and they should seek out meaningful projects to work on and develop relevant skills for their future career. For mentors, we have an obligation to consider the career development of undergraduate students and, for the sake of our publication records, we should aim to work with students who can commit at least a year to our projects. And, as much as possible, we should try to take the pressure off undergraduate students to do research, so that it can be an enjoyable learning experience rather than a box they need to check. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07427-5 This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at email@example.com. References 1. Klowak, J., Elsharawi, R., Whyte, R., Costa, A. & Riva, J. Can. Med. Educ. J. 9, e4–e13 (2018). PubMed Google Scholar 2. Smaglik, P. Nature 518, 127–128 (2015). PubMed Article Google Scholar 3. Ankrum, J. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05823-5 (2018). Article Google Scholar 4. Trant, J. Nature 560, 307 (2018). Article Google Scholar Download references
Finding Job Satisfaction in Technology Transfer
As a business development officer at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver, Canada, Ben Thiede evaluates new technologies and negotiates deals that bring scientific advances to market. He describes his move from graduate studies toward law and into his current position. What do you do? It’s a very diverse role; I’m writing and drafting a lot of agreements – like license agreements and supply agreements. I’m helping the company evaluate the patents we have; I’m evaluating technologies that other companies are bringing to us. I’m always scouring publications; I have Google Alerts set for certain types of technologies. I feel that I am reading more scientific journals than when I was in grad school. What appealed to you about careers that did not involve lab work? I wanted a career where you could get paid for your efforts. I was disheartened with science. I was in a position where you could be chasing so many hypotheses, and you could lose a whole lot of work if they didn’t pan out. Why did you go to graduate school? I’m the first scientist in my family. I got interested in stem cells because I was living in Wisconsin, where Jamie Thomson was becoming very well known for being the first to isolate human embryonic stem (hES) cells. I worked in his lab as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; then I worked as a research assistant differentiating hES cells into neurons. I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience. I went to visit the University of Virginia after Madison had had the biggest snowfall in history; it was 75 degrees and sunny, and it had a good neuroscience program. I wanted to stay with differentiating stem cells and studied a sensory cell in the inner ear. And you also worked as an intern at the University of Virginia Patent Foundation. I did it during the day, about 10 to 15 hours on average per week. At night I studied for the patent bar to be a patent agent, which means you can write patents and prosecute them. It’s very helpful knowledge for tech transfer. My PhD advisor was fine with it, as long as I got my research done. What did you do next? When I was in tech transfer, my goal was to go to law school; I applied to several law schools and got accepted, even a full ride to one school. But I wasn’t quite certain that I wanted to do law school, and I’d heard that law school was something you needed to be 100% certain about. Then I got a job offer from Texas A&M University. The law school let me defer for a year, and so I went to Texas to be a tech transfer agent. I came to the realization that the marriage of business, science and law within tech transfer was perfect for me, and I didn’t think that a law degree would add anything to what I wanted to do. How did you find your current job? When I was at Texas A&M, my wife and I had thrown around the idea, ‘let’s live internationally.’ Then I came across an opportunity at a company in Canada called STEMCELL Technologies. The job description said how beautiful Vancouver is, how close to the beach and the mountains. I thought ‘this opportunity is kind of like tech transfer, but it’s from the other end.’ And it was in stem cells. I called my wife and said ‘I know you want to live internationally, does Canada count?’ What are your days like? When I go into work, I have a list of ten things I want to get done and 30 things come up that I wasn’t expecting. I never know who I’m going to interact with. In science I was very independent and relying on my own creativity a lot, and now I feel a greater sense of the whole; I’m part of an organization now. Any final thoughts? It would have been hard to break into the field without any experience. I don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t done my internship, and I got my internship by talking to the person who was fitting my suit [and whose son-in-law worked in a patent office]. Sometimes people who do science have a hard time with small talk and learning to communicate their interests, but that’s one of the skills people need to learn. I’ve had these opportunities because I’ve worked hard to show that I’m worth taking a risk on. To see more of this interview, click here.
How one Canadian scientist is tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous communities
Jean Polfus, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, studies the distribution and spatial organization of caribou (or reindeer; Rangifer tarandus) populations in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories. She explains how she collaborates with members of the Dene Indigenous community, and how their insights benefit her research. Why was it important to you to work with Indigenous communities? In 2012, the local community-run institutions responsible for resources such as fish, wildlife and forests got together and drafted a resolution asking that Dene traditional knowledge, laws, traditions and language be respected and represented in any caribou research going forward. I adapted my work in response to this community initiative and developed memoranda of understanding with the communities to dictate how that should be done — the research questions to pursue and the methods that local people considered appropriate to carry out research. I developed a way to do caribou research that respected local people and included them in all phases of the research process. Recommended articles Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style > Why are Canada’s scientists getting political? > How did you incorporate traditional knowledge into your scientific work? My colleagues and I asked people to help us collect caribou scat, and we gave Can$25 (US$19) fuel cards for every sample they brought in. Once we had some of the genetic results from the scat, we analysed those results in collaboration with Dene people to see how traditional knowledge and language about what type of caribou lived where matched up with what the genetic data were telling us. The results from the genetic analysis and accompanying discussions showed that we could distinguish different types of caribou genetically, and that those genetic groupings matched with how Dene people use language to describe the types of caribou. This understanding can help both the community and scientists develop better conservation plans for caribou in the region. What did you learn from the Indigenous communities? Dene people have such nuanced language to describe caribou. They have words for types of caribou that we don’t identify in conventional classification and taxonomies. For example, there’s the Tęnatł'ǝa which is a type of mountain caribou with unique markings and behaviour. This word wouldn’t exist in their language if it wasn’t essential to understanding the caribou and how to hunt them effectively. Tęnatł'ǝawarrant further study because they might harbour unique genetic diversity and could play an important part in caribou population dynamics. All of that is tied to the detailed and place-based knowledge that we often disregard in Western science because we’re trying to find standardized approaches. And when we try to standardize biodiversity, we lose some of the nuance and some of the beauty. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.