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What to be with a PhD. (Banff science writing assignment, 2010)

Looking out, I saw a sea of familiar faces. Anxious faces. Faces peering up at the speakers on the dais, searching for a reflection of themselves. I had learned these faces at seminars and networking events on science-related career pathways. We would meet again and again, as well-dressed representatives described careers that might, just might, be hiring PhDs. Most weren’t.

There are many more PhDs than “traditional” academic jobs. The number of doctorates in the biomedical sciences increased by 54% between 1980 and 1995, and is increasing still, while the number of academic faculty positions remained almost the same. This surfeit of PhDs often end up unemployed and grossly underutilized.

As the Canadian government implements its Science and Technology Strategy to encourage more students to obtain PhDs, the question looms: what will become of the ones we already have?

Earning a PhD in the sciences takes between 5 to 8 years. This is longer than any other professional degree and the least likely to be rewarded monetarily. Students accept this dubious bargain because they are motivated by the ideal of contributing to the advancement of knowledge and one day being the head of their own laboratory.

But in reality, there are not nearly enough of these positions. This imbalance between job seekers and jobs leads to a pyramid scheme that has become the foundation of the research process: several PhDs do the bulk of the research for one faculty member. After graduation, PhDs spend years in low paid training positions, called post-docs, with only a small chance of this dedication netting them their goal.

Martin Hudson, now a tenure-track professor in neuroscience at the Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, is an example of a science PhD who battled against the odds. It wasn’t easy. He spent 11 years in 4 post-docs, submitted 126 applications over 4 years, and was separated from his wife and child for over a year, before finally landing his position. He describes this as the “ruthless reality of academia” and states that he “was seriously considering the end. No more science. Nothing. Gone. Walking away. 15 years of academic endeavor down the drain.”

The reality of few jobs for many also has an impact on the science itself. Post-docs desperate to earn the credentials required for an academic position feel pressured to compete instead of collaborate—while collaboration remains an essential component of the scientific method. An extremely talented post-doc at the University of San Francisco, with a PhD from Stanford University (who wishes to remain anonymous), accepted a job at a small biotech company. He chose to leave academia when he personally experienced what he had thought were rumors of sabotage between post-docs in his laboratory: “there is an intent to make other people’s jobs harder.”

Perhaps shockingly, he and Martin are the lucky ones. Megan Hall, who has a PhD from UCLA, spent 7 years in graduate school and 6 in two post-docs, before she became a secondary victim to her advisor’s loss of funding. She is “disgusted with the whole field” and looking for work away from the bench.

Although such “alternative” careers do exist, most scientists like Megan have had little training outside of the laboratory. John Spiro, who has a PhD from the University of San Diego and did post-doctoral work at Duke University, left academic research to become an editor at Nature magazine and now works at the Simons Foundation, a non-profit granting foundation for autism research. Although his own transition was very successful, he confirms that “only lip service is given to things you can do with a PhD that don’t involve running a lab.”

For Megan, the experience has been “less confusing, than just demoralizing.” She has reached out to contacts in several fields, but remains unemployed.

Despite thousands of similar stories of trial and heartbreak among brilliant and talented scientists, the field has been slow to admit the problem. Those with the loudest voices are the small percentage who have managed to scramble to the top of the pyramid and benefit from its structure. Yet, the only way we can ensure that valuable PhD training is not going to waste, is if we accept that not all PhDs will end up in academic positions. Only then will PhD programs provide the relevant training, and advisors the appropriate mentorship, for the majority of doctorates.

Years of hard work and training go into earning a PhD, as well as significant government resources through grants and training. Instead of convincing students to enter the sciences, we should invest in those we promised a world of opportunity that no longer exists. A curious mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but so is a PhD.


Day 122- Ducklings

Siblings 122/365

Never is the evolutionary imperative that encourages us to take care of our young more apparent, than when observing babies– of all species. But before I wax on about the irresistibility of the ducklings pictured above, I will point out that I am not immune to the human variety. A co-worker can attest to this, based on the squeaks and squeals he witnessed today as I looked at baby pictures on an iPad. I did pet the iPad, and not just because it was an iPad.

But, back to the ducks, as they are the subject of this post after all. I have already described in several posts how families of Mallard ducks come and mate in our campus fountains, but I finally have the pictures to prove it. And not just pictures of extremely fluffy ducklings (see below for maximal fluffiness), but evidence of a rare, genetic abnormality– an albino duckling!

Chad, as he has been named to tease a certain Restaurant Associates manager who works nearby, is like a little real life Ugly Duckling, although he will grow up to be a mostly white duck, not a swan. He is, almost certainly, completely unaware of his difference, and yet it is so apparent to all watching as he bobs around the pond like a fluorescent highlighter.

What I observed on Thursday while watching him swim with his two siblings, was that he was by far the boldest and most adventurous of the three. Any doubts I might have had that animals can have distinct personalities (and as a pet owner I truly had no doubts) were set aside one day, years ago, when I watched a mother raccoon guide a large litter of her pups across our garden. She wanted them to climb up a tree, so that they could jump over the fence into the garden next door. All of them dutifully followed her–all, that is, except for two, very different (although physically identical) pups. Lagging raccoon #1 would not jump because he was scared. He hovered on the edge of the fence, trembling, while mom called to him from the other side. He inched closer and closer to the edge and finally, hesitantly, dropped himself over. This is when Raccoon #2 realized he was now alone in my yard, because he had been having just too much fun exploring to follow mum. He rushed up to the fence, but instead of jumping over right away, he climbed up a branch that reached even higher than the fence top, held on as the branch sagged into the neighboring yard, and let himself drop off–backwards.

Chad is similar to Raccoon #2. It was time to jump into the pool, because Chad jumped first. It was time to dive under the barrier to swim to the second pool, because Chad did so–and so on. From the way his siblings happily, and Mom begrudging, followed, it seemed unlikely that any of them were aware that he was different, “challenged” perhaps–certainly not Chad.

I wish Chad the best. Not all the duckling that are born into these fountains survive. Currently there is Chad’s mom with 3, another mom with 6 and a third with 8 babies. At various times mothers and fathers succumb to the pressures of this over-crowding and atrocities occur. I am in the unique position this season of rooting for one specific duckling, one that I can follow and miss (should he go missing). The good news, however, is that I am not alone. Everyone has fallen in love with Chad and intends to protect him, especially–apparently–his human namesake.

More duckling pics, from the other families, below.

Just try not to pet the screen



Day 118- Gulls

Over the Waves 118/365

During the day, Long Beach is more of a playground than it is a habitat. As I sat by myself as day turned into evening, however, and as the tide began to recede, gulls started to arrive. Not the ratty scavenger gulls of picnic grounds, but maritime gulls pecking at mollusks– and even those of the black-headed variety.

I spoke in an earlier post about how seeing Buffle Heads on the East River transports me, for a brief moment, to the arctic tundras where they spend their summers. These Black Headed gulls also, belong mostly further north. Their North American range is described as being as “far south as Long Island” and they also breed “from southern Greenland through most of Europe and central Asia to Kamchatka and northeast China”. It is still amazing to me with birds, how they can travel so many miles and end up anywhere: at a fountain on a campus or at a crowded Long Island beach. There is something humbling about this, about how they have chosen this tiny patch of our world, out of so many other potential sites.

In the photo below, a gull shows off his plumage to a group of beach-goers. I was the only one watching.

Black Gull

Day 116- Heading out

Fern 116/365

Friday I headed out from the city on the LIRR, but this shot was taken well within NYC– at the Rockefeller University campus.
Perhaps one day I will run out of plant life to photograph just outside my work door. But, I haven’t yet.

Day 114-Keepsakes

Painted Garden 114/365

Note- To catch up with my very very behind blog, some of the following posts will be short.
To prevent me from getting this behind again, short, brief comments on my photos will be allowed in the future.

The picture above is of an antique china piece I “inherited” from my parents. Inherited is in quotation marks, because both parents are very much alive. The “very much” connotes the fact that they have a wonderful, and yet often exhausting and occasionally vexing, continued impact on my life.

The piece was one of my favorite little treasures from our antique filled Niagara summer house, that I regularly mourn through the infuriating and uncontrollable venue of recurring dreams. I truly loved this place and memories of it travel with me through all seasons. In spring, a few tulips purchased from the corner store stand in for the 100s of bulbs that my father and I planted one fall (swollen frozen fingers, brought back to life under a hot tap were a small price to pay for the explosion of color we were rewarded with in all subsequent springs). In summer, a whiff of freshly mowed grass and any taste of fresh fruit, brings me back to summers where entire days were spent on blankets on the lawn, eating bags and bags of fresh, local cherries purchased at farm stands on the side of the road. Even the excessive Christmas decorations draped all over my apartment come December are an homage to Niagara–to a place that was once the actual set for a “perfect Christmas town” in a Hollywood movie.

And, on my counters and shelves, amidst the somewhat modern decor I have put together for a NY apartment, and furniture purchased from Target and Ikea, I have placed a few of my favorite pieces from this home.

Below is a picture of Ayla, sleeping by two lamps and a vase also from this collection.


Day 107- Watching Lost

Watching Lost 107/365

[Note, there will be spoilers. Mostly in the early seasons, but I may mention lines from the last few episodes. You may not want to read if you’re not caught up, or are a newbie.]

This will be a rare post for me, as it will venture in the world of popular culture– something I seem to generally avoid. I suppose when my general blog premise is running, science, writing, and photography, this doesn’t leave much room for the glib world of entertainment. But, as millions of viewers have likely said before me, Lost is different.

I used to be a skeptic. I did not watch the first season and thus, any attempts I made to watch in later seasons were met with confusion and ensuing annoyance. I tuned in expecting to see the characters on a deserted Island, and instead saw them in yellow clapboard houses with picket fences. Characters I had thought were good guys seemed to be bad guys, and there was this odd pillar of smoke that sounded like a printing taxi receipt (not my observation, but a good one) . I remember watching the episode when Kate, having returned to the island and three years back in time, encounters Juliet working for the Dharma Initiative. There were deep and intense gazes exchanged between them, signaling to me the presence of a back story I did not understand. In my wildest imaginings I might have guessed at one, but never all, of the actual three scenarios: escape and return to the island, time travel and a love triangle.

Shortly after Christmas a friend gave me a copy of Lost season one. This led to an interesting exchange at a store when the clerk saw it in my purse as I opened it to retrieve my wallet:
Him: “OMG you got Lost!”
Me: “I’m not lost?!”
This enthusiasm on his part might have given me a taste of what I was in for, but I could not have predicted the level of my ensuing addition. Two months and the purchase of a Roku instant Netflix viewer later, I was caught up and ready to join my friends in their Lost viewing parties.

I am now a member of the cult, president of the fan club, drinker of the Kool-aid, whichever moniker you may prefer. As we watched last night, a previous version of myself entered the room, just in time to hear Charles Whidmore say, “I brought Desmond to the Island because of his unique resistance to electromagnetism.” I could feel his scorn, or perhaps heard it in his audible scoff. And yet, to me, it now made so much sense. Sense that cannot be conveyed in words. You have to watch, I told him, something that had been told to me before– when I was the non-believer. As he left the room, and a character on the screen spoke of the destruction of the island, he jokingly commented, “Yeah, nuke that island!”. “Oh no,” we corrected him, “that’s already happened. It didn’t destroy it. Just created an alternate reality.”

I have a feeling there will be one less convert entering our fold.

Day 105- Roof top

Roof 105/365

This photo was taken from the roof of my gym, which is, at any particular time, a very interesting place.
In the winter, we used to run up to the roof with my boot camp class, emerging gasping for air and happy for the cool breeze. Those of us near the front would be able to sneak in maybe 30 seconds of rest, before our instructor would appear, and yell for us to do squats (seemingly her exercise of choice after stair running). Those nights the roof would be deserted, and we would feel like naughty children entering someplace where we weren’t sure we were allowed.

Now, heading up to the roof on a sunny Saturday, I feel out of place in my work-out clothes: like I’ve decided to wear sweats to a Jersey Shore pool party. The roof is filled with bikini clad ladies, often without the top, toasting their already sun-wrinkled skin. The beauty cycle for these ladies appears to be tan, wrinkle, face-lift, repeat. There are also the men, men I have never seen in the actual gym, with beer (more likely wine) bellies and hair plugs. This is the older generation. The younger generation still sports happy looking skin, although this can’t be for long. They drink beer (the roof now has a liquor license) and read magazines. I have headed up here a few weekends, to eat my lunch outdoors after my morning work-out. There is a grill on the roof, and tables. What there isn’t, is shade. The roof should be named a tanning parlor, as that is the primary purpose of all who go there. I huddle in the corner, catching what shade I can, or lie down to nap, covered with a towel.

Monday night, before my yoga class, I headed up there again to snap a picture. It was once again deserted, the lawn chairs pushed to the sides. Here I felt at home, breathing in some of the fresh moist evening, before heading back indoors. This wasn’t the NY-State outdoor air that I ran through all weekend, but here in NYC it would have to do.