Monday, March 7, 2016

The BSD PDA at the 2016 National Postdoctoral Association Annual Meeting!

This past weekend the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) held their annual meeting in Grand Rapids, MI on “Supporting Postdocs, Promoting Discovery”.  Five BSD postdocs traveled to the meeting to talk about the BSD PDA Survey Committee’s 2016 National Postdoctoral Survey, Future of Research symposia with colleagues from New York and Boston, and to present posters on FOR Chicago and Outreach efforts. 

The leaders of the BSD PDA Survey Committee, Erica Westerman, Joe Pierre, and Sean McConnell facilitated the workshop, “Creating a National Postdoctoral Survey: A Way of Seeing an ‘Invisible’ Population”. First, Erica Westerman introduced the need for a national postdoc survey and shared some of the data analysis from past BSD PDA surveys to highlight the kinds of information that could be gained nationally. The BSD PDA Survey Committee has surveyed our postdoctoral population since 1999-2000.  Nancy Schwartz, Dean of Postdoctoral Affairs, gave specific examples of how the BSD PDA and Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs have utilized survey data to inform divisional and institutional postdoc policies (e.g. salary/benefits, mentor training for postdocs, and the complaint resolution process) over the past 16 years.  Joe Pierre and Sean McConnell led a discussion with the audience of postdocs, administrators, and postdoc advisors on the process of creating a national survey and ideas on how to disseminate the survey to postdocs.

Kyle Dolan, co-lead organizer of Future of Research (FOR) Chicago, worked with postdocs Rodoniki Athanasiadou (New York University, NYU Postdocs Interdisciplinary Symposium) and Sarah Mazzilli (Boston University, FOR Boston) to hold an Innovation in Action session on “Creating Policy-Focused Regional Symposia for Grassroots Advocacy”. In this session, the audience learned from regional Future of Research leaders on what goes into planning a FOR symposium. In small groups, the attendees worked on different aspects of planning a symposium on postdoc advocacy with actionable ideas to bring back to their region or home institution.

Kristina Martinez, PDA President and co-chair of the Teaching and Outreach Committee, presented the poster “Scientific Outreach: University of Chicago Lab Tour for South Side Chicago Youth,” authors were Kristina Martinez, Abby Stayart, Nate Boylan, Andrew Chidester, Cara Froyd, Laurie Risner, and Nancy Schwartz.  Kyle Dolan presented the poster on “Postdoctoral Advocacy in Action: Lessons from the Future of Research Chicago Symposium,” authors were Kyle Dolan, Rianne Ellenbroek, Erin Heckler, and Nancy Schwartz.  Kyle Dolan won the first place award for this poster!

Nancy Schwartz was a plenary speaker on the “Managing Your Postdoc: Mastering the Core Competencies” panel and moderated sessions on postdoc career development collaborations with the PDA/OGPA, UChicago GRAD and myCHOICE and with the NRMN CIC Academic Network. In addition to all of her work supporting postdocs here as Dean of Postdoctoral Affairs, Nancy Schwartz has also been involved on the national level advocating for postdocs for many years.  Nancy served on the founding NPA Advisory Board among her many other advocacy efforts to support postdocs. In recognition of all these, Nancy Schwartz received this year’s NPA Distinguished Service Award! She gave an inspiring acceptance speech thanking the nominating committee and lauding all postdocs involved in active PDAs, especially giving a “shout-out” to the Future of Research organization while reminding the audience that “we are all postdocs”.

Overall, the annual NPA meeting was a very informative weekend where the BSD PDA presented their work and shared ideas with other postdocs and PDAs from around the nation.  We brought back many new ideas that we will discuss at the next PDA Steering Committee meeting and at the Friday seminar series on April 15 in conjunction with the Public Affairs Committee who will present their experiences from the AAAS Annual meeting!

If you are interested in learning more about the annual NPA meeting, the agenda is on the NPA webpage or you can look up #NPA2016 on Twitter.  Because the University of Chicago is a sustaining NPA member, all postdocs are eligible for free affiliate membership which will give you greater access to the web resources.  You can learn more about the BSD PDA on our website or by attending our next meeting!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Future Is Ours: Make Your Voices Heard, Postdocs!

Back in undergrad I would have never imagined in 11 years I would become a postdoc. At the time, I did not know that postdocs existed. It was not until recently that I discovered that the person who mentored me during my summer research project was a postdoc. So what is this mysterious postdoc?

The National Postdoctoral Association’s definition of a postdoc is: “an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring scholarly, scientific and/or professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” 1

This sounds like a fantastic position! If this is what a postdoc is supposed to be then why does the rest of the world not know more about us?

Sadly, the answer is that reality falls short of the expectations on paper. 

Jorge Cham of PhD comics said it right. 2 A postdoc is like limbo where more times than not we are biding our time until we figure out what to do with our lives. 

You might be thinking that this is some overdramatic feeling. Everyone hates their job at one point or another. It cannot be that bad, right?


As Kendall Powell reported, postdocs are overcrowded and underpaid. 3 How can such a large workforce make almost half of the salary that non-postdoc person? Perhaps it is a case of supply and demand where the supply of postdocs is so great that people can toss out tinier wages due to resource competition.

By this point, you might ask why postdocs are putting up with this garbage. Postdocs should walk away from this lifestyle and find more jobs! That would be nice, except for the fact that majority of academic labs are still pushing for scientists to go the route of being a Principal Investigator. It is like an apprenticeship, where the master teaches the student to become like them and carry the torch of research. That would be nice except that…

Alberts et al., have shown that the number of young investigators becoming Principal Investigators and securing grant funding for their labs are on the decline. 4 Perhaps this is one reason why people have been doing postdocs over 10 years. People are hungry for a position but the reality of it is that jobs in academia are too far and few in between. There are plenty of jobs in other sectors such as industry, government, and non-profits where their skills acquired during their PhD and postdoc could be applied. However, many PhDs are lacking the training and mentoring to know how to look for those jobs, let alone land them. The postdoc is truly stuck in limbo waiting for their big escape.

And thus the postdoc remained unheard of…until now.

Organizations like the National Postdoctoral Association advocate for the better treatment of postdocs. Amongst other things, they have helped fight for higher pay, recognition of postdocs at institutions, capping the training period to 5 years, and encourage the mentoring and training needed to successfully transition postdocs into a variety of careers.

Nationwide, there is a movement called the Future of Research 5 where these issues and more are being brought to light. Symposia organized by postdocs themselves are being launched in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Chicago.

This is where we need your voices postdocs!

Let us change how the world sees postdocs so that we will no longer remain invisible. A postdoc should be a training period that will aid in developing the skills to pursue any career that he or she wants. It is our responsibility as postdocs now to ensure that future generations of postdocs get treated with respect and this training is a viable option for undergraduates and graduate students to consider.

Because I am a postdoc in the Midwest, I want to spread the word about our local Future of Research Symposium in Chicago is happening on October 29, 2015, from 8:00 am – 5:30 pm. 6

FORChicago will be a one-day series of panel discussions and participant-led workshops with the aim to:
  • Illuminate the fundamental challenges in training scientists in today’s research climate
  • Propose solutions to equip the STEM postdoctorate to be leaders in diverse paths of the future career landscape
  • Initiate a dialogue with key stakeholders in the Chicago area about embracing the rich community of PhD-trained talent as drivers of innovation
Registration for the event is now open:

I know I will be there. Will you?

If you are a postdoc, know postdocs, or are an advocate for postdocs please spread the word.


Written by Natasha Wadlington, Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago. 

Opinions stated are of my own belief and not directly associated with the organizations and people mentioned in this article. All images are from their respective references listed above.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Illinois Elections 2014--A Brief Guide to the Candidates

Election Day is tomorrow, and here in Illinois there are a number of races being contested that will shape the policy landscape at the local, state, and federal levels for years to come. But where do the candidates stand on policies that matter to postdocs, regarding science, education, and the like? We’ve put together this guide to help postdocs understand how their elected officials might approach science-related policy, based on previous actions and the stated positions from the candidates’ own websites. Please note: this is not an endorsement of any candidate, nor a comprehensive guide on their positions. For more in-depth information of the platforms each person is running on, we recommend visiting their websites.

We hope you’ll find this helpful. Don’t forget to vote!

Governor: Pat Quinn (D, incumbent) vs Bruce Rauner (R)  
by Ann Fitzpatrick

The race for Governor of Illinois is as close as it can get with polls putting Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner both on 50%.  Both candidates are strongly campaigning on job creation and the importance of education, but what does this mean for science funding? That is far less clear and neither candidate’s website addresses research or science policy directly. Governor Quinn’s website states that everyone should have the opportunity to get a higher education and puts a figure of $6 billion for increase in classroom spending.  Healthcare and the environment are also issues Governor Quinn is campaigning and these need the support of science research to flourish. Bruce Rauner is also running on education as a key issue although this is focused on high school and early education.  As Rauner is the newcomer, with no previous government experience, perhaps it isn’t shocking that the main issues he is campaigning on are spending, taxes and government reforms. Yet there are few specifics about what this would entail, other than repealing some taxes introduced by Governor Quinn.


U.S. Senator: Dick Durbin (D, incumbent) vs Jim Oberweis (R)
by Cara Froyd

Dick Durbin
   Supports strengthening the Clean Air Act as a mean to counteract climate change
   Introduced the American Cures Act, which would provide an 5% annual increase over inflation for biomedical research, in 2014
   Chairman of Appropriation Subcommittee on Department of Defense
   On Appropriation Subcommittee on Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies (includes NIH budget)
   Supports programs promoting math and science education and increasing an emphasis on technology and engineering skills development

Jim Oberweis
   Is not convinced climate change is caused by humans

Illinois 1st Congressional District: Bobby Rush (D, incumbent) vs Jimmy Lee Tillman (R)
by Kyle Dolan

Bobby Rush has represented the 1st District of Illinois since 1993. He currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Power. According to On The Issues, Rush “strongly favors” increased funding and development of clean energy.

Jimmy Lee Tillman II is “a political strategist,[…] talk show host, and historian” according to his campaign website. He is focusing on urban social issues including tackling homelessness among youth and improving reintegration of former prisoners into society, particularly female prisoners.

Illinois 2nd Congressional District: Robin Kelly (D, incumbent) vs. Eric Wallace (R)
by Elizabeth Little

Although little is publicly known about either candidate’s views on biomedical issues, this race could have broad implications given that Representative Kelly currently serves on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and the subcommittee for Research and Technology.  Most notably, looking at Healthcare Reform, both appear to tow their respective party lines – with Rep. Kelly voting against both House Amendment 450 (requiring Congressional approval for changes to Affordable Care Act) and HR 2009 (preventing the IRS from enforcing penalties under the Affordable Care Act) while Dr. Wallace calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Representative Kelly was voted into office in the 2013 special election to fill the seat left open by Jesse Jackson Jr.’s resignation.  She previously served in the Illinois House of Representatives and as Chief of Staff for the Illinois State Treasurer.   She holds a PhD in Political Science.  Dr. Wallace earned a PhD in Biblical Studies and worked as President and CEO of Wallace Publishing.  He has recently served as co-Chairman of the Cook Country Republican Party and on the African American Advisory Board for the Republican National Committee. 

Illinois 11th Congressional District: Bill Foster (D, incumbent) vs Darlene Senger (R)
by Kyle Dolan

Bill Foster was re-elected to represent the 11th District in 2012, two years after losing his seat in Congress to a Republican challenger. He holds a Ph.D. in physics and formerly worked at Fermilab. He is also a businessman and co-founder of Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. He serves on the House Committee on Financial Services. Foster’s legislative record shows consistent support for science, including sponsorship of several bills aimed at increasing science budgets and improving STEM educational programs.

Darlene Senger is a state legislator representing District 41 in the Illinois House of Representatives. Prior to her political career, Senger worked in the financial industry. According to her campaign website, she is focusing on lowering taxes, reforming economic regulations, and scaling back or repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Local Postdoc Foodie Adventures: The Sequel

By Natasha Wadlington, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar

At our last adventure, a few members of the BSD Postdoctoral Association Social Committee had the pleasure of going to the first Hyde Park Restaurant Crawl hosted by the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce (HPCC). So impressed were we with the food, we jumped at the opportunity to go again when the second crawl was announced. This time we were accompanied by postdoc, Wenqi Yu, for her first social meet up with the Postdoctoral Association. 

After arriving, we had the chance to talk with HPCC’s Executive Director, Mr. Wallace E. Goode, Jr. and staff. I was particularly delighted to find out that I was the first person to sign up for the second crawl.  Once we checked in, we received a map of all the 8 local businesses participating: Cafe 53, Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, Hyde Park Produce Market, Kimbark Beverage Shoppe, The Sit Down Cafe, Shinju Sushi, Yusho and ZBerry

Across from the registration area was Yusho so we decided to go there first. This was a new addition to the 53rd street restaurants and I was highly anticipating what I would get there. We were told to go to a side window to pick up our soft serve ice cream.  Luckily, the weather was cooperative this crawl and we looked forward to the cool treat. The ice cream was very flavorful and reminded me of a popular cinnamon based cereal.

Next, we stopped by the three places in the Kimbark Plaza shopping center. Cedar’s was first, where we were invited to sit in and share fresh hummus on pita bread. The warm bread and hummus was a nice contrast to the ice cream we had previously. 

Eating our fill, we decided to go to Kimbark Beverage Shoppe next. This was a welcome addition because one of the problems we had at the previous crawl was the lack of drinks available after eating all of the good food. There, we grabbed a mocktail to quench our thirst.    

From there, we proceeded outside to Hyde Park Produce and were greeted warmly by the staff. They suggested that we try a little sauerkraut on our Boar’s Head hot dog. We never thought of trying that combination on a hot dog and we were glad we did. The combination complemented each other nicely.  We topped that off with a big fruit cup filled with watermelon, kiwi fruit, grapes, oranges, and more.

While the first restaurant crawl was filled with delicious food, it took us while to get full but this time around no one was holding back and gave us very satisfying portions. Despite the filling dilemma, we continued our trek to the next restaurant which was The Sit Down Cafe. We were greeted and allowed to sit down at a table. The atmosphere was really nice and the presentation of the food was really good. Once again, the portions were very generous with our Asian salad and spicy crab rolls. 

Our next restaurant stop was Zberry. This place I was looking forward to because a woman we met at the first crawl was the owner and she had informed us that she would be participating in this second crawl. We were not disappointed as we tried samples of their selected frozen yogurt to see which flavor we liked the best. We also had the option of picking a swirl of two flavors for our sample cup. Although we did not have it on our sample, we saw several customers come in and put on multiple toppings that looked delicious. It was really good and it’s a nice place to stop by after lab or work to get a tasty froyo treat.

The second to last destination was Shinju Sushi. Although the place was a little crowded, we were greeted warmly by the staff. Luckily for us, the rolls were already prepared for us to eat. Not only did they have for us the California roll sample and the vegetable maki roll sample but they also gave us a nigiri piece and seaweed salad on the side. The most appealing part of this restaurant is that it offers an all you can eat buffet for lunch and dinner. So any postdocs that want to gorge themselves on sushi but don’t want to travel too far from campus, this would be the place to go.

Our final destination was Cafe 53. When we got to the counter we ordered our food and was told to go to the back patio. This would have been fine but it was pitch black outside. The other food crawlers had a great sense of humor and turned on their cell phones so that we could see the available tables.  Despite a wait, when the corned beef panini came out it complimented the outdoorsy feel of the situation. We joked how it was like dining under starlight at a camping site.

This restaurant crawl was very impressive to say the least. We were all pleasantly surprised with how much food we were given and the quality of it all. There are truly some restaurant gems in Hyde Park and I would personally encourage all postdocs out there to explore the many options presented at both crawls. Hopefully in the future, there will be another installment. I’ll be ready and hope to see some of you postdocs join us next time. (Photos by Natasha Wadlington)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Scientists on Capitol Hill -- by Elizabeth Little, PhD

On Tuesday September 9th, I joined 19 other young scientists to take over Washington, D.C. as part of Hill Day, sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  Twice a year, ASBMB hosts this jam-packed day of meetings to communicate the needs of the science community to members of the United States Congress.  Chiefly, we were putting out the call to increase NIH funding for Fiscal Year 2015 to $32 billion (and $7.2 billion for NSF).  These numbers may seem mind-boggling (one member of my advocacy group kept confusing billions and millions…pretty big difference) but the fact is that it doesn’t even represent an actual increase for NIH funding; instead, science advocates are just trying to keep up with inflation rates and maintain purchasing power, which has decreased 22% over the last 10 years. I can confidently state we’re all feeling the effects of the deflated NIH budget. 

During Hill Day, ASBMB splits up the young scientists to groups of 2 or 3, each led by a Public Affairs Advisory Committee member (an established researcher serving an advocacy role in the ASBMB).  My team was led by a department chair at University of Massachusetts and included an undergraduate at Ashford University in Iowa and a PhD candidate at University of Nebraska.  We spent the day running around Capitol Hill meeting with Congressional staffers from our group’s states (12 meetings in total for our little group!).  From the Illinois side, we got to meet with the offices of Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin and Representatives Bobby Rush (IL District 1) and Robin Kelly (IL District 4).  All told, ASBMB Hill Day incorporated 102 meetings with delegations from 32 different states.  Our objectives were pretty simple: provide a “face” to science advocacy.  We went into each meeting, briefly described our research before speaking about the general benefits of biomedical science and how we help improve society.  Then we led into our “ask” to increase NIH and NSF funding along with other ASBMB-supported policy issues, such as immigration reform to retain foreign scientists, enhanced STEM education, and research and development tax credits.  ASBMB provided helpful information on each Congressman we were meeting (biography, policy interests and committees) and some broad advice (“avoid partisanship”, “don’t suggest a program that can be cut to increase NIH funding”) but I was surprised how easy the conversation flowed in the meetings.

Here’s the good news: ultimately, everyone wants to fund biomedical research.  After all, it’s difficult to argue against improved therapies and healthier citizens.  Furthermore, scientific research benefits the national economy, with an estimated $2 return on every dollar invested in the NIH budget.  It’s not too difficult a sell in prosperous times, but in the current economy, it’s important to remind Congress of the worthwhile investment in scientific research.  The real challenge is to communicate why science requires steady, predictable funding and why the government should contribute instead of relying on industrial research.   Only one Congressman questioned how we should fund our proposed NIH increase.  Overall, we met with very encouraging staffers, including those from offices of Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Senator Dick Durbin (IL’s own), both well-known science proponents.  I even had to opportunity to personally meet with Representative Jim McGovern (MA) while he lectured me on all the benefits of funding science research (easiest meeting I’ve ever had). 

 (L to R): Dr. Bob Matthews (UMass Med School), the author, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA)

Unfortunately, our efforts to increase the NIH/NSF budgets will not likely amount to much this year; on September 19th, a Continuing Appropriations Resolution was signed to fund the federal government through December 11th, 2014.  This Continuing Resolution prevents another government shutdown but generally maintains appropriations at the current rates.  Until the government is able to pass a true annual budget, it’s improbable that any continuing appropriations will allow for increased biomedical funding.   That said, it’s increasingly important that scientists take a more active role to promote these interests.  I recommend ASBMB’s Hill Day to any grad students or postdocs who are interested in policy and/or advocacy.  It was a really enjoyable and well-organized adventure (and quite an adrenaline rush).  Spring Hill Day is generally in March and you’re not required to be a member of ASBMB to participate.  In previous years, other professional/advocacy societies – including the Coalition of Life Sciences, Society for Neuroscience, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, PanCan, and American Association for Cancer Research – have hosted similar events.  Short of dedicating a few days to head to D.C., all scientists should help the cause by contacting their representatives in Congress or by getting involved with different professional societies to speak on behalf of biomedical research.  We all understand that the research we do is important, but science cannot live in a vacuum; therefore, it’s essential that we better communicate our value and concerns to both society and our government representatives.

Elizabeth Little is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Medicine.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Can Twitter be a tool for science?

By Ann Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

Do you tweet about science?  Would you consider using twitter to find out about the latest science?  

Science magazine has recently published an article(1) about the K-index, based on an article written by biologist Neil Hall at Liverpool University in the UK (The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists, Genome Biology, 2014 (2)).  The K-index, named after Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, attempts to compare a scientist’s fame by ranking them according to the number of twitter followers they have, normalized by the amount of citations their scientific publications have received. 

I don’t know how I feel about this.

I think this is because I’ve always seen social media as separate to the science that I do.  Sure, it has been the first to inform me of a celebrity’s arrest/death/misdemeanor, and that quiz to find out which city I should really be living in, but I’ve never used it to follow scientists in my field or to find out how a conference I wasn’t able to attend is going…. I think this could be a mistake, but am I happy with the idea of a K-index ranking how well I’m using social media for my career? Probably not.

In the original article, Hall suggests that those with many twitter followers should be back in the lab publishing more papers and has constructed the K-index such that those with a high value have a lot of followers but [relatively] few citations.  I think this misses the important role that social media is likely to play in the future, especially when it comes to outreach and science communication.  

When you ignore the K-index and look at the scientists with the most twitter followers (The top 50 science stars of twitter), this is what you find:

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Brian Cox
Richard Dawkins

No great surprises, all known for their dedication to science communication, and the use of twitter and other social media tools only seems to be helping them.  I wouldn’t call their twitter fame unwarranted and I wonder what the point of the original article by Hall was?  As he has not provided his K-index for any particular scientist we can only speculate on who he thinks is a “Kardashian of science” with an “overblown public profile”.   

He does have a valid point, which is that often, it is the number of followers a person has rather than any insight or expertise they possess that can dictate how far reaching their influence is, or who can “shout loudest”; but doesn’t this mean we want more scientists on twitter, not less?  

The idea that taking the time to engage in the communication of science is somehow reprehensible or that focusing your career in this way makes you less of a scientist is deeply troubling.  With how few of our politicians and business leaders have the background in science needed to understand a research paper, scientists who are willing to act as advisors and go-betweens are invaluable and this shouldn’t just stop with those in power.  The communication of science to the whole population is also important; social media is likely to be a key tool in reaching as many people as possible.

So instead of pointing to the Kardashians of science and calling them outliers who need to spend more time on “real work”, it should be acknowledged that the future of science communication is vital and its superstars will have more twitter followers than you.

One last point to finish on is that both Hall’s K-index and Science’s “top 50 stars on twitter” found that females were underrepresented (as I assume other minorities are, although this was not addressed in either article).  This is hardly surprising, given that women and minorities are underrepresented both online and in science in general, but that this is cause for concern is hopefully something we can all agree on.  Making science welcoming for all is something I want to be a part of and in order to reach this goal we should be free to use every tool we can.  Social media can reach a lot of people, let’s use if for science. 

1.       1.  Jia You (2014). Who are the science stars of Twitter?, Science, 345:6203 
2.       2.  Neil Hall (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientist, Genome Biology, 15:424