Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Dialogue with Dean Polonsky – The State of the Postdoctoral Enterprise

by Beth A. Russell, Ph.D.

As postdoctoral researchers we work in a microcosm of our labs and our departments, rarely venturing out of our comfort zone. Deans, Provosts, and Presidents come and go with little effect on us but another email in our inbox. It is easy to forget that the University has an administration when one’s entire career seems dependent on the goodwill of a single primary investigator. But I have recently discovered that the administration is not in fact fictional after all. Last month I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the Dean of the Biological Sciences Division (BSD) about the challenges that today’s postdocs face and the ways that the division could expand our opportunities.

Dean Kenneth Polonsky is a soft spoken man with a congenial manner and deep insight. In 2010 He returned to the University of Chicago to head the BSD after an 11 year stretch as Chair of the Department of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and Physician-in-Chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Previously, Dr. Polonsky had spent over 20 years building a considerable reputation as a top diabetes researcher here in Chicago. Most of that work was done here at the University of Chicago. As Dean of the BSD, Dean Polonsky has to be a bridge between very disparate groups. On one side there are the basic sciences departments and academic programs and on the other are the clinical departments, medical school and hospital. While these areas share many issues, they also face different, sometimes conflicting, challenges; the tensions between these two missions were clear during “The State of Enterprise,” a presentation he gave for the faculty the day we met, that I was also invited to attend. The role of mediator-in-chief is not one that I envy but seems to be well suited for our patient and attentive Dean.

In truth, I never expected to have the opportunity to speak with Dean Polonksy. I assumed that my emailed request for a meeting would be replied to with the contact information for another administrator who might be able to help with the BSD Postdoctoral Association’s recent initiatives. Perhaps it was fortuitous timing. I was granted an appointment the very next day, a few hours before his presentation to the faculty. My intention was to start a dialogue between the Dean and the Postdoctoral Association. Many of the issues that postdocs face in the BSD are bigger than a single department and the role of the postdoctoral researcher in the BSD has begun to change as our opportunities to continue in academia have shrunk. It’s easy for the postdoc population to forget about the administration as we go about our experiments but it is just as easy for the administration to forget about us. We are the wallflowers of academia, hovering in a space that is ill-defined. It is unfortunately to the advantage of the faculty and granting agencies that the role of postdocs remains sketchy. In order to advocate for us, the administration faces contention of some of its loudest constituencies. It is much too simple for the administration to forget that we are also members of the University.

By accepting my request, Dean Polonsky signaled a sincere desire to recognize the role that postdocs play in the success of the BSD. He believes that the primary responsibility of the BSD towards postdocs is to provide a good education and research experience. The research tools available to postdocs here are exceptional; the relationship between the postdocs and the primary investigator might be the biggest limiting factor that we face in regard to research success. Dean Polonsky felt that these relationships are generally successful and was resistant to the suggestion of codifying the responsibilities of the postdocs and the PI. He was supportive however, of the postdoctoral association’s work with the provost’s office to develop a grievance policy for postdocs and the recent implementation of the Individual Development Plan in the annual review process. In the future, I hope that we can explore further what actually defines a “good educational experience.” I believe that it should include a strong professional development component. This is one of the primary functions of the BSD Postdoctoral Association and was central to most of my discussion with the Dean. Given the fact that so few of us (14%1) will end up in academic positions, postdocs need to develop skills that support alternative careers. This statistic seemed to come as news to the Dean and his eyes widened as I illustrated the disconnect between the career expectations of University of Chicago postdocs and the realities of the job market. He was supportive of the idea of developing opportunities for internal externships in existing sectors of the division such as the public affairs office and within the hospital administration so that postdocs could have the opportunity to explore alternative careers in-house. He also agreed to fund our initiative to have postdocs attend the 2014 AAAS meeting which will be held in Chicago in February. The world’s largest general science meeting presents an excellent opportunity for postdocs to learn more about and network in alternative scientific careers and develop skills to support academic careers. I suspect it was the 23 professional development workshops available at the meeting that sold him.

The Dean’s generous support has allowed the BSD Postdoctoral Association to hold a lottery for 10 free postdoc registrations and permits us to obtain a group rate of $235pp for any additional University of Chicago postdocs who wish to attend. While we are no longer taking entries for the lottery which about 10% of our postdocs entered, we will soon be announcing winners and begin collecting registration information from postdocs who wish to pay the reduced rate. This opportunity will be open until early January so keep an eye out for more information in upcoming bulletins.

The AAAS meeting initiative is a superb first collaboration between Dean Polonsky and the BSD Postdoctoral Association. We had an excellent meeting and are looking forward to more successful meetings in the future. Unfortunately, this is only the start of our work. In the “State of the Enterprise” presentation Dean Polonsky gave that night we heard about lots of new professors, patient care aims, financial challenges, and wellness promotion and faculty advising programs for medical students. Nary was a word spoken about postdocs. Perhaps the administration thought we were fictional. I hope our new dialogue shows them that we aren’t.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reflections on the AAAS Annual Meeting (back in Chicago this year!)

Here two of our postdoc PDA members from our Public Affairs committee share their experiences attending the AAAS annual meeting, from the last time it was held in Chicago.  The AAAS meeting is returning to Chicago this February, and the PDA would like to encourage all of our UChicago postdocs to attend!

  In 2009, during my second year of graduate school, some friends and I decided that we’d all attend the AAAS Annual Meeting that would be held in Chicago in February. It was 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and AAAS had chosen to honor the great thinker by designing its premier conference around the theme “Our Planet And Its Life: Origins and Futures”. The lineup of talks featured luminaries from the evolutionary biology community such as Sean Carroll and Svante Pääbo, as well as a special address by former Vice President Al Gore, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental advocacy—not to mention an Oscar for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. For us young scientists just a few miles away in Hyde Park, the chance to bask in the glow of so much intellectual star power proved irresistible.
                The meeting took place at the Hyatt conference center on Wacker Drive. Outside, the Chicago winter was in full swing, with frigid blasts of air roaring through downtown and turning sidewalks into ice sheets; but inside, the meeting created a carnival atmosphere. Our foursome wandered among the crowds of attendees, program guides in hand, badges pinned to our shirts, stopping to look into the seemingly endless gallery of rooms where the workshops and symposia were taking place. Going down an escalator, we found ourselves in an open exhibition space. Here there were booths and tables staffed by representatives from scientific societies, publishing companies, and sponsors. I stopped at one table piled with books and monographs on various topics and picked up a small tome on protein crystallography theory and practice, which I thought might help me learn more about the method that would become the primary focus of my dissertation project. Across the room, at the National Science Foundation table, I talked to a woman about her job in science policy and how she had gotten there. It turned out that a few years earlier, she had been in a lab with a friend of mine from college!
                The plenary lectures took place in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, across from the Hyatt. Even though the space looked like it could fit perhaps a thousand people, we got there early to choose seats before the conference-goers arrived en masse. Sean Carroll stepped to the podium first, and presented his talk on the history and future of evolutionary biology with the air of a master storyteller. He was followed by Al Gore, who gave a condensed version of his Inconvenient Truth seminar. The sense of anticipation in the room ahead of Gore’s talk was palpable, and when he concluded, he was met with enthusiastic applause that went on for nearly a minute.
                The experience of attending AAAS 2009 remains a very special memory for me. Having the conference back in Chicago in 2014 is a fantastic opportunity, and if you have the chance to go I would definitely recommend it. You’ll expand your scientific horizons, learn about important matters in science policy, perhaps investigate different career paths or make a new networking connection. But beyond these practical benefits, there’s something else you’ll get too. It’s the sense of community that arises from being around so many people who share your excitement and wonder at the natural world. After all, star power generates not just light, but also warmth.
--Kyle Dolan (Medicine)
       While in graduate school, I managed to get myself to the 2009 AAAS meeting by volunteering as a Session Aide.  In that role, I managed the checklist of speakers for two sessions and ensured that the room was unlocked, the microphones were on, and the speakers knew where to sit.  In exchange for those easy tasks, I got to attend the rest of the conference for free!  It was a fabulous opportunity, one that renewed my enthusiasm for the role of science in society. 
       Many of the scientific sessions were much more about the “big-picture” of science than I normally hear at conferences – about the future of new energy sources such as wind and solar, or the progress and challenges in developing batteries to support a “smart” electricity grid.  I attended a panel about Science Policy in which they speculated on the impact of the newly-elected President Obama’s stance on science.  Later, I sat in the overflow room to watch Al Gore present his argument for why scientists must get involved in changing public policy – I came home so fired up from his talk that I didn’t know what to do with myself.  A fellow UChicago grad student encouraged me to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and together we talked with the leader of that esteemed organization over bites of finger food.  I later joined UCS and have enjoyed being a member ever since.  In the Exhibition Hall, I spoke with representatives from the NSF, NIH, and various national labs, and was invited by several to apply for postdoc positions in their organization (which is what I was hoping for all along).  I also got to learn about Chicago-area science organizations, such as C2ST, and meet the people who were behind them.
       So often, we scientists get caught in our narrow field of expertise and never look up.  The AAAS conference is a great way to lift your head and look around, meet movers and shakers in the broader community, and get excited again about making a contribution to the world.  We are fortunate to have the conference returning to Chicago in February 2014, and I hope many students and postdocs will be able to take advantage of it!
--Rebecca Pompano (Surgery)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review of the Alan Alda Lecture - "Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science”

by: Vineeth Varanasi, PhD, PDA steering committee member

On Friday, September 26th, the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics hosted a lecture by Alan Alda on communicating science, entitled "Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science”.  The idea behind the lecture and the associated workshop was to enable and encourage scientists to communicate clearly and succinctly with the public.

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word Communication merits a revisit, since I think it conveys to a large extent the essence of the lecture.
Communication: The act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings to someone else.
It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or a group of living creatures.

Alan Alda
Why Alan Alda?  Isn’t he the actor from West Wing, the Woody Alan movies or M.A.S.H?  What is an actor doing preaching scientific communication?  These were some of the questions overheard in the audience and I am sure some of the readers have the same questions!  Well, besides being a fantastic actor, Alan Alda hosted “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS from 1993-2005.  The premise of the show is that Alan Alda talks to scientists from various disciplines and tries to understand their work from the perspective of an informed layperson.  Stemming from his experiences talking to scientists over the years hosting the show, he became “convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, but some need help in telling them.”  A result of this effort is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.  Here’s some of what Alda had to say.

Tell a story, with passion.
Start with a simple take home message that you want to convey to the audience. Then tell a story and engage the audience instead of narrating a bunch of facts or data. Alda also highlighted that scientists are the most passionate people that he has met. They are not the most highly paid or the most famous people in the world, but survive on a deep passion for their chosen field of study. However, this passion does not come forth when we present our work. Alda suggests it is OK to project some passion when presenting your work. If you were thrilled to get a result, share the excitement with the audience. If a result crushed you, it is OK to admit that it was unexpected or upsetting. The idea is to make a personal connection and get the audience involved in your “Story”. In the words of Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 minutes, the secret behind a good program (and good communication), is "It's four words every child knows: Tell me a story." The key to good communication is to tell a story and keep it simple.

In order to keep an audience engaged, the speaker has to be “spontaneous” to tailor the message in keeping with the expectations and level of knowledge of the audience.  This also comes in handy in collecting oneself after a challenging question from the audience or other interruptions.  Alda suggests Improv as a tool to increase spontaneity.  Improv or improvisational theater is a form of Performance Theater where most of the script is created at the moment it is performed.  An example of this would be the television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”  Alda runs courses in improv for scientists at the Alda Center, with promising results that he shared with the audience in before and after testimonials.

Curse of Knowledge
This brings us to what I thought was the highlight of the seminar. Alda argues that the main hurdle to effective scientific communication is the “Curse of knowledge”.  Coined by film and TV composer Robin Hogarth, the curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias because of which better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.  In other words, we forget what it was like before we gained all the knowledge that we now have.  This cognitive gap not only appears between scientists and lay people, but also between scientists from different disciplines.  Alda ran a simple experiment to demonstrate this.  He asked an audience member to drum the words of a song without the tune.  Most of the audience failed to recognize the song based on the beats of the words, without the tune.  Due to the curse of knowledge, the presenter has the complete song with both the tune and the words in their head, but end up drumming out the words without a tune.  Therefore the message is lost on most of the audience.

Alan Alda touched on some really interesting points on scientific communication during his lecture.  The Kavli institute at the University of Chicago has just started a collaborative program with the Alan Alda Center, raising hope that there will be more such lectures and workshops in the not so distant future.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Chicago Area Organizations of Interest to Postdocs

C2ST -- C²ST seeks to be the preeminent regional consortium for science- and technology-related education and policy and a prominent voice nationally.
      Student membership (including postdocs) -- $35 per year
      Science professional membership -- $75 

AWIS -- The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to achieving equity and full participation of women in all areas of science, technology, and engineering.  Includes outreach programs, professional development workshops, and social activities for area women scientists.
     Junior membership (including postdocs) -- $65 for national membership + $5 for Chicago chapter
     Students only (not postdocs) -- $5 for Chicago chapter membership without national membership 

Women in Bio (WIB) Chicago Chapter -- The Chicago Chapter of Women In Bio was established in October 2010 under the auspices of the national organization. WIB-Chicago is dedicated to increasing awareness, fostering career development, and facilitating communication among the diverse set of groups and individuals – especially women – in Illinois committed to biotechnology innovation and commercialization. Student Membership: $50 (includes women enrolled in college, graduate and post-docs)
Interested in learning more?  WIB has a "Metro Meet & Mingle,” a summer networking event held concurrently at three different locations across the Chicago area: Downtown, Deerfield, and Oakbrook, on August 21st, 2013.

Biotechnology Association (UCBA) --  The University of Chicago Biotechnology Association's mission is to provide career education and skill development opportunities to University of Chicago students and post doctoral scholars.

Interested in Entrepreneurship?  
The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is excited to announce D4 Foundations, a new course open this fall to an interdisciplinary cohort of students, faculty, and staff at the University of Chicago.
D4 Foundations is an experiential lab course that teaches an entrepreneurial design method to discover pressing needs in complex problem areas that will enable the design of innovative solutions. This quarter, participants will work in interdisciplinary teams to identify latent, unmet needs in the areas of education and healthcare. By the end of the course, participants will have acquired the skills to 1) discover and develop ideas with a strong foundation in user-centered design, and 2) iteratively test and execute on ideas with the intent of making a meaningful impact to various industries.  The class meets on Thursdays, 9/26/13 - 12/12/13, from 5-8pm.

The UChicago Postdoctoral Association - New members are always welcome to join the PDA!  Join to help plan events for postdocs on campus.

Do you know of any other good groups in the area that UC Postdocs would be interested in joining?  Please leave a comment with the information!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Recommendations for doctors for postdocs?

Postdocs - have you found a good primary care doctor or dentist though the UChicago postdoc insurance plan who is located on or near campus that you can recommend to new postdocs?? 

Often new postdocs don't know where to start if they are looking for a new doctor.  Please leave your suggestions in the comments.  You can put the name of the doctor or practice, neighborhood/location of clinic, type of doctor and if you know if they are currently accepting new patients.   Thanks!

Monday, January 7, 2013

NIH proposes critical initiatives to sustain future of U.S. biomedical research

NIH proposes critical initiatives to sustain future of U.S. biomedical research

This includes enhancing training of postdoctoral researchers, exploring increased support for training mechanisms designed to accelerate the development of independent research careers such as the NIH Pathway to Independence Awards (K99/R00), increase the emphasis on ongoing assessments of the biomedical research workforce, including a proposed follow-up study on clinician scientists, as well as to identify and track more comprehensively all graduate students and postdoctoral researchers supported by NIH to provide a sound basis for assessing workforce needs and planning future training activities. More comprehensive career outcomes data also would help to inform prospective graduate students and postdoctoral researchers contemplating careers in biomedical research. To read the full brief, please see below:

Future biomedical researchers:

Safety survey reveals lab risks

Safety survey reveals lab risks

Scientists may have a false sense of security about the safety of their laboratories, according to early results from the first international survey of researchers’ workplace attitudes and practices. Some 86% of the roughly 2,400 scientists who responded said that they believe their labs are safe places to work. Yet just under half had experienced injuries ranging from animal bites to chemical inhalation, and large fractions noted frequent lone working, unreported injuries and insufficient safety training on specific hazards (see ‘A question of safety’). To read more, please see below:

Dr. Sally Rockey comments on future postdoctoral training strategies

Dr. Sally Rockey comments on future postdoctoral training strategies
….,” as co-chair of the working group on the biomedical research workforce, I’m (Dr. Rockey) excited to share how NIH plans to support this critical component of the biomedical research enterprise, and improve the training experience of graduate students and postdocs alike. We intend to launch a program to support innovative approaches that expand and complement existing research training to include science-related career outcomes, and also encourage the adoption of individual development plans for all trainees. NIH plans to increase the funding of awards that encourage independence like the K99/R00 and early independence awards, and increase the initial postdoctoral researcher stipend. NIH also intends to embark on novel ways of improving the trainee experience, such as looking more closely at, and soliciting community feedback on, postdocs’ access to workplace benefits. To learn more about her thoughts, please see below:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Bordering on Confusion

Bordering on Confusion. By Beryl Lieff Benderly. Science Careers 
High-skill immigration reform is more complicated and contentious than it looks, an expert conference shows.