Monthly Archives: November 2016

JOE AND HIS BUDDY MEET WITH DR.M! 

 

2 guys meet with Dr.M to discuss science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
2 guys meet with Dr.M to discuss science!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

This dispatch takes a very different path than the usual!  It features a conversation about science, research, and scientists between 3 very different people: (1) Joe, the street businessguy, who has been featured in many cartoons on this website, (2) Joe’s buddy, a more conventional man whose daughter is a young university scientist, and (3) Dr.M.  I hope everyone will gain some additional perspective and merriment with this dialogue!

Dr.M:  Joe, why don’t we start by having you describe your very successful businesses!

Joe:  After I collect rents, I work every day to sell insurance, loans, numbers, and used cars. Those keep me busy, and provide lots of money.  My all-cash businesses let me be free, independent, well-fed, and happy.  Plus, I don’t have to pay any income tax!

Dr.M:  What about you?  And by the way, what is your name?

X:  Just call me “X”!  I thought we were going to discuss science!

Dr.M:  Yes, but first please tell me what you work on?

X:  I work in the news department for our local radio station.  I am married and have 2 children; my older daughter recently was hired as an Assistant Professor in science at our state university.

Dr.M:  How does your daughter like being a university scientist and doing research?

X:  She is still getting used to it, and tells me she never realized in graduate school that research at universities now is just another business!

Joe:  What kind of science do you work on, Doc?

Dr.M:  I am a biomedical scientist, and usually am labelled as a cell and molecular biologist, a biophysicist, a biochemist, and a structural biologist.  That’s me!

X:  How can you work in so many different fields?

Dr.M.:  I am interdisciplinary and have a very wide curiosity.  These labels reflect my creativity, use of many different instruments and methods for research, and, study of many quite different types of specimens (e.g., crystals, egg cells, minerals, mitochondria, protein molecules, etc.).  I love doing laboratory research!

Joe:  Wow, that’s just amazing!  You must get a fat paycheck for doing all that!

Dr.M:  Not really!  My salary is pretty average.  My starting salary as a new Assistant Professor was less than modern Postdocs get!  It always amazes me that Postdocs now complain so loudly about being underpaid!

X: How can you like scientific research so much?  Looking at Science or Nature, I cannot understand much and it looks very boring!

Dr.M:  Research is exciting for me because one never knows exactly what will be found.  It really is an adventure!  I was blessed to start researching when every time you looked at specimens something  new and interesting was apparent; those days were just thrilling!  Later, I also found that the results in an experiment are largely determined by exactly how one prepares specimens and analyses them; thus, new knowledge is not only discovered, but actually is created by the researcher!  Doing experiments is sometimes frustrating, but research never has been boring to me.

X:  I told my daughter that she should try to cure cancer or work in ‘big science’ instead of ‘little science’.

Joe:  What is big and what is little?  Is that the same as a big cake or a little cookie?

X:  ‘Big science’ costs billions and tries to do the impossible, like going to Mars!  ‘Little science’ is more ordinary and looks at small problems.  That’s all I can understand!

Dr.M: Working on single questions in small projects that can be finished in some months or a few years is ‘little science’, and that is what most university scientists do!  For the special research projects involving enormous money and hundreds or thousands of scientists and engineers, like the new space telescope being built by NASA and some international partners, that huge effort is ‘big science’!  Those terms define differences in cost, number of scientists involved, time spent on the entire research project, and, the importance of the new information to be acquired.

X:  Can scientists win a Nobel Prize for research in ‘little science’ as well as in ‘big science’?

Dr.M:  Yes, indeed!  Both are possible and have occurred in recent years.

Joe:  Why do you and other scientists always use so many fancy words that mean nothing to ordinary people like me and my buddy?

Dr.M:  The terms used in each branch of science actually constitute a foreign language!  The special words in science are used to make meanings extra clear, so as to avoid any confusion or misunderstandings.  Exact meanings are necessary so scientists can discuss their research findings with each other.

Joe:  I don’t understand, and I don’t speak no foreign languages!

Dr.M:  It’s similar to a photofinish in horse races, where the special photograph shows precisely which horse crosses the finish line first by the tip of its nose and so is the winner.

Joe:  Now I get it!  But, I still can’t read about science!

X:  Dr.M, what does  research do for me and Joe?

Dr.M:  Research by scientists and engineers is the basis for just about everything you use and are, ranging from your shoes and eyeglasses, to the food you eat and the bottled drinks you swallow.  In addition, research and development provide your car and portable phone, your mattress and shotgun, and, what tests and medicines your doctor gives you.

Joe:  Who pays for all that research?

Dr.M:  Research is expensive, and is paid for by dollars from 2 sources: taxes, and business profits.  The first pays for scientific studies in universities, medical schools, and research institutes; the second pays for the many research activities by scientists and engineers working in industrial laboratories to develop new and improved commercial products.  Thus, my answer to your question is that you and X are paying for scientific research!

Joe:  I operate only in cash, so I don’t pay no stinkin’ taxes!

Dr.M:  Have either of you ever met and talked to any real scientists besides me?

Joe:  Yeah!  I have sold 4 used cars, one new car, and many numbers to some scientists at the university.  They are my best customers, but they never ask me for insurance or loans!

X:  I have met some science faculty in my daughter’s department at parties.  They were unrecognizable as scientists without their white lab coats!  Many seemed rather somber compared to ordinary guys like me and Joe.  They separated into 2 groups; one smaller bunch was chatting with their Chairman, and a larger bunch was telling stories and laughing at jokes.  When the Chairman left to go home, the groups rapidly merged and the party got louder!

Dr.M:  Well, I guess that is enough for now.  Can I buy lunch for both of you?

Joe:  See, I told you he was rich!

X:  Sounds good!  Where should we go to eat?

Joe:  There’s a terrific new BBQ restaurant over on the new Trump Parkway!

Dr.M:  Sounds great, and I voted for him, too!  Let’s go!

 

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DO NEW PH.D. SCIENTISTS REALLY NEED POSTDOCTORAL TRAINING?

 

Postdocs need to recognize the difference between science and business! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Postdocs need to recognize the key difference between science and business!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Postdoctoral training is intended to provide new Ph.D.s in science with advanced research experience under the guidance of a successful senior scientist.  This typically lasts from 1-5 years, and results in an independent researcher with several research publications as first author.  In response to the current difficulties with finding a job as a faculty scientist in academia [e.g., 1], questions are arising about whether this advanced research training as a Postdoc is necessary.  The intriguing possibility that the years of postdoctoral research training are not needed is nicely described by Erika Check Hayden with a new article in Nature, “Young Scientists Ditch Postdocs for Biotech Start-ups” [2].  Today’s dispatch looks critically at the pros and cons of skipping postdoctoral training by starting a small business where the new Ph.D. is the owner and chief researcher.

Is postdoctoral training in research absolutely necessary to be a good scientist? 

Postdoctoral training has been regarded for a long time as an essential prerequisite to hold a faculty position in academia.  However, many doctoral scientists working in industry have been hired without postdoctoral training, and went on to produce good research results; this is made practical by the facts that: (1) new research staff in industry usually receive a special intensive training period upon starting their new job, and (2) industrial research often involves working within a small or large team of co-researchers.  If one looks only at doctoral scientists working in universities, some science faculty also can be found who were hired having no postdoctoral training (e.g., in departments of anatomy or computer science).  Thus, the answer to this question clearly is ‘no’!

Why is postdoctoral training still deemed so essential for faculty scientists? 

Postdoctoral research training is required in academia because new Ph.D. scientists need several qualities not provided by their graduate school education: (1) full independence as a researcher, (2) experienced judgment for designing and evaluating research experiments, (3) wide practical knowledge and experience with conducting research projects, getting results published, obtaining research grants, presenting reports at science meetings, dealing with bureaucrats and the public, (4) in depth knowledge in a science specialty, so teaching can be done with confidence, and, (5) understanding the business aspects of being a faculty scientist.  New Ph.D. scientists generally only have limited expertise with a few research methods and approaches; being a postdoc greatly expands their hands-on experience, expertise, and critical judgment.

How will this new arrangement operate, and what will it lead to? 

New Ph.D. scientists now can found a small business where they are the owner, chief executive officer, and principal researcher [2].  First and foremost, this new career pathway requires one very determined individual with total commitment to making this unconventional activity succeed.  Support funds for early stage financing must be found, and are available from start-up organizations, venture capitalists, and biotech incubators [2].  Those associates not only provide money to get a lab furnished and staffed, but also give valuable advice about handling business concerns; that is particularly important since new science Ph.D.s usually have zero experience about business and financing.  Lab space is available for rent or at some university-based incubator facility.  Research technicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, etc., all can be hired as needed, and as funding permits.    Some individuals already are doing this, thereby avoiding the need to spend more years as a postdoc before starting independent research [2].

The original aims of this new career path are to skip the postdoctoral period, yet immediately start  doing research, receiving a good paycheck, and being an active part of science.  After early stage financing is obtained, continuation of research depends on success of the business (i.e., generating profits, persuading investors to buy stock of the new company, outdoing commercial competitors, and having good luck).  Ideally, some large industrial company will buy the promising small business and then take care of all financial matters.  Note that being successful at research is not enough; one must also be successful at  business!  Industrial research is different from academic research, and industry accepts that business must direct their research activities!

What problems will this new career path face? 

Many non-science problems can arise in any small business, particularly with development of new commercial products, marketing and advertising, and increasing sales.  I know of one young doctoral physicist who formed a small service business with several colleagues over 30 years ago; his venture collapsed when alternative methods developed that were less expensive.  At some large industrial labs, there are quite a few graphic stories where company administrators suddenly cancelled an entire large research project for business reasons; if this arises within small research companies, then everything stops.

Thoughts about business and science!  

Businesses exist to make financial profits.  Scientific research exists to find new knowledge and to test the truth.  These 2 are fundamentally different!  Although science at universities conducts basic and applied research as part of its traditional mission, today academic research increasingly is just amother business entity where money is everything, and faculty scientists are hired to increase their academic employer’s profits by getting research grants.  Hence, many faculty scientists researching in academic institutions already have merged their science with a business!  The destructive problems in academic research will recur within new small research businesses!

A fusion of business with scientific research seems to me to be full of difficult problems.  Success will not be easy!  The new article by Hayden explicitly states, “Most young biotech firms fail” [2], but does not identify the causes.  I feel that the chief cause is the inherent conflict between science and business.  Ex-Postdocs can either seek the truth or they can seek money!

Some brief discussion! 

In my opinion, deserting the postdoctoral experience altogether is not a good answer to solving current problems for postdocs.  I suggest and urge young postdoctoral scientists who are dissatisfied or feel trapped to: (1) devote much more attention to seeking good science-related openings outside academia (see:  “Postdocs in 2016 Need to be More Clever, Not More Angry!” ), (2) recognize the basic purposes of science and of business, and, (3) closely inspect what is displayed in the incredible photo in Hayden’s article [2], showing the courageous young and eager biotech scientist, Dr. Ethan Perlstein, standing alone inside his empty business “laboratory”!

Concluding remarks! 

Fusion of scientific research with a small business might work for certain new science Ph.D.s, but that is not a general possibility.  The result could be exchanging one problem for others!

 

[1]  Powell, K., October 26, 2016.  Young, talented and fed-up: scientists tell their stories.  Nature (Oct. 27)  538:446-448.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nature.com/news/young-talented-and-fed-up-scientists-tell-their-stories-1.20872?WT.mc_id=SFB_NNEWS_1508_RHBox .

[2]  Hayden, E.C., 2016.  Young scientists ditch postdocs for biotech start-ups.  Nature (News, Nov. 1, 2016)  539:14-15.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nature.com/news/young-scientists-ditch-postdocs-for-biotech-start-ups-1.20912  .

 

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ONLY FOR BEGINNERS: HOW TO VIEW SCIENCE AND RESEARCH! 

 

What are science, research, and scientists all about? (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What are science, research, and scientists all about?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Are you a raw beginner?  It is hard for beginners to understand science, research, and scientists, so most just ignore them!  In this dispatch I explain some points so you will be able to understand more on what science and research are all about!

Why is scientific research needed? 

We need to know more about ourselves, our world, and our universe in order to be able to do more (e.g., treat and cure more diseases, rescue everyone from pollution, produce healthier food, make cheaper gasoline, etc.).

How does science differ from engineering? 

Scientists work to discover new knowledge.  They evaluate the truth by observing, measuring, and experimenting.  Engineers work to develop or improve some commercial product (e.g., better batteries, steam-powered autos, more sensitive and safer machines, faster trains, etc.).  Both are very useful to society!

Are inventors the same as scientists? 

Inventors make some new object or device.  Anyone can be an inventor, even you! Some scientists also are inventors (i.e., by making a new attachment for one of their research instruments).  Inventors generally are not scientists (i.e., they do not have graduate degrees or teach at universities).

Why are salaries for scientists so much more than I get? 

The average doctoral biomedical scientist working as an Assistant Professsor at U.S. academic institutions in 2015 received a salary of about $91,000 per year [1].  The average salary for senior biomedical scientists working as a Full Professor was around $152,000 per year [1].  Please note that these are averaged figures that ignore regional locations, science subspecialties, years of employment, etc.  Salary levels for faculty scientists are based primarily their highly specialized expertise, ability to do both teaching and research, and very extensive education taking over 10 years (i.e., after 4 years in a college, they typically spend 3-8 years in graduate school, plus 2-5 more years as a postdoctoral trainee).

Why is modern research so expensive? 

Research to make discoveries of new knowledge requires obtaining accurate results from measurements and experimental tests by salaried research workers (e.g., professional scientists, postdoctoral fellows, technicians).  Most experiments use special supplies, expensive instruments, and special facilities within a laboratory.  Since the experiments in a typical research project last from weeks to years, the total costs are substantial.

Who pays for scientific research?  Do you pay?  

Payment for research expenses primarily comes from 2 separate sources: taxes paid by the public, and business profits in industrial companies.  Yes, you pay for research!

Why is money so important in modern science? 

Everything costs and someone must pay!  No research gets done unless expenses are paid for!  Awards of taxpayer dollars are given by  governmental science agencies to support worthy research studies by scientists.  These awards are termed research grants, and all  scientists at universities, medical schools, and technology institutes compete for them so they can conduct research investigations.

Why do some scientists kill animals for their research project? 

Research on diseases, nutrition, and toxic chemicals often is impossible to conduct  directly on humans, so the needed studies must use experiments with laboratory mice, rats, or other suitable animals.  Since humans are not mice (and only certain humans are rats!), the results from animal-based studies must be extended by clinical researchers onto humans.  Computer models can be used for some research, but those results later must be verified by tests on animals and humans.  Scientists I know feel bad about using animals for their research, but accept that such is necessary to get the needed new knowledge.

Scientists on TV always are either weird or maniacs; why are all scientists like that? 

They are not like that!  The phony Hollywood model for scientists is only aimed to be entertaining!  Unlike in TV and movies, real scientists are strongly individualistic, very dedicated to their research work, want to make important discoveries, like to laugh, and work very hard.  A real scientist might be one of your neighbors (if so, see if you can chat with them or visit their lab)!

Why are scientist so evil (e.g., nuclear bombs, genetically modified organisms (GMO), fraudulent drug studies, hidden poisons, etc.)? 

Your view of scientists confuses what they actually discover from research studies, with what practical outcomes develop later.  The instances that you cite were developed in response to making advances in agriculture, developing new chemicals for specific purposes, producing the needs for warfare, etc.  What you view as evil, other people see as being useful and even good!  Never forget that scientists are people, and they do make mistakes and have some faults.  I join you in damning cheaters who hide or change test results and market new drugs that actually harm patients, hiders of labeling GMO foods, and, commercial vendors of disguised poisons.

Why can’t all research be focused only on making the next really big discovery?  

Research discoveries depend upon scientists who work best as individuals or in small groups.  Forcing all scientists to work only on one super-project and giving them unlimited money for research, is not likely to reach the desired goal because that condition limits freedom of individuals to think, explore, and ask questions.  Those characteristics are basically required in scientific research!  Consider the analogy where everyone is forced to drive a Chevy, and no other cars are permitted on the roads!

I don’t understand the Nobel Prizes!  Wasn’t Nobel a destructive monster? 

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a scientist in chemistry, and also a builder, businessman, engineer, industrialist, inventor, traveller, and writer.  He made lots of money from inventing dynamite after years of work, and willed his fortune to establish several ongoing big prizes for scientists whose research provided the greatest benefit to all humans (see:  “The 2016 Nobel Prizes in Science are Announced” ).  Dynamite remains very useful for construction, levelling mountains,  and mining.  Regarding your question, you should know that his brother was killed by an unplanned explosion during the development of dynamite, Nobel lived and workedk on several continents, and he wanted to benefit humanity.   His very eventful life is nicely described in 2 illustrated pieces (see: “Alfred Nobel – St. Petersburg, 1842-1863”, and, “Alfred Nobel – His Life and Work” ).

What does science and research mean to me, a raw beginner? 

Please see my earlier article: “What Does Science Matter to Me, an Ordinary Person?” !  You will be surprised to learn that scientific research impacts everything you do and are (e.g., aging, dreams, health, internet, personality, sex, success at sports, travel, your job, etc.).

What does modern science need to produce more important research discoveries? 

In my opinion, modern science needs the addition of more freedom, more curiosity, asking many more questions, longer research grants, better honesty, lots of patience, plus its separation from commercialism, government, and political correctness!

Concluding remarks! 

I hope the above has given you a better understanding about science and research!  Once your curiosity is stimulated, you can have lots of fun looking at many videos, articles, and stories about science on the internet!

 

[1] Zusi, K., and Keener, A.B., for The Scientist, 2015.  “2015 Life Sciences Salary Survey”.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/44275/title/2015-Life-Sciences-Salary-Survey/  .

 

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