May 22, 2014

Finding a science Profession, or What do I want to be when I grow up?

By Andrew M. Harrison

By Stephen C. Ekker, PhD

High angst for a PhD student in life sciences today. From the mea culpaRescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws’ in published in PNAS by Drs. Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, and Varmus, to the high uncertainty of public funding of science, it is understandable – and very appropriate – for young scientists to be concerned about their future.

Chen, Ekker, and Davis

Dr. Ekker with Drs. Eleanor Chen and Ann Davidson, both former grad students in the Ekker lab and both pursuing their own science adventures (one in the US, one now in Canada).

Although all of the current comments I’ve read on the topic do seem to be broadly accurate, I think scientists are still living in an amazing time. We’ve never been able to do more, faster. We are unfolding key new areas in science, and we have tools to share this information like never before.

At the same time, NIH funding levels are at a historic low, and both academic and pharmaceutical labs (critical environments for post-doctoral training) are closing down. Alas, that is true. Many of those jobs are not available anymore.

When one lives in ‘interesting’ times, there is opportunity. I think the process we are undergoing is a great chance to redefine science as a profession, and leave behind the idea that it is a job. Let me explain:

As defined by our collective reference Wikipedia, a profession ‘is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.’ I think this is an important concept for scientists to fully understand. Engineers, accountants, doctors, lawyers; these occupations are obvious to most as they have a direct connection between the user and the professional. This also means the economic model works as well. You pay an accountant a specific fee for a specific service.

What does this mean to be a Scientist as a professional? Do we solve an immediate health problem? Do we make a widget that millions of customers use? In other words, who directly benefits when a research team finds the next Higgs Boson? Or the molecular nature of a plant pathogen? I can think of two easy answers – none of us outside the immediate field benefit (in the short term), and all of us reap the rewards (long-term). And yet without science – and publication to disseminate the results – there are no iPhones, or treatments curing hepatitis. The issue is that when the economic reward is as diffuse, the connection between investment (i.e. public support) and tangible outcome can be difficult to see. That is the economic dilemma of the scientist.

InSciEd Out crew

Future science leaders – InSciEd Out crew visiting Washington, DC.

Long-term, I think our commitment to supporting science as a core mission is going to need to receive the same attention we give for other critical areas of our society like the Department of Defense. We are going to experience some of the greatest challenges we’ve ever seen for human society in the next 30 years with the advent of 9 billion human inhabitants on Spaceship Earth, and the resulting issues of reduced resources (few working antibiotics, not enough water, land or clean air, and no more free energy from fossil fuels). As a society, we will need Science Professionals delivering solutions to these problems, and to other problems that we cannot anticipate.

Short-term, I advocate for current PhD students to dedicate time towards their vision of being a Scientist Professional (and not settling on a ‘job’). Follow your passion and not the core dollars is good advice in general; that’s why we have artists, musicians and a plethora of other professions where the tangible benefit to society is less obvious than that of a physician.

This may mean shooting for one of the increasingly rare, tenure-track faculty positions (something that we have been systemically losing for the last 20+ years). Although apparent today, this scarcity of faculty slots for PhD students in life sciences is not a new story. I note that in my graduating class of 27 PhD students in the early 1990’s from Johns Hopkins University, only two of us landed with tenure-track faculty positions.

What it will more likely mean is real leadership through harnessing the same creativity we use in research towards career building, and making new career paths, many less commonly used. Or maybe even a totally new trajectory. We have never been able to do more, faster, in science today. I think we need to deploy this momentum in exciting and novel ways.

‘Scientist’ is going to mean ‘innovator leader.’ The truest sense of that phrase will be discovered in the 21st Century. And I have absolute faith in the latest generation of young Science Professionals to solve these big problems.

Ekker - Zebrafish Core Facility

Stephen C. Ekker was raised in Illinois. He is a Professor and Consultant at Mayo Clinic in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. He is also Director of Mayo Addiction Research Center and the Mayo Clinic Zebrafish Core Facility, Associate Director of Mayo Graduate School’s Clinical and Translation Science track, and founder of InSciEd Out.

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