Science Policy Groups Spread Across the Nation as Grad Students Take Charge over STEM Funding and Advocacy

Started by a group of graduate students at MIT during sequestration, the National Science Policy Group is a grad student spearheaded initiative through which science policy groups across the nation work together to advocate for science-informed policymaking, the continued support of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research, and exploration of other issues at the intersection of science and public policy. In addition to well-established science policy groups at schools like UPenn and Yale, newer groups are springing up, including at Penn State, University of Rochester, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Rutgers University. Through monthly national and regional conference call meetings, the groups share resources, like ideas for community outreach events, and support for newer groups garnering interest at respective schools. The groups will also host large coordinated events, like Congressional visits to member school’s local representatives in Washington DC. For more information about how the initiative got started, check out this article from MIT. If you are interested in participating here at Rutgers, keep informed about group activities through the Facebook page.

3D Printing at Rutgers

Since I am going to be using 3D printing as part of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for places to print at Rutgers for quite some time. If you’re also interested to do some 3D printing for your research, or you just want to 3D print something for fun, then I have come across a number of options that might be useful for you. I’m sure there might be even more locations available. So, if you happen to know of any other locations that allow for open use of printers, please let me know.

  1. Douglass Library, Fordham Commons area Fablab, Douglass Campus: on the ground level of the library are two MakerBot Replicator 2’s and computers with design software. You can schedule an appointment to print your project and to get pricing estimates.
  2. Rutgers Makerspace, 35 Berrue Circle, Livingston Campus: MakerBot Replicators and other fun items, like a pool table, are available here. The Makerspace normally has regular drop in hours for printing or just hanging out. The space is run by Rick Andersen who has lots of experience in computers and electronics including web design, Arduino and soldering.
  3. Rutgers Mechanical Engineering Dept., Busch Campus: the department has a few options available for Rutgers affiliates to use, including a Stratasys Objet350 Connex and Stratasys uPrint SE. The contact person for setting up an appointment to get your projects printed and for pricing is John Petrowski (petrows@rci.rutgers.edu).
  4. FUBAR Labs, Highland Park, NJ: Fair Use Building and Research (FUBAR) Labs is a nonprofit that provides a local spot for people with common interests, usually in science and technology, to meet and collaborate. It’s an open community offering classes, workshops, study groups, and long term project collaboration. You can join as a member for 24/7 use of the space, or you can drop by for one of their events to check them out.

Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part II)

Last week I began a list of things I learned from my recent experience applying to postdoc positions — here is the second half of the list.  As I mentioned in the previous post, keep in mind that the process can vary a lot across disciplines, besides the fact that even in the same field different people can have quite different experiences.  So this just represents my own experience in biophysics, but I hope it will be useful to someone else!  We will start the second half with what I think is one of the most important points…

  • Have alternative plans.  I once heard a professor claim that people should only do a postdoc if they are “academia or bust,” and it really irritated me.  There is no “or bust” in life — even under the best of circumstances, there is always a chance things won’t work out the way you wanted, and we all must have alternative plans for every aspect of life.  Do think carefully and realistically about your career goals and whether a postdoc is a good fit, but even if you decide a postdoc is your first choice right now, it should definitely not be your only choice.  (Corollary: doing a postdoc because you don’t know what else to do is usually a bad idea.)  So spend some serious time contemplating what your next moves will be if the right postdoc doesn’t work out.  Even if you end up doing a postdoc anyway, careful planning now may pay off if you arrive at a similar juncture later.  But moreover, knowing that you have other options will make your whole application experience much less stressful.  You can rest easy knowing that even in the worst-case scenario for your postdoc search (i.e., no offers), you’ll have other options and life will go on.
  • But still be persistent.  Don’t give up if your first few applications or inquiries go nowhere (of course, having those back-up plans will help to make this less discouraging, too!).  Unfortunately, many applications or inquiries to professors receive no response.  If you are just contacting individual professors asking if they even have a position available, I think it’s worth sending a follow-up e-mail after about a week if you don’t hear from them.  If you’ve formally applied to a group or fellowship program, you may need to wait a few months to hear back, although I think it’s still worth following up at some point if you haven’t heard a response.  If someone really isn’t interested in you or just doesn’t have an opening, you deserve to hear them say so.
  • Be prepared for your visit/interview.  After applying, you may get invited to visit the group or department.  Sometimes you’ll give a formal research seminar to the whole group; other times there is private interview with just faculty.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick has held workshops on such interviews in the recent past, and they are worth attending.  You also usually have a series of meetings with faculty, current postdocs, and possibly grad students.  Besides having ready a good spiel about your research and career goals, do your homework on the people you’ll be meeting.  Make sure you know what kind of work they do, and plan some things to discuss with them.  Of course you may discuss each other’s research in these meetings, but they are also key opportunities to get inside information on what the group is like and whether you’d be happy working there.  Don’t discount the meetings with the postdocs and grad students.  Besides the fact they can give more honest feedback on the working conditions, their advisor may ask them later what they thought about you, so try to leave a good impression.
  • Negotiate.  Once you receive a formal job offer, you should go over the terms of the contract carefully and consider what is negotiable.  Salary and the length of the contract are obviously important, but also find out about health insurance, access to funds for travel and equipment, if they will help you with relocation expenses, employee privileges (can you use the campus gym?), and any other benefits.  My understanding is that salary is usually not very flexible for postdocs (since salaries are often set by grants from the federal funding agencies), but some of these other things, like relocation expenses, are.  Talk to your current advisor or other postdocs to find out what’s typically negotiable in your field.  It usually doesn’t hurt to ask if you are reasonable about it.

So that’s it.  I hope the above points are useful to others out there, but if you disagree with something or have other points to add, please post a comment!

Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part I)

Having recently gone through the postdoc application process along with some of my peers, I thought it might be useful to summarize some of the things I learned.  But first one major caveat: the application process varies considerably across disciplines, even across subfields of the same discipline.  Just within physics, the process is fairly different for particle physicists versus condensed matter physicists versus biophysicists.  (NB: my area is theoretical and computational biophysics.)  Thus the universality of any one person’s experiences may be fairly limited, so please bear that in mind with everything I say!  So here goes…

  • Start early.  In some fields there is a well-defined application season (e.g., starting in the fall and concluding in January) and in others applications are accepted all year, but starting early is important in either case: you want to have the longest possible window to find opportunities.  In general, I think you should start looking about one year before you intend to graduate and start the new position — so start looking now if you will graduate in the spring of 2015.
  • Cast a wide net.  As you make a list of groups, fellowship programs, etc. you’re interested in, be as broad as possible.  Ask your advisor, other faculty, current postdocs, and other students for suggestions; there may be lots of interesting opportunities out there that you haven’t heard of.  You want to have as many options as possible.  For one thing, unlike undergrad or grad school applications, there’s usually little cost in applying to a huge number of these things (no fees and many have identical application requirements).  But besides that, many of these opportunities are very competitive and also subject to a good deal of luck.  Sometimes your dream group just isn’t hiring the year you’re looking for a job, or you just happen to apply when they are changing directions or when a rising superstar applies as well.  So your top few choices may become unavailable for lots of reasons, and you want to be prepared for that.
  • Apply for competitive fellowships.  Besides postdoc positions in individual research groups, many fields have fellowships for postdocs.  Some are federally funded (e.g., NSF or NIH), others are funded by private organizations, and others are specific to an institution.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick’s GradFund program has lots of resources on these, so check out their website and appointment offerings.  Fellowships tend to be extremely competitive, but you should apply for as many as you can anyway (remember the previous point?).  Many require the same materials you’d submit for any other postdoc application, so they require little additional effort.  Even if you don’t get a fellowship, applying to them can still have benefits.  Writing research proposals is an important skill, and the more practice you get, the better.  Maybe you’ll at least interview for one or two, providing another chance to meet people and practice interview skills.  Or maybe they’ll get your foot in the door for another opportunity.  Something like this actually happened to me: I applied for a fellowship that I ultimately didn’t get, but the process got my foot in the door with the group that sponsored my application and enabled me to receive a separate offer from them.
  • Write a research statement, but first figure out how it will be used.  Most applications ask for a “research statement” without specifying what this should include or how it will be used.  Since this may vary across disciplines and types of postdoc positions, I recommend trying to figure out the conventions for your field so you prepare your statement accordingly.  For example, one field I know consists of two subfields, and faculty merely use the research statement to determine which of those subfields you’re in.  So in this case the details of the statement don’t matter much and therefore aren’t worth a huge amount of your effort.  This was generally my experience as well — I doubt anyone read my statement in much detail beyond skimming the general topics I listed.  (Note: this is in contrast to a research proposal for a grant or fellowship, which likely WILL be scrutinized carefully!)
  • Have a decent CV and website.  Besides your research statement, most applications will require a CV.  I won’t cover how to make a CV here, but spend some time making it organized and easy-to-read if you haven’t already.  I also recommend setting up at least a basic website if possible.  I made a personal website early in grad school, but for the most part it hasn’t served much purpose.  So I was a little surprised to realize people were looking at it when I applied for postdoc jobs.  I’m sure they didn’t peruse it in detail, but they at least saw my picture and probably glanced at my papers, research interests, and teaching activities.  This probably doesn’t make a big difference, but it’s another data point to confirm your legitimacy, especially for a professor drowning in dubious applications.  So if you already have a website, make sure it’s up-to-date and be aware of what you put on it; if you don’t have a website, consider setting up a basic one.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place to post contact information, your CV, maybe a photograph.  If you don’t know HTML, web services like WordPress offer easy-to-use templates, and even simple composers like iWeb or Microsoft Word will get the job done.  Get it linked somewhere on your department’s or advisor’s page to make it easier to find.

I hope these thoughts are useful to some of you — next week I will post part II.  In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

Biological Science Boot Camp: Bridging Theory and Experiment

Society is a complex network of people needing to effectively communicate. To advance the standard of living, it is imperative that communication exists between people who articulate different perspectives and work towards a common goal.  For example, teams of medical workers are needed to deliver healthcare, groups of politicians are required to debate public policy, and teams of scientists are vital in every branch of society.

In many instances, the complex nature of society requires scientists, politicians, and medical workers to work towards a shared goal. For this to occur, ideas need to be communicated effectively. Medical workers need to know the expected impact of a life saving drug developed by scientists, and politicians need to determine if the new drug meets regulatory policies.

Before a drug can be put in the hands of trained personnel, a team of scientists with diverse expertise in experimentation and theory need to design and thoroughly test the drug. However, theorists may not have the background to understand the limitations of experiments, and experimentalists may not have the theoretical background to simulate and model data. Effective communication and collaboration can bridge the gap between theorists and experimentalists.

This winter break, I am bridging the gaps in my science by attending the intensive two week interdisciplinary boot camp offered by the Rutgers Center for Integrative Proteomics Research. The boot camp offers an immersive experience for scientists interested in finding potential collaborators, and learning new methods, for exploring theoretical and experimental biology. The main tool being used to teach the many aspects of biology is the Green Fluorescent Protein, a Nobel Prize winning subject important for the advancement of biological science. This boot camp is offered Jan. 6-17, 2014, and is open to all.  For more information click here

Teaching physics with social media

It shouldn’t be surprising to see social media seeping its way into classrooms these days, given its growing diversity and ubiquity.  I had the chance to try social media for a class I team-taught last spring, Physics 106 (Concepts of Physics for Humanities and Social Science Students, also known as “Physics for Poets”).  Previous incarnations of the course have essentially been watered-down versions of the introductory physics courses for pre-med and engineering students.  Along with three other graduate students, this year we completely redesigned the course to focus less on blocks sliding on mysteriously frictionless surfaces, and more on modern, relevant topics like cosmology, energy sustainability, and superconductivity.

We experimented with making social media a major part of the course.  Although this runs the risk of being a mere gimmick, we were committed to social media applications that were really in the best interests of the class.  Since the course is intended for students not pursuing scientific careers, one of our main goals was to stoke the students’ interest and develop their familiarity with popular science media, which is how the students will likely access science for the rest of their lives.  Popular science, like so much media these days, has a major presence on social media, especially Twitter and blogs.  To that end, we incorporated Twitter and blogging into the course.  We created a Twitter feed for the class (@RUPhys106), and several times a week we tweeted links to articles, videos, and websites with cool science content, most of which was directly related to the current course material.  For example, we were able to share this interactive NY Times feature on the hunt for the Higgs boson when we discussed particle physics.  When we talked about protein folding, we tweeted this beautiful blog with art inspired by protein structures.  Out of the approximately 100 students in the class, we accumulated a few dozen followers; we also embedded the feed into our Sakai homepage, which meant students who didn’t use Twitter or didn’t follow us still would see our tweets.

We also had the students write two blogs.  The topics were related to material we covered in class, but that required them to pursue further reading and develop their own take.  The students first posted drafts of these blogs to Sakai through the built-in blogging tool, and then each student had to review two of their peers’ blogs and leave comments.  Using this feedback and additional feedback from the instructors, the students revised their blogs into final drafts.  We were very impressed with the quality of many final blogs; several had the potential to be posted publicly.

Obviously, our use of both Twitter and blogging had direct benefits within the course — the articles and videos linked in our tweets provided content enrichment beyond the lectures, and the blogs required the students to learn to express scientific ideas in their own words.  But beyond these immediate benefits, our hope is that many students have come away with more familiarity and excitement about the outstanding popular science media out there: all the great Twitter feeds, blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc.  Regardless of whether any of our students remember what wave-particle duality is 10 years from now, if they keep clicking on links about quantum mechanics as much as they do for links on the Kardashians or the world’s 12 cutest animals, our course will have been a success.