The New Scientists

By The Intersection | August 17, 2009 10:28 am

Over at Powell’s Books, we have contributed an original essay about the new generation of “Renaissance scientists” that we see emerging today from the world of academe. The piece opens with the story of our friend and fellow blogger Jessica Palmer–who hosts Biophemera on Scienceblogs–and goes on to discuss emerging opportunities in the sciences and beyond for the talented students now coming down the pipeline.

The article starts like this:

To qualify as a scientist, Jessica Palmer has ticked off all the right boxes. She received her Ph.D. from a top research institution, the University of California at Berkeley, in molecular and cell biology. She published original research, on the genetics of nervous system development in fruit flies, in Neuron and BMC Neuroscience. And at a time when academic jobs are scarce, especially in the biological sciences, she won a tenure-track faculty position after graduating, and started to pull in grants.But then she gave it all up. She started a science blog called Bioephemera and went to work in science policy in Washington, D.C. This fall, she will matriculate at Harvard Law School.

“I was labeled pretty early on a troublemaker, for not wanting to go the research route,” laughs Palmer when asked about her career choices. It started at Berkeley, where she felt constrained by the limited teaching experience and scant opportunities to bring her work out of the lab and into the public arena. “In graduate school, everybody wants you to publish your first three or four first author papers, and then go on to a postdoc,” says Palmer. Yet she wanted to write for nonscientific audiences. Soon she helped found a publication, the Berkeley Science Review, to give young scientists the chance to do just that.

Palmer is one of a growing number of young interdisciplinary scientists for whom the traditional career path — a trip through the academic pipeline that eventually ends in becoming a version of one’s mentor, a professor — makes less and less sense….

Continue reading “The New Scientists” here.

MORE ABOUT: Bioephemera

Comments (6)

  1. Davo

    Nice article. But why is Sheril’s photo not included along with Chris’s? The line at the end also says “Chris and Sheril IS…”. They probably forgot to include Sheril.

  2. Walker

    This is a great article. In particular, I like the following paragraph:

    Yet at the same time, the science education system doesn’t really know what to do with these Leonardos, and rarely trains them for what they’ll encounter in non-research careers. More traditionally minded faculty members may look askance at their plans of academic abandonment. The young scientists themselves may be afraid to tell their mentors what they’re really thinking — or they may be told, as Palmer was, that they’re committing “career suicide.”

    Back when you all were on ScienceBlogs, and before this blog became a flamewar to promote your book, Sheril had several posts on the difficulty young researchers had getting traditional careers. I mentioned several times that this was the wrong was of looking at things, and that, if we are to keep producing PhDs at the current level, we needed to look for new career outlets for our students. And I even mentioned what you just said in this paragraph — that universities to a poor job of mentoring students for these alternate career paths.

    I would very much like to see a dialog about this on the blog. It would be much more productive than the religion/atheist flamewars.

  3. Gaythia

    I agree with Walker. While some changes for the better have occurred since I was in grad school for scientists,and especially women scientists, much room for progress remains. All scientists can benefit from broadened multi-disciplinary perspectives and possibilities of more flexible career options. Since academic professionals are obviously best qualified for preparing young scientists for careers in academia, input and mentoring by others outside of the academic world would be tremendously useful. Blogs are good forums for these sorts of discussions.

    Calling Palmer’s career problems possible “career suicide” internalizes the issue. It’s more like a form of manslaughter, brought on by outside forces acting in a way that is not conducive to enhancement of career life.

  4. Marc

    I strongly support developing better support for nontraditional career paths. But bulking up the graduate curriculum is not the way to do it; graduate education is simply not the same as undergraduate education. It’s closer to being an apprenticeship.

    There is a real value in teaching research scientists how to do research, and forcing people interested in doing so to take outreach-oriented classes 1) won’t happen and 2) won’t do any good. However, developing an infrastructure for people who decide that’s what they want to do is a different matter and a good idea. It’s a good idea to talk to people who actually are engaged in the process of graduate education when planning changes in the same.

  5. John Kwok

    Chris and Sheril,

    I’m glad you recognize the importance of high school science education, but it’s not all – nor should it be seen – as education via rote memory. The best teachers I had in junior high school and high school emphasized the importance of scientific research methodology, converying the sense of wonder that one can feel in participating in an important experiment or making some important discovery via field as well as laboratory work.

    Otherwise, I think yours is a useful, quite insightful, contribution and am glad that Powell’s thought enough of your latest book to ask for such an essay.

    Regards,

    John

  6. How about thinning the graduate curriculum to something where those who are going to do research just do research?

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