Six Months After the March for Science

“On April 22, more than a million people took to the streets, in Washington, D.C., and over 600 satellite locations around the world, to march for science. But six months later, the eponymous organization behind those gatherings—March for Science (MFS)—is still struggling with many of the same issues that have troubled it since its conception.

On Monday, Aaron Huertas, the former communications lead for MFS, posted an open letter that called out the group’s leaders for creating a culture beset by miscommunication, opacity, and disorganization. “Though the organization calls itself an open, grassroots movement, it is run like a closed, hierarchical organization,” the letter says. Seven other people told The Atlantic that their experience of working with March for Science was consistent with the open letter. “I really do think everyone has the best intentions, but not everyone has the skill sets they need to run a grassroots organization,” Huertas says.

“This is what happens when you have a group of very passionate, well-meaning people without the organizational experience who take on a tremendous amount of work, with this sort of Herculean mission of saving science,” says Jacquelyn Gill, who volunteered for the March for Science in its early stages, left the organization in April, and had signed the new open letter. It set the stage for a culture that was big on enthusiasm and energy but weak on logistics.”

In a statement responding to the letter, Temple-Perry notes that the organization has taken several steps to address these problems, including soliciting feedback from partners and volunteers, running a retreat in May, issuing an open invitation to join an internal communications network, and staging biweekly calls with satellite organizers and partners. “Unfortunately, individuals on the letter have not yet called in to participate,” she notes. “That being said, the concerns brought up in this letter are being discussed by the board. We will continue to work toward greater transparency in all stages of our development as an organization and movement.”

Given the degree to which science is under attack in the US at the moment, this is an important movement and important time to be pro-science. And as a community we need to address these concerns.”

Read more here!

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A postdoc union

From a University of Washington Postdoc:

“Like all the postdocs I know, I love my research. But we face significant day-to-day obstacles as we try to dedicate ourselves to science. At most universities, policies governing postdocs’ working conditions and terms of employment are substandard or, more often, nonexistent. Our titles and employment arrangements vary, leaving us isolated and frequently at a loss when dealing with complicated human resources issues. Many of my fellow postdocs are thinking about starting families, and parental leave and child care policies are, for the most part, sadly lacking. Living with this constant anxiety can make it difficult—and in some scenarios impossible—to focus on our work.

Nine days before my scheduled dissertation defense, my then-spouse and I split up. I was able to navigate this enormous life event and get through my defense with the support of a counselor, provided by my university’s student health center. When my father received a chilling medical diagnosis, this resource again helped me cope. But shortly afterward, I was suddenly turned away from the counseling I had relied on. My adviser and I had decided that I would stay on for about a year as a postdoctoral researcher, which rendered me ineligible for these services. My experience is just one example of the poor working conditions awaiting postdocs—and why I’ve become involved in efforts to form a postdoc union at my university.”

I couldn’t agree more. This is especially true since postdocs, relative to other fields with equal amounts of training, are drastically under paid.

Want to read more? Find it here!

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How the first trees grew so tall with hollow cores

Imagine a world without trees, and then try to think about the changes that would need to happen for these trees to evolve from the small primitive plants that came before them.

When paleobotanist think about this possibility, it usually results in a really weird looking fossil (paleontologists spend a lot of time thinking about fossils…). It has a tapering truck, at least up to eight meters high, with distinctive short branches attached around the top to form a crown. From a distance, the trees would have looked like palms, with bases up to a meter in diameter. There were no leaves as such, just branched twig-like appendages which presumably had a photosynthetic function in the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere.

Most trees today have a solid trunk, which gets bigger through the formation of a new ring of woody tissues – made up of xylem cells – under the bark each year.

However, this primitive older tree, cladoxylopsids, the xylem grew in a ring of individual parallel strands around the outside of the trunk. Inside this zone, more xylem strands formed a complex network with many interconnections both to each other and to the outer parallel strands. The majority of the inside of the trunk was completely hollow.

But if they are hollow, then how did they grow so big? Read more here!

The European-Style PhD

In this weeks continuing series of “When I Grow Up” I’m covering a topic for which I have no direct experience (this is going to become an ongoing theme). The good news is that I have friends who do have experience (Hooray!) and they will be stepping in to add their voices/experiences.

This week I asked my colleague, Eckie Stolle, to answer a few questions about the differs I see between the American and the European systems. Similar to how every American PhD program is a little different, every labs program is slightly different. But this is some insight to the major differences.

How did you apply for your PhD? Does it matter what University you get your PhD at? Is the department important?

At the time I was doing my BS project I thought about possibilities. I was quite interested to continue with it as my PhD project, but there was no specific funding for it. So I had the choice between getting my own funding, for example through a scholarship, or by applying to one of the PhD positions regularly advertised. In Germany, state funded scholarships exist, but require the student to have achieved quite good grade. A drawback of them is, that they do not pay very well and they do not include significant funding for the project. In addition, receiving a scholarship means not paying numerous income related taxes. Even if this sounds great, it means that nothing is paid into the social system for you, nothing for retirement and nothing for unemployment. In contrast to the scholarship, the PhD position as a proper employment, so your tax deductions help you later for your retirement and to have financial support if you do not find a job immediately after your position finishes. In my opinion this is the far better option. These positions are usually advertised publically and for a specific project which has been funded already. Normally a PhD student in such a position is paid half time and the idea is that you work on the project and at the same time have the possibility to do your PhD. To get such a PhD position you obviously need to apply for it and beat the competition. Thus, it helps if you know already what your interests are, which direction you will want to go into, whether the supervisor or department/Uni in question are well suited for this and so forth. There are many student which take up a such a post, just because it suits fine at the time, or its local, thus there is no need to move etc. This should be not a reason to start a 3 or more years investment of your time. To know whether the respective University or department is a good place is difficult. While some universities have a good reputation, this seems to play a smaller role in Germany, than elsewhere. Maybe the factor that some universities receive special excellence funding could be helpful for a PhD project, but that’s hard to predict beforehand.

What’s the application process like? How many other people applied to your position?

It is like a regular job. You send your application for the advertised position, you get invited for an interview and then have to get lucky. I don’t know the number of applicants or interviewees anymore. Other projects in our lab, received a few dozen applications and typically 3-6 applicants are invited for an interview.

Did you start your PhD at the beginning of the school year? Is this normal?

No, the start of the PhD project is entirely dependent on the term of employment and the specific project. Except for specific reasons, they could start all year round.

How much input did you have in your PhD project?

The main frame and aims did not change much, maybe only the technical or analytical approaches as well as certain additions I created to add value to the results.

My PhD project started out as a funded project in which certain aims had to be achieved. While this leaves not extremely much flexibility to develop your own project and follow own ideas, I found it to be quite valuable. First, having a specific aim can get you started really fast. As a fresh PhD student I was quite naïve anyways and did not have enough knowledge on the specific topic to think about own new ideas. With a project where the frame is set, there is still plenty of room to develop strategies to achieve the aims and get more along the way. I felt relatively free to develop technical approaches and specific aspects of the project. The more I got into it, the more ideas came up and I was able to explore them in parallel. This often came at a very low additional financial investment as there were many synergistic effects. In the end I got two publications from this part of my PhD alone. And based on my acquired knowledge I developed new ideas of which one became another, completely knew project.

Did you teach during your PhD? Is that more or less than most European PhD students?

In Germany lecturing is supposed to be limited to postdoctoral positions and above. In some cases a PhD student would maybe give a single guest lecture on a specific topic. But seminars and practical courses as well as supervision of bachelor or masters student projects are part of the duties of a PhD student. Most PhD positions are third-party (e.g the German Science Foundation) funded to conduct a specific scientific project, thus teaching activities are limited. I think this is different to some other European countries where PhD position are regularly much more involved. There are some cases where a German PhD position is funded full-time rather than half time when a higher teaching load is expected.

How often did you meet with your advisor? How often did you meet with your committee?

For a typical PhD project there is no (or at least there was no) committee, only the PhD supervisor, called doctor father/mother. During my time, we had a general lab meeting on Monday and an area-specific lab meeting on Wednesday morning, both of which were lab-chat style and very informal. Here we discussed briefly progress, problems, results and future directions. Every couple of month, I think it was a ca. 6 month interval, I gave a seminar presentation about my project. Other than that, I occasionally met with my supervisor to discuss specific parts/issues of the project, but it most often were little updates/results requiring small changes in the approach or additional materials to be ordered. I think this was good balance between supervision/control and freedom to organize/develop the project. Also, the time sitting in meetings was not getting out of hands.

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An epilogue to a mutant snail

Let’s all bow our heads in silence for Jeremy, the brown garden snail. Jeremy was a special snail, and known worldwide for his shell. You see, it coiled left instead of right (not a political metaphor). Because of this , he had trouble mating.

 Jeremy comes from humble beginnings, and was discovered in a compost heap in South West London by a retired scientist from The Natural History Museum. He recognized Jeremy was special and notified Angus Davison, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Nottingham in Britain who studies snails.Jeremy won international fame for a mutation that caused his shell to coil left instead of right.

Dr. Davison wanted to know if Jeremy’s left-coiled shell was inherited or just a strange developmental mishap, and for that he needed offspring. He took Jeremy into his care and appealed to the public to find him a mate with the hashtag #leftysnail. The media followed with #snaillove, and Jeremy became a star. He even inspired a love song.

Hence, there was a worldwide search for Jeremy’s soulmate/any mate will do really. And indeed! Two mates were found:Lefty of Ipswich, England and Tomeu of Majorca, Spain. But alas, they were more interested in each other than Jeremy.

For years, people searched for another lefty snail with which he could mate. Shortly before his death, she was found. His legacy will continue in the genetic knowledge gained from the lefty snail offspring they produced together. However, just days before his death, Tomeu produced more than four dozen offspring, some of which Jeremy likely fathered. He didn’t get a chance to meet them, but “on a scientific note, he wouldn’t have recognized them”.

Jeremy was found dead Wednesday in a refrigerator in a British research lab, and likely died of old age. He will be missed.

Read the whole story here!

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What the advances in CRISPR are telling us about the US biology strategy

How comfortable do you feel knowing that there is no group coordinating a national biology strategy in the US, and that a single for-profit company holds a critical mass of intellectual property rights to the future of genomic editing?

Crispr can be used to engineer agricultural products like wheat, rice, and animals to withstand the effects of climate change. Seeds can be engineered to produce far greater yields in tiny spaces, while animals can be edited to create triple their usual muscle mass. This could dramatically change global agricultural trade and cause widespread geopolitical destabilization. Or, with advance planning, this technology could help the US forge new alliances.

Without a plan, the US is left with the existing democratic instruments of change: patents, regulation, legislation, and lawsuits. And society is trusting our lawmakers, political appointees, and agency heads to apply those instruments to biological technologies that could literally change the future of humanity.

Concerned? Want to know more? Read about it here!

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Congress has a science problem. We can help!

The White House and Congress have lost their way when it comes to science. The congressional committees that craft legislation on these matters do not even have formal designated science advisers. That’s a big problem.  Instead of seeing science as a threat, officials should recognize it as an invaluable tool for improving legislation.

To educate members about the best available research, both the House and Senate science committees should create independent groups of impartial researchers and policy specialists to advise them on science and technology issues, including those related to energy, genetically modified foods, and clean air and water. (Industry representatives would still have a voice, but they would counsel the committees separately). Congress used to have a body of this kind—the widely respected Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The OTA was an office of Congress: it served members and committees, and a bipartisan board of senators and representatives oversaw it. Until 1995, the OTA created reports on scientific issues ranging from alternative fuels to cancer and presented Congress with options it could pursue to reach different goals. Then the Republican-controlled Congress axed its funding during budget cuts. Many have advocated for the OTA’s return, including Scientific American. Last year Representative Bill Foster of Illinois introduced a resolution calling for its revival.

Whether it comes from a resurrected OTA, a new, dedicated advisory panel or some other body, independent, evidence-based advice on scientific matters would provide a strong counterbalance to the opinions of special interests. Science would get a voice, no matter who was in power. This voice could not force members of Congress to accept scientific truth over alternative “facts.” But at least it would give them the opportunity to do so.*

*This is all an excerpt from here. Want to know more? Read more.

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