The Mars Conundrum: How do we explore the Red Planet without contaminating it?

“The search for life on Mars is paired with plenty of strong warnings about how we must sterilize our spacecraft to avoid contaminating our neighbor planet. How will we know what’s native Martian if we unintentionally seed the place with Earth organisms? A popular analogy points out that Europeans unknowingly brought smallpox to the New World, and they took home syphilis. Similarly, it is argued, our robotic explorations could contaminate Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.

As an astrobiologist who researches the environments of early Mars, I suggest these arguments are misleading. The current danger of contamination via unmanned robots is actually quite low. But contamination will become unavoidable once astronauts get thereNASA, other agencies and the private sector hope to send human missions to Mars by the 2030s.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.



Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!


Permanent jobs in academia are scarce, and someone needs to let PhD students know

Sociologist Chris Platts found that 1% of young footballers actually gain professional contract. Take away message: becoming a professional footballer is hard.

However, Nature has surveyed more than 5,700 early career scientists who are trying to pursue an academic career. And they found that the chances of getting a job are only slightly better than the footballers’, 3-4%.

Simply put, most PhD students need to make plans for a life outside academic science. And more universities and PhD supervisors must make this clear.

Want to know more? Read about it here!


Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine wrote about pursuing a PhD in Europe, and tried to highlight the ways it is different than the U.S. PhD.

But there’s more to being abroad than simply the difference in acquiring a PhD.  While I can only speak of my experience as a postdoc moving to Germany, there are a few bits of advice I can impart to others considering the big move.

  1. Find someone to rely on back home. There are all sorts of problems you won’t expect and you’d need to be in the States to deal with, but you won’t be. So you’ll need someone there who can handle things for you. Sometimes it’s small things (mailing address for your US bank account), sometimes more substantial things, but either way, having someone to take care of these needs is SUPER important. In my case, it’s my mother (side note, she’s also my editor… and a number of my blog posts are a collaborative enterprise). She has a power of attorney over my affairs, so when my credit card needs verification, and the company refuses to allow me to call from any number besides a U.S. number, my mother can step in and handle it. It solves all sorts of problems, and I’ll be honest, I would be screwed without her help (not just editing help, although that’s pretty awesome as well). So find someone who can handle such things and then tell them all the time how awesome they are for helping. [Editor’s note: A power of attorney is a very powerful document, so be very cautious in selecting the person to whom you grant power to manage your financial matters.  And a specific power of attorney, limited in scope, is a better choice than a general power of attorney.  Make certain it has an expiration date – better to go through the hassle of reissuing one and sending the new one out than to have an open-ended document.  Just ask legions of U.S. Navy sailors who have come home to find all their belongings disposed of by “friends.”]
  2. Figure out how to move money. I won’t recommend specific ways to move money internationally and deal with currency exchange (although I have strong opinions and if you want to know them, email me), but regardless how you do it, you’re going to need to figure out how to do it. There are still some bills I need to pay in the U.S., that I can’t pay from my European account, and vice versa. This was startling for me at first, because I hadn’t considered it (what do you mean I can’t set up auto payments from my European account?), and seemed difficult to figure out. But I have great friends who have already solved this problem, and reached out to help, and while I won’t endorse services here, if you find yourself in the same situation, feel free to reach out.
  3. Set up temporary housing for your arrival. Every time I’ve moved in the U.S., I usually have had an apartment sorted before I arrive in my new location. I know the routine:  you find a place online, contact the owner/management company, pay the deposit, move in. This is not how it worked in Germany (and when I explained this simple system to Germans, they were blown away). In Germany, when you rent an apartment, it is viewed as an intimate relationship between you and the building owner. You have to see the apartment (sometimes a few times), you have to provide evidence that you have money/a paycheck, you have to talk about each others’ families and goals and dreams, and after they have done that with you and a few other perspective tenants, you all gather for a ceremony where the owner gives out a rose to the person they choose… just kidding about that last part. But the other bullets are all true. Culturally, this is SO different from the U.S. (where the relationship is: “Here is my money, I’d like to move in now”).  I was fortunate and had a place to stay for 2 months, but you should plan (including budgeting) to have a temporary place set up while you sort out your semi-permanent home.
  4. Culture shock is a real thing. I have traveled all over the world (see blog here), and I’ve even lived abroad a few times. But boy, almost none of that prepared me for the culture shock of being in Germany. And Germany isn’t even the most extremely different place I could have moved! There are all sorts of quirks ( ingredients that aren’t available, always paying cash for everything, the entire economy and all grocery stores being closed on Sundays), but the biggest thing is that tasks that were easy at home are more difficult abroad. An excellent case study is the experience of buying a lightbulb. If a light goes out at home in the U.S., I’ll casually stroll down to any number of stores where I know I can purchase a replacement. In Germany, none of those stores exist. And lightbulbs aren’t sold where I thought they should be. And I don’t know how to ask for help at the stores where they might be sold (I don’t speak German). So an easy, mundane task is now a HERCULEAN issue that takes energy and perhaps half a day to solve. And once I succeed, I need to go home, curl up in a ball and sleep from exerting so much effort. Things definitely get easier, but expect there to be a transition period.
  5. ADVENTURE! There are many difficulties of moving abroad, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it can be as well. I get to travel to cool places around Europe for the weekend. A Friday night in Paris has become the norm. I jaunt up to Berlin for an afternoon. The Alps are a short train ride away. And mundane things are sometimes more difficult, but they are also sometimes more spectacular. I will be walking home from work, or grocery shopping, or going out to eat, and it’ll all of a sudden hit me: I live here. My every day is an adventure, because I choose to go on this adventure. I often think of Bilbo Baggins (“I’m going on an adventure!”) and embrace the struggles because they are only small speed bumps on the massive highway of fun I’m having.

Again, this is just my experience and I tried to make it general. Also, I moved for my postdoc, and as mentioned before, the PhD is VERY different in Europe.

But I’d be happy to hear other experiences! Comment away!


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!




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.