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Entries in science careers (16)


New Faculty position available in Leuven

The University of Leuven is looking to recruit a new faculty member in Leuven, explicitly targetted at foreign senior post-docs. Details are here, if you know anyone suitable please pass the information on!


Three years as a junior faculty member

In 2010, after one year as a junior faculty member, I wrote up that year in numbers.

Now, three years in and racing towards my five year evaluation mark, I can calculate the first three years in numbers:

227: the number of grants I have reviewed for various foundations
63: the number of articles I have reviewed for different journals

45: the number of grants submitted (32 project grants and 13 fellowship applications)
        20: grants accepted (17 project grants and 3 fellowships)
        16: grants rejected (13 project grants and 4 fellowships)
        9: grants pending (3 project grants and 6 fellowships)
5,513,005: euros given to the lab in project grants
2,842,774: euros spent in research

35: invited talks
13: conferences
6: lectures

45: article submissions and resubmissions
        26: articles published or in press (9 primary papers, 11 reviews, 6 book chapters)
3: number of edited volumes

16: number of lab members
         5: PhD projects ongoing
       2: Masters projects ongoing
       10: number of full-time researchers in the lab 
(17: number of ex-lab members)

0: still the number of days I've spent doing experiments


So an average month for me is reviewing 8 grants or papers, submitting one grant and getting one paper accepted, giving a talk somewhere, having one new person start in the lab or an old person leave, and spending 80,000 euros on research - and I still work less than my PhD students and post-docs!


Academic independence

What is academic independence?

In the mind of many a post-doc it is quite simple, it is the freedom that you gain when you step up from being a post-doc to becoming a faculty member. As a post-doc, your principle investigator has the final say over your research program, while as a faculty member you are the principle investigator.

It seems straight-forward, but in practice the distinction can be quite blurred. As a senior PhD student in the Goodnow laboratory I effectively had academic independence. My principle investigator had funding and placed trust in me so that I could run my research more or less independently. Hopefully the PhD students in our laboratory feel the same way. Could I have done any hair-brained project I wanted to? Certainly not, it had to be within reason, but the research interests I had were aligned with that of my mentor, so in effect I had the independence to pursue the research that I wanted to pursue.

This is not qualitatively different from the academic independence I have now as a faculty member. Yes, I can chose the research program that I want to pursue, but again the within reason proviso applies. I no longer have a faculty member above me, acting as the final arbiter, but there are still limitations. The most obvious limitation is the grant review process. If I want to do an experiment I require funding, which necessitates my research aims being in line with the granting body and being approved by a panel of experts. Then of course, as junior faculty, I will have a jury over-looking my renewal. These juries invariably have something to say about the direction of your science - your research interests are too broad/too narrow, you are spending too much/ too little time on collaborative ventures, etc. In the modern "big science" era, your colleagues and collaborators form another restraint - you may need to negotiate for time on certain equipment or access to particular samples.

Some of these restraints may be reduced over time, but unless you are a Nobel Prize winner with guaranteed block funding for life there will always be some limitations to academic independence. Perhaps the biggest difference in the academic freedom between a post-doc and faculty member is the diffusion and immediacy of responsibility. As a post-doctoral fellow, the limitations on your research are concentrated in a single person who can have immediate impact - a particular line of research can be shut down today with a single decision. As a faculty member, by contrast, the limitations on your research are delayed and the decision-making capacity is diluted out into a plethora of juries. If one grant foundation chooses not to support your work, another (with a distinct jury) may, and often there are avenues for pursuing research for some months or even years without direct funding.

So rather than the qualitative leap in academic independence that a faculty position represents to some, perhaps it is more accurate to think of a gradual shift in responsibility. Someone moving from a post-doctoral position in a restrictive laboratory to a well-funded start-up faculty position will feel an enormous leap in academic freedom. But for others, being a senior post-doc in a rich laboratory supervised by a figure of benign neglect, the entry into a world of constant grant review may even result in a loss of freedom to pursue your research interest.


U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D.

And that is only partly because Americans really like potato chips.



Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

Good news in funding appears to come in pairs. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is supporting the Autoimmune Genetics Laboratory through a Career Development Award. This is a grant that I am particularly happy to receive, not just for the science that will come out of it, but because I have been a long-time admirer of the JDRF, who tirelessly raise money for research on type 1 diabetes. They are not only the leading sponsor of type 1 diabetes research (spending over $1.4 billion on research since 1970), but also take an active role in coordinating researchers and integrating patient into trials to ensure that the best results come from the money spent. As a PhD student with Chris Goodnow, I always joined in the Walk for the Cure fundraiser, and JDRF sponsored my conference travel to the International Immunology Congress in 2004.

Now the JDRF is supporting our research project on the contribution of non-hematopoietic defects to autoimmune diabetes:

The Non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse is one of the best studied models of common autoimmune disease in humans, with the spontaneous development of autoimmune diabetes. Similar to the way multiple autoimmune diseases run in families of diabetic patients, the NOD mouse strain is also susceptible to multiple autoimmune diseases, with specific disease development depending on slight alterations in the environment and genetics. These results demonstrate the complexity of autoimmune genetics – in both human families and inbred mouse strains there appear to be a subset of genetic loci that skew the immune system towards dysfunction and an additional subset of genetic loci that result in this immune damage affecting a particular target organ. In the case of NOD mice and type 1 diabetic patients these additional genetic factors result in damage to the beta islets of the pancreas. While the previous emphasis on type 1 diabetes was strictly on the immune system, this model suggests the important role the pancreas may play in the disease process. If certain individuals harbour genetic loci that increase the vulnerability of pancreatic islets to immune-mediated damage, the combination of immune and pancreatic loci could provoke a pathology not caused by either set of genes alone.

Current approaches to genetic mapping in both mice and humans are confounded by the large number of small gene associations and are not able to discriminate between these functional subsets of genetic loci. However, we have developed an alternative strategy for functional genetic mapping. Instead of mapping diabetes as the sole end-point, with small genetic contributions by multiple genes, we map discrete functional processes of diabetes development. This has three key advantages. Firstly, as simpler sub-traits there are fewer genes contributing, each with larger effects, making mapping to particular genes more feasible. Secondly, by mapping a functional process within diabetes we start out with functional information for every gene association we find. Thirdly, by mapping a series of functional processes and then building up this genetic information into diabetes as an overall result we gain a more comprehensive view of diabetes, as a network of genetic and environmental influences that cause disease by influencing multiple systems and processes.

In this project we propose to use the functional genetic mapping approach to probe the role of the pancreatic beta islets in the development of diabetes in the NOD mice. We have developed a transgenic model of islet-specific cellular stress which demonstrates that NOD mice have a genetic predisposition of increased vulnerability of the pancreatic islets to dying and hence the development of diabetes. This is a unique model to analyse the genetic, cellular and biochemical pathways that can be altered in the pancreas of diabetes-susceptible individuals, shedding light on the role the beta islets play in the development of disease.


European Research Council funding

A major investment of my time last year and this year was in putting together an application for a European Research Council Start grant. The process was quite an ordeal, with both a substantial written grant and a challenging oral defense, probably consuming over 100 hours of my time. Fortunately, with excellent independent researchers in the laboratory, great research continued to be done in the laboratory while I was locked away with the computer.

Being open to researchers across Europe, in any discipline, the competition is fierce, however there are some large advantages to the ERC Start grant process: 1) the committee looks favourably upon large ideas, rather than safe ideas; 2) the competition is segregated according to career stage, so that I was only competing with other researchers less than five years out from their PhD; 3) the funding is sufficient in scale and duration to really put forward a grand plan. Just recently I found out that the application was approved, and the VIB put out the following press release:

VIB receives high score from European Research Council (ERC)
Two young top researchers awarded €1.5 million research grants!

Leuven - VIB landed two research grants worth 1.5 million euros each. The prestigious grants are courtesy of the European Research Council (ERC) and are aimed at giving talented young scientists the opportunity to develop their own research team. The honor fell to Adrian Liston and Patrik Verstreken, both recently transferred to VIB-K.U.Leuven from abroad.

The European Research Council
ERC was created to encourage excellent research in Europe. ERC starting grants give young talented researchers the opportunity to develop a research group. At present, there are still too few opportunities in Europe for young scientists to initiate and lead their own research, which is extremely unfortunate as it results in top researchers leaving the region to develop their careers elsewhere.

Adrian Liston studies autoimmune diseases.
The immune system is our body's defense system and allows it to fight off foreign substances and micro-organisms. In people with an autoimmune disease, the immune system has gone awry: it can no longer distinguish between the body's own and foreign substances and ends up attacking vital tissues and organs. Adrian Liston studies immune system cells (T cells) that are responsible for this malfunction. With his ERC research grant, he plans to bridge the gap between his research on mice models and humans. This may be a first step in the development of new therapies for autoimmune diseases.

Patrik Verstreken explores the communication between brain cells.
Brain disorders take a major toll on society. Many brain diseases are caused by the disruption of communication between brain cells. Finding a solution depends on understanding this communication in the smallest detail. Patrik Verstreken uses the fruit fly as his model organism for studying genes involved in the communication between brain cells. The ERC research grant gives him the opportunity to expand his research to more complex neural communication networks that control behavior. This step is crucial if we are to understand neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease.


One year as a junior faculty member

One year in numbers:

62: the number of grants I have reviewed for various foundations
19: the number of articles I have reviewed for different journals

25: the number of grants I have submitted
7: grants accepted
4: grants declined
14: grants pending
1,029,685: euros given in grants
830,493: euros spent in research

10: invited talks
3: conferences
3: lectures

13: article submissions
9: articles published or in press

5: PhD projects started
11: number of permanent staff in the lab
8: number of full-time permanent researchers in the lab

0: number of days I've spent doing experiments


Negotiating a start-up package

After my previous posts on science careers I was asked about negotiating a start-up package. Unfortunately here I have little input - for a new faculty member there is very little negotiation that can take place. The faculty will have a budget set aside for recruitment and this is not going to change in any substantial way. There are a few minor points to consider:

1. The edges can be flexible.
The net value of the start-up package is unlikely to change, but a one-size-fits-all package may be adopted to your circumstance. Will it be possible to have no teaching commitments in the first year? A discount on departmental services? Perhaps make your start-up fund open-ended rather than time-limited. Look carefully at the package being offered and find any conditions that could be an issue to you - and only ask about changes that will make a real difference to your research. Often the hardest part is working out what would be important to you, since you will not be familiar with the inner workings of the department in advance.

2. Negotiate for the research, not for yourself. If you talk about changes in terms of things you would like, the faculty will weigh this up against how much they want you. Instead phrase the changes in terms of how they can add to your research. Why will this change make your research output substantially better? The faculty will be much more willing to make changes if they can see the value to your research output - after all they want you to succeed.

3. Don't grandstand. These are your colleagues and your requests will typically come at a cost to them, either in terms of faculty subsidies or extra workload. Do not make a little issue into a big issue. Also, don't bluff. In my negotiations with one faculty I did have one "make or break" issue. There were a few things that would have been nice but I could live without - these I let go when they were turned down. But when I discussed one particular clause I explained exactly why this would make my particular research program untenable, and when they couldn't change that one clause I walked away. Don't make an issue "make or break" unless it is literally a deal-breaker.

4. Get it in writing. Okay, this is not exactly in line with #3 about being considerate in negotiations, but a contract should be in writing. If a faculty is happy to agree to a condition there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be written down in your contract. Things change over five years. Departmental heads leave and get replaced by new heads. Memories on exactly what was agreed become hazy over time.


Applying for faculty positions

I've had some occasion recently to contemplate the strategies for applying for faculty positions. In 2008 I interviewed at eight different universities for a faculty position, and two of those experiences in particular were very illuminating - the IRIC (Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer) and VIB (Flemish Institute of Biotechnology) held open applications where all the applicants were interviewed together. This gave me a fascinating insight into the faux pas made and the important criteria for being offered a faculty position.

These are the three criteria I recommend post-docs to consider:

3. Publications. Yes, telling people they need Nature papers is useless advice - everyone knows the importance of publications. Actually, I have put publications at #3 because I think it is much less important than the other two criteria. I interviewed back-to-back against post-docs with outstanding publication records that I couldn't match, multiple major Cell papers that redefined a field and opened up new technologies. Yet I've seen these same people fail at criteria #1 and #2 and miss out to people with less outstanding publication lists. I see publications almost as a threshold effect. For a post-doc to be competitive at a high-level institute they will need to have multiple papers at JEM or higher journals. But in a way it is more important to have a diverse portfolio of publications. Primary papers in multiple laboratories demonstrate an ability to research in different environments. Middle author publications demonstrate willingness to collaborate. Review papers show a grasp over the field. The risk for an applicant with a few good first author Nature papers is that the credit will go to the last author. Having a broader repertoire with senior authorships and multiple laboratories tells the selection panel that you have carved out your own research niche and that you were more than a PhD student put on a lucky project.

2. Experience outside benchwork. The enormous importance that is placed on publications tends to drive post-docs to make a fundamental mistake - you cannot learn to be a PI from the bench. Once you have a faculty position the amount of research time you have available will drop precipitously. Skills are needed in setting up a lab, writing grants, working on a budget, mentoring students, teaching undergrads, faculty business, etc etc. The selection panel is well aware of this, they are not looking for a post-doc to work in their lab, but someone who can run a successful operation, someone who can translate their previous first-author success into future last-author success. One applicant I interviewed with had an outstanding publication record but didn't get a job offer because it was clear that they were an outstanding post-doc but would be a terrible PI. When asked about supervision experience this candidate said "Oh, my PI gave me a technician, and I've trained her to sit behind me and pass me solutions and pipettes reset to the right volumes. It is great, I can now do research twice as fast as before". Perhaps - but how would he fair when he was tied to a computer writing grants and relying on his technician to produce data? It is important for post-docs to show that they have the skill set to run a lab - a different skill set to being a post-doc. Mentor students, write fellowships or grants, train technicians, teach classes - show the selection panel that you have already been running a sub-lab within a larger lab, and you are now ready to expand your operation.

1. Emotional intelligence. We work in science, the bar is pretty low - but still I have seen the stunned look on faces as applicants show zero emotional intelligence. I'm going to put this one at number 1, because an applicant who is above average but not genius on publications and management experience can shoot to the top of a list if they have emotional intelligence. This stuff should be simple but it obviously isn't. I remember standing around at a coffee break during the interview day and listening to a selection panel member ask an applicant how they were finding the experience. The reply? "Actually, to be honest it is terrifying, there are so many good people here that I feel like a fraud". Okay, this is not uncommon, a study by the American Astronomical Association found that more than 50% of graduate students admit to being afraid their peers will find out how little they know. Only 5% strongly disagreed. But don't confide in the selection panel. Every interaction with the selection panel or any faculty member, regardless of how informal, is part of your assessment. An applicant needs to work out what each person is after, and show them that you can deliver - both in body language and your response. Be calm, authoritative and deliberative without being aggressive, flighty or nervous. Consider that every panel member is looking for something different. A good selection panel wants the best person for the department and also the best person for their laboratory in particular. They are picking a long-term colleague, show them that you have skills they can use, knowledge they can draw on, that you are willing to collaborate, that you have an ability to "value-add" to the department. The right applicant in the right place will not only bring in their own research value, but will also increase the research value of other laboratories in the faculty. An applicant should research the faculty and the faculty members, think about collaborative potential and engage each individual they interview with on their own terms.

Now the corollary to this advice - don't fake it too much. If writing grants and mentoring students feels like an annoying distraction from benchwork, think again about whether you want to be a PI. If you are not genuinely excited about the collaborative prospects in a department, don't send in an application there. The interview is not just about the selection panel interviewing you, it is about you subtly working out whether the department will be good for you, so if you have to make promises you don't want to keep you are looking in the wrong place.


The things they don't teach you about being a scientist

One of the frustrating issues in a science career is the limited extent to which each career stage prepares you for the next. An undergraduate degree in science will typically focus on teaching established science theories and testing them via examination. The research proportion is limited and shrinking due to budget constraints.

Then you finish undergraduate studies and start a PhD, and the ability to learn established theories and sit an exam is completely useless. Instead you need to completely reorientate yourself to research skills, both practical (in terms of benchwork) and theoretical (in terms of experimental design and analysis). Exactly where your PhD mentor expects you to pick up these new skills is a mystery, as there are no lectures or classes to teach it. Throughout your PhD and postdoc you know that you are going to be judged solely on your research output. Do experiments and publish, do experiments and publish, anything else is irrelevant.

So you finish your postdoc with a lot of research experience and a handful of publications and manage to land a faculty position. You are now an independent principle investigator and all the skills you have learned to date are redundant. No time for benchwork anymore, you need to master a new set of skills within a year or fail miserably and end with a whimper. Having only written one or two short fellowship applications at the end of your PhD, you now need to master the major project grant. A detailed and elaborate research proposal which needs to be tailored towards the language and politics of the particular granting body (information which is never given on the website of course), your grant has to compete with successful investigators who have been operating in the field for decades.

While you wait for a year for the grant results to come back, your startup grant seems to disappear - quick, learn the skills of an accountant! So far you've only spent money in the lab, now you need to know the complete salary costs (including taxation status, social security contributions and yearly increments), equipment depreciation costs, which items should go on which budget (international staff on the VIB budget can gain expat taxation status, but international students on the KUL budget are exempt from social security), the cost threshold for requiring multiple quotes, how to negotiate with reps for good prices, and so much more. When you have mastered this you realise that you wasted far too much money on furniture when the university has a hidden basement full of free cast-offs and that expensive piece of equipment you bought already exists unused in a laboratory two floors down.

Of course, while you are becoming a grant writer / accountant, research needs to occur, so you'll need staff. You are a complete unknown, so no high power post-docs coming with their own fellowship. You didn't teach undergraduate classes last year, so good luck in snapping up a student able to attract a scholarship. You place a few adds in Nature and for the next six months you get ten applications a day from India and China. How to judge them? Hiring decisions are a science in themselves, then labour contract law is a mine-field. Nevertheless, with a few bumps along the road you somehow manage to put together a surprisingly talented and hardworking team. You already knew from personal experience that a lab can be an emotional boiler-room, now you need to manage that or manage the consequences. You need to understand every staff member as an individual, what makes them tick, how to keep them happy and productive, the best way to redirect them when they go off-course. Skills that can take a lifelime to learn about your partner you need to pickup within a few months about six strangers from six different cultures. Plus you'll need to leave your computer enough to spot trouble brewing in the early stages. The small things matter, the person irritated about someone else casually borrowing pipettes and not returning them happens to have a habit of writing directly on glass bottles. And let's face it, scientists are not exactly trained in emotional intelligence.

Think that you can do research now? Equipment, check. Reagents, check. Grant money, check. Staff, check. Stir the pot and research comes out? Hah! You would be breaking a surprising number of regional, national and international laws. You'll need a liquor license for that ethanol to clean benches, a permit to use sedatives on mice, ethics clearance of course but also an animal use license. Biosafety permits, equipment certification, occupational health and safety monitoring, a fire-warden. The most frustrating part is that there is no check-list to work down, you only find out about a requirement when you think you are there and you hit a brick-wall.

Then there are the unpredictables, that sap away your time until you are ready to scream. Your immunology department is the only one in the world without a flow cytometry core unit. The research assistant you hired to look after the mouse colony turns out to be afraid of mice. Your contract unexpectedly stipulates that you become fluent in Flemish within three years. That assay you used to do in your sleep simply doesn't work in Belgium. Your post-doc falls in a legal loophole that makes them ineligible for fellowships designed for both locals and foreigners. The SPF mouse house didn't tell staff to set up breeders inside a hood and all your imported mouse strains are contaminated. Your weeks of slaving over an FWO grant are wasted because you didn't know that the FWO does not have anonymous peer review and requires you to submit your own reviewers. You find out that your start-up grant also has to cover your own salary and you over-hired in the first year. You have a hundred meetings, departmental politics, collaborations to foster and suddenly a year has gone by and you didn't even manage to finish off that project that was nearly ready for publication at the end of your post-doc.

Of course, I could be externalising. Perhaps I just missed the training session.