Maria Mitchell, the first woman to become a professional astronomer in the United States, was one; so was materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus, the ‘Queen of carbon science’. In common with many scientists, they desired to be mentors, guiding the next generation with no expectation of return.
The concept of a mentor, indeed the word itself, can be traced at least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Greek epic, the wisdom goddess Athena took the form of a man called Mentor to assume the guardianship of the young prince Telemachus while his father, Odysseus, was away fighting the Trojan War. Athena’s Mentor was not only Telemachus’s protector, but also his educator and guide.
Mentoring is one aspect of good research supervision. But it doesn’t always happen, as a 2018 Nature survey on laboratory life showed. A majority of the survey’s respondents wanted more support for mentoring and managing.
The lack of mentoring is also among the reasons for the global rise of organized doctoral-training academies, where PhD candidates learn in groups, and where they can access scholarly experience and expertise in addition to that of their main supervisor.
Some employers recognize mentoring: a number of learned societies have formal schemes that assign mentors to trainees, for example. So do scholarly publishers, through their global trade association, STM.Some hard numbers on science’s leadership problems
Nature gives its own annual awards for excellence in mentoring. These awards, now in its 15th year, are again open for nominations for two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region; the 2019 edition invites nominations from India, which produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The deadline for applications is 6 October.
There’s no set formula for mentoring, as past winners of Nature’s awards have themselves said. Furthermore, the needs of young researchers are evolving as their environment changes. Many relatively new skills needed in research careers, such as the ability to conform to performance-management systems and run multidisciplinary research groups, would not have been relevant to some mentors earlier in their careers. But there are a number of ways in which researchers can benefit from the experience of mentors.
In addition to being a sounding board, all good mentors should be willing, where they can, to provide learning opportunities — including the chance to learn from failure. Mentors and trainees must both appreciate the value of celebrating success and of constructive criticism. And neither should see the role mainly as a ticket to prestigious speaking invitations, or to boosting publications and impact scores. At all times, the relationship needs to be one of trust and mutual respect, and of open and transparent communication.
That mentors should not expect to benefit makes outside support for mentoring all the more important. Funders and institutions would do well to invest more in mentorship training. Mentoring and mentorship could also be formally recognized as part of researcher evaluation.
For recipients of mentoring, the opportunity to share successes and talk through challenges with an experienced professional can be invaluable. For mentors, it is an opportunity to promote scholarship through the generations.
Acquiring the skills to become a good mentor takes time, an ever more precious commodity in researchers’ lives. But for mentors and would-be mentors, investment in learning will be worth the effort.
On October 7th the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Gregg L. Semenza, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, and William G. Kaelin, Jr. for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Nobel committee stated that their discoveries have paved the way for “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer, and many other diseases.”
Each year, the Nobel Prize celebrates the achievements of great scientists and philosophers and the path they have taken to be called a Nobel laureate. For Sir Peter Ratcliffe however, the road to the Nobel Prize took a path less traveled. Surprizingly, his initial paper on oxygen sensing was rejected by Nature in 1992. Ratcliffe presented evidence of genetic responses to hypoxia that was called “unfit for publication” and “beyond understanding.” I don’t know about Ratcliffe, but if my paper was rejected because the contect was beyond the reviewer’s understanding, I would take that as a complement.
Interestingly enough, this has not been the first time that a Nobel laureate’s research has been initially rejected. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the Higgs model, had his theories rejected by Physics Letters in 1964. He went on to win the Nobel prize in Physics in 2013. Simillarly, Rosalyn Yalow, who won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1977, had her initial paper on radioimmunoassays rejected.
What can we learn from these storeis? It is a lesson we can all benefit from, NEVER GIVE UP! Science is hard, very hard. Science will always be hard. I cannot stress this enough. Arguably, the most important lesson I have learned in graduate school is that the only thing you can control is how hard you work. Believe in your science and keep pressing, even in the face of rejection! More so than most professions, a career in science and medicine is about constantly learning.
Publishing is our way of sharing our excitement and passion for science with the world. Do not be afraid of rejection and most importantly never give up on your science!
In my day job, I’m the chief of corporate development at Summit Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based data analytics and quantitative consulting firm. We’re about as STEM as you get. We hire statisticians, coders, programmers, economists and data scientists.
Women have consistently been underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers. According to a 2017 Department of Commerce report, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.
At Summit, 38 percent of our staff are women. This wasn’t by accident. In going after the very best talent, we created a corporate culture that attracts and supports many incredible women who in turn grow the careers of other female technical consultants. Here’s some of their top advice on how to work in STEM when you may be the only woman in the room:Don’t be afraid to give and get feedback.
Instead of being offended by feedback, try to understand where the individual is coming from and learn how to grow from it. Even if it is not delivered well. “Don’t limit yourself to giving feedback to your team,” said Tori Puryear, a senior consultant at Summit. “Oftentimes, your leaders are put into new situations or positions they have never been in before and could use your perspective as well. People will respect you if you can give and take thoughtful feedback.”Have confidence to share your opinions
It can be difficult to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room. “It always bothered me when others received opportunities because they were more vocal, even though I believed that I was more informed,” said Katie Lettunich, a senior analyst at Summit. “Gaining confidence to state my opinion, whether it be to a boss, client, or over-confident colleague, has presented me with more opportunities than simply holding back and waiting for my work to be recognized.”
Learning a little about a lot of projects can help you see connections where others don’t. Learning at least cursory skills in multiple technologies makes you in demand when project teams are staffing up and new roles are opened. “Coding in multiple software languages has made me very valuable internally,” said Laura Hoesly, a consultant at Summit. “I can work on lots of different projects and really influence the direction of my career.”Follow the footsteps of other women whose careers you admire
While there may be limited women in leadership to serve as mentors or sponsors, simply observe the career trajectory of women whose career paths you want want to emulate, said senior consultant Natalie Patten, “I use Kaye — a manager — as a template for parts of my career, and I either ask her, observe her or think to myself ‘what would Kaye do’ when I’m trying to advance my career through promotion, place myself well for a new case/project, or handle a tough client or situation.”Look around the corner
And what happens when you’re the only woman in the room? Olivia Hebner, a senior analyst at Summit, advised, “Look outside the room!” You might be the only woman in the current room, but there are absolutely other women just around the corner who are readily available to chat and help me solve problems. Women’s Affinity Groups within your organization are a great place to start. If one doesn’t exist, seek out professional groups in person like Meetups or online through LinkedIn Groups.
With my first post to this blog I wanted to talk about an exciting new frontier in scientific reserach and clinical medicine. A recent article on darkdaily.com discussed setbacks of the clinical utility of artificial intelligence systems for oncologists and anatomic pathologists. Understandably so, medical professionals do not want to be replaced by computers. However, it seems that every day we get new toys to play with that involve machine learning. So, how can we utilize these tools to improve the quality of science without losing rigor and responsibility? In February of this year, Steven A. Wartman and C. Donald Combs published an article in the AMA Journal of Ethics describing the potential use of AI in medical education. They explain how AI can be used to improve knowledge management in the classroom which can further be translated to greater efficiency in the clinic.
I think we can be doing more! AI can have applications in all fields of science and medicine. We need to work to continue to improve this new tool and use it to better our scientific progress. At the University of South Carolina we have recently created an Artificial Intelligence Institute to boost AI applications in both the research and classroom settings. This is one of many steps we are taking to improve the impact of AI in STEM.
Do you have an exciting way you use AI in your science? Do you want to see AI used more in the classroom? Share your opinion on the use of AI in science and medicine!
In previous letters, we have given advice about launching research labs, giving talks about the research done in those labs, and writing about that research for peers and the broader world. An assumption lurking behind those pieces of advice is that you have the resources to do all that great work. In this letter, we’re addressing that elephant in the room head on: getting funding for your research.
Regardless of your funding history, you probably already have some experience with the basic relevant skills. As a prospective student, you had to persuade a committee that you belonged in a certain training program. For those now in faculty or other principal investigator positions, you had to persuade other committees to hire you into those roles. Funding is not all that different. You are making a pitch to persuade a committee that you are the right person with the right idea at the right place at the right moment in time to execute the project you are proposing, and if awarded the money you will advance knowledge in a manner consistent with its mission.
How do you do that, exactly? Here are five tips to guide the way.
Have a clear, testable, idea and an explanation of why it is important
The first rule of grants is to be clear about what the “big idea” is that you are trying to test and to articulate why it is worth spending money to test that idea. It is not sufficient to say no one has examined that process before; there are plenty of things that have never been studied, many for good reason. Explain why your idea is worthy of investment. Explain the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your research. It’s likely that some of the reviewers or panelists are not experts in your research area, so do not assume they will immediately understand the cosmic significance of your research. If a reviewer gets to the end of the proposal and does not have a sense of why your work matters, the proposal is unlikely to be funded.
The goal is to clearly demonstrate that you can test your specific question and that you have thought through the challenges and alternative hypotheses to your idea—not to demonstrate everything that you know or could do with the project, as Wil was reminded when he submitted a grant to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). He included a section listing a number of directions for possible exploratory analysis, thinking this would be interpreted as “value added.” But the grant was rejected because reviewers struggled to understand how these details fit into the larger research proposal. He resubmitted the next round deleting that extraneous paragraph and was funded.
If you are unsure about whether your research idea is a good fit for a particular grant or a funding opportunity is worth your time to apply for, some agencies welcome you to schedule a phone call with a program officer to discuss the idea and whether it fits with their priorities. If this isn’t an option, ask your mentors and colleagues for feedback about your ideas and their fit with different funding agencies. Their input will help you determine whether and where to send your proposal, as well as how to tailor it if you do.
Explain the idea in a clear and concise manner
Scientists are notorious for our jargon and dense, convoluted writing, which can make it difficult to understand even the most brilliant of ideas. When writing and revising grant proposals, ask yourself—and even better, a friend—whether there are clearer, more concise ways to convey the central points in the proposal. It is often tempting to use the complex jargon of our sub-sub-discipline, but that can undermine our success. If our reviewers do not understand what we are trying to communicate because it is written in an overly complex manner, then they are unlikely to fund us. Remember that grant panelists often have a large stack of dense grant applications to read. Assume they are tired when reading and make yours as easy to read as possible.
Consider this road sign: “No person shall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the day preceding a public holiday, or on a public holiday, drive or cause to be driven between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight, a motor vehicle which exceeds 10.5 M in length in all main roads.” It conveys an important message, but that message is incredibly difficult to understand. Here is a clearer and more concise way to say the same thing: “No trucks on weekends and holidays.” As William Strunk, Jr. and E. B White advise in their classic guide The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Writing concisely also helps you craft a proposal without holes in it. Most grants have hard page limits, and funders and reviewers expect you to cover a lot of ground on those pages. Leah once had an impossible time staying within the page limit for a National Institute of Mental Health R01 grant, so in the eleventh hour she decided to cut a substantial section unpacking an analysis technique. She didn’t get the grant. What red flag did the reviewers raise? They weren’t sure about that analysis technique and whether she was ready to use it. Every single question the reviewers raised was covered in the section that ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead of deleting sections that may be important, make your entire proposal more concise. To avoid eleventh-hour scrambles, build “streamlining time” into your writing schedule.
Know your funders’ priorities and tailor the proposal accordingly
Scientists often get frustrated with funders because we believe our ideas are brilliant—therefore, any funder should just see that brilliance and fund us accordingly. The reality is that every funder has a mission statement that declares the scope of research they are interested in, and many funders have statements about their current priorities. Read. Those. Statements. Carefully. And incorporate them into your proposals.
Your proposal needs to explicitly address how it fits with the funder’s general mission and current priority areas. Those areas often have pots of money earmarked for projects, so you need to persuade the funder that your project is eligible for one or more of those pots. Behind the scenes, program officers look at the proposals that come to them, look at their budgets, and make decisions about which projects are a good fit given the amount of money they have left in that budget cycle. Sometimes they will work together to co-fund proposals, but only if you have made the case that your idea fits with those programs.
Take the perspective of your busy, overworked, and tired reviewers
Grant reviewers are often reviewing grants on top of their already busy schedules of conducting research, teaching, conducting professional service, and managing their lives. Help your exhausted reviewers help you. Write a concise proposal that has clear headlines, is easy to read and visually appealing, has a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, contains visuals that complement the words, and connects to a broad audience in that field. Write a proposal that identifies a specific, concrete problem and a group that this problem affects. Walk them through how the knowledge generated by this research may help solve this problem. Cite the literature this work is building on, but don’t get stuck in the minutiae of that literature—what you plan to do matters more than adding extra noise to a long debate in your field. Show the reviewers that your research team has the expertise to carry out this project, and that when you finish, we will learn something that is worth knowing. In some ways, you are writing a story; it just doesn’t have an ending yet. If they give you the money to do that research, it will. That is the kind of proposal that gets funded—it is the kind of proposal that gets overworked reviewers excited about science.
Page limits make it tempting to cram as much information as possible into each square inch, using every trick to compress information and leave no white space. Grants like this are sometimes impossible to read and are frequently full of acronyms that require a table to translate. Avoid this trap. You don’t want reviewer frustrations to color their perceptions of the grant. The easier it is to read and find the critical information, the happier the reviewers will be. For example, Wil was once on an NSF panel where one of the most highly rated grants only used 13 of the 15 pages allowed. It was clear, compelling, and an idea that needed to be funded. Use what you need, not what you can squeeze in.
Grant proposals, like journal articles and other elements of scientific life, are often rejected on the first attempt. Those rejections should not be interpreted as indictments of your idea; they are opportunities to revise the proposal and resubmit either in the next cycle or to a different funder. With many funding agencies, it is extremely unlikely to get funded on the first round.
Read the reviews you get carefully, and if there are no reviews, ask whether you can speak with a program officer to learn what went wrong. Take the critiques seriously, address them, and move forward with the proposal. That persistence will often pay off.
Neil thanks Dr. Jacinta Beehner at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the many insights she shared in her graduate seminar on how to write a grant (and get it funded!) that he took when he was a graduate student. Many of the tips in this letter were inspired by lessons learned in that course.