Anne Q. Hoy, 26 Apr 2019

Taken from

Chris Bolden, a Ph.D. candidate researching drug addiction, was thrilled with the outcome of two Arkansas congressional delegation staff meetings as part of an American Association for the Advancement of Science workshop on the role of science in public policy-making.

The capstone meeting with a staffer for Rep. French Hill (R–AR) resulted in an invite to serve on an Arkansas regional advisory board on the state’s methamphetamine epidemic, a focus of Bolden’s research. At a later meeting with aides to Sen. Tom Cotton (R–AR), Bolden was asked to provide a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lab where he conducts research. “I said, ‘Yes,’ of course.”

“Scientists in this generation want to increase our advocacy beyond the bench, and the best start is to get involved in policy,” said Bolden, one of 173 upper-class undergraduate and graduate science students who participated in intensive activities over 3 days as part of AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, a crash course for science and public policy-making in the federal arena.

In recent years, the CASE workshop has experienced steady growth that aligns with increasing interest and engagement in policy-making and its impacts on the scientific enterprise among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students.

Chloe McPherson, an associate in AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and an ambassador to CASE workshop participants, attributes growing workshop participation to the increasing formation of student-run, campus-based public policy and science organizations and outreach networks.

“More science policy groups are forming on campuses around the country, and a lot of graduate and Ph.D. students are looking for different ways to be involved and different options for what to do once they graduate,” said McPherson. “That has been a big factor.”

In 2018, CASE marked the greatest year-over-year jump in attendance when participation shot up to 193 students, the largest group to date, from 93 participants in 2017. In 2014, its inaugural year, CASE drew 64 students. Attendees of this year’s March workshop in Washington, D.C., also came from 28 different states across the country.

The number of scientific societies and universities that support student participation in the workshop also has climbed. Sixty-four institutions and organizations supported student attendance this year, up from 33 sponsors in the workshop’s inaugural year.

CASE has become a go-to workshop for scientists eager to understand science policy-making, particularly in the legislative and executive branches. Speakers addressed forces that transform legislatiion into laws, complex pressures behind annual federal budget proposals and spending decisions, and the operations of federal agencies.

Attendees attribute their interest to the need to expand their professional opportunities and gain knowledge of and participation in public policy-making that favorably impacts scientific research and contributes to public recognition of science’s value to public well-being and economic growth.

“Scientists are displaying a higher interest in learning about public policy because these policies affect our progress at and beyond the bench,” said Bolden. “Policies help influence which public health concerns funding invests in.”

The workshop’s Capitol Hill visits generated extensive enthusiasm among CASE attendees, reactions widely reflected on their Twitter posts with expressions of gratitude for being given platforms to advocate for science, engage in science policy matters, share stories about their research, and make cases for federal scientific support.

Jacy Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate who studies deforestation and energy development in the Brazilian Amazon and a founder of a University of Florida science policy student organization, said her meetings with the staff of Reps. Bill Posey (R–FL), Neal Dunn (R–FL), and Michael Waltz (R–FL) were an important step in building relationships with the state’s delegation, a goal of her university’s student policy organization.

“Both the workshop and my meetings reinforced the idea that simply bringing knowledge is not enough, but that you have to explain why someone should care about your work, and that enthusiasm, passion, and finding common ground really make a difference,” said Hyde.

The workshop also featured CASE alumni. Danielle DaCrema, a Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, now participating in a 12-week science and technology policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that the CASE workshop helped jumpstart her science policy work by providing resources and a network of contacts. The program’s federal budget training segments by Matt Hourihan were especially valuable, she said.

In sharing his story with attendees, Drew Story, another CASE alumnus who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and environmental engineering and now serves as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow in the office of Sen. Chris Coons (D–DE), said he got his start by attending a AAAS annual meeting in 2015. Continuing involvement led him to the CASE workshop and now AAAS’s year-long public policy fellowship program. “Anytime I was involved in AAAS my network grew,” Story said.

The CASE workshop was founded in 2014 by the AAAS Office of Government Relations and five other scientific societies and higher-education institutions to answer increasing calls from students to better understand the bridge between science and policy-making and to gain training in science communications.

“Graduate students have taken an increasing interest in policy because, more than in the past, they want science and evidence used to inform and shape federal policies,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, one of the program’s founding organizations.

Smith, a CASE speaker, underscored the need for effective advocacy from student scientists and praised the establishment on campuses of science policy groups and communications networks to enhance student participation in the public policy arena. Among topics they need to address, he said, are growing pressure on discretionary federal spending that is equivalent to potential cuts for key science agencies and programs, and legislative provisions that can block effective and efficient science.

A proposed tax provision in an early version of the 2018 Tax Reform Act, for instance, would have greatly increased educational costs for graduate students, said Smith. Instead, it served as a wake-up call for them to get more involved in public policy-making and led many to join or establish student-run policy groups. “What they learned from that experience was that if they mobilized, they could make a significant difference in the final outcome of major legislation,” he said.

Throughout the workshop, networking and coalition-building among participants were on full display, as was their energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. As if on cue, the 173 CASE participants quickly stood up at the beginning of each break and launched into conversations with those seated around them.

Staff from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, Senate and House lawmakers’ offices, congressional science committees and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation shared executive and legislative branch perspectives.

In workshop remarks, Sam Love, an aide to Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO), advised the community to help lawmakers stay informed about science. Samantha Warren, an aide to Rep. Bill Foster (D–IL), said of policy-making, “If you’re not part of the conversation… not there to be influencing it, it will happen to you, rather than with you, so you might as well get engaged.”

Teresa Davies, a National Science Foundation senior adviser, rallied CASE participants to leverage their value as the nation’s new generation of scientists. “You are critically important. I am hoping that when you get outreach opportunities, you take full advantage.”

Also addressing the workshop were Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer, and Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and director of SEA Change, a program designed to help academic institutions attract, retain, and advance underrepresented minority groups in science. “Laws let things happen. People have to make things happen,” Malcom said.

Showing CASE participants how to be a scientist and engaged in public policy, Holt traced his career as a Ph.D. physicist, college professor, federal employee, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 16-year member of New Jersey’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and now AAAS’s chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Sciencefamily of journals.

Graduate students, Holt said, need to stop science from being ignored, seek out evidence, and connect with audiences by telling “the story of the evidence. Evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable knowledge and that reliable knowledge is what you should base your further research on and any public policy decision-making that you’re going to be doing.”

  • Andrea Korte and Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.

By Katie LanginApr. 29, 2019 , 12:15 PM

taken from

Last month, David Mobley took an “emotionally difficult” step: The associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, sent an online survey to his research group, asking for anonymous feedback on his mentoring. He was inspired to figure out ways to improve after reading posts on Twitter that discussed the importance of good mentoring. “If you want to get better at something, the best way to start is to find out where you’re doing it badly,” he says. “Here I am 10 years into my faculty career and I haven’t ever done that.”

So far, only three members of his lab—out of 18 total—have filled it out. But the responses have already helped him start to zero in on things he can do to improve his mentoring. For instance, a few trainees said they’d prefer to be offered regular face-to-face meetings, instead of meeting on an as-needed basis—which is how Mobley currently schedules meetings with those who haven’t asked to meet regularly. Mobley also learned that some trainees would like him to enforce firmer deadlines for completing data analyses, manuscripts, and other tasks. The feedback has helped him see that “I need to not have a one-size-fits-all management style,” Mobley says. “I need to figure out what people need and make sure that they get that.”

Mobley is one of a handful of faculty members adopting this type of approach. Jen Heemstra, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, started to ask her research group for feedback in 2015, around the time she went up for tenure. Up to that point, she’d thought that “if I know what sort of culture I want in my lab, if I know what kind of mentor I want to be, I can just lead from that notion and everything will work out,” she says. (Heemstra’s Twitter feed was Mobley’s main source of inspiration in his quest to become a better mentor. She’s “the queen of the mentoring Twitterverse,” he says.)

After 5 years as a faculty member—at a point when Heemstra’s research group had grown and become more established—she had gained enough experience to realize that setting out to be a good mentor “helps, but that only gets you so far,” she says. To become a truly great mentor, “it really takes a lot more intentionality; it takes a lot of intentional learning and growth and things like critical feedback.” So she sent out an online survey, asking the members of her lab for constructive ideas about how she could become a more effective mentor.

Some of the responses had easy fixes. For instance, she learned that trainees sometimes became frustrated when they weren’t aware of her travel schedule. So she set up a group Google Calendar, where everyone in the research group now logs their travel and vacation time.

Other feedback was tougher to confront. Trainees told her: “We’ll be in a meeting and you’ll suggest that we try this experiment … and then we’ll be back in a meeting a few weeks later, reporting out on what happened, and you will say, ‘Well, I don’t know why you did it that way,’” she recalls. Her lab members phrased it nicely, but she translated their comments to mean “I have a terrible memory.” The feedback prompted Heemstra to acknowledge to her group that she was “incredibly guilty of this”—but she also told group members that, with 15 or so lab members and various other responsibilities, she would never remember every detail of every conversation. Instead, she pledged to alter her approach in situations where she has questions about a trainee’s methodology, first asking why they did an experiment a certain way. She also asked her trainees to respond honestly, to tell her when something was her idea in the first place, even if the experiment went awry.

“It’s been so useful,” she wrote in a tweet about soliciting anonymous feedback. “The first time was definitely the toughest, and now I really look forward to the feedback, even when it’s critical.”

This approach can be useful beyond the lab, too, as Courtney Sobers, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, has found. A year after Sobers became a faculty member in 2017, she started to ask for anonymous feedback from graduate students and undergraduates who served as teaching assistants (TAs) under her supervision, distributing pen-and-paper surveys to roughly 30 TAs at the end of each semester. Her goal was to find out how she could be a better leader and manager.

“You don’t get taught management in grad school,” she says. “You have maybe an undergrad or two you’re responsible for, but even that’s different because at the end of the day they report to your adviser, not you.” 

So, she thought, implementing an anonymous survey “is a good way to check myself while I’m still early in my career,” she says. “I need to know how they really feel so I can make changes that mean something, as opposed to me just going ‘OK I’m doing everything fine’ and secretly they’re all complaining about me behind my back.”

Sobers has been surprised by the survey responses. TAs often bring up things that she didn’t realize were a problem—that she spent less time observing their teaching and giving them feedback this past semester, for instance—and they’ll fail to mention things that Sobers agonized over. “There are always things where I’ll cringe, and they’ll hover over me,” she says. She once criticized a first-time TA in front of other TAs—a decision that haunted her for weeks, even though she apologized to the TA afterward. But after reading the surveys, she realized that the TAs weren’t bothered by her critique; in fact, they appreciated that she was willing to give them feedback.

TAs also frequently tell Sobers that she shouldn’t talk so fast. She now makes a concerted effort to slow down when giving instructions to her TAs, many of whom are international students—though she’s not always successful. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk slower; that’s a personality trait,” she says. But the feedback “reminds me to be patient with my TAs [when they don’t understand something] because it may be that they didn’t keep up with me, not that they weren’t paying attention.”

Heemstra hopes that more faculty members will take steps to get feedback from students and postdocs under their supervision. “One of the biggest challenges we have in academia is this incredibly intense power structure,” so a lot of trainees are hesitant to criticize their adviser. Opening yourself up to criticism and offering opportunities to give anonymous feedback, Heemstra says, can help create a healthy workplace. “Anything we [professors] can do to model vulnerability and be authentic and be human—that’s incredibly helpful for the culture.”

When Mobley posted on Twitter about his survey, responses from current and former graduate students were overwhelmingly positive. “I wish my mentors would have done this along the way,” wrote one scientist. “Low-key jealous of your group for having a mentor open to constructive criticism,” wrote another.

Seeking feedback isn’t just a selfless act, Mobley notes. Professors also stand to benefit from taking steps to become better mentors. Take recruiting, for example: Prospective trainees don’t want to work in a place that “chews you up and spits you out,” he says. “If you do a better job mentoring people, I think in the long run that’s going to result in more strong people coming to you wanting to join.”

How to do it

There’s no one correct way to seek anonymous feedback from people under your supervision, but here are a few tips based on things that worked—or didn’t work—for the professors ScienceCareers spoke with.

  • Online survey tools, such as SurveyMonkey, make it easy to generate and distribute surveys. Trainees may feel less confident in their anonymity if they’re asked to fill out a paper survey.
  • If you have a small lab group, trainees may be nervous that it’ll be obvious which comments came from them. Including recent alumni in the survey can help beef up the number of potential respondents; alumni may also feel more comfortable sharing constructive feedback. You can also include undergraduate lab members, in addition to grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists. If your group is still too small, Mobley notes that a similar survey could be administered at a departmental level, with feedback provided to faculty on the whole.
  • Potential questions include: What’s working well? What am I doing (or not doing) that’s hindering my ability to be an effective leader and mentor in our group? Do you feel like you get enough of my time and attention? Do you spend much time stuck (if so, why)? Anything else you’d like to comment on?
  • After the survey is complete, Heemstra recommends presenting the feedback to the entire group. She shares excerpts from the survey responses and gives her honest take on what she thinks can—or cannot—be done to solve a given issue. “If there’s something that I don’t feel I should have to address, I talk about that too,” Heemstra says.
  • It’s helpful to repeat the survey on an annual or biannual basis. Heemstra makes slight tweaks to her questions each round, often asking trainees whether she has improved on something she pledged to work on after receiving feedback in a previous survey.

A well-crafted set of guidelines and advice can save time, reassure trainees and promote a positive lab culture, argues Mariam Aly.
Mariam Aly
Taken from

A year and a half ago, as I was preparing to launch my own laboratory studying cognition at Columbia University in New York City, I kept returning to a particular concern: I would soon be responsible for the scientific advancement of trainees. How could I help them be the best scientists they could be, while also protecting their well-being?

I found the answer on Twitter. Two principal investigators in my field, Jonathan Peelle at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and Maureen Ritchey at Boston College in Massachusetts, shared their lab manuals. These laid out expectations for themselves and their trainees, as well as resources and tips to guide trainees through their time in the lab. I decided to follow in their footsteps by writing a lab manual to introduce my trainees to my philosophy for research and work–life balance. This required a great deal of time and thought, but it is something I would recommend to anyone leading a research group.

In the final few months of my postdoctoral studies, I thought about what had worked well and not so well for me as a trainee, and how to create best practices for my lab. Then I put into writing things that are usually transmitted informally. For example, that it doesn’t matter to me whether trainees arrive at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. or work from home, as long as they get their work done and honour their commitments. And I explicitly encouraged trainees to talk to me if they need to vent or feel they are foundering: academia can be stressful, and I want to help.

I addressed concerns that I imagined trainees would have: what if I make a mistake in my experiment? (It’s OK, we all do; tell your collaborators right away so that you can start to discuss the next steps.) Do I have to work 80 hours a week to succeed? (No.) How do I ensure my results are reproducible? (Double-check your code, add explanatory comments, document every step of data analysis and use version control.) How do I participate in open science? (Publicly share stimuli, code and data when you submit a manuscript.)

I supplemented my lab manual ( with a wiki (, a website of resources for lab members. This included everything from tools for learning the programming languages R and Python and how to do neuroimaging analyses, to tips on keeping up with the research literature (by using RSS feeds and Twitter) and where to find the best bagel in Manhattan (a ten-minute walk from the lab). My goal was that any newly accepted lab member could read the manual and wiki and then strut into the lab knowing what to expect.

I try hard to keep myself accountable for what I have written. For instance, I promised weekly meetings with each trainee, and I stick to that, although it’s a challenge with teaching obligations and travel. I hope that the consistency between my actions and my words helps lab members to understand that I meant what I wrote, even if they have yet to experience everything I promised.

I ask every trainee to read the lab manual. I make a point of referencing it and the wiki, along with repeated, not-so-subtle examples of their utility. My lab members now contribute to the wiki without prompting. When I checked in with them to see whether these resources were useful, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Their actions also suggest that they internalized what they read. Some share struggles with me, ask for advice and take days off for mental health — as I hoped they would, and as I wish I had done when I was a trainee.

Here’s another example: my lab manual states that trainees are entitled to read my grants, and my lab members have requested to see them. That’s something I never asked my previous advisers; I worried it would be presumptuous. I realize now that my thinking was almost certainly wrong, but my own uneasy feelings as a trainee just drive home how important it is to put into writing that something is OK — otherwise, trainees might assume it is not. That goes double for the areas that trainees are most sensitive about: I’ve written down in black and white that it is OK to make mistakes and to maintain a work–life balance.

Putting together a lab manual and wiki takes time, but there are several examples to use for inspiration. My lab manual and wiki are publicly available for anyone to use as starting points. Once the wiki has been written, the entire lab can help to maintain it; if everyone pitches in, any particular update will often take only a few minutes.

The initial effort of writing a manual saves enormous amounts of time in the long run. I no longer have to repeatedly search my e-mails or the Internet to find the answer to a problem I previously solved but have forgotten. Likewise, my trainees do not have to struggle to find answers to commonly asked questions (for example, ‘how do I get after-hours access to the building?’). More importantly, having a lab manual requires you to be explicit and transparent about your expectations and what you promise to do for your lab — every trainee reads the same expectations in the same words, putting everyone on equal footing.

A year after writing the lab manual, I re-read and revised it. That process reminded me of all that was at stake: all that I promised my trainees and all that I needed to do to ensure a healthy, happy and safe lab environment. It also led me to reflect on how pleased I am with my lab. My trainees are hard-working, sociable and supportive of one another. I love walking in and seeing them working together on a problem, or laughing and dancing when they’ve solved one. I might have written the lab manual, but my trainees brought it to life.

Nature 561, 7 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06167-w

By Elisabeth Pain

Taken from

Brittany Jack has been using Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool, since she joined Prachee Avasthi’s lab. Jack, who has just completed the first year of her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, uses it to keep Avasthi up to date on her results and ask for advice. She’s also found it helpful for communicating with her labmates: a postdoctoral fellow, a research assistant, and three undergraduate researchers. But it wasn’t until another graduate student, Brae Bigge, started a rotation in the lab this spring that Jack realized how much she could gain from daily communication with trainees at her same career stage. And she realized that Slack could be just the tool to help make that happen—in a big way. Last month, Jack, together with Bigge and fellow grad student and friend Rosalyn Henn, launched Grad Student Slack. It joins a growing list of Slack groups for scientists, including New PI Slack (which Avasthi founded in 2016), Future PI Slack, and Mid-Career PI Slack. “I just wanted to have a community and … camaraderie with graduate students across the world,” Jack says. “We are all going through the same thing, and we can give each other advice.”

The only requirement to join Grad Student Slack is that you are a master’s or Ph.D. student. It is still in its early days, but the group already has some 300 members. Most of the interest is coming from the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, but there is also some from Asia and Australia. So far, members have created more than 40 discussion channels. Some are dedicated to research topics as diverse as cell and molecular biology, ecology, computer science, and the humanities. Others are forums to discuss how to prepare for qualifying exams, write a paper or thesis, mentor undergraduate students, participate in journal clubs, and engage in science communication. There are channels dedicated to professional and personal growth, covering the relationship with your principal investigator (PI), career development, job hunting, and being a scientist parent. A few channels promote networking within specific geographical regions. Yet others will help you get through a bad day or cultivate your mental health.

“It is a space for open and honest discussions about graduate school, both the personal and the professional aspects of it,” says Ankita Patil, who has just finished the third year of her neuroscience Ph.D. program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Patil has already gotten tips on how to tackle graduate school’s workload, contributed to answering questions about attending conferences, and discussed research. “It’s also nice that there are plenty of students who actively engage in the conversations. It definitely allows you to voice your opinions or ideas without feeling like they may be singled out or dismissed.”

“Grad Student Slack is able to provide that broader sense of community that I haven’t yet found on campus,” says Joshua Landman, who completed a master’s degree in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri and will begin a Ph.D. in data science there in August. He didn’t have a cohort during his master’s degree, and as an incoming student it’s not always easy to get to know people, says Landman, who was among the first people to join the Slack group after a friend sent him an invitation. Through Grad Student Slack, “I’ve met other students both within my discipline and from other branches of science, not to mention students at my university that I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with,” he says. That is particularly important, because “grad school can, in some ways, be isolating.”

As Bryn Sachdeo, a final-year Ph.D. candidate in nutritional biochemistry and physiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, puts it, “I see Grad Student Slack as a peer-support dream team.” Connecting with others this way can help fill the gaps that many students experience—even those with supportive PIs, thesis committees, and broader communities. So far, Sachdeo has exchanged postdoc hunting tips with an astrophysicist and a neuropharmacologist and given feedback on a thesis abstract about Drosophila genetics. She also appreciates that she can interact with the group on her timeline. “If I have an insane schedule and don’t have the energy for it, I can choose to not engage at all,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a voluntary social media platform, so you get out what you put in.”

As the discussions have the potential to delve into sensitive topics, one issue is anonymity—or lack thereof. All members must register with their full names and state their year in graduate school to be verified as graduate students. The founders opted for this policy because they wanted members to feel comfortable being open about their experiences, without the risk of retaliation from more senior researchers or other negative consequences. But members still need to be careful not to reveal anything that they may come to regret later, the founders warn. The group’s code of conduct, which emphasizes respect and courtesy, also invites students who feel too uncomfortable to participate to get in touch with the founders so that they can consider granting anonymity on a case-by-case basis. “We have not crossed that bridge yet,” Jack says, but “we are aware of the fact that [some students] might need to discuss problems with their PI and other people from their lab could be in [the Slack group].”

The founders see Grad Student Slack not only as a service to their community, but also an investment in their own futures. During a Ph.D., “the later years are often the more difficult ones,” says Henn, who is just about to start her second year. “Knowing that later on, we will be able to have this community that is going through the same experiences at the same time will be really beneficial.”

Doctoral students can use writing meet-ups to overcome isolation and depression — and boost their motivation, says Karra Harrington.

Taken from

Feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation are so common during a PhD programme that some have dubbed the experience ‘the PhD blues’. As a PhD student and practising psychologist, I wanted to try to reduce the impact of the blues on my fellow students and on me.

I decided to plan a regular meet-up with my student peers, in which we could write up our theses together. My hope was that it would establish deep social connections and help us to cope with some of the challenges of our PhD programmes.

I had attended Shut Up and Write! writing groups, which involve short ‘sprints’ of writing with breaks in between. Everyone works silently during the sprints and socializes during the breaks. These groups helped me to manage my productivity and motivation — but I had no sense of connection with my fellow writers. Often, participants would check e-mails or take a walk during breaks. And different people attended each session, which made it hard to get to know each other and to build connections. Any conversations were superficial and perfunctory.

For my group, I wanted to use the breaks to create supportive networks and to share ideas on how to overcome challenges. Ultimately, I wanted to create a community in which participants could learn from and support each other while also feeling productive and making progress on their theses.

I first needed to find participants. I reached out to students involved with the Cooperative Research Centre for Mental Health, an Australian research consortium based in Melbourne that aims to further mental-health research through collaboration. Students in the consortium work across research areas, institutions and geographical locations. Such diversity meant that relationships developed among students who would not usually interact regularly. It also meant that we could use the sessions to expand our networks and gain fresh perspectives on common challenges.

I launched the meet-up almost two years ago, and it has been a huge success, with a regular attendance of six to ten students every month. Our sessions are done in person and through videoconferencing, and include two to three hours of writing, as well as discussions on how to find mentors, structure thesis drafts or balance family life with completing a PhD. I facilitate each session, and group members raise topics according to their needs and interests. Members say that they feel accountable to the group, and that this motivates them and limits procrastination. They also check in with each other between sessions.

Interaction zone

Bringing together students from different institutions, and creating a space in which they could interact, was challenging. The videoconferencing helps members who can’t get to campus — they feel engaged with their peers and less isolated. The meet-ups help me, too: I often have limited contact with other people during my working day. A regularly scheduled time to meet with others and discuss my science gives me a break from the isolation and is something to look forward to every month.

It took some time to build trust in the group so that everyone felt comfortable participating in the discussions. As facilitator, I keep discussions on track and relevant, encourage quieter group members to speak up and provide opportunities for those participating through videoconferencing to contribute. These efforts help to establish a sense of fairness and equality in the group.

Illustration of group discussion with video conference

Credit: Adapted from Viktoria Kurpas/Shutterstock

The consistency of attendance by core group members is important because it helps participants to build relationships, thereby fostering a sense of safety and trust within each session. Group members say that they value having opportunities to connect with other PhD students and share their experiences, and that the group has helped them to maintain their motivation and sense of well-being.

Along the way, I’ve realized the importance of setting clear expectations using ground rules. Our ground rules are based on respect and confidentiality, and include speaking one at a time, listening to each other, not talking during writing sessions and maintaining confidentiality on all issues that we discuss in the group. All group members agree to stick to the rules, and the facilitator helps to enforce them.

As our group continued to meet and members started to open up about challenges that they faced, we found that the ground rules became even more valuable, because they helped to promote a sense of safety and encouraged useful exchanges between members. I found that it was also useful to make the group’s purpose — to manage productivity and well-being — explicit from the start. On signing up to join, members know immediately what to expect. We use the Pomodoro Technique, which involves blocks of writing, breaks for discussion and goal setting, to manage our productivity. At the start of each session, we share our individual goals with each other; and during the discussion breaks, we check with one another on our progress towards our goals.

For some group members, this was a new way of working and it took some time to get used to. But the fact that we made it clear from the start why we had adopted this way of working helped new members to understand and to agree to try out these techniques. Members say they’ve found that the group helps them to set aside quality writing time, and that the structure of the sessions enables them to make progress on their thesis even when they are struggling with motivation.

The peer-mentoring aspect gives everyone a space in which to ask questions and to share what they know. A group member might, for example, seek advice about conference networking while also providing guidance on a data-analysis technique. By creating opportunities for members to ask for support and advice, the sessions help everyone to feel more hopeful and to identify proactive steps that they can take to overcome challenges. The opportunity to help others and to share knowledge provides everyone with a sense of empowerment and the ability to recognize their own strengths and expertise.

Our discussions help to normalize the challenges of PhD studies and remind us to celebrate our successes. We wanted to share the benefits of the group with other PhD students, and so we’ve developed our model into a programme called Write Smarter: Feel Better. We have created guidelines for group sessions and training materials for group facilitators. These cover things such as how to build trust, and how to help the group reach agreement on ways in which members should interact with each other. Australia’s University of Melbourne and Edith Cowan University are now testing the programme, with evaluations planned for completion by the end of this year.

At both universities, PhD students volunteer for the role of facilitator. We worked with the universities to develop strategies to support PhD students in this role; these included providing first-aid training in mental health and arranging for a university staff member to be a support contact. Importantly, although the universities offer support, the sessions remain led by PhD students and for PhD students.

Creating this meet-up group has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my PhD experience. I have learnt so much from organizing and facilitating the sessions, and now have a solid peer network. I have been able to gain insights on my research and career that I wouldn’t have had if I had stuck to working on my own or only with lab peers. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, my goal is not only to survive, but to thrive — with passion, compassion, humour and style — and my meet-up is helping me to do exactly that.


Nature 559, 143-144 (2018)

Raw Talk Live panelists share insights on science literacy and engagement

Raw Talk Podcast — a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T — hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.

Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.

Public engagement in science

Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.

One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.

“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.

The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.

For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”

When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.

Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.

“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.

The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.

New methods of science communication

Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.

According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.

Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.

Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.

Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.

By Amber Dance

Taken from

The lab is sometimes a silly place — and perhaps it should be. A group that behaves in daft ways from time to time tends to be one that is positive, results-oriented and successful, says Michael Kerr, a business speaker in Canmore, Canada, who focuses on humour in the workplace. Jokes and pranks can serve as signs of a healthy workplace, and provide ways to foster trust and good communication among staff, Kerr says.

A 2012 meta-review of studies on humour in the workplace found that it is linked with strong employee performance, effective stress-coping mechanisms and sturdy group cohesiveness1. The study, conducted by two management researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, also linked humour to reduced burnout among employees.

Although humour has its benefits, researchers caution that jokes and laughs must be appropriate for the workplace and lab members should avoid making fun of each other in potentially or clearly hurtful ways. “Make sure you’re not harassing somebody or singling someone out,” says Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “Banter can be bullying.” And simply saying “I was joking” doesn’t undo the hurt, she adds.

As any comedian knows, attempts at humour can fall flat or even backfire. Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist at Sanaria, a biotechnology company in Rockville, Maryland, worries that humour could ruin a younger scientist’s chances of being taken seriously. Ruben does stand-up comedy on the side, but keeps his major scientific talks mostly free of jokes.

Newcomers to a lab group should get to know their labmates and principal investigator well before they start joking around, advises Bernie Chun Nam Mak, a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University who studied workplace strategies, including humour, during his PhD programme in applied English linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Burst the stress bubble

There’s no shortage of hilarity in the lab where James Utterback, a PhD student in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, works. His greatest prank (so far — labmates beware) was inspired by a laser system that arrived in late 2015 for the group’s studies of solar photochemistry. It came in a crate with metres and metres of bubble wrap.

While another group was in a meeting, Utterback and his accomplices coated their student office’s floor, desks and printer with the bubbly sheets. They hid in the office so that they could catch their colleagues’ shocked reaction. Both groups laughed and entertained themselves popping the plastic bubbles.

But that wasn’t the last of it. When Utterback returned to his office after a conference in mid-2017, he discovered he’d been replaced — with a bubble-wrap mannequin, complete with a wig and clothes. “He had been named James 2,” says Utterback. “He became kind of like our group mascot.”

James 2 regularly rotated between the lab’s student offices, surprising people who turned on the lights to find him diligently ‘working’ at their desks.

“Working with James [1] was seriously delightful,” says Amanda Grennell, a freelance science writer in Missoula, Montana, who earned her PhD in August 2017 from the same lab. “Pranks gave my brain a much-needed break from both work and stress.”

Graduate studies and science in general can be frustrating and isolating, agrees Jorge Cham of Los Angeles, California, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in California. He started a PhD comic strip, ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, soon after beginning graduate school, as a sort of art therapy to cope with the pressure cooker of academic training.

After a stint as an instructor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he switched in 2005 to cartooning full-time. He regularly lectures about the misery of graduate studies and the joys of procrastination.

This unusual career path has given Cham more fame than he probably ever would have earned in academic robotics — his original plan. The comics, which have drawn 188,000 followers on Twitter, have appeared in more than 50 US newspapers and been collated into 5 collections that have collectively sold more than 100,000 copies. They’ve helped many a stressed graduate student laugh through tough times, simply by showing readers that they’re not alone in their academic struggles. “Burnout is so common, anything that can be done to help people keep perspective and enjoy what they’re doing, the better the long-term prospects of the lab are,” says Cham.

A light attitude can also help to diffuse tension that arises from failures or errors. Cham once spilt a bucket of mildly toxic resin in another lab that had a group leader he found particularly intimidating. He was horrified. “I vividly remember my life flashing before my eyes,” recalls Cham. “I never thought that was something that actually happened.”

But the postdoc supervising Cham took it good-naturedly, simply telling him he was allowed to make that mistake — once. That helped Cham to move past the error.

As that supervisor so deftly illustrated, humour can be a powerful tool for leaders. The meta-analysis of workplace humour found that when those in power were viewed as fun and funny, their subordinates performed better and had stronger teamwork. Staff were also happier with their jobs and their bosses. And a fun, lighthearted lab group might produce better science than one that is perpetually solemn and serious. Humour, says Kerr, is a positive catalyst for thinking creatively. Or, for mathematicians: “Ha + Ha = Aha.”

Light-heartedness can also reduce embarrassment when inevitable mistakes happen in the lab. “Humour can help workers, especially superiors, to imply something negative to each other in a less face-threatening way,” says Mak. He once observed a situation in which a worker made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet. Her supervisor admonished her by making a wry joke about the error, and they both laughed it off.

Lead with laughter

A humour-filled lab might not happen spontaneously, so leaders might wish to actively encourage it. Scott, who studies speech and laughter, makes a conscious effort to build a happy team.

But leaders should be wary of forcing humour onto junior scientists. “They have to feel comfortable first,” says Scott. “They have to feel part of a group.” She pays particular attention to new lab members — especially when they’re from other countries — ensuring that they feel comfortable, and not left out. If they’re laughing and joking, she knows that they’re settling in.

To help foster a positive group dynamic, Scott often organizes lab social events and includes both personal and scientific discussions in casual lab meetings over coffee. The personal sharing is optional, of course.

“The demeanour of the principal investigator will affect the atmosphere of the whole meeting,” she says. “I try to keep a positive and friendly mood.”

It might seem simple for Scott’s group to spice their work with humour — they study laughter, after all, and their work entails developing funny videos to make viewers and subjects chuckle. But no one has to be a stand-up comedian to infuse some humour into the lab. Kerr says that there are plenty of ways to make work fun, even for the less comedy-inclined. One option he likes is to put up a ‘humour bulletin board’. Lab members can contribute funny statistics, research results or cartoons.

Starting group traditions is another way to make work enjoyable. Kerr suggests giving out fun awards, such as the ‘Most Likely to Overdose on Caffeine Award’. Employees feel appreciated, and everyone has a good time.

Helena González

Helena González teaches science through comedy.Credit: Ignacio Izquierdo

Ruben recalls a fun tradition from his PhD lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Each scientist picked an orange test-tube stopper, or septum, and drew a little face on it. Once a week, they’d take a break to place the stoppers on a shaker; whichever stopper stayed on the longest before bouncing off won its scientist US$1 from each of the other entrants. That two-minute break provided a valuable bonding experience, Ruben says.

And if one wonders what to joke about, “the easiest person to laugh at is yourself”, advises Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has trained with comedy troupes The Groundlings and Second City. He christened one of his missions OMG, an initialism for ‘Oceans Melting Greenland’.

Willis is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of self-deprecating humour, and one of his studies made it easy to do that. In 2006, early in his career, he collected data showing that, despite the effects of global warming, some of the world’s oceans had somehow cooled between 2003 and 20052. Willis endured a fair bit of ridicule for this ‘discovery’. Even conservative pundits got in on the harassment, using Willis’s paper as evidence that left-leaning scientists are clueless about climate.

Willis, trusting his data, took it all in his stride. Then, in February 2007, he discovered the error he’d made. No, the oceans weren’t getting colder: certain temperature sensors had given bad readings. He published a correction shortly afterwards3.

In response — playing on the talk-show punditry that Willis had endured — his wife gave him a set of business cards imprinted with the title ‘Idiot leftist scientist’. He still carries the cards in his wallet. “That dose of humility and making fun of myself — in the long run, I think it benefited my career,” says Willis.

Tread with care

Some joke topics are simply not acceptable in any workplace, notes Nicki Fuchs, a stand-up comic and biochemical engineer at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Gender, politics, race and religion, among other matters, are off the table, she advises.

Those rules still leave her with plenty of room to jest with her labmates. And it’s useful for her to joke about work, says Fuchs, because it helps her, a 30-year-old woman, to connect with the rest of the lab members — all older men. A recurring wisecrack is about whoever most recently left the water running and flooded the lab — a not-uncommon occurrence, because their work involves filling up large, pressurized bottles.

Jokes may fall flat in some settings. In graduate school, Ruben often ended his lab-meeting presentations with a joke slide. But during one such presentation, his adviser was already unimpressed with his scientific progress, and Ruben suspects that his joke slide — a colleague’s head that was Photoshopped onto a goat’s body — deepened his adviser’s doubts. Since then, he uses jokes only in informal presentations or talks about science careers.

Scientists should also be careful about humour that might not work well with people from other cultures. What’s funny to one ethnic group can be incomprehensible or offensive to another, Mak notes. It’s fairly simple to learn about the sense of humour in a geographical region to which one is travelling or moving, adds Kerr: he just Googles it.

Of course, some topics that scientists study — cancer, for example — aren’t funny at all. Yet jokes can help to ease tension and discomfort around specialities that deal with tragic subjects, says Helena González, who earned a PhD studying the epigenetics of cancer in 2013 and is now a science communicator with the comedy troupe Big Van Science in Barcelona. “That kind of black humour releases your feelings and makes your work much easier,” she says.

Still, she adds, scientists need to be careful about where they make any such jokes. Generally, among a few close colleagues in the lab, it’s fine. When dealing with patients or the public, it’s not.

And although pranks are fun, those that might endanger personnel, equipment or experiments have no place in the lab. Ruben recalls one supervisor he had at a summer job, who dropped a lit match into a recently emptied jug of ethanol. “A column of fire shot up to the ceiling,” Ruben says. “He probably shouldn’t have done that.”

That said, everyone can use a chuckle now and then. If you’re planning a — harmless! — April Fool’s lab jape, be sure to share it with @naturejobs, hashtag #AprilFools.

Nature 555, 689-691 (2018)

May 29, 2018
Taken from

I am a first-generation Mexican-American scholar, and while I am not the first person in my family to attend college, I am the first to earn a four-year degree, a master’s and a Ph.D. In addition, I am also the first postdoc from my program at the University of Southern California to transition to a tenure-track faculty position.

This fall, I will be an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Stories like mine often foreground grittiness and/or persistence as characteristics necessary for success. While it is true that my larger story is filled with examples of overcoming structural barriers, I am ultimately uninterested in framing my story as a hero narrative.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that hero narratives in academe, especially when they are about people of color, are dangerous because they encourage searching for flawless beings rather than searching for great scholars who are imperfect — just like everyone else. They can also discourage reflecting on why being a “model” or “exceptional” minority is a requirement to begin with.

Now that I have told you what I won’t be doing, it seems prudent to mention my goals. In a series of monthly pieces for Inside Higher Ed, I will focus on how I navigate the tenure process from start to finish. I hope to share lessons learned from my perspective in hopes that other people can learn from it. While each topic will be different, I will ground them all on my belief that success in higher education is not only predicated on one’s work but also on how the scholarly community receives that work. Understood in that way, success in the academy can be reframed as enacting a semipublic persona successfully — one that is positioned to be relevant within and beyond one’s discipline — while still being an authentic representation of who one wants to be.

I often liken this process to playing a game of chess. In chess, the positions of the pieces matter more than the pieces themselves. At the start of the game, a player’s most powerful piece, the queen, is isolated and relatively useless. It isn’t until the weakest pieces, the pawns, move that the board opens up. Yet, even then, the pieces must work in concert and be well positioned in order to win the game. Along the way, some pieces are sacrificed for the benefit of the player’s advancement.

Similarly, the purpose of my essays will be to share insights about positioning oneself to be successful — to communicate my understanding of the academic chessboard.

To start, I will share what I have learned during my transition from being a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty member. While any such advice is necessarily coupled with a person’s particular experience, I hope my perspective will nonetheless be helpful to other postdocs who are about to begin their appointments, or who are in the middle of them or close to finishing them.

What does it mean to transition from being a postdoc to holding a tenure-track faculty position? Ideally, it is the culmination of thoughtful planning. You can’t just enter into a tenure-track position after being a postdoc by chance. As a postdoc, you must attend to many context-specific variables if you are to avoid being simply seen as an advanced graduate student instead of the independent scholar you aim to be.

Before Starting Your Postdoc

Postdocs typically know where they are headed months ahead of time. This gives an incoming postdoc valuable lead time to research the position, the new institution and the people who will make up their new academic community. If you are about to begin a postdoc, then the following questions should guide the research you do before you arrive.

How are you funded? There are many types of postdocs, and it is important to know what kind you have. The most common postdocs are supported by grants. Being a grant-funded postdoc means you will work for the principal investigator on the project. Thus, the goals of the project — and by extension the goals of the PI — generally come first. Depending on the project’s maturity, such postdocs might allow you to develop more publications and help you build relationships across the university.

On the other end of the spectrum are postdocs that are funded by the university or through external fellowships. These are often coveted positions because they are generally not tied to a particular project or principal investigator. Instead, such postdocs can offer you the freedom and flexibility (and sometimes the budget) to develop your own line of research from the start. The downside, however, is that they may not provide formal mechanisms for you to become a member of a broader research community. Having freedom may also feel daunting because you will be forced to develop your work independently as soon you begin, with limited supervision.

In both of the above cases, you should work to fend off feelings of being an impostor, which can persist beyond graduate school. Have faith in your training and in the distinct qualities and perspectives you have. (Read the previous sentence a few more times until it sinks in.)

Who is your faculty mentor? Often, postdocs are assigned a faculty mentor. Note that mentors should not be confused with advisers; the former guide your work and serve as sounding boards with the expectation that you are a (junior) peer, while the latter generally focus on teaching you how do to the work to begin with. Think of it as the difference between riding a bike with someone who knows the trail you are on well (the mentor) versus learning to ride a bike with someone who has attached training wheels on your bike first (the adviser).

You should have at least one mentor but not feel limited to only one. Do research beforehand and identify faculty members whom you can learn from. Perhaps you know someone who is a successful grant writer. Talking to that person might help you identify parts of their process that work for you. Perhaps another faculty member runs a very productive lab. Talking to them might give you an idea of what efficient procedures look like. No matter whom you identify before you arrive, do so with the goal of learning from them and potentially finding a nexus between your work and theirs.

What are your goals? Postdocs have a limited amount of time to do the work necessary to be viable on the market. Before you start, know what your goals are and where you have shortcomings. Be honest with yourself, and don’t let those shortcomings define who you are as a scholar. Instead, use any identified gaps to guide how you will proceed. (Perhaps you need more publications or a record of writing grants, for example.) Don’t ignore gaps, because they do not go away unless you make an effort to fill them.

Once those gaps have been identified, plan backward to make sure that you have lined up opportunities and resources to fill them. If you lack publications, establish protected time to write. If grants are important, plan to write a few during your postdoc to get a feel for the process — or better yet, win one!

During Your Postdoc Experience

Once you have settled in, it’s time to begin doing the work necessary to make yourself viable on the market.

I plan to write another article on undoing the stigma associated with networking and how networking is simply a different word for building relationships that can be rewarding and productive. For now, suffice to say that you need to build relationships. Schedule coffees and other meetings with faculty members in your department or school. Those meetings will contribute to your professional development and also help you get a feel for what your community sees as important.

Meeting with faculty members is important because the outcomes of such meetings can yield new collaborative projects that also signal your ability to work independently. Trust in your ability to start collaborative projects from scratch by getting to know other faculty and postdocs around you. As an assistant professor you will be expected to do this work, so you might as well get the practice during your postdoc years.

If you are on a grant-funded postdoc, you might become so absorbed with project-related tasks that you neglect developing your own research agenda. Avoid this if at all possible, because the ultimate goal of every postdoc should be to develop a track record of independent research. That might simply mean taking the lead on a part of the project no one else has the time for or interest in.

Regardless of how you are funded, take initiative by starting new projects, attend faculty meetings if you can and find grants to lead. (Note that you may not be able to serve as the formal PI, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take an active role in initiating and shaping a grant.)

Finally, determine if there is a viable pathway forward at your current university. It is rare to transition from a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty position at the same institution — unless, of course, your postdoc is designed to do it. If you identify an opportunity to stay, know what the metrics are and whom to inform when you’ve succeeded in meeting them. Also make it known that you would like to stay, but avoid doing so in a way presumes you “should” stay. Even if there is no formal pathway, you should still demonstrate that your work has value, is innovative and is (probably) fundable.

At the end of your postdoc, it is unlikely that a position will be created just for you, but the time you have taken to build relationships and projects will pay off in the long run. Remember, academe is a relatively small sector, so developing a good reputation can pay dividends well after you’ve completed your postdoc.

Milton Packer thinks that readers must now be the decisive judges of quality

by Milton Packer MD

Taken from

Simon Dack, MD, was the editor-in-chief of the official journal of the American College of Cardiology for 34 years. His office at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City was located adjacent to the fellows’ room, and in the 1970s, we often dropped by to see how he made editorial decisions. It was one of the most amazing learning experiences of our careers.

Dr. Dack was the quintessential editor. The journal was his vision; it reflected his values. He solicited papers from the best and brightest. If he asked you to submit a paper, you took the invitation seriously. If you submitted original research, you made sure that it was worth his time.

Starting in the 1970s, the concept of external “peer review” blossomed in cardiology. Officially, the refereeing process moved out of the inner circles of learned societies and involved the critique of papers by outsiders of equal competence. Dr. Dack sent papers out for peer review, but he considered the feedback as advice, rather than an authoritative word.

One afternoon in 1978, I watched him reject three papers that had received two positive reviews, while accepting a paper that had received two negative reviews. I asked him how he could do that.

His response: I read every word of every paper and every review. I know the reviewers’ strengths, weaknesses, and biases. I ask for their opinion. I am not asking them to vote. I am the editor; this is my journal; I make the decisions; and I take responsibility.

The process was not intended to be flawless. Dr. Dack readily admitted that he made mistakes, but he went out of his way to fix them. The process was certainly not democratic or unbiased. But it worked.

He gave a voice to hundreds of young investigators. Many of the most important (and paradigm-shifting) papers in cardiovascular medicine were published because of decisions he made. If there was controversy, he fed the flames. He was exceptionally receptive to new ideas that had scientific merit, and he gave them a platform.

If he asked you to review a paper, you accepted the invitation and worked hard at it. If you submitted a lazy review, he knew it, and he told you so. You never made that mistake again.

Because most journals in medicine at the time were led by unimpeachable intellects like Dr. Dack, it was easy to keep up with scientific advances. For many, one only needed to read the New England Journal of Medicine each week and a few other journals each month and remember what they published. Readers trusted journals to be a reliable source of information.

But 40 years later, the principles, philosophy, and practices of Dr. Dack have disappeared. The trust that physicians formerly placed in journals has evaporated. The reason: the peer-review process doesn’t work anymore.

Now there are hundreds of cardiology journals, and each publishes hundreds of papers each year. It is really easy to submit a paper online, but what happens then? Only a few journals have a single visionary editor who knows every reviewer personally. Instead, the typical journal has dozens of editors who may or may not have the time to read each paper carefully. Instead, they spend a lot of time finding colleagues to perform external peer review.

How easy is it to get good reviewers? It is impossible. Currently, most leading researchers in any given discipline routinely decline to be reviewers. Doing a good review takes hours, and they just don’t have (or won’t make) the time. Many simply say no. Others hand the work over to junior associates — without carefully reviewing their submitted opinions.

Editors routinely struggle to find external reviewers. Often, they must invite 10-15 people to find two or three who agree to review. Even then, the reviews are often superficial and unhelpful. Some reviewers spend only a few minutes looking at the data, and make recommendations based on their fondness (or lack thereof) for the authors or for the conclusions — rather than based on solid standards of scientific examination. If two or three reviewers carry out their responsibilities with equal lack of rigor, egregious errors can be missed, even in top-tier journals.

When the reviews come in (often quite late), editors often feel compelled to accept the opinions of the reviewers even if they are inadequate or biased. Editors are reluctant to overrule the reviewers, fearing that they will refuse to review again in the future. The desire to keep reviewers happy means that even minor revisions are returned to them for a final blessing, thus adding months to the peer-review process.

What happens when a paper is rejected? Typically, it makes little difference. The authors will instantaneously resubmit to another journal — without necessarily fixing any of the errors or limitations that led to the previous rejection. The process continues until some journal is willing to publish the work. There are more journals than there is worthwhile content, and many lower-tier journals struggle to fill their pages. Some will accept nearly every paper, especially if an author is willing to pay outrageous publication fees. In these cases, the peer-review process is a mere formality. If authors are sufficiently persistent, their papers eventually get published somewhere, and sadly, they reside as apparent equals along with their more worthy counterparts on PubMed.

Peer review is not dead, but it no longer achieves what it is intended to do. Moreover, authors can now bypass the process completely by posting unreviewed work on publicly accessible preprint servers. Currently, these are intended to constitute a transitional state, but soon, postings on a preprint server may replace traditional peer review entirely.

Think of this the next time you read a paper and ask: How did this awful manuscript ever get published in a peer-reviewed journal?

Here is what you should be thinking instead. Of course, this paper got published. Now you need to read it carefully to see if it says something credible and worthwhile. The responsibility of distinguishing quality has shifted from the editors to the readers.

Reading a published paper critically is an awesome responsibility. It takes time, effort, relevant background, and methodological experience. But these days, it is more important than ever.


Attending EB in April? Be sure to check this blog post out to make the most of the conference!


By Debalin Sarangi


A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step

Lao Tzu’s words have helped me understand that my career is made up of many steps. And attending conferences is one step I have taken in graduate school. Presenting my research helps me along my career journey, and the best time to start is now!

Conferences are the best way to showcase research in front of a group of people from my discipline. They’re also a great tool for keeping my research on the front burner along with the demands of coursework, teaching assistantship, writing, social activities, and family obligations. While it’s easy to put research off because it’s not urgent like coursework or teaching, attending a conference (and all the preparation that goes with it) gives me a deadline for work related to my research.

To help me sort out the many steps involved in attending a conference or professional annual meeting, I like to divide the process into three stages: (1) Before the Conference, (2) During the Conference, and (3) After the Conference. Here’s the checklist I use to help me get the most out of conferences and advice for what you can do:

Before the Conference

  • Identify your goal. This is the first step. Ask yourself: Why are you attending this conference? What do you want to gain from this experience?
  • Note important dates. Once you’ve decided to attend the conference, mark all the important dates in your calendar: the registration deadline, when to make your hotel reservation, the deadline for submitting your abstract, etc.
  • Talk to your supervisor and course instructors. You may need to talk to your supervisor about your research results or which part of your research you’re going to present. You can also discuss which conference-related expenses need to be covered by you and which may be covered by your supervisor. If you’re going to a conference in the middle of the semester and might miss class or exams, contact instructors well in advance to inform them of the conflict.
  • Apply for a graduate student travel grant. There are a number of on- and off-campus funding sources to cover the expenses of attending a conference. Funding opportunities may be listed on your department’s website; a few external travel awards are on the graduate studies webpage. Many society meetings have travel grants available for students to attend, so check those as well.
  • Apply for a student award. Most conferences will announce student recognition awards like Best Graduate Student Poster, Outstanding Graduate Student, Best Paper, etc. If you think you could win one, go for it! Awards enrich the CV and may help get you more recognition or even a position in the future.
  • Make reservations early. When attending a conference, you may need to reserve plane tickets, rent a car, or borrow a Nebraska state vehicle from the university. By making these reservations as early as possible, you avoid the eleventh hour rush before the conference. Stay at the conference hotel to be in the middle of conference activities, and try to share a room with another graduate student to save money and meet someone new.
  • Prepare your presentation. If you’re planning a poster or an oral presentation, edit them several times to be concise and attractive. To help you edit, think about the best presentations you’ve seen and what made them the best. Then try to do that!
  • Practice, practice, practice! When you’re done preparing your poster or presentation, brainstorm potential questions you might be asked. Schedule practice sessions with your supervisor, friends, and fellow students—their recommendations help improve the presentation.

During the Conference

  • Check the agenda. After checking in, take a quick look at the agenda and schedule, marking which speakers and sessions you’d like to attend.
  • Volunteer. Some society meetings offer opportunities for volunteering. This is a great opportunity to meet prestigious individuals in your field! Also, registration fees are sometimes waived for students who volunteer—so make sure to check with the organizer ahead of time!
  • Know your presentation. If you’re presenting something, it’s important to know your audience, the medium you’re presenting in, and your content. You shouldn’t memorize your talk, but practice it—out loud—many times. Have copies of your talk to give to people interested in your research. Remember to include your name, contact information, and the university name on the handout as well—the handout can work like a business card, and the person who gets it will remember who you are!
  • Document your presentation. Ask a friend to take some photos or videos during your presentation (if allowed) for you to use on your website or in your e-portfolio, during your graduate defense, or as part of your application packet when you apply to jobs.
  • Build your network. The greatest value of a conference is the people you meet. Plan out whom you’d like to meet and what to talk about. Try to meet some big names in your field, but also talk to people from different universities, industries, etc. I recommend having business cards made before the conference—it looks more professional than writing your name on scratch paper!
  • Connect over meals. Conferences are great places to make friends from different universities and learn about research going on in the different parts of the world. Try to attend some of the meals scheduled by the conference to meet new people.
  • Don’t overbook yourself. Enjoy a balance of fun and scholarly events. To be at your best, schedule breaks and take time to recharge. Take time to look through the notes you take to process what you have learned and what you still need to learn.

After the Conference

  • Make a post-conference facility visit. Some meetings and conferences offer post-conference tours of industry or university lab facilities, or of local museums. These visits are another great way to network in your field.
  • Take a tour. Apart from work, conferences offer the opportunity to see something new. If your conference is in Rio de Janeiro, take a trip up to Christ the Redeemer. If your conference is in New York City, check out Times Square.
  • Submit your receipts. Keep itemized receipts of all your expenses and submit them to your department for reimbursement if you have university funding for your trip. Be sure to follow the university rules! For example, UNL won’t reimburse movies, alcohol, or expenses for non-university travelers.
  • Keep notes. Always write down key points from the conference. This will helps you prepare for the next conference and help you remember who you met and which panels you attended.
  • Stay in touch with your new contacts. Whether you use LinkedIn to connect with your new contacts or you send a personal email, reach out to the people you’ve just met. When you have questions later that a contact can answer or you’re up for a job at their institution, these contacts can help you in your career.

Participating in conferences and professional meetings are great steps that combine the scholarly and social aspects of your work. These experiences will enrich your CV and provide you with a valuable professional network that will help you along your career journey.