I have moved more than 10 times in the past 10 years. I’m enough of a regular at Uhaul that they now offer me free stuff with my reservation. I’ve been a resident of five US states and one Canadian province. What did I hope to accomplish on this whirlwind tour? I followed my science. Whether this was duty to discovery or simply because I didn’t know what else to do, I can’t say. I searched across vastly different forests, always asking the same question. What keeps insect populations in check here? The answer—which wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows forest insects—resided in the trees themselves; any weakness in their evolutionarily honed defenses was quickly detected by insects and heavily exploited. I found the same basic answer to my question in many forests, although there were various nuances in each. It seems that much of research is a formal affirmation of what can easily be deduced from careful observation. There are always more forests to explore and more insects wreaking havoc to track down. Research on how to stop them given the rapid changes our planet’s ecosystems now face is greatly needed. But I can’t chase insects and answers anymore; I’m tired.
Change as a constant
I hear people talk of change as something to embrace, something that forces growth and wisdom, and something that teaches resilience. I’d like to believe that, though from my extreme vantage point, those rewards have not entirely been my experience. Constant change and uncertainty have been my world for 10 years. I have not lost in growth or accrual of knowledge during that time, but other parts of life have escaped me. Those missing parts have suddenly and consciously caught up to me. It’s awkward to look around and see how everyone else has had such a different life than mine. Everyone’s journey should be—and is—necessarily unique, but what gives me pause is that the general pattern I see among others is similar. Mine is different, and revolves circuitously (seemingly dictated by the next transition) rather than in a (nearly) linear trajectory. Consequently, the life journey and the choices we make along the way has been a recent preoccupation of mine.
When I was a teenager, I went on a hiking trip with my parents near Batopilas, Mexico. The Tarahumara are the natives of that region. For transportation, they regularly run long distances up, down, and across the steep slopes of Copper Canyon, in sandals made of leather and worn out tires. Just last year, my father relayed to me what our Tarahumara hiking guide told him on that trip, now almost 20 years ago. Nearing a narrow ledge, the guide told him “not to fall off the path”, and my father chose to take the advice figuratively rather than literally. When he told me this, I was sitting at my desk in my parents’ house in their mudroom-turned-into-my-new-office. I had recently lost in love and work, and my journey was at a standstill. Was I on the verge of falling off the path?
My recent transition
Fortunately not. What followed was unexpected. I reached out and people responded. I learned the strength of what would traditionally be called my professional network, but I can’t call it that anymore, because it has evolved well beyond that into something so intensely personal I’m not sure how to define it. These people kept me on the path.
Then, after my ten-year wait (15, if undergraduate school is included, and it should be, since my career trajectory began there), I was offered a permanent job. The moment was not the same as I had envisioned; a natural amount of relief maybe, but so much apprehension ensued. The situation was heavy. It was the first sentence of a story with a 15-year prologue. I was frozen; I couldn’t decide what to do. In the 48 hours the US Forest Service gave me to respond to their offer, I probably spent a good third of that time on the phone with my people. Hands outstretched, they pulled me up and forward on the path, over the pass. The winds are calmer, warmer, and from a different direction on the other side. I am perpetually in debt to them, for the assistance I’ve received so far, and for so much more to come, I am sure. Thank you.
This is a series that peeks into the lives of scientists. Click to read parts 1 , 2 , and 3.
The length of a career could be compared to a marathon—an event more about stamina than speed. Yet the starting point for scientists, graduate school, sometimes feels a little like a race in itself. What looms beyond the graduate finish line? It can be difficult to visualize, but it is critical to consider, because choices and experiences shape futures. This is especially important given the current influx of Ph.D.s saturating the job market, all having just reached a crossroads that requires careful considering, weighing, prioritizing, searching, deliberating, and maybe even obsessing about what to do next. The hope is to find a suitable niche that offers intellectual challenge and fulfillment.
As naturally curious people, scientists seek understanding of what lies ahead and what it will be like. Perspectives on struggles, rewards, and strategies to meet and accept them appropriately change throughout the trajectory of a career. As society evolves and generations pass, the challenges faced by scientists at the same stage of career in different generations may be different. I interviewed scientists at three different career stages (early, middle, and late) to gain insight into these changes, and to identify how individuals at different career stages can connect with and support one another.
Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, a shiny green beetle from Asia commonly known as the emerald ash borer (EAB), has taken North America by storm. Assisted mostly by people, but also by its own wings, EAB is rapidly spreading across urban and forested areas alike.
EAB-killed ash trees in urban areas are noticeable and require immediate attention, with either insecticide protection or removal. This maintains safety, aesthetics, and function of the urban forest. Trees that die in natural forests hardly require such vigilance. If dead ash trees aren’t likely to damage property or injure people when they fall, they can often be left alone. Also, in most hardwood forests, ash is relatively less common than other trees such as oak or maple, so the structural and functional loss to the forest canopy may be minimal.
Loss of ash has serious ecological and economic implications, however, as ash fruits and seeds are an important food source for wildlife, white ash wood is used for baseball bats, and black ash is used to make baskets. Given these environmental losses and that this invasive species seems capable of killing nearly every ash tree it encounters, finding out how much damage EAB has incurred in our natural forests is a pressing issue.
In their recent article in Biological Invasions, Randall S. Morin and fellow researchers in the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station used a national forest inventory database to measure just how destructive EAB has been so far in the United States.
This is the third in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. Click to read part 1 and part 2.
Ken Raffa has had a storied career. His research has made great strides in advancing current understanding of how insect populations can rapidly explode. His work has revealed fascinating specifics and generalities that take place between pine trees and bark beetles during a beetle outbreak. An army of beetles is needed to attack and kill a tree and the tree has two different lines of defense. If both are compromised, the beetles win; if the tree can combat the beetles, the tree wins. It turns out this binary outcome is decided by the number of beetles attacking the tree; if enough beetles arrive for the attack, the tree will surely lose the battle. There is more: the first line of tree defense not only kills beetles by drowning them in pine sap; it also interferes with communication among beetles by physically blocking transmission of a pheromone the beetles make that attracts more beetles, which prevents beetles from assembling the numbers (the army) needed to kill the tree (see these ground-breaking studies for more details: Ecol. Monogr. 53: 27-49; Amer. Nat. 129: 234-262; Oecologia 102: 285-295). Ken used these key findings along with insights from others’ work to put forth a sophisticated model that explains how insect-driven disturbances operate across the landscape (BioScience 58: 501-517).
Throughout his career, Ken has won numerous awards (including the Entomological Society of America’s Founders Award in 2010), garnered over $9,000,000 in research grants, published over 250 papers in the primary literature, and trained 43 graduate students and postdocs, who have all gone on to be leaders in government, academia, and industry.
People are naturally curious about someone with such an impressive list of accomplishments (see his website for the full-length version of his CV). How did he arrive at forest entomology? What inspires him? How does he train students to be great leaders? I sat down with him at the recent International Congress of Entomology to find out. I discovered someone who is deeply passionate not only about the natural world (maybe not so surprising given his career path), but also about people. He believes in the strength of professional relationships—that are at their core really personal relationships—to solve scientific problems. This may be surprising, given his experience as a student. Here is what I learned from Ken about career paths, studying trees and insects, training graduate students, and the likely future of all three.
Scientists publish their findings. Then others use that information to develop and test new ideas. Society accrues knowledge incrementally through this process. Necessary obstacles arise on the path from results to publication. In the current system, some obstacles are slowing the overall influx of new science and simultaneously letting poor science through.
Peers must first evaluate the rigor of a study before it can be freely released into the scholarly literature. In their recent editorial, “Indexing the indices: scientific publishing needs to undergo a revolution”, Delzon, Cochard, and Pfautsch argue that the peer-review process has lost its ability to effectively and efficiently green-light additions to the primary literature. Delzon et al assert that this is a consequence of journals striving to raise their status (i.e., rankings against other journals, impact factor). The way in which journal impact is measured needs a serious overhaul, and Delzon et al think Google Scholar’s H5 index (equivalent to the Hirsch index) is just the tool for the job.
Instead of ranking the quality of a journal by the average number of citations received by its publications within the past five years (the traditional IF5 metric), the H5 index ranks a journal only by its top-cited publications. Papers not often cited (or not cited at all) won’t affect the H5 score either way. A switch to the H5 index doesn’t seem to change the current ranking of top journals (at least in plant science and chemistry, but see this other analysis). The strategy of H5 is advantageous because it doesn’t put pressure on editors to reject papers that they perceive to have little citation potential. If journals are more likely to accept papers (over 75% are currently rejected by top journals), authors are less hassled to re-submit multiple times, each time seeking an outlet with increasingly lower impact. New findings will then reach the scientific community (and maybe the public, if the journal is open access) at an appropriately rapid pace to advance science.
Most importantly, highlight Delzon et al, a switch to the H5 index will also lessen the burden on reviewers. In the current system, high rejection rates translate to more reviews of the same paper. Reviewers are called into action more frequently than is necessary, and ultimately sustainable, given that peer review is essentially a volunteer service to the scientific community. Over-taxed expert reviewers must decline more reviews, which forces journals to reach out to non-expert or inexperienced reviewers. Not properly vetted, unsound scientific findings then enter the scientific literature, an unfortunate result that undermines the basic tenet of the peer-review process. So, yes, it seems we are in need of a revolution in scientific publishing!
Further reading on journal impact and peer review:
This is the second in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. See part 1 here.
All scientists try – or should try – their best to adhere to the scientific method. They pose a curious and contemporarily-relevant question about how something works, usually with a general idea of what they expect to find; they cleverly design a way to go about testing this question; they put in some hard work to carry out an experiment; and they examine the results to see if a preconceived idea about the question makes any sense. Usually it doesn’t, and it’s back to step one. This seemingly ancient cyclical process is the foundation upon which scientists base their life’s work. Traditionally this work took place either out in the natural world or in the laboratory. As we expand our knowledge base in an era of rapid growth in many scientific fields, people are also pushing the boundaries of where science takes place (click here for an interesting example). As scientists are specialists in their subject field, they also become specialists in their research environment. I wondered which aspects of working in different research environments are similar, and which are different? And how does dealing with these common and unique challenges transfer to life outside of science?
To gather some insight, I interviewed a scientist working in each of four research environments: outdoors in the field, and indoors in the laboratory, the office, and the classroom.
Research is what we learn to do in graduate school. For most students, this is a steep learning curve. Some students, like me, eagerly accept the challenge. We spend weekends and nights in the field or at the lab. We lose ourselves in collecting data; running samples, measuring things, compiling the numbers, graphing the results, and searching the literature for insights into what might be driving the patterns in the point scatters, bars, and error bars. Maybe we don’t have a clear direction or plan at first; we just desperately want to be doing science, learning something new about the world around us. Simply being present in the lab felt productive because it was truly an enchanted place; it was the birthplace of discovery. At this stage, and for years after, I pursued research wholeheartedly, following my scientific interests around North America. Other students (maybe the smart ones) recognize right away that research is not for them, and begin to plan accordingly for a career outside of research while still in graduate school (which must be fairly difficult to do in the midst of people who seem to know only about one thing: research). I always thought I would be a professor because graduate school was such a natural, easy fit for me. What I didn’t count on was that I would spend a lot of time waiting in the queue for a tenure-track position. My interests changed during this time, and I found myself in a place I no longer wanted to be, with little knowledge of what one with a research background might do outside of research. Was it too late for me to transition to something else? I had no idea if that was the case, or where to start looking for something else. I began my search in my network, because after all, that is what professional networks are for, right? So, strangely enough, at the largest meeting of Entomologists in history, where research was probably at the forefront of most attendees’ minds, I was in search of something different.
I was nervous that this would be a difficult task amongst people inhabiting traditional careers. Regardless, I was motivated by my new interests, with energy enough for leads that might or might not pan out. What this plan consisted of was me asking practically everyone I knew whether they knew anyone or any opportunities in writing, editing, or publishing (some of my newly-identified interests), or someone who had built a career around a place they wanted to live (a growing interest of mine and an unwritten no-no for seekers of traditional research positions). I got some good leads (I hope) and I plan to follow them up. Before the conference I had also connected with colleagues via email and phone conversations, asking questions and following up leads about alternative paths. These exchanges had ranged from mildly useful to extremely helpful. I expected a similar result at the Congress. I was surprised by what I got, and by my reaction to it. Perhaps it was the in-person aspect of a conference that demands an emotional investment in conversation not required with phone calls and emails, or perhaps it was the larger, more random sampling of people I connected with (out of 6500 people, I talked to around 75 or so).
A dichotomy of inspiration and heavy empathy surrounded my thoughts as I progressed through the week in Orlando. From some I heard (and sensed) fear for their uncertain futures, or loss and struggle from jobs not offered. From others I heard clever and interesting solutions to integrate personal and professional happiness into a complete life. Graduate students and postdocs told me about projects they hoped could be finished soon, so they could publish their work and be competitive for fellowships and jobs. The unspoken consensus seemed to be that whatever they had accomplished so far, it wasn’t enough (see more on this here and here). Others told me of jobs they desperately wanted and had fiercely prepared for, but were not offered. Even worse, some of those jobs had been offered to people with fewer accomplishments, less experience, or more limited skill sets. I could relate to this, because it had happened to me more than once. These struggles can leave people in a dark place (see more on this here and here).
I have spent many hours thinking about how to solve this problem. Because it is rooted in policy and the big business of higher education, there is no easy or quick solution. There are simply too many highly-qualified and highly-educated people searching for too few jobs right now (see here, here, and here for more). As an individual, I feel I can best contribute to the solution by listening to others, providing emotional and what little professional support I can for them. I firmly believe in the strength of our scientific community to help one another get through this difficult time in our field. People are resilient (otherwise we would not have survived as a species). What inspires me is learning about the clever ways people successfully circumnavigate obstacles and overcome challenges, both professionally and personally. I’m especially curious about people who continue to do research, but not in a full-time capacity or institutional position. For example, at the conference I heard about a scientist who followed his wife to the location of her dream job; no job was immediately available for him there, so he set up a lab in his house and continued his research independently. The setting was unconventional, yet he successfully obtained funding, and he was able to pursue his personal and professional passions. This is not a story I would have likely heard in graduate school. A dear friend of mine – and a brilliant scientist – shared a lovely outlook on science with me at the Congress. She loves research, but she doesn’t let it dictate her life; she does science when she wants and how she wants. She has made a decision that what’s most important to her is being in the same location as her husband. She selects only projects of great interest to her. She goes on research expeditions with other scientists, and uses her colleagues’ lab equipment and space on occasion. She doesn’t have a formal position or title at an institution (even though her accomplishments make her very deserving of this), prestige which she deems unnecessary compared with happiness in her personal life and freedom to do what science she likes. Clearly, not all decisions to avoid a permanent research position are (or should be) dictated by a person’s partner; those examples were a few I happened across in Orlando.
I recognize that age and career stage likely has a lot to do with what I heard at the conference. Some degree of fear is unavoidable when people are just leaving the safe nest of graduate school, readying themselves to be independent and responsible for their own fate. The limited job market that young people face also has a lot to do with this fear. My experience at the Congress illustrates the importance of community in supporting careers (see my post on how conferences provide emotional support), no matter what their trajectory. A lot of encouragement can be had from hearing about how other people overcome personal and professional challenges. And of course, learning of professional opportunities and following up on them is key. What I’ve learned so far is that a huge energy investment is required to propel yourself into a career transition. I have a feeling the payoff will be worth it. I try to focus on finding what it is I like to do most, finding a way to keep that in my life, while carefully considering the sacrifices I’m willing to make to have the things I want most in life. Below I list some online resources on career transitions and alternatives to academia that I’ve found helpful.