Training Scientists as Members of Society

The scientific enterprise is not composed solely of scientists. Science is a societal endeavor that requires researchers, administrators, journalists, policy makers, lawmakers, businesses, and voters. In the United States, most scientific research is supported through taxpayers by large public bodies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, making science a democratic institution. However, the model for training new scientists has neglected both economic and societal truths about how scientific labor should be distributed in the twenty-first century.

Most disciplines train a grossly inflated number of aspiring scientists that are unable to assume traditional research roles. Simultaneously, few graduate programs provide any substantial training in "alternative" (i.e. non-academic and non-research) careers, which the vast majority of their students will eventually pursue. By definition, this is an unsustainable path. Although a number of senior educators and scientists are calling, and have been calling, for changes to scientific training, there is a desperate need to follow through on these recommendations and face honestly the realities of science in our modern world. 

As you can see from the infographic above, the tenured-track faculty position, or your standard research professor, is a rare outcome from advanced scientific training. To pursue that position requires several years to obtain a Ph.D. and one or more postdoctoral training fellowships which may last two, four, or more years each. It is a time-consuming process and reflects a large investment by taxpayers in bright and motivated individuals, who are largely paid in one way or another by federal grants funded by taxes. Unfortunately for scientists pursuing this work, it is still largely a crapshoot that requires a great deal of luck to back up a decade or more of exceptional work. This is because most biology research is in a state of "hypercompetition" due to a glut of doctoral researchers relative to the finite amount of research dollars available to support them. This is by now a familiar tale, but one that remains unaddressed by institutional training guidelines and recruitment patterns. 

Yet this is not for lack of discourse. The most recent letter from the President of the American Society of Plant Biologists highlights the need for more diverse graduate training--while remarking that plant science may buck the trend and could be producing too few doctoral scientists--that is responsive to the economics of demand for scientific labor and trends in federal funding. Although plant biology may not suffer from the same unattenuated growth in graduate training that plagues most biomedical fields, that does not mean that our discipline is training adequately for industrial careers in agricultural sciences or the non-research careers that also support the scientific enterprise like science communication and policy. The President's letter echoes an ongoing conversation where educators discuss pessimistic attitudes by students about research careers and call for more diverse training and a reduction in class size. 

Most calls for change reflect a concern about supply and demand mismatch for scientific labor. Few, however, reflect on the broader question of what makes the scientific enterprise successful. Although basic research performed in academic settings is the foundation of scientific progress, in a vacuum it is nearly worthless. Scientists are largely motivated by intense curiosity and the desire to better understand how nature works. Biologists in particular, myself included, marvel at the apparent miracle of life and how cells and organisms respond so well to their environment and construct the diversity we see in our living world. But in order to support this kind of basic research and reap societal benefits, researchers must function within a web connected to the rest of society. 

Peer-reviewed journals allow scientists to communicate with one another and require publishers and editors. Science writers and journalists disseminate new findings to a general public that is fascinated by and benefits from this work. Entrepreneurs and large companies and engineers translate basic findings about nature into new medical devices, new crops, and new treatments, while stimulating the economy. Policy analysts and lawmakers (ideally) take advantage of our improving understanding about our world to align national policy with truth as we best understand it, in order to protect the environment and human health. Science with a capital 'S' is all of these things. What many educators fail to give sufficient attention to when discussing graduate training reform is that scientists play roles in each of these fields and more. Without trained scientists in diverse careers, our science writing would be limited, our businesses lost, our lawmakers blind to how the world functions. 

Our motivation to improve graduate training should come not only from disparities between the supply and demand of labor, but should also reflect an appreciation of how Science relies on society to function well. Training scientists with the skills to enter these fields and support science from outside the lab will help ensure that the scientific enterprise is not weakened by acting as separate from the world, but rather remains strengthened by its place in society.

Clinton Global Initative University

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference hosted by Washington University. While the CGI is fairly well known, I had never heard of CGI U until I saw a headline in the student newspaper at Washington University last fall announcing the conference. It's a meeting designed to bring undergraduate and graduate students from around the world with ideas to address global issues together to meet one another and receive training and support to complete their goals.

Each goal is called a "commitment to action" and is explicitly centered on how to take a grand idea and make progress toward real, measureable action. About 1200 students are invited to attend the conference. The real kicker is that the host university receives 200 of those slots. So all of us at WashU had a much easier time being accepted. It's clearly a reward for the hosting university--which has to provide a huge amount of support, logitics and infrastructure--but the upshot is that the diversity of commitments is increased because of the lower bar for entry.

My own commitment to action is based on my ongoing efforts to bring St. Louis plant scientists and community gardeners together over their common interest in developing strong food systems. In fact, that is my commitment to action. I want to bring these groups together so they can be advocates for one another. So plant scientists are engaged in their own communities, strengthening them through productive uses of public spaces. So urban agriculturalists vocally--and politically--support research to create strong crops. I think it all starts with meeting on common ground and developing mutual respect.

So that's my plan. Although I am already working toward those goals, I still haven't fully fleshed out my ideas or developed a real plan of action to make sure I'm making progress. That was what CGI U promised to offer.

The conference was held across three days, but there was really only one day full of events and workshops. On Friday, they hosted a networking event for all the attendees to grab some food and mingle with one another. Students from WashU, from other American schools and from literally the other side of the world were all there. The menu was a "Taste of the Midwest" featuring provel cheese (a fake provolone native to STL), St. Louis-style barbecue, Italian fair from The Hill, toasted ravioli and other quaint personifications of my new home city.

I wandered over to the cocktail table with the "Agriculture" sign on it--seemed appropriate enough. It turns out that wasn't an accident and I met my mentor there. I had a mentor who was supposed to guide me in my CGI U experience but as far as I could tell she just sent me emails telling me how excited she was and how to download the mobile app.

However, I did meet a woman from Palestine and was so surprised to hear her home country that I completely failed to ask her a dozen questions I might otherwise have. I've only ever met one other Palestinian to my knowledge but never one who was actually living there. Had just flown halfway around the world. I didn't even catch what her commitment was, something related to agriculture as mine is. But that was my first realization that I was playing at a serious level here.

That leads me to mention that coming from WashU, where it was so much easier to be accepted, left me with a bit of an inferiority complex during the event. A huge portion of the attendees--most of them younger than me--had commitments to assist a large population of underserved people around the world. Many of them had already made significant progress. So at times I felt a bit like the kid at the adult table, trying to follow the conversation and sit up straight but accidentally spilling mashed potatoes all over my shirt with my legs dangling uselessly a foot above the floor. Yet at the same time it was an ego boost to be on the same level as truly inspiring students, let alone being in the same room with world-renowned personalities.

The first evening followed with a plenary session. Chelsea Clinton came out and welcomed everyone, introducing the purpose of CGI U. She was followed by President Bill Clinton who spoke and then welcomed the speakers: Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square; William Kamkwamba, writer of "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"; Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy; Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International. President Clinton moderated the panel discussing entrepreneurship and social mindfulness. It was inspiring and fascinating--that was the goal I believe--and we all took a "class photo" and I wandered home.

Saturday was the primary day of the conference packed with panels and workshops. Unfortunately, there were really only two decisions to make during the entire event: a morning session and an afternoon session, each about an hour and a half long. The rest of the time was taken up with fixed panels covering interesting topics but they didn't directly address how to improve our commitments. The workshops I did choose to attend were amazing, and I found myself wishing I could have filled my days with them because it was impossible to attend all of them.

The morning began with a similar session to the previous evening's, moderated by Chelsea Clinton and covering many different issues surrounding women, particularly in the developing world. Then we moved on to the first open slot. I had decided to attend a panel on STEM education because a big part of my commitment is focused on public-facing science communication. It was moderated by a senior advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and featured three women who were focused on STEM education, including one woman who was the team leader of her own commitment to action.

The panel focused on effective ways to improve science education, primarily formal science education in classrooms and universities. The discussion centered around how to attract more students, particularly young women and girls, to pursue STEM fields. All of the panelists agreed that by focusing on the social benefits of science and engineering, we would be able to engage more students, especially women who may be drawn to that purpose.

The panel concluded with a discussion at our table about our commitments and what we could do to improve STEM education. I met Melanie Bauer, a third year psychology graduate student at WashU, whose commitment centered on informal science education. I was very glad to meet a student from WashU with an overlapping interest because while networking with the hundreds of students from around the world was great, I knew I would be much more likely to follow up and collaborate with another student in St. Louis.

In fact, I met up with Melanie for lunch, completely skipping the noon presentation, and I devoured her information about how to write for the university newsletter, Scientific American and about a media fellowship from the AAAS that she was applying for. After the conference, we agreed to work together to write an essay for the National Science Foundation on ways to improve graduate education that was due a week later. We presented our idea for a new curriculum required of all graduate students to train them in communicating science to the public. We could win a cash prize come June!

The afternoon workshop was equally helpful. I thought it was the best choice from what CGI U called "skill sessions", focused on how to monitor and evaluate your commitment to ensure you're making progress. This was a real weakness of my commitment but I learned a lot. Or at least enough to get the juices flowing.

The final event of the conference was hosted by Stephen Colbert, the headlining act of the weekend (besides of course a former president, his daughter, the founder of Twitter, etc. etc.). He came out and riffed on the CGI U by presenting his own "Colbert Galactic Initiative". He then sat down with President Clinton in character for a 15 minute interview that he presented on his Monday night show. Afterwards he broke character--apparently a stipulation of President Clinton's--to talk more seriously about the issues being addressed by CGI and CGI U. Finally, students in attendance could stand up to microphones and ask wither Colbert or Clinton questions, and this portion of the event was apparently livestreamed for audiences at home.

That was basically the end. There was another networking event but I just stuck around long enough to grab dinner and then headed home. And here I'll hang my head in shame because I didn't attend the volunteering event the next morning. I should have. I told them I would. Oops.

But I was already exhausted! It was a fantastic opportunity. I only wish I had been able to attend more panels and workshops during the day on Saturday. Because despite how interesting some of the moderated discussions were, they were less directly helpful for planning my own commitment. More of an inspiration I suppose.

However, I did receive some invaluable help on monitoring the success of my commitment; on current perspectives in STEM education. I met a new friend and collaborator and we've already had a productive relationship arguing our case for more informal science communication training in graduate school. I'll be able to tell grandkids who don't care about the day I almost-kinda met Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert. I'm very thankful to CGI U for accepting my application to attend and grateful that attending WashU at the right time gave my more modest idea a chance to be heard.

Lindbergh HS

This morning I had the opportunity to speak at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis County about GMOs. I was invited by an advanced science teacher, Bryan Cintel, after he asked around through the biology department listserv for a guest speaker.
It was fortuitous because their AP biology course was already covering biotechnology and GMOs so I was able to contribute to that unit by giving a scientist’s perspective on the matter. Even though I don’t work on GMOs myself, my work as a plant biologist brings up the topic a lot. And since I went into plant biology because of an interest in developing strong food systems, genetic engineering is a topic I’m always trying to learn more about. I’m the resident ‘plant guy’ to a lot of my friends and family so I’m used to covering everything from plant science to organic farming and Monsanto’s legal team. It just comes with the territory.
But I was excited to present to students after presenting at the Community Garden Summit a few weeks back. The students were very advanced—they had covered the cloning of genes, gene regulation, the structure of DNA and restriction enzymes among other topics. So I was able to focus more on the science and biology behind genetic engineering than I was when presenting to the more heterogeneous crowd at the Community Garden Summit. This was my first time giving a presentation exclusively on GMOs and I was happy to have the practice. I know it won’t be my last!
I borrowed a few slides from my previous presentation but I wanted to make sure I contributed some actual biology that was new to the students. They had learned about genetic engineering in bacteria, but plants are a bit of a different story and I taught them about how we use Agrobacterium to help us transform plants. Or a ‘gene gun’ when we can’t use Agro.
The students had questions ready from an assignment but of course a handful of students in each period spoke up the most and were really interested in the topic, which was great. One girl already knew about Golden Rice, which was a topic I covered in my slides. Of course, some students were interested in the ethics and legal issues surrounding the patenting of genes and whether Monsanto was in the right when they sued some farmers for patent infringement. I always try to make it clear that I’m no expert on Monsanto’s legal issues, but the fact is that I keep abreast of the information as much as I can so I do usually have something to contribute. And the students wanted my opinion on some of the other concerns surrounding GMOs, like the health consequences of eating them. I told them that it was the strong consensus that GMOs are perfectly safe to eat. But I did bring up some of the more legitimate issues that skeptics have with the technology, like the problem of ‘gene escape’ from a genetically engineered crop to a wild relative.
Mr. Cintel asked me to talk a little bit about biotech jobs as well. Although I don’t have direct experience in the biotechnology industry, GMOs and plant science in general are great to talk about in the St. Louis region. We have the highest concentration of plant scientists in the world, largely thanks to Monsanto. But we also have great non-profit institutions like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and of course Washington University. This gave me a chance to talk about the several different ways that students could become involved with science as a career. It’s not only academic research, but it can be industry work or work at independent research centers like the DDPSC. And I told them that a career in science isn’t necessarily limited to those with Ph.D.s. A place like Monsanto should have jobs for all educational levels where you still get to ‘do science’ at a different level.
I had a great time, even though I had to wake up an hour earlier than usual to get out to the school by 8:10. Several of the students were interested in going into science and I told them that Washington University probably has opportunities for them to do work during the summer even in high school. That’s how I got started.
I hope to speak to more students in the future. Maybe I’ll even return to Lindbergh High School to speak next year on a similar topic.
(Topic preview: I was selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference taking place at Washington University from April 5-7. My Commitment to Action continues my outreach efforts to bring plant scientists in the region together with the urban agriculture community. I’ll write about that shortly.)