Thursday, June 8, 2017

Students advocating for academic science

PhD candidates Crystal Grant, left, and Joshua Lewis are vocal advocates for scientific research at universities, but neither is ready to commit to academic careers due to uncertainty about good jobs. Last summer, they made their case to congressional aides from the Georgia delegation. (Kay Hinton)

By Hal Jacobs
Emory Magazine

Call it the 800-pound gorilla in the lab.

Crystal Grant, a graduate student in Emory's Genetics and Molecular Biology program in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS), faced it while studying how people’s DNA changes with age.

Graduate student Joshua Lewis of the GDBBS Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology program saw its shadow while researching how cells stick to neighbor cells— information that could lead to understanding how cancer cells metastasize.

The problem weighed so heavily on Chelsey Ruppersburg, who graduated with a PhD in 2016, that she changed career directions after racing to earn a doctorate in cell biology in only four years, rather than the usual six or seven.

The situation is readily apparent to anyone who works in an academic lab. Research is a slow, steady, incremental process; funding is erratic, inconsistent, boom and bust. Principal investigators must tear themselves away from working with students to chase fewer National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. Hiring new students and staff is fraught because funding for their positions is a moving target.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of graduate students—vital to every academic lab—compete for rarer faculty positions while being tempted by more lucrative private industry jobs or opportunities abroad.
Postdoctoral fellowships, an important transitional step from student to professor, have become a port of call that may stretch into years of low pay and uncertainty for scientists who hoped to settle down after a decade-plus of intense schooling.

But as the challenge grows steeper, the same young scientists who are most affected are also trying to solve it.

Read more in Emory Magazine.

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