Boston Blog

How would you change the way scientists are trained? An informal survey.

Nature Network Boston bloggers talk about how scientific training and communication can be improved.


If you could make one change to the way young scientists are taught and trained, what would it be and why?

Willy Lensch, stem cell scientist, Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Stem Cell Institute

I think that modern scientific training is lacking in scholarship. The “publish-or-perish” atmosphere has forced us to become very narrow in our expertise. This certainly leads to focused productivity but at the expense of knowing what science is about. I think that at the very least, young scientists in training should know who founded their field, when, and why.

Kristin Stephan, immunology graduate student, Tufts University

Scientific training takes too long. Most scientists are extremely productive and creative when they are young. Unfortunately, we aren’t all that young when we get our first tenure-track faculty position or our first NIH R01 grant. Most students are adequately prepared for increased independence (postdoc) long before they finish their PhD. But graduate students are often expected to “put in their time” rather than be judged solely on their research accomplishments or level of competence. Until the basic academic culture changes, I don’t see the training time decreasing. The only way the culture will change is if today’s young trainees demand it now and when they are in positions of authority.

The postdoctoral period seems to be getting longer and longer. This is a tough pill to swallow when you are in your early to mid-20s. If this continues, more and more talented scientists will leave the bench.

Hari Jayaram, postdoctoral associate, protein biochemist, Brandeis University

A lot of training is still about teaching techniques which were put in place in the 1960s. I would like all education to quickly catch up with the times. There is no reason why a classroom session on climate change does not feature a live video chat with a polar scientist out on a field trip. Also I would make books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed essential reading at the high school level. Saving the planet is something they will be involved in all their lives. They better get the background facts early.

If you could make one change to the way scientists communicate their latest experimental results, what would it be and why?

Willy Lensch

General public lectures! I meet a great many people when I lecture in public. Even if they don’t agree with my point of view, I do find that they are very interested in science. What they lack is access and vocabulary. I think that science is conducted as a form of public trust and that we should get out there and let people know what we are working on and why, especially if it is government-funded. The payoffs could be enormous in many ways for everyone involved.

Kristin Stephan

We all know that science is competitive. No one in their right mind would give competitors ideas that would expedite their research. This mentality is necessary to stay on top of the field and remain competitive for grants. However, the “secretive” nature of science drastically slows our progress. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all work together for a common goal, openly sharing our data with other experts in the field as soon as we collect it?

Scientists can now share their information on the Web at sites like Nature Precedings. Also, every scientist knows how to contact their closest competitor and experts in the field. However, many are afraid to share non-published data for fear of being scooped. If the funding agencies and journals could reduce the emphasis to publish data first, more scientists would be willing to share with one another.

Hari Jayaram

I would like for all scientists to use the Web and the open channels it provides extensively. Every published paper should have associated video and audio commentary; there should be extensive open-access methods section in text and multimedia formats provided for everyone to see. A two-paragraph methods section for a 10-year body of work is serious under kill. We could start with such exposure for every finished piece of work, eventually progressing towards “live science” where that protein gel I ran yesterday is there for everyone to see on the Web a few moments later!

How would you answer these questions? What other questions should NNB ask in the next installment of “Reflections”? And who should we ask? Post your comments here.


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    Kishore Kuchibhotla said:

    I would completely change the structure of the post-grad school job structure. Grad school’s usually pretty fun if you like doing research (although a bit long for too many people). But we’re trying to fit hundreds of thousands of scientists into an (academic) system that was made for a much smaller community. Post-doctoral positions need to be professionalized, intermediate positions (instructor/lecturer/research scientist) need to be formalized and increased in number, and the tenure system needs a thorough overhaul! If life after grad school were more transparent, and more rewarding, not as many talented people would be leaving science!

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    Jean-Claude Bradley said:

    Following up on Hari and Kristin, there is a tremendous opportunity with these new web technologies to do science in a much more transparent way. There are ways of doing this without compromising the traditional publication and academic validation system.

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    ken nguyen said:

    To JC Bradley, it would be nice if you could suggest a few “ways of doing this without compromising the traditional publication and academic validation system”.

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    Frank Adamo said:

    Very simple. Most, if not all, scientists are very knowledgeable in their field(s) of expertise; however, their presentation skills may not be all that effective.

    Though visual aids preparation techniques have changed tremendously since the late ‘60s, when I first started presenting, the presentation style, in my opinion, has not significantly changed, especially for scientists. As a chemist (with a Master’s degree in analytical chemistry) and as a business/computer consultant for many years, I have given and I have seen many technical presentations at conferences, at work and elsewhere. The presentations were generally quite informative and technically enriching and the presenters were generally very knowledgeable with the subject matter. However, many of them (and I include my own), were, in my opinion, rather unexciting and ineffective.

    Scientists should take a (credited or non credited) course in Effective Communications or Presentation skills.

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