“There is a whole infrastructure out there helping young people doing good science, to continue doing good science.”
Contributor Scott Chimileski
The collective infrastructure of science built over the past three hundred and fifty years is among the most remarkable of human achievements – yet we continue to work towards a sustainable model for funding research. We wonder, how much money should be spent on science, and who should pay for it? Which investigators should conduct the science that is paid for? And, what should we study: practical subjects, or anything interesting? Answers to these questions become even more important when funding opportunities seem to be drying up.
So far, we have found reasons for optimism by drawing upon history. Federal funding for science has gone up and down in cycles, however has increased overall. And, sources of funding have shifted over time. Here we look at the present day through the experience of a recently hired assistant professor and a well known senior scientist.
Jonathan Klassen is a new faculty member at the University of Connecticut. His lab (@KlassenLab) studies a network of symbioses within colonies of fungus-growing ants. The ants cultivate a particular fungal species as a food source and simultaneously utilize antibiotic-producing bacteria that colonize their exoskeleton to keep other fungal pathogens out of their gardens. But how did Klassen beat the odds, despite statistics that show very few trainees become professors?
Klassen applied for about fifty positions, and from these, went on over five interviews. The entire process took about four months of tireless work, although ultimately worth it when he got a job at a major research institution. His advice to PhD students that want to continue in academic research is to “set yourself up early.” Think about the next step and align yourself with this goal long before your last year as a graduate student. There are jobs out there, just keep in mind they will be offered by an entire range of institutions, from the smallest liberal arts schools to the big name universities. “Realize where you fit according to your specific background.”
On the opposite end of the career spectrum, is Bonnie Bassler, who is chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and also studies microbes. Her group has made key discoveries by intercepting molecules that bacteria use like words in a kind of chemical language – a system known as quorum sensing. She received a MacArthur fellowship in 2002 and was elected into the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2006. Nevertheless, during a 2014 iBiology interview, Bassler discussed her career path and was quick to mention that “this wasn’t all roses.”
In fact, Bassler’s work has literally gone from fringe to forefront. She began her career during the Gulf War when funding for science was on the decline. The organism she studies is not a human pathogen – it lives in the ocean. And the central theme of her lab, microbial communication, was then a controversial idea. It took her a decade and almost twenty grant proposals to get NIH funding. She believed in her science, motivated by the young scientists working with her and by support from her department. She was tenacious. When a grant was rejected, she would say to herself, “Oh well, I didn’t get that, I’ll write to somebody else. I’ll go out and do an experiment, I’ll show them!” Her work and her positive attitude paid off, not only for herself, but for an entire field. Today chemical communication is a fundamental aspect of microbiology and there are hundreds of labs studying quorum sensing.
The story of Bassler’s career also shows how precious basic research is. Though she was not thinking of human applications for her work twenty years ago, she was given the opportunity to follow her curiosity, and now anti-quorum sensing molecules may contribute to the next generation of antibiotics, which could come right when we need them most, with resistance to conventional drugs at unprecedented levels.
Both Klassen and Bassler expressed the importance of matching your science with the culture present in a particular department. For Klassen, this meant finding a group of scientists focused on symbiosis. Likewise, Bassler stated during an interview for the NAS, that scientists at Princeton were attracted to her work because all biology groups there study information transfer in one way or another: “they understood and appreciated my science intrinsically.”
Your science and ambitions may not be in-line with the culture of academia in general. In a recent interview for the Journal of Clinical Investigation, NIH director Francis Collins suggested that non-academic careers shouldn’t be viewed as alternative, because, “this makes them sound second rate,” while they actually represent, “very exciting roles in many different places.”
A career, like other parts of life, often becomes an adventure. Embrace serendipity and uncertainty. Like scientific research, sometimes the best personal discoveries and questions come when they are least expected. Pay attention to the trends in science funding – do all that you can to contribute to the conversation and to the cause of science. But, during periods of doom and gloom, keep in mind another bit of advice from Bonnie Bassler: senior scientists like her are “not about to let the scientific enterprise crash” and are working on solving the model for funding going forward. If you love being a scientist, “you’ve just got to go for it … there is a whole infrastructure out there helping young people doing good science, to continue doing good science.”