How to Be an Effective Student Leader

24. September 2013

Benjamin Franta

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. What makes for a good leader? What makes someone effective at creating change?

Leadership is similar to other skills in that we learn it through a combination of imitation, trial and error and practice. Yet it is not as easy to assess as other abilities, because leadership can be found in many forms. There is no single standard by which to judge ourselves or others.
However, the best leaders whom I’ve known do have a few things in common; three in particular stand out:
1) Conceptual creativity that is also specific and linked to reality. This is often called “vision.”
2) The ability to identify, obtain and create resources, whether they are human, financial, technical or of some other nature.
3) The interpersonal and strategic skills necessary to execute the vision by making use of those resources.
How can we develop vision, resources and execution skills? There are many ways, including training, seeking new experiences, observing others and so on. Personally, one of the most useful methods I’ve found to build leadership is to cultivate certain habits that lead to positive outcomes. The most important of these are to:
Be honest in every interaction. Some people are effusive; others are terse. Regardless of style, honesty is the bedrock of a good leader. While it may sound easy, being honest means letting go of your fear of being judged. That can be difficult, and it takes practice.
Keep it simple. Great accomplishments happen one step at a time. As a leader, one of your jobs is to simplify complicated processes so that the people around you are more effective. Don’t expect to be thanked for this work; if you do it right, others won’t even be aware that you’ve done it. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for any team.
Don’t take (or give) anything personally. Sometimes others will not be able to help you, or your interests will clash with theirs. This is normal, and there’s no need for frustration or resentment. An effective leader doesn’t begrudge others following their own interests, even when it presents obstacles. Rather, you should strive to understand the goals and desires of others without judgment, and determine what constructive outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
These actions cultivate trust, promote the completion of goals, and preserve and develop positive and creative relationships. It’s important to remember that these are not inborn traits; they can be developed through conscious effort. Improvement requires practice, critical self-examination, and the will to keep trying and learning from mistakes.
What characteristics have you found to be important for effective leadership? Share them in the comments below!
Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard University. He is the president of Harvard Photonics (Harvard’s OSA student chapter), an organizer for NanoStart (a new nanotechnology think tank at Harvard), and an executive board member of Divest Harvard (a climate activist campaign). He is also a Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute.


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Independent Science: Beyond Academia and Industry

17. September 2013

Miriam Boer

When I finished my Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Maryland in 2011, I graduated into one of the toughest biotech job markets in history. I applied for over 200 traditional positions within academia and industry, with no luck. As my search stalled, I turned to a pet interest I had had in low-intensity ultrasound and built a business plan around using it as a novel melanoma treatment.

I didn’t realize it right away, but my startup took me into the world of independent science, where the goal is doing your work on your terms—right now. While the science job market is tighter than ever, lab spaces are actually becoming more affordable, particularly if you are willing to work in a communal setting. From how it’s funded to the workplaces associated with it, independent science deviates from conventional expectations of scientific research. My nontraditional startup, Sonify Biosciences, LLC, is one of many that exist outside the confines of academia, big industry and government jobs.
Who’s involved?
The people who consider themselves independent scientists range from hobbyists without college degrees to those with postdoctoral or even professorial experience. The network is larger than just the individuals or small groups who spearhead them. For instance, my specialty lies in biochemical wet-lab work, so I contract out the engineering and physics to people whose skills and knowledge exceed mine. They’re not technically employees, but they’re vital to Sonify’s success.
How do you fund this?
The quick answer is any way you can. The long answer is that, because the endgame is getting to do your own work, independent scientists can be funded by one or more of the following: private investment, grants, Small Business Innovation Research money, crowdsourcing, loans, angel investment, or even their own savings. Each has pros and cons. For me, my first success was winning the Recent Alum and Best Biotech categories of the University of Maryland 2012 business plan competition. The bottom line is that you have to understand your individual situation. There’s no right way to do this, but that means there’s no wrong way either.
Where do you work?
I refer to Sonify Biosciences as a “gypsy” startup because I don’t have permanent lab space. I’m renting space in a shared services lab in a local teaching hospital. By contrast, building a biological research facility from scratch would run hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keeping overhead low enabled me to start at what’s referred to as stage zero—the point where you’re doing proof-of-concept research without an intellectual property portfolio (meaning you hold no patents). It’s nearly impossible to get stage zero investment, because there’s nothing in it for the investor. However, by keeping my total costs below even the value of most grants, I made the gamble worthwhile to my investors.
Shared workspaces already exist in many cities. These so-called high-tech “hackerspaces” are becoming more common, with even large industrial entities investing in the promise of the independent research model. For example, Janssen Labs set up a shared biological research facility on Johnson & Johnson’s R&D campus in La Jolla, and one is opening in Boston as well. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is developing a shared space for independent engineering efforts. Even if you don’t live in a startup hub, you can still find workspace if you get creative.
Should I get involved?
You have to know yourself. I enjoy the unstructured approach, and being able to work on my own ideas before I’m 30 took precedence over working towards a guaranteed lifelong job. Ultimately, you must figure out the right vehicle to do work that generates value, however you define it. For me, it’s a nontraditional startup. For you, it might be something completely different. You can start by figuring out what ideas and possibilities excite you, both as a person and a scientist.
Miriam Boer ( is the founder and CTO of Sonify Biosciences LLC in Baltimore, Md., U.S.A. She tweets @mademoiselleMim and blogs at

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Career Culture Shock

11. September 2013

 Lisa Balbes

The other day, I was talking to a college student who recently started his summer job. He had a position that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place. This meant he was mostly doing the same type of work, but with a new group of people. Each organization had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success. Yet they were very different in one key respect: their culture.

While both sites completed their tasks on time (especially the customer-facing ones), one group actively sought out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie. They often socialized during off hours.

The second group was not as close-knit. They were friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends. After having worked in the former environment, the student was surprised by this more distant attitude.

But the single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something they’d never done before. At the first site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, he or she would learn from someone who did and then practice until they could do it well. By contrast, when those in the second location were asked to do something they’d never done before, most would find someone else who knew how to do it and then ask them to take care of it for them.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short-term, it might not be in the long run. What happens if that person is not available at a crucial time or leaves the company altogether? Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager or supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for a particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other. Some prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and they derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task. Others are not happy unless they have variety in their jobs and are constantly challenged to learn new things.

Most scientists are naturally curious people; they want to know how and why things work and are excited by the opportunity to do something new. My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were: “I could have forgiven them for not knowing if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn. Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.” In his mind, asking the expert to do the task was slacking off, not being efficient.

But another person might well have said: “It’s all about being efficient. There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something if someone already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this. They combine to create the atmosphere in which we work. When the way you like to work matches the way your organization operates, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing. When they don’t match, you may be unhappy without realizing why.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.


Career Path, Communication Skills, Job Search , , , ,

What's Your Science Maturity Level?

5. September 2013

Marc Kuchner

 This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results.” However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered 10 or 20 years from now—forecasts that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?

Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, but rather to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, I believe that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world or inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments gravitate towards talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?

Marc J. Kuchner ( is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at

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