My Science Mid-Life Crisis: Too Old to Be the Prodigy, Too Young to Be the Authority

2. August 2012

Andrew Forbes

Although I feel like I graduated from university just yesterday, it recently dawned on me that I own a pair of hiking boots older than some of my graduate students. This realization came as a bit of a shock, and it led me to reflect on my current place as a middle-aged scientist in my field. Scientists my age are often stressed out, either because they haven’t made it big or because they have.

Publish or perish

Here is a quick pop quiz: Is your h-index about half your age? If not and you are 40 years old, then by my reckoning, you are not destined to join the halls of fame or win a Nobel Prize—unless, of course, you plan to work well into your 80s. (And, let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a member of the Academy of Sciences who appeared to be under 80 years old?) I was startled to learn that a recent visitor at my institution had published more than 500 journal papers. How did he manage such a feat? By my estimate, if you start writing papers seriously at age 30 and have a 30-year career, then you need to publish one journal article every three weeks to match this rate of publication. Don’t these people take holidays?

Scientific competition

It ultimately comes down to comparison and competition. Scientists love sizing up their work in relation to that of others. They also love seeing their names in print, being invited to speak at conferences, and getting selected to lead a team of researchers. I certainly do. Perhaps one way to avoid the science mid-life crisis is to work in a boring subject area where you will have little competition for the spotlight. The more arcane, the better. I believe there’s only one brave soul in stochastic singular optics, for example.

Unfortunately, however, that is unlikely to make you happy in the long run. I tell my students that it doesn’t really matter what you end up doing--whether it is academic, industrial or commercial--as long as you enjoy your work and you are very good at it. Sometimes we scientists forget the bigger picture. We are working towards the advancement of knowledge and society, and we all have an important contribution to make, no matter how small.

Making a difference

I recently read the thoughtful comments by Diana Antonosyan on this blog about the many challenges facing young scientists in developing countries. The situation she describes is true in my home country of South Africa—but with challenges come opportunities. In South Africa, and I imagine other developing countries as well, there is the chance to really make a difference. For example, my small research group is one of only a handful working in optics. I know all the other photonics researchers in the country on a first-name basis, and various government officials too. The community is small, and each individual effort counts.

In a context like this, one also tends to move up more quickly. The time between finishing a Ph.D. and leading a research group is astonishingly short. Before you know it, you are 40 and considered an expert in the country. Elsewhere, it would be much harder to distinguish yourself from the crowd. It is rare to be able to work in a place where what you do really matters. I encourage young people from developing countries to return to their homes and make a difference. I’m glad I did—even if it’s a small difference and I haven’t yet made my way into the Academy.  

Andrew Forbes (aforbes1@csir.co.za) is chief researcher and research group leader at the CSIR (South Africa), and serves on various national and international committees, including OSA.

Academic careers, Career , , ,

Lessons from an Editorial Term

5. July 2012

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal recently finished his second and final term as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A. Here, he shares his advice to authors and reviewers based on his six years of experience.

For scientists, writing is as vital as planning and executing experiments. Soon after a researcher has published a few articles in a field, it is typical for him or her to be asked to serve as a reviewer. This can be looked at as both a responsibility to the community and a career-development tool for yourself.

When I became an editor, I gained a whole new perspective. For those authors and reviewers who have not yet served as an editor, perhaps you can learn something from my experiences.

Be thorough and professional. I believe that a research area’s strength is related to the quality of the reviewers for its journals. Good reviewers behave like invisible mentors—combing through the data, suggesting additional experiments and giving specific, actionable feedback.

Expect to be treated equal to your colleagues. If you are an editor for long enough, you may have to reject a paper submitted by a friend or close colleague. A fundamental principle for editing and reviewing is that every author should be treated equally. If you can’t do this, you should not edit the paper. Real friends understand that you have to follow the same rules for everybody.  

Be generous with citations. Most authors are very gracious about citing the work of others. Of course, there are some who avoiding citing other groups in favor of noting their own previous work. Self-citations are in many cases necessary. However, when relevant papers from others are missing, it can signal a low-quality paper to an editor. So be generous; it’s good for others and good for you.

Be alert for plagiarism. A fundamental task for editors is to detect and reject articles that are either clearly wrong or direct copies of previously published articles (plagiarism). More sophisticated forms of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, can be difficult to find. I realized that many cases occur due to lack of author education or differing norms. For example, some researchers do not view it as wrong to duplicate their own research. Part of the editor’s job is to clearly communicate what is acceptable, what is not, and why. 

Clearly articulate the purpose of your paper. Sometimes a paper receives reviews indicating that it seems to be correct, but the point of the research is not clear. In a good journal, these papers are often rejected. Before submitting an article, be honest with yourself: Is this a paper I would like to read myself? Does it advance the field?

Don’t assume friends make the best reviewers. Most journals, including JOSA A, ask the author for reviewer recommendations. Usually, authors tend to suggest someone they know well. I was initially surprised in cases when I followed an author’s recommendation and received reviews that were perhaps unduly negative. Surprisingly, the most critical reviews can come from close colleagues—possibly because they are the ones who are closest to the details of your research area. Be aware of the possibility of bias, both positive and negative.

Review as you would like to be reviewed. OSA journals would not be possible without the tireless work of devoted volunteers. However, there are a few people who consistently refuse to review papers. It is not acceptable to systematically avoid this duty if you are an active scientist. Think twice when you are asked to review a paper, remembering the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

Get it right. As an editor, I was worried about the possibility that I would accept a paper that was completely wrong. A paper whose conclusions miss the mark is not necessarily a problem; there are many of those out there and they are consubstantial with scientific development. However, if a published paper contains simple and fundamental mistakes, the editor is to blame, so be careful.

Serving as an editor was a great experience that I would highly recommend. You learn more about your field and human nature. Hopefully it will make you a better scientist and person.

Pablo Artal (pablo@um.es) is an OSA fellow and professor of Optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. His blog covers optical research and related aspects (http://pabloartal.blogspot.com/).

Career, Communication skills, Publishing , , , , ,

How to Manage a Research Group

29. June 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Managing a research group is tricky. Ph.D. programs selectively breed individuals who like nothing better than to do things their own way. How do you manage a group of those—especially when you are one of them yourself?

To make matters worse, group leaders in academia are usually selected for their research achievements, not their leadership abilities. They may not have any natural talent and are unlikely to have been trained for the job. As a result, bad practices propagate by replication, just like viruses. To follow is some advice for getting it right.

Assess yourself. The first step toward self-improvement is probably self-assessment. If you have been leading a group for awhile, systematically question what you are doing and how you are doing it. When in doubt, get feedback from your group members. And if you are just facing the prospect of becoming a group leader, think about how your group leaders have managed you. What did they do that you found useful? What do you wish they would have done differently? Why?

Focus on purposes and strategies, not procedures. Make a list of all you would like to accomplish as a leader of a research group, such as to secure funding, to buy equipment, to attract great people, and to obtain visibility through publications. As always with this kind of exercise, cluster and prioritize the purposes you have thus identified. Then think of the most effective ways to reach your purposes with the means at your disposal.
 
Strike a balance between maximizing the group’s scientific production, in quantity or quality, and fostering the individual development of group members. If you are too keen on getting a paper accepted, for example, you might be tempted to rewrite large parts of a student’s imperfect manuscript. Unfortunately, this student is unlikely to learn much from having his or her work redrafted. Students will learn more if you can identify what is suboptimal in the manuscript and explain why; then let them attempt the rewriting themselves.

Striking a balance applies to decision-making, too. If your leadership style is participative, you probably work hard to reach a consensus on decisions, but you may have experienced the process as slow and the decisions as unsatisfactory. In contrast, if you are more of an authoritarian, you likely prefer to decide everything yourself; however, your group members may resent never being involved. A compromise may be to encourage everyone’s input in a group discussion and then decide yourself on the basis of this discussion. Whatever you do, make sure that the rules of the game are clear: Lack of clarity is even worse than unpopular (but clear) rules.

Nurture your group. Managing a group of young researchers is not unlike parenting—another job for which very few of us have been prepared. At times, you may have little availability, leaving your children to figure things out on their own. In contrast, when you want something done fast and well, you may prefer to do it yourself.  You are busy enough as it is and don’t need another mess.

Still, to learn and grow, your children need opportunities. They need guidance and supervision—not too much (leave place for discovery and initiative) and not too little (make sure they learn efficiently and safely). You may well know better what is good for them, but you might still listen to them before deciding. Similarly, you may insist that they obey the rules, yet allow them to challenge them.

Like parents with their children, group leaders should help young researchers along on the path to independence. If you are managing a group, are you doing everything you can so your members can soon become leaders of their own?

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Graduate school , , , , , ,

Marketing Your Science Using Mobile Barcodes

22. June 2012

Marc Kuchner

Mobile barcodes are the latest marketing fad. See an ad for your favorite rock band with a square barcode in the corner? Scan it in with your cell phone, and up pops the band’s website; the video rolls and the music starts playing. A mobile barcode transforms any visible surface into an internet gateway, helping potential customers find information, purchase products—even get free mp3s.

The popular QR (quick response) code was invented by a Toyota subsidiary called Denso-Wave; that one looks like pattern of black-and-white squares. Microsoft has its own proprietary mobile barcode system, simply called “tag.” The Microsoft codes contain colored triangles. Each type of barcode can be used to call up several different kinds of content: a URL, some text, a phone number or an SMS message. You can make the barcodes yourself for free on several websites, including http://www.barcodelink.net/ and http://qrcode.kaywa.com/.

How can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?

Connect with your colleagues by giving out your phone number via barcode. You can display the code wherever people might go to look for your contact information. Barbara Rojas-Ayala, a graduate student at Cornell, told me, “I put one in my website because people are obsessed with their smartphones. If someone wants my info in his/her phone, they can have it easily with the QR code.” I might try putting one on my business card—or maybe even my CV if I’m feeling brave.

Use the barcodes on scientific posters. I like the idea of using barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be: an invitation to investigate further. Rojas-Ayala says that her partner, who is also an astronomer, saw a QR code on a beer bottle and thought it was a good idea for posters. Instead of printing 20-30 copies of the poster on letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., they opted to add the QR code with all their professional info and a link to a PDF of the poster.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University, tried a similar experiment at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She found that her website received about 30 more hits on the days when her poster was hanging.

Using barcodes for marketing materials. A mobile barcode might also have a place on a different kind of conference poster. When I organized a scientific conference this past fall, I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise. People saw the poster when they were roaming the hallways—in other words, when they had their cell phones handy but not a computer. 

Be sensitive to non-mobile users. Of course, not everyone is excited about mobile barcodes yet. University of Maryland grad student Jessica Donaldson told me, “It is kind of annoying if you don’t have a smartphone.” With this in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code and pasted it into the lower right corner of the poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have the technology.

Scientists can sometimes be resistant to new marketing concepts. It is our calling, after all, to get to the bottom of things, so we sometimes fear new communication tools until we’re sure we understand them enough to trust them. And it’s not yet clear how important this tool will ultimately become for us.

But so far I’ve found QR tags make memorable little conversation pieces. Even if they aren’t being used, they help me engage with my colleagues when I show them the poster. Often, that’s half the battle. As it says in the classic marketing book, Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations—and anything that helps you start one can help you market your science.

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

 Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) 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 http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

Career, Communication skills, Job Search, Small business and entrepreneurs , , , , ,

What I Learned by Serving on a Committee

15. June 2012

Ahmed Kablan

For the past eight months, I have had the privilege of working on the committee to organize the 5th annual NIH Career Symposium. Serving on the planning committee was a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. Below are some of the key things that I learned by volunteering as a committee member.

The importance of teamwork and time management.

It is crucial to communicate clearly with your team to avoid duplication of effort. My time management skills have improved, resulting in increased productivity. By learning to prioritize the issues at hand and work with a team, my life seems more manageable.

To practice leadership skills at all times.

You don’t have to be in a leadership position to build your leadership skills. Each one of us had the chance to take the lead on a certain issue and bring new ideas to the group.

To step out of my comfort zone.

Getting out of the lab, talking to other fellows, and doing a different kind of work helped me to discover skills I didn’t know I had. I learned that I could communicate my complex science in simple language. I also saw how skills that I had learned in the lab were applicable in other settings. These included planning a project, explaining it to the other key players, justifying the resources needed to complete the project, and communicating effectively with people of broad educational backgrounds.

How to build a network and witness why it is important.

You have heard it a million times, but networking is an important skill to develop. What is not always apparent is how easy it can be. Attending the Career Symposium social events was a great way to connect with the speakers and other attendees. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone was there to network. I was able to see how we as a committee had used our network to make this event happen. The success of the Symposium relied on the ability of committee members and staff to identify potential speakers and invite them to come. Our networking skills helped us to put together dynamic and valuable panels.

The value of using social media effectively.

I have used LinkedIn more in the past few months than I did in the first six years after I signed up for it. I used it to advertise and start discussions around the information presented at the Career Symposium.

Giving back is highly rewarding.

Working on the committee to organize the NIH Career Symposium was also personally fulfilling. I have benefitted firsthand from a previous symposium, so by participating in this committee I hoped to help others find similar career guidance.

This post is based on content that was originally published on the OITE Career Blog, which is produced by the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the OITE Career Blog team. We hope that Ahmed’s compelling reasons to serve on a committee will help convince our readers to join a volunteer committee at OSA or another scientific organization.

Ahmed Kablan (qasemah@niddk.nih.gov) is a postdoc at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) in Bethesda, Md., U.S.A.

Career, Conferences , , , ,

Reflecting on Career/Life Balance

11. June 2012

Jannick Rolland

For many of us, work provides a way to contribute to society, and it is often a significant component of our lives. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of a career in today’s highly competitive landscape. Working in academia, for example, requires one to have the skills of running a small business. Besides teaching and serving our universities and professional societies, we must seek funding and support our graduate students.

At the same time, many of us are also charged with the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly loved ones. As our lifestyles become more complex, all of us—whether men or women—must develop strategies to balance our career with our personal lives. As a single parent of two for part of my journey, I have had to forge my own path.

For me, the most challenging aspect of being a working parent is the travel required to be successful on the job. These days, the option to seek help from a family member is not always there. I chose early on to explore a different model for pursuing my career in science and raising happy and successful children. I wanted my children to develop as happy, creative, independent and successful human beings regardless of their less-than-optimal circumstances at that point in time. 

Sacrificing my professional work to cook dinner and tuck them into bed every night was not realistic, and it was not the best way for me to meet my goals for them or me. I gave up on being “the perfect parent” and instead developed alternative ways of supporting my children—by raising them in an environment in which they could engage with a large pool of adults whom I trusted.

I believe that a family is happiest when each member of it is engaged in the activities that fulfill them the most. Both parents and children are most likely to thrive in an environment that is not only nurturing but stimulating.    

Giving children the chance to interact with people from diverse cultures is of tremendous value. As a scientist, I work with young professionals who are often single or who have limited social lives, particularly if they are working in a country far from their original home. These young professionals are typically more than happy to engage outside the work environment.

My children built relationships with many of my colleagues and students, who became part of our family. I think that is why my older son chose to visit a mosque with a Muslim graduate student at age 14 and why he decided to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea, at 19 after having developed a strong friendship with one of my Korean students.

Another way I balanced my life and career was by making sure that I deeply connected with family in spite of our time-challenged lives away from my native home of France. In our case, this meant spending some summers abroad, with the goal of helping the children become bilingual. I thought that, by learning French, they could develop their family ties, better understand diversity, and learn to adapt to change. In addition to summers abroad, I took a full-year sabbatical in France when they turned 9 and 11. I conducted science while also connecting with family. 

While it was surely challenging for the children to spend a year away from home, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for them, and they are both thanking me for it today. They developed enduring friendships, and they are both fluent in French. 

Balance isn’t about counting the hours spent at home vs. work; it is about the value we create when we are faced with challenges. What will leave a positive long-term imprint on our children’s minds and their attitudes towards life? 

These days, balance comes a bit easier. In 2009, I remarried my dream partner, and I try to live every day to the fullest. Engineering and science are my passions, but I also like sharing dinners and conversing with friends from all walks of life. And I dearly love laughing with my children. This is my new balance.  

Jannick Rolland (rolland.jannick@gmail.com) is the Brian J. Thompson professor of optical engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.

 

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Three Roadblocks to a Successful Science Career

1. June 2012

Aida Baida Gil

In my experience as a scientist and a career coach, I’ve come to understand three roadblocks that could have a huge impact on your scientific career, the decisions you make, and your overall satisfaction. Here I describe them with some suggestions for overcoming them.

Letting others define success for you

Many believe that, in order to be a successful scientist, you must be well known, publish hundreds of papers in high-impact journals, and put aside your personal life. There are two problems with this definition. First, as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her magnificent TED talk, you might be tempted to “leave before you leave” – meaning that you won’t consider moving forward in your career because you don’t expect to make it, or you think you’ll have to sacrifice a lot. And number two, the pressure is so high that you don’t even consider other options. And so, you just move with the crowd, following the path you think you’re “supposed” to take.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that definition of scientific success, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Only you can decide what you want and how you define success, whether it entails winning a Nobel prize or balancing your work with other aspects of your life. There is no right or wrong decision. What’s important is that you feel satisfied with your choices.

You also don’t have to make all your career decisions right now. You can tackle them when the moment comes. None of us really knows what the future holds, do we? So there is no point in deciding during graduate school that you don’t want to pursue a scientific career because you plan to have children 10 years from now. Cross that bridge when you get there. Meanwhile, do what you really want right now.

Deeming yourself an impostor

In an article in a psychology journal, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes define the imposter syndrome as an inability to accept your own success. It’s the feeling that tells you that you are not as good as everyone thinks you are, that all your lab mates are smarter and that you ended up where you are by chance—not because you are intelligent, smart and capable. These feelings are very frequent in brilliant people, and they can jeopardize your career. Your lack of confidence might lead you to reject opportunities because you don’t feel like you measure up.

If you have this problem, work on your confidence and take comfort in the fact that almost everyone feels this way at one point or another. Fortunately, in most cases, it passes as you gain more experience.

Feeling like a failure

Lastly, I’d like to talk about an obstacle that is very frequent in scientists who decide to leave academia: feeling like a failure. This often happens even if your new job is related to science in some way. That makes the decision very painful, and in some cases it can even prevent people from making a move. Why?

• You feel that leaving academia is not what you’re “supposed to do” after investing so many years in it.
• You don’t think you can do anything else.
• You fear you may regret the decision.
• Changing careers equals failing in your mind. “Everyone” knows that if you leave academic science, you must not be good at it, right? NO!

I’ve been through all those stages, and if you are in this situation, you’ll probably go through them too. It’s normal and it will pass. Keep in mind:

• A career is not a life sentence. You can change your mind and experience different things.
• Changing careers does not mean you’re not good enough; it shows that you are braver than the rest and good at more than one thing!
• You are not your job. It’s easy to identify yourself with your job, and then feel as if you have lost your identity if you change jobs. But you are much more than a job title.

Finally, remember that feeling like a failure is something we all go through, and it can actually be a sign of something positive. I recently read a blog post by the marketing expert Marie Forleo that summarizes it perfectly. She said:

“Feeling like a failure is a natural part of becoming a success. It’s actually a good thing and means you’re taking action and putting yourself out there. Which is WAY more than most critics and naysayers have the balls to do.”

Being aware of these three roadblocks is the first step toward moving past them. What do you think? Have you experienced any of them yet?

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

Aida Baida Gil is a certified coach and former geneticist. She helps scientists and professional women around the world to decide the next step in their careers and to make career changes. You can contact her at www.experimentyourlife.com.

 

Academic careers, Career, Job Search, Women in Science , , , , , ,

Uncovering Hidden Biases in Optics

17. May 2012

Elsa Garmire

In my experience, hidden biases—the stereotypes that we are not even aware that we harbor—can be more damaging to women and minority scientists than overt prejudice. How do you fight what you cannot see, even within yourself? Here are some tips for uncovering and addressing hidden biases within yourself and others. My advice is mostly targeted at individuals who are underrepresented in the sciences, but hopefully everyone can learn something from it.

Become aware of hidden biases. Everyone harbors them; there’s no reason to beat yourself up over it. Whenever we encounter a situation that doesn’t conform to our expectations, it is natural to be surprised and perhaps even suspicious, until we can integrate it into our frame of reference. 

I’ve noticed hidden bias within myself when I write letters of recommendation. Unless I fight it, I unwittingly describe my female students differently than males.  I tend to write more about how “nice” the female student is and less about how “competent” she is.  To counter this, I carefully review all letters I write, making sure to provide a fair and comprehensive picture.

To start identifying your own hidden biases, ask yourself: In what ways do I react to those who look different?  Are my responses helpful or hindering?  When I am asked to nominate someone for an award or volunteer position, do I ever look beyond the obvious choices?

Talk to others in your situation. Once you have decided to enter a profession in which you will be in the minority, you’ll find that you’re now part of a new culture altogether—one that combines your profession and your minority status.  This is where professional societies that target minorities come into play—for example, the National Society of Black Physicists, the Society of Women Engineers and Minorities and Women in OSA (MWOSA). Becoming involved with other minorities through groups like MWOSA is important, particularly as you encounter these biases and struggle to understand them.

Make yourself stand out. Often we minorities find ourselves feeling neglected at conferences and events. When I was at the University of Southern California, I was invited to a black-tie dinner organized by our president.  Only members of the National Academy and their spouses were invited.  The president approached us, shook my husband’s hand and asked him what department he was in.  Being the gentleman he is, Bob gestured to me and said, “This is your member of the National Academy.”  Rather than turning to me, the president kept talking to my husband, saying, “Well, what do you do?”  He never did talk to me! 

As frustrating as that situation was, it’s important to remember that I was not powerless. I could have introduced myself to the President rather than waiting for him to act.  Over the years I’ve learned to identify myself as worthy of respect within a group by bringing up a subtle technical point and asking what others think of it.  I’m always careful in a talk to provide a bit of in-depth analysis to prove that I know what I’m talking about. 

Network, network, network.  Get involved in OSA professional activities.  Volunteer for committee work.  Your input is valuable because you offer a new point of view.  Your reticence is a loss to the profession.  Attend social functions and make it a point to meet new people.  I sought out authors of papers I respected, thereby building up a cadre of friends who knew me and my capabilities. 

While women and minorities have made vast inroads in many professions, there are still areas, such as in optics, where they are not catching up as quickly. I ask that all of us remain vigilant about overcoming our hidden stereotypes and biases. 

Elsa Garmire (elsa.garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Dartmouth, N.H., U.S.A. She was OSA’s president in 1993.

For more information about Elsa, visit her website.

Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Women in Science , , , ,

The Publishing Path: A Conversation with Costanza Zucca

11. May 2012

This week, OPN talks with Costanza Zucca, editorial manager with the Frontiers journals, a series of open-access publications driven by researchers for researchers. Costanza obtained a Ph.D. in plasma physics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, in 2009. Her work on thermonuclear fusion research focused on the design of operational scenarios with high-output power for the first prototype of a fusion reactor.

After taking a sabbatical in South America, Costanza decided to pursue a different career path. She quit research and joined the Frontiers group at the end of 2009 as the main coordinator of the marketing and communication office. She became editorial manager at the end of 2010, overseeing all activities related to the current "Frontiers in" journals as well as the launch of new journals.

OPN: How did you know that publishing was your calling?

Costanza: While I sort of stumbled into it by accident, looking back it's clear that I’ve always had a genuine interest in communicating about science. Even during my student years, when I was working on a thermonuclear fusion experiment, I often volunteered to show visitors around our facilities. I enjoyed thinking of new “kitchen physics” examples that could help render complex concepts into something tangible. One of my favorites was figuring out the number of microwave ovens that was required to match the power generated by our electron-cyclotron resonance heating (over 3,000!). Now that I am working at the interface between academia and industry at an international level, there are higher stakes, but it’s still about communicating science.

OPN: How did you use your skills and expertise to start working in this field?

Costanza: It’s been a natural fit. Frontiers was started by a group of active scientists, and I instantly felt aligned with the company’s philosophy of shaping the future of scientific communication. In a way, working for a start-up is similar to research work, in that you have to be very creative in thinking of new initiatives, then pick the most promising ideas and experiment with them. Those skills were well rooted in me, since I came from a research background.

OPN: What are the most difficult and rewarding aspects of your job?

Costanza: The most rewarding part by far is having had an active role in the tremendous progression of Frontiers in just four years of existence. It definitely makes me want to be part of the team continuing to move this forward, although it’s been hard to get to this point: unlike us, many scientists did not initially feel the need for an innovative publisher such as Frontiers. But I consider myself very lucky to have joined at such an early stage.

OPN: What is your perspective on open-access journals and their place in scientific publishing?

Costanza: I am more and more convinced that an online open-access distribution model, with an emphasis on social media, is very much where scientific publishing is headed. There are still many avenues to explore regarding the related business models, so there is space for everyone to come up with new paradigm-shifting initiatives. We are witnessing a revolution in scientific publishing.

 

Career, Communication skills, Nontraditional science careers, Publishing , , ,

Want to Sell Yourself and Your Science? Keep It Positive

4. May 2012

Marc Kuchner

Steve Jobs, late cofounder of Apple Computers, had a reputation as a passionate business leader and modern folk hero. In 1999, one of Jobs’s friends said, “He is single-minded, almost manic, in his pursuit of excellence.” That’s certainly a character trait we scientists can admire.

Jobs was also revered for being a first-rate salesman. While salesmanship may not be the first quality scientists aspire to, successful scientists know that they need to sell themselves in order to get jobs and win grants, especially in these tough economic times.

Part of what made Jobs so great at selling his ideas was his optimism and enthusiasm. Jobs peppered his presentations with words like “extraordinary,” “amazing,” “stunning,” “revolutionary,” and “incredible.” When he gave the opening presentation at the computer expo Macworld ’08, he began his talk with open arms, a broad grin, and the words “We’ve got some great stuff for you. There’s clearly something in the air today.” That kind of enthusiasm helped Apple sell 20,000 iPods every day.

The importance of optimism

Maybe we can’t all match Job’s flair for presentations, but his choice of words—“best,” “great,” “awesome”—provide a clue about the right attitude to have when it comes to selling our science.

Enthusiasm is not something they teach in science class. Far from it. Graduate school is all about being tough and skeptical. But as you may remember from kindergarten, everybody likes people who are positive and enthusiastic; a smile on your face addresses people’s primitive needs for friendship and belonging. A good salesperson considers optimism to be part of his or her job.

To quote Adlai Stevenson, “Pessimism in a diplomat is the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.” Or to quote Anne Kinney, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “If you have a method or idea and you believe it works, you have to be optimistic about it.”

The (negative) power of pessimism

To some degree, we can actually quantify just how important enthusiasm is. For some reason, negative expressions leave a more lasting impression on our psyche than positive ones. Specifically, negative messages are five to seven times more powerful than positive ones. Studies show that when a married couple has more than five positive interactions for every negative one, the relationship is considered healthy. But if the couple starts having fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one, divorce is probably imminent.

If you’ve ever sat on a review panel or hiring committee, you have probably noticed that if someone says something strongly negative about an applicant, it leaves a lingering stain that can’t be erased unless several people override it. For this reason it’s important to have at least five to seven members on any decision-making panel. With fewer people on the panel, a single person’s bad feelings can swamp the process, turning it into a black-balling session instead of a thoughtful discussion.

Beating the odds

The disproportionately powerful effect of negativity in review panels is a consequence of human nature that we scientists need to be aware of. For example, if you’re writing a proposal or applying for a faculty position, you might have to impress a committee with slightly fewer members than it ought to have. That means your task might be more about eliminating negatives than dazzling people.

If you find yourself using negative words often—“no,” “useless,” “doubt,” “shouldn’t,” “skeptical,”—people might start associating that kind of unpleasant feeling with you. And it might take five to seven positive interactions to make that bad feeling go away.

Steve Jobs taught us so many things, including the craft of salesmanship, a crucial tool for scientists during these hard times. On behalf of nerds everywhere—we thank you. 

This post was adapted from content originally published on the Scientific American blog.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) 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 http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

 

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