thanks, "basic science" and small colleges

Sarah Boomer sarai at
Sun Nov 17 20:06:05 EST 1996

First off - thanks to all who have written me personally or via the group.
I have enjoyed hearing the responses.

Something Chris just said struck a chord that I have battled not only in
my job search but as a prospective educator:  the whole basic science vs
health science thing as it relates to public funding.  As I said in my
original post, I began a wonderful research experience doing an Honors
project on novel hot spring bacteria that had a more or less evolutionary 
basis (without the phylogeny). I then switched to an AIDS research
lab doing more evolution but at the molecular level.  I would, in general,
call myself an evolutionary biologist.  As my post-doc search began, my
boss, who know that I wanted to teach small college, encouraged me
strongly to pursue research that was "cheaper and more emanable to small
college research" (precisely because of what Chris talks about:  the small
college demand for "small research programs").  In some ways, my advisor's
advice was a shot in the foot:  here I was out of my league again - with
no network.  Most of my attempts as getting a post-doc were in
molecular phylogenetics, bacterial ecology, or bacterial genetics.  I
approached my former boss to try and help with networking but, being at a
small school, she apparently wasn't much help (there is a tremendous
teaching load at the school now and last I talked to her it sounded like
the research was always getting delayed).

Anyway - my points here are several-fold.  First, I do attribute many
problems to trying to "switch fields"  But I only give that about 25%
faull.  As I said before, time and time again, nobody in those fields had
money.  This I believe harks directly to Chris' point that the public
doesn't understand or value "basic" non-health driven research.  I could
go on but this, to me, is self-evident.  I noticed that there were two
posters who were both interested in doing molecular phylogeny/evolution or
ecology.  My best advice to you is to pick VERY wisely in terms of where
you go and whether the lab has money.

Just as a further illustrative aside, my partner just finished his PhD in
a lab that was fairly famous in the 60s for microbial ecology stuff but
has been dead for some time (no PhDs since 1976, imagine that).  The PI is
an old-timer who, again, was famous in his field but had hit a point where
the money was barely coming in.  John NAIVELY went in there, expecting to
revolutionary the lab into contemporary molecular phylogenetics.  With a
bare-bones budget and a lot of assistance (borrowing, begging, etc.), he
did what he set out to do.  Some of his work took him to Antarctica, as he
was studying polar sea ice bacteria (it was like my project with hot
spring stuff only psychrophilically opposed).  Three years in, though, the
last grant dried up and John was out of money - spent the last two years
teaching and doing departmental stuff (mostly computer assistance - he's a
whiz at computers)  for his pay.  In some ways, he was rushed out of the
degree because of the financial burden.  In the mean time, our only two
other prof's in basic microbial genetics have lost ALL funding and all the
grad. students are teaching, teaching, teaching.  Meanwhile, our lab is
doing great.  John, incidentally, has been one of the most marketable
students in the dept BECAUSE he is the only one who does computational
biology and phylogentics.  He has been consulting for various people in
industry and done some work in our lab with HIV variants (that actually
began during his training;  my boss, literally, offered to pay him for a
quarter to do HIV phylogenetics part-time for two quarters).  He has
decided to post-doc for my boss and is now setting up to do HIV coreceptor

Anyway - I hope that doesn't add insult to injury for people who want to
study the cool stuff.  It is not meant to;  it is just more anecdotal
information I have been watching. 

I think the last thing I would add - somewhat for discussion - would be
the following opinion.  After attending a small college and then making
this huge leap to a really big research institute, it is my honest opinion
that I should have worked as a tech in between in such a big setting.  I
would advocate that to anyone from a small college.  I was reading the
post from the college student about her trying to do an undergrad. project
to decide whether she wants to do research and I couldn't help but think
of those glory days in college when there was no question in my mind that
I liked research and teaching both.  Frankly, I think that competitive
grant-supported settings are just different and it is important that a
would be researcher sees what that's like. As an undergrad. I had no
concept of NIH grants, post-docs, the heirarchy and expectations of the
training system.  Sometimes I think - well, geez, our dept. is maybe just
too insane or political and I have a warped viewpoint but then we keep
getting post-docs who say it's crazy all over.  Retrospectively, I'm not
sure it would have changed my mind (my own undergrad. advisor nearly
forbade it because she said I'd taste money and never leave);  frankly, I
think I learned a great deal more being so naive and so, looking back, I
am glad I did it "green" because I maybe wouldn't have chosen to get my

Sadly, all the undergrad's who've come through our lab as Honors students
and then tech's - each with grad. school aspirations - have changed their
minds about research.  They want security and money and, in the end, have
either gone to medical school, industry, or advanced through tech-dome.
Sometimes I think about how different I would be if I had gone to medical
school;  on one hand, I think I would have really responded to that
schedule and structure and probably been a good "student."  But when I
look at the things I have done as a grad. student, it does mean more -
both the discipline of having to define my own time, think about who I am
and what I want, etc. and the science itself.  I guess I'm just, at some
level, a hopeless basic scientist and generalist (did I mention I majored
in Bio. and Lit in undergrad?). 

	Anyway - thanks again for all the great posts.  I would really
like to hear from some fellow small collegers on the topic of moving from
that setting to a big school!

	Can you all tell my thesis slides are driving me crazy and boring
me to tears!!! I was up 'til three a.m. last night.  And we won't even
discuss the talk which keeps going through my head when I'm trying to


Sarah Boomer				email:  sarai at		
Dept. of Microbiology			work phone:  543-3376
Box 357242				work FAX:  543-3376
University of Washington		
Seattle, WA  98195	

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