thanks, "basic science" and small colleges

Heather Masonjones hmasonjo at
Sun Nov 17 22:02:46 EST 1996

Sarah Boomer (sarai at wrote:
: 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
: work. 

: 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
: degree.  

: 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
: sleep!


: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
: 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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