Why not academic careers?
Karen Lona Allendoerfer
ka143 at columbia.edu
Sun Apr 5 18:54:52 EST 1998
I'm glad to see that women-in-bio is back, too! I've definitely missed it.
Now that I'm nearing the end of my postdoc and thinking about the future,
I'm so glad to see a discussion like this one . . .
4klt5 at qlink.queensu.ca (Evans Kelly L) wrote:
>I'd be interested in knowing not only where everyone is but what choices
>got them there. And if they are happy with their decisions. I am not
>convinced that the lack of women faculty is due to discrimination alone. I
>think many factors are involved, including those that Ann mentions, where
>self-selection prevents women from applying to faculty jobs in the first
I haven't made a decision yet, but I've been leaning towards
looking for a job in a small biotech company, rather than for faculty
positions. I attended a meeting in Boston last week called
"Pharamacogenesis: postgenomic drug discovery." The point of the meeting
was to bring together developmental biologists and biologists from industry
to see what the two sides had in common: to use developmental biology as a
way to define appropriate drug targets more quickly, especially given the
conservation between biochemical pathways across different species and
phyla (i.e. what about using C. elegans as a model for insulin-insulin
receptor interactions and downstream signal transduction).
For some systems, for example, the hematopoetic system, this
approach has already been a huge success. For example, Epogen and
Neupogen, genetically engineered proteins that play a role in the normal
development of blood cells, are effective treatments for patients that
become anemic during kidney dialysis. They earn millions (maybe billions)
a year for Amgen. And they help people on kidney dialysis.
I'm a neuroscientist, and for my system it's not quite as clear yet
how this approach will work for treating neurodegenerative disease,
Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or stroke.
The mindset of the business-oriented people seemed quite a bit
different from what I'd grown up with in academia. Yes, there is the
problem with worrying about the bottom line. An analyst on one panel
remarked that many companies stall out and lose momentum when they go
public because the nature of biotech companies can be rather difficult for
the public investor to understand (her example was "knockout mice or fast
food? Which one is he going to understand better?"). This seems to me to
be both a pitfall and an opportunity for the scientist who can communicate
his or her ideas clearly.
But, more intangibly, I'm finding industry attractive for a related
reason that is hard to explain, but I want to give it a try. In academia,
what is "interesting" seems to be kind of a moving target, and this can get
frustrating and strange. We all believe that our critical thinking skills
should enable us to pick out "important" problems. We try to convince NIH,
NSF, or other funding agencies that this is the case for what we are
working on. Sometimes this seems to work smoothly; everyone is agreed on
what is interesting, the grants get funded, the seminars are attended, the
papers are discussed in journal club.
However, I am personally having trouble on this particular front,
in deciding, should I apply for an academic job, what is "interesting"
enough to be working on. My perceptions are colored right now by a
devastating experience I had two days ago, in which I showed a paper that I
want to send out to a colleague (a postdoc, at a similar level to me, who
had previously worked on a similar problem). She hated my paper, mostly on
the grounds that, to her, it "wasn't interesting." "There's nothing new in
this," she said. Explanations that I tried to provide as to the
motivations of the experiments were dismissed with a shrug, a wrinkling of
the nose, and "that doesn't matter." She then said "I wouldn't publish
this," and asked me "why are you working on this? I know [The lab you are
in] is doing much more interesting stuff. Why don't you change and do that
I already had shown this paper to a couple of tenured professors
who had been generally positive about it, and I had given talks on this
work before at which people had at least been civil, and had asked
questions that indicated they understood the goals and aims of the
research. As I was walking around the block, trying to calm down, I
thought about these things. I remembered that I had given a talk at a
meeting for people who have my fellowship, and there had been many
excellent scientists there, including two Nobel Laureates. And one of the
Nobel Laureates had specifically said to me, during the question and answer
period of my talk, "that's interesting." It amazed me that there could be
such a huge difference of opinion. It also made me think, well, what does
my critic know?
I got back to lab and told a friend about this experience. She
then shared an experience from graduate school, when a visiting professor
had also told her at one point that she should just stop working on what
she was doing, because "no one will ever find that interesting," and "it's
not going to go anywhere." She had been pretty young at the time, and had
been really discouraged by this comment. But then she said that she was
able to publish her "uninteresting" data, basically unchanged, in _Nature_
a few years later.
Maybe all of this is nothing but an argument in favor of having a
thick skin, if one wants to stay in academia, because the cream will always
rise to the top. I personally don't have a thick skin, though. It may be
more commonly a women's problem than a men's problem, and I personally
think there can be advantages to being "sensitive" in terms of human
relations and human interactions. However, I do note that my critic was
female, so I don't think that facile male/female generalizations are going
to go very far. The question of "is it interesting" "is it new" "is it
hot" "is it trendy" is always there, like kind of a nagging insect.
One may need a thick skin in industry, too, but at least the goals
and "interests" in industry seem a bit more well-defined and less subject
to these wild swings of interpretation as to what's "interesting".
Industrial goals can be very diverse, from an AIDS vaccine to the
improvement of crop yields to a treatment for neurodegenerative disease.
People will still argue about the best way to get from here to there, and
these arguments may get pretty heated. But I don't think that anyone is
going to say, while wrinkling their nose, "why are you working on a
treatment for Alzheimer's disease? No one is ever going to find that
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