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Thursday, November 28, 2013

A few basic facts about postdoctorates

The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell 

By Adam Ruben
Science Magazine
November 21, 2013

New Ph.D. recipients, welcome to the next stage of your career! It's a time-honored tradition of academics, research, and stagnant purgatorial nonprogression. That's right: It's your postdoctoral appointment!

As a postdoc, you'll contribute vitally to the progress of science, simultaneously filling the roles of scientist, scholar, and sucker. 

But first, a few basic facts about postdocs:
  • Postdoc positions were established to prolong the awesomeness of graduate school, which everyone loves, while simultaneously postponing the ability to make money, which everyone hates.
  • Many postdocs are foreigners who come to the United States to enjoy the abundant opportunities this country offers for scientific advancement. We reward their enthusiasm with postdoc positions. We hope they forgive us.
  • Postdocs are very small and hard to see. If you encounter a postdoc in the wild, approach with extreme caution! You can frighten away a postdoc by asking, "Shouldn’t you be in the lab?"
  • Despite its masculine undertones, the term "postdoctoral fellow" is actually gender-neutral. This has led to much confusion when female doctoral students have told their friends or family, "I’m planning to become a fellow."
  • Because tuition is not a factor, a postdoc actually impacts the annual lab budget less than a graduate student. Then again, a postdoc impacts the annual lab budget less than an order of Pad Thai (if Pad Thai were an allowable expense on National Institutes of Health grants).
  • Postdocs have many natural predators, including vapid undergraduate trainees, negligent advisers, erratic funding sources, unsympathetic significant others, and the predator from Predator.
  • The earliest postdoctoral appointment was in 1931. That postdoc hopes to go on the faculty job market sometime in the next couple of years.
An important semantic note: The term "postdoc" refers both to the position and to the person who occupies it. (In this sense, it's much like the term "bar mitzvah.") So you can be a postdoc, but you can also do a postdoc, which unfortunately isn't as sexual as it sounds.

Because the term "postdoc" warrants clarification, you'll find yourself regularly explaining your status to family members who were so excited about you finishing grad school and now are just confused. When describing your postdoc to an unfamiliar audience, use the following script:
"[Relative's name], I've chosen to work in a branch of the sciences that doesn't want me to start actually doing things until I'm in my early forties. That's just the norm at this point, and I blame [politician/funding agency/some kind of national institute of, say, health]. Your patience is appreciated during this trying time."

Now we come to the all-important decision of where to do your postdoc. (In this case, "postdoc" refers to the profession; see semantic distinction above. Where you do your postdoc-the-person is between you and the presumably consenting postdoc.)

  • Ask whether your adviser has any collaborators. Actually, if you have to ask this, you haven't paid attention in graduate school.
  • Check the job boards. This is the best way to convince your spouse that you're making progress.
  • Think about the region of the world in which you'd most like to live. Then go to Arizona State anyway.
  • Network, network, network! This is a process that involves giving your contact information to lots of people who simultaneously believe they're networking with you.
  • Some scientists elect to remain in their grad school labs for a postdoc. These people either fear change or married someone in the lab.
  • Make sure your prospective lab has sufficient funding to pay your salary. Ask indirect questions such as, "Do you have sufficient funding to pay my salary?" If your prospective employer responds by diving under a desk and whimpering, then welcome to 2013.
Being a postdoc has advantages and disadvantages. 

Here are the three worst aspects:
  1. The hours and the pay. You work long hours, but on the other hand, your salary … wait, let's look at it the other way. The pay may be abysmally low, but on the other hand, your hours … shoot. What's the way to phrase this? Oh, right. The hours are long and the pay is low, but the prestige … damn it.
  2. For every available opening for a tenure-track professorship in the United States, there are roughly seven postdocs. That's not an exaggeration or a joke. That's not me being all like, "Yo yo, postdocs are so screwed—('How screwed are they?')—they're so screwed that there are seven times as many postdocs as there are academic openings! And that's pretty screwed!" No, this is a freaking fact. Look at the postdoc on your left, and look at the postdoc on your right. Then look at the postdocs on the left and right, respectively, of the postdocs on your left and right. Finally, look at the postdocs on the left and right, respectively, of the postdoc on the left of the postdoc on your left and the postdoc on the right of the postdoc on your right. Only one of you will get a faculty job.
  3. There's such a thing as a second postdoc. WHAT THE HOLY HELL. It's true. You can sail through 4 years of undergrad, survive 7 years of grad school, and suffer a half-decade postdoc, and then do it again. It's like getting to the end of World 1-4 of Super Mario Bros. only to learn that our princess is in another castle. Some people even do a third postdoc, which is more like Super Mario Bros. 2, because it is nonsensical, tedious, and was never intended to exist in the first place. Also, giant turnips may play a role.
But fear not! 

Here are the three best aspects of postdoctoral fellowships:
  1. Grad students will look up to you. That's something, right? They'll envy your scholarship, your ability to regularly buy groceries, and the proof you offer that it's possible to finish grad school.
  2. You've checked all the boxes necessary to become a professor! Then again, next year, when I turn 35, I will have checked all the boxes necessary to be president of the United States. And that doesn't make me president. (I just asked my 2-year-old daughter, and she says the president is grandma.)
  3. Best of all, and ostensibly the point of your postdoc, you’re supposed to control your own project. If you worked in a lab as an undergrad, you were told, "This is your project, and here's how you'll do it. Stop stealing beakers." Then, in grad school, your adviser said, "This is your project, but how you do it is up to you. Stop sleeping." But principal investigators generally tell postdocs, "Choose your own project. Choose how to do it. Stop envying my tenure." (At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the "glorified" part.)
At this point, you may be asking, "Why would anyone be a postdoc?" The answer, of course, is that people who have jobs you may fill someday say that you have to. "Hire someone right out of grad school?" they ask. "With no more than a science Ph.D., which is notoriously simple to achieve? How could we expect such a person to have the skills necessary to work in a laboratory setting?"

So welcome, young postdoc, to your new position. Sit back, smell the filtered air, and gaze at the haggard assistant professor anxiously working 20-hour days while fretting about tenure. And think, "Someday, all this may be mine."

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

“The agricultural landscape has been sterilized”

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear

By Jim Robbins
The New York Times
November 22, 2013

 On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.

It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College.

It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.

Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.

That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.

There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”

A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.

Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.

As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.

The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.

Farm fields are not the only problem. Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.

Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.

Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”

There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.

When the Florida Department of Transportation last year mowed down roadside wildflowers where monarch butterflies fed on their epic migratory journey, “there was a huge outcry,” said Eleanor Dietrich, a wildflower activist in Florida. So much so, transportation officials created a new policy that left critical insect habitat un-mowed.

That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”

First and foremost, said Dr. Tallamy, a home for bugs is a matter of food security. “If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants,” he said. “That is not an option. That’s a huge problem for mankind.”

Jim Robbins is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of “The Man Who Planted Trees."


Friday, November 08, 2013

Monsanto and India’s “Suicide Economy”

Monsanto has a long history of contamination and cover-up. In India, another Monsanto cover-up is ongoing. Since 1995, nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide due to massive debt. Monsanto has argued that these suicides have no single cause. However, there is clear evidence that Monsanto’s Bt cotton is implicated. Physicist and author Vandana Shiva has been monitoring what is going on in these rural farming towns. Shiva noted, “The price per kilogram of cotton seeds [has gone] from 7 to 17,000 rupees. . . . Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1,500 kg/year when farmers harvest 300–400 kg/year on an average.” Shiva and other critics have concluded that Monsanto’s profit-driven policies have led to a “suicide economy” in India.
A new documentary film, Dirty White Gold by Leah Borromeo, goes beyond the issue of farmer suicides to explain how the global fashion industry and international consumer habits contribute to Indian farmers’ hardships. Dirty White Gold examined the cotton supply chain, with the aim of generating support for legislation that will, in Borromeo’s words, “make ethics and sustainability the norm in the fashion industry.”
Monsanto’s horrific impact in India is also showcased in an earlier documentary, Bitter Seeds, directed by Micha X. Peled, which follows a teenage girl whose father committed suicide due to debt. Bitter Seeds showcased the major problems people in India are having, and how Monsanto lies directly to Indian farmers, going as far as making up fictitious farmers who “have success” with the new Bt cotton. Monsanto has claimed that there has also been a 25 percent reduction in pesticide costs. In Bitter Seeds, both of these claims were proven false.
Belen Fernandez, “Dirty White Gold,” Al Jazeera, December 8, 2012,
Jason Overdorf, “India: Gutting of India’s Cotton Farmers,” Global Post, October 8, 2012,
Student Researcher: Nicole Anacker (College of Marin) 
Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)