Switching Fields: The Key To Success For Some Scientists

When Gilbert H. Nussbaum treats his cancer patients, he's well aware that they're running out of hope: They've already undergone chemotherapy or surgery, but their tumors have recurred. Nussbaum administers hyperthermia to these desperately ill patients, searing their tumors with intense heat. Yet Nussbaum is not a physician. He's a radiation physicist at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology in St. Louis. He got his professional start as an atomic physicist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxvi

Suzanne Hagan
Dec 9, 1990
When Gilbert H. Nussbaum treats his cancer patients, he's well aware that they're running out of hope: They've already undergone chemotherapy or surgery, but their tumors have recurred. Nussbaum administers hyperthermia to these desperately ill patients, searing their tumors with intense heat. Yet Nussbaum is not a physician. He's a radiation physicist at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology in St. Louis. He got his professional start as an atomic physicist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he worked from 1969 to 1976.

Nussbaum, who has been at Mallinckrodt, part of the Washington University School of Medicine, for a decade, says his career switch wasn't prompted by a need to find a job. "The positions I'd had were all permanent. But I kept getting hit by the feeling, like in the Peggy Lee song `Is That All There Is?'--that when I was doing my research in atomic physics, I was just sharpening my weapons, but to what end, just more sharpening?"

Scientists like Nussbaum, who make a career switch from basic to applied science or from one area of science to another, are quite rare, according to Robert C. Dauffenbach, a labor economist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. There isn't much mobility within a scientific discipline, says Dauffenbach. "You have to have specific training," he points out, "so there's not much fungibility within science. The most flexible field so far has been computer science, and that's a consequence of its newness."

Dauffenbach is the author of a recently published report issued by the National Science Foundation's Division of Science and Resource Studies, "Quality and Qualifications in the Market for Scientists and Engineers." The biological sciences are the most "educationally pure," according to Dauffenbach. He found that 87 percent of biological scientists were trained in that area. By contrast, 79 percent of physical scientists have their highest degree in physical science, and only 43.5 percent of computer scientists have their highest degree in math or computer science.

Jackie Michel, a scientist at Searle Research and Development in Chesterfield, Mo., has survived several abrupt changes in research direction, both as an employee of the St. Louis-based Mon-santo Co. and later, when her group was absorbed into Searle Co. after that company was purchased by Mon-santo. As part of her thesis research for an M.S. degree in management, Michel has analyzed how middle management and other employees respond to corporate changes. She has found that corporate reorganizations are easier to survive for scientists who hold bachelor's or master's degrees than for those who have doctorates.

"Ph.D.'s have careers; non-Ph.D.'s have jobs," she says. "Ph.D.'s spend so many years earning their degree and working [as] postdocs that they're very committed to their area of science. Most are not willing to lose that, especially those in neuroscience, who are for the most part convinced that this area is the be-all and end-all of science."

But Michel, who holds a B.S. in biology, emphasizes that the degree held isn't the only factor. Although she initially resisted change, the reason she has been able to weather all the corporate storms that have blown her around, she says, is attitude: "I've decided that I'm going to be happy doing science. As long as I can ask interesting science questions, it's not important to me whether they're neuroscience questions or immunology questions."

Michel says the secret to successfully managing these transitions is to "communicate, communicate, communicate. If you don't know anything, say you don't know anything." Her boss, John P. McKearn, agrees.

A senior group leader in immunology, Mc-Kearn became section head in molecular and cell biology at Searle last January, when the decision was made to close neuroscience research and open investigations in inflammatory response and immunology. (Ironically, Searle had decided to downsize its immunology research in September 1987 and in the process laid off 21 scientists; now that the company has decided to revive this area, Searle is recruiting immunologists and is rehiring some of those who were let go three years ago.) Last year, McKearn became manager of several neuroscientists who then had to learn immunology. In a changeover such as this, when a manager suddenly becomes responsible for "new" employees uprooted suddenly, trust--and morale--are at a low ebb.

"If you've been up all night with a sick child, or had a flat on the way to work, you can't let that affect you," says McKearn. "Because if you do, people will automatically assume that whatever's bothering you relates to impending bad news that they haven't been told." When a company pulls the plug on a particular area of research, the scientists affected by that decision (and who are offered continuing employment) face a critical choice--are they committed to the company, or to their area of scientific expertise? Such a crisis can be a positive experience, says neuroscientist Linda M. Pullan.

Pullan stuck with Monsanto and, later, Searle during several changeovers. But she found the change in corporate culture at Searle hard to take: "Monsanto's acquisition of Searle changed it from a small, almost entrepreneurial-type company to a large organization with its attendant management changes. I found that difficult to take; science was no longer fun."

When Searle jettisoned neuroscience R&D, Pullan decided to look for a new job--in any field. During the course of interviewing, Pullan found her job skills much in demand, "and that restored my self-esteem. I found that I could start afresh."

Now working in the neurosciences at ICI Americas International in Wilmington, Del., Pullan found her new employer to have "an environment ... where there is a sense of camaraderie between scientists. Now I really enjoy research." --S.H.

One researcher who made the switch to biology from another discipline is David C. Schwartz, a molecular biologist at New York University who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. But Schwartz does not consider his experience unusual. "Many of the top molecular biologists in the field started out in physical chemistry," he says, citing as examples Ronald Davis, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University; Phillip Sharp, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Cancer Research; and Norman Davidson, Norman Chandler Professor of Chemical Biology, emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology. In addition, he says, molecular biologist Walter Gilbert, Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, began his career as a theoretical physicist.

Schwartz invented a method for embedding easily breakable, high-molecular-weight DNA into agarose gels, a necessary prelude to electrophoretic separation. And he used a modified pencil holder as a prototype electrophoresis chamber to separate large DNA molecules. That innovation spawned the burgeoning technologies known as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis.

These days, Schwartz is "interrogating" molecules by using imaging techniques based on the light microscope. He's also heading a project to isolate centromeres, with the goal of making synthetic human chromosomes. By the end of the millennium, he predicts, cloning will be dead as a useful technique to analyze genomes, with physical-chemical methods undergoing a resurgence. "Cloning is useful only in working with genes, not genomes. You've got to have a method rapid enough and powerful enough to allow you to screen 10,000 genomes, not just one. Looking at the problem of how to sequence the human genome through the eyes of physicists and chemists will solve it in the most efficient way."

Jackie Michel, a researcher at Searle Research and Development in Chesterfield, Mo., who has switched fields within biology several times, agrees that the cross-pollination that results when scientists switch disciplines is beneficial for research in general. "You get synergy when the crossovers occur; one group potentiates the other," she says.

Michel spent several years working in hematology, then changed to neuroscience and later to immunology, all as a result of shifts in pharmaceutical R&D occurring within Searle Co. and its corporate parent, the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. Over the years, her research has crossed back and forth among subdisciplines within the field of biology. "As we who were accustomed to working in neuroscience made the switch to immunology, we would ask a question that experimentally an immunologist would never ask and would probably say isn't worth doing. But these experiments often yield information that redirects the focus of our work."

The life sciences are not the only area benefiting from cross-disciplinary action. An infusion of former chemists is catalyzing change in the geosciences, says Larry A. Haskin, chairman of the department of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. Twenty or 30 years ago, many aspects of the geosciences were purely qualitative, he says; now, they are being shaped into more quantitative studies.

Haskin, who trained as a physical chemist specializing in nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry, chose to apply his knowledge outside his original field early in his career. "Every piece of information I was able to add was but a tiny fraction of information people knew about the atomic nucleus," says Haskin, "but when I began to analyze the rare earth elements present in rock samples, this was brand new information to the geologists and geochemists, and they were quite enthusiastic."

Haskin counts his background in chemistry as a major asset, noting that geoscientists typically have taken only a few chemistry courses. His only hindrance? "I just didn't know anything about rocks," he says. "But I could work with geologists, who did understand rocks, in ways they didn't think of."

There are some impediments to switching fields, however. Haskin notes that semantic differences distinguish how two disciplines interpret a common term, such as fractional crystallization. "I knew what that was, chemically," says Haskin. "But in geology, it has a different meaning." Noting that he's never picked up a lot of geoscientific terminology, Haskin says that hasn't stopped him from publishing, "but it has led to a lot of rewrites, which I still have to do to this day."

Sometimes, corporate R&D scientists find they must navigate around some potholes in their research paths caused by a frequent change of disciplines. Searle's John M. Farah, Jr. has switched from work on antitussives (cough suppressants) to investigating excitatory amino acids to immunology studies, in fewer than four years. As a senior research investigator, Farah spends the bulk of his time on project design. Because of Searle's frequent changes in R&D focus, he hasn't been able to work in the laboratory "for many months, and it's killing me." Farah and colleague Joseph B. Monahan say that it takes from six months to a year to feel comfortable with the literature, familiarize themselves with the leading researchers in their new field, and get up to speed in the laboratory. Then, says Farah, it's another two to three years before research is publishable.

Changing disciplines in mid-career often results in some loss of prestige. Monahan, who recently had to forsake a six-year research career in neuroscience to take up immunology, rues no longer being asked to referee for neuroscience journals, review grant proposals, or make presentations at international meetings. "I've had to switch from being a recognized, international contributor in the neurosciences to enter an area I know little about [immunology], where I'm not recognized at all, and start over."

Within academe, a scientist who has made a cross-disciplinary switch can use both old and new knowledge in creative ways. Charles E. Taylor, a professor of biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, no longer does any experiments in population genetics with Drosophila. Instead, he spends all his time working in the field of artificial intelligence, developing computer models that he hopes will help him understand how consciousness evolved. His multiple interests have helped him develop an undergraduate honors course, entitled "Mind, Brain, and Computers." To anyone who has made a radical career shift such as his, Taylor suggests teaching a course in the new area. "But more important," he says, "is the advice I got from George Bartholomew [now professor emeritus of biology at UCLA]. `Bart,' who has changed careers several times, told me to continue to do research in my old area while starting up a new direction, because I might need to go back."

Radiation physicist Nussbaum says that his salary as associate professor of radiation physics and radiology at Washington University is "significantly higher than what I would make if I had stayed in atomic physics. But the reason I got into this field is not for the money. I'm in it because I can feel useful. I didn't feel that way before. "One of the unexpected bonuses is that when I treat these desperately ill people ... all the problems I have don't seem so important anymore. It's a sobering piece of realism."

Suzanne Hagan is a St. Louis-based science writer.