Young Scientists Face Demand for Broader-Based Education

What does the job market ask of young life scientists? Changes in the marketplace in recent years have complicated the answer to this seemingly simple question. As more and more young scientists react to the shrinkage of attractive job opportunities in academia by seeking industry positions and other alternatives to university-based careers, they are finding that the trend of recent decades toward increasing specialization is being accompanied by a new demand for more broad-based skills. Rapid

Aug 17, 1998
Steve Bunk

What does the job market ask of young life scientists? Changes in the marketplace in recent years have complicated the answer to this seemingly simple question. As more and more young scientists react to the shrinkage of attractive job opportunities in academia by seeking industry positions and other alternatives to university-based careers, they are finding that the trend of recent decades toward increasing specialization is being accompanied by a new demand for more broad-based skills. Rapid changes in science and technology are causing the distinctions between some disciplines to blur, with the result that employers are seeking people with the ability to work in more than one discipline.

TOWARD MORE INDEPENDENCE: Catharine Johnson, who is completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explains that diversifying the education curriculum means that students are "being provided with the building blocks to be able to think independently."
Science has a growing need for "utility infielders and switch hitters," notes Philip A. Griffiths, director of the Princeton, N.J.-based Institute for Advanced Study and chair of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. But he adds that business sector employers are generally happy with the science knowledge of young graduates. The shortcomings they perceive are in communication skills, appreciation for applied problems, and the multidisciplinary teamwork needed in today's science business environment.

One of the best responses to this situation is to create more fellowships, internships, and other ways of familiarizing students with nonacademic work environments, Griffiths thinks. He acknowledges that the American system, dominated by the "apprenticeship" of graduate students and postdocs to principal investigators, has fared very well in producing high-quality scientists. But he believes that relationship should be complemented by more options to better prepare young people for changing times.

Photo: Randall Gagadom

TEAM PLAYERS NEEDED: Philip A. Griffiths, of the Institute for Advanced Study and the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, says science has an increasing need for "utility infielders and switch hitters" who have skills in communication, applied problems, and multidisciplinary teamwork.
"There's a large amount of inertia in the system, and much of it for good reason," he allows. "But as with anything, when the need arises, you have to face it with some degree of adaptability. I think that's what the universities are grappling with now."

In 1995, COSEPUP released a seminal report recommending that students be offered more flexible graduate education curricula, new kinds of training and education grants, and better career information and guidance. The following year, a survey was mailed to 105 universities in the United States and Canada by the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Graduate Schools, to identify new programs in reaction to the COSEPUP recommendations. Among the changes described by 37 respondents were interdisciplinary programs in a number of universities. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a biotechnology training program now requires graduate students to work six months in an industrial research lab, and at Washington University, internship programs involve private sector research organizations, but such examples are relatively rare.

"I think we're further along than we were five years ago, and certainly 10 years ago, but there's still a long way to go," Griffiths observes.

An effort by the National Science Foundation to foster relationships between universities and industry has met with mixed success. In 1989 and 1991, NSF established 24 Science and Technology Centers across the country, each with an intended life of 11 years in which to perform interdisciplinary research and education. The level of science that arose from these groups was "almost uniformly high," said the COSEPUP report, but the selection process failed to evaluate managerial aspects of the new organizations, resulting in problems.

One of the groups, the Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens (CEPRAP), based at the University of California, Davis, brought together a multidisciplinary team of academic and industry scientists. Davis-based Calgene Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Monsanto Co., St. Louis, was among four original corporate associates of the center. But Luis Perez-Grau, a Calgene biotechnologist and co-principal CEPRAP investigator, says the company's involvement has declined in recent years. CEPRAP's work has veered toward neutraceuticals and other human health-related agricultural research, whereas Calgene has remained focused on applying genetic engineering to plant pathogens.

However, the company's relationship with CEPRAP has borne some fruit, in the form of a high-level gene expression system that has been patented but has not yet entered commercial development. George Bruening, director of CEPRAP at UC-Davis, was vital to that project in providing information about pathogens that use plant machinery in unique ways, says Perez-Grau.

Calgene now uses undergraduate student interns from across the country in its cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and plant-breeding research areas. "It's great for the students, because they get exposure to an industry setting," Perez-Grau notes, "and it's good for us, because it allows us to identify exceptional people."

He adds, "More and more, we're looking for expertise in certain fields. Five or 10 years ago, having a biochemistry degree was acceptable, but now we look for training in biochemistry and molecular biology, and we're increasingly looking for expertise in computers and bioinfomatics."

A consortium involving Arizona State University (ASU) and six businesses based in the Phoenix area offers an apparently good example of the potential benefits to young scientists in alliances between universities and companies. For two years prior to establishment of the consortium early this year, ASU had operated Partnership in Research for Stereo Modeling (PRISM), a multidisciplinary laboratory specializing in rapid prototyping (RP). This relatively new technology employs powder polymer resins to produce prototypes of wax, plastic, metal, and other substances, depending on the type of powder used. The potential applications are many, and high-end machinery could even produce functional parts rather than mere prototypes.

As local companies became aware of ASU's project and began displaying interest, PRISM technical director Anshuman Razdan and co-director Mark Henderson began following the lead of RP consortia developed by Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Louisville. The first six members of the PRISM Advanced Rapid Fabrication Consortium (PARFC) include such giants as the Boeing Co., Seattle, which wants to make metal parts for its Apache helicopters; Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., which seeks plastic components for cell phones; and AlliedSignal Inc., Morristown, N.J., which wants ceramic parts for turbine engines. Razdan and Henderson are currently negotiating a three-year, $300,000 budget from the consortium members.

Already, eight RP-related projects are under way, funded through a variety of sources, including NSF and ASU. " There are many life science organizations that are very interested, like the Mayo Clinic, that do work at the cellular level," Razdan notes.

Cooperation, rather than competition, with the RP industry is PRISM's rule. Consortium members are encouraged to visit, and to take RP courses at the university. Razdan sees no threat to the independence of academic research through the consortium. "The deliverables are our best efforts," he explains. "What we do not promise to deliver is a product."

The lab currently has 10 graduate students, in fields as diverse as anthropology, biology, computer science, and fine arts. "They bring more to the table, and force people like me--basically an engineer and computer scientist--to talk with biology professors," says Razdan. "We found out that modern research and education are not [done best] in isolated disciplines anymore."

But not everyone is convinced that the movement toward more cooperation between industry and universities is a good idea. "From the point of view of the public good and social democracy, it's pretty bad," says Richard E. Sclove, founder and executive director of Loka Institute, an Amherst, Mass., nonprofit organization dedicated to making science and technology responsive to democratic processes. "Basically, we've destroyed the habitat for citizenship, but we've expanded the habitat for careerists and consumers."

What's needed, he declares, is education that will better prepare young scientists to be good citizens. This requires "some study of the social implications of your chosen profession," he says. "That curriculum has to be embedded as a leitmotif in every course."

The current national science policy study (see related story) has not put enough emphasis on sounding out public opinion on education and other issues, he charges. "We need a process through which a much wider range of the populace helps to set science policy."

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) offers an anecdote to illustrate the importance, in his mind, of the national science policy study that he is heading as vice chairman of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science. He was giving a speech in June to the Science Diplomats' Club, an association of foreign science attaches at embassies in Washington, D.C., when he asked for a show of hands in response to three questions. The first was, "How many of the nations represented in the room had written science policies?" Many hands went up. Then he asked, "How many of those policies had received written approval from their governments?" Two hands were raised. Then, "How many policies had been implemented?" None.

Ehlers believes that the initiation of a science policy study conducted with the cooperation of the scientific community is unprecedented in American history. "Just having taken this first step is a major plus," he says.

He won't be drawn on exactly when the next step of the $150,000 project--his report to Congress--will be completed, suggesting only that it will be "soon." Announced as a year-long effort when it was launched last October, the study has been overshadowed in recent months by appropriations bills and other congressional matters, but Ehlers insists that it is not on a backburner. Nor does he believe that blows to science funding will harm science policy considerations. "I suspect this will be a fairly good year for funding in science," he declares.

The study's Web site ( has received about 300 E-mail messages containing suggestions for a national science policy, but no other information about these ideas has been publicly released. Ehlers says the decision was to maintain anonymity and not turn the Web site into a chat room.

The study is concentrating not only on long-range science and technology policy, but on science and mathematics education. Although Ehlers says there are no definitive answers to the latter topic, "The general feeling, I believe, in the science community is, number one, many breakthroughs in the future will be in interdisciplinary research. But it's not clear yet what impact that should have on undergraduate training."

Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics and has worked as both a university lecturer and research physicist, says he doesn't necessarily think his report will be better than the many good science policy books and papers that already have been written. "But those reports have had no impact on Congress. I think what I write will have an impact."


"It's very difficult to talk about breadth of training versus specialization, because it's easy to misunderstand when you use such general terms," warns Catharine Johnson, who is completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You're really talking about being provided with the building blocks to be able to think independently."

Johnson played an important role in the university's diversification of its science curriculum over recent years. A former president of the school's Graduate Student Association, she conducted a survey in late 1995 that showed about 70 percent of the graduate students believed scientific diversity was important, although 40 percent felt their formal training was insufficient.

She notes that technological changes in particular have had a big effect on blurring the boundaries between disciplines in her field. For example, although biophysics is conceptually very different from biochemistry and molecular biology, technological advances have made it possible for a young biochemist to crystallize a protein without the help of functional data correlation from a biophysicist, she says. The ability to relate structure to function is not necessary in using off-the-shelf, recombinant technology. "If you can make brownies, you can subclone your own protein."

Johnson says the pressures to publish make it hard for graduate students to choose innovative research projects that might end up with negative results for their laboratory heads, who must constantly vie for funding. The result is a dampening of student creativity. Moreover, many academic researchers fail to fully understand the requirements of science performed in the industrial arena, she believes.

"The biggest complaint I hear from people in industry--and all of them have been at large pharmaceutical companies--is that the difference in cultures makes it difficult to hire people who have only been in academia," she says.

The main curricular changes she would like to see are: increased opportunities for science graduate students to explore other professions; a revival of masters of science programs as credible options for those who do not wish to go into basic research; and more freedom for students to pursue their own research interests outside the confines of their advisors' expertise, without penalties to their educational progress or career prospects.

"Most [faculty] would say you have to understand industry culture, but in practice, I don't think that has gotten down to the way they actually train and influence their students," she concludes. "There still is the underlying notion that students who leave academia are somehow just not as good."

Steve Bunk is a contributing editor for The Scientist . He can be reached online at