Best Places to Work 2008: Academia
This year's top institutions give researchers more than a place to do great science. They offer the opportunity to nurture, and be nurtured in return.
Starting a new job isn't easy, even if you are Ron Weiss, an innovator in the emerging field...
Arranged mentorships, though not a formal program at Princeton, are a common practice in many departments, according to a university spokesperson. And the resulting relationships can be lasting: Seven years later, "I still go to him a lot," says Weiss, who recently consulted Sturm on a proposal for a new bioengineering program at Princeton. Sturm's strategic advice, including suggestions to show details about other bioengineering programs and make a timeline of required resources, were favorably commented on by reviewers, says Weiss.
Weiss' experience exemplifies what respondents in The Scientist's 6th annual Best Places to Work in Academia survey thought was the most important factor in a strong work environment: their relationship with coworkers and mentors.
When Karl Kasischke arrived at 10th ranked University of Rochester three years ago, he was approached by senior faculty member Thomas Foster, editor of a journal for which Kasischke had been a reviewer. Foster offered Kasischke full access to his lab and encouraged him to borrow equipment to which the new hire otherwise didn't have access. Another senior researcher, Harris Gelbard, gave Kasischke lab space during renovations. Both men became advocates for the young professor, encouraging him to negotiate a tenure-track contract, including equipment and his own permanent lab space. Their efforts were successful: Kasischke is now director of the Medical Center's Multiphoton Core. "Without them, I would probably not be here in this position," says Kasischke.
But mentors aren't just valued early in a career: Munir Pirmohamed still turns to his mentor for advice 19 years after they met. A pharmacologist at the University of Liverpool, ranked third in this year's top international institutions behind the Weizmann Institute of Science and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Pirmohamed speaks regularly with his former mentor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge, even though Breckenridge has since retired. Pirmohamed consults him about funding applications, promotion support, and new post offers. And Pirmohamed plans to carry on the tradition: "A mentor was always provided for me," he says, "and so I do that now."
At some institutions, mentoring is more than a department heirloom - it's a rule. At 4th ranked Michigan State University's department of medicine, mentoring is one of three requirements assessed during a researcher's annual review. To receive an "excellent" score, a scientist must mentor junior investigators. Otherwise, the highest they can be rated is "satisfactory," says Mary Nettleman, chair of the department. "It's one of our core values," she says. "That's what should be happening."
With budget crises looming at many institutions, some researchers are already feeling the pinch (See "Losing Your Lab" in the May 2008 issue). But thankfully, a few organizations are finding interim funding solutions.
In 2007, the University of Rochester's Medical Center created an in-house research award program that funded 12 researchers between $35,000 and $50,000 each. The University's provost office also awarded $278,000 in "Multidisciplinary Awards," a brand-new funding source to seed interdepartmental collaboration. "[The new funding] signals to the faculty an attempt to stand behind them in difficult times," says Stephen Dewhurst, a professor of microbiology at the university.
Through new fundraising programs, like the nationally-televised "Thanks and Giving" campaign, 7th ranked St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is working to provide "safe harbor" from the downturn in NIH funding, writes William Evans, director and CEO of the hospital, in an E-mail. Seventy-two percent of research costs this year at St. Jude were institutionally funded, according to the hospital. But "we cannot do this forever," writes Evans.
Then there are those institutions that worry less over money. The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, an institution which doesn't depend on government grants for research funding, had the highest ranking for research resources this year. Secure funding makes all the difference, says Joe Bouton, senior vice president of the forage improvement division. After working for almost 30 years at a major research university, says Bouton, who joined Noble as a full-time employee in 2004, he appreciates not having to chase money; "It's allowed me to achieve focus again."
For many scientists, feeling good about their workplace isn't only about funding and support, it's about giving back to the community. Karen Burg, a professor of bioengineering at No. 21 Clemson University, is one of several scientists in her department who teach an introductory bioengineering class for a university-supported community education program, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Course attendees, mostly retired members of the community, love the class, says Burg, and the department is regularly asked to repeat the program. Burg has been struck by the enthusiasm of her colleagues: Though the positions are purely volunteer, each semester the teaching openings fill up as soon as they're posted.
Other institutions write community outreach into the job description. The Michigan State University Extension program, an organization that provides educational programs to the community, staffs over 300 employees around all 83 Michigan counties and employs 286 campus-based specialists. Rufus Isaacs, a small fruit entomologist, is one of those specialists. Isaacs splits his time between research and community outreach, providing pest management information to Michigan's grape and blueberry farmers. Each summer, Isaacs and his team host three to four evening barbeques at vineyards or blueberry farms and present their latest research to the farmers. "It's a very practical way to help growers see new information, to see if they might consider adopting newer strategies," says Isaacs. He measures his job success not by paper citations, but by how well he can address farmers' insect concerns. "It helps me get up in the morning. I know I'm helping people."
At Noble, a non-profit plant science and agricultural foundation, assisting the local community is the goal. "That's our mission - to keep the land from eroding and keep the people on the land," says Billy Cook, research manager of Noble's agricultural research division. Nobel sends out no-cost consultation teams to farmers and ranchers who ask for help. The consultants report back to Cook, who then designs research projects to address the concerns. The division is currently studying alternative feed and tilling methods in response to rising food and fuel prices.
Community interaction is more than a facet of the job, echoes Burg, who is currently working with other professors at Clemson to insert community service lessons into science classrooms around campus. "It's a reality check…Without these types of projects, we're isolated. Without them, I would question our purpose."
Correction (posted November 6): When originally posted, this article referred to Rufus Isaacs at MSU as Ralph Isaacs. We regret the error, which has been corrected.