April 28, 2003

Book gives blueprint for biomed scientists

By Eric Rangus

About six years ago, Jeremy Boss, then-associate professor of microbiology and immunology, approached his friend and co-worker, department administrator Susan Eckert, and said, “We ought to write a book.”

It took a few years—along with a promotion for him and a promotion and job change for her—to get around to it, but the book resulting from that conversation, Academic Scientists at Work: Navigating the Biomedical Research Career, was released earlier this year.

“The book is a guide for a young investigator looking to pursue an academic career in science,” said Boss, now a full professor. It is targeted at postdoctoral fellows and beginning and junior faculty members but could serve as a good resource for graduate students who are thinking about becoming professors. They could read the first chapter, “Gettin’ a Job,” then decide whether they wanted to go on or simply stop at page 25 and find some other calling in life.

Those who choose to read on will learn about what awaits them as an academic scientist. How to set up a lab and office, obtain grants, manage a lab, provide service to the university, mix scholarship and teaching, mentor young scientists and, perhaps most importantly, get promoted.

All of the above are signposts in an academic scientist’s career, but until now no book has sufficiently outlined the processes involved in reaching them. “This book has a lot to do with personal experience and a lot of observation of others,” said Boss, who goes by “Jerry.”

“This is a population that doesn’t want to ask questions,” said Eckert, associate dean for finance and research administration in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. “They don’t want their peers—and certainly don’t want the people who hired them—to know, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”

While a book on how to negotiate the pitfalls of a biomedical research career has the potential to be as dry as the Sahara, Academic Scientists at Work has a significant infusion of humor and a deftly light delivery. The chapter titles (“Gettin’ Started,” “Gettin’ Money”) and the character names (Ima Starr, Ph.D., Dr. Dewit Miweigh) playfully jab a reader in the ribs, and the work’s overall conversational tone makes it a pleasant read.

“While the advice is given in a tone that is sometimes laid back or amusing, it’s serious and true,” Boss said. “So if a person mistakes some of the humor for, ‘Oh, I really don’t have to do this,’ I think they would be in trouble.”

“It’s a very serious topic that purposefully was made more palatable by adding humor,” Eckert said.

“That’s better,” Boss said, preferring Eckert’s description. “See how the editor works?”

“Besides,” Eckert said, “I don’t think there is anything Jerry can do without using humor.”

Boss and Eckert have a chemistry that’s easy to see. They’ve known one another since Boss came to Emory in 1986 (Eckert worked 20 years in microbiology and immunology before moving to the nursing school) and can banter with the best of them. When they began working on the book in early 2001, they originally planned to split the writing—Eckert would write the parts dealing with administrative issues, and Boss would handle the academic portions. It didn’t work as well as intended. So they shifted responsibility. Boss would write, Eckert would edit, and they’d negotiate any sticking points.

The pair met every Monday and exchanged files and edits constantly. They sent the manuscript to the publisher last September—a year-and-a-half after starting—and the book was released earlier this year.

“It was a relief to finally mail it off,” said Boss, who has written many articles for journals, but this is his (and Eckert’s) first book. “We had been working on it for so long and I was so happy it was gone.”

Packaged with the book is a CD-ROM that contains sample documents, letters, worksheets, spreadsheets and databases which up-and-coming scientists can tailor to their lab, office and classroom to help with organization. Examples of each are spread throughout the book’s appendices, and they can be edited to conform to a scientist’s needs.

The book is available at Emory’s medical bookstore, Druid Hills Bookstore and at Amazon.com. Boss added that the publisher will be marketing it at biomedical and other scientific conferences.

The Boss/Eckert editorial partnership hasn’t ended with the publication of Academic Scientists at Work. The editor of “Science’s Next Wave,” an online journal affiliated with Science magazine, read the book and asked the authors to write a monthly column for the website.

The first, which will be released in May, is about teaching. Future subjects include a comparison of writing for elite science journals vs. more mainstream ones, and how scientists can determine whether their work is current.