Back to Basics

Advocating for Academic Science

Adam Simpson

Call it the 800-pound Gorilla in the Lab.

Crystal Grant 22PhD, a graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology program in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS), faced it while studying how people’s DNA changes with age.

Joshua Lewis 19PhD of the GDBBS Biochemistry, Cell, and Developmental Biology program saw its shadow while researching how cells stick to neighbor cells, information that could lead to understanding how cancer cells metastasize.

The problem weighed so heavily on Chelsey Ruppersburg 16PhD that she changed career directions after racing to earn a doctorate in cell biology in only four years, rather than the usual six or seven.

The situation is readily apparent to anyone who works in an academic lab. Research is a slow, steady, incremental process; funding is erratic, inconsistent, boom and bust. Principal investigators must tear themselves away from working with students to chase fewer National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. Hiring new students and staff is fraught because funding for their positions is a moving target.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of graduate students—vital to every academic lab—compete for rarer faculty positions while being tempted by more lucrative private industry jobs or opportunities abroad.

Postdoctoral fellowships, an important transitional step from student to professor, have become a port of call that may stretch into years of low pay and uncertainty for scientists who hoped to settle down after a decade-plus of intense schooling.

But as the challenge grows steeper, the same young scientists who are most affected are also trying to solve it.

The Workhorses of Biomedical Research

It’s no coincidence that the students who entered graduate programs after the fallout from the 2008 recession, and budget cuts from the 2013 sequestration, are the same ones who are hyperaware of the need for consistent federal support of basic science research.

Grant fell in love with genetics while studying biology as an undergraduate at Cornell. Her first job in a behavioral genetics lab involved watching the romantic pursuit of fruit flies in petri dishes. Female flies were more likely to chase males whose wings flapped at a greater frequency. Each speed-dating session lasted five minutes. Grant was hooked.

After taking a gap year to research leukemia, she’s now in the third year of a PhD, studying DNA changes in women aged fifty to eighty. Her work could contribute to important health benefits for women in this age group.

Lewis was wrapping up a degree in biological engineering at the University of Georgia when an internship at a civil engineering firm convinced him that he needed “room to think about problems in a more interesting, challenging way.” He’s now in the sixth year of a PhD program working on research that could lay the groundwork for innovations in cancer treatment.

Both students believe strongly in the importance of what they’re doing, but neither believes they’ll stay in academia when they complete their PhDs.

“When I started graduate school, I thought I’d go into academia,” says Lewis, “and I still think in a lot of ways I’d be happier doing academic research. But I’m thirty years old, and it would be hard to give up financial stability in exchange for a relatively small chance of a job in academia.”

“It’s a broken system,” says Grant. “We’re educating scientists and then losing them.”

Grant and Lewis

Lab Conditions: candidates Crystal Grant (left) and Joshua Lewis are vocal advocates for scientific research at universities, but neither is ready to commit to academic careers due to uncertainty about good jobs and adequate funding.

Kay Hinton

Last summer, Grant and Lewis made their case to congressional aides from the Georgia delegation at a meeting set up by Cameron Taylor 90C, Emory vice president of government and community affairs.

They cast their PhD education as an investment strategy by the federal government. Congress underwrites their six-to-seven-year apprenticeship in university labs—it’s up to the NIH and NSF to choose which research projects are worthy of support. So each newly minted PhD constitutes a substantial investment on the part of the taxpaying public.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the federal government pays almost $140 billion a year for research and development (down from $160 billion in 2010), with 29 percent going to universities. In return, they get “the workhorses of biomedical research,” students who lay the foundation for most of the new discoveries in health care fields and future teachers who will train the next generation of students.

Well, almost.

Every year, nine thousand biology students receive PhDs, but only 70 percent take the next step of accepting a postdoctoral position that provides additional training and experience to prepare for a faculty position. Of those students who become postdocs, only 11 percent achieve tenure-track academic research positions (data courtesy of a 2012 NIH Workforce report).

If we see this as a pipeline in which students come in one side and faculty come out the other, the pipeline isn’t just leaking, it’s ruptured: 89 percent of students flow away from academia to industry or other careers—many of them in fields where they’ll never conduct research again. Once gone from our universities, we lose their valuable experience and passion for scientific discovery. In private industry, their research may become trade secrets that are no longer shared with the academic community.

In addition, international students working in US labs are returning to their home countries for jobs, lured by the promise of expanding research funding and academic positions. In 2014, the journal Nature reported that China’s total expenditures on research and development has increased by an average of 23 percent in recent years.

While Grant and Lewis admit that the growing appeal of private industry is a plus for students, they point out that even this sector depends on the time-consuming work of basic science: “A pharmaceutical company can screen for drugs that inhibit prostate cancer. But to do so, they have to know what metabolic pathways are driving prostate cancer," Lewis says. "That kind of knowledge comes from basic research, and takes too long and isn’t lucrative enough for the private sector to pursue it. This is why our whole system depends on funding from the NIH and NSF.”

So students like Grant and Lewis, despite their love for the lab and the academic environment, are prepared to take their chances outside of academia, even as they try to educate the public and politicians on what they’re missing.

Taking Charge

“When most people think of science funding, they think of helping older professors in white lab coats,” says Ruppersburg. “But they need to understand the funding helps a whole community of younger students who want to make a difference.”

She was in the middle of her PhDresearch in cell biology, working with her faculty mentor on the brink of making an important discovery about the dysfunction of certain cilia (almost every cell in the body has one), when she was invited to talk up science on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She and a few other Emory students dropped by congressional offices and shared stories about how the federal funding crisis was affecting them and their labs.

The experience was so exhilarating, when they returned to Emory they formed a student advocacy group in the Laney Graduate School with the full support of Dean Lisa Tedesco. Students responded well to their call to arms: “We, as scientists, need to stand up and take charge of our future—after all, if we don’t, who will?" "If you want to be a scientist in ten years, you need to be an advocate today.”

Since its inception in 2013, Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN) has become a model for other campuses and been recognized on a national level. One of its most popular events is a letter-writing campaign that galvanizes students, faculty, and staff into dashing off personal letters to local members of Congress urging them to support robust funding of biomedical research. EScAN’s first and second annual letter-writing campaigns generated about a thousand letters. Other activities include meet-and-greet sessions with legislators and their staffs.

Ruppersburg’s participation led to a position in Senator Johnny Isakson’s reelection campaign, and she hopes to eventually have a voice in a national science advocacy group.

“How wonderful to have someone with such an understanding of science be in a position where she can hear the advocacy coming from Emory and other places, and can help translate that to leaders in Congress,” says Andrew Kowalczyk, a professor in the Departments of Cell Biology and Dermatology in the School of Medicine and the first faculty adviser to EScAN. “I have to give our students at Emory a lot of credit” he says. “They looked at the situation, and rather than say we’re defeated, they said, no, let’s educate our congresspeople and senators and public about what we do, why it’s valuable, and why it’s in our national interest.”

Kowalczyk would love to see a national commitment to a balanced plan for basic science that would take into account the six-year training programs for students and the nearly twenty-year timespan of most research projects. As Grant and Lewis pointed out in their presentation to congressional aides, this would benefit almost everyone in the pipeline, allowing funding agencies to stop making inefficient, short-term funding plans; the academic research workforce to stabilize; universities to make more informed decisions about investing in infrastructure; and PhDs to make better decisions about their careers.

Looking Ahead

Leaving the academic lab environment behind isn’t even an option for current EScAN President Jarred Whitlock 21PhD, afourth-year graduate student in the GDBBS Biochemistry, Cell, and Developmental Biology program.

“I will stay in academia come feast or famine,” he says. Whitlock studies the basic function of muscle signaling (“figuring out how to control this system so we could turn on muscle repair full blast”) with the dream of helping everything from muscular dystrophies to battlefield injuries.

“Coming into a lab, I feel like I’m coming home,” he says. “Why would I give that up to do anything else? If I get a faculty position, great. If I scrape by in the back of someone else’s lab, I’ll still be happy and at the bench.”

Kowalczyk says he would wholeheartedly advise undergraduates to consider graduate training. “The graduate program forces you to think better and learn how to deal with a lot of information and people. It helps you develop as a person. There’s a lot you can do with that,” he says.

Emory’s young scientists are already doing a lot with it. As they study changes in DNA, cells, and pathways, they are also learning more about the political environment that shapes their research. They understand that science doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Sometimes you need to sit down and write a letter.

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