Students advocating for academic science

By Hal Jacobs | Emory Magazine | June 23, 2017

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The future of academic science depends on young researchers, but only about 11 percent of PhD graduates land in tenure-track faculty positions. Laney graduate students share their complex perspectives on scientific research at universities. Illustration by 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.

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