Blog Post June 19, 2017

Being a better scientist

On a day-to-day basis, most graduate students working in a scientific laboratory have their minds primarily attuned to one thing: the experiments. What experiment will I do next? How does this experiment address the question I am trying to answer? Or, most frequently, why isn’t this experiment working?

Scientists-in-training, at all levels, will admit to forgetting the forest while maintaining intense focus on the trees. The daily push for data lends itself to acute focus on the science, but it’s crucial to keep in mind the bigger picture: to consider one’s long-term goals and career objectives, and to take concrete steps to achieve those goals.

The increasingly tapering process of becoming a scientific researcher may be the basis of this tendency to focus on short-term tasks. Undergraduates focus on their studies, attending lectures and dabbling in benchwork. Graduate students attend some classes, but spend the majority of their degree at the bench learning advanced experimental techniques. Postdoctoral trainees work extensive hours at the bench, squeezing in applications for independent funding in what little time they have to spare. This pipeline is structured for rigorous scientific training, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that 9 out of every 10 Ph.D. students in the life sciences take positions outside of traditional academic research.

Today’s job market, both within and outside the academy, is not unlike the forests that cover much of New England – dense and complex, demanding that those who venture in be quick on their feet, well-rounded, and have expertise spanning many areas. Despite this, traditional pre-and post-doctoral training seldom incorporate preparation beyond academic courses and benchwork.

The Whole Scientist workshop, an annual course hosted by the Jackson Laboratory, aims to rectify this training gap by helping young scientists sharpen skills that will make them competitive in the job market. This year’s workshop was held May 15-19 in Bar Harbor, Maine, and focused on three distinct areas of professional development: management, mentorship, and communication.

Over 30 scientists-in-training, including three graduate students from Dartmouth, converged at Highseas, a historic 20th century mansion-turned-conference-center straddling the outskirts of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. These scientists were of diverse background within the life sciences, and had nervously but excitedly left the comfort of their benches to push the boundaries of their professional skills through the four-day workshop.

Scientists, social media strategists, actors, policymakers, instructors, writers – experts across seemingly disparate fields came together to facilitate the workshop through a host of presentations, interactive classes, and discussion-based panels, all with a common goal: to teach participants practices to become more well-rounded scientists.

Many sessions of the workshop discussed how to identify and harness one’s passion to identify an exciting and sustaining career path. For example asking oneself, “what books or journals do you read?” or “How do you like to spend your free time?” can point to a passion that can be incorporated into a successful career.

Another session, organized by actors and journalists from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, used improvisational tactics to help participants improve their ability to communicate their work and experiences clearly to people outside of their fields. This involved breaking off into small groups to practice a response to being asked, “so what is it that you do?” by a layperson, teaching participants how to eliminate complex scientific vocabulary, distill their message, and focus on the “big picture” behind their research.

Over the course of the workshop, participants realize that though scientists-in-training often feel they’re intensely focused on the trees, the work that they do in that forest actually equips them to be highly competitive in the job market. The course highlighted that Ph.D. students in the life sciences have developed a sundry of skills that are readily translatable to many occupations, such as the ability to gather and interpret information, how to manage an amorphous project, and working with groups of people with broad expertise. This helps to contextualize a Ph.D. within an employment framework, highlighting skills and experiences relevant to a wide host of occupations.

“The sessions on communication was definitely the most impactful part for me,” said Owen Wilkins, a 5th year PEMM student studying cancer biology. “It explored ways to connect with an audience and distill your scientific message in a way I had never encountered before.”

The workshop culminated with a tour of the Jackson Laboratory campus, a 43-acre space abutting Acadia National Park, wedged between huge rolling hills and the ever-crashing waves of the Atlantic. Through the production and inventory of JAX Mice, Clinical & Research Services, this headquarters in Bar Harbor provides the scientific community with thousands of variety of experimental mouse models, and is home to many researchers using these novel mouse lines to uncover exciting discoveries about human health, disease, and function. The Jackson Laboratory is a hub of excitement and innovation and through the Whole Scientists initiative, displays a clear commitment to ensuring their scientists are well prepared for the scientific journey ahead.

The Whole Scientist workshop is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health; comprehensive scholarships are available for applicants, to cover registration, accommodations, meals, and travel. It is an outstanding opportunity for scientists in New England to develop professional skills that will lend them a competitive advantage in the job market. The scientific landscape is dynamic, with funding rising and falling like the Northern Appalachians. Securing a junior faculty position is becoming more difficult than spotting a moose, and many scientific explorers want to outfit themselves with tools to successfully navigate the terrain. The Whole Scientist workshop has proved to be an exceptional way to calibrate one’s scientific compass, helping to look past the trees and emerge from the forest well equipped to pursue their scientific frontier.


This article was first published on the School of Graduate Studies at Dartmouth site.

Arielle Baker is a Ph.D. candidate at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. Arielle works in the laboratory of Allan Gulledge, Ph.D., where she is studying the physiology and modulation of deep-layer cortical neurons. She is passionate about increasing retention of women and non-binary persons in STEM careers. Follow Arielle on Twitter at ArielleLBaker.