Friday, January 13, 2017

Starving Scientist

     Now that the blog is more up-to-date, I plan to post more consistently.

    I will warn you, dear audience, that the current post is not at all about running; it's about science, hence the title. Find yourself warned: I am basically going to rant about research funding, or lack there of.

     I will begin by describing my background in science. As an undergraduate I switched my major from journalism to biology in my sophomore year. From the beginning, I said I wanted to work in plant pathology because I felt it was a great combination of molecular, plant, and microbiology.

     After I graduated, I found a job at a local biotec company that performed post and pre-natal diagnostics. I was very excited about the job, however I quickly found that there was an underlying level of stress due to lack of profits. Insurance companies were not paying for the tests we were running because it was classified as "investigatory" rather than "diagnostic." I worked there a year, then I decided I better pursue grad school. Around 5 months after I left the company, they went out of business, laying-off all of my former co-workers.

My first semester of graduate school I went on a mushroom collecting foray for my mycology course.
    I am not sure what I should say about graduate school. My experience was not great. I started school with the hopes of finding a mentor and being involved in research again. I expected to work long days. I expected to be challenged by my course work. However, I found none of this to be true. My thesis work ended up being exactly the type of work I did as an undergraduate: primer development. My mentor, who shall remain nameless, was uninvolved. To his credit, he was a very busy man, and I should have realized this before signing on to the program.

     When I asked if I should write grants, my mentor told me not to bother. When I asked if I could go to conferences, he said no. In the end, my project ran out of funding, and before I had any results to show, my boss told me I had 3 months to put together a thesis and get out. Those last few months were very stressful and challenging, but I did finish my project just in time.

Loving the sunflowers on a class field trip
     There were some parts of graduate school I did enjoy. Now that it's over I miss being in the lab. I also really enjoyed days where we got to go on trips to the field, mainly for classes. I also had fun being around the other plant pathology students. Oh yeah, and I met my fiancé in the first week of graduate school, so really I should not be complaining about the experience. :)

I met my fiancé at graduate school. We walked to receive or Master degrees on the same day!

     After I graduated with an MS, it was extremely difficult to find a job. This was partly because I was trying to remain in the small university town where my fiancé was finishing his PhD. After 6 months of job searching, I got hired on as a lab manager. All was great for the first 2 months. Then my new boss called me into his office, saying he was out of money. Bills from the year prior were just now rolling in, and although his financial advisor had gone over his budget and given the OK to hire me, he had to terminate my position in order to keep the lab open.

     The week after he told me this, I broke my finger (see prior post). He and I made an arrangement where I dropped down to part-time, filed "leave without pay," and worked minimal hours. This was nearly impossible with a broken finger! Luckily, though, I was able to keep my health insurance through the end of the year.

     When I returned to work in January, my boss called me into his office once again. He still had not received any funding. He was going to need to cut my pay by half and drop my status down to a temporary employee, or a "time-slip" employee, a position usually designated for students. This type of position does not collect any benefits. Basically, he still needs my help but can't afford to pay me much. I'm currently not being provided a livable wage and am going to need to find work elsewhere.

    My boss is very intelligent and hard-working. His lab is there to conduct medical research, to answer questions about the brain's role in obesity and addictive behaviors. There is not enough grant money to go around however.

     All of this is super discouraging. I am told that funding issues are not only occurring at my current institution but throughout academia. My best bet is to leave acadaemia seek employment in industry.

     I guess my point is this: advanced degrees, even in the sciences, do not guarantee employment in our current economy. Our federal government needs to increase it's research budget. How else will we see advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology?  American society tells us we need more students in STEM. However, with lack of research funding, we are not paying our scientists. Economically, we need fewer students in STEM, unless our nation makes research a financial priority.