Careers in Biology, a series of interviews

What can I do with my Biology degree? You can find out here.

Word cloud      One of the issues with having a science oriented, undergrad and graduate level training, like in the field of biology, is that career options might seem very limited. Such limitation is unrealistic – it’s hard to believe that a profession based on the study of living organisms has limited applications in the job market. The problem is that biology degrees usually don’t train their students to have a wide perspective on what the real-world job market looks like.  The seminar “Careers in Biology”, led by the Biology Department Chair and evolutionary biologist from the University of Missouri-St Louis, Dr. Patricia G. Parker, tackles this problem by exposing the students to the variety of career options, as well as some peculiarities that are part of the every-day-life of these professionals.

In this new column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career choices, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missour-St Louis, which are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

Dr. Sam Wang is a E. Desmond Lee and Family Fund Endowed Professor at the Biology Department, of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Dr. Sam Wang is a E. Desmond Lee and Family Fund Endowed Professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Xuemin (Sam) Wang on Writing and Publishing in Science. Dr. Wang’s talk was compiled by the grad students Gideon Erkenswick and  Melissa Marcus.

  “That’s why you call it research, you search, search,

   search, search and search again, reeee–search”

 – Dr. Wang

Dr. Wang is the PI of one of the most productive labs in the Department of Biology at UMSL. He highlights some take home messages on how to be a productive scientist, and increase the numbers of papers you put out there. The first one is to always be familiar with the literature, which is related to two critical aspects of being a good scientist: a. having curiosity, and b. being a good judge. In addition, manuscripts for publication should be based on interesting questions, and you must be familiar with the literature to judge this. Secondly, you should learn how to handle rejections and reviews constructively, not personally, as well as clearly communicate with reviewers and editors, point-by-point. It is vital to have a good title and good abstract, because those are the first items an editor and reviewer will see.  The cover letter that is submitted with a manuscript is equally important. Dr. Wang also emphasizes that highest impact journals should be targeted first, and  that in terms of publication, the sooner the better – you should avoid publishing only later in your career.

The students also heard Dr. Wang’s opinion specifically on what good science should be, and how to become a good scientist. You should always starts with choosing to engage in a good lab that is producing interesting publications. Good science asks and answers relevant questions to you, your lab, your field, or the population at large. Identify a problem relevant to anyone, e.g. harnessing energy cleanly, then design experiments that are reproducible and can be validated. Bellow are some questions Dr Wang addressed during the seminar:

How do you decide when a side project is worth publishing? 

Dr. Wang: Review the literature to see if it has been done.  Repeat work is not that interesting to people, unless one has discovered a new approach or way to interpret results. It is good to have small pursuits and to keep an eye out for opportunities that would not have been predicated in the course of one’s research. It also helps to discuss ideas and side projects with peers. However, be careful not to publish or do too many side projects: you will be known for your main work.

How should negative results, or results that contradict a hypothesis be handled? 

Dr. Wang: While most negative results cannot be published on their own, they are usually incorporated as a comment, or two, in the results or discussion of your research publications. A negative result is still important and can be publishable on its own if it changes the way science or the field is understood, if knowledge is gained. Negative results might also be published if you can effectively explain why you tried so hard to test something that was ultimately not supported. Negative results may be more likely to be published on very compelling topics of broad interest, if your work allows firm rejection of a major hypothesis.

When have you done enough data collection to publish? 

Dr. Wang: Depends on how compelling the research topic is.  If one is working in a high impact genre (climate change, energy production, biomedicine, etc.) the manuscript will be under great scrutiny; being thorough is essential.  If your work is in a lower impact genre then perhaps you do not need as thorough experimentation or data collection.  Not making judgment on the quality of the data, but mainly the quantity.

How do you handle a negative review or rejection of your paper? 

Dr. Wang: Through experience you learn how to take negative reviews and rejections better. Initially seeing “We regret to inform you…” can cause a shutdown, but rejection happens often. As a scientist these reviews and rejections help build the quality of the manuscript, but also improve the quality of your science. In an instance of unreasonable rejection there are steps to contest the rejection usually by contacting the senior editor to review the rejection. This is not used often, but is available to the scientist.

What is the tradeoff of publishing in high impact journals when most of the data becomes supplemental? 

Dr. Wang: This could have been an issue at one time, but all supporting data can be put into a supplemental attachment that readers do go to.  With the transition to PDF and internet publication everything is wrapped together in a file to be downloaded.  Readers do not lose data.

How does one manage to publish in a research industry setting? 

Dr. Wang: The process may be hindered somewhat due to property rights. Industries often require that patents be obtained before information can be published.  This does not usually take too long at a national level, and is slower internationally. Scientists are often required to sign contracts to receive industry funding for the research, this protects the interest of the company, and means that companies must be in agreement with what and when results are published. The impression is that this is not overly cumbersome.

When to publish?

Dr. Wang:

  1. When story comes to a conclusion.
  2. When your career depends on it.
  3. When there is a graduate student or colleague eager to publish.
  4. When the field is competitive and moving at a fast pace, pressure!

And, when to publish, from perspective of a reviewer?

Dr. Wang:

  1. Depends on how interesting is the research question, and if the study is well designed.
  2. The results must be consistent with the study’s design, the conclusions consistent with the results, and the results must have a context.

We are thankful for Dr. Wang for providing such an informative guide on writing and publishing in science!


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