Finding Job Satisfaction as a Humanitarian Researcher
Panagiotis Vagenas left Yale University to advise a non-profit on research design and quality.
What did you do before Yale?
I’m from Greece originally. In 1996 — when I was 17 — I moved to London, UK. I studied biochemistry for my degree and did a PhD in immunology. When I graduated I moved to the Population Council labs at the Rockefeller University in New York to start my postdoc.
What did you study?
I worked on basic research in HIV. What’s always motivated me is trying to help people — to have a meaningful career in that sense. So in summer 2010 I moved to Yale School of Public Health and did a master’s in public health (MPH), and went on to join the faculty at the Yale School of Medicine in 2013.
And then you moved to your current job.
Yes – I’d just applied for a K01 grant which didn’t get awarded at the time, which was a big shock. So I figured I should do something different, and what still motivated me was making an impact on people’s lives. So I found the job I have now with Project Concern International (PCI).
Where did you get the motivation to make an impact on people’s lives?
Really I grew up in an environment that was like that. My mum’s a psychiatrist and my dad’s a civil engineer in the public sector, so while they’re not doing the kind of work I’m doing, it’s always been for the public good. And then I loved biology at school so that was the start of the path that got me here.
What does PCI do?
Our mission is to enhance health, end hunger, overcome hardship. It’s a really broad mission that wants to help people in the developing world lead better lives. I think a lot of organisations like PCI – which is funded primarily by the US government but also from other sources – appreciate research more and more in tracking the impact and sustainability of their work.
Could you give me an example?
I was recently in Ethiopia where myself and other members of my team designed a sustainability study for an initiative we ran to empower women in the region. The project ended six years ago for PCI, but women are still meeting and benefitting from our work there. It’s not the old method of development – hand outs, a short project in the field – we want to go into these programmes knowing the impact is sustained.
How are you finding the head office in San Diego?
I’m enjoying the outdoors culture here in California. Everybody’s out; everybody’s running and hiking and enjoying the beaches year-round. I meet a lot of people from work. My parents came to visit last April and they really enjoyed it. San Diego is paradise.
You can find more of this interview here.
Look west for resistance
With the most to lose from looming federal funding cuts, California's researchers take a stand. In December 2016, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, declared that if the new Trump administration stopped monitoring the Earth's climate with federal satellites, the Golden State would “launch its own damn satellites.” Brown's response followed earlier comments from a senior advisor to then president-elect Donald Trump proposing the elimination of funding for NASA's Earth science division. It was the first of many rumours, culminating in deep reductions to federal science spending in the president's proposed budget for 2018. The announcements have coincided with moves to restrict immigration, including a sweeping review of the visa programme used by research institutions to employ foreign scientists. “We've got scientists, we've got lawyers, and we're ready to fight,” said Brown to resounding applause from the crowd of climate scientists. But scientists in California are doing much more than cheering and clapping. Like Brown, they are using their political voice to challenge what they feel has been a gradual erosion of evidence-based policy-making. “From climate change to food scarcity to income inequality, we need people in office who can think creatively and use evidence to make decisions,” says Jess Phoenix, a geologist who studies active and extinct volcanoes across four continents. In April, she announced her decision to run for Congress to represent her home district north of Los Angeles. “We need scientists to take a stand,” she says. Cutting it close California, the most populous state in the US, has long been a science stronghold. With a weighted fractional count (WFC) of around 3,000, the research output of institutions in California in the Nature Index is nearly double that of its closest competitor, Massachusetts. For every 1,000 scientists and engineers working in the state in 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted it 45 patents — the highest in the country. Part of the state's research dominance can be explained by the large number of life, physical and social scientists employed in California — almost three times as many as in Massachusetts. In 2016, California received 15% of the total US allocation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), which was the largest share for any state, amounting to US$4.6 billion. But from its position at the pinnacle of research, California stands to lose more than any other state from the cuts to science funding proposed by the Trump administration. Trump's budget outline, released in May 2017, calls for slashing the spend by 18% for the NIH and by 11% for the NSF. California's losses would be likely to have far-reaching implications for the research output of the wider scientific community, given that many scientists in the state collaborate with peers across the country, and the world. In 2016, institutions in California formed more than 8,400 partnerships with counterparts in other states to co-author papers included in the index — the highest in the country. California's institutions also formed the most partnerships with institutions outside the US. Of course, a budget blueprint is just a president's wish list and an actual budget has to pass through Congress, which has largely rejected slashing funding for scientific research. The budget reconciliation for 2017 added money to federal science agencies. There is much trepidation among scientists about what cuts will pass Congress. “We are in a period of significant uncertainty,” says Randolph Hall, vice president of research at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Jess Phoenix leads educational non-profit, Blueprint Earth, and is running for Congress. If federal funding is cut, California researchers will be looking for more money from the state's budget, foundations and industry. Corporate funding currently makes up about 5% of research money, and private foundations 5–10%. State funding ranges from 2% or less at private institutions like USC, up to 11% at the public University of California system. “While we might hope for these funds to rise in the future, it won't ever come close to the amount from federal funding agencies,” says Hall, who is also the incoming president of the University Industry Demonstration Partnership, an organization that enables interactions between industry and academia. People politics Research also requires a reliable supply of talented people. Universities are concerned that reviews of visa policies, such as the 90-day ban on travellers from six Muslim-majority nations, and the more recent restrictions on visitors from a revised list of seven countries may affect their ability to attract and retain the world's best researchers. When Trump's travel ban first went into effect in January 2017, Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, was considering a candidate from Iran, one of the countries on the banned list, for a professor position. The selection panel decided that a different candidate was better qualified, but the administration's announcement raised many concerns about whether the suspension on travel barred them from hiring an Iranian. Reforms to the H-1B visa for highly skilled foreign workers could also hinder university recruitment. Universities in California employed more than 3,000 H-1B visa workers in 2015, according to the Office of Foreign Labor Certification. H-1B visas are becoming even more important for universities because fewer US citizens and permanent residents are pursuing advanced degrees in science. In 2014, 25% of the students enrolled in graduate programmes in the US were temporary residents, compared to 21% in 2000. “Universities would be impoverished and the ability to hire scientists would be reduced if the programme changed,” says Peri. In an analysis of US metro areas between 1990 and 2010, he found a 1% increase in the number of foreigners filling scientific and technical positions increased the average income of college-educated native workers by 5–6% in that area. The H-1B visa programme does not appear to be at immediate risk. But processing times have lengthened since the Department of Homeland Security suspended fast-track processing of H1-B applications in April 2017. State-level collaboration In 2016, institutions in California formed close to 9,500 bilateral partnerships with institutions across the country to co-author papers included in the index. The top 20 states that California institutions formed research links with are ranked by the number of bilateral partnerships. Global research hub California is the most collaborative state in the United States, forming the most domestic and international bilateral institutional partnerships. The top 10 most collaborative states in the country are ranked by their total number of bilateral partnerships. Run, scientists, run The current political climate has inspired some Californian researchers to look beyond the lab. Following the 2016 election, Phoenix found herself drawn into politics. She was dismayed to learn that her congressional representative, a member of the House Science Committee, does not believe that the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In April 2017, she decided to challenge for the seat in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Days later, she spoke at a March for Science rally in Los Angeles defending scientific research and informed decision-making. “I'm 35. No-one else is going to get involved politically for me,” says Phoenix, who runs an educational non-profit called Blueprint Earth and is a fellow at New York-based professional science society, The Explorers Club. “Scientists have been shocked by the incompetence at every level of elected office.” Kevork Abazajian, a physicist studying the origins of the Universe at the University of California, Irvine, is also considering a run for city council — a local office. He hopes to get the town of Irvine to take more action on climate change, for one thing. “After the November election, scientists have been shocked by the degree of incompetence at almost every level of elected office,” he says. “There is a history of scientists going into elected office in other countries, and that's what we need more of.” Abazajian is also the California coordinator for 314 Action, a non-profit group that supports science-savvy candidates and policies. Since January, the group (whose name comes from the value of the mathematical constant π) has organized two training sessions in Washington DC and California for scientists interested in running for office. Training included fundraising and crafting a message that sticks with voters. “You have to be a good messenger,” says Abazajian. 314 Action has also supported stem cell researcher, Hans Keirstead, in California, along with volcanologist Phoenix, in their bids for Congress in 2018. Adding more scientists would shake up the decision-making process: currently only one of the 535 representatives and senators is a practising scientist with a doctoral degree — physicist, Bill Foster, of Illinois. “When California leads, the world follows,” says Phoenix. “Now, more than ever, we are called to bring truly representative democracy to the fore.” Search our job roles in California
How a stint in Silicon Valley unleashed one researcher’s business skills
Tomasz Głowacki’s career now straddles academia and industry, thanks to his participation in a leadership programme organized by the Polish government. In 2007, when I started work as a research and teaching assistant at Poznań University of Technology in Poland (a job that straddled bioinformatics research and teaching discrete mathematics, algorithms and data structures), I thought academia would be a lifelong career. I enjoyed the intellectual freedom, chance to work on challenging problems and travel opportunities. Shortly after defending my computer-science PhD thesis in 2013, I secured a place on the Polish government’s Top 500 Innovators initiative, a nine-week programme in research commercialization and management at universities with high positions in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. It was set up because the Polish government thought a lack of cooperation between researchers and business was one of the main reasons for the country’s low position in European Innovation Scoreboard rankings. The focus at my interview was how to commercialize my research results. I was asked about factors such as potential customers, business models and pricing. Two months later, I was one of 500 scientists sent either to the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University, California; or the University of Cambridge, UK. The goal was to learn from the very best researchers and business practitioners. While at the Walter A. Haas School of Business at Berkeley, I spent time with researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. What surprised me the most was the marriage between business and academic institutions in California. Lecturers shared their experiences of research commercialization, business and start-up firms. This was very different from Poland, where a scientific career does not recognize commercial activities in terms of cooperation between business and academia. In my experience, many Polish scientists see commercialization activities as a roadblock to their academic careers. During the Berkeley training, I heard how PhD students can successfully transition into business. These lectures were delivered by Peter Fiske, who is now director of the Water Energy Resilience Research Institute at Berkeley Lab, and whose career straddles both industry and academia. Fiske focused on transferable skills between academia and business, covering data analysis, resourcefulness, technological awareness, resilience, project management, problem solving, English proficiency and good written communication. Fiske is a strong advocate of the need to market yourself as a scientist. Mark Rittenberg, a business and leadership communications specialist at Haas School of Business, taught us about the power of communication and storytelling. As scientists, we focus mostly on research results. We tend to think that the content we present is enough to sell ourselves. But in business, how you present yourself, self-confidence, an interesting story and non-verbal communication are of at least the same importance. The innovators programme included one-day visits to technology companies in Silicon Valley, and the opportunity to undertake internships at some of them. I visited Google, the software companies Splunk and Autodesk, as well as NASA and biotechnology firm Genentech. These visits helped me to understand that ambitious work and challenging problems are not just the domain of universities. I did a three-week internship at PAX Water Technologies in Richmond, California, where I was one of five Polish scientists who set up an interdisciplinary team to work on reducing household water consumption. This was a long way from our research topics, and a new area for all of us. Willingness to learn new things, self-curiosity, creativeness and being open to unexplored areas helped us to drill down into the problem and to propose a solution. All of these are standard skills for a scientist. The programme helped me to understand that scientists can be effective and successful outside academia, and that the business world is full of challenging problems to work on. But the most important conclusion for me is that the applied aspect of what I do matters the most. The best fit for me seemed to be a transition into business. Between June and September 2013, after completing the innovators programme, I applied for several research and development positions in business. I prepared a long CV that covered my research achievements. No one got back to me. It was an important lesson. As scientists, we have to understand how our skills fit current job-market demands. So I connected with some old university friends who were working in business to discuss their interview experience. I decided to revamp my CV by making the description of my education shorter and focusing on my transferable skills; I included organizational skills, experience of data-analysis techniques, language skills and my structured approach to problem solving. As scientists we focus more on problems and solutions when we describe our work. But a potential business employer is more interested in how you get there. You should focus on the tools and methods you have used, knowledge of foreign languages, and how you organize and report your work. In 2013, I found a job as an analyst at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence at its new offices in Poznań, working with IT systems and insurance data to detect customer fraud. A year later, I discussed my transition with Fiske, who told me: “Now that you are on the other side, don’t lose touch with your friends in academia — seek ways to help them be more relevant to the outside world.” I wanted to give something back and to find my own way to contribute to the academic world. I am now head of product development at Analyx, an international marketing data-analytics company, and also work part-time at Poznań School of Banking as a business practitioner, teaching project management as well as systems analysis and design. I discuss the real business cases I face with my students. I also organize lectures and meetings for students with business experts, chief executives and consultants. Some of these have started long-term academic collaborations, and they provide a great opportunity for students to learn from practitioners and to land internships. I have managed to organize a master’s programme between academia and business. Students have the chance to get involved in hot industry topics supervised by business experts, and to present results and defend their theses at their universities. Teaching based on my personal experience is more satisfying for me. Leaving academia was not a failure. It helped me to explore new opportunities, to better understand my professional expectations and to find the career path that fits me best. This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LZTR1 is a regulator of RAS ubiquitination and signaling
In genetic screens aimed at understanding drug resistance mechanisms in chronic myeloid leukemia cells, inactivation of the cullin 3 adapter protein-encoding leucine zipper-like transcription regulator 1 (LZTR1) gene led to enhanced mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway activity and reduced sensitivity to tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Knockdown of the Drosophila LZTR1 ortholog CG3711 resulted in a Ras-dependent gain-of-function phenotype. Endogenous human LZTR1 associates with the main RAS isoforms. Inactivation of LZTR1 led to decreased ubiquitination and enhanced plasma membrane localization of endogenous KRAS (V-Ki-ras2 Kirsten rat sarcoma viral oncogene homolog). We propose that LZTR1 acts as a conserved regulator of RAS ubiquitination and MAPK pathway activation. Because LZTR1 disease mutations failed to revert loss-of-function phenotypes, our findings provide a molecular rationale for LZTR1 involvement in a variety of inherited and acquired human disorders.