Required Reading for Young Scientists Trying to Make it in the World

The academic year is closely approaching. For some of us, that means a return to filling young minds with new ideas.. Those who are still in the early years of graduate school must return to classes of their own. For the older students, it is a mere marking of time. Regardless of where you are in your journey, an outside perspective may be just what you need to make the most of this year.

Here, I provide a selection of books that have been personally recommended by professors at Rutgers and my peers in other programs or careers, and my own reading. These books are particularly useful for those interested in Science Communication, Science Writing, or Policy. We frequently discuss transferrable skills here on the blog, and writing is a big one! All of these authors serve as proof of that.


Let’s just get through grad school first…

First up: the swath of advice books at your reach. I have chosen books both old and new, as truly good advice can be timeless. The oldest one is from 1897 and is written by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. For the non-neuroscientists in the room, Ramon y Cajal is the father of modern neuroscience. Learning from Cajal is something we can all do with his book, Advice for a Young Investigator; its original title in Spanish is, Reglas y Consejos sobre Investigación Cientifica: Los tónicos de la voluntad, which translates into: Rules and Advice About Scientific Research: The Shades of Motivation. Luckily for us, these shades of motivation are not nebulous and Cajal was quite funny when detailing personality types of scientists. Here is an excerpt in which he discusses one of his “Diseases of the Will,” the bibliophile and polyglot:

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory. Naturally, our bookworm lives in and for his library, which is monumental and overflowing.

Eccentric personality quirks is something that one of our own bloggers, Paulina Krzyszczyk, picks up on in her recent post about common lab pet peeves. Cajal also details classic bias traps and how to do the work of science.

In a similar vein, and even title, Dr. Peter Medawar is known as the father of tissue transplantation. He completed ground-breaking research on immune tolerance that earned him a Nobel prize in 1960. In addition to his academic legacy, Medawar left behind a tome of advice aptly called, Advice to a Young Scientist. This book is known for insightful advice on manuscript writing.

While being productive and doing the work of science is important and fairly straight-forward, sometimes the ‘how” of it is more of a mystery. Dr. William I.B. Beveridge provides us with, The Art of Scientific Investigation, and gives us insight into the thought patterns of scientists. Though guided by the all-powerful hand of the Scientific Method, scientists rely on a fair amount of “educated” intuition to get by. Written in 1949, this book discusses the mental strategies that scientists actually use to make discoveries. Despite its age, this book comes widely recommended to grad students.

As good as some of these great older books are, the scientific landscape has changed drastically and will likely continue changing. For example, current projections suggest that less than 10% of all biology PhDs will land themselves in a tenure-track position. Universities are encouraged to help their students explore their options. There are, in fact, a number of excellent articles on this blog that address modern challenges such as developing your mentor-mentee relationship. Beyond our blog though, we can find some advice in: A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science, By Peter J. Feibelman. While this book seems to be geared a bit more to those of us who are interested in academic careers, it admits the pitfalls of academia and openly discusses how to obtain a research career in industry or government. The book details how to make the most of your training. Still, while we can work ad nauseum on being our best scientists, a good break and ability to laugh at ourselves may be the best approach to success. For that, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to go to Grad School by Adam Ruben, comes highly recommended. Dr. Ruben receive his PhD from John Hopkins, where he also kindled an interest in stand-up comedy. This book is the marriage of those two experiences. Dr. Ruben also writes a column for Science Careers called Experimental Error that is worth a read.

I would be remiss if I did not recommend Dr. Kathy Barker’s series of “Laboratory Navigators.” For those of us in grad school or just starting in science, At the Bench is an excellent resource. Meanwhile, for those Post-Docs who are on the road to starting their own labs, the sister book, At the Helm, comes highly recommended. These books are full of practical and modern advice for scientists. When I say practical, I mean it; Dr. Barker discusses everything from lab meetings, to dress codes, to planning building renovations for new equipment.

Communicating Science

Communicating science is HARD. This is a paradox, as one would think that more knowledge means more things to talk about. Yet, the more we learn in our programs, the more caveats we become aware of and the harder it is to make hard-and-fast statements about our findings and what they mean for the field. Personally, I have never seen a neuroscientific concept conveyed so elegantly as when Eddie Redmayne was discussing ALS while promotingThe Theory of Everything, in which he plays renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Actors are also professional communications experts and they seem to have the upper hand in knowing how to convince others of current research! That is why I am recommending Alan Alda’s book in communication, If I Understood What You Were Saying, Would I Have This Look On My Face? Alan Alda has spearheaded a movement to improve scientists’ abilities to communicate with the masses through improv classes as well as through a course at Stony Brook. This advice seems to focus mostly on oral communication.

Of course, clarity in written communication is needed in our lives as well, as we must write grants and manuscripts. The Art of Scientific Storytelling: Transform Your Research Manuscript using a Step-by-Step Formula By Dr. Rafael Luna, is a practical guide for scientists at any stage. Dr. Luna recently came to Rutgers to discuss his formulaic approach to communicating science. I distinctly recall his entertaining and useful advice in constructing the perfect title, as well as his tip of making characters and a story line out of molecular concepts! If getting published is your aim, as it very much should be during this period of your life, Dr. Luna’s advice will help get you there.

What can I do with all this knowledge?

What do star athletes and the Harvard Medical School post-doc director have in common? Both recommend, Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create a Powerful Purpose for Their Lives by Isaiah Hankel. This is a good book for those of us who are just beginning to question what kind of career we want to build with the full set of knowledge we have/will have obtained in our PhDs. Identifying your goals is key to building your future, and don’t forget that iJOBs can help get you there!
A real-world example of someone who has exceptionally clear goals is Elon Musk. In a recent book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance biographically chronicles Musk’s rise to prominence in the business world. Parallels between Musk and most of us (especially if you are reading this blog) are purely metaphorical. Musk famously began a PhD in Applied Physics and Material Science, but left after two days. He states that, “I wasn’t sure success was one of the possible outcomes.” Certainly, this is a thought that many of us can relate to. Of course, having a PhD AND a strong entrepreneurial spirit is indeed something to be envied. Musk’s experiences show us how to exercise the latter part of that equation. For those of us interested in the business of science or in starting a biotech, taking a page out of this modern powerhouse’s life is a good place to start.

I hope that these selections will lead you to the path of success that you want in your life, or at least in a position to identify exactly what that is. Please leave your comments with books you loved, would avoid, or would further recommend!

Wanna GLP with me?

This piece was written after attending an iJOBS workshop entitled: An Introduction to Good Laboratory Practices presented by Melissa Elliott from Envigo on May 8th, 2017 in Piscataway, NJ.

Good laboratory practices (GLPs) are a series of regulations which standardize the quality of research used in clinical trials, or food development. Before human consumption, or treatment, there are several stages of research: exploratory, preclinical development, clinical trial, and manufacturing. The latter three stages are all federally regulated. From an academic viewpoint, it seems like an industry built on bureaucracy, not relevant to anything I deal with on a daily basis.

Yet, Melissa Elliott, head of Quality Assurance at Envigo , made it clear during her recent iJOBS workshop that the downstream consequences of GLPs, like patient safety, are dire and that GLP comes down to ethics. We were first shown one part of a British docu-series that detailed the horrors of Industrial Bio-Test (IBT) and the lack of GLPs. I won’t go too much into the scandal, as I would hate to deprive you of salacious internet searching, however, this video highlighted the necessity of laboratory regulation. It is a story we see time and time again: a scientist turns out to be human (to err is human…) —> the public loses trust (…to forgive, divine!) in an entire industry. And, findings that have been tested and proven through more than one method are questioned; in short, both sides suffer. This story is an exaggeration on both ends. The kind of malfeasance that occurred at IBT was not an error, but rather intentional deception. As one of the top contract research organizations (CROs), IBT was responsible for over one third of all products that came to market (Think: Roundup and aspartame.).

CROs are a growing industry, and if you work at a lab, you will likely do business with at least one of these in your career. In fact, you may have already if you order animals for experiments. Jackson Laboratories  and Charles River  are examples of CROs that provide rodents, both standard and transgenic strains, to many labs here at Rutgers. Envigo is another CRO to which many labs outsource pharmaceutical testing.

The workshop revealed that we as academics could be implementing GLPs upstream of any market-based product. Sometimes bad science is intentional and sometimes it is just an error. Yet, if following GLPs, we can at least avoid the need for situations that require the public’s forgiveness. Here are some of the highlights of the GLP workshop:

  • Keep your data! Most federal regulatory agencies require that data be kept at least 5 years after study completion. However, CROs like Envigo sometimes keep theirs indefinitely in an archive.
  • Speaking of data…raw is always better. But, make sure someone in the next decade will be able to read it. Scratched CDs and bent floppy disks are the stuff of nightmares.
  • Verify the integrity of your controls. If you are testing a drug, how sure are you that your control mouse wasn’t given a substance that your test mouse was? If it’s, “Because I remember!”, it’s not good enough.
  • Environmental conditions matter. A fire in an unconnected department will be noted in study notes. Humidity and temperature can lead to unwanted outliers.
  • Homogeneity of samples. Is that drug you are feeding your animal *actually* mixed into every bite he is taking?
  • Identification, Concentration, Expiration Date, and Storage Conditions. A great acronym for your reagent reporting! (Add Batch #)
  • Healthy and happy animals lead to clean results. Period.


As a basic scientist, it may be difficult to wrap your head around things like federal regulations that seem to have no impact on your exploratory research. However, one of the quotes from Ms. Elliott that I think hits home, “the data should speak for itself”. Something as simple as keeping a detailed lab notebook can ensure that your lab’s research and findings will outlive you. In academia, this is a choice (for now), but at CROs it is a mandate. The good news is that good science looks good wherever you go. Though you may not know where that next place will be, proper training will follow you just as much as sloppy technique, and will certainly take you further. While this workshop gave us a coveted look at how a CRO does quality assurance, the skills it taught us are translatable to all aspects of a scientific career.



Dear Reviewer: Do you understand me now?

I am going to go bold here and state for the record that writing a grant is the single most important undertaking you should devote yourself to during graduate study. Sure, developing and evaluating a testable hypothesis is what consumes most of your waking (and sometimes sleeping- gosh darn it!) hours. And even if you know from the get-go that academia just isn’t your thing, grant-writing is one of the most transferrable skills within science. Your grant is often the first place where you assemble your fledging preliminary data into a story. This process itself can give you important perspective on your work, as well as how science works overall by literally writing out your scientific method. All of this and more was recently made clear by Dr. Rick McGee , the mastermind behind the recent grant writing workshop I attended. Dr. McGee currently works as the Associate Dean for Faculty Recruitment and Professional Development at Northwestern University. He has devoted his life to understanding the development of young scientists, and presented some of his work on streamlining the grant-writing process at the workshop.

Probably the most poignant line from Dr. McGee’s talk was, “Writing proposals is not time away from science.” This was interesting because in my experience we talk about grant-writing as a period “away” from experimentation. In truth, a career in science integrates experimentation, grant-writing, publishing, and teaching. Yet, while taking time for your grant is not taking time away from your research, per-se, getting through said grant is nonetheless time-consuming. This was a key point of the presentation: manage your time so your grant becomes part of your job. Starting early can make this a seamless integration. I would recommend starting to compile preliminary data and outlining your aims six months from your target due date (with four of those months devoted to specific aims- as we will see later-on). This will give you enough time to get your ideas on paper, see what is missing in your story, perform one or two critical experiments, and finalize, finalize, finalize.

In your early start on grant-writing, Dr. McGee emphasizes focus on crafting the best specific aims you can. Many researchers approach the grant-writing process differently; they may for example, spend the most time on an elegant research strategy. Dr. McGee is of the camp that the research strategy will flow like a waterfall from the perfect pool of your specific aims. Since the impact score tracks very strongly with the approach score, refining an approach into a single page is the primary goal. Dr. McGee’s recommendation is to refine your aims through four months of rigorous group-editing. It is not a wild premise, as those aims will be the first thing your reviewers read. They will either turn the reviewer for or against you while they read the rest of your grant- and very little can be done to change a first impression (See, Figure 1: The Ideal Grant Review). Putting it another way, Dr. McGee sees your specific aims as THE chance to prove to reviewers that you are a legitimate member of the NIH-funded research community and that you belong.

It can take Dr. McGee up to four months to develop specific aims. Indeed, four months seems adequate when you learn that his grants go through a collaboration-heavy peer-editing process. During Dr. McGee’s workshops, students talk about the space between two sentences. That is, they think about what is missing in that space, and what you need to make the jump from what is currently accepted in the field and what you are proposing, for example. He uses recorders during these editing sessions to go back and understand what effect reading a sentence has on an audience, improving communication and clarity of thought.

For me, the length of time and collaborative approach required for a McGee-approved grant was less of a revelation. I learned early on in my college English classes that writing is a skill that can be learned and taught. Indeed, my best writing has always been born out of peer-editing projects. For Dr. McGee, it is important to recreate the type of reviewers you will likely get: the expert (a rarity, blessedly), the sophisticated non-expert, the skilled scientist who knows nothing, the technical expert, the non-expert that is still a scientist. All of these kinds of people can be found at a place like Rutgers; just look to your peers in and outside your department.

Picture1_postFigure 1: The Ideal Grant Review is an exercise in communication. Your goal is to get the reviewer to both understand and care about your proposed project; and likewise the grant reviewer starts out positive and hates to be confused by unclear thinking.

The group-editing process, while clearly effective, was a heated point of debate during the workshop: how can you get that kind of insight if no such group exists? A smattering of current resources available was suggested by the crowd, but they seemed not to satisfy the needs of our community. For example, one group that offered help with grants had plenty of non-experts, but no focused feedback. Though we may not have the luxury of accessing a group like this, in the end, it may be more important to the Rutgers community to be as available to your peers as you can be. For example, you can volunteer to read through a friend’s grant and offer genuine feedback; that is the start of precisely the kind of work that Dr. McGee does. Remember: the expert reviewer is a rarity. If you can get your friend in electro-physiology to understand your behavioral experiments, you have mastered Dr. McGee’s brand of interdisciplinary communication.

Having justified the impact of the specific aims, Dr. McGee wrapped up by giving us a “how to” based on his work with graduate students as well as professors. It turns out that for all the diversity of thinking in our various research fields, the grants we submit mimic each other. Essentially, after going through many specific aims, both funded and unfunded, Dr. McGee collaborated with a non-scientist communications expert, who found specific aims not-so-thrilling, but incredibly easy to understand. They found that the specific aims followed a formula. This is so much the case that Dr. McGee and his team have issued a sentence-by-sentence breakdown of the specific aims . Judging from the crowd, the formulaic approach to grant-writing was probably the most controversial part of the talk (Who knew grant-writing workshops could be so riveting?!).

Overall, I thought this workshop boiled down what it meant to compose and be one with the grant-writing process. It also turned grant-writing from a thing that you are either good, or not good, at into a skill that can and will be refined. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree!

The resources featured in the talk are available online, as part of Northwestern’s CLIMB resources, can be accessed through the Rutgers ResearchPortal.