Life as a young lab head

Earlier this year, the Endocrine Society and the Endocrine Society of Australia published a paper titled ‘Career advancement: Meeting the challenges confronting the next generation of endocrinologists and endocrine scientists‘. Endocrinologists are facing challenges in reduced funding, competing responsibilities and gender issues. Giving us the personal side of the story, Australian prostate cancer researcher Luke Selth tells us about the ups and downs of life as a young lab head…


“As I sit down to write this, there is a foul odour permeating my cancer research lab. I know what you’re thinking: one of the PhD students has left a Bunsen burner on and I’m on butane high. I wish it was so simple.

No, the stench is a heady mixture of stress and worry. I am expecting the outcomes of two National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Project Grant applications this week. We also have two research papers currently under review at a prominent journal in the field of cancer biology (seriously, how can it take 62 days to review a paper?).

It feels as though the next week could literally make or break my career. Is this an exaggeration? Well, no, actually. Let me break it down for you…

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The grant applications

My lab’s research is focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying prostate cancer progression, and developing new therapeutic strategies for this important disease. Both of my Project Grant applications are in this field and, realistically, there’s every chance neither will be funded.

I’d like to stress that this isn’t because they are bad applications. ‘You’re biased’, I hear you muttering, and I can’t argue with that – of course everyone thinks their own research is the most novel and exciting. However, I have evidence to back this notion up: both have made it through the dreaded ‘Not for further consideration’ cut, which means they were ranked in the top 50% of applications.

So we are through the first hurdle. However, given that last year’s success rate was 13.7%, this means that both grants still only have around a 1 in 4 chance of being funded. Of course, that’s if the success rate doesn’t decrease even further this year – there’s every indication that it will. When I started writing NHRMC grant applications 5 years ago, 22.9% of applications were being funded. This worrying trend, largely due to the lack of real increase in the overall NHMRC budget, has caused a lot of scientists to change professions or leave the country – a “brain drain” that will be difficult to recover from.

The low success rate means the outcomes often feel like a bit of a lottery. All of the applications still in the hunt are strong; it’s extremely difficult for a review panel to choose the best. In a perfect world (or, more accurately, a perfect Australian economy), most of them would be funded. But this isn’t a perfect world, and so some randomness ensues. This process of assessing applications in this type of funding scheme has been studied: Fang and colleagues provided evidence that the peer review process used by the National Institute of Health (USA) does not necessarily fund the best science – and that using a lottery-style system to awards grants would actually yield equivalent, if not better, research outcomes.

In short, a bit of bad luck could see both of my applications – which collectively took around 2 months of full-time work to prepare – down the drain.

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The papers

The old mantra of “publish or perish” is stronger than ever in Australian science. Consistently publishing in high quality journals is required for grant success, which in turn is required to keep consistently publishing in high quality journals; it’s a feedback loop that sadly consumes much of my attention.

The two papers that are currently under review are both strong bodies of work. But, again, there’s every chance they will be rejected – the current acceptance rate at the journal I have submitted to is around 20-25%.

The possible outcomes

OK, so what happens if my grant applications and research papers are both tossed out like old agar plates? Well, I will have just enough funding to keep my small research group going next year, but virtually nothing for the following year (not even my salary). The stench of worry in my lab will become even more pungent. I’m a passionate guy, and in such a situation I’d like to allow myself the release of smashing a glass beaker or two – but I couldn’t afford the cost of replacements…

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Alternatively, there is the possibility that I win the lottery. Sure, there’s been a lot of work done by my group, but in the end I truly believe there is a significant amount of luck involved. If the papers are accepted and grants are funded, suddenly the lab’s future and finances will look flush again. There will be no need to let anyone go, and I can cancel that online barista course I signed up for!

This roller-coaster we call a science career

Of course I’ve simplified things. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities between total failure and total success. But what I’m hoping to convey is the reality of life for a young lab head trying to make his or her way in the world of biomedical research. This job is a bloody roller-coaster, and it seems perverse that I spend up to half of my time applying for money so that I can simply do my job.

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I’m often asked by my close friends and family why I stick with it. One response is that I’m not sure any café would want a washed-up scientist as their barista! Seriously though, I love my job for many reasons, the most important being that I have a scientific curiosity that can probably only be sated by this type of research and a vision to improve outcomes for cancer patients. Fortunately, the satisfaction of discovery, coupled with a real chance to improve the health of our society, far outweigh my grant- and paper-related pessimism.

So, even if the grants and papers don’t come through this week, I’m going to persist – and I have many inspirational colleagues and mentors who do the same, year in and year out.

References:

  1. Fang FC, Bowen A, & Casadevall A (2016) NIH peer review percentile scores are poorly predictive of grant productivity. Elife 5.

How to get into peer review and why

Peer Review Week 2016 is taking place from September 19-26. The global event celebrates the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The central message is that good peer review is critical to scholarly communications.

This year, the theme is ‘Recognition for Review’, so we have asked some of our members to tell us about how they first got involved in peer review, why it’s important to them, and why is it essential for the continuation of high-quality science and clinical research.

 

Li Chan is a clinical scientist in paediatric endocrinology at Queen Mary’s University London. She discusses why peer review is important to her – and you.

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Remember that peer review isn’t just about the journals and funding bodies; it’s also important to the author and the reviewer. The author receives constructive feedback to ensure that their work is presented in the best way and backed up by necessary experimental data. Reading other reviewers’ comments and alternative views on a given set of data may allow you to consider your work from another point of view – and that could make the difference between published and unpublished.

On the other hand, the reviewer gains career development and insight. The reviews you write for others will only aid your own future submissions. Over the years I have learnt an immense amount from both writing reviews and receiving them – and I believe this understanding of both sides of the process is necessary for it to work really effectively.

But how did I get into peer review? During my PhD years, my supervisor would ask me if I wanted to review a submission. I always said yes – working with my supervisor at the start was a useful way of learning the process as I could discuss my final report with someone more experienced. Gradually, I developed my own style and expertise.

If you are a young researcher wanting to get into peer review, I would recommend you speak to senior members of staff. They will only view your enthusiasm with positivity. And don’t think for a moment you’re underqualified; science is such a broad subject – we need reviewers with expertise in all areas, and that includes yours!

 

Karen Chapman is the Society General Secretary, as well as a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Endocrinology and Journal of Molecular Endocrinology. She discusses the importance of peer review in career development.

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Publications are the main criterion we are judged on – and I believe the quality of our outputs is dependent upon a thorough review process. With this in mind, I believe we all must do our part to get involved in peer review. We depend on others to review our own papers, and so we all need to reciprocate.

After over 30 years as a research scientist (and not far off 30 years as an Editorial Board member of one sort or another), I have plenty of experience of peer review – from both sides. Yes, it is tough to read the rejection letters and to have your research critically appraised by someone whose identity you can only guess at, but most of the time the reviewers have a fair point, and often their comments substantially improve a manuscript.

Many of us (me included) get into peer review by appraising a manuscript passed to us by a co-worker or lab head. My first one took me forever. I think I read all the references! However, I soon learned to speed up, and concentrate on the data and how they are interpreted. This process also taught me what to look for in my own research and how to evaluate my data through a reviewer’s eyes. I believe reviews work best when a writer suggests a mechanistic experiment that can really nail the conclusions presented. It does happen; and this could be the sign of a great reviewer!

You stand to gain an awful lot from getting involved with peer review, but if you still aren’t convinced, remember that reviewing is also beneficial for keeping up with what is new. It’s a great way to stay ahead of the game!

 

We’ll be on Twitter all week showing our support for the campaign using the official hashtag #RecognizeReview  – and we’d love to hear your experiences of peer review! Also, check out some of our online talks for even more advice on getting into the peer review game:

Wayne Tilley – The Peer Review Process
Dr Josef Koehrle – Responding to reviewers comments

You can also sign up for free webinars and talks through the Peer Review Week 2016 official website.