By Shana R. Spindler, PhD
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At an annual meeting of NICHD fellows, science is discussed, laughs are had, and maybe even a thing or two is learned. But this year something truly special happened. A theme emerged that united science with often-overlooked necessities: communication and teamwork.
The face of science is changing. The idea of a lone scientist, running a one-man-band-operation from a secluded lab, is being replaced by visions of highly skilled teams pulling talents from multiple disciplines. Most importantly, science is no longer sequestered to the research lab or to conversations among a narrow set of colleagues. Science is being presented to our policy makers, our teachers, our mothers and fathers, even our children.
Dr. Ann Bonham, Chief Scientific Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, set the stage with her keynote address "Science, Society, and the Social Contract." As she articulated the realities of science, her attitude was cheerful and optimistic, yet her message was firm: the future of scientific progress depends upon our ability to communicate science—not only to each other, but to the general public as well.
"We have the privilege of improving the lives of people through discovery," said Dr. Bonham. With privilege, however, comes responsibility. While 84 percent of the public believes science has a positive effect on society, she explained, only 41 percent of congressional staffers know how NIH funding is used. Dr. Bonham emphasized that it is important to sustain excellence in discoveries, but it is just as important to disseminate that information.
Her solution: we must take into account workforce realities. "We have to come to grips with the fact that graduate students and postdocs are actually workers and trainees," said Dr. Bonham. She encouraged investing in new partnerships and broadening career paths during training. Most importantly, she stressed, it is not necessarily a lack of technical ability that hampers a career, but a lack of clarity in communication with others and an inability to work in teams that can hinder a person's influence in science.
Dr. Constantine Stratakis, NICHD Acting Scientific Director, mirrored Dr. Bonham's sentiments. "It is clear today, in the 21st century, that great science can not be done by a single person," affirmed Dr. Stratakis. He insisted that it is the NIH trainee's responsibility to inform the US public of the importance of science, serve as a mentor in the community, and understand that it is a privilege to discover something new. His final—not so small—request: "I want you to move the world!"
Whether a scientist moves the world as a principal investigator or a policy maker, it is important to consider that there are multiple ways to play a role in science. During the retreat, an informal breakout session allowed fellows to explore a variety of career opportunities, such as tenure-track research at a university, pharmaceutical research, science policy, and grants administration. Commonalities at the tables included the use of networking to find and obtain a position and the use of teamwork to succeed.
Whether a session was about various career paths in science, the latest Ig Nobel Prizes, or projects studying Legionella pneumophila infection or diffusion tensor imaging, this year's retreat maintained an underlying tone of team science and communication.
Some fellows attended the meeting to take a small break from the bench. Some came to eat good food and have fun at the Whistling Swan Pub. Some even came to learn about their colleagues' research. But perhaps in the end, every fellow left with something a little unexpected: a vision of the scientific landscape to come.