Thursday, 29 May 2008

ASMR Medical Research Week ®, June 2-8th 2008

The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) Medical Research Week® begins next week. The week long affair will be celebrated in each state with events including scientific symposiums, out-reach programmes, career development days, celebratory dinners and science in the cinema events aimed at targeting primary, secondary and tertiary students and the general public.

For more info, visit

Second year blues…no more

June 1st 2008 marks the end of the second year of my PhD and the start of the third year. It felt like yesterday when I was wrote the post which marked the end of my first year (see here). Time has flown by so quickly. Anyway, to keep to “old” traditions, I celebrated (or commiserated) with my fellow lab mates and with the help of a famous Swiss patisserie, once again.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Demonstrating dilemmas

I had an interesting experience whilst demonstrating yesterday. One of the students came up to me at the end of the lab class to get his book signed; below is the dialogue which took place between him and myself:

Student: "What's a cute little thing like you doing in a lab like this?"

Me (gob-smacked): "What was that supposed to mean?"

Student: "Just exactly what i said."

Me (turning beet-red): "Errr...demonstrating...and...err....earning money."


Federal budget outcomes for university students and researchers

The government released the 2008-2009 federal budget yesterday. Below are the outcomes for higher education and research.

Education Investment Fund (EIF)
"The Government will invest $5 billion to establish the EIF. The EIF will absorb and extend the Higher Education Endowment Fund, bringing total funding to around $11 billion. The EIF will fund capital expenditure in Australia's higher education institutions" (1).

(a) Higher education
"To help universities upgrade and maintain teaching, research and other student facilities, the Government will provide $500 million by 30 June 2008. The Government will also spend $626 million to reduce the cost of studying maths and science at university and to reduce HECS HELP repayments for science and maths graduates who undertake work in a related field.
The Higher Education Review, due later this year, will shape the next steps in the Education Revolution for universities"

Full fee-paying places have been scrapped and students will only be accepted into university courses based on merit.

(b) Support for research
"To strengthen the link between research and innovation, the Government will boost Australia's research capacity by providing: $326 million over four years to fund four year Future Fellowships valued at up to $140,000 a year for 1,000 of Australia's top mid career researchers. $209 million over four years to double the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards for PhD or Masters by Research students" (1).

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) is a non-profit body representing Australian post-graduate students. CAPA is the only organisation that advocates issues concerning post-graduate students at the federal level. Since the reign of the new federal government at the end of last year, CAPA has attempted to negotiate many issues relevant to post-graduate students. A few of these include:

1. Stipend award rates and duration of awards - In 2008, CAPA predicted that the stipend payed to those holding APA/UPA scholarships would fall under the poverty line by the end of the year. CAPA has advocated for a 30% increase to stipends in addition to the extension of the duration of the awards to match the four year candidature allowed for post-graduate PhDs.
2. Abolishing voluntary student unionism (VSU).
3. Exemption of tax on part-time scholarships.

Unfortunately, the above items were dismissed in this year’s budget.


Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Siamese fruit

I came across this Siamese mango today which I thought I would add to my blog for amusement. I call it mango booty ha ha. Check out this subsection of the Museum of Food Anomalies for other conjoined food. My favourite are the loving carrots on page 2. How sweet are they?

Monday, 12 May 2008

The benefits of imagery

The bulk and most significant part of my PhD examines signalling pathways within the cell. Alot of these pathways are complex and intertwined, and the molecules involved often have more than one name, can be a part of more than one pathway and often have more than one purpose. The reason for this post is to reinforce the benefits of imagery to simplify and retain ideas, theories, notions, concepts, whatever, and in my case, signalling pathways. During my readings today, I used Microsoft PowerPoint to construct one complex pathway which I had struggled with for sometime. In the past when I had read about this pathway, I had just read the relationship of the molecules involved, envisioned an image in my head and then put the paper aside. By the following week, I had forgotten what I had read. The PowerPoint image I created today simplified a concept which I had struggled to retain, and put it into an understandable and recallable format. It has been etched into my mind and I believe I would be able to later recall the relationship of these molecules and their appropriate positions in the pathway. The concept of using images or diagrams to remember detail is not new but often overlooked or forgotten. Try it yourself.

PS. The above image is not the signalling pathway i created today but it does resemble the complexities of cellular signalling i have to deal with on a daily basis.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

SURVEY: Perceptions in health and medical research careers

The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) is a body which broadly represents registered health and medical researchers of Australia and also researchers in numerous affiliated associations. ASMR credits itself by acknowledging that it has a role in public, political and scientific advocacy. In late 2006, the ASMR commissioned a workforce survey which aimed to understand and improve the perceptions of researchers (registered ASMR members) in the health and medical field with an emphasis on job satisfaction, workplace conditions, brain drain/gain and the attitudes towards health and medical research in Australia.

The survey targeted 1258 registered ASMR members however only managed to recruit a total of 379 (30%) respondents. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the cohort size especially when it came to factors such as career progress (eg. student or worker), qualifications (eg. honours, PhD or post-doctoral researcher), work place (eg. university or hospital) and field of research but ensured the reader that the cohort was a close representation of a whole population on demographic variables such as sex and age.

The results of the survey were divided into four sections of which I will briefly outline the main findings:

Question 1: To what extent has each of the following factors had an impact on your career over the past 15 years
The top factors which were considered to create a negative impact on careers in health and medical research included the lack of security in employment, general lack of financial support for research and shortness of funding time frames relative to project development needs. Other options, all of which rated as having a negative impact but not as negative as the above three factors (ie. more positive) included inadequate infrastructure for research, time required to prepare grant applications, lack of managerial support and uncertainty about what funding agencies expect.

Question 2: If you have left, or have considered leaving health and medical research, how important in your decision were the following factors
The factors which were considered important to very important with this question included the shortage of funding in health and medical research, lack of career development opportunities, poor financial rewards as a health and medical researcher, shortage of work opportunities in health and medical research and availability of better employment opportunities elsewhere. The two factors which were not considered as important with this question included needing time off due to family responsibilities and the changed nature of health and medical research.

Question 3: To what extent did the following reasons have an impact on your decision to leave health and medical research in Australia to seek health and medical research employment overseas (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The factors which were considered important with this question included broadening your scientific experience, collaborating with other researchers, researching new techniques, access to equipment & physical infrastructure and greater opportunities to do research. Factors which were considered important but not as important as the above mentioned included better project funding, personal interest in living outside Australia and increased quality of working environment.

Question 4: If you have returned to or are planning to return to Australia after working in health and medical research overseas, indicate your agreement with the following statements in terms of their influence on why you have returned or why you will return to Australia (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The general consensus generated from this question was that in comparison to overseas employment (ie. the country where the respondent had worked or was working), 50% of respondents believed that Australia had fewer career opportunities and fewer university positions. Close to 40% of respondents believed that Australian health and medical researchers were paid less, had lower job security and had less support in comparison to overseas employment.

The results of this survey paints a poor picture of the Australian health and medical research sector but is reflective of workers’ attitudes. The main concerns of Australian health and medical researchers, as seen by this survey, are employment uncertainty and funding security and this is reinforced a number of times throughout this survey. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the study and stated that the issues may be understated because of the survey population. Although this survey only represented a very small proportion of health and medical researchers in Australia, the views and sentiments shared by this cohort, in my opinion, would be accurate if extrapolated to a larger scale. Having been in the medical research field for close to ten years, I have heard similar complaints to the responses this survey has generated and I have even faced similar difficulties myself. Securing funding (which often equates to employment security) is probably the biggest burden for researchers and is becoming increasingly difficult and more competitive as governmental budgets fail to increase proportionally to the number of postgraduate researchers produced by universities, which has increased over the years. Additionally, I believe that the nature of health & medical research has unfortunately created and perpetuated an environment where research is not being thoroughly thought through because everyone is in a mad rush to generate results, publish papers and subsequently secure funding. As a result, a lot of waste is created, money is spent unnecessarily, experiments are left incomplete due to poor design. All these factors could contribute to a loss of funding.
Speaking about a loss of funding, I read a very interesting article today in “The Scientist”, an on-line publication, titled “Losing your lab” (volume 22, issue 5, page 32) which provided examples of people who have had to shut shop and discussed the outcomes they faced and options for those in similar circumstances. In the US, the major governmental funding body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides bridge-funding awards to grant applicants who score well but are unable to secure major grants. This sort of funding is also provided by several US research institutions. This practice allows researchers to continue their post and gives them a second chance at securing funding the following year, and as described by the article, nurtures a scientist and sees them as investments for institutes that are not worth losing. I am not sure whether this practice is prevalent in Australia but it sounds like a great idea.
As to outcomes from this survey, the paper suggests “a review of current policies affecting research careers and health & medical people support in broader terms may be timely if Australia is to retain its reputation for research excellence and leadership”. The paper goes on to say that “the fact that a large proportion of respondents have considered leaving active health & medical research in Australia highlights the need for a coordinated multi-streamed approach to ensure the long-term viability of the sector. Any significant loss of Australia's highly trained health and medical research workforce represents a potential erosion of its intellectual capacity and future preparedness. To maintain Australia's competitive edge, it will be necessary to provide a career path that captures, nurtures and retains talented minds and provides fertile career opportunities” (2).

(2) Kavallaris M, Meachem SJ, Hulett, MD, West CM, Pitt RE, Chesters JJ, Laffan WS, Boreham PR and Khachigian LM (2008). Perceptions in health and medical research careers: the Australian Society for Medical Research Workforce Survey. Medical Journal of Australia. 188 (9). p520-524.
(3) McCook A (2008). Losing your lab. The Scientist. 22(5). p32

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Large Hadron Collider

The large hadron* collider (LHC) is due to begin operation this month in Geneva, Switzerland. Located on the Swiss-French border at the world's largest particle physics laboratory named the European Organization for Nuclear Research (abbreviated to CERN, the out-dated acronym is still used today but initially it stood for European Council for Nuclear Research), the LHC was built in a circular tunnel with a circumference of 27 km and is situated 50-175 m underground. Loosely speaking, the LHC is a particle accelerator or an atom smasher. In layman’s terms, the LHC consists of two beams of particles which travel in opposite directions in a vacuum and are accelerated close to 99.99% of speed of light at high energies. The orbits of these particles are controlled by strong magnetic fields created by 9300 magnets (to be precise) which are cooled to temperatures as low as -271 degrees Celsius. The magnets tightly control the orbits of the particle beams right up to collision which takes place at four places (particle detectors) around the accelerator ring. It is estimated that approximately 600 million collisions will take place every second! The LHC was designed to answer some of the fundamental and unresolved questions in particle physics such as the origin and composition of mass; the composition of dark matter and dark energy; what happened immediately after the big bang; and the existence of other dimensions.

*A hadron is a strongly interacting subatomic particle