the postdoc problem: oversupply

The NeuroSkeptic links to a legislative proposal to require overtime for postdocs:

A change in US labour regulations will render many postdocs eligible for overtime pay — and create an incentive to raise their wages. The law may ultimately mean fewer postdocs. But some say that the policy could spark much-needed changes to a research system that relies heavily on postdocs yet offers them few opportunities for career advancement.

The new rule, finalized on 18 May by the US Department of Labor, will make overtime pay mandatory for many postdoctoral researchers who make less than US$47,476 per year. Overtime, which is paid at 1.5 times the normal hourly wage, kicks in once workers exceed 40 hours on the job in one week.

The problem, as the article itself points out, is that it’s relatively painless for a PI to raise their postdoc salary just enough to meet the minimum required to avoid triggering the overtime requirement. This would mean a raise, but only a few percent, and does nothing to address the broader structural problem facing lack of advancement opportunities for postdocs within the field.

Even if postdocs salaries were raised to 50k across the board – which would have a wonderful impact on distributing postdocs across the country and strengthening science at research institutions nationwide – it would do nothing to alleviate the oversupply of postdocs that is destroying career advancement. Congress can’t really achieve more than incrementalist change like this overtime proposal, but the NIH has far more leverage.

Let’s focus the discussion on fields of bioscience that primarily derive funding from the NIH. The NIH sets its own scale for postdoc pay (fiscal year 2015), for postdoc positions it funds as part of the NRSA fellowship (inherently limited by federal funding for the NIH). These NRSA payscales are then used as a benchmark for universities across the nation to set salary levels for their own postdocs. That level has risen dramatically in the past 15 years, but still falls well short of the NIH’s own pledge of $45k:

NRSA stipends for Year 0 postdocs over time (compiled by the National Postdoc Association)
NRSA stipends for Year 0 postdocs over time (compiled by the National Postdoc Association)

The NIH imposes salary caps on the amount any given indiovidual may be paid out of an awarded grant. There is no reason the NIH can’t set a minimum level, however – and doing so would not require legislation in Congress and the political process. It would simply be an overnight change.

Imagine for example if the NIH immediately mandated that all postdoc salaries funded by R1 grants had to be funded at 150% of the current NRSA level. Likewise, graduate student support could be immediately mandated as 100% tuition plus stipend. The actual amount of funding however would not change – just the allocation of how that (taxpayer) money is spent. (This would have to apply to all new grants effective the next fiscal year, and not affect currently-funded grants).

The immediate effect would be that fewer graduate students and postdocs could be supported. This would have many downstream ripple effects, but the biggest one would be an exodus of highly trained individuals from academia into other fields and industry, and entrepreneurship. This sounds like a bad thing for science, but the bottom line is that science has progressed on exploited labor for far too long. There are other areas of reform that need to follow, including paying institutional overhead out of grants and the adjunct faculty problem. But those are going to require a. substantial legislative solutions for which there isn’t the political will (because it will cost taxpayer money), and b. self-organization towards unions and collective bargaining, for which there isn’t professional will (because it will require the threat of strikes). Bluntly, science achieves what it does by treating its most valuable assets as commodities. It’s time to revalue, and that will require significant effort. The issue of underpaid postdocs and PhD students is one that is relatively easy to solve, and in doing so will provide much-needed impetus towards those other problems.

I think that solving those issues will in turn lead to solving the other great problem science faces, namely the output problem. But that’s a topic for another day.

(meta: I’ve retired my old science blog, Reference Scan, and have imported the content here. Feel free to browse the Reference Scan category for older posts!)

Accelerated Medical Imaging Workshop in Madison WI on June 17th – 18th

The 2nd annual accelerated imaging workshop at UW Madison is next week, and should be a great event. There are scheduled speakers from Mayo Clinic, Northwestern, UIUC, Berkeley, Harvard, the NIH, and GE Healthcare (among others). If you think you might be able to attend, the free registration deadline is Saturday June 12th, otherwise you can register on-site for a nominal fee. Here’s the registration form, which you can fax or email in.

Imaging Workshop - Madison/Freiburg

The International Center for Accelerated Medical Imaging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA and the Dept. of Diagnostic Radiology, Medical Physics, at the University of Freiburg, Germany are co-hosting the 2nd Workshop on Accelerated Medical Imaging ‘Rapid MR Imaging – Beyond the Nyquist Limit’.

Objectives of this workshop are to discuss the current state of the art accelerated imaging concepts and applications, roadblocks to clinical applications and strategies to effectively address these limitations.

  • Fundamentals of the Constrained Reconstruction Rainbow
  • State-of-the-Art Concepts and Applications in MRI and other modalities
  • Rapid Quantitative Imaging
  • Performance Metrics – Connecting Imaging Science with Radiology
  • New Hardware Developments

Invited speakers will present keynote lectures on pertinent topics with further presentations by contributed papers. The workshop in Madison will also be tailored towards students’ education.
Extended poster viewing and discussion sessions are an integral part of the scientific program and will allow discussions about new concepts.

The workshop will take place in Madison, WI at the Health Science Learning Center (HSLC), which is located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus adjacent to the UW Hospital & Clinics.

The workshop announcement in pdf format can be found here.

If you don’t want to download the PDF of the program, I’ve embedded it below the fold. Also check out the official workshop website on the UW Madison website for more details.

Continue reading “Accelerated Medical Imaging Workshop in Madison WI on June 17th – 18th”

Global and local fMRI signals driven by neurons defined optogenetically by type and wiring

Ars Technica has a nice writeup about a paper in Nature which isolates the BOLD signal from a specific type of neuron:

With everything in place, the researchers confirmed that firing an impulse in excitatory neurons produced a signal that matched nicely with the ones observed during regular experiments. Putting the channelrhodopsin into inhibitory neurons produced a small BOLD signal in the area where the light triggered an impulse, but it was surrounded by a halo of depressed activity, consistent with the neurons’ inhibitory role.

But the BOLD signals weren’t limited to the area where the light triggered activity. With a slight delay, signals started showing up in other areas of the brain, with the precise locations changing based on where exactly the activity was triggered. The authors indicate that these additional signals provide an indication of the brain’s wiring—the nerves at the site of the initial activity were simply doing what they normally did, and communicating with other areas of the brain. With enough time, they suggest, their technique could be used to map functional connections throughout the brain.

It’s impressive work that really takes aim at the foundation of fMRI and signal origin rather than most of the empirical neurologic applications that we usually see in the literature. I’m sure there must have been some work at this years’ ISMRM that went in a similar direction…

Here’s the full paper in Nature. Abstract:

Global and local fMRI signals driven by neurons defined optogenetically by type and wiring

Despite a rapidly-growing scientific and clinical brain imaging literature based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) using blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD)1 signals, it remains controversial whether BOLD signals in a particular region can be caused by activation of local excitatory neurons2. This difficult question is central to the interpretation and utility of BOLD, with major significance for fMRI studies in basic research and clinical applications3. Using a novel integrated technology unifying optogenetic4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 control of inputs with high-field fMRI signal readouts, we show here that specific stimulation of local CaMKII?-expressing excitatory neurons, either in the neocortex or thalamus, elicits positive BOLD signals at the stimulus location with classical kinetics. We also show that optogenetic fMRI (ofMRI) allows visualization of the causal effects of specific cell types defined not only by genetic identity and cell body location, but also by axonal projection target. Finally, we show that ofMRI within the living and intact mammalian brain reveals BOLD signals in downstream targets distant from the stimulus, indicating that this approach can be used to map the global effects of controlling a local cell population. In this respect, unlike both conventional fMRI studies based on correlations14 and fMRI with electrical stimulation that will also directly drive afferent and nearby axons, this ofMRI approach provides causal information about the global circuits recruited by defined local neuronal activity patterns. Together these findings provide an empirical foundation for the widely-used fMRI BOLD signal, and the features of ofMRI define a potent tool that may be suitable for functional circuit analysis as well as global phenotyping of dysfunctional circuitry.

Self-Assembled Plasmonic Nanoparticle Clusters

(In addition to MRI and medical physics, it’s worth keeping an open mind and keeping tabs on various other branches of physics and science. To that end, I’ll highlight interesting papers or research that strikes my fancy from time to time.)

Eric Berger aka SciGuy, a science columnist at the Houston Chronicle, points to a new paper in Science that introduces new “metamaterials” which can manipulate light, which are easy to fabricate (in principle). Eric makes the analogy to this being as much a game-changer as lasers were when they were invented almost exactly 50 years ago.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Self-Assembled Plasmonic Nanoparticle Clusters

The self-assembly of colloids is an alternative to top-down processing that enables the fabrication of nanostructures. We show that self-assembled clusters of metal-dielectric spheres are the basis for nanophotonic structures. By tailoring the number and position of spheres in close-packed clusters, plasmon modes exhibiting strong magnetic and Fano-like resonances emerge. The use of identical spheres simplifies cluster assembly and facilitates the fabrication of highly symmetric structures. Dielectric spacers are used to tailor the interparticle spacing in these clusters to be approximately 2 nanometers. These types of chemically synthesized nanoparticle clusters can be generalized to other two- and three-dimensional structures and can serve as building blocks for new metamaterials.

and here’s a link to the full text of the article. As with lasers when they were first introduced, it’s a challenge to the imagination to envision how this might be used or applied. What possible medical imaging applications could this be exploited for? That’s the billion dollar question 🙂

ISMRM 2010 follow up: posters, CME, and video

If you attended the ISMRM meeting and were chased out of the poster session by angry Swedes for trying to take photos of the posters, then know that I’ll be uploading my own shots to Flickr later on. However, ISMRM is asking that everyone send their final PPT/PDF files of their posters as printed to posters10@ismrm.org, so they can post those online as well. Hopefully they will ask for these ahead of the meeting, and encourage people during the meeting to do so, next year. I suspect compliance will still be pretty low unless they market this more. Of course, they already have the e-posters, this is just regarding the traditional posters.

Also, TODAY is the last day for submitting your CME online at: https://www.directsurv.net/ismrm.asp.

Finally, they expect to have video of the oral sessions uploaded to the official site (http://www.ismrm.org/10) within a month. So be patient! An incredible resource, well worth waiting for.

MRI of acute Wiiitis

Magnetic resonance imaging of acute “wiiitis” of the upper extremity.

We present the first reported case of acute “wiiitis”, documented clinically and by imaging, of the upper extremity, caused by prolonged participation in a physically interactive virtual video-game. Unenhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) demonstrated marked T2-weighted signal abnormality within several muscles of the shoulder and upper arm, without evidence of macroscopic partial- or full-thickness tearing of the muscle or of intramuscular hematoma.

Nett MP, Collins MS, Sperling JW. Skeletal Radiol. 2008 May;37(5):481-3. PMID 18259743.

It was really just a matter of time… the floodgates are now open. I expect that the musculoskeletal specialists are eagerly anticipating the release of the Wii Fit