December 2009

Letters for Wimps? What Wimps

Dear Greg,

I would like to thank you for the thoughtful editorial you wrote for the September Issue of ASBMB Today. The sentiments you express regarding our generation, our students and our junior faculty are exact.

There is one thing you allude to but do not further pursue: “I’ve taught college freshmen for almost 30 years…”

At Concordia University, McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia…wherever I turn, there is a disdain for teaching undergraduates. Young colleagues are hired and very quickly learn that if they are to be successful, they had better learn to sit at their computers and write grant applications, fill out the 1 million forms demanded by the university administration and do as little teaching as possible. Teaching counts for zero here. If you are a disaster at it, it will weigh against you, but the idea that you might actually enjoy trying to help undergraduates learn is viewed as a waste of good research time.

In many ways, my junior colleagues have a rough and unsatisfying time. They literally spend most of their time writing grant applications and filling out forms. They talk about money and the new equipment it will buy. They rarely go into the lab after their first year. They do not cry over an experiment that gave the “wrong” results, and they do not cry when the data finally begin to make sense.

Worst of all, their older colleagues almost never ask them what is good in their labs, in their classes and in their lives. It’s our generation that has created this situation, and I’ve yet to figure out how to right the wrong.

Best regards,

Jack Kornblatt

Concordia University





Hi Greg,

I enjoyed your article in the September issue of ASBMB Today.

You touched on a number of themes and pet peeves that have bothered me over the years (e.g., whining about what lousy jobs we have when we actually have great jobs; demanding that young people publish in Nature and Cell when most of their senior colleagues don’t).

I have feared for some time that we are scaring off a generation of young scientists who just can’t see the logic of living a monastic life until they’re nearly 40 years old, only to be told they didn’t make tenure so they are out of a job. I have fi rsthand experience with this. My son got his Ph.D. in chemical biology from the University of California, San Francisco, in 2005 and then did a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the course of his postdoc, he decided he’d had enough of academics. However, he still loved science and wanted to make a more global contribution. So, he resigned from his postdoc this past May and started a Web site designed to help young people become better scientists.

The site ( provides user-generated videos to share key features of experimental techniques that make it easier to do science. It also has multiple career features to help students and postdocs navigate the political and fi nancial waters in which they fi nd themselves. He recently launched the site, and I think he’s got a good idea that is packaged with humor and practicality. Hopefully, this will provide him with an opportunity to have an impact on young people that he won’t be having through the traditional laboratory/classroom route. In fact, part of the reason he started this site was that he saw so many of his colleagues turning off to careers in science.

When I read your article, I thought about Alan and thought you might enjoy taking a look at the site. I’ll declare my conflict-of-interest as his major (sole) investor!

Anyway, thanks for writing the article. It struck a chord.

Best regards,

Lawrence J. Marnett

Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology

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