April 2012

Tribute to midlevel scientists

Let’s acknowledge and reward the burgeoning class of highly skilled, underpaid and highly stressed workhorses in our nation’s research laboratories

Jamie Catanese

They are not often the first or last authors on publications. They are not usually the ones traveling to meetings to present their work. They do not often get to interact with the public or the press. Their jobs are tenuous, and their titles rarely reflect their talent, intellect or hard work. In the U.S., they are known variously as instructors, nontenure-track faculty, postdoctoral fellows, research faculty, senior technicians or staff scientists.

They were always a part of laboratory groups, but as the economy has stumbled and the job market has tightened, fewer postdoctoral fellows have landed the previously typical positions befitting their training. As a consequence, increasing numbers of highly skilled workers have become stuck in their training laboratories. The reasons people get stuck often include life events that can strike anyone at any time: illness, divorce, natural disaster, or long-term or challenging projects that failed to yield sufficient numbers of publications.

Sometimes it’s a matter of choice. Trainees observe the stress on the boss, particularly the lack of time, and they choose not to progress to that next step — not if that step means less time with family and loved ones, neglecting outside interests that are meaningful to them or giving up a long-term project with potential high impact.

In my group, Jamie Catanese chose to stay. He wants nothing to do with my “crazy hours, stress or constant grant-writing.” Now a senior staff scientist, Jamie trains graduate students and postdoctoral fellows while carrying out several of his own long-term research projects. One of these projects, new potential therapies for lung cancer, is personal for Jamie: His mother died from the disease.

While jobs have become harder to find, the demand on the people in those jobs has increased. Unable to offer him a raise last year because of a wage freeze, I asked Jamie what I could do to let him know how much I appreciate him. I expected to hear something like “an office,” “a closer parking spot” or “a better title.” His reply illustrates why he, and those like him, are so valuable to research laboratories and institutions: “I would like to give a lecture in one of your classes. I love teaching.”

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Although they were not likely hired purposefully to occupy this niche, without people like Jamie in the middle ranks, less work would be done, fewer grants would be written, trainees would be less well trained and more laboratories would be closing. The middle ranks bring their knowledge and expertise. They bridge the gaps between the more transient laboratory members and the boss, and they bring the freedom to work on long-term goals, those that might not lead to immediate or as frequent publication but that eventually might have greater impact.

Especially in today’s find-the-next superstar job searches that tend to select those few people who have not yet been struck by normal life events, a lot of great talent is accumulating in the middle ranks of institutions. Both those who have become stuck and those who have purposefully chosen not to move on bring much good to our nation’s laboratories and institutions.

Why not consider today what these scientists bring to your group, department or institution and then ask them what you can do to help make them feel valued? Being aware of the advantages and rewarding their dedication and skill just makes sense.

essay_authorLynn Zechiedrich (elz@bcm.edu) is a professor in the departments of molecular virology and microbiology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and pharmacology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

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