WASHINGTON—In town this week to receive their awards, the winners of the most prestigious U.S. government prize for young scientists had some advice for anyone hoping to follow in their footsteps: Publish early and often, be prepared to "do it all yourself," and hope for a bit of luck.
The new batch of recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) were honored Monday at a White House ceremony. However, the 102 honorees had to share their moment in the spotlight with the political crisis in Ukraine: A phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin caused President Barack Obama to run 45 minutes late, for which he apologized.
Fortunately, the PECASE scientists are accustomed to waiting. The new winners are actually the class of 2012, but the selection process wasn’t completed until December 2013 because of delays caused by the budget-cutting sequestration that went into effect in March 2013, and the 16-day government shutdown last October.
PECASE is an additional feather in the cap of the winners, who have already been singled out by a dozen federal agencies for an early-career award. At the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, roughly 4% of the 525 recipients of its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program—chosen from a pool of 2600 applicants—were nominated for the PECASE award. And there’s a tangible payoff, too: For Lane Martin, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) who has won both an NSF CAREER award and the U.S. Army’s Young Investigator Program Award, the PECASE award comes with a 5-year, $1 million grant from the Army’s Office of Scientific Research.
At a media event the day after the White House ceremony, organized by a university research advocacy group called The Science Coalition, PECASE researchers acknowledged that they "have hit the jackpot" by winning the prestigious award and offered some words of advice to colleagues not as far along in their academic careers.
"Luck goes first," said Andrew Goodman, an assistant professor of microbial pathogenesis at the Yale School of Medicine and a recipient of the National Institute of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. "It also helps if there’s a match between your interests and what the department is looking for."
UIUC's Martin says that "a clear vision of what you want to be as a scientist" is essential, along with "the energy to execute it." He said a young faculty member also needs to be prepared "to be your own advocate for every aspect of the operation."
Jonathan Pillow, an assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas, Austin, said that "luck" includes "being at the right place at the right time" and benefiting from "whoever happens to be on the selection panel" when you go in for an interview. A good mentor is valuable, he advised, and a young faculty member also must "communicate the excitement you feel about your work to your own students."
Samantha Hansen, an assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa who works in Antarctica, agreed that "luck has something to do with it. But we all work our tails off, too." She said winning an NSF postdoctoral fellowship "showed that I can bring in money, and I was told that was a big advantage for me" as a job applicant.
For Ana Maria Rey, a theoretical atomic physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a fellow at JILA, a research institute based at the university, her PECASE award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology must share top billing with a 2013 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. In addition to ticking off the importance of strong publication record, good advisers, and the right opportunities, she said, it doesn’t hurt to be a woman in her field.
"As a reviewer on NSF panels, I’ve noticed that if there are four equally strong proposals, and one is from a woman, there will be a push to support the woman," Rey said. "That’s certainly the case in physics, and I’m seeing the same thing in recruiting graduate students."
Despite the current cutthroat competition for grants, all of the PECASE winners said that they believe the outlook for federal support for basic research is bright. Asked to rate the prospects for adequate federal funding in 20 years’ time on a scale of one to 10, most chose 10.
At the same time, several said the current situation rates only a five. And not even PECASE winners are immune from a few bumps and scrapes in funding. Martin confesses that he’s still waiting for the first tranche of PECASE funding from the Army. In the meantime, he’s been able to support students through a combination of bridge funding from his university and various other sources.
Top Image: CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza