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Is the Postdocalypse an Opportunity in Disguise?

A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.(1)

While the life of the humble biomedical postdoc was never a walk in the park, It used to be that the long hours toiling away for little pay or recognition would eventually lead to a decent chance that one day they’d be able to launch their own lab and do the science that they really wanted to do. Maybe, if they were really lucky, become a tenured Professor.

Sadly, this reality is fading away. And what used to be seen as a respite after finishing a PhD in order to learn a new skill, is now turning into a decade long holding pattern for many brilliant young minds. The reason for this is pretty straightforward, public funding for research grants have stagnated, with the NIH budget, the primary funder of Biomedical research, not even keeping up with inflation over the past decade.

staypuft_ghostbusters

As for the grants that do get disbursed, those are going to an older and older crowd. With the average age of an R01 grant increasing (2). Your chances of becoming a Principal Investigator before you’re 40 are pretty dismal. Even more so if your work is too far outside the bounds of what’s currently popular.

age-of-R01-investigators-1024x795

 

I’d also argue that the increase in the percentage of money Universities are spending on Administration vs Research or Teaching (see figure below from this study) is also cutting into critical science funding, which you can read about here.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-2.08.59-PM

 

Whatever the cause, the sad result of this situation, which some people have aptly named #postdocalypse, is that a depressing percentage of highly skilled researchers are being forced to take non-research related positions. This is not just a soul crushing thing for the researchers who have spent almost a decade developing their craft, forgoing great financial reward and taking on massive student debt all for the ability to contribute to pushing scientific boundaries. It’s bad for us as a society, without continuing scientific progress.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the world….

ghostbusters_crossingstreams

 

I’m going to put forth a crazy hypothesis, that Bio/Med PostDocs are perfectly suited to become Biotech Entrepreneurs. Now you may be thinking, “Woah now Jacob! Companies focus on Applied Research, not Basic Research!”….. and you’d be right. Except at the end of the day, Science is Science. And technological progress pushes scientific progress which pushes technological progress. It’s one awesome positive feedback loop. And in today’s funding environment, if your lab happens to be a profit generating company, you have a lot more freedom over what you research than most NSF/NIH funded labs.  But that’s a discussion for another day. 

For now, lets look at 4 Reasons Why Todays PostDocs are Tomorrow’s CEOs.  At the minimum, the average post doc has:

  • Grant writing experience: If you can write a successful NIH/NSF grant, a business plan is a piece of cake.
  • Solved a worthwhile problem: Compared to most app startups that are solving problems that can barely be called a problem.
  • Built a network: Research is not a solitary endeavor. To be successful, you had to have worked with your fellow colleagues, your PI, navigated the bureaucracies of your institution, all while trying really hard not to infect, mutate, blow up themselves accidentally.
  • Ability to endure long hours and minimal pay for future earnings all for an expected future payout:   Are you starting to see the parallels?

In addition to all that, I’d go as far as to say that even if a postdoc’s specific expertise is in an area that’s not directly translatable into a viable technology, all the skills they acquired will benefit them greatly in starting up a company in another area.

To close, I’m not saying only post docs or that one must even have a PhD to successfully start and run a biotech company. And I’m certainly not saying starting a company is easier than academia. But if you are a postdoc and you’re worried about your future, maybe there’s an option that ends with you doing the work you’re passionate about without having to compromise.

Is that such a crazy idea? What other skills do postdocs have that’d make them good entrepreneurs?

The Dangers of Hype in Biosecurity

In presenting the idea that anyone can and should have the means to do biology, DIYbio, peoples reactions have been consistently polar. Either they are extremely excited about all the possibilities or fear that this movement could cause an increase in unsafe or even illegal things.  Differences in opinion are not exactly a rare thing where science is concerned. In fact I’d argue pretty strongly that they are an integral part of the scientific process. But only when those opinions are based on a strong understanding of the underlying science.

IMG_0213 Elephant painting on bacteria. Winter is Coming?

Sadly my experience, after teaching a number of public bio workshops and classes, tells me that most people lack even a basic understanding of biology. On multiple occasions I’ve found myself explaining to fairly well educated people (Phd’s in other science fields even) concepts I thought were common knowledge. DNA’s are not proteins, strawberry ATCG’s are the same chemically as Human ATCG’s,  even that we have bacteria in us. This of course is not an argument for there not being any risks associated with DIYbio. One might even say that such a lack of understanding is reason enough to restrict the tools needed to do real biology, lest some amateur accidentally cause harm. Which seems a bit backwards to me. “Don’t teach people how to make fire, because they don’t know how to make fire and won’t understand it”.

I say all this to make you aware of the current state of public understanding of biology and that the majority of fear towards a wider dissemination of the tools of biology, stems primarily from a lack of understanding. And that such a knowledge gap makes the wider public extremely perceptible to misinformation, either accidental or nefarious. Which could result in a backlash towards biology which would be far more harmful than any real risks. It is to combat that hype and detail the actual risks that I am writing this article.

What’s the dual use of a can of spaghetti-O’s.

Montezuma's Revenge

Dual use refers to products and technologies normally used for civilian purposes but which may have military applications. The idea that the tools to do legitimate biology are the same tools used to develop that if anyone has the knowledge and means to do biology in their garage, then ipso facto anyone would have the ability to do bioterrorism in their garage. Journalists and Biosecurity “experts” usually personify this potential for dual use by telling the tale of the “Garage Bioterrorist”.  Sometimes they even spice things up by adding a bit of Synthetic Biology into the mix. “What if anyone had the tools to create a synthetic super pathogen?” It’s a terrifying thought for sure… if you don’t realize that an improperly sealed  can of spaghetti-O’s could result in a deadly strain[Clostridium botulinum]. While that probably doesn’t make you feel better. The bitter truth is, increasing access to lab equipment would likely not increase the potential for people to create bioweapons because deadly strains are more readily cultured by miss cooking food.

Mother Nature is really, really good at developing bioweapons.

This is almost always my first thought when people come to me with worries of a rogue bioterrorist using knowledge gained from DIYbio or SynBio to do wrong.  The Spanish Flu killed more people than both World War I and II combined, and it only took 3 years.  Even today the United States alone spends $10 billion a year protecting itself from Influenza. Overall infectious disease is responsible for 23% of all deaths. So limiting the amount of people with the tools to study disease for fear of some possible attack is a bit like making sure your doors locked while your house is on fire. While this isn’t a direct response to the risks of human created bioterror, I feel it’s important to frame it in light of the real threat to biosafety, Mother Nature.

Biologists know less than they say they know, which is even less than the news says they know.

If the headline reads “Breaking: New Cure for Cancer!”, you can almost always be certain that what actually happened is a scientist found a certain compound or method to be effective in combating a specific type of cancer in a petri dish. Which is really only a very small indicator of a potential real cure. What works in a petri dish doesn’t always (read: usually never) work in an animal model, much less humans. But sadly, plain facts don’t make for exciting news stories, and so things get embellished.

cells

To be fair, researchers are pretty guilty of embellishing the scope of their work as well. If you want to do a study of a specific pathway, it doesn’t hurt your chances of securing funding, to frame it in the light of “looking for a cure”. In any case, all the hype leads to an over-inflated opinion of what biologists can actually do; with the full support and backing of a university and funding agency. So when you read a story reporting on what scientists have done or are capable of, either positive or negative, it’s essential to read it with a heaping mountain of salt.

Biology is complicated. Bombs are not.

Even if by some means, some “bad actor” is able to develop a novel virus or bacteria that works well in the lab, the second they release it into the wild there is no guarantee it will have the effect they want, if any at all.  There is nothing stopping evolution from simply turning their super virulent and pathogenic vector into a more fit non-pathogenic strain. It’d be impossible to effectively trigger, predict, much less control the outcome of a bioweapon. Where as a bomb is easy to build, the materials can be sourced from any hardware store and the outcome is predictable.

Tl;DR: People are actually inherently Good.

In pitching people the idea of Brightwork, giving ANYONE access to the tools needed to create cures for diseases. One of the most consistent worries brought up by potential investors was “How will you keep people from using the lab to for wrong doing?”. At one point someone even suggested I put a video camera in the wet lab.  I just stared at them, completely dumbfounded and I almost snarkily asked them where one buys video cameras with objectives strong enough to differentiate good/bad vectors. But instead I explained that an open lab, works the same way all labs work, on trust and some level of proper safety protocols. Protocols designed to protect from accidents, not some terroristic threat.

I’ve met thousands of people interested in doing biology and hundreds actively researching, and almost all are motivated by two things: scientific curiosity and the desire to have a positive effect on the world.  In 50 years, when technology progresses to the point where general access to the ability to create bioweapons becomes a viable threat, I will feel much safer in that distant future if all research and technology is shared openly. Because most people want to do good, and when that “Synthetic Super Pathogen” is created wouldn’t you want as many people as possible with the ability to create a cure for it?

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EndNote: If you are interested in reading more about legitimate and real biosafety and biosecurity concerns, I strongly recommend reading The UNICRI’s “Security Implications of Synthetic Biology and Nanobiotechnology” It is by far the most thorough and factual writing on the subject. [for some reason the public version is abridged]. As well the wilson center just released a report detailing the “Myths of DIYbio” that is worth a read.

On the Subject of Asteroid Mining: Phase 1

I am currently on a plane on my way to Shenzhen by way of San Francisco and I was going to write something about business and science but who has time for that. Instead lets talk about asteroid mining. While an extremely syfy concept, my interest in asteroid mining is one of practicality. All deep space missions up till now have been done in the name of pure scientific discovery. While for me thats reason enough, in the world and funding environment we live in it is not. With the recent government shutdown, almost all of NASA was deemed nonessential. So if we as scientists not just rocket scientists want to continue pushing the boundaries of science at any acceptable pace, we must take control of funding

What exactly are we mining here?

Metals. The relatively small 2.3km wide asteroid (6178) 1986 DA contains an estimated 10,000 tons of gold, 100,000 tons of platinum, 10 billion tons of iron and a billion tons of nickel. And according to Wolfram|Alpha thats $384 Billion of Gold, $4.2 Trillion of Platinum, $269 Billion of Iron and $20 Trillion of Nickel. For a grand total of $25 trillion US dollars. Now the economists in the bunch are going to be saying “Surely if you drop 20 times the amount of platinum produced ever  or 5x the amount of gold produced annually onto the market you’ll make the metals worthless” To which I’ll respond, well obviously you wouldn’t sell of your entire stock in one year. Plus demand for gold and platinum isn’t going anywhere but up, especially since we’ll likely run out of both within the century (and unlike mined diamonds, rare metals have an ever growing demand courtesy of the electronics industry). Gold is much more valuable as a component than locked away in a bank.

Now on to the fun bits.

Planetary Resources Akryd Surveyor

In this post, I am only going to be talking about the first phase of Asteroid Mining, which luckily for us also happens to be the first phase in terrestrial mining; and that is Surveying. Of course, now is probably a good time to tell you that I am not a geophysicist or really any kind of physicists [in fact I’d be very surprised if I don’t receive at least a few emails pointing out what I got wrong] and everything I saw should be taken with a grain of salt.

On earth surveying starts with satellite images and based on those images teams do ground surveys. NASA takes a similar approach to how they study mars, send orbiters to do flybys, and then rovers to take samples. If we had the funds of a government or a large corporation following a similar approach would also work for surveying potential asteroids. But it’s much more fun to innovate around a problem vs throwing money at it. So lets pretend (is it pretending if its real) like we don’t have billions of dollars or even millions, and figure out the cheapest system that would still get us the quality of surveying data we need to move on to the next phase of asteroid mining.

We know we need a satellite, and that we’ll have to launch it into orbit around our target, which means we’ll also need thrusters and fuel on the satellite to move it into orbit.

The Satellite Components

There are some pretty cool experiments around using Android phones and other off the shelf components for use within satellites. However they have currently only been tested within the protection of Earths magnetic field and were short missions. A satellite traveling into deep space for weeks possibly months would face much larger doses of solar radiation as well as run into cosmic rays, have to survive the Van Allens belts plus the odd solar flare. So bootstrapping a satellite together from radio shack isn’t going to work, It is going to have to be custom built from scratch.

Sensors

Imec Hyperspectral Imager

The primary sensor we’d want is a hyper spectral imaging camera. Which at its most basic is an objective lens that directs light through a hyper spectral filter onto a CMOS sensor. Most hyperspectral cameras are very expensive and large because they use discrete objectives and prisms. For example a relatively small model by Middleton Research is 2.7kg which might not seem like a lot but when you’re launching things into space every kg costs $5k (cost to reach LEO on SpaceX, going past earth orbit will be more expensive). Luckily for us there have been recent advances into integrating the filters onto the sensor itself. The company leading the way on this front is IMEC (see their prototype above).

The Brains

For the sake of this post lets base our computing requirements around the CMOS sensor used in IMECs imager above, the CMV4000. Which outputs each frame at 5MB and has the capability of outputting 180fps. Currently the best option for memory is Everspin Technologies MRAM modules which recently developed 64Mb modules. For storage of the data, we would use Flash since you can get radiation hardened modules up to 64GB. There are a variety of rad hardened processors to choose from AtmelPowerPC, since we’re not doing any photo processing in space their relatively low computational ability (133 and 25Mhz respectively) isn’t a problem.

Antenna

To broadcast data and control the satellite from a few million miles away, we’ll need a combination of low-gain, high-gain and UHF antennas. The omni directional low gain will allow a certain level of control and data to be sent and received at all times but only in the low b/s rate. The high gain in combination with a dish will be the primary way image data is sent back capable of Kb/s . Bigger is better on this front, except bigger means larger payload to launch, so it might be worthwhile to experiment with ways to get a dish that could be unfolded after launch. And as a backup it’d be worth it to launch a secondary satellite within UHF range of the imaging satellite, to ensure fidelity of the signal.

To estimate the potential speeds, I looked at what the Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiousity) is capable of. And with a 15Watt radio, it’s able to get 15b/s with it’s low-gain antenna and 32kb/s with it’s high gain directional antenna.  Now looking at the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which uses a 100Watt X-Band amplifier and a 3meter dish, we see  it’s possible to get speeds up to 6 Mb/s.

The Deep Space Network, the collection of satellites and dishes that relay data to and from space is really quite interesting and I need to do a lot more research into satellite broadcasting and antenna design. If someone wants to donate a copy of the Space Antenna Handbook to the Brightwork library.

Power

Everything is relatively low power, the CMOS only uses 600mW, the computer board 8W at peak and the largest power consumer is going to be the power of the radio which even if we transmit at 100watts is not going to bring our power usage above 500 watts. Using the latest Triple-junction cells we can get 500 watts(based on the solar energies at mars distance) with 35 square feet or 2 panels of 6′ by 3′. In reality, we would probably be okay using a lower powered radio to drop energy usage to 100watts (which would only require 7ft2 of solar panels). And more importantly a lower power draw would allow for a smaller battery pack since Lithium ion batteries weigh 1kg per 265Wh.

Thrusters

Xenon_hall_thruster
The thrusters serve two purposes, orbit insertion and attitude adjustment.  Hydrazine thrusters seem to be the go to as thats whats on the Voyagers as well as the more recent Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The downside is that they require large amounts of fuel which adds to the weight. The lighter alternative would be Ion thrusters like those used on SMART-1 but they have the downside of requiring kilo-watts of power and not being able to accelerate as rapidly as chemical engines.

In Not Concluding
Ok, I’m going to cut this well short of the 1000page write up that this idea really deserves as I am now in China and have to get back to work but if anyone in Houston or really anywhere would like to work on Asteroid Mining (or space exploration in general), do get in touch. This isn’t simply a thought exercise.

How does one get started as an independent researcher?

Postdocalypse

Someone brought up the question How does one get started as an Independent Researcher? on Quora. The responses so far are pretty informative but they mostly focus on answering the question “How does one get started as a researcher?”. If you’re just starting out in research, I highly recommend giving the responses a read. There are a few good tips around how one finds the questions in need of answering in a field.

If you’ve already been involved with research. Allow me to summarize and tell you the single most important thing to becoming an independent researcher…..Funding! This isn’t because experiments are inherently expensive*. It’s because as an indie researcher even if you are able to eliminate your research costs, you still have to pay for things like your rent, food and other personal expenses.

This isn’t a new problem, even in universities, salary is often the main expense.  Before we try and reinvent the wheel, lets look at how universities afford to pay their researchers.  Maybe those solutions work for indie researchers.  Rice University‘s revenue (pictured below) is a good snapshot of a typical research universities income stream.

Rice Revenues FY 2011
Rice Revenues FY 2011

So it looks like most revenue can be broken into 5 categories: Grants, Contracts,  Endowment, Tuition and Technology Transfer. The exact breakdown may differ depending on the university. MIT for example gains almost half of their revenue from Grants/contracts where as almost all of the University of Phoenixs revenue comes from tuition.

Grants 

Writing a successful grant is a difficult task. Even with the support and affiliation of a major university,  it’s never a sure thing.  Take away that affiliation and the pool of grants you qualify for shrinks, decreasing your chances even more.  A work around to this would be to convince a nonprofit to be your fiscal sponsor. If that’s not an option, there are still a number of granting agencies offering grants for individuals including indie fellowships that pay for research costs. They are few and far between but they are out there. I’m going to end this section with a guide to grantwriting because it’s an area I only have limited experience in and being honest very little desire to gain experience in.

Contracts

This is when research universities are hired by outside agencies or companies to perform some task.  If you have a Phd, you might be able to get a position within a consulting firm and fund your work by working part-time.   As an independent researcher without a doctorate this becomes more difficult but not impossible. There are a number of websites such as Science Exchange or Assay Depot that outsource lab tasks. I’d recommend only posting availability for tasks you can perform at no cost, as it’s unlikely you can compete with the university vendors on material cost. If you have programming skills, it becomes alot easier to find outsourced work from websites like topcoder, kaggle, gun.io,etc. If you dont have programming skills, go get them. Programming is more and more becoming integral in all fields of science. If you don’t learn to program you will be placing yourself at a handicap.

Endowment

Since the Indie Research equivalent to an endowment is already being rich enough to self fund, it’s not really a useful means of funding for most indie researchers. Though sponsorship from individuals might be. That is after all where universities got those endowments from in the first place.  If you dont know any 1%-ers, dont worry. Thankfully, with the arrival of crowdfunding apps like Kickstarter or Rockethub, you can raise a large amount of money from a number of small donations.  In fact last year scientists raised over 100 thousand dollars for their own research as part of the scifund challenge. There’s also a cool site called Gittip for recurring support of people who do awesome things.

Teaching

This is the bread and butter of most universities. Most professors salaries are derived from the tuition of their students.Using my Alma mater as a basis lets do some back of the envelope calculations. Taking one 3credit bio class at $800/credit is $2400. Multiply that by 30students in an intro class($72,000)to 10($24,000) in an upper leve and you realize how much money is in teaching. Now most people pay these prices because they believe a degree with a Universities name is worth it. I’ll save that discussion for a different post but suffice it to say an independent researcher has to entice students to pay for their class a different way.

If you are a good speaker and your research is interesting, getting 20 people to pay $10-$20 to listen to you talk for half and hour is doable. Just reach out to a nearby coworking space to see if they dont mind hosting and tell everyone and their mothers about it. If your research allows it holding workshops is also a viable means of funding.  5 people paying $300 for a 3day 4hr course is within reason. If you are able to sustain it that’s ~$2500 from just working 4hrs on saturdays. [Caution: teaching a workshop for the first time is no small feat, you cannot be over-prepared] You can also try teaching virtually through platforms like Skillshare or even by simply making Youtube videos.

Technology Transfer

Technology transfer refers to when a university turns some scientific discovery into something commercially viable. If you have an idea that is commercially viable you might be able to fund becoming an independent by seeking venture funding. There are plenty of resources on venture funding so I wont go into that. Instead,  I want to talk about kits. Depending on your research selling kits could be a good way to fund your research. To list just a few examples; PublicLab got kickstarted by offering mapping kits, Adafruit was seeded by selling the simple mintyBoost kit and the BackyardBrains crew funds themselves by selling their Spikerbox. Notice that all the examples I gave you the kits developed are tools the researchers use in their work.

How will Brightwork CoResearch make this less confusing?

Academic (and even industry) researchers have a community and support system that makes this funding hurdle a lot less daunting. Brightwork CoResearch is hoping (with your help) to build such a support system for Independent Researchers.

If you’ve managed to become a successful Independent Researcher, we want to hear from you. If only as proof for some one in your field that it’s do able.