When I was getting ready for school in the
morning as a tween-going-on-teen, I’d often have the TV on in the background,
playing reruns of whatever television shows adults enjoyed in those days. So
I’ve never actually seen a full episode of M*A*S*H,
and really only know it by the sound of the helicopter blades in the opening
segment, which was often playing as I walked out the door. But I’m definitely
familiar with the actor who played Hawkeye in this show, Alan Alda. After
Hawkeye’s tour was over, Alda hosted Scientific
American Frontiers for 12 of its 15 seasons, and that show was most
certainly not just background to my middle school mornings. For me, Scientific American Frontiers was a
sit-down-stop-everything-else-and-only-watch-TV kind of show. Naturally, I
decided I had to read Alda’s latest memoir, If
I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, which encompasses his
experience with scientific communication in an amusing and relatable way. As
Alda says in the introduction, “Developing empathy and learning to recognize
what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication, and
are what this book is about.”
Storytelling is an important aspect of
science. When we’re giving a talk, we have to convince the people listening
that the research is worth their time and attention. Alda argues that
communicating isn’t just telling. It
is simultaneously observing and determining whether the audience follows, and
whether what you’re saying resonates with them. In many ways, it’s akin to a
performance, which is perhaps why an actor with a prolific track record like
Alda is so successful at it. Using small studies and anecdotes as evidence,
Alda suggests in this book that things like improvisation or audience-synchronization
exercises can improve presentation skills.
His principle extends to written audiences
as well. A writer cannot observe and react to a reader’s thoughts, confusions,
or frustrations, but they can learn to think about a reader’s state of mind and
anticipate the reader’s expectations. In essence, a writer can learn to be
familiar with the experience level of their target reader and what questions
they might ask if they were in the
room, and adjust the narrative or delivery of the story accordingly.
Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is a quick read, but
that doesn’t hinder its capacity to home in on the important points above. This
is not a how-to book; just reading it will not inherently improve your ability
to communicate or your grant writing. But it may give you an idea of how to
practice getting into your audience’s head and engaging with them in an easy
and effective manner. Every audience will be different, and it is our
responsibility – as researchers, as authors, as presenters – to be able
communicate the intricate concepts of our research in a way that is readily
comprehended by both scientists and non-scientists alike.
To bring a good poster to a conference, you need to have an actual poster to bring, which means carefully planning when you assemble and send your poster for printing. Leave at least a few days, or even better a week, between printing your poster and the date of your departure or attendance.
Check for any poster guidelines provided by the conference; you don’t want to end up with a poster that doesn’t fit on the presentation board.
Think about how you want your poster to look, in regards to content as well as physical appearance. Find an organizational flow for your information and data that will allow readers and listeners to easily track your project through its various stages. While paper posters are format most researchers use, fabric posters are easily packed into a suitcase, making them a good option for airline travel.
Choose sessions to attend wisely.
Big or small, conferences have a lot going on. Daily schedules are packed, and with larger conferences, there can be a half-dozen or more sessions happening simultaneously. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so be thoughtful about the scientific fields or types of research you want to experience while there. Pick a few sessions that are of high interest to you that you absolutely will commit to going to, and be engaged in those sessions: sit in the front, take notes, write down questions and papers to look up later. Aside from those key sessions–and depending on the size of the conference and its offerings–be judicious in how you add to your list so you can get maximum output from all of the input available there.
Plan out a networking strategy.
Conferences can be as much about networking as they are about sharing and learning new science. During poster sessions, socials, career events, dinners, and coffee hours, you might be introduced to dozens of new faces. Figure out ahead of time what you want to get out of the social aspects of the conference beforehand. Do you want to find another lab to collaborate with? Is there a lab you are interested in applying to after graduate school? Do you want to get to know trainees from other institutions? Are there contacts in science-related careers of interest to you that will also be at the conference? Once you have a goal in mind for how you want to network at the conference, scan through the program to pick out events that will help you meet those goals and commit to attending those sessions.
Prepare business cards.
If you meet a potential collaborator or career connection, having a business card to give them could make or break a follow-up after the conference. After all, we’ve all written down someone’s email on a note in our phones and then promptly forgotten about it until we find it again three months later. With a physical card, your information is in a more accessible and memorable format that shows you are both professional and prepared.
Rest, rest, rest.
It is tempting to get wrapped up in the busy nature of conferences, but breaks are key to making it through without feeling completely exhausted by the end. Each day, run out for a quick coffee, go back to your room and take a power nap, or take ten minutes to just listen to some music in a hallway or quiet corner. Even a small pause in the hustle can refresh your brain and make room for even more great science 🙂
The main responsibility of a biomedical researcher is to produce novel, trustworthy science that will improve human health. We may not be doing enough towards this goal, however, if we consider our research results to be our only impact on the human condition. How we conduct our research is just as critical as the results of our research, especially when it comes to the environmental footprint that research laboratories leave behind on university and medical campuses.
In 2013, Tufts University published a campus-wide report to assist the university in building a sustainable future. Working groups focused on three relevant sustainability areas—energy and water use, waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions—to develop actionable goals for reducing Tufts’ environmental impact. Regarding how laboratories and medical facilities factored into this impact, all working groups came to the same conclusion: “[these spaces were] singled out…as the greatest source of opportunity for increased sustainability across all Tufts campuses due to their large production of waste and heavy use of water and energy.”
Many universities, including Tufts, have implemented Green Labs initiatives in order to develop environmentally friendly research laboratories using a classic sustainability framework: reduce, reuse, recycle. Based on resources from Tufts’ Green Labs Initiative and similar programs at other institutions, here are some starting points for making laboratories and research facilities more sustainable.
Energy: Labs can significantly reduce energy usage by maximizing the efficiency of their ultra-low temperature (ULT, or -80°C) freezers, as in one year, a single ULT freezer uses the same amount of energy as an average American household. Frequent de-icing, regular upkeep, and maintained organization all decrease the amount of work and time (and thus energy) required by freezers to decrease temperature to the set point. To encourage these approaches, Tufts joined the International Freezer Challenge in 2017, which “rewards best practices in cold storage management”. Of note, three Sackler labs–the Munger lab, the McGuire lab, and the Bierderer lab–participated. Additionally, a less universally advertised, but possibly more effective, approach to reducing energy usage by ULT freezers is changing their set temperature. The University of Colorado at Boulder has accumulated a significant amount of information demonstrating that maintaining ULT freezers at -80°C may not be necessary, as many sample types are capable of being stored at -70°C without any significant loss of quality. Though seemingly trivial, this ten degree difference has huge implications for lowering energy usage , which also translates to reduced energy costs (Figure 1). By rough estimation, Tufts could save close to $50,000 per year on electricity if all ULT freezers in Jaharis, M&V, Stearns, South Cove, and Arnold were adjusted from -80°C to -70°C.
Figure 1. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for ten-degree increase in ULT freezer temperature.
Closing and/or turning off chemical fume hoods when not in use also mitigates electrical expenditure. At the Medford campus, undergraduate student Emma Cusack led a “Shut the Sash” initiative last year in order to reduce energy use and cost. Based on consultations with the Tufts’ Office of Sustainability about her work, it is estimated that lowering sashes of all 123 chemical hoods on the Sackler campus from 18” to 6” when not in use would result in yearly energy expediture savings of around 40,000 kWh and energy cost savings of over $200,000.
Figure 2. Yearly energy expenditure & cost savings for reducing sash height of chemical hoods.
Lastly, powering down non-essential lab equipment overnight and incorporating timers into power sources are also simple but meaningful methods of lowering energy usage. The latter method is especially helpful to maintain convenience along with energy efficiency, as incubators and dry ovens are shut off overnight but can still be ready-to-use upon arriving in lab, for example, if set to turn on in very early AM.
Water: A traditional autoclave requires 45-50 gallons of water per minute when in use, and this massive usage is due to the need for continuous addition of water for cooling steam condensate before draining into sewers. Equipment like Water-Mizers use real-time monitoring of drain temperature to add water for cooling only when needed, reducing water usage by at least half. Also, being mindful of when sterilization is actually required for equipment and using dishwashing services as an alternative also contributes to lowering water usage.
Within labs, addition of low-flow aerators to faucets and switching vacuum sources for aspirators from faucet-style to vacuum-style can also can significantly reduce water usage. Finally, being conscious of when it is really necessary to use distilled or deionized water, as the process wastes water that does not pass the filtering thresholds, can also contribute to making water usage by labs more efficient.
Materials: Styrofoam shipping containers and freezers packs can accumulate quickly in labs, given the frequency at which supplies are ordered and received. However, they are not necessarily easy to get rid of in sustainable ways. Many labs end up reusing some fraction of the styrofoam boxes and freezer packs they receive for experiments, which seems to be the most common and easily practiced alternative to throwing these shipping components away.
Materials: Another approach for sustainable disposal of styrofoam and freezer packs is recycling them. A handful of life sciences companies do sponsor recycling programs for styrofoam containers, including Sigma-Aldrich, Qiagen, and New England BioLabs (which has run such a program for over thirty years), but most companies do not, given the cost of such programs. Alternatively, for-hire companies specializing in styrofoam recycling can be contracted by universities, but again the associated cost can be a deterrent. Even rarer are return programs for freezer packs, as the combination of contamination concerns and the cost of re-sterilizing seems to discourage their implementation.
The amount of plastic materials that biomedical research labs use are also quite high, though recycling used materials such as pipette tips, serological pipettes, conical tubes, or microcentrifuge tubes is often not convenient or feasible due to biological contamination. However, containers for materials (i.e. cell culture media bottles, pipette tip boxes) can be sterilized and disposed of much more easily. In the case of pipette tip boxes, several companies–such as Fisher Scientific, USA Scientific, Corning, and VWR–do sponsor programs where discarded boxes are collected or received via mail for recycling.
While achieving greener laboratories first requires implementation of sustainable practices like those listed above, the success of such efforts ultimately depends on institutional support and researcher engagement. Even if such resources and programs are offered by companies or research institutions, scientists need to be made clearly aware of their existence to take advantage of them. Accordingly, university- or departmental-level promotion of and encouragement for sustainable practices could substantially increase researcher interest and participation. Implementing reward-based systems, including financial incentives, for labs that ‘go green’ could also help motivate investigators to commit to practicing sustainable science.
In being more conscious of the environmental footprint that biomedical research leaves behind, scientists can clean up our own backyard and stand on firmer ground when encouraging others to do the same.
Thank you to Tina Woolston and Shoshana Blank from the Tufts Office of Sustainability and to Stephen Larson and Josh Foster from Tufts Environmental Health & Safety for providing information and resources on chemical hood numbers, energy usage, and costs.
This past June, around seventy-five graduate students and faculty members joined Dean Dan Jay and Associate Dean Dan Volchok in the DeBlois Auditorium to reflect on the previous year’s progress and endeavors at the Sacker School. Various community leaders briefly presented on topics that reflect the Deans’ new mission of training to career excellence followed by open discussion between all attendees. Following the larger meeting, attendees continued to engage in these topics in smaller groups over lunch to continue pushing these goals forward in the coming year.
Jay opened the meeting by reviewing the results of career development “trial balloons” that the new administration worked towards last year. He celebrated the high interest and positive reactions from trainees for the new short courses, including Introduction to Drug Development (50 attendees), Navigating the Corporate Environment (22 attendees), and the R Programming Workshop (34 attendees). Building on this positive momentum, additional short courses will be offered in the coming year. A ‘science storytelling’ workshop and an entrepreneurship short course have been developed for the fall semester, with a teaching short course planned for the spring. There are also plans to develop the Introduction to Drug Development course into an official Sackler-wide elective for the spring semester. In addition, two career counseling workshops by Sarah Cardozo Duncan will again be offered in the 2018-2019 for students and post-docs who are interested in industry-related careers.
Not all career development endeavours in Sackler last year had such immediate success, however. The initiative to place students who have completed Year 1, Year 2, or their thesis requirements in summer industry internships encountered several difficulties, including reluctance from potential partner companies. That reluctance mainly stemmed from aversion to such a short internship time period (3 months), as several companies in conversation with Sackler administration requested at least a 6-month full-time commitment from students. Meeting attendees generally agreed that this length of time would be difficult for both PIs and students to commit to without serious disruption to research progress. However, there was at least one successful internship negotiation and placement, suggesting that the program may still be developed but not in as broad a manner as originally intended. A case-by-case determination was concluded to be the best approach moving forward, with the requirement for extensive conversations and mutual agreement between student, PI, and hosting company on timeline and degree of commitment being emphasized.
In reiterating his desire to see Sackler become a leader in career training for biomedical graduate students, Jay described his aspiration to develop a tuition-bearing, two-year master’s program in Biomedical Leadership. Matriculating students would have the opportunity to train for various career tracks related to biomedical research, and their curriculum would include current and future career development short courses or electives offered within Sackler. During the group-wide discussion session, the possibility of offering a 4+1-style master’s program in collaboration with the undergraduate branch of Tufts University was put forward and positively received.
Another main topic of the community meeting was the state of graduate research training at Sackler. Opening discussions involved debating the merits of switching from the current program-specific curriculum design to a single core curriculum that all first-year graduate trainees–regardless of program–would take. Across programs, students generally were opposed to a core curriculum in regards to scientific content, emphasizing that most seek a graduate education specifically to specialize in a particular area. They did support the suggestion that any core courses in scientific content should be ‘nanocourses’, instead of full required or elective courses. In contrast, developing a skills-focused core curriculum that included classes such as research methods, quantitative biology & bioinformatics, and statistics seemed to have wide support from both students and faculty. In addition to curriculum content, the possibility of expanding the MERGE (Medically-Oriented Research in Graduate Education) beyond the Immunology and Molecular Microbiology programs was discussed. The MERGE program trains participants in clinical aspects of their research area during the summer prior to their first graduate year at Sackler. During this time, they are also paired with a clinical mentor who provides them direct contact with patients and clinicians and serves as a thesis committee member during their research training. Given the proximity of Tufts Medical Center, it was advocated for the Sackler School to take advantage of the opportunity to give more PhD students training in regards to the clinical impact of their research. Genetics and Neuroscience were considered as programs which MERGE could expand to, but no specific plans for that expansion were discussed.
Strengthening the Sackler community was also a significant theme of the meeting. During a discussion about building diversity and inclusion at Sackler, students expressed the need for more structured support from the school. They expressed that while student-led initiatives such as SPINES (Students Promoting Inclusive Excellence at Sackler) provide excellent resources and opportunities for underrepresented minority (URM) students, the responsibility of delivering such support should not fall so heavily on the trainees themselves. Through this discussion, it was emphasized that bringing more URM junior faculty–from Tufts or other institutions–to speak at graduate seminars could help build networks for students to rely on. In addition, hosting a greater number of Sackler-wide events during the year, especially during recruitment, could foster a greater sense of community and provide more school-directed opportunities for URM individuals to connect across programs. Another discussion about community building focused on developing stronger alumni networks. The career development short courses were one way in which the Dean’s Office started on this initiative already. Various alumni contributed their expertise and their time to the courses’ development and operation, which was key to their success; this arrangement also provided a structured environment in which students could take the opportunity to develop professional connections with alumni in their career areas of interest. Given the positive outcomes from this year using this approach, there are plans to build on this foundation for similar endeavours in the future. Dean Jay also discussed his efforts over the last year in reaching out to Sackler alumni for fundraising, which he had done in collaboration with Roxanne Beal from the School of Medicine’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations. To broaden this effort, faculty were encouraged to reach out to their former trainees, and the group supported the idea of current students reaching out to alumni for an annual fund.
Overall, the morning and lunchtime discussions provided great insight into the past year’s success as well as highlighted what aspects of graduate training at Sackler still need to be strengthened, and the dialogue between students, faculty, and staff generated actionable items for the administration to take on in the coming academic year.
On June 8th, Graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from all programs and departments flooded from the lab to the Medford campus for the 23rd Annual Sackler Relays, our yearly day of fun-in-the-sun and fundraising for the Student Activity Fund.
With cooler weather than last year, speed-inclined scientists competed in a 100 m dash, a 1 mile race, and the annual event’s namesake, the 4 x 200 relay. A few especially spirited labrats were spotted warming up prior to these events, but competition between the programs remained good-spirited and friendly throughout the day. Contenders and attendees alike relaxed and enjoyed a buffet of delicious food and drink between the footraces and the team events.
Dodgeball made a triumphant return with new dodgeballs this year, which were a sturdy candlepin size rather than full kickball-size. Simultaneous brackets for dodgeball, volleyball, and tug-of-war ensured maximum participation from each team. In a great show of teamwork, the MD/PhDs stole back tug-of-war victory from CMDB, last year’s tug-of-war champions. The day’s events ended with an obstacle course consisting of a potato sack race, three-legged race, dizzy bat, and an egg-and-spoon race.
With race times recorded and sporting points tallied, Microbiology emerged at the front of the pack. Congratulations, Micro!
Last of all came the presentation of the raffle prizes, including gift cards to Boston Burger Company, tickets to the Somerville Theatre, and from the Celtics, two drinking glasses and a piece of the parquet floor! A full list of raffle prize donors can be found below.
As always, Sackler Relays would not be possible without help from the Dean’s office and the numerous faculty and alumni donors. Thank you to Claudette Gardel and Yusuf Mal for team and event photos, and a big thank you to everyone who participated. Let’s make it even better next year!
The image used here is released under Creative Commons CC0.
Writing an F award application is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are lots of pieces, they all need to fit together just so, and it feels like it will never be complete. But writing – whether it be manuscripts, reports, or grant proposals – is a huge part of any scientist’s career, and it shouldn’t be an unpleasant process. F awards, which provide a stipend, health fees, tuition, and travel, are a great first step into the world of scientific writing.
There are a few oft-repeated adages that are thrown around when it comes to grant proposals, such as “Make your aims related, but independent” and “You need to study a little bit of a mechanism.” While these are helpful in their own way, here are some other tips to make applying for your first F award a bit smoother:
Take advantage of info sessions
Sackler offers two information sessions every year for potential F30 (M.D./Ph.D.) and F31 (Ph.D.) applicants. If you have questions about when to apply, writing, or anything else, this is the place to ask them. An additional day-long workshop is being held for the first time this year, hosted by Dean Dan Jay.
The Application – June 5th, 2 – 3:30 PM
Demystifying the Review Process – June 7th, 2 – 3:30 PM
*Writing Your Specific Aims – June 15th
*Attendance at the first two session is required for this workshop. Attendance will be limited to 20 participants.
Make a list
There are several pieces to this application – so many that it’s possible for some of them to fall through the cracks. A checklist is a simple way to ensure you won’t need to rush to complete a document (or worse, start writing it!) minutes before the deadline. The following list is accurate as of Spring 2018:
Abstract/Project SummaryApplicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training
Bibliography and References Cited
Facilities and Other Resources
Letters of Support
Resource Sharing Plan
Responsible Conduct of Research
Selection of Sponsor and Institution
If you’re resubmitting your application, you’ll also need to include an “Introduction,” a one-page document where you respond to the criticisms of each reviewer.
Gather preliminary data
To the bench! With data in hand, you can work with your advisor to determine what kind of story you want to tell. Your goal here will be to gather data that will demonstrate the feasibility of your proposal. Starting early is key, as this process can take several months. The more data you have, the better. It shows the reviewers that you can work hard and be productive.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Begin crafting your figures before writing. Figures are a visual representation of your story; having it effectively “storyboarded” out makes it easy to see where there are holes in your data. Patching these now makes for a much stronger initial application.
Make your Aims into an outline
Your Specific Aims page functions as an overall summary of your proposal. While your reviewers must read the whole proposal, you should assume that most other panel members will only scan this section. All of the critical aspects of your proposal should be clearly stated here, including the impact and novelty of your research.
Stagger writing with editing
Once you write your initial aims, send it to your advisor for comments and get started on the next piece of your application. As your advisor returns documents with comments, you can edit and send them back. A continuous cycle of writing, editing, and rewriting keeps the process moving and keeps you from working on the same document for too long. You’re more likely to catch typos and other errors by looking every so often with fresh eyes.
Play the matching game
Consistency is huge in any F award application. You will reference your aims multiple times in the Research Strategy section. As you craft your proposal, make sure that the methods listed under each aim match in the Research Strategy and Specific Aims sections.
Ctrl-F for key words
There are certain core concepts that, when missing, are easy for reviewers to point out as a flaw. Your application should not only comment on the novelty and innovation of your proposed research, but also include key phrases such as “sex as a biological variable.” Reviewers may simply search for these terms to see if you address them, so you should do it, too. Talk to your advisor for some examples. As someone who writes and reviews grants, they will know exactly what they would look for in a proposal.
Skip the jargon
Not every reviewer you have will be an expert in your field. In fact, it’s likely that none of them will be familiar with your precise topic of interest. If a simple word will do the job, use the simple word. The less reviewers have to think about what you’re trying to say, the better they will feel about your proposal.
Easier said than done, right? Don’t be discouraged if your proposal isn’t funded in its initial submission. Only about 13% of applications are at Sackler. However, making the strongest proposal you can initially will make it easier to edit for resubmission, and much more likely to be funded the second time around. Over the last five years, Sackler applicants have had a 30% success rate (this number includes both proposals funded initially and those funded after resubmission). For a breakdown of success rates by NIH institute, check out the following link: https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/. The F30/F31 spreadsheet is #3 under “Training and Research Career Development Programs.”
Finally, take a break once you’ve submitted the proposal! Rest and recharge before returning to the bench so you can get ahead on your next project.
On April 14, the March for Science 2018 took place in the Christopher Columbus park at the waterfront. This year’s march was definitely smaller than last year, with a small crowd braving the cold winds on a cloudy day to attend a rally that focused largely on climate change. Despite my reservations of the possible outcomes of the march based on last year’s march and its complications, I attended the rally in support of what I believed to be an effective organizational method. However, I was bitterly disappointed. The March for Science, once again, proved itself to be futile and performative.
Nowhere was there any mention of the environmental problems that the locale are facing, e.g. – Governor Charlie Baker’s bill that would privatize water bodies in MA, or the clean water crisis in the Norfolk state correctional facility where inmates have not had clean water for several months now. While MA is often lauded as a progressive state that promises carbon neutral buildings and other environmental regulations, in reality, that is not the case. For example, the city of Boston recently approved a pipeline that will bring in fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to a luxury condominium complex in back bay. While there has been resistance from the MA administration against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s plan to open up offshore drilling in a million acres in the Outer Continental Shelf, the language around the protest was framed in a NIMBY manner specifically for MA, as if oil spills anywhere else in the East Coast won’t be affecting the MA coast.
Without a coherent political agenda, it doesn’t mean anything to “Stand Up for Science” or to “Believe in Science.” This is mostly because while data itself can be neutral, study designs and interpretations/analysis of said data are not. As science historian Naomi Oreskes details in her book “Merchants of Doubt”, the same data has been manipulated by climate change deniers, who were scientists themselves. And the raison d’etre for these people were their political beliefs. Similarly, “peer-reviewed evidence” has been historically manipulated for profit motives, political gains and social beliefs that have resulted in the detriment of the human condition, in particular, those of the marginalized communities. In fact, the very idea of “Believing in Science” or considering that Science is apolitical elevates Science to an infallible and monolithic level, which undermines the very basis of the Scientific Method. Unfortunately, the consequences of such actions are already evident in the corruption of scientific research with a capitalist competitive model driving a rise in fraudulent publications of so-called “peer-reviewed evidence”. This capitalist motive further enhances the alienation between scientific fields, with certain fields that have direct output towards driving an imperialist capitalist machinery gaining more funding than some other fields.
In the last year or so, multiple scientists have come forward and braved the ballot boxes and continue doing so (the most recent example being Valerie Horsley from Yale who just gave a talk at Sackler to the CMDB program). And some of them seem to be winning as well. But it should take more than just being a scientist to win an election – the implicit assumption of being a scientist is that you will do the best for people. However, this utopian idea regarding scientists as only acting in the best interest of the people is quite frankly a naïve one. Yes, we should be electing more scientists into office, but we shouldn’t let that identity just be our standard. We should also be critically reviewing their political platforms and see if they are indeed, backed up by evidence and would act in the best interest of ALL people.
On April 14, the same day as the March for Science, David Buckel, a prominent LGBT rights lawyer and an environmental activist, committed suicide by self-immolation in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. It was an act of resistance to convey the urgency of the impending doom of climate change, and an act of anguish that conveyed the pettiness surrounding the nuanced haggling of carbon tax and trading, strategies that are insufficient to bring forth the changes we need to reverse the tide of climate change. In order to do so, as scientists and individuals, and as part of a collective community, we need to acknowledge that Science, like any other human process, is vulnerable to political and economic motivations. Furthermore, any organized efforts to curb climate change or create evidence-based policy, should strive to have a coherent political agenda, to avoid being futile and performative.
My favorite t-shirt is heather-grey and reads “SACKLER” across the front. It’s not just my favorite because it’s objectively the softest, but because it’s one of the token articles of clothing in the bookstore that is exclusively for Sackler students. All other clothing and paraphernalia generically represents Tufts University or is emblazoned with the names of the medical, dental or nutrition schools. None of those correctly describes my identity within the Tufts community. Don’t worry, I’m not going to have a school identity crisis over a t-shirt. The Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences is how we can identify ourselves within Tufts University and distinguish ourselves from the medical or dental schools, since neither of those would be accurate. While I have been proudly wearing my Sackler t-shirt for years now, I have more recently become conflicted about this pride.
For many Sackler students the Sackler name may not resonate beyond the name of their graduate school. Some may have noticed other buildings, schools or museum wings with the same name. However, very few people know anything about the Sackler family beyond the fact that they are wealthy. But, how many people have wondered where all of that wealth comes from?
Last fall, the New Yorker magazine published an article by Patrick Radden Keefe titled“The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”, telling the history of the Sackler family and how they got to where they are today. I highly encourage all Sackler students to read the article at some point, but the main points will be summarized throughout the rest of this article. The Sackler family has three main branches that stem from the three brothers Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer Sackler. While all three brothers were doctors, Arthur Sackler also had a propensity for advertising; Arthur is primarily responsible for how pharmaceutical companies market drugs these days. He shifted the marketing focus from the patients to the doctors, no longer relying on patients to request prescriptions from doctors. Years after Arthur Sackler died, the pharmaceutical company owned by his brothers, Purdue Pharma, developed OxyContin. Raymond and Mortimer used Arthur’s marketing strategies to make OxyContin a blockbuster drug. The company today is still privately owned by the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler.
For those who are unaware, OxyContin and other highly addictive narcotic painkillers have led to overtwo hundred thousand overdoses in the United States since the late 1990’s. Often times, people become addicted to prescription painkillers like OxyContin and eventually switch to using a more affordable drug such asheroin. More people died fromopioid overdoses (42,000) in 2016 thanautomobile accidents (40,000) orgun violence (38,000). The percent change in number of opioid related deaths continues to rise,increased 28% from 2015-16, compared to only 16% from 2014-2015.
While OxyContin is not responsible for all opioid overdoses, it was the first drug to capture majority of thelong-acting opioid market. How did OxyContin become so “successful”? Through a combination of adept marketing to physicians and misrepresenting just how addictive the drug could be – “the marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company”. Basically, Purdue Pharma was well aware of the addictive properties of OxyContin and did whatever they could to get it prescribed to as many people as possible. The Sacklers are now one of therichest families in the country.
The article importantly points out that while the Sacklers donate to an extensive list of charitable causes, the opioid epidemic is notably not one of them. When I learned last month that a high school classmate of mine died from an opioid overdose I can’t help but feel a little frustrated that my PhD will always be associated with the name Sackler. The Sackler family has been accused of creating the current opioid epidemic and, in similar fashion to the NRA, Purdue Pharma will argue against any suggested restrictions on prescribing painkillers – “Purdue insisted that the only problem was that recreational drug users were not taking OxyContin as direct”. This argument just shifts the responsibility away from the company and onto the individual. This sounds awfully similar to the NRA’s stance on gun ownership. Wouldn’t we feel more uncomfortable if our school was named after the head of the NRA? Of course, so what’s the difference? The difference is that the general population is naïve to the role the Sacklers played in creating, and continue to play in perpetuating, the opioid crisis. Until this awareness spreads, the Sacklers will continue to be seen as philanthropists who generously support the arts and sciences. Does the source of the money matter if it used for good? Does it negate the harm they are causing?
Most of us have found ourselves as students at the Sackler school not just because of our love for science and learning, but also because of the desire to help people and make a positive impact on society (no matter how easy it is to forget that at 10PM when yet another experiment has failed). Is there a conflict between what we work on and the reputation of our school’s namesake? I realize just because our school is named after someone does not mean we support them or their beliefs. But at a time when schools and professional teams are changing mascots and renaming buildings because of actions that are no longer socially respected, it is worth thinking about whether something around here should change. Keefe importantly points out in his article that the buildings that are getting renamed were in honor of someone who is no longer alive, and in some instances have been dead for centuries. This actually raises two larger facts: (1) those people were alive at a different time and their actions could be excusable due to changing societal beliefs and (2) these people are dead and are no longer active donors. It would be more noteworthy to rescinda donation from a current donor.
At this point I will clarify thatall three brothers contributed to the school’s founding in 1980, long before OxyContin ever reached the market. Additionally, according to a university spokesperson, a significant gift came specifically from Arthur Sackler in 1983 and the Sackler building (the medical school building) is named for him. As mentioned above, Arthur Sackler did not have anything to do with sale of OxyContin per se, since he died before it was produced, and his branch of the family has actuallydistanced themselves from the other two branches. Even though the initial funding for the school was independent from OxyContin sales, the school still receives money from other branches of the family whose wealth continues to come from OxyContin revenue, for example the gift for theRaymond and Beverly Sackler Convergence Laboratory.
I am not here to start a movement to change the name of our school or other Sackler institutions. Far from it. I just want to start a discussion I think is important for us to have as students who have benefitted from the Sackler family’s wealth. In the last year or so it has become abundantly clear how essential it is for us to educate people on the importance of science and research, and I think it is equally as important for us to help spread knowledge about a current crisis, especially one that hits close to home. Massachusetts is amongst the top 10 states with thehighest rates of opioid overdoses, a rate more than twice that of the national average. If nothing else, I just want you to think about who and what you are representing the next time you wear your Sackler fleece down the street.
The Sackler Graduate Student Council (GSC) held an open meeting last week, on April 5, 2018. The turnout was good – every program had at least one non-GSC student at the meeting. “We want people to know what we do,” Rebecca Silver, our current GSC President, stated.
GSC meetings generally begin with an update from the treasurer, a monthly recap from the three sub-committees (Career Paths, Social, and Outreach), and conclude with action items. As the environment was low-key, non-GSC attendees comfortably offered thoughts and ideas on a variety of matters. If you want the low-down on what events the sub-committees have planned, check out The Goods email (arriving in your inbox weekly).
Sackler Relays was a big topic at this particular meeting. The event has been set for June 8th (mark your calendar!) and subjects ranging from raffle prizes to activities to food were discussed. A popular idea was to potentially have a faculty team for the first time – who doesn’t like a little friendly competition? All in all, a productive meeting. “And at the end of the day,” Silver said, “everyone got some free pizza!”
Chatting with the non-GSC attendees after the event, it was clear that many were curious about the kind of delegation that occurs on the council, wanted to have input, or were interested in becoming a representative for their program in the future. Just remember, according to the bylaws, all GSC meetings are open, and you can get in touch with your program rep(s) if you’re interested in attending regularly. GSC wants to hear your ideas!
Guest Post by Alyssa DiLeo (Neuro). Coffee & Conversation is a series of informal chats with women faculty on campus, hosted by Tufts GWiSE.
Tufts GWiSE kicked off our monthly Coffee and Conversation series this week with Dr. Claire Moore from the Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology department at Sackler. This series establishes a space to have a casual discussion with female faculty at Tufts to help build personal and professional networks and to share our experiences in science.
Claire grew up in Louisiana during the Civil Rights movement, which would end up being crucial to her future career goals. She understood the low expectations for women in the south: you graduate high school, maybe go to college, and start a family. But, she wanted more. Claire received a scholarship to attend MIT, which, at the time, had a 7:1 ratio of men to women students. She completed a combined BS and MS program graduating with degrees in chemistry and neuroscience. Claire was captivated by science and wanted to continue pursuing her career, but like many of us, took some time deciding what to do next. After a six-month stint in a wildlife biology program at Colorado State, Claire returned to Boston and worked in Phil Sharp’s lab. She demonstrated RNA splicing for the first time, work that would later earn Phil Sharp a Nobel Prize. If she had returned home, she knew she would have been flipping burgers instead of doing EM work in a prominent research lab. She stressed how important these opportunities and supportive mentors were to her career as a scientist since she too suffered from this confidence gap often seen in women. She didn’t believe she was good enough for a PhD, but that obviously turned out to be the well-known imposter syndrome talking, which she insists gets quieter with time. Claire obtained a Ph.D. in genetics in 1982 from the University of North Carolina before returning to Boston as a post-doctoral scholar in Phil Sharp’s lab. She joined the faculty at Tufts University in 1986 where her lab studies post-transcriptional processing of mRNA and its role in gene expression regulation.
Claire understood how important mentoring had been for her as an undergraduate and wanted to give back to the scientific community. Her upbringing exposed her to race and gender discrimination in the South and saw how roadblocks were built in front of people for reasons that were simply out of their control. She developed a summer training program which naturally progressed to the Post-baccalaureate Research Experiences Program (PREP) which places recent graduates interested in pursuing research careers in labs at Tufts. As if that wasn’t enough, Claire also established the training in Education and Critical Research Skills (TEACRS) program that prepares Tufts postdoctoral scholars for academic careers and supports them in pursuing teaching and mentoring activities.
Through these programs, it’s easy to see Claire’s dedication to mentoring at all career levels, especially to underrepresented minorities in science. This past year, in recognition of all she has done as a role model and mentor for women at Tufts, Claire was appointed to the Natale V. Zucker Professorship. This professorship provides her with the tools to further uplift women in science here at Tufts.
Claire told us to learn to be confident in asking for what we want, in saying no, and in asking for help. She encouraged us to find balance in our career roles and mostly pursue the parts that inspired us the most. Importantly, she also reminded us to foster relationships with each other and mentorships with women in higher positions. Claire said the first time she realized her gender could hinder her in science was when she realized her male mentors were more comfortable with male students who, in turn, received more mentorship. Well, we believe we just created our very own girls club.