Friday, August 14, 2009

PSIfi careers

Recently there was quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere regarding a former SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory technician destroying $500,000 worth of proteins crystals. This incident occurred at the Joint Center for Structural Genomics, a part of the NIH-funded Protein Structure Initiative (PSI). You can read about this incident over at DrugMonkey's place.

A couple of the comments following DM's post made the point that these PSI labs are little more than large protein structure factories. 'Tis true. According to the global repository of all that is worth knowing, Wikipedia, PSI labs produced >3400 new structures between the inception of PSI in 2000 and November 2008, with ~1900 being new folds. One can argue whether or not the scientific output is worth the (so-far) >$700 million cost - many people have, including prominent structural biologists such as Greg Petsko. I don't really want to get into that here. What I do want to talk about is one of the human costs of PSI.

PSI employees a great number of scientists. Many of these are employed as postdocs. The problem with this is that many of these "postdocs" aren't really receiving research training.* Sure, they solve many structures, but that in and of itself is not research. The PSI labs are trying to solve as many representative protein structures as possible and each (at least initially) tend(ed) to focus on a single organism (or maybe a couple) as the source of material. A postdoc in a PSI lab could solve a whole bunch of structures, but the only relationship between the proteins would be the organism they were derived from. Many of the proteins were/are of unknown function. And the vast majority of the publications reporting the structures are short letters or notes with many authors... This is not research and it is not research training.

We're not associated with PSI, but do happen to have very good facilities for x-ray crystallography at Big State U. Consequently, in recent faculty searches we have had quite a few applications from PSI-trained crystallographers. Despite long publication lists, none of them have ever made it to the interview pile. Why? Well, an unusually large portion haven't written a coherent research plan (unusually large compared to applications from non-PSI trainees). I suspect they simply don't know how to construct a worthwhile/fundable research project. They haven't received the training. Many of the remainder suggest decent systems to work on (proteins of medical relevance), but propose nothing more than crystallography, which nowadays is not enough to get funding. And they have no preliminary data. None.

You could argue that a postdoc who takes a position in a PSI lab hoping to move on to an academic career is naive. They are. Judging by the applications we've seen, there are a bunch of naive postdocs out there. However, I think the PSI labs share some responsibility here. They should make it very clear to postdoc applicants that the positions they are applying for are unlikely to provide the training necessary for an academic career. Perhaps some of them do. Even better would be to call the positions by a name other than "postdoctoral scholar/fellow/trainee" - something employing "technician" seems more appropriate.

Petsko has stated "As a structural biologist, I want to train people who use structure determination as part of what they do. It is not the end in itself, nor should it be, not any more."

Sounds about right to me.

* Many, not all. I am aware that some PSI postdocs receive excellent research training.


Comrade PhysioProf said...


Odyssey said...

I have similar issues with big science in general. I'm certainly not anti-big science* - in some cases it's necessary. However, whenever I see a paper with 75 gazillion authors (e.g. a report of a new genome), I always wonder how many of those authors were "trainees" and how little the effort they put into the work will aid their futures.

* I do believe PSI is a colossal waste of tax-payers money.

Milo said...

I work with two crystallographers. One is excellent at solving a structure once the data are gathered. The other knows how to apply the structure to functional questions. The difference in impact is amazing. ;o)

Samia said...

I am afraid of becoming a structure paean. :( My PIs come from diff backgrounds and neither are particularly pigeon-holy, so it may not happen unless I make bad lab choices later on. Still, it's definitely a fear of mine...

Odyssey said...

Just remember that the structure is itself a tool for understanding function - the structure is a beginning, not the endpoint. If you keep that in mind you'll not allow yourself to become a structure-producing drone.