UPenn BPC Science Writing Contest


Biomedical research is about innovation, creative problem solving, and complex ideas. Findings in biomedical research can have important implications for human disease and health. However, sometimes these complex ideas can get lost in translation. How do we convey recent developments in biomedical research to a sophisticated lay audience?

Your task: Writing for a sophisticated lay audience, describe a recent finding in biomedical research that’s relevant and interesting in today’s world. The article should describe not only the new finding, but its background, and what makes it important for human health. Articles will be judged on scientific accuracy and citation of appropriate research, as well as an attention-grabbing title and engaging style that a lay reader can appreciate. Entries are limited to no more than 8,000 characters including spaces and must cite at least one scientific journal article. Entries are limited to UPenn-affiliated Biomedical Postdoctoral Program (BPP) biomedical postdocs. See detailed entry instructions below.

BPC Science Writing Contest Rules:

  • Respond to the prompt above; describe a recent finding in biomedical research, its background, and what makes it important for human health.
  • Entry must be no more than 8,000 characters including spaces, and not including Title and References.
  • Must include Title.
  • Must include at least one scientific journal article citation in a References section.
  • Entrants must be a current Penn Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP) postdoctoral fellow with valid UPenn-affiliated (e.g. Med, CHOP, Vet, Wistar, Monell) email address.
  • Entries will be judged on scientific accuracy, citation of appropriate research, engaging title and article content. Articles should describe scientific research; they should not be opinion pieces or focus on topics such as science policy, career issues, etc.

Entry Instructions:

  • Entries are due September 1, 2015, 11 p.m. EST.
  • Entries should be submitted at the following link: http://goo.gl/forms/ZIAA7jjm1e
  • If you have questions, please email BPC dot Newsletters at gmail dot com.


  • 1st Prize: $200
  • 2nd Prize: $50
  • 3rd Prize: $50
  • Winning entries will be featured in a Special Issue of the BPC Newsletter, and winners will be recognized at the UPenn Biomedical Research Symposium in October 2015.

For examples of scientific writing geared toward the sophisticated lay reader, take a look at the links below.


Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden. By CARL ZIMMER. JUNE 18, 2012


Evolution Right Under Our Noses. By CARL ZIMMERJULY 25, 2011


No Time for Bats to Rest Easy. By NATALIE ANGIERJAN. 12, 2015


Melatonin alterations in Huntington’s disease help explain trouble with sleep. By Leora Fox. October 07, 2014


Brief Report: Penn Science Policy Group – “Training The Biomedical Work Force: Natural Selection Or Pyramid Scheme?”

(BPC Newsletter Brief Reports are quick, up to the minute summaries of happenings on campus relevant to the postdoc community.)

By Tom Bebee, Ph.D.

Last night’s Penn Science Policy Group (PSPG) presented the topic “Training the biomedical work force: natural selection or pyramid scheme?” In response to changes in biotech and academic funding during the 1990s, there has been a steady increase in the number of STEM doctoral students (~30% increase). This growth has led to an increased number of STEM, and specifically life science, postdocs in the US (~40% increase). Unfortunately, academic tenure track positions for this growing population of postdocs has not grown at the same rate, and the same can be said for the biotech industry where new hiring and growth has plateaued. As only ~20% of postdocs will secure a tenure track position, and with the current academic funding cuts, the question is not can we continue on the current trajectory but rather how can we adjust the training model in STEM. Several proposed changes are outlined here: (1) Instituting a 5 year maximum tenure for postdocs while increasing postdoc salaries. This will reduce the number of available positions but will select for the most talented postdocs. Along these lines are a proposed funding mechanism for “super-postdocs,” paid at a higher salary that extends beyond the 5 year time-frame. This has already been initiated in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) (although only 50 positions for ~40,000 postdocs). (2) Reducing the number of graduate students admitted to doctoral programs, thus reducing the number of PhDs generated. (3) Implementing earlier education and career/mentoring efforts at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels with emphasis on career paths outside of academics and industry. This would require mentorship teams encompassing other mentors outside of the academic setting. (4) Redirecting some of the NIH/NSF funding away from R level funds toward more training level grants (i.e. T, F, and K awards). This could reduce number of trainee spots by “regulating” the available funding for trainees. (5) Increasing the NIH/NSF budget to accommodate more new faculty and retain trained “postdocs” to bridge the gap to independent faculty positions.
What is clear about the current situation regarding the surplus of STEM, and specifically life science postdocs, is that effective change will require a consensus and directed efforts at the national, university, and individual laboratory level. Moreover, the change will not be immediate and will require time for any of these proposed efforts to alter the landscape of the academic PhD training programs.

For more info, see http://pennsciencepolicy.blogspot.com or follow @UPennSciencePol.

Penn Represented at the 2015 National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Meeting

By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D. LiisaHa2 @ mail.med

“Remain positive, remain relentless; the future is in your hands.” It was with these words that Dr. E. Albert Reece welcomed nearly four hundred attendees to the 13th Annual Meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). The NPA, established in 2003, aims to advocate for postdocs, develop resources to support postdoctoral training, and to build community. The NPA works with federal agencies, such as the NIH and NSF, to enhance postdoctoral training, and has laid out Recommended Practices (1) that have been adopted by dozens of institutions nationwide. The annual meeting, that took place in Baltimore from March 13-15, served as a platform for discussing policies relevant to postdoctoral fellows. It was also a “celebration of community,” emphasized Belinda Huang, Ph.D., Executive Director of the NPA. The University of Pennsylvania was represented at the conference by five Penn and one CHOP biomedical postdocs, plus Mary Anne Timmins and Morgan Hiles from the Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP) office, David Taylor from Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at CHOP, technology licensing officer Carole Burns, Ph.D., and our BPP Associate Dean, Susan Weiss, Ph.D.. The Penn team attended a plethora of workshops and panels, and presented posters on postdoctoral initiatives at Penn.

NPA Keynote Address. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

NPA Keynote Address. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

The 2015 meeting kicked off with a Keynote Address by Rosina Bierbaum, Ph.D. Her speech, titled “From the Lab to the White House and Back: Bridging the Science – Policy Gap,” focused on the difficult dance between scientists and policymakers. She encouraged researchers to be “civic scientists” and emphasized that “science that is not shared is not used.” She also reflected on the need for scientists to communicate their ideas effectively, stating that in terms of policy, “if the science can’t be understood, it’s not really there.”

On the workshop level, there was significant focus on improving the postdoc experience for minorities and women in science. One workshop discussed efforts that have been made at a number of institutions to create a structured support system and mentoring for minority postdocs. They encouraged “proactive, purposeful” mentoring. Another workshop addressed challenges facing women as postdocs, including family formation and the “leaky pipeline,” isolation, appropriate professional development, and finding adequate mentoring and support. Workshop members broke into small groups to discuss these issues and offer insight on how they might be improved. Other workshops offered practical career skills for postdocs. For instance, one workshop walked postdocs through the process of salary negotiations, giving them practical tips and simulated practice. Postdoc and Penn Center For Innovation (PCI) Fellow, Vladimir Popov, and PCI Licensing Officer, Carole Burns, presented an interactive workshop on careers in technology commercialization, with emphasis on tech transfer and intellectual property.

NPA Plenary Session. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

NPA Plenary Session. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

“Innovation in Action” sessions focused on distilling the chatter into usable bits, using an interactive format and solution sharing. The “Future of Research” session encouraged postdocs to brainstorm solutions for problems in training, transparency, connectivity, funding mechanisms, and competitiveness. Breaking into four groups, postdocs thought, talked, and littered the conference room walls with colorful Post-It notes scribbled with their ideas on how postdocs might tackle these challenges.

NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: Liisa Hantsoo

A poster session allowed postdoctoral programs from across the U.S. to highlight the work that they do to improve the postdoctoral experience on their own campuses. From Penn, Terry Cathopoulis, Ph.D. and Amita Bansal, Ph.D. presented “Researchers Hosting Vendors: A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement,” that described Penn BPC’s fundraising via vendor shows, and Adam Walker, Ph.D. and Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D. presented “The Biomedical Postdoctoral Research Symposium – A Template for Collaborative Organization of a Scientific Meeting for and by University Postdocs,” focusing on Penn’s annual BPC symposium featuring postdoctoral research. From CHOP, Paulette McRae, Ph.D., presented “Fostering Careers Beyond the Bench: The Evolution of the CHOP Administration Fellowship.” The posters were well received, and sparked conversations with representatives of other postdoctoral associations across the country who were interested in modeling Penn’s experiences to build events at their own institutions.

Penn postdocs present at the NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: BPC Staff

Penn postdocs present at the NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: BPC Staff

Penn postdocs present at the NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: BPC Staff

Penn postdocs present at the NPA Poster Session. Image Credit: BPC Staff

The annual meeting closed with a Town Hall, in which findings of the 2014 NPA Institutional Policy Report (2) and the National Academy of Sciences’ “The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited” (3) were discussed. Topics included postdoctoral compensation, benefits, length of postdoctoral training, and career trajectories, among others. While the findings showed some progress in recent years, much more is needed.

NPA Town Hall Meeting. Image Credit: Jessica Polka

NPA Town Hall Meeting. Image Credit: Jessica Polka

Terry Cathopoulis, Ph.D., BPC Fundraising Committee Co-Chair and one of Penn’s poster presenters, said of his experience, “’Postdocs and postdoctoral office administrators alike were genuinely interested in adopting [Penn BPC’s] vendor show fund-raising model. It was rewarding to be able to share this to the benefit of other postdoctoral bodies and contribute to a greater sense of inter-institutional community. I’m already receiving emails from people I met at the poster session that are looking to enact vendor show on their own campuses.” Adam Walker, Ph.D., BPC Co-Chair, described the NPA meeting was “an invigorating experience – in complete contrast to the sometimes stressful environment of a scientific conference, the NPA meeting presented opportunities to swap ideas openly, discuss and brainstorm ways to improve the postdoc experience.” He added that he would recommend this meeting to “postdocs who appreciate that the postdoctoral experience is more than just about working in the lab, and who are seeking additional ways to extend their professional training.” Penn’s attendees agreed that the workshops devoted to advancing individual professional skill sets were also useful.

Following the NPA meeting, the BPC representatives plan on using the knowledge gained to instigate new programs at Penn in conjunction with the Biomedical Postdoctoral Program office. These include further investigating ways to advocate for improved postdoc conditions, formulating a directed mentoring program, and other career development training opportunities.

The NPA meeting is held each spring; next year’s will be in Michigan. Registration will open in early 2016 at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/meetings-and-events-4/annual-meeting. If you are interested in representing Penn at future NPA Meetings, please contact the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC). In addition, as the University of Pennsylvania is a sustaining member of the NPA, BPP-represented postdocs are eligible for free NPA affiliate membership. Members gain access to numerous career development resources and can help shape future policy development. Affiliate membership is available at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/membership-6/member-categories/affiliate-member.


(1) http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/recommendations

(2) http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/27-news-items/front-page-news/898-the-national-postdoctoral-association-releases-report-from-its-institutional-policy-survey

(3) http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18982/the-postdoctoral-experience-revisited

Going Abroad for the Pursuit of Science

Simone Temporal, Ph.D. Tweet @SimoneTemporal

On March 2, 2013, I arrived in the sunny south of France with my life whittled down to two suitcases and feeling full of hope. Eight months earlier, I had accepted a postdoctoral position to join a lab in France. Friends and family were excited about the location. For me, the position was an opportunity to be more competitive in the academic job market with research related to a neurodegenerative disease using a mammalian animal model… which just so happened to be in France. My goal was to have my own lab some day and I knew what I needed to put on my curriculum vitae to get it – publications in top journals. I also arrived with confidence. When I graduated, my fellow labmates told me that they would be lost in lab without me because I managed the lab, made the orders, and trained all the newbies. I felt hopeful, focused, and confident. Several months later, I would feel despondent.

My first sunset in Aix-en-Provence, France, 3 March 2013. Photo credit: Simone Temporal

My first sunset in Aix-en-Provence, France, 3 March 2013. Photo credit: Simone Temporal

My downward spiral happened gradually. The people in my lab* were cordial. I was invited to join everyone for lunch and the occasional social outings. But everyone at work spoke French. During my interview, my boss assured me that I would not need French for work because everyone in lab speaks English since it’s the international language of science. He meant everyone would speak English with me. Besides lunch and coffee breaks, most seminars, departmental meetings, and even some parts of my group’s** meetings were held in French and the technicians spoke limited English.

At first, I embraced the challenge. I reasoned that I needed to absorb French anyway to adapt to my new resident country and to make friends. I was adamant to not become the stereotypical American, who expected everyone to speak English. I poured myself into the free French lessons through my funding agency and immersed myself by listening and watching only French programs even at home.

After 3 months of this, I lost myself. Listening to other people’s conversations during lunch and coffee breaks without a chance to reciprocate and take part became cruel. I stopped going to work gatherings. I thought, “Why should I go if I I’m not going to be actively involved?” My position in France was an extreme change. I was a significant part of my previous lab and felt like a ghost in my current one. I developed the habit of crying nightly but dismissed my feelings as homesickness.

I tried to regain my confidence by engrossing myself into the one thing I loved – science. I took advantage of not being able to sleep by getting to work by 6 am. I developed two successful protocols and generated data ahead of schedule. When my boss saw my progress, he told me my work had the potential for a Nature publication! I continued to cry at night and sleep very little but the prospect of a Nature paper made it ok…for another month.

After a month of generating another data set for the possible Nature paper, the analysis showed that the experiment didn’t work. I unraveled. I handed in my resignation and instead of accepting it my boss gave me a week off. When I returned, he convinced me to stay for the sake of my career, which would advance with the high-impact publication.

I stayed for another 8 months. Despite making a few friends, going out, and taking yoga, during this time I not only continued to cry at night but also developed a paralysis about going to work. There were days that I would be dressed, ready for work and couldn’t walk out the door. This experience depleted my confidence. I took pride in my work but found myself unable to even make the little effort to go.

In May 2014, I decided to make a pit stop at my old lab during a visit to the U.S. to finalize data for my second first-author publication in person. The halls to my lab had changed but just walking back reminded me of a time I loved going to work. I felt a bounce in my step.

I also saw three friends during my visit. The friends whom I stayed with prepared tacos and a special breakfast just for my visit and we played board games. Another friend and I watched Frozen, ate pizza, and played video games. The time reminded me of happiness. When I returned to my friend’s place that night, I emailed my resignation letter and didn’t waiver when my boss reminded me of the Nature paper when I returned to France and spoke to him face-to-face.

New Year's fireworks in Philadelphia at 6 pm 31 December 2014. This is how I felt after being in Philadelphia for six months. I spent this day with my new friends whom I have since become closer. I also see my family more often with weekend trips to New York City. Photo credit: Simone Temporal

New Year’s fireworks in Philadelphia at 6 pm 31 December 2014. This is how I felt after being in Philadelphia for six months. I spent this day with my new friends whom I have since become closer. I also see my family more often with weekend trips to New York City. Photo credit: Simone Temporal

At the end of May, I returned to the U.S. with the same two suitcases but with new insights included. I had discovered what I truly needed, and to my surprise it wasn’t career advancement by way of Nature. I honestly thought that my work achievements got me out the door in the morning and that the people (my labmates and mentor) were just the cherry on top. I ignored my emotions for months for the sake of my ambitions and didn’t credit the true aspects of my life that gave me a sense of fulfillment, like tacos, board games, and movies with friends. Lastly, my experience taught me the simple human desire to belong. After my experience, I realized that it’s not enough to be tolerant but inclusive as well. It’s a nice gesture to invite someone along for lunch, but it’s a more rewarding experience for everyone if they’re included in the discussions.

The silver lining of such extreme situations is that they shake you to the core, and at the end you’re grasping what it is that you really hold dear.

Image Credit: Simone Temporal

Image Credit: Simone Temporal

*In France, a “lab” refers to those who share the same department head

**In France, members of a “group” shares the same primary investigator

Asking for a Small Piece of the Nation’s Pie

by Rosalind Mott, PhD

Overall, the NIH has received straightforward bipartisan support; in particular, the doubling of the NIH budget from FY98-03 led to a rapid growth in university based research. Unfortunately, since 2003, inflation has been slowly eating away at the doubling effort (Figure 1). There seems little hope for recovery other than the brief restoration in 2009 by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Making matters worse, Congress now has an abysmal record of moving policy through as bipartisan fighting dominates the Hill.


Fig 1: The slow erosion of the NIH budget over the past decade
(figure adapted from: http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43341.pdf)

Currently, support directed to the NIH is a mere 0.79% of federal discretionary spending. The bulk of this funding goes directly to extramural research, providing salaries for over 300,000 scientists across 2500 universities. As the majority of biomedical researchers rely on government funding, it behooves these unique constituents to rally for sustainable support from Congress. Along with other scientists across the country who are becoming more politically involved, the Penn Science Policy Group arranged for a Congressional Visit Day (CVD) in which a small group of post doctoral researchers and graduate students visited Capitol Hill on March 18th to remind the House and Senate that scientific research is a cornerstone to the US economy and to alert them to the impact of the erosion on young researchers.

Visiting Congress to further science policy. Image Credit: BPC.

Visiting Congress to further science policy. Image Credit: BPC.

Led by post-docs Shaun O’Brien and Caleph Wilson, the group partnered with the National Science Policy Group (NSPG), a coalition of young scientists across the nation, to make over 60 visits to Congressional staff. NSPG leaders from other parts of the country, Alison Leaf (UCSF) and Sam Brinton (Third Way, Wash. DC), arranged for a productive experience in which newcomers to the Hill trained for their meetings. The Science Coalition (TSC) provided advice on how to effectively communicate with politicians: keep the message clear and simple, provide them with evidence of how science positively impacts society and the economy, and tell personal stories of how budget-cuts are affecting your research. TSC pointed out the undeniable fact that face to face meetings with Congress are the most effective way to communicate our needs as scientists. With the announcement of President Obama’s FY16 budget request in February, the House and Senate are in the midst of the appropriations season, so it was no better time to remind them of just how important the funding mechanism is.

Representatives from the Penn Science Policy Group meet with lawmakers. Image Credit: BPC Staff.

Representatives from the Penn Science Policy Group meet with lawmakers. Image Credit: BPC Staff.

Meeting with the offices of Pennsylvania senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, and representatives Glenn Thompson and Chaka Fattah were key goals, but the meetings were extended to reach out to the states where the young scientists were born and raised – everywhere from Delaware to California. Each meeting was fifteen to twenty minutes of rapid discussion of the importance of federally funded basic research. At the end of the day, bipartisan support for the NIH was found to exist at the government’s core, but the hotly debated topic of how to fund the system has stalled its growth.

Image Credit: BPC Staff.

Image Credit: BPC Staff.

Shaun O’Brien recaps a disappointing experience in basic requests made to Senator Toomey. Sen. Toomey has slowly shifted his stance to be more supportive of the NIH, so meeting with his office was an important step in reaching the Republicans:

We mentioned the “Dear Colleague” letter by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) that is asking budget appropriators to “give strong financial support for the NIH in the FY2016 budget”. Sen. Toomey didn’t sign onto it last year, especially as that letter asked for an increase in NIH funding to $31-32 billion and would have violated the sequester caps-which Sen. Toomey paints as a necessary evil to keep Washington spending in check. I asked the staffer for his thoughts on this year’s letter, especially as it has no specific dollar figure and Sen. Toomey has stated his support for basic science research. The staffer said he would pass it along to Sen. Toomey and let him know about this letter.Unfortunately, three weeks later, Sen. Toomey missed an opportunity to show his “newfound” support for science research as he declined to sign a letter that essentially supports the mission of the NIH.  I plan to call his office and see if I can get an explanation for why he failed to support this letter, especially as I thought it wouldn’t have any political liability for him to sign.

Image Credit: BPC Staff.

Image Credit: BPC Staff.


Working with Congressman Chaka Fattah balanced the disappointment from Toomey with a spark of optimism. Rep. Fattah, a strong science supporter and member of the House Appropriations Committee, encourages scientists to implement twitter (tweet @chakafattah) to keep him posted on recent success stories and breakthroughs; these bits of information are useful tools in arguing the importance of basic research to other politicians.

Keeping those lines of communication strong is the most valuable role that we can play away from the lab. Walking through the Russell Senate Office building, a glimpse of John McCain waiting for the elevator made the day surreal, removed from the normalcy of another day at the bench. The reality though is that our future as productive scientists is gravely dependent upon public opinion and in turn, government support. The simple act of outreach to the public and politicians is a common duty for all scientists alike whether it be through trips to the Hill or simple dinner conversations with our non-scientist friends.

Participants represented either their professional society and/or the National Science Policy Group, independent from their university affiliations. Support for the training and experience was provided by both the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (Cambridge, MA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS of Washington, DC).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.