Archive | July 2014

Biomedical Postdoctoral Council Newsletter, Summer 2014 (Volume 3, Issue 3)

The Summer issue of the BPC Newsletter is here! We have articles on the best coffee spots on campus, career exploration via informational interviewing, and scientific fraud – interesting topics for your summer reading!

Amy Ghiretti digs into coffee all over campus
Liisa Hantsoo gives you tips on informational interviewing
Reeteka Sud explores the complex issues surrounding scientific fraud

Please access the PDF here:


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The Daily Grind: 5 Coffee Options for the Postdoc On the Go

By Amy Ghiretti

ghiretti @

There are many factors that contribute to a successful postdoc: a good mentor, an interesting scientific question, stable funding, and a lot of luck. In addition, the importance of one final factor cannot be overstated – a solid source of caffeine. If you’re like me, your addiction started in college as an occasional boost to help with late-night exam studying, and turned into a full-blown daily habit sometime during graduate school. Whether your drug of choice is soda, green tea, or my personal favorite, coffee, proper caffeination gives the overworked postdoc that little extra boost needed to get going in the morning (and afternoon, and evening…). As scientists, we’re often on a tight schedule, so quality and convenience both need to be taken into account in choosing our caffeine stop for the day. To help you make an informed decision, here’s a rundown of some of the most convenient spots where you can pick up a quick cup of coffee between experiments (cash and credit accepted at all locations).


Au Bon Pain – (;; Biomedical Research Building Ground Floor, or UPenn Hospital Founders Building 2nd Floor)

It’s hard to argue with convenience – the two ABP locations on campus are connected to most of the nearby buildings by a series of pedestrian walkways, meaning lucky researchers don’t even need to go outside to get their caffeine fix. The coffee is self-serve and comes in a variety of flavors, but quality varies a lot depending on the time of day and how freshly it was made. A large will set you back $2.25, which seems standard for this area. Note that sandwiches, salads, and baked goods are also offered here, so it can get very crowded during the morning and lunchtime rush. Try to time your visit for the tail end of the morning rush, when crowds are smaller but the coffee has been turned over faster, increasing your odds of a fresh brew. Espresso drinks may be ordered at a separate window, and are not worth it here in my opinion. Regular ABP employees man the station, rather than trained baristas, so the quality is not the greatest. I’m pretty sure I got a mocha without any espresso one time, meaning I paid for a very fancy hot chocolate. The espresso drinks are one size only, and at $3.49 for the equivalent of a medium mocha, you’re better off sticking with a simple coffee for your quick caffeine boost.

Gia Pronto – (, Perelman Center Ground Floor, or 37th and Spruce)

Like ABP, one of these Gia Pronto locations is found right in a research building, while the other is a short walk away, and they both serve sandwiches, pizza, and salads in addition to coffee. There are fewer varieties of coffee to choose from than at ABP, and I find the regular coffee here to be very bitter- ABP has more choices and is much easier to drink for the same price. On the other hand, espresso beverages are consistently well-made here – the medium mocha at $3.00 is a good deal. The major drawback here is the ordering system- go right to the cashier to order and pay for coffee, but if you want any of the food items you have to stop at the designated counter before heading up to pay at the same cashier. This results in a bit of a free-for-all at busier times, so it’s a good idea to avoid the lunchtime rush here too. Otherwise, this is a solid go-to option for a quick espresso beverage.


Green Line Café– (; Ryan Veterinary Hospital 2nd Floor)

This small coffee stand is the most convenient on-campus option for our friends at the Veterinary School. The selection is very limited- regular coffee only, small or large, which is an even $2.00. The coffee is fine, but not anything special. If you happen to be in the area, it’s a good option, but nothing you need to go out of your way to try. The cute animals in the lobby waiting for their appointments are a nice bonus. Note that the stand closes at 3pm, so it’s only an option earlier in the day.

Jazz and Java- (; UPenn Hospital Founders Building, 2nd Floor)

Without a doubt, this is the best coffee location on campus- quality, price, and convenience, it has it all! Located in the Founders Building right next to one of the ABP locations, Jazz and Java offers both very good coffee – a large is just $2.10 – and a wide variety of well-made espresso beverages. They have some creative lattes and blended beverages if you’re looking for something sweet, but also make the basics consistently very well (a medium mocha is $3.85 and delicious). Overall, I have never had a negative coffee experience here. Note that a second Jazz and Java location used to be found in the School of Nursing’s Fagin Hall, but closed for renovations early this year. I’m told a new coffee place is opening in the same spot, but until then, Jazz and Java remains my go-to place on campus.


HubBub Coffee (; 37th and Spruce)

While not as quick and inexpensive as the on-campus locations reviewed in this article, a number of quality coffeehouses are located just off campus in University City if you can take the time to stop. My favorite is HubBub Coffee, which is still an easy walk from most of the research buildings. This is a quintessential coffee shop with great atmosphere and a friendly, competent staff- I’ve never had a bad drink here. The espresso beverages are well-made, and they serve gourmet coffees like Stumptown if you’re feeling fancy (if not, their house coffee is also very good). The only minor drawback is the prices – a large house coffee is $2.50, and a medium mocha is a hefty $4.85. However, for the increase in quality versus most on-campus locations it’s still well worth checking out. Get the loyalty punch card- buy 10 coffees, get 1 free.fa

Editor’s Note: A certain BPC member highly recommends the cafe in Williams Hall, although it was not included in this article – “student run apparently, and cheap and friendly,” he says. What’s your favorite coffee spot? Let us know in the comments below!

Career Exploration for Postdocs: The Informational Interview

By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D.

Image Credit: Altankoman,

Image Credit: Altankoman,


Maybe you’ve found yourself, mid-pipet, daydreaming of a career in biotech consulting. Your Western blot is making you want to move West to join a start-up, and crunching your numbers has you curious about big data careers.

You want to explore these career areas, but have no idea how to start. Taking time off to shadow someone might not be feasible. Doing an internship is a large commitment. So how do you know if that biotech startup career is really the thing for you? This is where informational interviewing can come in handy. It lets you experience a “day in the life” of another career without having to leave your bench. Informational interviewing is, quite simply, an interview you conduct with someone in a career field you’re interested in. The interview allows you to gather information about a particular career, before taking a larger plunge into that field. The informational interview is helpful for those in the preliminary stages of exploring alternative careers. For instance, perhaps I’m interested in several possible career paths – I might do informational interviews across a range of careers, talking with an administrator, a biotech entrepreneur, and a big pharma staff scientist. The informational interview is also helpful for those who have a good idea of the career path they want to follow, but want to get a variety of opinions from those in the field about their experiences. I might contact a few individuals in similar positions to help determine whether I want to work for a large pharmaceutical company, or whether am I better suited for a smaller company. In either case, the informational interview can be an invaluable source of practical information. Below, we outline a few tips for informational interviewing, along with advice from Rosanne Lurie, Senior Associate Director and Postdoctoral Fellow Career Advisor with Penn’s Career Services Office.

1) Identifying Your Interviewees

The first step is to identify people with whom you would like to conduct an informational interview. You might approach the alumni association of your undergraduate or graduate institution to see if they have a database of alumni career information. Another great place to start is LinkedIn – you can look for people with whom you share connections, or filter by your current institution or undergrad / graduate institution so that you have something in common. Lurie recommends trying the Penn Alumni Group on LinkedIn (1), to which postdocs have access with a Penn email address (even if they are not alums of Penn). She also says that “joining the LinkedIn group for professional associations, such as the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), is a great way to research career paths, [or] individuals who you might reach for informational interviews.” Or, you might go directly to the website of a company or organization you’re interested in, and look for staff or positions that interest you.

2) Making the Request

Once you’ve identified a few individuals you might want to interview, it’s time to get in touch. Emailing or sending a LinkedIn message is a good way to make contact. Let the person know your current position, how you found them, and that you are interested in conducting an informational interview to learn more about their field. A sample email might read:

“Dear Dr. X,

I recently came across your information in the ABC University alumni career database. I graduated from ABC in 2012 and am currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Pennsylvania. I am interested in learning more about careers in biotech consulting and noticed your work with XYZ Consulting Company. I thought that you might be able to share some of your experiences in biotech consulting. I was wondering if you might be willing to talk with me about your current position, how you came to your position, and any advice you might have for someone who is considering this career path. I appreciate your time.


Jane Doe, Ph.D.”

3) Setting Up the Interview

If the person is willing to do an informational interview, determine whether they’d prefer to do the interview via phone, email, online chat, Skype, or in person. The interview will likely take about 30 minutes, so let them know this and budget time accordingly. On your end, make sure that you have a good phone or internet connection if you’re using a cell phone or Skype. If you are doing an interview via Skype, or in person, you want to look professional, but do not need to dress as formally as you might for a job interview. The purpose of the informational interview is to gather information and build connections, not to ask or interview for a job.

4) Preparing Interview Questions

Finally, prepare your questions. You will want to have a range of questions ready – aim for 5 – 10 questions (you may not cover all of them, depending on time constraints). A good format to follow is “Present, Past, Future, Advice” – breaking the interview into four segments that focus on the interviewee’s current position, how they got there, where they plan to go next, and any tips they have to share. Come up with a few questions for each of these four categories. A few examples, based on those found in the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education’s Informational Interviews guide (2), are below.


-What are your current job responsibilities?

-What does a typical day / week look like for you?

-How would you describe your work environment?

-How is working in (industry / nonprofit / etc) different from working in academia? (You might break this into specific items, such as differences in environment, expectations, compensation (pay, hours, vacation, benefits package), and work-life balance.)

-What skills, educational background or credentials are important in this position?

-What personal qualities are important for someone in your field / position?

-What are the most challenging aspects of your job? What are the most enjoyable / rewarding aspects of your job?

-What is the average starting salary for someone in (field) in (city / geographical area)?

-How would you describe the work-life balance?



-How did you find your current position / what path did you take?

-How did you make the decision to enter this field?

-How did you organize your job search? What was the interview / selection process like?

-Are there things you wish you had known / done before entering this field / position?

-What helped you succeed in your first year in this position?



-What are the opportunities for advancement in this field?

-What areas of growth do you anticipate in your field in the next 5-10 years?

-What might be the next step for someone in your position?



-What advice would you give to someone in my position to enter / be successful in this field?

-Do you know anyone else who might be willing to talk with me about their career experiences?

-Are there other companies / positions you would recommend that I consider?

5) The Interview

Open the interview by introducing yourself, thanking the interviewee for their time, and setting the agenda. You might remind them of your current position, let them know that you’re currently exploring career options in their field, and are hoping to ask them a few questions about their current position and how they got there. You might ask them to begin by describing their current position or role in their organization. Once you’ve gotten a feel for their current role, it’s time to move into your specific questions – the main part of the interview. Finally, as the interview closes, thank your interviewee again. Let him or her know what you found value in talking with them. You might also ask to stay in touch, or ask whether it would be okay to contact them with follow-up questions. If the interview was not in person, you might ask if you can add them to your LinkedIn network, or if it was in person, you can ask for their business card.

6) Concluding

Following the interview, you will want to send a thank you note or email, ideally within 24-48 hours. Thank them again for their time, let them know that you appreciated the opportunity to talk with them, and note anything memorable about the interview. You might say that you hope to stay in touch, or let them know that they may contact you in the future should they be in need of your services. In fact, Lurie advises staying in touch with your interviewee, to let them know how you have followed up with their suggestions – for instance, reaching out to other contacts whom they had recommended.

It’s never too early in your career to start informational interviewing. To get started, check out resources listed below – NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education has how-to sheet on informational interviews (2), UCSF’s Office of Career and Professional Development has sample email requests, interview questions, and thank you notes (3), and of course, UPenn’s Office of Career Services has blog posts (4) and a great page on informational interviewing (5), with Do’s and Don’ts and sample questions. For those who might feel a little overwhelmed at the prospect, also has a very down-to-earth article entitled “5 Tips for Non-Awkward Informational Interviews,” (6). Finally, if you’re not sure how to start or want more information, Penn postdocs can contact the Penn Office of Career Services for an appointment (, or attend a walk-in session.

References and Resources:

(1) Information on using LinkedIn and the Penn Alumni group are here:

(2), see also Medicineinformationalinterviewletter-1





“Fraud in Science is Easy”

By Reeteka Sud, Ph.D., reeteka @

Image Credit: Pedro J. Perez,

Image Credit: Pedro J. Perez,

The title of this article is from the letter of justification written by Diederik Stapel, former Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg University, Netherlands. Once a highly respected Social Psychologist, Stapel was suspended and later dismissed from his position. Studies he orchestrated on human behavior had garnered wide coverage in mainstream media, and were published in Science (paper later retracted), among other top journals. In the weeks prior to his suspension in Fall 2011, some of his students had reported their concerns about Stapel’s data to the head of the department (also Stapel’s friend). As a result of the inquiries that followed, more than fifty of his papers were found to be fraudulent.

Another widely publicized high profile case was that of prominent cardiovascular researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Piero Anversa. Winner of the Research Achievement Award by the American Heart Association, Anversa had received over $50 million in NIH grants just since 2000. In recent years, top tier journals as Lancet and Circulation retracted his papers, and he was under investigation by Harvard University.

Stapel, Anversa, and then there was Hwang Woo-Suk, the Korean stem cell scientist who perpetrated one of the biggest scientific frauds. You can estimate the weight his name carried by the fact that when his 2005 paper arrived at Science, Woo-Suk was a familiar name in the journal’s editorial offices. The paper claimed, fraudulently we know now, to be a highly efficient method to clone patients’ stem cells.

If there’s one unequivocal bottom line from these cases, it is this: No scientist is established enough, no institute big enough, no impact factor high enough to be immune to fraud. In all three of these cases, papers were accepted in (and later retracted from) Science and Nature. Each of them, and many others like them, were highly revered and internationally renowned.


Why do such a thing?

“I do not suppose that personal advancement is a principal motive for cheating in science: rather it is the hunger for scientific reputation and the esteem of colleagues. And I believe that the most important incentive to scientific fraud is a passionate belief in the truth and significance of a theory or hypothesis”, wrote Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar 1. A common element does seem to be that these academic celebrities were convinced they had the answers before they did any experiments 2. Piero Anversa was so convinced of the central tenet of the lab’s research that members of his lab could be, and had been, dismissed if they so much as doubted the hypothesis 3.


Shades of grey

As egregious are frauds perpetrated by the likes of Dr. Anversa and Stapel, they are still outnumbered by the “borderline” cases; those that are not quite fraud, but close enough. For instance, in one case, one of the reviewers posted on the web a manuscript they were asked to review for a journal (personal communication). A graduate student is asked to exclude select numbers so that the data fit the PI’s hypothesis. Sometimes called “massaging” of data, this practice or tendency of selectively weeding out data points is, unfortunately, more commonplace. Self-plagiarism is another one, where the same data is published “dressed up” for multiple papers. This isn’t even considered fraud by many.


Finding the smoking gun:

In the opening quote of this article, Diederik Stapel stated: “scientific fraud is too easy, because there are too few control mechanisms in science.” The system runs on trust more than we think. This could be a reason that peer review doesn’t catch a lot of fraudsters. The reviewers are not looking for proof of misconduct. Combine this with the fact that current academic norms do not reward replication attempts for published data, and we have what’s been called “the myth of self-correction in science” 2.

In none of the high profile cases was it their first slip-up. Stapel, for instance, was reported to be fabricating his data since 1996 2 — that’s a span of 15 years before it came to light! In most cases, when scientific misconduct is discovered, it is people in the group who bring it to light. For this reason, it is utterly important that institutional safeguards be in place, official channels through which any scientist can report suspected fraud without fear of repercussion. At Penn, fortunately, we have such safeguards in place:


  1. Medawar, Sir Peter. (1983). Review of “Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science” by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. London Review of Books, 5 (21), 5-7.
  2. Stroebe, W., Postmes, T., Spears, R. (2102). Scientific Misconduct and the Myth of Self-Correction in Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 670-688. Available online at
  3. “Braggadacio, information control, and fear: Life inside a Brigham stem cell lab under investigation,”