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A 'Comprehensive' Career

Gale Rhodes

Tim Paglione constantly juggles his academic priorities. A tenured professor in Natural Sciences at York College at the City University of New York (CUNY)--and the only astronomer in his department--he teaches an equivalent of at least 21 hours of coursework each year, without teaching assistants. He is helping to build York College's observatory in Jamaica, Queens, and he works with school-age kids on Saturdays as co-director of the local NASA-funded Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA). He also maintains an active research program. "I wear a lot of hats," Paglione says. "At a small college that happens. They say that the reward for good work is more work."

Astronomy has been Paglione's passion since he was 12, but his academic job looks different than those of his graduate school and postdoctoral mentors at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts. Although academic tradition sometimes attaches a stigma to researchers who pursue jobs with high teaching loads, the U.S. Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 report that 44% of full-time faculty in 2003 taught as their primary work activity compared to 37% who primarily conducted research. Such institutions often have fewer financial resources and place more disparate demands on their faculty. But those who are up for the challenge are finding creative ways to pursue scholarship and combine it with teaching.

Teaching is #1

With course loads that range from two to four classes a semester and without teaching assistants to help with the grading, smaller public universities and comprehensive colleges expect faculty to focus on students and teaching when classes are in session. "People who come here take their teaching seriously. We want to do a top-notch job. It's expected of us, and we expect it of ourselves," says Emmanuel Chang, a chemistry professor who is also at York College.

Stefanie Baker thinks the biology faculty at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, which she joined in 2000, is the right fit for her. She was looking for an opportunity to teach and interact with students. As a graduate student she'd enjoyed teaching lab courses, but the grant writing she did as a postdoc left her cold. "I knew I didn't want a big public institution where my job depended on grant writing and less on what I did in the classroom," she says.

Stefanie Baker (left) with Erskine College students April Clayton and Brandon Brown

A research choice off the beaten path

As a graduate student at Duke University, Luke Dollar built a large externally funded research and conservation program in Madagascar where he studies the fossa, a large carnivore in the civet family. The National Geographic Society recently recognized him as an Emerging Explorer. During his job search, his options ranged from postdocs at research institutions to faculty positions at small colleges. With the research program in place, "what I had left to do is publish more" of his independent work. "So a postdoc didn't really fit," he says.

After finishing his Ph.D. in 2006, he took a faculty position at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, North Carolina. Despite a very heavy teaching load--he's teaching six classes this year--he knows that he's in the right place. "I'm sitting at National Geographic right next to the Leakeys talking about the future of the National Geographic Society, and I teach at a small private school that many people haven't heard of yet in rural North Carolina," Dollar says. "I wouldn't be as free to continue pursuing my academic curiosities if I were somebody else's postdoc. I would have much less opportunity to do the conservation and development work that my conscience tells me is the right thing to do … if I were dealing with the politics of a [research-university] department."

For scientists at similar institutions, limited financial resources and time pressures can provoke anxiety. Chang, also a first-year professor with a new Ph.D., was looking for a place where he could do research and teach. But his field, analytical chemistry, requires expensive instruments, so he is apprehensive about his funding future. His start-up package was roughly one-fifth what a colleague at a large public university received. "I feel confident that my ideas are good enough to go up against the rest of the world, but the question is, can I generate enough preliminary data fast enough" to obtain and maintain outside funding for his lab.

Finding resources (and time) for research

With most of their time during the semester devoted to preparing classes and labs, teaching, office hours, and grading, many of these scientists concentrate their research during the summer and the periods between academic terms. Tenure-and-promotion committees generally do take the greater teaching load into account in evaluating scholarly productivity. At Erskine, for example, teaching is weighted 50 percent with research and service each weighted 25 percent. Faculty and their institutions expect quality research, but they expect it at a slower rate. One paper per year, or maybe one every 2 years, published in good academic journals is considered acceptable.

When Brian Gilbert, now a chemistry professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, took his first academic position at Coastal Carolina University, he faced a conundrum. "I wanted to do research using Raman spectroscopy, but there was no Raman spectrometer there." So he and an undergraduate student synthesized the nanoparticles he wanted to study and he built relationships with researchers at the University of South Carolina and the state crime lab. He shared his expertise in exchange for the use of their instruments. A couple years later, Gilbert's department bought a tabletop Raman spectrometer and he got a small grant for his research.

Baker, too, leveraged her expertise and connections to establish a fruitful collaboration. In her case it was with Lesly Temesvari at nearby Clemson University. Temesvari is studying the organism Entamoeba histolytica but needed data in yeast. "I had the technology and the resources to work with the yeast," Baker says. "So she gave us the idea and we worked on that project."

Emmanuel Chang (right) demonstrating lab techniques to students at York College

Creative combinations

One way these professors are maximizing their time and resources is by working on projects that serve both their students' educational interests and their personal research goals. In a creative twist that blurs the line between research and teaching, chemistry professors at the University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland have created a sophomore organic chemistry lab course that also supports their research needs. In the first semester, the students become a research group, synthesizing a model compound of research interest to the professor teaching the course. In the second semester, the students divide into smaller teams and design syntheses for similar but novel compounds. The students learn laboratory skills and synthesize chemicals the faculty need for research. Students who have completed the course sometimes go on to work on individual research projects in the professor's lab.

At USM, both the research resources and the expectations for faculty have grown, particularly since the mid-1990s, says Gale Rhodes, a biochemistry professor there. "When I came here in 1985, nobody here knew what start-up money meant." Over the years, Rhodes has done laboratory research and published papers. But teaching is his primary interest, so he has focused his scholarship on writing a textbook and developing Web-based educational tools. After a sabbatical at Purdue University, where he learned protein crystallography, he wrote a textbook, Crystallography Made Crystal Clear , which is now in its third edition. The book introduces the basic concepts of crystallography in a way that's accessible to undergraduate students and others new to the field.

More recently, Rhodes wrote Web-based tutorials for two different software programs, RasMol and Swiss-Pdbviewer, which allow chemists and biochemists to examine molecular structures on their computers. "I've always looked for ways to turn things that I develop for teaching into scholarship," Rhodes says. "In evaluations, when people see that your teaching and scholarship are integrated with each other, that's kind of impressive. It shows that you're naturally creative in your teaching and are producing things that are useful to other teachers or just to other learners."

Surviving and thriving

Despite their demanding teaching schedules, some researchers manage to carve out time for traditional research during the academic year. Dollar will spend about 3 months in Madagascar this year. His colleagues are covering his courses during a research trip this month. Two Pfeiffer students will accompany him on a later trip.

Doing research during the academic year takes discipline and a variety of time-management strategies, says Paglione, who manages to do about a half-day's research in an average week during the semester. Paglione tries to get to the American Museum for Natural History in New York, where he is a Hayden Associate, to get away from his York College desk so he can focus on research.

Collaborative work with colleagues at other CUNY campuses allows him to finish a portion of a project, then pass it to a colleague while he grades midterms. When he collaborates with researchers with fewer teaching responsibilities, "I find myself apologizing a little bit," he admits. "They get a lot more done than I do." To further compartmentalize his work, he grades papers while commuting by subway, or at home at the kitchen table or on the couch, adding, "I never grade at my desk."

Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Brooklyn, New York.

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700040