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Body art and gratuitous displays

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

[A]s you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity.

[A]s you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity.

Q: I went to a graduate school where no one seemed to mind that I have tattoos and face and body piercings. Now, for my postdoc, I am at a more conservative place. Am I crazy to think that no one here can see beyond my body decorations?

—B.D. Covert, Berkeley, California

Dear B.D.,

A: You are not crazy, but you are naïve. Times are changing, and body decorations are more common and more widely accepted than they were a few decades ago. But acceptance is still far from universal.

As you apparently found in graduate school, there are places where a rebellious spirit, expressed in how you present yourself, is accepted or even celebrated. However, as you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity. Unconventional displays in clothing or behavior belie the seriousness of your commitment to your career. Have you ever seen a practicing male physician with long hair and a beard? A university president with a mohawk?

You are of course free to express yourself however you wish, as long as it doesn’t violate the law or university policy, compromise your safety in the lab, or offend your colleagues’ sensibilities. My advice, though, is to keep your cool, but keep it under wraps. Remove the nose ring and hide your other decorations under a long-sleeved black turtleneck and jeans. You can continue to reveal it all in the company of friends, away from your workplace. Once you’ve attained a tenured position, you can express yourself however you wish. But don’t jeopardize your career at this early stage with gratuitous self-expression.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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