By Kendall Powell
Science is cut-throat by nature, but how should young scientists handle working on competitive projects — or worse, getting scooped? Kendall Powell investigates how to release the pressure valve.
After her thesis committee meeting, Dalia Halawani breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, after switching labs twice, she had a road map laid out for her thesis. Halawani, a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, had spent the previous 18 months building the tools to investigate a key energy-transport enzyme. Two days later, a competing group published the answer in a paper that followed Halawani’s plan exactly.
“I was absolutely shocked,” says Halawani. “I thought that there was nothing left for me to address. I feared my competitor might be working on a follow-up paper.”
Working on a project at the cutting edge can make a thesis or postdoctoral project worth the long hours and tedious experiments. But it also increases the odds that another group will find those answers first. In the growing competition for funding, high-profile publications and jobs, a shrinking violet is unlikely to succeed. “I was given the hottest project in the lab, but this is the disadvantage,” says Halawani, of the project that had attracted such enthusiastic competition.
“If you are working in a team that is very open with each other, you will benefit,” says Didier Queloz, an astrophysicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “At 25, you are selecting a subject that you know almost nothing about, but you can select the person you are going to work with and judge, ‘Is this a nice guy?’,” he suggests.
Dalia Halawani callied after burning her fingers on a hot project.
Ten years ago, during his postdoctoral fellowship at Geneva, Queloz worked with Michel Mayor on one of the hottest topics in astrophysics at the time, the hunt for the first extrasolar planet. He says that trusting Mayor, who kept him informed of developments in the field, was key to their successful discovery of planet 51 Pegasi b.
Queloz says that trust was never more evident than when he showed Mayor his results, which included evidence of a surprisingly large Jupiter-like planet with a tiny four-day orbit. His adviser asked him if he was confident in his calculations only once. When Queloz said he was sure, Mayor supported him and his data to ensure they published a strong paper.
“There will still be stress and pressure, but if you are in a good environment, that will translate into excitement and wanting to work the weekend,” says Queloz.
Bruce Beutler, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, agrees, noting that he often tells graduate students to hurry up on projects he knows are in a race with another group. He points out that working weekends means you are putting in 40% more effort than someone working only weekdays. “In a foot race, it never gets to be 40% apart — someone wins by just a few steps. People should really put everything in that they can,” he says. Staying extremely focused is what led his group to be the first to show that a class of mammalian receptors sense bacterial invaders.
Molecular biologist Ming Tian at the University of Texas, Austin, says that joining a well-connected lab can help you stay ahead of the game. “You need to be informed of who is doing what,” he says. If your adviser knows many people in the field, attends lots of meetings and has many collaborators, you will be in a better position to know what other groups are planning. In many disciplines, researchers hesitate to discuss unpublished results at conferences. Instead, much of this information comes from informal conversations at the pub, casual phone calls or the rumour mill.
Michael Alvarez warns to watch out for signs of excessive pressure.
If you know someone is way ahead of you, don’t waste your time, Tian says. But he warns against getting too anxious about rumours: “If you have an idea you think is good, then just do your best to pursue it.” Besides, he says, you never know when another group might get stuck with a technical problem or decide to switch directions. As a postdoctoral fellow, Tian worked on characterizing the DNA recombination events crucial to forming antibodies, competing with other groups that were doing the same thing. In fact, a competitor published during Tian’s postdoc, but the paper was later retracted. Tian addressed the significant research question that the withdrawn paper left unanswered, published his results, and became a much more competitive job candidate in 2003 as a result.
Students should pursue two types of project, suggests Martin Latterich, a cell biologist at McGill and Halawani’s adviser. One should be high-profile, with a higher risk of getting scooped, and the other less ambitious but more likely to get published.
Having returned to academia from industry, Latterich also takes a lesson from the business world: “Create a niche that is truly unique and play to your strengths.” For example, use a model system, assay or bioinformatics approach that no one else is using. Beutler has similar advice to avoid direct competition — use an approach such as random mutagenesis that will yield unexpected results instead of “deliberately looking for the most obvious things”.
If the worst does happen, how does one recover? Gillian Wu, former dean of the science and engineering faculty at York University in Toronto, Canada, has a tiered strategy for her immunology group whenever a competing paper comes along. First, examine the paper with a fine-toothed comb and look for differences in your approaches, methods or results that your group could still capitalize on. If none arises, determine if your interpretations of the results differ enough to capitalize on those instead. Finally, if there are no differences overall, offer to collaborate with the group. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” she says. If this is not an option, move on to something new as quickly as possible.
Initially, Latterich and Halawani took a similar approach to getting scooped. First, they determined that the competing paper’s results made sense, on the basis of their own preliminary data. Next, being a smaller lab, they decided they wouldn’t compete head-to-head with their more established competitor by conducting the next most obvious experimental steps.
Halawani had already invested 18 months in the project, so abandoning it was not an option. She could have tried repeating her competitor’s experiments to see if her results differed, but that was a gamble she did not want to take. Instead, she and Latterich decided to use techniques unique to their group to focus on areas where they could quickly publish.
“This whole incident forced me to be more creative,” says Halawani. After getting over the shock of being scooped, she took a step back and wrote a review paper on the ATPase enzyme at the centre of her project. Doing a complete review of the literature, she learned which aspects of her project were most likely to be the focus of competing labs. “Now we are testing hypotheses and using models not used by people in this field,” she says, “so even if someone publishes something similar, we will have quantified it differently.”
Michael Alvarez, director of the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center in Palo Alto, California, says there’s one more thing you should do for yourself if you get scooped: “Take inventory of the good things that have come out of the time you’ve spent on your project.” This will remind you why you are doing this work in the first place, he says. The unpleasant reality of getting scooped does not lessen the skills and knowledge you gained.
It’s crucial to keep competition in perspective, or the pressure will get you down. Tian says young scientists should remember that scientific rivalry is not personal — it’s just part of the game. Build up your contacts, don’t burn them, adds Queloz. In any field, your competitors may turn out to be manuscript and grant reviewers, and even potential collaborators further down the road.
And being first is not synonymous with being successful. Although Beutler encourages his students and postdocs to hurry, he also warns them “not to shoot from the hip”. Scientists who publish uncertain results simply to be first will quickly lose the respect of their colleagues, he warns.
Martin Latterich: “Create a niche that is truly unique.”
Latterich says your perspective on getting scooped changes as you progress. “The investigator sees a much bigger picture.” Yes, some experiments were duplicated in another group, but now new angles will be pursued. At the same time, he acknowledges that getting scooped “devastated” Halawani, and that he had to switch into a more supportive adviser role, giving his normally independent student more encouragement and guidance.
Halawani says she copes with the pressure of competition by having lots of irons in the fire and investing herself 100% in finishing her doctorate. “If my protein expression fails, then my DNA cloning will work — that’s how I manage.”
Alvarez finds that a healthy amount of competitive pressure motivates people to perform better. It only becomes a problem when there is too little or too much. Pay attention to warning signs that the anxiety or stress may be reaching unhealthy levels, he advises.
“Watch out for both behavioural and mental state changes,” he says. Are you eating too much or not enough? Trouble sleeping or getting out of bed? Hitting the bottle more often? Do you have feelings of despair or is your stomach in knots when you come into the lab? These are red flags that your stress levels are too high — talk to your adviser or another mentor about how you might adjust your project to cope better.
Luckily Halawani has a glass-half-full outlook, no doubt inspired by her adviser’s attitude. “Don’t be discouraged if you get scooped,” Latterich says. “See it as a confirmation that what you are doing is important and interesting.”
Powell, Kendall. Nature 442, 842-843 (16 August 2006) | 10.1038/nj7104-842a. http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7104-842a