Interview with Scientist – Dr. Hank Cheng

Welcome back to the eLife Ambassador Interview with Scientist series.

This week we had a pleasure to talk to Dr. Hank Cheng. Dr. Cheng is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Novartis studying neuro-immunology. Prior to his postdoc, he completed his B.A. at UC Berkeley (2010) and Ph.D. at the University of Southern California (2016) in molecular biology, where he elucidated the role of the olfactory and immune system in mediating air pollution neurotoxicity. He would be interested in seeing systemic improvements in the publishing paradigm  in the context of career development for scientists.

Thank you Dr. Cheng for taking the time to talk to us.

Tell us something about yourself.

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation. Previously, I completed my undergrad at UC Berkeley where I did several research internships in biotech and government funded institutes and later completed a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California under the mentorship of Dr. Caleb E. Finch. Like many, my professional goals are to be able to explore exciting novel biology in pursuit of treatments and cures to unmet medical needs. In support of these goals, the published literature is an invaluable tool and source of innovative ideas.

What’s your area of research?

Neuro-immunology/inflammation

What do you think about the current publication trend?

Current publication trends do not seem to have changed in the past decade – the most exciting, unexpected, and innovative science made possible by new enabling technologies get published in the top tier journals, while a lot of great/good science that expands a field get published in respectable mid tier journals. For the better or worse, connections to editors and lab reputation may help in getting published in certain journals. Standards for data integrity for reproducibility and transparency (i.e. via STAR method) have improved the quality of science being published. However, in my own experiences and in the experiences of several other industry scientists I have spoken to, one of the biggest problems in the literature despite these new standards, is reproducibility. Surprisingly, lots of science in even the best journals are not reproducible in the hands of others, and there is little incentive to publish negative results. This means that time and resources could be wasted by multiple groups attempting to reproduce science that may only work under narrow and uncertain circumstances.

hank business profile2

Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?

In the current academic environment, this certainly seems to be a valid statement. In terms of securing funding, the NIH and many research foundations have been addressing these issues by giving more funding opportunities to young investigators. There is also a push to provide grants for riskier and potentially disruptive science (i.e the relatively new NINDS F32 which obviated the requirement for preliminary data in the proposal) rather than important but very safe, incremental science. However, as academics, if one cannot produce results/publications even after receiving grants, it is unlikely their employers will grant them tenure and their funders renew their grants.

What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?

They could be useful since you can advertise your work more quickly and get more exposure, but one can also risk getting scooped prior to publication in a formal journal (but at the same time those who try to scoop risk attempting science that has not been peer reviewed).

Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?

Absolutely not. I do not have the statistics, but I surmise the majority of non-scientists get their science news via social media platforms/news platforms. Because news platforms are incentivized by ratings and viewership, headlines are often sensationalized in a way that is often misleading (headlines stating that scientists have reversed Alzheimer’s disease without explicitly stating that this is in mice are a dime a dozen – and people like to share headlines before reading the contents). In addition, social media and freedom of information has this unfortunate side effect of creating self selective echo-chambers in which bunk science can easily thrive. Ways to improve science communication include improving education so we have a more science literate populace, selling cool science that works and excites the general populace (i.e the launch of SpaceX Falcon or recent advances in cancer immunology), and have stricter standards for science news article reporting (I imagine this isn’t practical on legislative level).

As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this?

Re-vamp the Ph.D. program to be more selective with higher stipends, and require that all graduate students take multi-disciplinary courses such as business, statistics, programming, and communications that have broad applications even within a science career.

What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?

Too many to name, but most require additional preparation. Medical science liaisons, industry scientists, medical writers, and consultants seem to be the most popular amongst my cohort of graduate students.

Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most?

I am a breakdancer and I enjoy participating in niche Asian cultural events.

What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?

The trend is clear and has been echoed by many top scientists. AI and data science, while still at its infancy in it’s applications to biomedical research and drug discovery, will almost certainly change the way we do science in the future. Meanwhile, genomics applications are improving health outcomes in the context of personalized medicine.

It was a pleasure speaking to you Hank and we wish you success with your career.

Disclaimer: These statements represent my own views and do not in any way speak for the views of my employer.

 

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