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Scientific Research Funding

Careers in Science From the Field

Theodore Poehler is Vice Provost for Research at The Johns Hopkins University and is primarily responsible for promoting the commercialization of Johns Hopkins-based research. He serves as the university's primary contact with the business community and with government on local, regional and national economic development issues.

Dr. Poehler holds a M.S. and Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University and has published 140 papers. He has also earned 10 patents, including one for an all-plastic battery that he developed with colleague Peter Searson. Popular Science magazine honored the battery with a "Best of What's New" award, naming it one of the top 100 new products, technology developments and scientific achievements of 1996.

What is your profession?

I have multiple professions. I am a lifelong researcher and faculty member, but I have also been involved in administrative positions as well. My principle responsibility at Hopkins is as Vice Provost of research, which means basically having oversight over research programs, policies and problems across all of JHU. That is what consumes a large part of my life these days.

What are the policies/problems that you deal with day to day or in a week?

There are a number of different administrative operations that report to me, including research projects administration, the technology transfer office, the enterprise development office, and research compliance. Overall, I am responsible for what the university is doing in a variety of areas. I have some with large numbers of people that are under my management, along with a number of other senior people who run the various functions under my direction. I am generally responsible for how things work at JHU. Additionally, if there is a problem that we might have internally, or if the government has a problem, then I am part of a small group of people who deal with problems that arise. It is a fairly wide ranging set of activities.

What are the most important personal satisfactions connected with your occupation? dissatisfactions?

On the plus side it is a very large and very interesting institution. Every day there are new things to deal with, sometimes very exciting, sometimes not so exciting. It is a very active and interesting environment. I am dealing not only inside of JHU's nine divisions. It is in a lot of ways very exciting, because I am in a position to help make things happen. Where my job stands, there is the President, then 2 senior vice Presidents, one for administrative affairs, one for academics. Under each one of those there are "vice president" positions, which on the academic side are called Vice Provosts, making me two steps removed from the president. There is a great deal of opportunity, both within the university and without, to influence what is happening in scientific research. Where I am at JHU, I get to be part of the conversations inside and outside the university on what is happening in science and with the government, so it is a very demanding and exciting thing to do. This is also probably the downside--that it is very demanding and there is a lot to do in a week or a day.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

The scientific challenges or ‘other'? They really come in both flavors. We have cutting-edge research and facilities where we are ahead of the field. There are also issues that arise because the environment for academic administrators and scientists is different than what existed 20 years ago. It is becoming a very difficult thing to maintain the integrity of the academic institutions and also cope with the regulations for national security and other issues coming down from the government. It is not that we disagree with most of those policies; it is just that it takes a lot of work and adjustment to get used to them. Some of the other challenges have to do with how are we doing human subject and animal experiments. Are we following the rules? Are we doing everything properly? There are lots of rules and details that have to be followed, and that is challenging. There was a story in the paper about a group that is criticizing NIH's budget and the research they undertake because they feel that it is research being done in areas where NIH should not conduct research. NIH awarded 150 scientists working on AIDS research with medals this year because groups have been so critical of government-funded AIDS research. Some of those people are working at Hopkins, so we have to figure out how to respond to the protests against NIH funding their work.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

You have to be a good scientist. It is an unspoken requisite, but its true. Science these days is extremely competitive, a great deal more so than it used to be. More people are engaged, very bright people, so every time there is something interesting, there is a huge rush to do things. Getting funding to do work is very competitive, so you really have to not only be good and smart, but have good oral and written communication skills to make the case for what you want to do. It is not trivial to succeed in science anymore these days, so the classic cartoon pictures of scientists do not really hold anymore.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

Obviously it takes a certain academic preparation. We also believe that people need practical exposure to the field that they are going to work in. This is internships, research, etc. to see if you like what you want to do. You have to make sure you get proper exposure to your field so that you do not decide in 10 years that you are not doing what you thought you wanted to do. You need a fine education, but also some meaningful experience in things close to where you hope to be as a professional.

What is your educational background and what type of background is generally required to work in your type of position?

I started in college as a chemistry major, and decided it was kind of boring, which is kind of ironic. So I switched into engineering and then in graduate school started in engineering, but took the courses you need for a PhD in physics also. I worked in a mixture of physics and engineering and a little bit in chemistry. Over the years in my research, I started in physics and materials researching and ended up doing a lot of work in chemistry, dealing with organic materials and things of that nature. So a lot of what I have done in the last 20 years is more chemistry-related, which, like I said, is kind of ironic. So in fact my early view of chemistry was rather wrong, and I have done a lot of work collaborating with chemists. What I have found is that all these disciplines, when you get to the higher end of them, they kind of merge. There is almost a continuity between the high ends of chemistry and physics and materials and engineering. That is one of the things that I find very important, that you have to see the whole picture, which I know is hard as people enter fields, but ultimately when you see the connectivity and how everything fits together you see that there is a lot in common in the theory and also the practical aspects of the chemistry and physics materials and engineering. But it takes a while to get to that point.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

It depends on what the profession is. You can get a bachelor's degree in various scientific fields and find some positions, although they tend to be in the lower end in the sciences. If you want to be a researcher where you call your own shots, you have to have a doctorate and enough of a pedigree that people believe in you. Another thing you need in these fields is that you have to have ideas. If you want to be a researcher you have to have more than just a good education. You have to have your own ideas and start new things. The best researchers are the ones with ideas. Initiative and ideas are both characteristics that I would attribute to successful researchers. That is especially true in academic environments, more so than in industry or government research because you are just given a lab and told ‘go to it.' The creative spark is really important. Creativity is critical in any scientific or scholarly area.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

It is highly variable and depends on the profession. There are salary surveys that are published online by various groups, such as AAAS. There is a huge range, depending on your success, seniority, your profession and industry. Even the starting salaries have huge variance with a BS. If you have a PhD you get a little bit more because you have more education and more experience. Once you become a contributing member you are well taken care of, but it still depends on where you are. If you are at a top 10 university in the country you are going to get paid one thing as an assistant professor, whereas at a very small college or university the pay scale is very different. It is so variable that it is hard to give a meaningful number. Generally people are pretty well compensated--not like baseball players, but we are not entertainers.

In addition, I read James Savage on the problems of academic earmarking. He was very critical of that process, arguing very strongly for the peer review process instead. Can you discuss the differences between the two and each methods advantages and disadvantages?

Putting it simply, many universities, including this one, are largely against earmarking. Philosophically we disagree with it; we believe in the peer review process. You will find dissenters from that, and some have rationales for why they do not like the peer review. For example, too much money goes to the elite few and does not yield fair treatment for all researchers. But we believe in the peer review process. Many institutions that are not historically elite research institutions feel left out and do not get enough money, so the only way they feel they can get funding is to go to a senator and see if they can slip something in a bill. The chronicle of higher education publishes earmarking reports every year. Now even though we are against it, there are a couple of earmarks for JHU because one person at Hopkins will go to congress and make the case and get something in a bill. If we find out ahead of time we generally tell the person not to do it. We are not in favor of it; we do not think it is the right way to do things. There are now federal programs set up to give money to institutions that do not normally receive research grants. Therefore, they do not have to compete against the big research institutions and instead only against other smaller schools that have not historically received funds. This is clearly preferable to simply having something stuck in a bill. A big problem is that an earmark generally takes money away from other programs that government agencies were planning to fund. Thus earmarks can occasionally be counterproductive in the long run, because agencies become agitated at schools that do this, in addition to being simply philosophically opposed to it.

Submitted by: Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern