The Impact and Importance of Early Career Research

April 16, 2019
Hertz Staff
Livermore, Calif

Scores of federal agencies, charitable foundations and other organizations support young researchers during their early careers, a period that spans graduate school, postdoctoral appointments, and the launching of their work as independent scientists and engineers. The Hertz Foundation offers its own unique flavor of early career research support.

The Foundation awards Hertz Fellowships annually to students in the applied physical, biological, and engineering sciences who have the potential to change the world by solving real-world problems. The Fellowships provide five years of academic support worth up to $250,000, along with the freedom to pursue innovative projects wherever they may lead. Such support becomes increasingly important in today’s ever more competitive funding environment for researchers of all ages. A lack of such support puts at risk the steady stream of scientific and technological advances that society has come to routinely expect.

The Hertz Foundation spoke with three of its Hertz Fellowship interviewers to gain their insights about the real-world impact that can result when young scientists and engineers are empowered to pursue their passions. Their comments pertained to the formative work that researchers do up until the age of 35 or 40, spanning graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and their early careers as independent researchers. They also discuss how their own careers benefited from the intellectual freedom that Hertz Fellowships provided them, and the evolving nature of the research enterprise and its shifting challenges over the years.

The participants were:
W. Neil McCasland, Director of Technology, Applied Technology Associates, an aerospace technology and products company. Gen. McCasland had previously commanded the Air Force Research Laboratory and managed its $2.2 billion science and technology program. McCasland retired from the military in 2013 after a 34-year career. His Hertz Fellowship years were from 1979-1988. He has served as a Hertz Fellow interviewer for 14 years.

Jessica Seeliger, Assistant Professor of Pharmacological Sciences, Stony Brook University. She specializes in the cellular membranes of pathogens, such as the one that causes tuberculosis, which determine how a cell communicates with its environment. Seeliger’s Hertz Fellowship years were from 2001-2006; she has five years of experience as a Hertz Fellow interviewer and now serves on the selection committee.

Philip Welkhoff, Director of the Malaria Program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Welkhoff, an expert in developing computer simulations of malaria, polio, and other disease transmission, leads the malaria program at the Gates Foundation to accelerate eradication of the disease. Welkhoff’s Hertz Fellowship years were from 2004-2009. He has interviewed at least half of the finalists for Hertz Fellowships each year for the last 10 years.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s start by defining early career research, which traditionally has meant the formative work conducted up until the age of 35 or 40. What do we really mean by early career research, and why is it so important to the development of our scientists and engineers?

Jessica Seeliger: Early career is your first independent research as a group leader or as an independent scientist running your own research program, so it’s not so much about age as the stage at which you’re doing research. You’re starting to synthesize all the things you’ve experienced as an undergraduate and as a graduate student and putting them together in new ways. Some people are fortunate enough to do that as a graduate student, and the Hertz Fellowship really prides itself on giving students the freedom to do that synthesis early on. This is one of the ways the Hertz Fellowship is so impactful.

Philip Welkhoff: The early career research interval is a really interesting transition because learning to do research yourself would probably start happening as an undergraduate. Some of this year’s Hertz applicants and other recent years started doing publishable, high-level research even in high school. You start learning to do research under the guidance of someone else. Someone else said, “This is an interesting problem. This is how you do research. This is the methodology. This is how you use the scientific method.”

A key transition happens especially through undergraduate and early graduate school. Students learn what make interesting and important problems. What would advance the frontiers of science? The next transition that has to happen is figuring out how to identify talent, and mentor other people. Because if you’re going to hit 35 or 40 successfully, you need to build a group that’s bigger than just what you’re doing. If you do it really well, people become creative and self-driving themselves.

Then the last piece, which is really tough, is to convince others to care about it. Because if you say, “This is an interesting problem I want to solve,” someone else or some entity needs to fund it. All those things have to come together.

Jessica Seeliger: I would add that some extraordinarily mature students see the bigger picture, but many other students need guidance. There’s a realization that in order to keep doing what they love they have to build a whole skillset around that.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: General McCasland, for an institution like the Air Force, are there added challenges for someone at this point in his or her career?

Neil McCasland: This is a time of self-discovery. Researchers have to ask themselves and explore a really critical question: “How does my scientific and technical curiosity align with the broad needs of the institution I’ve joined?” We sponsor a lot of research in the Air Force and employ 10,000 people in Air Force Research Laboratory, but there just aren’t a lot of graduate schools where you sit down to work specifically on military-relevant technology. If a researcher finds good alignment, though, there are open doors to a long run allowing exploration and freedom.

“The Hertz Foundation has a great record of growing and fostering particularly good talent for making advances and new discoveries become new reality.” –Neil McCasland

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Each of you has also been a Hertz Fellows interviewer for a number of years. What changes have you observed in the fields and Fellows?

Neil McCasland: I’ve been a Hertz Fellow interviewer for 14 years and over that time, I’ve seen the emergence of research areas that just didn’t exist before. Computational biology, for example, was rare a decade ago. Its intersection of numerical tools and physical insights in biology has created exciting new research areas. Broadly, we can also see the Foundation shift toward life sciences, which is something that was rare when I started interviewing. And lastly, the degree of power and sophistication that computational tools have brought into research has just swept across everything.

Jessica Seeliger: I’d add that the ages at which students start engaging in science just keeps dropping. I’ve been a Hertz Fellow interviewer for five years and today you have 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds doing significant, publishable research. They get started much earlier, which is great. They then have exposure to a wide range of things. All of that is informative for what they pursue. Often by the time they get to graduate school, their choice of scientific questions is actually much better informed and mature than it would have been years ago.

Philip Welkhoff: This is my 10th year as a Hertz Fellow interviewer, and it’s been interesting to see what excites the top students in any given year. There tends to be a certain correlation based on recent breakthroughs and so on, which is really good. You can see that people are paying attention to the edges of our knowledge and where things are moving forward.

Beyond the year-to-year changes there is a trend toward interdisciplinary work. People are finding ways to work at the interfaces of different fields in a really good way. Early research also has potential pitfalls. Sometimes a student will get into one area and never explore other potential subjects that could interest them. There’s nothing wrong with specializing early and learning in the process, provided that students also keep their eyes open for the broader world around them.

Jessica Seeliger: And just this year, we are hearing that early career researchers want to have more societal impact. They’re more interested in engaging in problems of significant societal implications, like energy and climate change. We have the opportunity to support and nurture that, which is very exciting for us.

“We have had a front seat to watching how young people choose to apply their experience.” –Jessica Seeliger

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Let’s talk a moment about your own early research careers. Dr. Seeliger, in 2012 – six years after your own Hertz Fellowship – you wrote an article in Nature about the challenges you faced getting started. In particular, you found that for all your preparation as a researcher, what you lacked was grounding in basics like setting up and running your own lab.

Jessica Seeliger: It’s a reality that you spend a lot of time becoming a specialist at the bench or whatever experimental or theoretical system you work in, but then suddenly you become a manager. You have few skills pertinent to doing what Phil (Welkhoff) summarized really well about recognizing, recruiting, retaining, and nurturing talent. This was the case for me. Unfortunately, I had very little managerial experience when I started my group. There was some lost opportunity in nurturing the talent and promoting the productivity that the science needed, that my career needed, and that my students needed to be successful. I think I made up for it in later years, but I definitely wish I had had more tools at my disposal and more mentoring in how to manage a group. These are skills I try to promote with my trainees and the Hertz Fellow I now advise through the Hertz mentoring program. Indeed, what I find most rewarding about my job is nurturing young minds. It’s a challenge that I relish.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Dr. Welkhoff, you took a track that led out of the university and now to the Gates Foundation. What “North Star” were you following?

Philip Welkhoff: It came back to, “What were the problems I wanted to solve?” As an undergraduate I was in aerospace engineering and then added mathematics because I was most interested in the more mathematical pieces. I decided to do applied math in graduate school, but then I took a step back and thought, well, you can use math to solve many types of problems. What problems do I actually want to solve? I had grown up in a humanitarian hospital on the north coast of Haiti. The problems that I was most interested in were around global health, such as getting rid of malaria, because I had had malaria growing up and I could see the effect on the community around me.

I started working on global health and malaria throughout graduate school. Then in October 2007, Bill and Melinda Gates along with Margaret Chan from the World Health Organization announced a new effort to get rid of malaria worldwide. Some mentors from the Hertz Foundation community said, “This is a really challenging, ambitious project that will need new mathematical models to figure out how to put all the pieces together. Would you like to start up a project on that?” So I moved out to Seattle and began a mathematical modeling project that was just me for the first year and a half, mentored by a number of people from the Hertz community such as Lowell Wood and Nathan Myhrvold. Then things started to work and the effort grew into the Institute for Disease Modeling. Along the way, I have been fortunate to work with over a dozen Hertz Fellows on this project, including Anna Bershteyn and Jon Russell.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: And General McCasland, did you become inspired to pursue a research and development career while a cadet at the Air Force Academy?

Neil McCasland: It was before that. It was watching Armstrong walk on the moon and just being electrified as a 10-year-old by manned space exploration and being determined to have a piece of it. I was an Air Force brat too, living on Air Force bases, and liked its people and lifestyle. Once I grasped the Air Force Academy was one of the few schools that offered undergraduate instruction in astronautics it occurred to me, “Hey, there’s the right combo. I get paid to go to school. I like the Air Force. There’s probably decent work in the Air Force too.”

Going to graduate school allowed me to do what I was never going to be able to do as an individual researcher in uniform. It allowed me the freedom to pursue technical interests I wanted to, where I wanted to do it, with whom I wanted to. The Air Force had rules. If you wanted to go to grad school right out of the Academy, there was the menu of ways you could do it. The Hertz Fellowship was one of them.

“There are many big challenges facing society, and innovation is going to be a key part of facing them.” –Philip Welkhoff

HERTZ FOUNDATION: Did being a Hertz Fellow give you opportunities that some of your peers didn’t have?

Neil McCasland: The immediate payoff was it offered the freedom within school to concentrate on what I needed to get done in the time the Air Force gave me to do it. The Foundation would come back and check on me once a year. I had to report about what progress I was making. But that mentoring and nudging by the Foundation’s leadership, along with my own university committee, had a longer-term payoff. And the longer-term payoff was this: the Armed Forces need some military leadership with strong technical abilities. Military R&D is, rightfully, subject to critical civilian oversight: scientific advisory board; civilian political appointees with rich scientific, engineering and managerial backgrounds; and very sharp congressional staffers who often bring their own deep scientific credentials. A military officer who can hold one’s own in such an environment has a niche that other military officers don’t.

Philip Welkhoff: I think I listed aerospace engineering as my field of study in the Hertz application, but that kept evolving over the course of interacting with people across the Hertz community, my peers and mentors. Every time I would go to a Hertz event like the retreats, I would always leave just incredibly refreshed and excited about what research I could end up doing, and all of the really interesting problems that were being solved by other Hertz Fellows. It really helped change my mindset. So along with the Hertz Fellowship and the freedom, the Hertz community was a key part of that stage of my journey. They still are.

Jessica Seeliger: Speaking to the evolution of fields, I was a beneficiary as one of the early biological recruits when the Foundation recognized that physical sciences had opened into biology. At that time I was focused on biophysical chemistry, specifically spectroscopy. I was lucky to witness how the Hertz community grew, initially with the Fellows retreats and then with other activities. Philip said it very well. It was refreshing to be amongst people who were so enthusiastic and inspired by the scientific enterprise. And the Hertz community has continued to be important to me, to be reminded by enthusiastic minds from a variety of fields of why you were doing this in the first place, and to have faith in your pursuit of what you are interested in. Indeed, I ended up changing fields completely. I’m now studying infectious disease. Not quite as drastic a change as Philip’s, but still the fearlessness that it takes to change fields is supported and encouraged by the Hertz community and is something that the Hertz Foundation itself has a long track record of nurturing.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: You’ve also all seen in real-time how the Hertz Fellowship influences new generations of scientists. What stands out?

Jessica Seeliger: We have had a front seat to watching how young people choose to apply their experience. One of the great things about the Hertz Fellowship is it’s not just about giving them the money. It’s about supporting them in other ways that go beyond the time that they’re in their PhD. That has included supporting entrepreneurial activities, including via the Strauss Award and the Newman Entrepreneurial Initiative. In my time working with the Foundation and also as a Fellow — 18 years at this point — we’ve seen this burst of interest in entrepreneurism, taking what they’ve learned and experienced and applying their ideas to the commercial sector.

HERTZ FOUNDATION: As a final question, more and more, people are turning to science to address critical issues ranging from disease to energy efficiency to climate change. All of these challenges are going to require innovative approaches and thinking. Why do you see the Hertz Fellowship important for fostering this talent?

Neil McCasland: Scientific and technical advancements are door openers for society’s broad needs. The Hertz Foundation has a great record of growing and fostering particularly good talent for making advances and new discoveries become new reality.

Jessica Seeliger: It’s important to have fluency across fields in order to identify where the greatest impact can happen, because often it’s not in a specialized area. You have to be able to work in teams and communicate with diverse people. Not just to researchers in different fields, but also to non-scientists and public servants in our communities in order to have a significant impact not only on science, but also society. Following our passion and not just our expertise is especially pertinent. Passion is arguably more difficult to cultivate. The Hertz Foundation, the Hertz Fellowship and the Hertz community uniquely do that among organizations that support scientists.

Philip Welkhoff: There are many big challenges facing society, and innovation is going to be a key part of facing them. A lot of innovation comes from when you have really strong creativity paired with a really strong understanding of science and how things work. That’s what we look for in Hertz Fellows. We’ve already seen tremendous impact from the work that Hertz Fellows have done individually, with each other, and with society overall. We’ll continue to see that.

— Steve Koppes, Spring 2019