I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.
The fourteenth profile of this round (after a short hiatus for relentless book promotion) features the founder of a new crowd-funding platform for physics.
1) What is your non-academic job? I am the Founder and President of Fiat Physica, the world’s premiere physics fundraising platform. The physics community has witnessed severe budget cuts the past several years, leading to the loss of academic jobs and technological research. Fiat Physica is building relationships with individuals, foundations and companies to support fundamental physics research and education.
2) What is your science background? I have a B.S. in physics and mathematics from Duke University and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Columbia University; my thesis was on superstring cosmology supervised by Brian Greene. I did ten years of postdoctoral research at the Fermilab, the Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Paris Center for Cosmological Physics (PCCP), the Institut du Astrophysique de Paris, and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.
3) What led you to this job? I became more interested in social problems and in particular the public understanding of science. I also wanted to develop other skills, and it was a childhood dream to start my own business: when I was nine I “owned” my own software company from which I wrote and sold a version of the game Snake. About a year ago I was working at the University of Paris, which had just begun accepting private donations, and I spent a few months assisting their efforts. It occurred to me that many physics groups must need help with their fundraising, and the general trend toward crowdfunding had not yet been applied for physics research. There was tremendous potential to make a difference in a field experiencing large funding problems. And I’d have fun doing it.
4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I usually work at home or in cafes. I am now doing quite a bit of traveling to meet with new clientele and collaborations with other organizations.
5) What do you do in a typical day? I exchange messages with researchers interested in using our platform, and those interested in supporting projects. I discuss existing projects with project leaders. I make sure the website is running smoothly. I coordinate activities with our marketing director, our writers, and our social media manager. I spend time on social media looking for developments in physics and ideas on how to get the public involved. I interact with journalists and bloggers who have inquired about Fiat Physica. I invite physics friends to guest-blog about their latest activities. I organize social events in New York so that people can chat about physics and network in a relaxed environment. I meet with potential investors in our company. I identify talented people I may wish to hire as we continue to expand.
6) How does your science background help you in your job? It is my science background which gave me the motivation to start Fiat Physica. I have experienced the thrill of discovering something new about Nature, yet seen firsthand how budget cuts have affected the community. I have had friends leave the field because they could not find a permanent academic position, and even had my own salary cut for several months while working at Fermilab. Knowing many of the field’s leaders has allowed Fiat Physica to represent some of the top research institutions. I often gave public lectures and so understand how how to explain complex scientific ideas to the public. Finally, my technical knowledge allows me to identify the most worthwhile projects that the public may support.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it? It would be important to be a researcher for a few years. While doing that, make every effort to do public outreach: lecture, write, blog, tweet, chat every opportunity you can. I would also suggest some prior business experience - I’ve been very lucky to have an excellent creative director advising me on such matters, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount this past year.
8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? It’s essential to prove yourself wrong as quickly as possible. As humans we love to discover correct answers and feel smart, and so our instinct is to think of all the reasons that our ideas could be right. But it’s essential to fight this instinct and instead do the opposite: seek all the reasons the idea could be wrong. In science it’s important not to waste time on a wrong theory, and in business it’s important not to waste money on a strategy which is unfounded. If an idea isn’t working out, change it quickly - even if it initially seemed like a good idea and you were proud of it. I have met many people in the startup industry who are too attached to their original idea and refuse to change it even when faced with overwhelming evidence that it won’t pan out. Making mistakes quickly to figure out the correct approach is a very useful lesson in science, business and life.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers? Generate ideas and work out answers on your own. In the process of determining whether my own ideas were right, I would always learn a tremendous amount about the subject, and developed confidence in my problem-solving ability. It’s very frustrating at first because there is already so much known, and any idea you have had has probably been thought of and worked out by many others. But as you grow older you start to consider little details that have not been previously conceived of, and eventually you come up with entirely new ideas. This is not a skill one normally learns in school: reading some text and then using this information to solve problems at the end of the chapter may teach you facts or techniques, but real science is about producing creative answers. If it were simply a matter of using existing approaches it wouldn’t be an unsolved problem! The ability to suggest new solutions and work out their consequences on your own is best training to becoming a great scientist.
10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? Alas I think I will have to omit this answer, as a startup entrepreneur my answer will not impress anyone ;-)
And, as a bonus, here's a promotional video from Fiat Physica:
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Mark, some questions:
1) How much funding would a modest physics research project that could generate useful pilot data/theory need?
2) Would this differ substantially for theoretical/experimental physics projects?
3) And how important do you think researcher salaries would be vs. materials & equipment.
As a comparison, this team (http://pledge.indysci.org/liberate-pharmaceuticals) estimated they would need about $50,000 to run a xenograft study for their candidate drug (a necessary step in pre-clinical drug development). The budget did not include investigator salaries.