Signals Blog

Last week I was forwarded a Cell Stem Cell article to consider by another Signals blogger entitled, “Dear Student: Stem Cell Scientists’ Advice to the Next Generation.” As a stem cell biologist still in training, I was curious to read what senior established stem cell scientists would feel was most important to tell our cohort of trainees as they think about the next step in their careers.

It was quite refreshing to read that both junior and senior stem cell scientists were tuned into the political, economic and social issues that have arisen since the first derivation of human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998. It was also good to see priority placed on completing rigorous science. Outside of this, however, I felt that the article – or the scientists’ advice – lacked discussion about the actual science, did not give advice to those considering non-academic careers, and opinions acquired were heavily skewed to well-funded American scientists.

Firstly, I was surprised that the article did not discuss anything about stem cell research itself: Which research technologies look exciting? Which cell types hold the most promise? Which industrial applications are the most likely to meet with success? If one digs through to the supplementary table, there are some quotations and tidbits that are of interest (e.g., choosing the correct lab and reagents, not being closed to inter-disciplinary science) but there is a complete lack of science advice regarding what areas of stem cell biology one should consider in the future. Perhaps more concerning was the feeling that the authors used interviews with scientists to validate statements they wished to make anyway since a read through the methods clearly states that “anticipation” was categorized with terms relating to choosing a good lab and cell line and understanding the rigors of research whereas the article was focused on anticipating ethical concerns, policy and economic climate. While I would agree that both are important to anticipate, I was left wondering how many of the interviewed scientists actually focused on anticipating policy and or economic changes.

Secondly, considering that the vast majority of PhDs and postdocs will not become tenured academic stem cell scientists, there was an overwhelming lack of advice for non-academic careers related to stem cell science. Indeed, two damning reports from the NAS and NIH last summer highlighted the major problem of training all young biomedical scientists for academic careers. Despite being asked a general question about careers in stem cell research – it seems that stem cell scientists’ advice mostly pertained to becoming an academic scientist. There are dozens of stem cell related careers that require a PhD level training and little advice in this article for those students. Perhaps this reflects a deeper problem pervading training environments worldwide where non-academic careers are demonized or deemed irrelevant by academic researchers.

Finally, I found it somewhat alarming that an internationally read journal with a topic of such international interest (stem cell ethics, research, and policy) would publish general advice to young stem cell biologists with nearly 85% of respondents being from a single country. Indeed, 50% of respondents were from the west coast of the USA (quite possibly California-based researchers currently benefiting from substantial state funding through CIRM). Being based in the UK, I would imagine that opinions on many of these topics would be quite different if the survey was performed in Europe, Asia, Australia, or Canada. It seems to me that while the intentions behind the article were good (we can learn an enormous amount from current stem cell researchers), it really missed the mark for giving useful or applicable advice for young biologists.


Research cited:
Borgelt E., Dharamsi S. & Scott C. (2013). Dear Student: Stem Cell Scientists’ Advice to the Next Generation, Cell Stem Cell, 12 (6) 652-655. DOI:

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute ( His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.