March 28, 2008

Poll places Sandia as top-10 work environment for post-doctoral students in life sciences

Relatively new Sandia research area shines unexpectedly

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —One sign of changing times is that Sandia National Laboratories has been polled one of the top-10 U.S. work places for post-doctoral students in the life sciences.

The lab has been known for most of its existence as a defense lab supporting research in nuclear weapons.

The survey was undertaken by the Philadelphia-based magazine The Scientist, known for its statistical studies and life sciences orientation. The results are published in its March issue.

“This is deserved recognition of the evolution of the bioscience program at Sandia,” says Sandia bioresearcher George Bachand. “We find ourselves in very elite company.”

Post-docs are sometimes referred to as the “lost tribe of science” or indentured servants, underappreciated and ignored. That Sandia ranks high in an opinion poll of post-docs is encouraging. That it does so in its relatively new focus area of life sciences is startling.

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory.

While life-science research appeared sporadically as part of Sandia’s early mission work, it was not until the mid-1990s that Sandia made a more concerted entry into life sciences with advances in computational biology, says Sandia corporate historian Rebecca Ullrich. Findings since then have spanned the gamut from water contamination detection to gum disease detection, and from finding antidotes to anthrax to more basic immunization questions involving how proteins move about the body.

The survey tabulated 3,086 “usable responses” from 44 questions offered to the magazine’s post-doc audience. Sufficient responses — a minimum of five — were received from each of 82 institutions considered in the rankings.

Sandia-Albuquerque placed third, behind only the J. David Gladstone Institute (affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco), and the Denver-based National Jewish Hospital, an internationally noted respiratory research center.

Sandia’s Livermore, Calif. branch placed 10th, behind Genentech and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston but ahead of the Whitehead and the Novartis institutes for biomedical research, both in Cambridge; Lawrence Livermore and Argonne national laboratories; Emory University, the Mayo Clinic, and others.

The Scientist has long been a respected compiler of statistics. Probably its best-known endeavor is its tabulation of the frequency with which a technical article is referenced by other technical articles. The ranking has become one means of establishing an article’s importance in its field.

In the post-doc poll, respondents were asked to assess their working environment in 11 areas, agreeing or disagreeing on a one-to-five scale with statements posed.

Categories included the quality of training and mentoring, career development opportunities, quality of communication, networking opportunities, value of the post-doc experience, quality of facilities and infrastructure, funding, equity, remuneration and compensation, benefits, and family and personal life.

The magazine’s caveats to its own poll include cautions that small sample results may have led to bias in the results, and that no attempt was made to measure the statistical significance of the results.

Sandia Albuquerque was praised most highly by respondents for its pay scale and faulted worst for its equity provisions. Sandia Livermore was praised most highly for its benefits but faulted worst for its career development opportunities.

Sandia post-docs, asked after publication of the survey about their positions, also cited the ready availability of partnerships with engineers, reasonable odds on getting funding for projects, and respectful management attitudes toward family obligations.

“Our survey is based on what our readers tell us,” say Edyta Zielinska, associate editor at the magazine. “That Sandia came out on top means respondents think well of it in a number of categories.”

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer, (505) 845-7078,