What’s been going on?

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to blog.  I have lots of reasons, but one of the big ones is that I’ve been writing and editing for some other sites!

In mid-January, I wrote an article for the ISBER News Blog (ISBER stands for the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories – the premiere biobanking society in the world). The article entitled “Have you joined the ISBER social network? Facebook!” is all about how to get started on Facebook and how to get more involved with ISBER through that social media outlet.  If you aren’t on Facebook already, you may find the first half of the article useful.  Once you join, you can follow the “Things I Tell My Mom” Facebook page where I post often about interesting science I find around the web.

From this experience, I was named the new Assistant Editor for the ISBER News Blog. This was announced in a very funny article from the current editor Rick Michels called “Bringing in Backup.” I’m super excited about this new role and have jumped right in to help edit lots of interesting articles from the biobanking world.  I hope many of them will be interesting to the public, and I’ll be sure to share them either through this blog or on my Facebook page.

As part of my job, I endeavor to educate the public on the importance of biobanking in enabling cancer research. To both work towards this goal as well as to talk about the Biobank’s support of World Cancer Day, I wrote an article for the Barrow Neurological Institute blog about what our Biobank does to help cancer research. You can find that article here.

And because that’s not nearly enough, my first article for GotScience.org was published today. GotScience is a fabulous website with the goal of increasing the public awareness about science – a perfect fit for my goals and dreams! I adapted an article that I first published on this blog for GotScience about “What is a biobank?” (I think you can see a theme emerging). Please check it out along with the other articles on GotScience!

Finally, I’ve been helping out an editor friend of mine at PN Online – a magazine to help people who are wheelchair bound. I contributed to an article about this great new ALS research called “Early ALS Treatment.” I adapted my work for this article to a journal club blog post that you can read here.

I promise I’ll be back to writing on this blog soon, but until then, enjoy the articles I shared above!!

Why did I leave the lab? My career path.

I received a question over email about why I’m a program manager and no longer doing research at the bench.  You may remember how I originally got into science and why I love science so much, but ultimately I have decided to “leave the bench” (which is what scientists say when they no longer work in the lab or run their own lab) and transition into program management.  Here’s why.
The start of this transition happened during graduate school.  I loved working in the lab and the thrill of discovery.  I even figured out how to deal with the constant failure that I think all PhD students encounter in their experiments on a daily basis (but that’s a topic for a whole other post).  At the same time, I knew that I was a bit different from most scientists because I was very socHTial and enjoyed talking about science as much as I enjoyed doing it.  So during graduate school, I found different opportunities outside of the lab to see if I liked and was good at science communication. I wrote a few articles for the Harbor Transcript (my graduate school institution’s magazine – check out my article about my graduation here) and I interviewed researchers on camera for the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Symposiums (you can actually still find these interviews online, for example here and here).  After I graduated with my PhD, I did a short research project as part of my postdoctoral fellowship (aka postdoc), but realized that I wanted to spend more of my time away from the bench.
This transition was initiated in part because of the experiences I described above in wanting to communicate science, but also because I realized that if I moved forward on the research path my life wouldn’t have the balance that I wanted.  To give an abbreviated idea of what this research path would be like, after one or two 4-6 year stints doing research in other people’s laboratories as a postdoc working every weekend, I would maybe able to get a tenure track job at a university where I could start my own lab.  I would then be responsible for starting a research program, finding grant funding, and publishing for my career survival and the survival of everyone who worked in my lab.  Just to clarify, I am glad that there are so many people (many of whom are my graduate school colleagues and friends) that take this route.  It works for them, they are amazing at it, and they perform the amazing scientific research that changes the world.  I just knew it wasn’t the path for me.
me_in_the_lab

Me in the lab at Arizona State University

So when I went to look for jobs, I specifically looked for positions where I could be a part of a lab or involved in science, but not have to do lab work in the same way as I would if I were working toward that tenure track position.  That’s how I became the Scientific Liaison (essentially an awesome name for a program manager) for a biorepository of plasmids at Harvard University (before we moved it all to Arizona State University). This was appealing because I was part of a scientific center, so I could still be involved with the research, but I could also do so many other things! My job included writing grants, building websites, doing marketing and outreach, writing papers, giving talks, teaching undergraduate classes, working with the public to better understand science, doing strategic planning, learning how to budget, managing people etc etc. It provided me with a balance that I craved along with something new and interesting to do or learn every single day.  I’m now the program manager for a biorepository that collects and stores tissue samples for research at a hospital, and again, I love that I get to be a part of other people research but also do so many other things that I enjoy doing.

As a final note, often a PhD scientist who chooses to get a job doing anything besides having their own lab in a tenure track research position is said to have an “alternative career.”  I (along with many others) insist that these are not “alternative” careers, but rather just careers. Exciting, scientifically stimulating, important careers. As I look at my graduate school colleagues, many of them are successful researchers on the tenure track, but I have just as many colleagues who are in business development, consulting, marketing, editing and on and on.  All of them still use their scientific background and the skills learned in graduate school, like critical thinking, every single day in their successful careers.

Why does a scientist need to know how to write?

I hated English class in middle and high school.  I was convinced that my teachers were being nitpicky and particular just to torture me.  I diagrammed sentences. I practiced comma placement. I learned where and when you add semicolons. I learned how to write a paragraph with a beginning, middle, and an end. I learned how to make an argument logically on the page. I learned never to end a sentence with a preposition, never to split infinitives, and never to write a run-on sentence. And finally, I learned that you weren’t going to get an A in AP English if you didn’t have the EXACT margins that were requested (and on a dot-matrix printer, no less).  To be fair, I did read a lot, which made that part of English classes easier, but otherwise I was convinced, as I slogged away, that what I was learning would never help me later in life.

BOY WAS I WRONG.

As a scientist, I write every day.  My first independent research laboratory opportunity was at Boston University where I was awarded a two year Beckman scholarship.  To receive this award, I had to write about the science I wanted to do.  To be able to graduate with distinction, I then wrote a 60 page thesis describing my work that I had to defend in front of a committee.  The better and more logically written, the easier to defend.

writing_science

Taken from Nature (thank you)

In graduate school, we had an entire class devoted to writing called Scientific Exposition and Ethics.  We learned how important writing was to a working scientist by drafting letters to request a reagent or information from a colleague.  We also learned how to properly write an abstract, which is a short summary of your work that you submit to be invited to talk or present at a scientific meeting.  We practiced creating presentations with concise and clearly written text, which is critical to help people understand the science you are presenting.  Each of these activities has been repeated over and over throughout my career. And one cannot forget the nearly 150 page thesis that was required for me to graduate with my PhD.

Besides day-to-day activities, a scientist’s livelihood is dependent on how well and clearly they can write.  Grant applications, which can be anywhere from 2-30 pages long, must describe your proposed project in detail and be written in such a way so that it convinces the reviewers of why they should fund your project.  Scientific papers, the currency for working scientists are also reviewed before they are published.  If you cannot clearly describe what you did and what it means, all that hard work will never see the light of day.  The art of writing in science is actually so important that scientists encourage you to “tell a story” when writing or presenting your science.

If there is a take-home message, I imagine it is this – being able to write is important even for a scientist. This may be information you want to share with your son or daughter or your local high school classes or anyone who thinks that when they “grow up” they’ll never have to worry about English class again.  Because, let me tell you, my biology classes were incredible and I loved every moment of them, but without the torturous English classes I had in high school, I most certainly would not be where I am today.