By Heather D Marshall, PhD
My mind would often wander while dissecting mice, smashing spleens, and filtering cell suspensions from one tube to another. Occasionally, I would set the centrifuge and grab a notebook to jot down an idea. Over the course of more than a dozen years in a lab, I had notebooks full of pages with “young parents aren’t scared of measles” and “No GMO – I don’t want DNA in my food! (haha)” scratched about them. After many long days in the lab, I would often come home and write. I wasn’t working on a grant proposal, nor a manuscript, protocol, or presentation—though there was a never-ending supply of that to do. Instead, I would transcribe my notes and create pitches for my as of yet nonexistent, hypothetical science blog.
I enjoy communicating science with the public and have participated in science literacy outreach in my community. I also designed and taught a course for non-science majors at Yale, dissecting science in the media ranging from Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Soderbergh’s Contagion. And I’ve taken workshops on science communication with notable voices including Bob Bazell and Carl Zimmer. As I reflect, the one thing preventing me from starting my blog back then was time. As a postdoc with these various extra-curricular activities, I had very little of the so-called “free” kind. Although I tried my hardest to find the holy grail of work-life balance, it was impossible for me to stop thinking about research—a paper that almost scooped my project, a fellowship needing revision, the next experiment to set up, data to analyze, or how my work fit into the grand scheme of life. I quite literally didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with much else. So time and again I would scribble notes about interesting story ideas that went seemingly nowhere.
After a number of years as a postdoc at Yale, I started applying for faculty positions. It was the career I had always envisioned for myself, leading a lab of young scientists to investigate how immune cells respond to viral infections and immunizations. I submitted what seemed like an endless number of applications, and although I had a couple interviews, no offers came in. I had many friends and colleagues doing the same and getting similarly disappointing results. At one point, I was shocked to discover that I personally knew every single applicant interviewing for one of those faculty positions (a friend nabbed that one—nice work B!). Over the course of about a year, I was tired and stressed. I needed a change. I needed to do something that I enjoyed. I needed to start my blog. So I did.
That was the pivotal moment that changed the entire trajectory of my career. It was evident from the start that I loved writing about science, and I wanted, nay—needed, to foster that professionally. I stopped applying for faculty positions and started applying for science writing and editing jobs. To get one wasn’t any easier. I didn’t have a lot of experience as a writer and apparently failed grant proposals didn’t count. I finally landed a medical writer position at DynaMed, a part of EBSCO Health at EBSCO Information Services.
DynaMed is a point-of-care medical reference for clinicians. At DynaMed, we create a living database that is continuously being updated and adjusted to reflect the most current, useful, and rigorous evidence in medical research. Like myself, the majority of medical writers at DynaMed have life science PhDs and backgrounds in research, which is excellent training for the objective appraisal and reporting of evidence in the medical literature. My immunology expertise allowed me to immediately contribute to the infectious disease publishing group. In this role, I research pathogenic microbes, evaluate study design and rigor, and write about signs and symptoms, diagnostic assays, and treatment regimens for diseases caused by pathogens. In collaboration with clinicians, we synergize my research analysis with their clinical perspective to craft this living, working database to be used by doctors in the clinic. For an inside peek at DynaMed, check out our Ebola virus disease page, which was made open-access during the 2014 outbreak.
Truly the best aspect of this career transition has been the ability to take a step back from the basic science to consider how all of research from mice to men comes together to help patients. I recently researched a viral pathogen called BK virus. Most of us have BK just hanging out, virtually asleep in our kidneys and bladder, not causing any problems at all. However, if you’re unlucky enough to need a kidney transplant, you may well be wary of some tiny hitchhikers coming along with that life-saving gift. One issue that arises is that the surgery can cause inflammation that awakens BK virus in the donor kidney. Secondly, the very powerful drugs needed to suppress your immune system’s attack on your new kidney also make it possible for BK virus to make lots of viral babies. Finally, all those viruses that have grown in the donor kidney may be able to hide from your immune cells, unless the donor just happened to be your identical twin. Alas, in up to 10% of kidney transplant recipients, a perfect storm brews allowing BK virus reign over that new organ. As I wrote about BK virus in DynaMed, it was evident that my background in immunology and virology coupled with my interests in science communication had perfectly merged to provide me the opportunity to actively contribute to the medical community as a writer at DynaMed.
As I look back on my trajectory though, I’m surprised by how close I was to becoming a PI (principal investigator) and I ponder how many others may be in a similar situation. We’re all in the same boat when we start this journey. We begin our research careers with lofty aspirations of curing cancer or discovering something that changes medicine. In reality, the observations we make in the lab extend our knowledge in tiny increments and in all sorts of directions (sometimes even backwards). But we put our heads down and continue to do it because we’re a curious bunch. I’m still just as curious as I always was, and although my job no longer requires me to gown up to inject mice with viruses in a biosafety level 3 containment lab, it still affords me the ability to satisfy these curiosities from my cubicle.
Given the variety of nonacademic careers available to life science PhDs today, it’s bizarre to me that the training process continues to be an apprenticeship—grooming us for our own labs. No doubt a major reason for this is that as students and postdocs, we look up to our mentors. We want to have a similar impact on science, medicine, and life as they’ve had on us. But the reality is that there are far too many PhDs and far too few academic jobs. And yet, this needn’t be disheartening as there are so many ways for a scientist to contribute to society. I challenge you all to think outside the proverbial academic box when considering your future careers in science and medicine. As a postdoc, I was strategically aware of how my extracurricular activities in teaching and communication would contribute to aspects of being a PI. However, it wasn’t until I started blogging that I realized that my particular combination of attributes and interests aligned more closely with a career outside of academic research.
Think about your strengths and weaknesses early and often. Be open to new opportunities (like blogging!) that may alter your skill sets. And don’t be afraid to trail blaze your own path by doing whatever inspires you. For me—someone with a comprehension of the immune system, a thirst for knowledge, a motivation to communicate science, and a passion for writing—a Medical Writer position at DynaMed should have been an obvious choice much sooner. And yet, it’s never too late to do what you love.
Please feel free to contact me for any additional information on medical writing, DynaMed, or even my lowly Red Sox (there’s always next year!). You can reach me at Cloudy Media Blog, email@example.com or on Twitter @cloudymediablog.