We need to talk about CRISPR

By Gesa Junge, PhD

You’ve probably heard of CRISPR, the magic new gene editing technique that will either ruin the world or save it, depending on what you read and whom you talk to? Or the Three Parent Baby, which scientists in the UK have created?

CRISPR is a technology based on a bacterial immune defense system which uses Cas9, a nuclease, to cut up foreign genetic material (e.g., viral RNA). Scientists have developed a method by which they can modify the recognition part of the system, the guide RNA, and make it specific to a site in the genome that Cas9 then cuts. This is often described as “gene editing” which allows disease-causing genes to be swapped out for healthy ones.

CRISPR is now so well known that Google finally stopped suggesting I may be looking for “crisps” instead, but the real-world applications are not so well worked out yet, and there are various issues around CRISPR, including off-target effects, and also the fact that deleting genes is much easier than replacing them with something else. But, after researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to change the mutated version of the MYBPC3 gene to the unmutated version in a viable human embryo last month, the predictable bioethical debate was reignited, and terms such as “Designer Babies” got thrown around a lot.

A similar thing happened with the “Three Parent Baby,” an unfortunate term coined to describe mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). Mitochondria, the cells’ organelles for providing energy, have their own DNA (making up about 0.2% of the total genome) which is separate from the genomic DNA in the nucleus, which is the body’s blueprint. Mitochondrial DNA can mutate just like genomic DNA, potentially leading to mitochondrial disease, which affects 1 in 5000-10000 children. Mitochondrial disease can manifest in various ways, ranging from growth defects to heart or kidney to disease to neuropsychological symptoms. Symptoms can range from very mild to very severe or fatal, and the disease is incurable.

MRT replaces the mutated mitochondrial DNA in a fertilized egg or in an embryo with the healthy version provided by a third donor, which allows the mitochondria to develop normally. The UK was the first country to allow the “cautious adaption” of this technique.

While headlines need to draw attention and engage the reader for obvious reasons, oversimplifications like “gene editing” and dramatic phrases like “three parent babies” can really get in the way of broadening the understanding of science, which is difficult enough as it is. Research is a slow and inefficient process that easily gets lost in a 24-hour news cycle, and often the context is complex and not easily summed up in 140 characters. And even when the audience can be engaged and interested, the relevant papers are probably hiding behind a paywall, making fact checking difficult.

Aside from difficulties communicating the technicalities and results of studies, there is also often a lack of context in presenting scientific studies – think for example of chocolate and red wine which may or may not protect from heart attacks. What is lost in many headlines is that scientific studies usually express their results as a change in risk of developing a disease, not a direct causation, and very few diseases are caused by one chemical or one food additive. On this topic, WNYC’s “On The Media”-team have an issue of their Breaking News Consumer Handbook that is very useful to evaluate health news.

The causation vs. correlation issue is perhaps a little easier to discuss than big ethical questions that involve changing the germline DNA of human beings because ethical questions do not usually have a scientific answer, let alone a right answer. This is a problem, not just for scientists, but for everyone, because innovation often moves out of the realm of established ethics, forcing us to re-evaluate it.

Both CRISPR and MRT are very powerful techniques that can alter a person’s DNA, and potentially the DNA of their children, which makes them both promising and scary. We are not ready to use CRISPR to cure all cancers yet, and “Three Parent Babies” are not designed by anyone, but unfortunately, it can be hard to look past Designer Babies, Killer Mutations and DNA Scissors, and have a constructive discussion about the real issues, which needs to happen! These technologies exist; they will improve and eventually, and inevitably, play a role in medicine. The question is, would we rather have this development happen in reasonably well-regulated environments where authorities are at least somewhat accountable to the public, or are we happy to let countries with more questionable human rights records and even more opaque power structures take the lead?

Scientists have a responsibility to make sure their work is used for the benefit of humanity, and part of that is taking the time to talk about what we do in terms that anyone can understand, and to clarify all potential implications (both positive and negative), so that there can be an informed public discussion, and hopefully a solution everyone can live with.

 

Further Reading:

CRISPR:

National Geographic

Washington Post

 

Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy:

A paper on clinical and ethical implications

New York Times (Op-Ed)

 

How Science Trumps Trump: The Future of US Science Funding

 

By Johannes Buheitel, PhD

I was never the best car passenger. It’s not that I can’t trust others but there is something quite unsettling about letting someone else do the steering, while not having any power over the situation yourself. On Tuesday, November 8th, I had exactly this feeling, but all I could do was to sit back and let it play out on my TV set. Of course, you all know by now, I’m talking about the past presidential election, in which the American people (this excludes me) were tasked with casting their ballots in support for either former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or real estate mogul and former reality TV personality Donald Trump. And for all that are bit behind on their Twitter feed (spoiler alert!): Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States of America following his inauguration on January 20th, 2017. Given the controversies around Trump and all the issues he stands for, there are many things that can, have been  and will be said about the implications for people living in the US but also elsewhere. But for us scientists, the most pressing question that is being asked left and right is an almost existential one: What happens to science and its funding in the US?

The short answer is: We don’t know yet. Not only has there been no meaningful discussion about these issues in public (one of the few exceptions being that energy policy question  by undecided voter-turned-meme Ken Bone), but, even more worryingly, there is just not enough hard info on specific policies from the future Trump administration to go on. And that means, we’re left to just make assumptions based on the handful of words Mr. Trump and his allies have shared during his campaign. And I’m afraid, those paint a dire picture of the future of American science.

Trump has not only repeatedly mentioned in the past that he did not believe in the scientific evidence around climate change (even going as far as calling it a Chinese hoax), but also reminded us of his position just recently, when he appointed  known climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to the transition team of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He has furthermore endorsed the widespread (and, of course misguided) belief that vaccines cause autism. His vice president, Mike Pence, publicly doubted  that smoking can cause cancer as late as in 2000, and called evolution “controversial”.

According to specialists like Michael Lubell from the American Physical Society, all of these statements are evidence that “Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had.” But what does this mean for us in the trenches? The first thing you should know is that science funding is more or less a function of the overall US discretionary budget, which is in the hand of  the United States Congress, says  Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This would be a relief, if Congress wasn’t, according to Rush Holt, president of the AAAS, on a “sequestration path that […] will reduce the fraction of the budget for discretionary funding.” In numbers, this means that when the current budget deal expires next year, spending caps might drop by another 2.3%. Holt goes on to say that a reversal of this trend has always been unlikely, even if the tables were turned, which doesn’t make the pill go down any easier. Congress might raise the caps, as they have done before, but this is of course not a safe bet, and could translate to a tight year for US science funding.

So when the budget is more or less out of the hands of Donald Trump, what power does he actually possess over matters of research funding? Well, the most powerful political instrument that the president can implement is the executive order. But also this power is not unlimited and could for example not be used to unilaterally reverse the fundamentals of climate policy, said David Goldston from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) during a Webinar hosted by the AAAS shortly after the election. Particularly, backing out of the Paris agreement, as Trump has threatened to do, would take at least four years and requires support by Congress (which, admittedly, is in Republican hand). And while the president might be able to “scoop out” the Paris deal by many smaller changes to US climate policy, this is unlikely to happen, at least not to a substantial degree, believes Rush Holt. The administration will soon start to feel push-back by the public, which, so Holt during the AAAS Webinar, is indeed not oblivious about the various impacts of climate change, like frequent droughts or the decline of fisheries in the country. There was further consensus among the panelists that science education funding will probably not be deeply affected. First, because this matter usually has bipartisan support, but also because only about 10% of the states’ education funding actually comes from the federal budget.

So, across the board, experts seem to be a reluctantly positive. Whether this is just a serious case of denial or panic control, we don’t know, but even Trump himself has been caught calling for  “investment in research and development across a broad landscape of academia,” and even seems to be a fan of space exploration. Our job as scientists is now, to keep our heads high, keep doing our research to the best of our abilities but also to keep reaching out to the public, invite people to be part of the conversation, and convincing them of the power of scientific evidence. Or to say it with Rush Holt’s words: “We must make clear that an official cannot wish away what is known about climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, fisheries depletion, or any other public issue illuminated by research.”

 

So You Want to Be a… Publishing Editor

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle’s post-PhD career series is back this week with an interview with Cathy Sorbara about her career as a Publishing Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Dr Sorbara also acts as a consultant for the Cheeky Scientist Association (check out their great PhD industry transition articles here) and can be contacted via her LinkedIn page.

 

Hi Cathy! So, what exactly does a publishing editor do?

As a publishing editor, I assess submitted articles and guide them through the peer review process including reviewer selection, review evaluation and making the final decision to accept, reject or transfer the manuscript with our portfolio.  I also carry out production of accepted manuscripts including editing, proof reading and issue make up.  Other responsibilities include coordinating themed issues, commissioning cover art work and acting as a point of contact for associate editors (an international team of experts in various chemical sciences who handle submissions for various journals).

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I am Canadian and received my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in Medical Science and my Master of Science at the University of Ottawa.  I then moved to Munich, Germany where I did my PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology.  At that point I decided I was better suited for a communication-based role and wanted to move away from bench research.  I move to Cambridge, UK and came across this opening and thought it would be a great opportunity for me to further develop these communication skills.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job, and did you develop any of them during your PhD?

PhDs gain a wealth of transferable skills that I feel they often underestimate.  I too suffered from imposter syndrome through graduate school and left feeling I had little skills to offer beyond my technical expertise.  I soon realized however, that I had developed effective communication skills, time and project management, ability to work independently as well as in a collaborative environment, to name a few.  All of these skills were beneficial in my current role.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

A job advertisement is a wish list.  Even if your skills do not match 100% the job description, do not let that intimate you.  If you are interested in a job in editing or other communication-based roles, reach out to employees in the company and have a chat with them.  See if the company and the role is something that would be of interest to you and learn how to translate your skills into professional business experience.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Assess the latest manuscripts that have been submitted to the journal, check up on previous manuscripts that are under peer review (can a decision be made, do I need to invite more reviewers, etc.) and tackle the production to-do list to ensure everything is completed as quickly/accurately as possible to maintain low times to publication.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

As I assess each manuscript that is submitted to the journal, it gives me the opportunity to read a lot of fascinating science and stay up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs in the field.  As a science nerd, this is a dream come true.  Sometimes we have to make decisions on manuscripts that are difficult and not well-received by authors.  It is never easy to tell someone who has worked for years on a manuscript that it has been rejected.  I definitely empathize with them as I have been on the receiving end of these rejection emails before. I am sure this has made me an enemy of some but I hope they understand that this is all part of the peer-review process which we strive to maintain as fair and unbiased as possible.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?

I do miss bench work from time-to-time.  There was a sense of pride and honor associated with doing research, especially disease-related as I had done.  Now, however, I have time to pursue other passions and have more time for travelling and spending time with family. My life is not defined by the number of hours I am chained to the bench and this was important to me.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

As many academics are aware, publish or perish is a theme to their success and accordingly the peer review/publication process has received a lot of flak about how it contributes to the plight of academic research labs.  I think we will see a lot of changes in the future as publishing houses adapt and deal with this growing concern of how research should be disseminated, evaluated and rewarded.  Already we see more journals becoming open access, changing their peer review process (double or triple blinded) or allowing for raw data to be published.  There is also the argument of why negative data or repeated experiments should not be equally as rewarded.  It will be fascinating to see how things evolve.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

Publishing editors can move into managerial roles or higher executive roles where they deal more with commissioning of articles, competitor intelligence, attending conferences and the overall management of the journal and its goals.  Many people who move out of publishing move on to other communication based roles such as medical writing, policy, marketing and more.  It is a good stepping stone for many other roles.

 

And finally, the big question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a publishing editor bring to the table?

A publishing editor would draft a well-written article to the zombies, detailed how we can work together to live in harmony.  Of course this article would be reviewed by experts in the field of zombie apocalypses before it was sent.

 

So You Want to Be a… Technical Copywriter

By Sally Burn, PhD

In this week’s edition of Scizzle’s post-PhD career series we talk to Colm O’Regan about being a freelance Technical Copywriter. Colm trained in the physical sciences – which makes a welcome change from our usual biology-centric focus – and came to our attention when he commented on one of our previous interviews on LinkedIn. We were so intrigued by his job title that we just had to get the lowdown on his career! If you also happen to have an interesting post-PhD job, please reach out to us – we’d love to hear from you. Just connect with Sally Burn via her LinkedIn. Colm can also be contacted via his LinkedIn or by email.

 

Hi Colm, so what does a Technical Copywriter do?

I write marketing communications and content for scientific companies. This means any material a science company uses to promote its products. These range from white papers, technical/scientific articles, landing pages, advertisements, application notes and case studies. Many science companies put out a wide range of marketing collateral and this stuff needs to be written. They’ll do a lot of it internally, but often they’ll outsource it to a writer like me to take some of the pressure off. Specific responsibilities include: marketing my services, making contact with potential buyers (typically marketing managers), talking to these buyers on the phone to ascertain their needs, making an offer, writing proposals, doing the actual writing, following up constantly, bookkeeping etc.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I enjoyed science in school, particularly chemistry and physics. Chemistry was always my favorite subject so I continued studying that in university in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After my degree, I didn’t want to get a job in a chemical plant or a pharmaceutical company, which seemed to be the typical route most of my classmates were following. By the time I finished my third year, I had developed a strong interest in nanotechnology and materials science. So when I was offered a PhD in materials science at the same university, I jumped at the chance. After that, I went on to do a postdoc at the National University of Singapore. The research was focused on using electron microscopy to study dendrite growth in battery systems. However, by the end of this, I realized that working for someone else was not something I wanted to spend my life doing. Even if it was in academia which, admittedly, can be quite cushy. I had always enjoyed writing so after spending many months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I found that marketing writing for science companies seemed to be the best choice.

 

What are the key skills or experience needed for this job?

You don’t need much in the way of experience from a skills point of view, as most of it you can learn on the job. That said, any relevant background you have will be helpful. For example, if you’re targeting a specific industry such as biotechnology, a degree, masters or PhD in biotech will be a huge advantage. It will set you apart from other writers targeting biotech companies. You know the technology, the field, and the industry, and will probably have hands on experience with many of the scientific instruments you’ll be writing about. Companies value this and you’ll be able to command higher fees. The main skill I got from my PhD and postdoc was the ability to research effectively (I mean look up papers, documents, articles etc. pertaining to my field) and keep persevering when things get tough. Anybody doing a PhD project knows that it’s three and a half years of crap followed by six months of good things happening. When you’re in your second year, your 150th experiment in a row has failed and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it can be disheartening. That perseverance and ability to tough it out is critical when going out on your own.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Anybody wanting to do this job (or start a freelancing business in general) should know that it’ll probably take twice as long, cost twice as much and be twice as difficult as you initially anticipated. I know this isn’t exactly encouraging, but if you come into this knowing what to expect, then you’re already ahead of the game. I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it is. So the first thing someone needs to do is market themselves and their services like crazy. Estimate how much marketing you need to do, double it… and then go do that. I didn’t do enough marketing in my first year (and the marketing I did was the wrong kind). Ultimately, the people who are successful think of themselves as marketers of the services they provide (in my case, marketing communications writing for scientific companies), rather than doers of that particular service.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Usually, my to-do-list involves marketing. Right now, the list includes launching a direct mail effort (sending letters through the mail to promote my services), finishing writing a proposal for a project, and following up on a previous project that I finished recently (I do this a lot)

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

Least favorite part right now is the inconsistent paycheck. Some months you have work, others you don’t. Invariably, this comes down to consistent marketing. When you let up on the marketing, your income takes a hit. My favorite part is working to my own schedule, and not a schedule set by someone else.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia?  What was the most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?”

One of the things I enjoyed most about academia is the relaxed working atmosphere. Specifically, it’s not a typical nine to five job, so there’s nobody checking up on work hours. As long as you do the work, it’s fine. So that was a big plus. I was also lucky to work in a fun lab with a lot of great people. Now, I work on my own so I sometimes miss the interactions of working in a research group. The most challenging aspect of moving into freelance work is being your own boss. You’re responsible for every single aspect of the business. From marketing, selling, doing the work, bookkeeping, to running the business. If you slip up on anything (marketing in particular), the business as a whole takes a hit. It takes some getting used to. You definitely need to develop good habits (getting up early, not wasting an hour scanning your Facebook feed), improve your productivity and have the discipline to work and market the business when you need to. Which is most of the time.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

In terms of marketing writing for scientific firms, I guess It really is a buyer’s market due to the sheer number of people going out on their own and starting businesses. Over the last decade, copywriting has been actively promoted as a business opportunity by several organizations. This has prompted more and more people to start freelance copywriting. Though admittedly, you don’t see many science graduates and researchers doing this, but that could change over the next decade. Copywriting in general is sure to become more and more popular, so narrowing down your specialty and focusing on a particular industry will be even more important than it is today.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a technical copywriter bring to the table?

Well, if the remaining living scientists ever discovered a cure for people turning into zombies, a technical copywriter would be the one helping to promote it!

 

The Danger of Absolutes in Science Communication

 

By Rebecca Delker, PhD

Complementarity, born out of quantum theory, is the idea that two different ways of looking at reality can both be true, although not at the same time. In other words, the opposite of a truth is not necessarily a falsehood. The most well known example of this in the physical world is light, which can be both a particle and a wave depending on how we measure it. Fundamentally, this principle allows for, and even encourages, the presence of multiple perspectives to gain knowledge.

 

This is something I found myself thinking about as I witnessed the twitter feud-turned blog post-turned actual news story (and here) centered around the factuality of physician-scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s essay, “Same but Different,” published recently in The New Yorker. Weaving personal stories of his mother and her identical twin sister with experimental evidence, Mukherjee presents the influence of the epigenome – the modifications overlaying the genome – in regulating gene expression. From this perspective, the genome encodes the set of all possible phenotypes, while the epigenome shrinks this set down to one. At the cellular level – where much of the evidence for the influence of epigenetic marks resides – this is demonstrated by the phenomenon that a single genome encodes for the vastly different phenotypes of cells in a multicellular organism. A neuron is different from a lymphocyte, which is different from a skin cell not because their genomes differ but because their transcriptomes (the complete set of genes expressed at any given time) differ. Epigenetic marks play a role here.

 

While many have problems with the buzzword status of epigenetics and the use of the phrase to explain away the many unknowns in biology (here, here), the central critique of Mukherjee’s essay was the extent to which he emphasized the role of epigenetic mechanisms in gene regulation over other well-characterized players, namely transcription factors – DNA binding proteins that are undeniably critical for gene expression. However, debating whether the well-studied transcription factors or the less well-established epigenetic marks are more important is no different than the classic chicken or egg scenario: impossible to assign order in a hierarchy, let alone separate from one another.

 

But whether we embrace epigenetics in all of its glory or we couch the term in quotation marks – “epigenetics” – in an attempt to dilute its impact, it is still worth pausing to dissect why a public exchange brimming with such negativity occurred in the first place.
“Humans are a strange lot,” remarked primatologist Frans de Waal. “We have the power to analyze and explore the world around us, yet panic as soon as evidence threatens to violate our expectations” (de Waal, 2016, p.113). This inclination is evident in the above debate, but it also hints at a more ubiquitous theme of the presence of bias stemming from one’s group identity. Though de Waal deals with expectations that cross species lines, even within our own species, group identity plays a powerful role in dictating relationships and guiding one’s perspective on controversial issues. Studies have shown that political identities, for example, can supplant information during decision-making. Pew Surveys reveal that views on the issue of climate change divide sharply along partisan lines. When asked whether humans are at fault for changing climate patterns, a much larger percentage of democrats (66%) than republicans (24%) answered yes; however, when asked what the main contributor of climate change is (CO2), these two groups converged (democrats: 56%, republicans: 58%; taken from Field Notes From a Catastrophe, p. 199-200). This illustrates the potential for a divide between one’s objective understanding of an issue and one’s subjective position on that issue – the latter greatly influenced by the prevailing opinion of their allied group.

 

Along with group identity is the tendency to eschew uncertainty and nuance, choosing solid footing no matter how shaky the turf, effectively demolishing the middle ground. This tendency has grown stronger in recent years, it seems, likely in response to an increase in the sheer amount of information available. This increased complexity, while important in allowing access to numerous perspectives on an issue, also triggers our innate response to minimize cost during decision-making by taking “cognitive shortcuts” and receiving cues from trusted authorities, including news outlets. This is exacerbated by the rise in the use of social media and shrinking attention spans, which quench our taste for nuance in favor of extremes. The constant awareness of one’s (online) identity in relation to that of a larger group encourages consolidation around these extremes. The result is the transformation of ideas into ideologies and the polarization of the people involved.

 

These phenomena are evident in the response to Mukherjee’s New Yorker article, but they can be spotted in many other areas of scientific discourse. This, unfortunately, is due in large part to a culture that rewards results, promotes an I-know-the-answer mentality, and encourages its members to adopt a binary vision of the world where there is a right and a wrong answer. Those who critiqued Mukherjee for placing too great an emphasis on the role of epigenetic mechanisms responded by placing the emphasis on transcription factors, trivializing the role of epigenetics. What got lost in this battle of extremes was a discussion of the complementary nature of both sets of discoveries – a discussion that would bridge, rather than divide, generations and perspectives.

 

While intra-academic squabbles are unproductive, the real danger of arguments fought in absolutes and along group identity lines lays at the interface of science and society. The world we live in is fraught with complex problems, and Science, humanity’s vessel of ingenuity, is called upon to provide clean, definitive solutions. This is an impossible task in many instances as important global challenges are not purely scientific in nature. They each contain a very deep human element. Political, historical, religious, and cultural views act as filters through which information is perceived and function to guide one’s stance on complex issues. When these issues include a scientific angle, confidence in the institution of science as an (trustworthy) authority plays a huge role.

 

One of the most divisive of such issues is that of genetically modified crops (GMOs). GMOs are crops produced by the introduction or modification of DNA sequence to incorporate a new trait or alter an existing trait. While the debate spans concerns about the safety of GMOs for human health and environmental health to economic concerns over the potential disparate benefits to large agribusiness and small farmers, these details are lost in the conversation. Instead, the debate is reduced to a binary: pro-GMO equals pro-science, anti-GMO equals anti-science. Again, the group to which one identifies, scientists included, plays a tremendous role in determining one’s stance on the issue. Polling public opinion reveals a similar pattern to that of climate change. Even though awareness of genetic engineering in crops has remained constantly low over the years, beliefs that GMOs pose a serious health hazard have increased. What’s worse, these debates treat all GMO crops the same simply because they are produced with the same methodology. While the opposition maintains a blanket disapproval of all engineered crops, the proponents don’t fare better, responding with indiscriminate approval.

 

Last month The National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive, 420-page report addressing concerns about GMOs and presenting an analysis of two-decades of research on the subject. While the conclusions drawn largely support the idea that GMOs pose no significant danger for human and environmental health, the authors make certain to address the caveats associated with these conclusions. Though prompted by many to provide the public with “a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE (GMO) crops,” the committee refused to participate in “popular binary arguments.” As important as the scientific analysis is this element of the report, which serves to push the scientific community away from a culture of absolutes. While the evidence at hand shows no cause-and-effect relationship between GMOs and human health problems, for example, our ability to assess this is limited to short-term effects, as well as by our current ability to know what to look for and to develop assays to do so. The presence of these unknowns is a reality in all scientific research and to ignore them, especially with regard to complex societal issues, only serves to strengthen the growing mistrust of science in our community and broaden the divide between people with differing opinions. As one review of the report states, “trust is not built on sweeping decrees.”

 

GMO crops, though, is only one of many issues of this sort; climate change and vaccine safety, for example, have been similarly fraught. And, unfortunately, our world is promising to get a whole lot more complicated. With the reduced cost of high-throughput DNA sequencing and the relative ease of genome editing, it is becoming possible to modify not just crops, but farmed animals, as well as the wild flora and fauna that we share this planet with. Like the other issues discussed, these are not purely scientific problems. In fact, the rapid rate at which technology is developing creates a scenario in which the science is the easy part; understanding the consequences and the ethics of our actions yields the complications. This is exemplified by the potential use of CRISPR-driven gene drives to eradicate mosquito species that serve as vectors for devastating diseases (malaria, dengue, zika, for example). In 2015, 214 million people were affected by malaria and, of those, approximately half a million died. It is a moral imperative to address this problem, and gene drives (or other genome modification techniques) may be the best solution at this time. But, the situation is much more complex than here-today, gone-tomorrow. For starters, the rise in the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases has its own complex portfolio, likely involving climate change and human-caused habitat destruction and deforestation. With limited understanding of the interconnectedness of ecosystems, it is challenging to predict the effects of mosquito specicide on the environment or on the rise of new vectors of human disease. And, finally, this issue raises questions of the role of humans on this planet and the ethics of modifying the world around us. The fact is that we are operating within a space replete with unknowns and the path forward is not to ignore these nuances or to approach these problems with an absolutist’s mindset. This only encourages an equal and opposite reaction in others and obliterates all hope of collective insight.

 

It is becoming ever more common for us to run away from uncertainty and nuance in search of simple truths. It is within the shelter of each of our groups and within the language of absolutes that we convince ourselves these truths can be found; but this is a misconception. Just as embracing complementarity in our understanding of the physical world can lead to greater insight, an awareness that no single approach can necessarily answer our world’s most pressing problems can actually push science and progress forward. When thinking about the relationship of science with society, gaining trust is certainly important but not the only consideration. It is also about cultivating an understanding that in the complex world in which we live there can exist multiple, mutually incompatible truths. It is our job as scientists and as citizens of the world to navigate toward, rather than away from, this terrain to gain a richer understanding of problems and thus best be able to provide a solution. Borrowing the words of physicist Frank Wilczek, “Complementarity is both a feature of physical reality and a lesson in wisdom.”

 

Beyond Neuromania

By Celine Cammarata

As someone within the field, it seems to me that neuroscience – in some form or another – appears in the media nearly every day. Indeed the term “neuromania”, originally coined by Raymond Tallis, has come into use to describe both the lofty claims made about the power of neuroscience to answer nearly every question and the general mainstream media frenzy surrounding the field. Scholars have paid increasing attention to this and it is often regarded as a problem, but more recent work suggests that despite the mania, neuroscience is still not widely understood or even considered by the public at large. So does all the hype conceal a true lack of public interest?

It’s undeniable that neuroscience is the target of extensive and potentially problematic media attention. In a 2012 Neuron editorial, O’Connor, Reese and Joffe examined the coverage of neuroscience-related topic in six UK newspapers from 2000-2010 and found that not only did the number of articles related to brain research nearly double from the early to the late 2000s, but the topics also changed and the implications of neuroscience research was often exaggerated. Whereas in the past neuroscience was generally reported on in relation to physical pathology, the authors found that in their sample the most common context for discussing neuroscience was that of brain enhancement and protection – topics that are both more widely applicable to a broad audience and that suggest a newly emerging sense of ownership over ones’ brain.  O’Connor et al describe that “although clinical applications retained an important position in our sample, neuroscience was more commonly represented as a domain of knowledge relevant to ‘‘ordinary’’ thought and behavior and immediate social concerns. Brain science has been incorporated into the ordinary conceptual repertoire of the media, influencing public under- standing of a broad range of events and phenomena.”

Such issues are also highlighted in Satel and Lilienfeld’s 2013 book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in which the authors explore – and lament – the at times unrestrained application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer questions from “Pepsi or Coke?” to “does free will exist?”. The tantalizing ability to see the brain has carried neuroscience into the realms of marketing, politics, law and more, not to mention changing the way we think about more standard brain research topics such as addiction. But, the authors point out, pictures of a brain alone can not address every level of analysis and are not inherently of greater scientific value than are other research methodologies. Tracking the physical footprint of a desire, attitude, or propensity in the brain does not in and of itself tell you why or how these things emerged, nor can it be necessarily used to assign guilt, decide what is a “disease” and what not, or determine how people choose their politicians – and yet this is precisely what neuroscience is often touted to do.

Both of these works, and many others, are based on the premise that neuroscience has become markedly pervasive, nearly omnipresent. Fascinatingly, though, the brain craze seems to stop short of making a final leap from the media to public consciousness. To be sure, public interest in neuroscience does exist – someone must be buying the growing number of brain-centered books popping up at Barnes and Nobel, right? – but a 2014 paper by the same authors as the Neuron piece found that the public in general is not nearly so interested in neuroscience as the media frenzy and emergence of the brain in societal matters might suggest.

To probe how everyday citizens think about neuroscience, the authors conducted open-ended interviews where a sample of Londoners, chosen to span age, gender and socioeconomic divides, were asked to share what came to mind when they considered research on the brain. These interviews were then examined and the themes touched upon quantified, and the results showed clear indication that neuroscientific research has largely failed to penetrate into the mindset of the public at large. Participants consistently indicated that they thought of brain research as a distant enterprise quite removed from them, performed by some unknown “other” (who was consistently described as a man in a white lab coat). Brain research was widely convolved with neurological medicine and brain surgery, and was almost entirely assumed to focus on medical application – the concept of basic science on cognition, emotion, or other mental phenomena appeared nearly unheard of.

Consistent with this, although most participants were quick to tag brain research as “interesting, they also reported that it was not of particular interest to them specifically except in the context of illness. That is, above all the brain was something that might go wrong, and unless it did participants gave it little thought at all. The authors connect this to an earlier concept of “dys-appearance,” the idea that much of the body is inconspicuous and ignored so long as it is healthy, and only attracts attention when there is some kind of dysfunction.

Based on these finding, O’Connor and Joffe concluded that despite rapid advancement and intrusion of neuroscience into more and more areas of inquiry, research on the brain nonetheless continues to have little relevance to the public’s daily lives. As they put it, “heightened public visibility should not be automatically equated with heightened personal engagement.”

So is neuroscience flooding our popular culture, or simply washing up then falling away like a rolling wave, never really lasting in our overall societal consciousness? For the moment, it appears to be both. Perhaps the concern over “neuromania” need not be so heated, but also perhaps we need to do more to understand how our work can take the extra step to become more relevant to those outside the lab.

So You Want to Be a… Freelance Medical Writer

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

In the first post of our So You Want to Be a… series we talked to Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a medical writer. This week Elizabeth interviewed Ginny Vachon who runs her own medical writing company, Principal Medvantage, to find out what it takes to go it alone and become a freelance medical writer.

 

What does a freelance medical/science writer do?

Medical writers can do many different types of writing, but in general, medical writing is centered on taking information and making it accessible and informative for the correct audience. For example, taking raw data and writing a manuscript for other physicians is really different than summarizing recent findings for the general public. Freelance medical writers are contractors, and can be called in by pharmaceutical companies, communications agencies, medical associations, or other groups to help with specific projects that can’t be handled ‘in house,’ for whatever reason. There’s a ton of variety and opportunity to learn about different diseases. Some freelancers specialize, and write mostly about certain medical areas, or for certain audiences.

 

How did you get where you are now?

I have a BA in Biology from Agnes Scott College and my PhD is from Emory University. As I was nearing the end of my PhD I realized I had no clue what I wanted to do next. I totally froze because I knew I had choices, but I didn’t know how to make the next step. I realized that before I could pick a direction, I needed to learn about all of the different things I could do and how the people who were doing those things spent their days. So, I joined Women in Bio Atlanta and started going to events held by Emory and by WIB. I went to a WIB event on women in business and I heard Emma Nichols, who owns Nascent Medical Communications (formerly Hitt Medical Writing), talk about her experiences as a freelance medical writer and entrepreneur. I spoke with her after the event, and ended up doing a number of projects for her. After getting some experience, I started my own company! She has a great podcast, medical writers speak, that is full of great information about both medical writing and the business side of freelancing. The American Medical Writer’s Association also has a great website, training course, and chapter meetings where you can meet other medical writers and take short courses.

 

What are the key skills needed to be successful at this job, and did you develop any of them during grad school?

I think that the most important thing is a willingness to tackle any subject and learn about it. I think that as a Ph.D. student, I learned that discomfort and anxiety are totally normal when learning something new, and usually happen right before you understand something! I also had my daughter during my third year of graduate school, and developing the level of organization that I needed to ‘do it all’ has been awesome.
Medical writing is really great in that you can get a little bit of experience as a contractor before you graduate. Even if you end up not being wild about medical writing, you have a new skill to set you apart. Who on earth doesn’t want to hire someone who is skilled in communicating complex ideas?

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a similar job as yours?

I would say to listen to the Medical Writers Speak podcast, go to the AMWA website, and start developing samples, writing for a blog or university paper are great starts (the manuscript you wrote with your PI isn’t the best sample) I think a lot of people who are trying to break into medical writing have a hard time with the transition from being a scientist or physician who can write to being a writer who understands science. I think that it’s important to recognize that while obtaining an MD or PhD is really hard, it is only a piece of the puzzle. The thought of sharpening your writing skills should be an exciting one! I know I heard this said at a lot of ‘alternate career events,’ but what you do next should not be a ‘back-up plan,’ it should be an exciting new set of goals! Also, after doing a ton of lab work, I really had a hard time sitting all day. Now I have to be a lot more deliberate about exercise and working with my hands in other ways.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

A typical day usually starts with assessing deadlines. I usually have a few projects going on at once, so organization is really important. Today I have to check in with a client who owes me a transcript of an interview, look over a manuscript I finished two days ago with ‘fresh eyes’ before sending it off, and do some bookkeeping (scanning receipts from a recent work trip out of town).

 

What are your favorite parts of the job? What are your least favorite or most challenging parts?

My favorite part is that I get to solve problems for clients. Usually I get called in when people are stretched thin. It’s nice to be able to help companies when they are growing. My least favorite thing is the sitting. I have a standing desk now, which helps, but I miss the constant motion of lab work.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment in moving from the bench to your current position?

Yes, of course! I miss being an ‘expert’ in a scientific area. As a writer, I learn just enough about a subject to write well about it. I have totally lost money on jobs before because I get sucked into a topic and next thing I know I am well-versed in how a specific trial recorded adverse events, but it doesn’t matter because that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Especially as a freelancer, it’s all about doing what needs to be done to complete a project. I miss the freedom of diving into a single sentence in a paper to figure out the nature of a problem. The hardest part about making the mental switch was understanding that my role is to produce clear and meaningful content, not to assist in guiding the direction of research or marketing, or whatever the problem is I am writing about. Again, the switch from being a scientist to a writer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

I think that the ways in which medical writers develop content over the next few years will change to include more interactive platforms. I expect that soon doctors and patients will be unsatisfied with brochures, which will not only seem old-fashioned, but be insufficient for the increasingly complex decision-making that accompanies personalized medicine. Probably medical writing will soon include more content for apps. I don’t know that the clinicians of tomorrow will put up with PowerPoint-based CME, or posters will remain paper-based and non-interactive. It is hard to predict how communication will change in ten years time, but I think the most flexible and willing to learn medical writers will be the most successful.

 

What kind of positions to people in your position move on to?

One of the coolest things about freelance medical writing is that it can serve as a grand tour of many different types of biomedical businesses. You get to work with many types of companies (big, small, growing, pharma, CROs, communications firms, medical associations – you name it). You also get to work with the people in a company and see what they are like and see many different styles of working (fast, slow, organized, totally insane – you name it!). You can really observe and learn about what suits you. Many companies who need freelancers also need an on-staff medical writer, or someone smart in medical affairs, or marketing, or communications. Showing up and being organized and pleasant can prompt a job offer.

 

And finally: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a freelance medical writer bring to the table?

I could be sure that every conceivable population of clinicians is well aware of how to identify, appropriately treat, and report zombie-related medical events. In addition, all potential patient populations will be well aware of how to seek out specialists, should they experience symptoms. Because I’m a freelancer, I am available to handle any writing needs that crop up as various new anti-zombie therapies emerge.

So You Want to Be in… Scientific Public Relations

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle was recently fortunate enough to chat with the infectiously upbeat, super accomplished Cherise Bernard, PhD. Cherise is Senior Manager for Elsevier’s U.S. Engagement Program, as part of their Global Academic Relations team. She acts as a conduit between the publisher and academic institutions and performs scientific public relations duties (in addition to being a “technology midwife”… more on that later). We got the lowdown on the publishing world, what her job entails, and how you too can move into this exciting sphere of work.

 

Hi Cherise! So, what does someone in Scientific Public Relations do?

Basically, my responsibilities align around being a thought leader. When I say a thought leader, one of the primary responsibilities that I have is to build relationships, programs, and initiatives with different US universities. One topic that my company is very passionate about right now is precision medicine. We identify universities in the country that are also passionate about precision medicine and we network with them to understand their challenges. When I say I need to be a thought leader, I need to be having very up-to-date conversations about precision medicine to recognize what the field is lacking and what steps need to be made to propel the field forward. The execution aspect of my job is to make sure that I build relevant programs in order to do those things. For example, let’s say Stanford University is known for its work in precision medicine. What I would do is to go meet with, let’s say the vice president of research at Stanford and then build some program around precision medicine where Elsevier and Stanford are both contributing data or resources, jointly resulting in a better understanding of precision medicine at Stanford and as a whole.

 

What kind of data do you contribute, specifically?

Elsevier is a scientific information solutions company. We publish over 2,500 scientific journals, both online and in print. Not only that, we also provide other digital web-based solutions for the scientific community such as Scopus, Mendeley, and Science Direct. Scientists all over the world use these resources in order to disseminate their research. For example, using our SciVal platform, universities can actually create custom reports indicating what their top research areas are.  How would that be helpful for an institution? This can assist them in making targeted investment decisions for areas that they dominate in. My job is not black and white; there are no two days that are the same. It differs with every single engagement that I’m involved in. But it’s always going to be a mutual exchange of information to promote an extensive learning opportunity or to promote advancement in a particular field or initiative. This should be a really interesting blog post because, honestly, my job is not one that biomedical life scientists have traditionally considered and said, “I want to do that with my PhD.” It’s something that I just fell into. It allows me to use creativity every day. And so far it’s awesome.

 

How did you get this job? What is your background?

I always tell people I’m a recovering scientist because that’s exactly what I am. When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to go into research. That interest led me to major in chemistry as an undergrad. Then I pursued my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, focused on cancer research. Then… I don’t know when there was a shift but somewhere during graduate school I realized that I wanted to see how the research applied more to the patient. I’m at the bench, I’m doing my research but – what happens to the research after it leaves the bench? What is the impact on society once the paper is published? Does it have an effect on the actual patient? It was then that I decided to do a little bit of research myself into the process of taking research findings and bringing it to market. I learned about the field of technology transfer (or scientific commercialization) and began to understand that this is how inventions are translated from the academic bench to industry, then to the bedside. So, with this knowledge, I decided to pursue a mini-MBA certification at Rutgers while in the thesis phase of my PhD program, just to get more of an understanding of what the business aspect of science looked like. Everything that a full MBA would cover, we touched on it in a span of twelve weeks. It was a very intensive program. But I was able to do that at night while still working in the lab during the day. It was extremely difficult but I felt like I needed to get some framework behind what I was interested in doing.

That mini-MBA helped me land an internship with the Rutgers Office of Business Development and Technology Transfer. The internship allowed me to not only learn about the intellectual property process, but also taught me how to evaluate, market, and license new technologies coming out of the university to commercial partners. The commercial partner used the licensed technology in coordination with their own technology portfolio while the university received licensing fees and profit shares from any resulting products. Prior to the internship, this whole concept was foreign to me. As a scientific researcher, no one talks about this really, unless you are in a lab that already has a relationship with a commercial company. I learned that there were technology transfer offices at the majority of universities, commercializing the research taking place at the bench. I was completely intrigued and I knew that I wanted to pursue it further.

My Rutgers internship allowed me to get a paid position at Rockefeller University’s technology transfer office, where I stayed for two years. From Rockefeller, I moved on to Mount Sinai Innovation Partners at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That’s where the creativity started for me. I was able to align my commercialization experience with my passion for education. The director at Mount Sinai Innovation Partners gave me the creative freedom to build a commercialization internship program. From that opportunity, I was also able to build other programs, educating the Mount Sinai community about entrepreneurship and scientific communication. Mount Sinai was the place where I learned that I could think like a scientist but I could also be creative. That whole concept was foreign to me because as a scientist you follow protocols. You read papers. You see what other people have done. The whole concept of creativity, of building things right from scratch not knowing what the process will be at all was something that I hadn’t experienced before and now I was. I started realizing that this is exactly what I wanted to do. That experience led me to my position now at Elsevier – so you can see the transition, right? I was able to build programs, initiatives, and learning opportunities at Mount Sinai and now I’m at Elsevier with the amazing opportunity to create on a national level with a portfolio universities and organizations!

 

Do you feel like the mini-MBA was essential for getting to where you are now?

This might seem like a strange answer, but in terms of the content, it was not essential. The content helped. I became familiarized with a lot of business terms. But it was essential in terms of me proving my commitment to learning about this field. I tell PhDs and postdocs this all the time: sometimes you need to make certain moves to push your career forward… and it’s not really so much about what you’re doing, but more about you proving your commitment to identifying your skill sets, learning your personality, understanding what you like, what you don’t like. Everything will not always work. Everything will not always be a home-run. Trust me, I did things that I’m not even discussing here that I was just like okay, no, I don’t want to do that. But I made a decision for myself to always follow my instincts. That’s another concept that I’m actually going to be trying to write a short book about – following your instincts as a scientist and not always staying “within that box” of the norm.

 

You’re outgoing with great communication skills. Would you say those are essential skills in your job?

Yes. Outgoing, being a great networker. But I wouldn’t just say “go network”. I would say do targeted networking. Find the people who you can actually have a great conversation with. Find the people who it’s strategic for you to talk to and it’s strategic for them to talk to you. To do that, you have to do your research. That’s another thing that my PhD taught me, which may be underutilized by other PhDs – you know how to do research. You know how to find stuff out. It doesn’t have to be about a protein. You can also find things out about people. If you make your networking more strategic and have more of a purpose, then follow your instincts, your networking will turn into relationships and that’s the crux of what I do right now – relationship building.

 

Do you think LinkedIn is important for somebody who wants to get into your industry?

Definitely. I think LinkedIn is just important for getting into any industry at this point. I think it’s a great way to initiate cold meetings. If you don’t know someone and have never met them but you would feel they would be beneficial to know, LinkedIn is a great way to introduce yourself. If you are able to then send them a little note, or do your research, find out their e-mail address, find out their phone number, do a cold call. These are the kinds of things that people really need to take initiative on nowadays – really just put yourself out there and don’t necessarily care about how you look all the time. Just put yourself out there.

 

In addition to taking the initiative and networking, do you have any other advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into your field?

The first thing I would advise is to understand who you are. I know it sounds a little bit cliché, but when you are going into a field that’s not very heavily populated, especially by scientists and by PhDs, you have to be extremely sure of yourself and confident (even though the confidence may not be an everyday occurrence!) Know what your interests and passions are. Know what your personality is like. If you don’t like to talk to people, this is probably not the best job for you! My second piece of advice is to read. Read what’s on the cutting edge (this is important for scientists who are interested in technology commercialization as well). What are the hot topics right now? Last year, President Obama did his State of the Union Address and he talked about advancing the fight against cancer. When I listen to that, I’m not just listening to it as Cherise in my living room. I’m also listening to it for work because when I meet with the NSF and the NIH, they are taking their cues and forming their priorities directly from The Office of the President. I need to be well versed so that if I have a meeting at NIH and the NSF, I know what I need to talk to them about. The only way to do that and to be confident in those types of conversations is to be really aware and be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the country and even globally in terms of scientific research, technology, and data.

 

How do you remain on the cutting edge? Are there any sources of information that you particularly rely on?

I read reputable blogs by thought leaders in the fields that interest me.  I try to stay up to date on articles in Cell, Science, and Nature. They are pretty much always on the cutting edge. And of course, reading the journals that Elsevier produces. It’s also cool because I come from a commercialization background so I am still on top of those kinds of literature too. When you read about startups, they are usually a couple of years ahead of where the rest of the industry is currently. I also read venture capital blogs because their investment decisions contribute a great deal to the technology commercial landscape.

 

What are the top three things on your to-do list for today?

I have a portfolio of programs and initiatives that I’m working on. One of the things constantly on my to-do list would just be e-mailing and phone conversations with colleagues and partners to find out where we are on certain things and to ensure that the plans are moving forward. I spend a lot of time as well reading and understanding the strategic goals of the universities that I’m working with, identifying openings and gaps in their capabilities, and assessing if there’s an opportunity for us to partner with them. I need to constantly track updates and relevant public relations topics happening with our partners and distribute that information to my team. Another item on my to-do list is focused around more logistical efforts. If I have meetings next week on the West Coast, I need to be churning out the agendas for these meetings to everyone on the team. I’m on the thought leadership side but I’m also on the program management side.

 

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

I guess my favorite part would be the travel because obviously I get to see places that I’ve never seen. Another great thing about this position is that it’s a great work-life balance. I get into the office about 8:00 a.m. every day and I pretty much leave around 5:00, 5:30. Since we’re a global company, it’s also pretty feasible to work from home. My first day here I was given a work cell phone and laptop. So I take work everywhere I can work, especially since I have colleagues that are in Asia – sometimes I have to wake up for 7:00 a.m. calls with them because of the time difference. But I can just work from home if needed. That’s another really cool part that I really love. It’s the flexibility to do that. I also really enjoy the fact that my role is a brand new one, but that’s also my least favorite part! It’s my least favorite only because everything is from scratch. Sometimes that’s a little bit scary because I don’t know if I’m doing something in the right way. Nothing is set in stone and it’s just difficult to measure my success. But that’s also the really intriguing part of my job, too: that I don’t know. I have to figure everything out and that actually motivates me to get up and try new things every day. It’s my least favorite and most favorite part of what I do.

 

Do you miss academia at all?

No, I don’t. Honestly, I get a healthy dose of academia without actually being in it, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I still work with academia on a very regular basis so I can’t really miss it. But I’m far enough away from it that I’m not dealing with the politics of it. I have other politics now but it’s not academia politics, which is great. Obviously, there are other benefits to not working in academia like a higher pay range, bonuses… those types of things that academia historically does not offer.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

The way that we disseminate research is changing rapidly because of technology, because of social media. I think that in order to make that change amenable to universities, you need some liaisons, the kind that know both the old way and the new way to be there to push that change forward, and I think that’s what I am. In all of the topics that I’m working on [at Elsevier], we are trying to change the face of them, be thought leaders in them because we are trying to go from what’s old to what’s new. I’m like a midwife to push technology forward! All aspects of science will change rapidly within the next ten years, including how we educate and train our professionals and disseminate our findings.  We’re going to have to switch from the bench mentality to what the bigger, more global impact will be. We’re going to have to start changing the way that we educate our scientists, the way that we produce scientists. We’re going to have to change the graduate curriculum to account for the surges in technology that’s currently happening. We’re going have to change the way that we educate medical students to account for artificial intelligence and digital health in medicine. All of these things won’t happen overnight. The field requires these champions that are right in the middle of it to say, “Come on. Let’s go. We know you don’t want to leave this old way but we’ve got to go. We’ve got to move forward.”

 

What kind of positions does someone like you move on to?

I haven’t started thinking about it yet but now that you’re asking me there are a lot of things I can do. I think that I can probably transition from here into leadership roles in academia. I think that vice presidents of research and deans, they really need forward thinking people. They need people who are inventive, creative, and willing to take some risks. That’s possibly something that I could do if I wanted to return to academia. I also see myself being a motivator and public speaker in terms of scientific education, making sure that US universities in particular stay on the cutting edge of educating our scientists. Maybe an education consultant – helping universities switch gears to move their curriculum forward. Then, in terms of publishing, what I’m doing right now has its own ladder as well, because right now I’m a senior manager but I could become a vice president in our Global Academic Relations team.

 

Final, most important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse what skills would someone in scientific public relations bring to the table?

I would probably be the one trying to befriend the zombies and saying: listen, that zombie right there, he might be able to help us. I’d say I know you guys are afraid of the zombies, but I don’t think all of them are bad. We can’t talk to all of them, but let’s look for one of them that can give us some inside information. I will be the one in the zombie apocalypse to bring all the inside information to the table. You have to be like an advocate for at least one of them because that’s the only way we’ll know what their plan is. I’m all about building strategy and you have to be able to view people as a resource in order build strategy.

 


Cherise can be contacted by email at c.bernard@elsevier.com or via LinkedIn.

 

So You Want to Be a… Medical Writer

By Sally Burn, PhD

What can you be with a PhD? So many things! In our new series on post-PhD careers we explore the options out there, providing tips on how to break into different industries and helping you identify jobs your skill set is ideally matched to. Check back every two weeks for the lowdown on becoming, to name but a few, a Publisher, Tech Startup Founder, Medical Science Liaison, Editor, Industry Scientist, Consultant, and Space Pirate (OK, so perhaps not the last one).

Today, in our first post, we chat with Elizabeth Ohneck about her career as a Medical Writer and find out how you can become one too. Elizabeth works for Health Interactions, a medical education and communications agency; she’s also one of our regular Scizzle blog contributors.

 

Hi Elizabeth! So, what exactly does a Medical Writer do?

Medical writers work with research teams in pharmaceutical, nonprofit, and other institutions to develop manuscripts, abstracts, posters, and presentations. In general, our clients send us reports outlining the methods, results, and analysis parameters of their studies, which we use to develop the desired publications or presentations. We also attend conferences and prepare conference summary reports, as well as write literature reviews over current publications in a particular disease or therapeutic area. In addition, we provide support for administrative tasks such as manuscript and abstract submission and the preparation of biosketches for physicians and researchers.

 

How did you get to where you are now?

I have a BS in Biology from the University of Dayton, where I first experienced working in a lab for my honors thesis in microbiology. I enjoyed research at the time, so I decided to go to grad school. I got my PhD from Emory University in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a postdoc position at NYU while I looked into other career options. I’ve always liked writing and am often frustrated by how poor the communication of science is among researchers and between researchers and the public, so I started looking for opportunities in science communication. My husband is a postdoc at Princeton, and a former postdoc from his department emailed the department saying his company was hiring medical writers and any interested candidates should contact him. My husband sent me his information and I emailed him to set up an informational interview. After our conversation, he sent my CV to the HR department at his company and from there I went through the standard hiring process – phone interview, writing test, in person interview, job offer.

 

What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD/postdoc?

You really have to love learning and be an effective self-educator. I work in rheumatology and veterinary medicine right now, not areas at all related to my background in microbiology. So I had to learn a lot about new subjects very quickly, and it’s really important to stay up-to-date with the research and developments in the field. And you obviously need to enjoy writing and have strong communication skills. Time management and the ability to meet deadlines and prioritize work are also critical. A PhD and postdoc should help you develop all of these skills through planning your research, preparing publications and presenting your work. The ability to professionally and effectively communicate with clients has probably been the skill I needed to work on the most, since it requires much more formal communication than we usually use in academia.

 

What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?

Take every opportunity you can to write and present. In addition to your own manuscripts, take advantage of any offers to contribute to book chapters, reviews, commentaries, etc. Write for a research blog (like Scizzle!) or a department or program newsletter. Attend conferences or participate in symposiums or presentation opportunities at your institution to become comfortable and efficient with poster and oral presentations. For entry-level medical writing positions, effective scientific communication skills will really be the key to demonstrate that you are a strongly qualified candidate. And network. I know everyone says that for every position, but it’s true. Create a professional social media presence and look for opportunities to meet people in the field.

 

What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?

Right now, I need to finish editing the monthly rheumatology literature review we prepare for our rheumatology clients, submit a manuscript, and prepare an outline for a new manuscript that we will be kicking off next week.

 

What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?

My favorite part of the job is writing manuscripts. It’s the most writing-intensive task, and writing is really my passion. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning a collection of data into an intelligible story. My least favorite part is making slide presentations, but that’s only because I’ve never been particularly fond of the software used to make said presentations. The most challenging part for me is conference coverage. Travel to and from the conference, long days of taking detailed notes during conference sessions and meeting with clients, and tight deadlines for creating conference summary documents afterward can be exhausting. But getting to travel to new places is fun.

 

Is there anything you miss about academia? What was the biggest adjustment or most challenging aspect of moving from academia to your current job?

I don’t miss anything about being at the bench or the academic environment. The experience helped get me where I am today, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me long term. The biggest adjustment was getting used to not being on my feet all day – I have to remember to get up to walk around and stretch every once in awhile! The biggest challenges were learning the writing style preferred by our clients and adapting to the more formal style of communication required for interaction with clients.

 

How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

From what I understand, there is a huge demand for people in the medical communications industry, so it seems that it’s a growing field. I imagine this growth will continue, since there is increasing demand for more transparency in scientific research, and medical communications companies can help increase the clarity of publications and the efficiency of the publication process.

 

What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?

The next step after entry-level Medical Writer is Senior Medical Writer, which involves more projects, more independence and leadership in your projects, and opportunities to mentor newer medical writers. In my company, the next step would then be Associate Scientific Director, which involves more management responsibilities.

 

Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Medical Writer bring to the table?

I imagine we’d be responsible for informing the public about the virus or genetic mutation (it’s always one of those) that’s causing the zombie condition and communicating information about the cure. Although, as far as how we would distribute that information – that might be outside of our job description. If you figure out what career that would be, let me know. It’s never too early to start networking…

Uprooting my Research From the Bench and Planting it in an Office

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.

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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, hmarshall@ebsco.com or on Twitter @cloudymediablog.