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.

 

The Royal Society: 350 Years of Scientific Publishing

 

By John McLaughlin

 

Professional scientific journals are commonplace and widely distributed today, but their origin dates to over three centuries ago. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the oldest continuously published scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first appearing in 1665. This is the flagship journal of Britain’s Royal Society, founded in 1660 London by a fellowship of physicians and philosophers. It remains Britain’s most prestigious scientific academy, and serves as the main scientific advisor to the UK government.

 

The Royal Society’s founding occurred during a very important historical period, arguably at the beginning of Europe’s scientific revolution. Its guiding principles were inspired largely by the work of Francis Bacon, a British politician and philosopher who died a few decades before its creation. His most important work, The New Organon, set out a vision for a new and more rigorous scientific methodology, based on empirical observation and testing theory by experiment. Bacon lamented the past centuries’ slow pace of progress in the sciences, and emphasized the need to place them on a firmer foundation in order to accurately study natural phenomena. He also cautioned against the various idols, or biases, which affect our proper understanding of the natural world, such as those determined by one’s personal history, culture, or deference to authority. He would have been pleased to see that the Royal Society’s founders took these ideas to heart; this is well captured in the Society’s motto, Nullius in verba: Take nobody’s word for it.

 

Philosophical Transactions introduced, in a more primitive form, several of the modern hallmarks of scientific research: most articles were reviewed and edited by Society members, systematically curated, and widely distributed. Interestingly, the journal operated at a financial loss for most of its history, only recently becoming profitable. It also made achievements in social equality; a 1787 article by Caroline Herschel, describing several new comets, became the journal’s first paper authored by a woman, and the Royal Society’s first female fellows were elected in 1945. As scientific disciplines proliferated and accumulated knowledge over the generations, the 19th century saw the journal split into two series, Philosophical Transactions A and B, dedicated to the physical and life sciences respectively. Today, both journals publish invited articles, with each issue centered on a specific theme.

 

In its capacity as a grant awarding agency, the Royal Society funds about 1,500 researchers around the United Kingdom, and provides fellowships for international scientists who wish to conduct research in or partner with UK universities. As part of its mission in promoting and recognizing excellence in science, it hosts frequent scientific meetings and lectures on a variety of topics, many of which are open to the public. To be elected a fellow of the Royal Society is a high honor, first requiring recommendations from two current fellows; the 8,000 fellows inducted in its long history have included scientific giants such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, and Stephen Hawking.

 

Scientific publishing had humble beginnings; in the 21st century, the spread of electronic journals has given us easy access to a number of high-quality papers that past generations of scientists could not have imagined. The sciences have changed dramatically over the years, but the institutions of publication and peer review will remain centrally important.

Coming Soon to a Journal Near You

 

Celine Cammarata

What if publishing papers took minutes rather than months and allowed for instant feedback from other scientists?  Such is the promise of preprints, scientific manuscripts posted on the web before being accepted by traditional journals.

In some areas of research, preprints are nothing new; the preprint hosting website arXiv, run out of Cornell University, has been around for years and is popular with physicist.  But investigators in the life science have been slower to adopt the practice.  arXiv has only one life sciences category, quantitative biology, and no apparent intention to add more.

Enter bioRxiv, a new site from Cold Spring Harbor.  As the name implies, bioRxiv caters to biology crowd, accepting manuscripts in fields ranging from bioinformatics to zoology.  Like arXiv before it, bioRxiv accepts manuscripts provided they have not already been published elsewhere, and allows moderated comments on uploaded documents.  Still in its infancy, the site is already home to 28 papers, though as of yet none have been commented on.

For preprints to become mainstream might take some cultural shifts.  Some life scientists are concerned that preprinting manuscripts will open them to getting scooped or make it more difficult to establish who was the first to make a discovery.  Furthermore, many leading journals still frown on preprints and may refuse to publish manuscripts that have already been posted online.

But these things are changing.  More and more journals and publishers are accepting preprinted papers – Elsevier, for instance, states that “Unlike some publishers, we do not consider that a preprint of an article… prior to its submission to Elsevier for consideration amounts to prior publication” – and other concerns may be starting to fade.  As new generations of biologists join the ranks, perhaps preprints will become the new normal.

For more on preprints and their increasing popularity in the life sciences, check out this recent Nature piece.  And stay tuned for next week’s scizzling post on eLife!

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Who Was Stung – Open Access or Peer-Review?

Neeley Remmers

You may have noticed this week that the Science world is abuzz with talk about Open Access Journals and the dangers of publishing in these journals versus traditional. The debate about whether or not to publish in Open Access journals is not new, but the debate has escalated due to the sting article published in Science written by John Bohannon. After reading the article, instead of questioning the credibility of Open Access Journals I was left questioning the failed peer review process that resulted in the acceptance of the fake articles. If you are unaware of the controversy behind the Open Access movement, here is a brief synopsis. As you may have noticed, online publishing is the hottest thing since sliced bread in the world of publication (just think of the huge sales brought in by the invention of tablets and e-readers). This has led to the creation of online scientific journals that earn a profit through authorship fees rather than relying on subscription fees like most magazines, and they publish their articles online so that the general public can read them for free. Those who favor traditional magazines (think Science, Nature, Cell) that require an active subscription or require you to purchase the article before you can read it, claim that the Open Access movement has led to the increased publication of poor-quality science. Some take it even further to say that by publishing in Open Access journals, you effectively drive your career into the dumpster as these journals are a “dumping-ground” for articles that are rejected at the “more prestigious” traditional journals.

Personally, I commend the Open Access movement for making research articles more readily available. I cannot count the number of times I would run into a road block with literature searches because my library did not have a subscription to a journal that published an article that had useful information for my projects. And let’s face it, unless you are a full-time professor with a couple R01 grants supporting your salary, it simply isn’t feasible for most to pay $30+ for an article that may or may not be entirely useful for your project.

Getting back to the sting, here is a brief summary of what went down for those who have not read the article yet. Bohannon composed an article containing data so inaccurate he claimed that anyone with a high school level knowledge of chemistry could recognize the lack of scientific soundness. He chose to submit this falsified paper to over 300 Open Access journals where just over 50% of the journals accepted the paper after asking for trivial revisions. In an article written by Curt Rice reflecting on this sting, you will find a more in-depth explanation of the sting itself and Open Access movement than what I provided here, a look into the peer review system, the corruption that comes with heightened pressure to publish, and flaws with the current publication process. Rice points out that what this sting really brings to light is the corruption that has ensued in the last few years in publishing by charging overpriced author fees, which can be seen in both Open Access and traditional journals, and the flaws in the current peer-review system that allows bad science to get published and how all journals are vulnerable to this. This in turn, is in-part facilitated by the increased pressure on scientists to publish and increased work-load of reviewers struggling to keep up (see Celine’s recent blog for more thoughts on the current state of scientific communication).

Personally, I agree with Rice in that this sting does not point a bad finger at Open Access (even though it was written in that context), but rather points out the flaws in the current scientific publication system and calls for changes to be made. Moral of the story, this sting really enforces the practice of critically reading articles to evaluate their scientific soundness on your own before accepting the results and conclusions

Talking About Talking – Important Conversations About Science Communication

Celine Cammarata

Communication is part of the very blood of science – whether it’s the busy circuit of meetings to attend or the constant pressure to publish papers, sharing and discussing work is a central aspect of research.  But communication itself is a source of ongoing conversation.  The recent special section on communication in Science highlights some of the key topics, and also gives a glimpse of some of the primary tensions, such as openness versus confidentiality and traditions versus new technology.

 

Open-access publishing has gotten a lot of attention lately (see this recent piece in Nature), and with good reason.  Many scientists feel strongly about the importance of making research freely available to the public.  But do open-access journals lower standards for publishing?  John Bohannon’s sting operation, in which he submitted a blatantly flawed fake paper to hundreds of open-access journals – many of which accepted it – raises doubts about whether claims of peer review are to be trusted.

 

Of course, this is not necessarily an issue restricted to open-access journals.  A more intrinsic concern regards broad availability of research in general.  It is tempting to say that research should be freely available to all, but what about work that could have ill effects (think back to the raging debate over research on the bird flu)?  David Malakoff describes the struggles of investigators whose work has the potential to be use in weaponry, expose important preservation sites, or that otherwise might be better off kept quiet. These issues in turn raise other sensitive questions: are there some areas that are just taboo?  How much government oversight of research is too much?  When do publishing guidelines become censorship?  It is also important to appreciate that scientists are fairly good at self-regulating their work – no investigator aims to aid terrorist or otherwise cause danger, and researchers have generally shown great responsibility around such issues.

 

Open-access journals are also a poster child for newer forms of science communication and the ways in which technology is changing things.  But how much change is there really?  While scientists are intrinsically quite innovative, the field is also steeped in culture and tradition.  Diane Harley finds that while many scientists laude newer forms of communication and a shift away from published papers as a metric of success, little change is actually occurring.  This is in large part because tenure and promotions still rest, predominantly, on candidates’ publishing history, removing incentives and increasing risk of pursuing less traditional means of communication.

 

So how do we move forward?  Science Editor-In-Cheif Marcia McNutt points out that as researchers, the most logical way forward is to research our options.  Why not set up studies of different peer review techniques, for example, and actually find out experimentally what works best?  By asking ourselves, and each other, the hard questions and collecting empirical information about the most successful practices, we will begin to lay the groundwork for improving science communication.