How to Become a Unicorn Scientist

Unicorn scientist: A scientist with the unique ability to communicate their work to diverse audiences. A unicorn scientist uses public speaking and written works to get scientists and non-scientists alike excited about cutting-edge research and/or the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

This past week, my program help its annual Student Research Day, an opportunity for students to present their work to MD Anderson and UTHealth faculty, students, friends, family, and community members. Students have the opportunity to present their work through three mediums: a research poster, an oral presentation (10 minutes), or an elevator pitch (90 seconds). Each is a competition with judges scoring the student’s presentation, with the top two in each category winning a monetary prize. Finalists are selected for the oral or elevator pitch competitions after submission of a written application or video of their speech, respectively.

As a first-year student, this was my first opportunity to participate. Our graduate program offers an extra incentive for first-year student participation, in the form of additional monetary awards for their highest scoring presentations. I presented a poster (shown above) of my lab’s results studying the effects of fluid shear stress on breast cancer cell motility and the possible cell signals regulating this response. This is data I analyzed in the first couple after joining my lab. The project is less relevant to my PhD work, but the results were interesting and the data will be submitted in a manuscript for publication soon.

I did not have the courage to participate in either of the competitions requiring public speaking, so I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the finalists. Because our program incorporates hugely diverse science, competitor’s research included mechanisms of bacterial drug resistance,  creation of neural pathways during hunger/cravings, and novel immunotherapies to treat understudied cancers. The top competitors had many qualities of unicorn scientists, with two students in particular each winning at least $1200 in the day’s competitions.

The way I see it, a unicorn scientist exhibits the following qualities or skills:

  • Ability to understand the audience, knowing their background, education, perspective, etc.
  • Explain complicated concepts in simple terms without using jargon, while still enabling an accurate understanding of the topic
  • Ability to read the audience, paying attention to their reactions and figuring out what gets them excited
  • Understands how much physical appearance plays a role in people’s perception

A unicorn scientist must additionally have a solid understanding of the topic which they are attempting to communicate/present, as questions may be asked by those seeking additional knowledge. These scientists are typically truly excited about their work and want to confer that excitement to those they interact with, whether through a formal presentation or everyday conversation.

Unicorn scientists are rare, and their ability to effectively communicate their work can facilitate greater career success through procurement of grants, donation, and investment. In addition, these scientists are far more hireable, as companies see that they can work with and communicate with employees from every department. Unicorn scientists also exhibit strong leadership and motivational qualities, making them ideal candidates for managerial roles, facilitating even further career success.

Becoming a unicorn scientist is no easy feat. These are typically not skills people are born with, especially scientifically-minded people, though some natural ability offers an advantage. That which does not come naturally must be developed through practice, experience, and determination. The best thing I’ve found to develop the required skills is practice. Practice allows you to learn what works for you, whether it’s telling stories, making jokes, or figuring how to relate to your audience. Through experience, you determine how much energy you need to hold the audience’s attention and how much preparation you need to convey your intended message.

Personally, I’ve relied on practice to help me get over the nerves of public speaking, which I’m still working on. I still get anxious when deciding whether to stand still or move around and what to do with my hands. While I’ve worked extensively to develop my writing skills, public speaking still makes my heart beat out of my chest. Having a diverse support system to help you practice that which makes you most nervous is paramount, and I’m grateful to have such a system. I want to compete in either the oral or elevator pitch competitions at the Student Research Day next year. I hope by then I’ll be far closer to becoming a unicorn scientist than I feel now.


Which Words Don’t Matter?

Scientific writing is of paramount importance to any researcher looking to communicate, disseminate, seek funding for, and convey the importance of their work. The phrase “publish or perish” has become a mantra for a reason, though scientific writing extends far beyond publishing your research.

Writing is a process involving multiple chances to improve the writing and target the message for its intended audience, through edits. Scientific editing is a test of pride and ego for the author, one which I struggle with.

While most people, even outside scientific fields, are familiar with the concepts of publishing research and even applying for funding through grants, scientific writing can also include press releases, mass media articles, and blog posts. Each of these types of scientific writing involves different styles (e.g. informative, persuasive) and amounts of scientific jargon.

While I’ve worked on most types of writing mentioned, I’ve mainly been responsible for editing other people’s work. The fellowship applications I submitted this past fall were the first time I was fully responsible for writing a research proposal for a scientific audience. I allotted plenty of time in my application preparation to allow for multiple revisions, including edits by mentors and colleagues. Unfortunately, planning ahead didn’t help me when I had a 2.5 page research plan that was only allowed 2 pages of space.

In my quest to shorten the document, I met with a mentor who has been working in academic research for more than 20 years. She pointed out that as scientists, we like to think that all of our words are significant, but in editing, our challenge is to choose which words don’t matter or contribute nothing to the sentence’s purpose. She proceeded to go through one of my paragraphs and delete two or three words in each sentence, shortening the paragraph by two lines. I was baffled, insulted, and impressed at the same time.

In my editing work, I had thrown away other people’s words with such nonchalance, but never watched it happen to my words. Witnessing the destruction made me think back to how previous colleagues had reacted badly when I removed entire paragraphs of detail from their research proposals due to space constraints and consideration of the reviewer’s point of view.

As it turns out, I have absolutely no problem editing other people’s writing, but I struggle with editing my own. I find it incredibly difficult to decide which of my words contribute nothing, as each deletion seems to chip away at my pride. Writing is a struggle for me, it always has been, but I have gotten better at it through years of practice. I don’t like the idea that something I’ve struggled to write can be disposed of so easily.

As a potential pseudo-solution, I recently discovered that I tend to forget what I’ve written. I’m hoping that this will remove my ego from the editing process. If I write something far enough ahead of a deadline, I will allow myself enough time to forget what I’ve written and can then go back to the writing as if I was editing someone else’s work. I understand that this may require extensive planning ahead, but I’m willing to do so if it facilitates an objective assessment of my writing.

In time, I want to be able to edit my writing without tricking myself into thinking it’s another’s work. I expect that editing my work will become easier with more practice and with the ability to separate my ego from my work.

Turning Information into Knowledge, then Understanding

Over the next five weeks, I will be writing a six-page research plan detailing the scientific background, justification, aims, experiments, and expected results of the research I will be performing over the next 3-5 years.

This undertaking is for a writing class, required by my PhD program, but is meant to potentially serve as the research plan portion of a future NIH F30/31 fellowship application. These fellowships are highly competitive, but offer tuition, stipend, and research expense support from the NIH, thereby greatly relieving a PhD student’s financial burden on their adviser, not to mention looking really good on the student’s CV/Resume. Additionally, writing produced for this class can be used in my candidacy exam, which upon completion of all coursework, will evaluate my readiness to attempt a doctorate-level research project full-time and capability of completing said project.

I am taking this course in my first year as a doctoral student, a relatively early time to be planning out my full project. Prior to starting the class, I understood that it would take time to complete the writing assignments (i.e. various sections of the research plan), but I chose to take the course now for a couple key reasons. First, as alluded to in my previous post, I have a fair bit of experience in grant writing, providing a fundamental set of writing skills and knowledge of reviewers’ expectations. Second, my research project is funded by a large NIH grant recently received by my PI/adviser, meaning that the vast majority of my project has already been described in detail in a manner deemed exceptional by the organization to which I will be applying for funding. Therefore, I knew that I could use my adviser’s grant application as a reference when I got stuck or couldn’t remember elements of my project.

My specific aims page, our first class assignment and arguably the most important part of a research plan was due this past week. This page directly precedes the research plan in a grant application and is commonly handed out to every reviewer in a study section, while only a few are responsible for reviewing the entire application. The specific aims page gives a brief scientific background and justification of your research project, as well as a short description of your research goals (termed specific aims) and how you will accomplish those goals. According to our course director, if the reviewer isn’t excited for your project after reading the specific aims page, you are unlikely to be funded.

Working on my specific aims page led to a frustrating realization: I know my research project, but I don’t yet understand it. Understanding the research goes beyond merely the knowledge of what you’re studying. It facilitates your pivotal ability to make changes to, or troubleshoot experiments when things don’t turn out as expected.

When learning a new subject or entering an area of research, I want to be able to understand it as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, understanding takes time, patience, and experience. I am still working on gaining the necessary knowledge, as I have an entirely new field of research to learn.

A friend, and second-year PhD student, noted how much she has grown to understand her research project in the past year. As an impatient person, I wish to already have that level of understanding for my research project, but I have to take a breath and remind myself of how far I’ve come and how much time I have to get to where I need to go.

It has been about a month since finishing my spring classes and I have spent most of that productive time reading relevant literature for my project. As this research is in a completely new field for me, I have a lot to read. I have gone through around 30 papers so far, some of which are pictured above, and am starting to feel like I have a basic grasp on the biological fundamentals and scientific premise for the research questions I will spend my PhD attempting to answer. However, questions posed by the summer intern assisting with my project as well as my research plan writing pursuits have brought into focus how much I still need to understand about my project.

Ultimately, my primary goal for the writing class has now changed from writing my candidacy exam proposal to simply gaining a better understanding of my research project. More than likely, elements of my research plan are likely to change between what I write now and what I propose next spring, stemming from preliminary experiments that I perform over the next 6-8 months. On the other hand, any rapid progress I make in better understanding my research project may have more lasting beneficial effects.