Talking Science

The term “science communication” gets thrown around a lot in my world. It is most commonly used in one of two contexts: (1) during scientific training/education while stressing the importance of being able to communicate your research to individuals outside your field or (2) a potential career to pursue after finishing your degree. While use of “science communication” in these circumstances is perfectly valid, I think it undervalues the professional diversity of those who participate in science communication. Here, I present three distinct types of science communicators, their functions, their messages, and their backgrounds.

To start with, a common career path for scientists interested in communications is to become a science writer. Science writers frequently work for a media company (print, online, etc.) or are freelance journalists/authors who write about complex scientific concepts for a general non-scientific audience. I like to think of them as science translators.

Science writers tend to have some university-level background in science, but whose stand-out skill lies in their ability to boil down complex concepts into simple terms and analogies. They no longer perform original research but build and maintain networks of scientists about whose work they try to get the public excited and interested. Most impressively, science writers are uniquely tasked with coherently and accurately describing scientific fields in which they may have minimal to no background.

I find it more difficult to remember the names of specific science writers (unless they’ve authored a particularly noteworthy book), but they do well at leaving the reader with specific tidbits of information.

The most easily recognizable (i.e. widest audience) scientific communicator is the science presenter. These individuals are typically charismatic scientists who have been determined to have a marketable face and can make science sound interesting/fascinating to almost anyone. I like to think of these few individuals as science celebrities.

Science presenters have names you recognize, including Bill Nye, Professor Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (I know this last one has some scandal associated with it right now). While they are very good about getting non-scientific people excited about science, they aren’t known for educating the average person about specific scientific concepts/principles. They say something that makes you say “woah, that’s cool”, then instantly forget what was just said.

While science presenters ordinarily hold at least one position at a scientific institution, they aren’t best known for performing original research.

Science celebrities have the vital, difficult responsibility of getting the average Joe/Jane excited about science, with the aim that Joe/Jane ventures out to learn more for themselves.

The most populated type of science communicator is the scientist who can communicate. Their role is science communication is exactly how it sounds: their primary responsibility is to perform research in their niche scientific field, but they also have the invaluable skill of communicating their work to diverse audiences. I like to think of these amazing individuals as next-gen scientists, meaning that these are what science trainees should aim to become.

Earning a PhD confers expertise in a particular field, so these scientists predominantly hold terminal degrees from respected institutions and work as faculty at universities or federal organizations. Their names aren’t yet widely known outside specialty fields, but their popularity is growing due to their presence on social media (namely Twitter and Instagram).

While scientists who can communicate focus much of their communication on the field(s) that they actively work in, they can adapt their messages to the audience, narrowing in on the nitty-gritty details or presenting a 10,000 foot view of their field. This is the category of science communicators that I am most excited about because they allow members of the public direct access to the most cutting-edge science.

Excitingly, there are some impressive individuals who are blurring the lines between these types of communicators, resulting in all scientific fields becoming more accessible to the public. I only hope that members of the public trust us enough to believe what we say.

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.


How a Three Year Break Prepared Me for a PhD

For a while, I have wanted to write about how my time away from school shaped me into the person/researcher I am now. A reflection on this past semester felt like a good opportunity to discuss how lessons learned in my time away prepared me for the challenges I recently faced.

As a brief timeline of events, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2013. That fall, I moved to London to pursue a Master’s in Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine at University College London, which I completed in the fall of 2014. While both of those experiences were incredible and life-altering in their own way (which I will probably write about at a later time), I really only became an adult and learned adult lessons once I left school.

From September 2014 to August 2017, I did my best to be a contributing member of society, with varying success. The first 9 months of my post-academic life were filled with moving back in with my parents, trying to find a job, questioning my choices, catching up on sleep, and getting re-acquainted with the people in my life. While, in that time, I felt more like a high school student during summer break than a functioning adult, I appreciate the breathing room it afforded me and my chance to reassess what I wanted to do next.

In the summer of 2015, I started a job as research assistant at a very well-funded private institution. I had previously interned there and was very excited to accept a full-time position. Fortunately, this lab allowed me to combine my previous experience with cancer drug delivery platforms with my emerging interests in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine technologies. I was given many responsibilities very soon after starting the position. These grew to involve extensive writing and work with grant applications, as well as holding authority in groups of people with far greater experience and stature than me. “In over my head” felt like an understatement.

The pressure of such responsibility and work-load frustrations lead to dreading any contact with my PI, and resulted in two main events. First, I started writing. I kept an online blog under a pseudonym where I could articulate everything in my life that was making me miserable. Simply putting my thoughts into words felt so cathartic that once written down, I could easily moved past whatever was bothering me. Second, I started looking for a new job.

My limited criteria when looking for a new job were that I stay in Houston, the research be in the realm of tissue engineering, and the PI be very different from the one I’d been working for. It took about 5 months from the time I started looking, to find a position which met my criteria. In the fall of 2016, I started my new job as a research associate (a title bump, but not so much a salary one) at UTHealth School of Dentistry, working with a PI who was the polar opposite of the one I had left.

I took on completely different, but equally challenging responsibilities which mainly included designing a new research project in a field I had never worked in before. This involved spending months reading and familiarizing myself with the vast amounts of knowledge that researchers in the field before me had acquired. Under the guidance of my PI, I wrote a textbook chapter on cell interactions with different biomaterials and designed a research project which I was proud of and excited to start working on.

Within two months of starting at UTHealth, I knew I was ready to go back to school and start working on my PhD. I also wanted to keep working in that lab, with those people. Prior to that job, I had spent enough time working in a septic environment that I recognized one of support, teaching, and growth. Soon after starting my job there, I applied to the PhD program that my PI was affiliated with, the UT MD Anderson/UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

I don’t think my PI was thrilled about the prospect of my leaving his lab less than a year after joining, but he was incredibly supportive of my desire to go back to school. The research project we’d designed became the project I applied to fellowships with, as it was the project I wanted to work on for my PhD.

In August 2017, I left full-time employment and started on my current journey.

Due to my goal to take candidacy in the spring of next year, I chose to take both of my program’s most difficult courses this past semester. I believed that with my research responsibilities limited to rotations (i.e. short-term projects), I would have more flexibility when needing to complete assignments and study for exams. This assumption turned out to be correct, but I underestimated how much these courses would challenge me and how much time they would require.

With my previous academic endeavors based in engineering principles, switching to a biological mindset has been incredibly difficult. I understood very little of the first few weeks of my classes this semester, causing me to be disheartened and incredibly nervous about my first round of exams. However, I walked into this semester knowing, and regularly telling myself, that grades in graduate school are far less important than they were in undergrad. While I put everything I could into studying and completing exams to the best of my ability, I never felt it necessary to earn the highest grades possible. Following that, when I didn’t do well on an exam, while disappointing, my experiences working in a lab full-time proved that a test score, while important in the short-term, is near-insignificant in the long-term.

This also meant that I consciously decided to not over-exert myself in studying for exams, most of which happened on my couch nook shown above. We didn’t have homework assignments, so the bulk of my efforts were devoted to studying for the 3-4 exams in each.

I remember what it was like to let my stresses at work overrun my mental health, to the point where I despised waking up in the morning. I never wanted my classes to cause me such misery, so I took steps to make sure they didn’t. I made sure to get enough sleep each night, I did my best to eat healthy (though any stress makes sugar unavoidable), and I went to the gym as much as my energy would allow. Beyond that, I also took plenty of breaks, stepping away from work and studying, going out to see friends and family, and taking time for activities that had nothing to do with school.

Outside of class, I started this semester thinking that I knew for sure which lab I was going to work in, what my project would be like, and who I was going to work with. As I’ve previously written, none of what I thought was going to happen did. The final nail in the coffin came when I failed to get a fellowship to provide funding for the research project I started my PhD to work on. Even through that, my past experiences taught me that the right environment will present itself when you are clear about what you’re looking for and are willing to ask for help to find it.

I also took this semester to get back to writing about my experiences, which has helped me to express frustrations and move past obstacles in my path.

I have gotten through a difficult semester and come out on the other side feeling like I’ve gained a whole new knowledge base. I am very fortunate to have joined an incredible lab, found an inspiring PI/mentor, and started an exciting research project that will push me to grow even further as a researcher and scientist. I am grateful that my past experiences have enabled me to adapt to the unexpected, handle seemingly uncontrollable stresses, and recognize worthwhile opportunities.

It Is Never Too Early To Start Looking

I am very fortunate to be part of an institution which offers a multitude of career development seminars and workshops, and I attend as many of them as I can. I am typically one of the youngest attendees, but I go to listen, ask questions, and, let’s be honest, eat free food. Presentations at these events can range from alumni returning to discuss their myriad career paths, to international representatives attempting to recruit skilled researchers to their country.

I admit, my enjoyment of these productions is highly dependent on the speaker’s ability to hold my attention and present useful/relevant information. Some have felt like a waste of time, but others have offered insights into career paths I had never considered and maybe didn’t even know existed.

I view these seminars, workshops, and symposia as a shotgun approach to figuring out what I want to do with my life. I have no idea what careers are going to interest me in 4 years, when I’m [hopefully] finishing up my doctorate, but I want to be aware of as many options as possible leading up to that point. We all ask ourselves questions when deciding on a next step in our lives: What do I want to be doing day-to-day? Where do I want to be living? Who do I want to be working with? Do I want to work as part of the group or lead the group? How long do I see myself there? Is it a permanent placement or a step to something better? How do I get there? Do I know someone who can help me?

I know that when I’m ready to find answers to these questions, I will be so distracted and busy with finishing up my research/degree that I won’t have the time/energy to get an accurate assessment of my options. I am creating a Rolodex in my head of career paths I find interesting, while also recognizing which ones will be unlikely to make me happy. Additionally, the people giving these presentations are often a resource to entering their field, which can be utilized when you’re ready to transition out of graduate school.

This past week, I attended the TMC Annual Postdoctoral Career Symposium. This all-day event features panels about many of the career paths now available to individuals with a PhD. Each panel is made up of people in those fields who spend an hour discussing their jobs and answering questions from the audience. The panels I attended included consulting, entrepreneurship, pharma, and women in leadership, as well as a presentation from the Director of TMCx, the innovation hub at TMC started a few years ago for researchers/entrepreneurs interested in bringing their technologies to the clinic. Panels I did not attend (merely for lack of time) included non-profit organizations, intellectual property, academia, and governmental research, as well as a few others. This event is unique in its efforts to expose students and trainees to as many career paths as possible in a single day.

In unrelated activities, but still following the theme of seeking out career opportunities, this past week I also participated in Science Night (pictured above), a free annual event hosted by MD Anderson Cancer Center which introduces community children (aged 4-17, though most are 9-11 years old) to basic scientific concepts, many of which are the fundamentals to the biomedical research being performed at MD Anderson and throughout the medical center.

The event offers activities ranging from DNA isolation to wave formation with gummy bear ladders, to get children interested in science. I helped at the table organized by the Biochemistry & Cell Biology PhD program. We explained what stem cells were and how they were unique because they could turn into almost any cell in the body, showing images of cardiac, muscle, neural, and other cell types. Children were then given balls of playdough, symbolizing stem cells, and were challenged to make the different cell types shown. Some kids made the simplest-shaped cell (typically a muscle cell) and left, but others stuck around to meticulously shape every cell type shown.

I don’t think that every child in attendance will grow up to be a scientist, but at least they now know about all the amazing things they could do if they did.