Introducing Melissa Jones, one of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition runners-up.
I am an alumna of California State University Long Beach and a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences and Translational Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. My scientific interests include molecular mechanisms of human diseases, stem cell biology, and vision research. As a Southern California native, I enjoy going to the beach, running, and reading. My favourite book is Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, because I like the moral that scientists should think about the consequences of their research in addition to the technicality of the experiments.
I am the only person in my family not pursuing a career in business. While they discuss market strategies, I am busy trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck on this antibody that hasn’t worked for the last four years (A little help, Santa Cruz Biotech?).
But my family and I aren’t worlds apart in the way we think, it’s just the jargon that we use. Science can be considered as a business, whether a biotech company or in academia. Scientists try to sell their ideas to grant review committees, a class of undergraduate students or to a group of donors. An important aspect of it is how well you are able to pitch your idea in a clear and productive manner, a task that many people often forget and a trait that is hard to teach.
One of the main reasons (some) scientists have a hard time communicating with anyone outside of their field of research is because they don’t keep their audience in mind. Preparing for a seminar lecture at a Keystone Conference will have a different feel and flow than at an undergraduate lecture course or in speaking to your grandmother. In one situation, a sufficient statement might be, “I am trying to cure breast cancer” while in another situation this would create more questions than answers. A great salesperson knows when to use appropriate words in each environment to make the content accessible to the listener, and make them feel comfortable enough with the information so that they are able to engage with it.
My research involves one of the most controversial science topics in the United States today: the use of human embryonic stem cells as therapies for diseases. I’ve encountered protesters at multiple universities where I’ve studied. At one university, a group of people had pitched up on our campus with signs that had a picture of my supervisor on them, pointing him out as the problem. He told everyone at the next lab meeting, “Scientists don’t want to engage them and so they are misinformed. I want everyone to approach them and just talk to them – as long as you feel safe!” He listened to the protester’s views, explained our research, and allowed them to come to their own conclusions with the facts he had given them, and he left understanding more about their views and concerns than before.
This encounter inspired me to have an open approach in speaking to people about my own research with the hopes that they too will be open-minded. I’m a proponent that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, so long as they come to a rational decision after hearing all of the facts first. Stem cell research has been a hard sell to some of my friends, and a harder sell to certain governments, but the important aspect is to have open lines of communication so that everyone can hear all points of view.
I’ve kept this idea of engaging with the public with me as I continue to work in the stem cell field. In our department’s outreach program, we invite high school students to the lab and perform experiments. When asked, “What do you think of when you hear ‘stem cells’?”, the word was a unanimous “Controversy!”
To me, controversy is good for science. It means people are interested enough to actually talk about and analyze the topic. Coming from a business-oriented family has helped in the way I view my career in the biomedical sciences. Salespeople are able to paint a picture of a better future by buying a particular product. With science and technology, we are aiming for this same goal.