Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Paige Brown talks about her transition from science into science writing.
Mass Communication Graduate Student and soon-to-be Ph.D student. Science/Engineering Communications Intern at Louisiana State University
What is your scientific background?
My scientific background is in the field of biological engineering. I followed a rather traditional course through this field from an undergraduate and graduate career at Louisiana State University to a short-lived yet very rewarding Ph.D career in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. My studies at the lab bench ranged from single-cell manipulation and cell health detection on-a-chip (yes, we built microchips at LSU that could send cells single-file down a tiny channel and past tiny ‘health’ detection electrodes), to the design of metallic nanostructures capable of delivering drug payloads inside of a cell and releasing those payloads when activated by a beam of light from a laser source. My nanoparticles-for-drug-delivery project at LSU was lots of fun, and led me to really enjoy and appreciate the field of nanotechnology and nanomedicine. Nano is everywhere! Both my Master’s research at LSU and single year of PhD-level research at WUSTL focused on harnessing the unique properties of nanostructures for biomedical applications – making ‘nano’ work for biology and medicine!
What is your current job?
I like dipping my toe into any science communications opportunity I come across. Currently, I am a non-matriculating graduate student at LSU taking courses in Mass Communications, but I am a soon to be Ph.D student in the Manship School of Mass Communications! My focus is science communications (smile!). I also work for the communications office in the LSU College of Engineering, writing stories featuring LSU students, researchers and their work which are posted to the College’s website. This summer, I have an internship lined up between LSU’s Office of Communications & University Relations and Office of Research & Economic Development. I will be writing features about exciting research going on at LSU for the university’s homepage, Research Magazine and beyond – very exciting for me!
I love my current focus in the world of science communications – both in academics and in my job. The best bits include meeting and talking to professors about their research. I love learning about new areas of science and scientific projects. Recently, I interviewed a scientist and artist team from the UK over Skype about their work in creating catalytic clothing using nanotechnology which can remove pollutants from the air around us as we walk in the street. I was amazed that I could interview and cultivate a relationship with a research team from across the world and spread their story to a wide audience without leaving my writing desk! I’m surprised everyday by my interactions with people involved with science in rather non-traditional roles, many of whom give you insights and idea seeds that you would never expect. I am also amazed, as I delve deeper into my studies in Mass Communications, by the vital importance of studying and bettering the way we currently go about communicating science. What I had always suspected during my time at the lab bench is true – communicating science is just as important as doing it.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
So, after one year in the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D program at WUSTL, I decided that although I enjoyed lab bench research, my true passion was writing about my findings. I suppose that passion was there all along. My P.I. at LSU jokes that my thesis proposal is now displayed and passed to young graduate studies as a “guide to how their proposal should look”. Writing up my results were some of the best times I had conducting research (Second only to meeting my significant other in the lab!). Although sitting in the dark on top of a confocal microscope was at times thrilling and hours passed this way, the throes of experiments-gone-bad and instances of what I call “assembly-line science” seemed to dull my creative spirit. But don’t get me wrong, I love research, and I devour scientific news – there is nothing better.
“I think it was both serendipity and choice that led to my transition from a physical science career to a science communications career.”
It all started when Nature Network accepted my application to blog for them while I was a Ph.D student at WUSTL (smile again!). My blog From The Lab Bench has now become a testing and growing ground for some of my crazier story ideas and passion for science communications. I began to realize that if I really wanted it, perhaps I could ‘make it’ as a science communicator. I packed my bags at the end of my first year as an engineering Ph.D student and headed back down south to Louisiana, where I knew I could find wonderful food, great southern company and one of the best schools of mass communications in the country.
Now, I am rediscovering my passion for research through graduate-level studies in strategic science communications, public understanding of science, and science policy.
Where do you see your career in the future?
Who knows? I might find myself back at the bench someday! But most importantly, I see myself as a bridge between science and engineering and the field of communications. I wish to always stay sharp and current on research in STEM fields, while pushing the frontiers of what scientists and science communications believe and how they go about communicating science.
“What makes…communications work, or not work, and what are the implications for the research projects at the hands of those communicators?”
I see myself perhaps becoming a professor of science communications, teaching both scientists and journalists more about the field, as well as conducting my own research in the area. I am particularly interested in delving into what makes the interdisciplinary research team tick (or fail in the case of communication breakdown). Research across borders of scientific fields – and even beyond scientific fields – is becoming more and more important as we enter an age of global and complex problems which can’t be solved by researchers in a single field. But how do engineers learn to appreciate and communicate with biochemists, or physicists with artists? What makes these communications work, or not work, and what are the implications for the research projects at the hands of those communicators? I find this question very interesting and, based on personal experience, feel it is quite important to seek answers.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
If you come upon another area which interests you, whether it is within, on the border of, or even outside of the science you know, jump in. You never know what you might find out and how passionate you might be for something else – science communications, say – until you get both feet wet. I decided that if I want to know the field of science communications, then I need to go to the source. Now, I’m about to start a new adventure as a Ph.D student in a school of mass communications!
“Scientists who are interested in science communications: start a blog.”
Getting your voice out there is the first step. It’s also tremendously important that scientists and engineers do everything they can to reach out to individuals in non-traditional science fields and the public at large with both patience and open ears. You never know what you might learn when you listen to voices very unlike your own.