Beyond Grant Writing: Exploring career opportunities in scientific communication

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, Science communications

Beyond Grant Writing: Exploring career opportunities in scientific communication through the Vanderbilt ASPIRE program

By Natalya Ortolano, Graduate Student, Vanderbilt University


I had an interesting discussion about future career options with my six-year-old niece recently. She had just discovered that I was not twelve years old but, in fact, twenty-six and that I had been in school for almost 20 years. Then, she asked a question I ponder daily, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I explained in kid-accessible terms that I was currently a researcher, working tirelessly in the lab doing experiment after experiment, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep researching or mentor people on how to do that as the principal investigator of my own lab. Uninterested in my dilemma, she asked how long you had to be in school to become a mermaid.

As unremarkable as this conversation may seem to someone who has conversed with a six-year-old about basically anything, this conversation stuck with me at the time. It reminded me of when I was a kid. I had wanted to be a fireman, a garbageman, and eventually a veterinarian. Just like when I was a kid, I had pigeonholed my career options to the ones I could see right in front of me. What if I wasn’t even aware of the career best suited for me?

Identifying my scientific passion

In preparation for my graduate school qualifying exam, I wrote an NIH style NRSA grant application to submit to my committee proposing my dissertation work. From that moment forward, I became entranced with writing grants, developing a story from my data, and proposing exciting new venues for my research. It was like writing a short story about my research. Grant writing had reignited my passion for writing. For the first few years of graduate school, I was always writing something related to my research whether it be a fellowship application, a review, or a preview. Then, towards the end of my third year of graduate school, the amount of writing I was doing dwindled. I had received an NRSA fellowship, and it was time to focus all my attention on completing the exciting experiments I had proposed in my fellowship applications. At first, I was excited. Then, without fully understanding why, I became less passionate about my research. I felt less motivated; it felt harder to get out of bed and come into work. I was confused because I was still interested in my project, and I was eager to get the results from my experiments; in fact, I was dying to know what my protein of interest did (I still am). After some reflection, I realized this was the first time in my life I wasn’t actively writing. Writing had been my source of scientific inspiration and my motivating force.

The realization that writing played such an essential role in my personal and professional life should not have come as a surprise. Long before my interest in science, I wanted to be a writer, specifically a fiction writer. In high school, I realized through reading several novels by science-inspired non-fiction writers that science was real life fiction and decided to major in biology in college. Once I realized how important it was for me to write, I decided to seek out opportunities outside of the lab not only to improve my scientific writing skills, but to continue actively writing about science to keep myself motivated and excited about my bench work.

Discovering the world of scientific journalism

 To get myself back in the habit of writing, I signed up for a course offered through the office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET) at Vanderbilt University. I am lucky enough to attend a university with NIH BEST funding, which provided the funding necessary for the ASPIRE program at Vanderbilt. The ASPIRE program provides meaningful opportunities and experiences for graduate students in biomedical research programs to explore diverse career opportunities. One of the ways that the ASPIRE program facilitates exposure to a variety of career paths is through modules, which are brief non-credit electives that provide training in a specific field or topic outside of the lab.

I was able to take two courses during my third year of graduate school: “Practical Strategies for Strong Writing” and “Biomedical Research and Media;” the latter one greatly improved my writing skills. In the course, the instructor gave us short writing samples and asked us to edit the articles sentence by sentence to improve the sentence structure and overall flow of the pieces. This course was instrumental in helping me read my work with an editorial mindset again, helping me improve my writing.

“Biomedical Research and Media” went a step above and taught me not only how to become a better writer but introduced me to the world of science journalism. The course reminded me of my English classes in high school and college. We would read an article from magazines like “The New Yorker” or “The Scientist,” and discuss how the author was able to take the complex scientific concepts in a highly technical publication and turn it into an exciting and accessible story for the public to read. To put our newly learned skills to the test, the instructor assigned everyone a small article and larger article to write for the VUMC Reporter, the Vanderbilt newsletter highlighting research at the university medical center. To write these articles, I first had to interview the researchers themselves and determine which of their publications to highlight. While I was no stranger to scientific literature, talking to someone about their science was a daunting task.

We spent time in the class discussing how to interview someone about their science, how to select quotes for your article, and how to encourage those you are talking to break down their science into easily digestible terms. The experience of writing my first two articles in this course was invaluable experiences; I wouldn’t have known how to interview otherwise. Most importantly, this course showed me that I could find a career combining my passion for writing with my scientific knowledge to tell researchers’ unique stories to the public.

Since the course, I have continued to be an active scientific writer by identifying opportunities, mostly facilitated through the ASPIRE program. Most notably, I have been a productive writer for the BRET Results and Discussion Newsletter put out every Fall and Spring, which highlights the research of fellow graduate students. Additionally, I was able to write an article for the Vanderbilt Magazine highlighting the research of a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

I hope to continue writing at least one article a month for the remainder of my graduate career to gain the experience needed to apply for an internship in scientific journalism. The BRET ASPIRE program has also already begun helping me to identify potential internships, which I hope to apply for either after my dissertation defense or shortly before. The faculty in the BRET office has also connected me with others who have participated in internships like the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship.

Continuing exploration in the field of scientific communication

Since pursuing my interest in scientific journalism, I have begun to explore other careers in scientific communication. Another resource the ASPIRE program offers is a monthly seminar series where speakers, often Vanderbilt alumni, are invited to discuss their career path and professional experiences called “Ph.D. Career Connections.” I was able to make a valuable connection during one of these seminars with Tiffany Farmer, Ph. D., a former graduate student at Vanderbilt University, who is now the Director of Education and Community Engagement at the local science museum in Nashville, TN, Adventure Science Center. After seeing Tiffany’s seminar, I became interested in careers in scientific outreach. While I had always done scientific outreach, I didn’t realize there were career options in that field beyond teaching. I was able to contact Tiffany directly and meet with her one on one to discuss her career and what I could start doing to see if scientific outreach was a good fit for me.

I joined a program at the Adventure Science Center known as “Scientist on Site” where the program paired me with two high school students. We worked together to develop an activity to host at the center highlighting my research. The students toured my lab and learned about my research and the graduate school process. While they learned about my research, they taught me how to explain my research to non-scientists not only in a way that made sense but made my research sound exciting and important. For the final two weeks, we built a mitotic spindle out of pool noodles and rope to demonstrate how cells divided to visitors of the center. I continue to volunteer at the Adventure Science Center today and find practicing communicating science to the public in a museum setting helpful for writing to non-scientific audiences. Although I am still more drawn to scientific journalism, I continue to be involved in scientific outreach on and off the Adventure Science Center site.

Overall, the ASPIRE program here at Vanderbilt helped me realize I could do more with my passion for communicating science than write grants. If I so choose, I can use my love for communication to promote scientific literacy through scientific journalism and/or advocacy. Although my favorite part of my graduate career has been writing grants for fellowship applications and presenting my work at conferences and in committee meetings, the ASPIRE program showed me what I could do with my interests and strengths outside of academia, without discouraging me from pursuing academia. Although I am still I the process of determining if science communication or academia are the best fit for me, the ASPIRE program and the incredible staff that work there are helping me figure that out.

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