Five years

Five years since my defense.

Five years of bumbling, stumbling towards where I am now.

I’ve learned the importance of serendipity. Every step of my career since leaving the lab bench can be attributed to a chance encounter. None of my positions (editor, freelance writer, PR professional) were positions I set out to find.

There was a time when, bitter and frustrated after several years at the bench, I regretted my decision to pursue a Ph.D. But over the last five years, my degree has opened doors for me. And although sometimes tangential to the job, my training and experience has more often than not provided me with the tools and confidence to do the job well.

I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I have thought the degree worthless – particularly in those hours spent crafting a placating email to an angry author, proofing a newsletter for the fifteenth time to try and catch the errant comma, or wrestling with Word to re-format a document to match someone’s exacting specifications.

But there are other moments that make it worthwhile – for example, realizing I could finally read a neurobiology paper without stopping at every other term, receiving an excited email from a grateful scientist who had just read my write-up of their latest paper, and watching a script and animation I had written and developed come to life.

I am confident I am not wasting my Ph.D. I am making the best of it.

Wanted: new blog name

I no longer like the name projectsteph, but I can’t think of another apt name for this blog. Until I think of one, [insert clever science blog name] will have to do as a placeholder. Any suggestions?

(Lack of) women in science

Thursday was International Women’s Day. The Lancet published an article discussing women in science and medicine and recounted the inspiring story of Utako Okamoto.

The article also contained statistics showing the drop in the proportion of women in academic science as we move from university graduates to professors – statistics that are very familiar to most of us.

The last European Commission’s SHE (statistics and indicators on Gender Equality in Science) figures in 2009 showed that in the 27 countries making up the European Union, 59% of university graduates are females but only 18% of full professors are women. …

Similarly in medicine, a recent survey by The Times newspaper found that despite 42% of British doctors being women, less than a quarter of clinical academics and only 14% of clinical professors are women. Worse still, some university-based medical schools have no tenured female professors in their research departments.

I find myself in an uncomfortable position with regards to the issue of women in science and academia. I am one of the many women who left the so-called pipeline. In fact, not only did I leave research and academia, I went into science writing and editing, where in many settings, it is the men who are outnumbered. As an editor, I worked on a team with one man and six women. I now work in PR, where my main team is comprised of one man and eight women.

It is worth noting that both these teams were and are led by a woman. Looking at the more senior positions, however, I suspect women may again be underrepresented.

I am where I need to be with regards to my career. But it makes me a little sad sometimes that the career move I made is not helping the gender gap in academia.

Updates to projectsteph

Made some quick updates tonight:

* Added the two synopses I wrote for PLoS Biology to the writings page.
* Updated the link to the Stowers Report on the writings page. The Stowers Institute recently launched their redesigned site.
* Made some other minor tweaks throughout the writings page and the about page.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog. If only they could help write my other posts as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Wishing everyone the best for 2012!

Alive! And renewing my commitment to this blog

Well, so much for posting at least once a month.

What happened? I got a new job. It’s been difficult to find time to write.

I am committed to maintaining this blog though, so that means revisiting how I write and when I can write. Blog posts will need to be shorter. I will have to write whenever and wherever I can squeeze in time.

For example, I wrote part of this post while waiting in a hair salon. And I am finishing it while sitting on a plane, on my first extended vacation since starting the job.

So what’s this new job that’s been keeping me so busy?

Oops, that’s the plane door closing. Looks like the description of the job will have to wait for another blog post.

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View from my seat as I am writing this

Bridging the gap between scientist and writer… when they’re the same person

matthowe/Flickr
Who's going to bridge that gap? (matthowe/Flickr)

This week, I read two thought-provoking pieces on the issue of scientific misinformation. In his piece, Colin Schultz discusses three studies that help illustrate that “[s]cience journalists do not work in isolation, and sometimes errors start further—much further—up the chain.” He quotes from David DiSalvo’s piece, which explores why scientists and journalists mistrust one another and what we can do to repair that trust.

So what happens when a scientist decides to cross the big divide… and become a writer herself? Problem solved, right?

Not really. It’s still not easy. At the risk of being a little too honest here, let me point out some of the challenges I’ve run into as a scientist-turned-writer.

I empathize with the scientists. I know first-hand how difficult research can be and how much work/time/blood/sweat/tears goes into any scientific study. As a young editor for a top-tier journal, I often struggled with papers in which I recognized that the authors had done a TON of work, yet the findings were less than exciting. Given the interests/standards of the journal, these were studies that would eventually be turned down, but the decisions were not always clear-cut or easy for me. As a writer, empathy is less of a “problem” – no matter the impact or findings of the study, there is always something interesting about the science into which I can sink my teeth. But I always need to be mindful of context – make sure I am accurately conveying what we have learned from the study and what there is yet to do – and not oversell a story just because I know the scientists worked really hard at it.

I am obsessed with accuracy and precision. As a scientist, you learn to formulate all of your assertions with a dozen modifiers and disclaimers: “Protein X interacts with protein Y, but only in this cell type, under these conditions, and when there’s a full moon.” We don’t do this for fun – we need to think this way when considering a study in a critical manner. In fact, one of the things I looked out for as an editor – and which has carried over into my work as a writer – is overstatement of claims. I need to distinguish between what is clearly supported by data and what is speculation and extrapolation. I rely on the specific nitty-gritty details to tease out what has actually been shown in a study. Detail and specificity builds precision, but unfortunately can sometimes obscure clear communication. When writing up the study, I need to decide which nitty-gritty details are actually important in conveying the central message of the study (while preserving context) and which are extraneous and need to be left out.

What do you mean you don't understand why yellow slime mold is cool? (xkcd.com)

I spend so much time getting the science right that I forget about the “angle”. I know I need to get your attention. But I don’t write as fast as my more experienced colleagues, and having spent most of my time making sure I’ve got the science right, I sometimes rush through the process of crafting a compelling introduction or hopeful/dramatic conclusion – elements that make the science more relevant. It can be tempting – when I am writer-blocked or running headlong into a deadline – to say the hell with it and conclude a story with “Therefore, X causes Y, and now that we know this, we’re going to cure cancer.” Schultz and DiSalvo both touch on the issue of oversimplification in their respective articles. Luckily, my obsession with accuracy and precision (as mentioned above) generally prevents me from making such statements. Yes, I need to write compellingly, but I also can’t toss accuracy out the window. I need to spend time thinking, “Why should anyone read this?” and provide a good answer in my piece.

In closing, I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph from DiSalvo:

Thankfully, there is an attainable middle ground.  Some scientists and journalists have chosen, to use a Reaganism, to “trust but verify,” and I think this is the healthiest outcome of the debate we can hope for.  Scientists have every right to be concerned about how their work is represented to the world.  If they choose to extend their trust to a journalist to handle the subject well, the journalist should also be willing to reciprocate by making every effort to tell the story appealingly, but without reckless embellishment. That means checking and double checking the facts and making sure that the scientists’ reservations are honored.

It is important to me that the scientists about whose study I’ve written has a chance to read my article. I want to make sure I’ve understood the nuances of the study and that I’ve represented the central take-home message accurately. I also strive to make my articles accessible to the desired audience – and hope they will be able to read it, understand it, find it interesting, and derive something from it. Finally, I seek the approval of – or at least seek to avoid ridicule from – other science writers and communicators. I want to know I am producing good quality work. I am still learning. I seem to be headed in the right general direction.

The take-home message of this blog post, in combination with Schultz and DiSalvo’s pieces? We all have a part to play in good, accurate science reporting, whether we are scientists, editors, writers, journalists, PR practitioners, etc. We must keep working at it.