A funny thing happened on my way to a PhD: one scientists change of mind and change of direction

Laurel Barchas is an old and dear friend of the communications team here at CIRM. As a student at U.C. Berkeley she helped us draft our education portal – putting together a comprehensive curriculum to help high schools teach students about stem cells in a way that met all state and federal standards. But a funny thing happened on her way to her Ph.D., she realized she had changed her mind about research, and so she changed her career direction.  

Laurel recently wrote this blog about that experience for the new and improved website of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research (SSSCR) –

Laurel #1

Laurel Barchas at the World Stem Cell Summit 2013

Stem cell parental advice—you can grow up to be anything!

I was one of those students who, since high school, knew I was destined for the lab. Throughout some of high school, and all of college and graduate school, I had internships or positions in amazing labs that warmly took me in and trained me how to be a scientist. I loved designing and carrying out experiments on my stem cells, presenting at lab meetings, writing theses, and teaching others about my work through undergraduate lectures and high school presentations. My participation in the Student Society for Stem Cell Research hugely supported all of my efforts; it even enabled me to get one of my first jobs as a contract curriculum writer (a project manager role) with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which launched my writing career.

Four years into my biology PhD program, things became clear that I didn’t want to do research anymore. I couldn’t handle the failure inherent in doing research. I wasn’t able to put in the time and focus necessary to do big experiments—then repeat them over and over. Although I loved science, I wasn’t meant to be a career scientist like many of my colleagues. I was a science communicator. Realizing this, and taking into account my personal struggles, my advisers and I decided the best thing was to get a terminal master’s degree.**

Differentiation—finding the right path

I struggled for a while finding a job that suited me. I worked as an education consultant, writing materials directed at teachers and students. I worked as a marketing, communications and operations assistant for a real estate group. I looked for jobs as a teacher, curriculum developer, and science education program coordinator, but none felt quite right for me. Although I had extensive experience in school developing materials for teachers and giving presentations to students, and I knew education could be a rewarding career path, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the academic world anymore.

Finally, I found some listings looking for technical writers. I didn’t even know what that was at the time. Various biotech companies had their feelers out for entry level writers with advanced degrees in biology or STEM fields—and a master’s degree was just fine. It turns out I was a perfect fit. Surprisingly, many people in the “tech com” (technical communications) and “mar com” (marketing communications) departments at my company had a similar experience; they didn’t want careers in research or the medical professions, so they chose communications.

Laurel #2

Life as a technical writer—feeling like a glial cell

As a technical writer at my company, I have many responsibilities beyond writing and editing user manuals, application notes, and diagrams. Tech writers are much like the oft-forgotten glial cells that “glue the brain together.” I manage each project from start to finish, and I get to work on all types of technical documentation and marketing collateral with a team of company scientists (R&D), graphic designers, marketing specialists, coders, product managers, and other writers. Often, I have major creative input on the content, design, and development of marketing campaigns. I enjoy starting with ideas—maybe a few bullet points or a rough draft—and building colorful, captivating content. It feels like solving a complex puzzle.

I’ve gotten the chance to write articles on human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived beta cells for a drug discovery publication and to create portals for our website. I’ve helped make booth panels and printed resources for conferences like the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Most importantly (to me), I’ve managed to stay within the field of stem cell research/regenerative medicine. I am the main writer for that product and service line, so I can use my expertise and experience (plus, knowledge of my audience) to present products that advance my audience’s basic, translational and clinical research.

I love my job. It pays well, has regular hours, and gives me a sense of belonging to a team. It’s fast paced, I’m working on a new thing every day, and I get to learn and write about the latest advancements from our R&D teams around the world. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the job fits like a glove, and I can see myself doing this long term. Also…I get to live in Silicon Valley! (Pros: great food, culture, people. Cons: cost of living, traffic.)

I hope you can get encouragement from the retelling of my experience that there is a space for you in this field. This is the first post in a series of articles about careers in regenerative medicine. I aim to take you through a tour of the vocational landscape—its ups, its downs—and am looking forward to hearing from you with any jobs/roles/scenarios you are curious about. Please comment on what you’d like to learn about next!

Remember: there are plenty of options and ways for you to apply your talent and experience to pushing our field forward. SSSCR is here to help!

*I want to thank everyone who serves in the research and medical areas. Without you our field would stop in its tracks. However, not everyone is cut out for such positions. Luckily, there are other options.

**Some reading this might say “awwwww, too bad, she was so close to that PhD” and some might say “that’s a major accomplishment and you can do a lot with that degree!” Both are right, but I choose to believe the latter, as I am so much happier now that I released myself from the allure of lab research and went into science communications. We tend to hold science and medicine up on pedestals; however, science communication facilitates almost all interactions between academic and industry scientists, clinicians, and the public. An understanding of and engagement with new science is critical to promoting a healthy democracy with citizens who can make informed decisions about their society’s future.

Laurel is a co-founder of SSSCR, the current Associate Director, and a member of the SSSCR International executive committee. She has been involved in SSSCR since 2004, when she helped start UC Berkeley’s chapter. Her main contributions are educating various communities about stem cell research and building career development opportunities for students. Along with a team of SSSCR members, Laurel created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s stem cell education portal to provide teachers with the materials they need to engage students with the field. Currently, Laurel is a Senior Technical Writer focused on stem cell products and services.

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One thought on “A funny thing happened on my way to a PhD: one scientists change of mind and change of direction

  1. Thank you for featuring my blog article in The Stem Cellar, Kevin! And thank you for your continuing support of SSSCR initiatives and members. CIRM is a truly unique government organization. I am honored and proud to have worked with your team (shout out to Don Gibbons) to advance public engagement with this field.

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