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) –

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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.

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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.

A meeting of minds: breaking down communication barriers between patients and doctors

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One of the things that has always surprised me about stem cell research, or any scientific research, is that so often the people with most at stake never meet. Researchers spend most of their time in the lab trying to develop new treatments so they don’t often get to meet the people who are depending on them to save or improve their lives, the patients.

To try and change that dynamic two Canadian medical groups recently brought together a mixture of researchers, health care professionals, patients and patient advocates to find ways to improve communications between these groups. The hope was that with better communication and better information they would collectively be able to make better decisions about how to manage patient health.

Communication barriers

Lisa Willemse, a writer who has worked with CIRM on some of our projects in the past, wrote a wonderful piece about the meeting for the online magazine Medium. In it she explores some of the areas that create communication barriers between these groups and how those barriers can be overcome.

The problems caused by these barriers are not trivial. They can result in patients not knowing about potentially life-saving clinical trials in the US, or turning to unproven, experimental therapies offered at overseas clinics. (Here’s a document that addresses some of those issues)

Lisa quotes one patient as saying:

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know! I had filled out an application online was accepted to a stem cell clinic in Panama. The cost per treatment was $21,000 and I didn’t know what questions to ask!”

Finding solutions

Happily the meeting came up with some thoughtful, really positive suggestions on ways to overcome these barriers. These include:

  • Ensuring specialists and other health care practitioners are kept up-to-date with clinical trial information, since these are where they turn first for advice.
  • Providing more support for patients from health care providers. They should not be expected to have all the answers but should at least be able to advise on informed consent and provide credible resources.
  • Developing improved ways to search for relevant clinical trials.
  • Creating basic explainers on clinical trials for patients to help them determine eligibility and understand protocol.

There were also suggestions on how researchers can do a better job of communicating with non-scientists, such as using jargon-free language to answer questions and providing a list of questions people should ask when considering any stem cell therapy. Here’s an infographic we put together on that topic.

Lessons learned

This meeting is a great example of the power and importance of bringing together these different groups, all of whom have shared interests and goals. It starts with a conversation that begins to break down barriers. Hopefully it gives doctors ideas on how they can better equip patients to make informed decisions about clinical trials; by meeting patients it helps researchers put a human face on the work they are doing; and hopefully it gives patients a sense that their voices are being heard, and their needs addressed.

This was one relatively small meeting in Canada but the lessons learned apply to every state, and every country and could point the way to creating a more responsive health care system that better meets the needs of all those involved.

 

Bridging the gap: training scientists to speak everyday English

Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.

Last week our governing Board approved a new round of funding for this program, ensuring it will continue for another 5 years.

But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.

They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.

That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.

We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.

When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.

Tune into Famelab: “American Idol” for scientists and engineers

I sometimes joke that I consider myself and my communications colleagues the “official translators” at the stem cell agency, trying to turn complex science into everyday English. After all, the public is paying for the research that we fund and they have a right to know about the progress being made, in language they can understand.

famelab

That’s why events like Famelab are so important. Famelab is like American Idol for scientists. It’s a competition to find scientists and engineers with a flair for public communication, and to help them talk about their work to everyone, not just to their colleagues and peers. Famelab gives these scientists and engineers support, encouragement and training them to find their voices, and to put those voices to use wherever and whenever they can; in the media, in public presentations, even just in everyday conversations.

Kathy Culpin works with the British Council to promote Famelab here in the US. She says it’s vitally important for scientists to be able to talk about their work:

“At the British Council we have worked with people who are doing amazing things but they can’t communicate to a broader audience. If scientists, particularly younger scientists, are unable to communicate effectively and clearly in a way that people want to listen to, in a way that people can understand, how are they going to have public support for their work, how are they even going to be able to raise funds for their work?”

The premise behind Famelab is simple: young up-and-coming scientists have just three minutes to present their research to a panel of three judges. They can’t use any slides or charts. Nothing. All they have is the power of their voice and whatever prop they can hold in their hands. For many scientists, taking away their PowerPoint presentation is like asking them to walk a tight rope without a safety net. It’s uncomfortable territory. And yet many respond magnificently.

Here’s Lyl Tomlinson, the winner of the most recent U.S. event, competing in the international finals. Appropriately enough Lyl’s presentation was on the role of running and stem cells in improving memory.

Famelab began in England but has now spread to 19 other countries. The competition starts at the regional level before progressing on to the national finals (April 2016) and then the international competition (June 2016, at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK).

In the U.S. there are a number of regional heats (you can find out by going here)

NASA helps run Famelab in the U.S. Daniella Scalice, the Education and Public Outreach Lead for the Astrobiology program at the agency, says Famelab is fun, but it has a serious side to it as well:

“We feel strongly that good communications skills are essential to a scientist’s training, especially for a Federal agency like NASA where we have a responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure they understand what their hard-earned dollars are paying for.  With FameLab, we hope to make learning best practices in communications easy and fun, and provide a safe environment for young scientists to get some experience communicating and meet other like-minded scientists.”

The next event in the U.S. is here in San Francisco on Monday, December 15 at the Rickshaw Stop at 155 Fell Street. Doors open at 6.30pm, competition starts at 7:30 P.

What is most fun about Famelab is that you never really know what to expect. One person will talk about the lifespan of the wood frog, the next will discuss the latest trends on social media. One thing is certain. It is always entertaining. And informative. And engaging. And isn’t that what science is supposed to be!

If you want to see how my colleagues and I at the stem cell agency tried to get stem cell scientists to develop sharper communication skills check out our Elevator Pitch Challenge.