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.

Unfolding Collaboration: New EuroStemCell video about promoting public engagement around stem cells

What does origami have to do with stem cells? Scientists at EuroStemCell, which is a partnership of more than 400 stem cell labs across Europe, are using origami and other creative activities to engage and educate the public about stem cells.

EuroStemCell’s goal is to “make sense of stem cells” by providing “expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society.” Their educational resource page is rich with science experiments for kids, students and even adults. They also have science videos on topics ranging from what stem cells are to bioengineering body parts.

Unfolding Organogenesis

Recently EuroStemCell posted a video about how successful public engagement activities are based on strong collaborations between scientists, doctors, educators and communicators. This video was particularly powerful because it showed how good ideas can start from an individual, but great ideas happen when individuals work together to develop these initial ideas into activities that will really connect with their audience.

The video features Dr. Cathy Southworth who begins by telling the story of how she and her collaborators developed an origami activity called “Unfolding Organogenesis”. Southworth explains her rationale behind using paper to simulate how stem cells develop the tissues and organs in our body.

“I was mulling how to use a prop or activity to talk about stem cells, and it suddenly came to me that paper and origami is a bit like the process. The whole idea of starting from a blank slate. Depending on the instructions you follow, makes a different object. If you start with a stem cell, you can make any type of cell you find in the body. And that made me think it was quite a nice analogy to talk to the public about.”

Her initial idea was made a reality when Southworth began working with science and math educators Karen Jent and Tung Ken Lam. Together the team developed an interactive activity where people used paper to build 3D hearts that can actually beat.

Ken Lam making organ origami.

Southworth said that as a science communicator, educating the public is the focus of her work. But she also believes that educating scientists on how to communicate with the public effectively is equally important.

“Part of my job is to make sure that the scientists feel confident in the activities that they are going to deliver, and also that they are having a good time as part of the engagement work.”

The video also touches on important science communications tips like teaching scientists the art of storytelling. Southworth emphasized that having scientists talk about their personal story of why they are pursuing their research adds a human component that is key to connecting with their audience. Karen Jent also added that it’s important to understand your audience and their needs,

“You always have to think about what kind of audience you’re addressing and bear in mind that people aren’t all the same kinds of learners.”

Where are my stem cells?

CIRM is also dedicated to educating the public about stem cells and the importance of stem cell research. We have our own educational resources on our website, but we love to use materials from other organizations like EuroStemCell in our public engagement activities.

One of our favorite public engagement events is the Bay Area Science Festival Discovery Day held at AT&T park. This event attracts over 50,000 people, mainly young kids and their parents who are excited to learn about science and technology. At our booth, we’ve done a few different activities to teach kids about stem cells. One activity, which is great for young kids, is using Play-Doh to model embryonic development.

Teaching kids about embryonic development with Play-Doh! Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM

Another fun activity, this one developed by EuroStemCell, that we added last year was called “Where are my stem cells?”. It’s a game that teaches people that stem cells aren’t just found in the developing embryo. You’re given laminated cutouts of human organs and tissues, which you’re asked to place on a white board that has an outline of your body. While you are doing this, you learn that there are different types of adult stem cells that live in these tissues and organs and are responsible for creating the cells that make up those structures.

Where are your stem cells? A fun activity designed by EuroStemCell. Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM

If you’re interested in doing public engagement activities around stem cell education, the resources mentioned in this blog are a great start. I’d also recommend checking out the Super Cells, Power of Stem Cells exhibit, which is touring Europe, USA and Canada. It’s a wonderful interactive exhibit that explains the concept of stem cells and how they can be used to understand and treat disease. It’s also a great example of a collaboration between stem cell organizations including CIRM, CCRM, EuroStemCell, Catapult Cell Therapy and the Stem Cell Network.

We got a chance to check out the Super Cells exhibit last year when it visited the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. You can read more about it and see pictures in our blog.

Super Cells Exhibit. Photo: Todd Dubnicoff/CIRM

 

Stem Cell Roundup: Battle of the Biotech Bands, “Cells I See” Art Contest and Teaching Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

This Friday’s stem cell roundup is dedicated to the playful side of stem cell science. Scientists are often stereotyped as lab recluses who honorably forgo social lives in the quest to make game-changing discoveries and advance cutting-edge research. But as a former bench scientist, I can attest that scientists are normal people too. They might have a nerdy, slightly neurotic side around their field of research, but they know how to enjoy life and have fun. So here are a few stories that caught our eye this week about scientists having a good time with science.

Rockin’ researchers battle for glory (Kevin McCormack)

Did you know that Bruce Springsteen got his big break after winning the Biotech Battle of the Bands (BBOB)? Probably not, I just made that up. But just because Bruce didn’t hit it big because of BBOB doesn’t mean you can’t.

BBOB is a fun chance for you and your labmates, or research partners, to cast off your lab coats, pick up a guitar, form a band, show off your musical chops, play before a live audience and raise money for charity.  This is the fourth year the event is being held. It’s part of Biotech Week Boston, on Wednesday, September 27th at the Royale Nightclub, Boston.

Biotech Week is a celebration of science and, duh, biotech; bringing together what the event organizers call “the most inventive scientific minds and business leaders in Boston and around the world.” And they wouldn’t lie would they, after all, they’re scientists.

If you want to check out the competition here’s some video from a previous year – see if you can spot the man with the cowbell!

“Cells I See” Stem Cell Art Contest

It’s that time again! The “Cells I See” art contest hosted by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization for Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) and The Stem Cell Network is now open for business. This is a super fun event that celebrates the beauty of stem cells and biomaterials that support regenerative medicine.

Not only is “Cells I See” a great way for scientists to share their research with the public, it’s also a way for them to tap into their artistic, creative side. Last year’s ­contestants submitted breathtaking microscope images, paintings and graphic designs of stem cells in action. The titles for these art submissions were playful. “Nucleic Shower” “The Quest for Innervation” and “Flat, Fluorescent & Fabulous” were some of my favorite title entries.

There are two prizes for this contest. The grand prize of $750 will be awarded to the submission with the highest number of votes from scientists attending the Till and McCulloch Stem Cell Meeting in November. There is also a “People’s Choice” prize of $500 given to the contestant who has the most numbers of likes on the CCRM Facebook page.

The deadline for “Cell I See” submissions is September 8th so you have plenty of time to get your creative juices flowing!

Iris

The 2016 Grand Prize and People’s Choice Winner, Sabiha Hacibekiroglu, won for her photo titled “Iris”.

Scientists Teach Baseball Fans the Power of Stem Cells

San Francisco Giants fans who attended Tuesday’s ball game were in for a special treat – a science treat that is. Researchers from the Gladstone Institutes partnered with the SF Giants to raise awareness about the power of stem cells for advancing research and developing cures for various diseases.

Gladstone PhD student Jessica Butts explains the Stem Cell Plinko game to a Giants fan.

The Gladstone team had a snazzy stem cell booth at the Giant’s Community Clubhouse with fun science swag and educational stem cell activities for fans of all ages. One of the activities was a game called “Stem Cell Plinko” where you drop a ball representing a pluripotent stem cell down a plinko board. The path the ball travels represents how that stem cell differentiates or matures into adult cells like those in the heart.

Gladstone also debuted their new animated stem cell video, which explains how “stem cell research has opened up promising avenues for personalized and regenerative medicine.”

Finally, Gladstone scientists challenged fans to participate in a social media contest about their newfound stem cell knowledge cells on Twitter. The winner of the contest, a woman named Nicole, will get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes lab tour at the Gladstone and “see firsthand how Gladstone is using stem cells to overcome disease.”

The Gladstone “Power of Stem Cells” event is a great example of how scientists are trying to make research and science more accessible to the public. It not only benefits people by educating them about the current state of stem cell research, but also is a fun way for scientists to engage with the local community.

“Participating in the SF Giants game was very fun,” said Megan McDevitt, vice president of communications at the Gladstone Institutes. “Our booth experienced heavy traffic all evening, giving us a wonderful opportunity to engage with the San Francisco community about science and, more specifically, stem cell research. We were delighted to see how interested fans were to learn more on the topic.”

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Giants won, something that hasn’t been happening very much this season.

Go Giants. Go Gladstone.

Gladstone scientist dropping stem cell knowledge to Giants fans.

Knowledge is on the menu at Dinner with a Scientist:

Helen Budworth, Ph.D., is one of the Science Officers at CIRM. She wrote this blog about her experiences talking to some budding local scientists who just happen to be ten years old.kids dinner

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) “Dinner with a Scientist” event held at the Oakland Zoo. OUSD has been hosting this annual event since 2009 to bring together local scientists, teachers, and students to celebrate science in an evening of activities and science conversation.

I was dining with 4th and 5th grade elementary students and their teachers from Think College Now and from Brookfield Elementary in Oakland. They included many budding scientists, with interests ranging from biology and chemistry, to geology and astronomy. The students were eager to learn about how I became a scientist, what interests me about my job and how they can prepare themselves for a future scientific career. I explained that my interest in science began in childhood because I loved puzzles and really enjoyed trying to work things out, and that my interest in science naturally flowed from that. Both students and teachers alike were interested to learn more about CIRM and what our scientists are working on.

The evening began with the students being asked a simple question: “What is science?” One of the kids said it was finding out new things; another said it meant conducting experiments to answer questions. One said it was a way of making money. He’s in for a rude surprise when he grows up!

kids dinner2

In order to demonstrate the potential of stem cells, I led an activity that allowed the groups to use Play Doh to model the early stages of human development from a zygote, the earliest stage of a fertilized egg, through the first few weeks of embryonic development. What I learned from this event is that when you ask a 4th/5th grader if they know how babies are made, you will get many giggles and some interesting descriptions of ways that sperm and egg can meet – but few details of what happens after that.

This hands-on activity showed the students the processes of cell division, differentiation and development of a multi-cellular organism from a single-celled zygote. Scientific studies of stem cells, such as those found at early stages of development, have allowed us to reach the point where we are now harnessing the power of these cells to create treatments for diseases. They were very intrigued by the idea that you begin life as a single cell, that grows and multiplies and changes until all those cells become the different parts of you and creates a whole human being.

The exercise, indeed the whole evening, gave the students an opportunity to see how scientific careers are translated to real world applications and will hopefully inspire some future scientists and doctors.

I asked one of the students what kind of scientist she wanted to be, and she replied that she wanted to be a chemist. When I asked why she said because she likes mixing things. That seems as good a reason to think about a career in science as any.