Category Archives: career

Chemist or Writer? My Chem Coach Carnival Contribution

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m late. See Ar Oh started the Chem Coach Carnival for National Chemistry Week last week. While I was at the ScienceWriters meeting this weekend, Chemjobber nudged me to participate. So here’s mine. Better late than never, right?

Your current job. I’m a freelance science writer and editor.

What you do in a standard “work day.” I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, occasionally on the phone. My best days are when I get the chance to meet with scientists in person and hear about what they’re working on. Though I do a lot of reading, writing, and editing, I also spend a lot of time planning and managing my projects and thinking about new clients and my business as a whole.  I also have to do a lot of basic paperwork to deal with billing, checks and taxes.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? While I was getting my Ph.D. at Indiana University (in bio-organic chemistry, now chemical biology, I realized that my interests were much broader than the slice of science I was studying. And my slice of science wasn’t even particularly small: I was constantly reading about organic chemistry, biochemistry, analytical techniques, and cell biology. So after 5 years, I decided to look beyond the lab. As I explored options, I took a master’s level science journalism course at Indiana University. That course helped me learn basic interviewing skills and how to write for multiple audiences. At the same time, I also started volunteering at WonderLab, a hands-on science museum, which helped me see how the lay public, particularly kids engage with science topics of all kinds.

I decided to head toward a science writing career and wrote enough articles for my campus newspaper to land a couple of internships in New York City. First I was an editorial intern at Discover magazine, and then I worked briefly in television, as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WNBC. I preferred print over broadcast, and while I was trying to stay in NYC, I started to freelance and worked part-time as a freelance fact checker for Popular Science. The museum work eventually came back– I worked with a graphic design firm for almost a year on a large astronomy exhibit project for Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I developed content for the exhibits, using my science writing and research skills to get images and background information that the designers and the exhibit writer used to produce the exhibits.

For the last 6 years, I’ve worked primarily from my home office on a variety of writing and editing projects. I write for a whole range of audiences: scientists, the general public, and children.

How does chemistry inform your work? While my advanced degree isn’t essential for most of my work, having a broad and deep science background helps me learn about new science topics quickly. I don’t write exclusively about chemistry, but my work often covers research with a molecular component, anything from nanotechnology and even planetary science to neuroscience and biology. Because I have broad interests and a chemistry background, I’m often well-prepared to cover topics that are outside of other writers’ comfort zones.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career A few years ago, I gave a talk about my work to a group of undergraduate students in an honor’s symposium course. They were students majoring in a variety of subjects, mostly the natural and social sciences. I think I confused them, because one asked me about half way through my talk, “Do you consider yourself a writer or a scientist?” At this point, I consider myself a writer. But I think about chemistry and science. A lot.

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The Nobel Prize and Fuzziness Between Chemistry and Biology

“When you get into University, you learn that Biology is really Chemistry, Chemistry is really Physics, Physics is really Math.”*

Many years ago, a friend sent me a version of that quote among a whole host of other quotes that he’d collected over the years. When I first read it as a chemistry undergraduate, I liked the way it broke down barriers. Because even though I studying chemistry, I secretly wanted to understand how life worked.
But even though biology motivated me, I never took a single undergraduate biology course. That choice haunted me, particularly when I chose to go to graduate school and work in a biochemistry lab. During my first year of graduate school, I struggled understand the nuts and bolts of gene transcription, while still memorizing nucleic acid and amino acid structures. My note to readers out there: If you’re interested in life, you’d be well served to take some biology even if you don’t want to major in it.

But during Nobel Prize season, chemists sometimes get cranky when a biological topic gets the prize, like this year with the award for G-protein coupled receptors to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University. Derek Lowe described the work and his own take on this divide on his blog. “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.

Even the field I studied in graduate school, then known as bioorganic chemistry, has evolved into chemical biology. As I tried to synthesize my understanding of molecules with an understanding of how cells worked, I hated those shape pathway diagrams in cell biology papers. I didn’t want to understand biology in the context of red circles, blue squares, or green triangles– I wanted to know what that meant chemically. When I was in high school, the last formal biology course I took, I frustrated my mother as I tried to learn glycolysis because I couldn’t just memorize the steps, I wanted to learn something about what was actually going on. A nurse, she dug through her old textbooks to find information that might satisfy me. I soon forgot what we found, but it was the foundation for my chemical curiosity about biology.

Science has to move where the questions are, and some of the greatest questions out there come down to the fundamentals of how life came to be and how it works.  From one perspective, you might say that chemistry could (or even has) become a toolkit for biology. But really it’s more than that. Chemistry has to be part of the biological question, and the GPCR discovery helped to make that fundamental connection between the two.

The names of the prizes are part of the problem, but I really hate the walls that some scientists like to put up around their work. Creativity and innovation can be messy, and it often happens at those  fringes of a field rather than within the safety of the center. Drawing lines in the sand provides some organization and context. Categories are useful, and researchers can easily cross them. But organizational lines sometimes grow into concrete barriers, and the minute that scientists have to pull out heavy machinery to scale those walls, we’ve all lost out.

*Some versions of this also include “and Math is really Hard.” The Math=Hard stereotype has always bugged me.

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Notes on the leaky pipeline: realism or disillusionment? [Updated]

[Update in italics: May 3, 2012] After I wrote this post PLoS ONE published a paper that fits nicely with the points I was making.] 

Beryl Benderly’s blog post over at Science Careers caught my eye yesterday because she mentions a 2008 report from the UK about the retention of women  chemistry PhDs in academia. As expected, the women are moving away from academe. By the end of their PhDs only 12% of women want academic research careers in chemistry compared with 70% who are in the first year of the PhD. Those are compared with a drop from 60% to 21% for men.  (A disclaimer: I write regularly for Science Careers, but I wasn’t involved in this blog post in any way.)

Beryl takes a positive spin on this data:

The figures are still way above the percentage of new Ph.D.s who have any realistic chance of landing a job on the tenure track (at least in the United States). Thinking about the welfare of the young scientists who have devoted many years to preparing for their careers and are about to begin them, it does not appear “alarming” to me that they have traded in their formerly unrealistic notion about the possibility of landing an academic post.

I’m not so positive based on my anecdotal experiences. As a female chemistry PhD who flew the academic coop immediately after graduation (more on that here, here, and here), I’m one of those safe people, someone who walked away from the bench and hasn’t looked back. So as soon as young PhDs hear my story, they often delve into their own questions about the research life. What do I often hear? Confusion, disillusionment, and questions about how they can use their science in productive ways. A realistic picture of their academic prospects is a first step, but I’m not sure that the awareness provides a  bridge between their PhD and how they might use it in the workforce.

This particular report talks about the role of isolation in the choice to leave academia. If you’re in an academic setting and plotting a nontraditional career move, that decision often increases that feeling of isolation. So in some cases, a young scientist has to make their immediate professional social situation worse in order to make it better.  So step one is often finding a mentor or a like-minded support system and learning new skills, but all while you’re trying to maintain a presence in your laboratory. That’s easier said than done.

I realize that young PhDs who are happy in academia are not seeking me out, so I probably have an unusually gloomy picture. But I don’t think the academic system has addressed how it can broaden the career skills of young PhDs and support skilled scientists who become interested in policy, business, law, or education. I recognize that building a satisfying career involves incredibly personal decisions, and no career counselor or academic department can map that out for you. But better support for career development could help more PhDs who opt out of academia or research feel like extensions of their scientific community rather than renegades.

The PLoS ONE paper describes trends that I’ve noticed anecdotally. PhD students are less interested in the traditional academic research track by the end of their degrees. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily prepared for,  interested in, or aware of the jobs that might be available that would capitalize on their skills. Faculty members seem to be relatively neutral about alternative paths, and what I’ve noticed talking with some young scientists is this general sense that they want to do “something else” but without any sense of what “something else” might look like.

Figure 5. Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Respondents indicated how interesting they would find each of six kinds of work when thinking about the future.

 

And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what the researchers have to say about the way that student interests, encouragement, and career opportunities aren’t lining up.  (Emphasis is mine).

Second, respondents across all three major fields feel that their advisors and departments strongly encourage academic research careers while being less encouraging of other career paths. Such strong encouragement of academic careers may be dysfunctional if it exacerbates labor market imbalances or creates stress for students who feel that their career aspirations do not live up to the expectations of their advisors. In the context of prior findings that students feel well-informed about the characteristics of academic careers but less so about careers outside of academia [17], our results suggest that PhD programs should more actively provide information and training experiences that allow students to learn about a broader range of career options, including those that are currently less encouraged. Richer information and a more neutral stance by advisors and departments will likely improve career decision-making and has the potential to simultaneously improve labor market imbalances as well as future career satisfaction [23], [24]. Advisors’ apparent emphasis on encouraging academic careers does not necessarily reflect an intentional bias, however. Rather, it may reflect that advisors themselves chose an academic career and have less experience with other career options. Thus, administrators, policy makers, and professional associations may have to complement the career guidance students’ advisors and departments provide.

So let’s figure out how to bridge the disillusionment. I can’t think of a bigger waste of scientific talent than to have young researchers floundering because they don’t know how to bring their skills into a useful and productive career.

As a postscript, check out my fellow blogger Chemjobber, who doesn’t pull any punches about all things job- and chemistry-related.

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Cocktail hour in the Facebook age

Whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or a science communicator, most of us spend some time at conferences, or more appropriately noshing on cheese, fruit and other snacks, and sipping free wine or beer at the end of the day. And then depending on how well you know the other people in the room, you start conversations about who you are, what you do, or what you’ve been up to lately.

Last Friday, I mingled in one of these rooms, networking with my colleagues, and I was struck by how Facebook is changing these types of conversations.

First of all, I don’t routinely connect with my work colleagues on Facebook (usually Twitter or LinkedIn, first). Maybe they chose to connect with me, or I’ve had enough conversations with them that I chose to connect with them there. I’m not unusual. A Pew Internet study indicates that about 10 percent of our “friends” are colleagues. But I ran into several of them last week. And when I made conversation, I realized that many of the things that were once polite conversation starters are now old news because they’ve already had a life on Facebook.

With one colleague we almost had a little joking game about it, she says, “How are you? I saw on Facebook that your husband finished up his Ph.D. and you’re still making all that pottery.” Check and check. “So what else is going on with you?”

But I also don’t assume that people stalk my Facebook page or my Twitter feed. So, if you offer up information that already appeared elsewhere, are you being social and looping people in on life information that they might not have heard? Or are you that boring person droning on about information that the other person is hearing for the third or fourth time? Social media offers opportunities to connect with people we might never meet otherwise, and I see that as primarily positive. But it also can give us a sense of knowing people when we’ve never met them in person or a false sense that I’ve had a conversation with someone when I haven’t.

In certain ways, I feel like this idea isn’t incredibly different from my experience as a freelancer, working closely with editors who I only communicate with via email or phone. I remember meeting one long-time editor at a conference a few years ago. He was standing 10 feet from me, but asked loudly, “Is Sarah Webb here?” I’d probably written at least 15 articles for him by that point, and it was funny but natural that he wouldn’t recognize me in a crowded room.

Maybe as a journalist I’m oversensitive to the idea of what is news. But I don’t think we can completely ignore that choice to share information, and that nagging question of whether other people are interested and whether we’re beating a dead horse. For now I think I’ll take my cocktail hour lead from my colleague. Here’s what I know, and what else is new?

Image courtesy of public-domain-image.com

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Science Communication Without Borders: reflections on ScienceOnline 2012

 I’m hardly a newbie to science communication. But last week was my first trip to ScienceOnline. The energy buzzing around that conference for 72 hours made me flash back a decade to when I was still in a chemistry Ph.D. program but desperate to reboot my career without leaving science behind.

At that point, I knew I wanted to think about broader science questions and communicate science to more audiences. So I spent time working in a hands-on science museum, took a science journalism course, and eventually launched my science writing career. But even though science writing has fewer defined boundaries than the research world does, I still run into cultural norms that don’t always fit with how I view myself. For example, many journalists will tell you that their core responsibility is to inform, but not to educate, the public. I can see where the idea comes from, but I firmly believe that education is an important part of what I do. As a result, I’ve continued to keep my hand in museum or exhibit work, or I try to keep writing for children in my mix of projects. I’m not a professional educator, but if I’m doing my job well, I’m a stealth educator.

ScienceOnline 2012 provided a Science-Communication-Without-Borders experience: scientists, journalists, bloggers, educators, and many people who hyphenate those categories, all coming together to discuss issues questions and how we think about all the issues of taking the ideas we’re passionate about and bringing them to broader audiences. It’s not just that people are friendly, but by virtue of being at an Unconference and knowing the diversity of perspectives, people are set up to look at their work and assumptions from a new perspective. I’m still a journalist, but I’ve always benefited from my past and seeing the scientist side of the equation. Because I’m still an educator at heart, Science Online brings me into a fold of people who make that their life’s work.

So other than coming back to my home office with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, what did I take away from Science Online?

Nuggets of writing craft:

  • In a session about assembling book research, David Dobbs (Twitter: @David_Dobbs) offered an incredibly low-tech tip for a high-tech meeting: keep a journal. At the end of each day, sum up what you’ve learned and what you found intriguing in that day’s work. Trust nothing to memory, he says, and those summaries will help you find key thematic connections.
  • He and Deborah Blum (Twitter: @deborahblum) also led an amazing session about writing structure with both visual and audio analogies for crafting stories. Structure is visual, musical, and a bit like a chess game. That mix of beauty and strategy keeps me coming back every day. (If I find a link to audio or video from that session, I’ll follow up and post it).

Nuggets of Tech and Traffic:

  • For techie tips from the book research session: check out Maryn McKenna‘s tumblr post here. (Twitter: @marynmck)
  • Explainers, articles that offer background, are great tools for providing more context on your site. Not surprising. They’re also great tools for driving traffic. If you point out an explainer, those links get more hits. If you point out an explainer and directly encourage your reader to click on it, even better. I believe that nugget emerged from a back and forth between Maggie Koerth-Baker (Twitter: @maggiekb1) and Bora Zivkovic (also known as the Blogfather, Twitter: @BoraZ).
  • The e-book world is exploding, and I love reading on my Kindle (I don’t mean that as a product endorsement. I had fun playing with my dad’s iPad over the holidays, too.). The ways for writers to publish their own work for these devices are expanding. There’s Apple’s iBooks Author, but read the fine print about being locked into their store. The Atavist, publisher of long form e-journalism, is also beta-testing software that would allow people to publish their work in any of the current e-formats. See more on that here, and learn more from this blog post by Christopher Mims over at Technology Review. (Christopher is on Twitter at @mims). The conference wiki also has an incredible list of links and information on e-book publishing.

My post conference thoughts are still simmering, but I’ll continue to use those 3 days as motivation NOT  to box myself in. And I also just solidified my connections with people I can call on when I want to think outside my comfort zone.

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A leaky pipeline postmortem

I was just a couple of years into my chemistry Ph.D., when a good friend forwarded me a copy of an article about this MIT report: A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. I wasn’t  surprised when I read about the inequalities in resources and that many of the women faculty had felt marginalized. In many ways, I was relieved: an institution  was acknowledging the problem and working on making the path for women scientists better.

From the introduction of that report:

In the summer of 1994, three tenured women faculty in the School of Science
began to discuss the quality of their professional lives at MIT. In the course of
their careers these women had come to realize that gender had probably
caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male
colleagues. Interestingly, they had never discussed the issue with one
another, and they were even uncertain as to whether their experiences were
unique, their perceptions accurate. This situation was about to change
dramatically. It was soon clear to the women that their experiences formed
a pattern. Curious to know whether other women in the School of Science
shared these experiences, they drew up a list of all the tenured women faculty
in the School of Science in order to conduct an informal poll.

Flash forward  more than 10 years, and my personal perspective on the issues of women in science has shifted. I see more acknowledgement of the subtle issues of bias, but at the same time I made the personal decision to leave the bench and pursue a science writing career. And every time I see another report on women in academic science, I ask myself: Is it becoming any easier for women to pursue a research career? Or are we just rehashing the same issues of subconscious bias and what women have to do to have their ideas heard and recognized?

But this week, a new paper takes fresh look at the leaky pipeline. In some ways, they report good news: less institutional bias against women in science because of their gender. For the most part women receive just as many job interviews, opportunities for fellowships, and don’t seem to face bias barriers in the review of their publications. Instead, they report that “choice” is at the root of the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of academic science:

This situation is caused mainly by women’s choices, both freely made and constrained by biology and society, such as choices to defer careers to raise children, follow spouses’ career moves, care for elderly parents, limit job searches geographically, and enhance work-home balance. Some of these choices are freely made; others are constrained and could be changed (3).

The research gets uncomfortably close to the reasons that I left the bench. To make it clear, I’m incredibly happy with my decision to leave research. Any lingering mixed feelings come from my belief that women can and should be able to pursue research careers. As a woman who leaked out of the research pipeline, I sometimes worry that there won’t be enough role models and opportunities for the women who want to stay and who have strong contributions to make.

And the researchers voice my core fear:

To the extent that women’s choices are freely made and women are satisfied with the outcomes, then we have no problem. However, to the extent that these choices are constrained by biology and/or society, and women are dissatisfied with the outcomes, or women’s talent is not actualized, then we most emphatically have a problem.

At the same time that I was making my decision to leave the bench, I was working at a hands-on science museum. Some of my best days were working with young children who were excited about discovering science, particularly girls, and their mothers who gushed that they were so excited that their daughters were developing interests that they’d shied away from. I want those girls, if they choose, to have a future in science.

When I look back, I didn’t see where a research career would offer me enough flexibility to pursue my other interests in life. Five years into my Ph.D., my next step looked like several more years of long hours as a postdoc. An interdisciplinary person by nature, the demands of research had shut out my other interests, writing, language, culture, art– and, maybe, one day, a family of my own. I’d tried on the lifestyle, and it didn’t fit. All of life involves choices, and not every Ph.D. can or should stay in the academic laboratory. But restricting research science to a system that only rewards those who pursue it singlemindedly is also shortsighted. I hope the academic system can embrace part-time tenure track arrangements or other innovations that might make the research track more attractive. If every woman in science looks at the situation and comes to the same conclusion that I did, science, medicine and technology will be the worse for it.

Reference: Ceci, SJ and Williams, WM. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proc. Natl Acad. Soc. USA. doi:10.1073/pnas.1014871108

Image credit: Kris Griffon

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The Origin of this Science Writer

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.

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Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

Webb of Science needs a breather, so I’ve decided to repost my inaugural post from the 2009 blogathon about problem-solving in both science and writing. I still love what I do, the puzzle of pulling words together. Last year and this year, blogging each day in May reminds me of old lessons and teaches me new ones: learning isn’t just about thinking but doing. And, on a personal side note, it looks like my husband was right.

iStockphoto/James Group Studios
iStockphoto/James Group Studios

I got a phone call from my husband a few weeks ago when he was away doing dissertation research. “Well, I’ve had an epiphany,” he says. “I’ve realized why what I’m doing won’t work.” This explanation was so logical, delightfully simple. I’m sure he’s right, though he now has to rejigger his experiments.

After we got off the phone, I could have been disappointed (Logically, every partner of a Ph.D. student hopes that experiments will move quickly rather than slowly). But I’ve also slogged through PhD-dom myself, so I was actually excited. Why? Because that moment and his clear idea took me back to the joy of research that kept me going through the slog. Strangely the best moments of my Ph.D. were actually when I somehow managed to step back after weeks, months, or years, and had the clarity to look at the problem from a different perspective. Suddenly, after weeks, months or even years of approaching a problem as the same-old, same-old, I’d know exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Of course, each of those moments led to mounds of hard work, but always taught me something new. I learned new purification techniques and found new collaborations with other smart people. And I was suddenly trying to do chemical reactions in water. Mother Nature is a master at water-based chemistry– human beings, well, we have a few million years to catch up on. Continue reading Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

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A biologist’s take on Mother’s Day

This Mother’s day tribute is so good that it can’t wait until next year, or even for my Saturday video feature. It’s completely fabulous– the lyrics, the delivery, the biological illustrations, and the solid science backing it up. See more on his YouTube channel. Forward it to your mother, your favorite biologist, or your favorite scientist mom!

Hat tip to my friend and colleague, Tom Hayden.

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Piled higher and deeper

Webb of Science has been on the road this weekend, celebrating a Ph.D. commencement in the family. Congratulations to my sister, the most recent Dr. Webb.

To get to the commencement ceremony, we’re having to dodge the marathon (scheduled for the same day?). But outside of the inconvenience, it’s actually pretty symbolic. I often characterize the process as an “academic marathon.”

I’m awed by actual marathoners, though I’m not sure I actually have one in me. But I understand that need to take on a big project, a project that involves risk, that you worry that you might not complete. Maybe you even despise it in the darkest moments, but when it’s done, no one can take away the accomplishment.

I like commencement ceremonies for that reason. Even if the speeches don’t inspire, stories lurk behind each graduate. At the end of today’s ceremony, confetti (officially sanctioned) exploded into the arena to mark the end of the ceremony. People carrying knowledge and walking out into the world.

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