May 2013

Meet Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, science writer for ASBMB Today

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay at her desk in the headquarters office of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Editor’s note

The following Q&A originally was published in Enzymatic, the newsletter for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Undergraduate Affiliate Network. Here, it has been edited for length, clarity and style.

How did you get involved in science and eventually decide to become a scientist?
I grew up mostly in the Middle East and went through the British education system. In that system, at the age of 16, you pick three or four subjects to focus on ... These three or four subjects are supposed to reflect what you’re going to do later in life professionally. I was torn. I excelled in chemistry, biology, English and French and loved history. I wanted to be a writer, but with my grades in school, science also was a viable option. I knew I wanted to be able to support myself financially as an adult. Through movies and books, it appeared to me that writers lived in garrets with only candlelight for warmth, and scientists appeared to be a better-fed lot. So, to the utter dismay of my English teacher, I picked chemistry, biology, physics and French (I really wanted to read Voltaire’s “Candide” in its original language) … and focused on becoming a scientist. I did well … and got admission into McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a full scholarship. I opted for the biochemistry program because it involved both chemistry and biology.
 
McGill’s undergraduate biochemistry program is rigorous and tough. Lectures, labs and homework ate up my time. But … it mostly involved learning numbers, rules and concepts. I had the ability to absorb large bodies of material and churn them out at exam time. Even the lab courses expected me to follow protocols and come up with predetermined answers. So I did well and passed through McGill’s program with honors. But I had very little hands-on experience in an actual laboratory setting working on an actual scientific problem.
 
Did you always know that you wanted to get a Ph.D.?
The Ph.D. became obvious to me toward the end of my second year at McGill. It seemed to me there were three options after getting a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry: apply for medical school, be a laboratory technician or get a Ph.D. I never harbored any ambitions for medicine, so that was not an avenue for me. I hesitated to be a technician, because I knew within a year or two I would back at my present situation of wondering, “What next?” At the time that I was trying to figure out what to do, Canada was going through a recession. There wasn’t much funding for graduate school. You had to see if an individual principal investigator could support you for the duration of your Ph.D. Also, the programs were designed as three-year programs where you started right away working on a thesis project. I didn’t have any confidence that I knew enough about the different areas of biomedical research to decide on what I wanted to focus for a graduate thesis project.
 
I looked to the south and found the U.S. was in better financial shape and actually supporting students in their quest for a Ph.D. I got into the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology program at Johns Hopkins University based at the university’s medical campus in Baltimore. The most important aspect of the program was that it was five years long, with the first year dedicated to courses in different aspects of molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics and genetics, and three lab rotations to explore different kinds of research. It was exactly what I was looking for.
 
What experiences did you have that made you realize that you didn’t want to do bench science anymore?
My lab rotations helped me chose to do atomic force microscopy in the laboratory of Jan Hoh for my graduate thesis work. I loved the images taken by AFM, and I enjoyed working with the microscope’s parts to get those images. Jan’s lab was also different from most of the labs in the Hopkins medical campus in that he pulled together a scientifically diverse group that consisted of physicists, chemical engineers, computational biologists and folks like me with a molecular biology/biochemistry background. Lab meetings were early training for me as a science writer to learn to talk about science without devolving into jargon.
 
But my Ph.D. training was the first time I was in the laboratory on my own without an undergraduate teaching assistant hovering in the background and a tested protocol in front of me. Much to my alarm, I discovered that experimental design wasn’t intuitive for me. I lacked the instinct and the manual dexterity for experiments. I also lacked the patience needed for research. It was painful to learn there was no such thing as instant gratification in science.
 
Even more alarming, I was surrounded by peers who seemed to be more at ease in the laboratory than I was. I realized that there was no way I could compete against them when it came to academic or industry research positions after graduation.
 
All together, I grew miserable and scared. I realized that after all this time, I didn’t have what it took to excel in research. All my dreams of following in the footsteps of Marie Curie, James Watson and Francis Crick became obviously naïve. As a 16-year-old, I had set my sights on being a scientist. Now, seven years later, it was horrifying to realize that I may have set off on the wrong path. I needed a plan B, but I didn’t have one.
 
Was it difficult to commit to the decision to leave bench science?
My misery and fright steadily increased through the second and third year of graduate school, and I knew I had to find a way out of academic science. But in my time, the other careers in science were not publicized much, and indeed, a number of faculty members in my program openly discouraged them. Jan was not one of them and told me on more than one occasion that there were other careers outside of academia that were just as good. But I didn’t know where to find information about these other options, and I grew increasingly paralyzed with fear and a sense of failure.
 
After you decided that you didn’t want to follow the more traditional path, what path did you take?
The lucky break came from my then-boyfriend, now spouse, who, seeing my utter misery, told me to do something that would give me a break from science. I had heard of the Odyssey Program at Hopkins, which does adult-education programs. Recalling my love for English and French, I enrolled in a creative writing class that was held on Tuesday evenings. On the first day of class, the instructor told us to write about our first names. As I set pen to paper and started to describe how my father gave me the name, which means “the queen of queens” in Sanskrit, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to write.
 
The realization rejuvenated me. But I needed to be practical. Even though I wanted to make a living by writing, I knew that my fiction writing wasn’t good enough to bring in paychecks. I did have this extensive training in science. It wasn’t that I hated science. I loved learning about science in a big-picture way. I just couldn’t be bothered to know what was the buffer pH and at which temperatures the measurements were taken! So I started to ask faculty members if there was a career that combined science and writing. The chair of the department, William Agnew, immediately told me that if I knew how to communicate the excitement of science to people who were not scientists, there was a career for me.
 
Bill went on to be an important mentor who helped me get my first clips in Hopkins Medical News magazine. The editor of the magazine at the time, Edith Nichols, and the senior science writer, Marjorie Centofanti, quickly taught me the ropes of writing for a nontechnical audience.
 
Once I knew I wanted to pursue science writing, I asked every faculty member I met if they knew a science writer. That’s how I got introduced to Joanna Downer, who was then at the Hopkins medical school’s media office and is now at Duke University. Joanna and Marjorie helped me get into the National Association of Science Writers so I could see what science writers talked about every day and also get job alerts to see what the requirements were to break into the field.
 
When I was in my fourth year, Hopkins launched its Professional Development Office at the medical campus, which became an important resource for me, as well as the Science Careers website. I began to realize that there were many people with extensive scientific training who opted for careers in areas such as science policy, law, communications and management consulting. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t a failure for not continuing on in academic research and that I could do something worthwhile with my scientific training.
 
With the support and help of people like Bill, Marjorie, Joanna and Jan, by the time I was in my fifth year of graduate school, I was set on the path of a career in science writing. I had already devoted the evenings after I had finished up in the laboratory to building up my portfolio of clips. By the time I graduated with my Ph.D., I had written several columns for Hopkins Medical News magazine, an article for the Science Careers website, a couple of columns for the Hopkins Graduate Student Newsletter, and a creative nonfiction piece in a magazine. With that portfolio and my résumé, I landed my first job as a science writer and reporter at the American Chemical Society right after graduation. I’ve never looked back.
 
Incidentally, I met up with my high-school English teacher, Shane Heslin, shortly after starting the ACS job. When he heard that I was writing for a living, he said with a huge grin, “I told you so!”

Raj and a luscious chocolate hazelnut cakeatomic force microscope 
The luscious chocolate hazelnut cake from Baltimore’s Patisserie Poupon for Raj’s Ph.D. graduation was a sweet way to end the chapter of her life spent hunched over the atomic force microscope.

Could you give our readers an idea of what your current job involves?
Deadlines drive my life as a science writer. I write posts for the blog Wild Types as well as stories for ASBMB Today. Every post and story has a deadline by which it has to written and be ready for publication. By the time of the deadline for each story, I need to research a topic, interview the appropriate scientists working in that field, transcribe the interviews, write a draft of the story, which will be revised several times, and fact-check it. I also work on The Journal of Biological Chemistry in writing up the Paper of the Week summaries and editing titles to eliminate jargon. All this means I have to be very organized with my time and make sure nothing falls behind. So every day I set time aside for different activities: making phone calls, transcribing interviews, revising pieces I have in development, searching the scientific literature and social media outlets like Twitter and Reddit for new story ideas, and helping with the layout of stories heading out the door for publication. As you can tell, if I do get a quiet moment, I wonder, “What am I forgetting?”
 
Does any of the training or education that you received help you in your current career path?
There are stellar science writers out there who don’t have Ph.D.s and some who don’t even have science degrees. A good science writer is someone who is curious and loves to tell stories. A science writer is also not afraid to go after topics about which he or she initially has very little knowledge. I have written about the 1976 Viking mission to Mars, art analysis, performance-enhancing drugs taken by cheating athletes and the biofuels industry. These are all topics that I didn’t know much about going in. So a strong sense of curiosity, the ability to ask the right questions, and being able to frame all the information into a story that takes readers on a journey are the only requisites for science writing.
 
For me, though, I do feel the Ph.D. training helped me be the writer I am today. As a graduate student, I had to learn not to be intimidated by the unknown. Being a good student in high school and college gave me the unfortunate mentality that it was a sign of weakness not to know something. Being in an academic research environment for five years showed me how scientists think — shades of gray, not black and white! That has been invaluable for me when framing my interview questions for stories. I also learned that the single eureka moment is rare in science and that a single publication represents years of a student or postdoctoral fellow’s work. I respect that and always keep it at the back of my mind.
 
But you don’t have to go through a Ph.D. training program to learn these things. Just chatting long enough with scientists will teach you these same principles. I will never advocate going through a Ph.D. program if you know early on that you want to become a science writer. There are other avenues, such as science writing master’s programs and internships. But if you are like me and you discover in the middle of a Ph.D. program that it’s not a good fit, you can turn around that experiment gone awry in your favor.
 
What advice would you give to undergraduates who may know that they like science and may want a career in science but don’t yet know exactly what they want to do once they graduate?
Talk to graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, family members, friends, neighbors — anybody willing to hear you out. You never know who knows what and may turn you in a direction you had never imagined existed. And stop occasionally to think critically about what you are doing and how you see it steering your future. I wish I had done that earlier in my education and saved myself a lot of heartache.


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2 Comments

  • Very informative piece! I enjoy reading the various articles that Indrani writes for ASMB. Has she thought of setting up a science segment in some TV program, which would then reach wider audience?

  • An excellent piece. Hope this will help younger people pursuing science who are still in a dilemma to know what career path to take.

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