June 2013

Leaving the bench and finding the path less discussed but well-traveled

When I was in 10th grade, I fell in love with biology. I marveled at how biological systems worked: how a seemingly simple single cell could be so complex and communicate to other cells. By the end of high school, I knew studying biology was for me, and I sought an undergraduate program that allowed me to do just that.
I entered college in 1987 with a major in biology. In my senior year, I performed an independent research project, which further solidified my career choice. But I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to spend another five years in school, so I decided to enroll in a master’s program in biology. In addition to taking classes, I was required to perform independent research and write a thesis. My thesis adviser helped me choose a project and get started but then left for a six-month sabbatical in Australia. This was just before email communications began, so I was basically left alone in his lab during the data-generating stage of my project. This taught me self-sufficiency in the lab — no one was there to help troubleshoot problems or to ensure I had everything I needed for my experiments.
It was during this time — alone in the lab — that I realized that a long-term career in science was for me. I began to look into Ph.D. programs that would provide me with the scientific training that I needed to become an independent investigator. I acquired that training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s biology department.
Realizing I needed molecular biology experience to be a successful scientist, I sought a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology; however, two years into my fellowship, I fell out of love with science, at least with the daily tasks of bench research.
During my doctoral studies, alternative careers in science were not discussed, and we definitely weren’t trained for them: We were all supposed to be on the path to becoming independent scientists. Leaving academia, I found having a Ph.D. put me at a disadvantage; I had very little work experience, but I did have writing experience. I had written several papers and many abstracts during my graduate studies, and I understood how scientists think.
The more I learned about a career in science writing, the more I felt that love for science returning. I was a bit overwhelmed by the opportunities for science writing: science journalism, marketing writing, technical writing, writing for a pharmaceutical company and many more. But each of these niches also required experience.
I decided to start with a journalism course. During one of the classes, the reporter teaching the class explained how she was on deadline to get a story about an accident that had just occurred on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Because of where the accident was located on the bridge and where the traffic had stopped, she had to run across a portion of the bridge and jump the yellow crime-scene tape to interview a policeman working the accident. At this point, I realized I was too introverted to be a journalist.
Next, I found an entry-level job in the marketing department at a biotechnology company. This job gave me invaluable experience in the crafts of writing and editing. However, I found myself getting bored, and when I finally ran out of adjectives (at least those that could adequately explain the company’s products) I knew it was time to move on.
Next up was technical writing. I found a job at a medical-device company where I would be helping the in-house scientists write manuscripts for publication. Unfortunately, I only stayed for a year at this job, because my family moved to Oklahoma.
The opportunities for a science-writing career in Oklahoma, however, looked bleak: No pharmaceutical companies were located in Oklahoma. Naively, I started freelancing with only one contact. After joining the American Medical Writers Association that same year, I learned from more established writers that freelance science writing was difficult, if next to impossible, to start doing with little experience, few nonproprietary writing samples and one business contact.
I decided I was up for the challenge. I attended as many continuing-education courses as I could, refreshing by basic grammar skills and learning effective communication skills. I became a certified editor in life sciences through the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS.org). I also learned how to run a business. I sought experts in accounting for small businesses, writing contracts and designing a website to make better use of my time for running my business.
Because I had little experience, I took any job that came to me. I enjoyed some, but I struggled with others. I liked the flexibility the freelancing offered me, but I worked based on my clients’ schedules — often on weekends and evenings to get jobs done. I worked through many vacations because I didn’t want to refuse a job.
However, I realized that to be a successful freelancer I would have to find more adjectives to use, but this time they would have be about my work, and that was even harder for me, as an introvert, to do. Marketing my business took as much time as, if not more than, the writing and editing work that I enjoyed doing. I relied heavily on recommendations from one client to another to expand my business. My client list and network grew slowly.
After freelancing for about five years, I finally found my science niche: helping scientists effectively communicate their science. Also during this time I established a professional relationship with a local university to edit their scientists’ grant proposals and recently was hired through its Office of Research Administration as a science editor. I still continue to do the editing and writing work that I love but am looking forward to my first paid vacation, during which I will be shutting off my phone and email and leaving my laptop at home.
Through attending AMWA’s annual conferences, I have met many individuals like myself who started on the path to become independent investigators but found their paths changing to writing about science and medicine.

Kristina Wasson-BladerKristina Wasson-Blader (kwb@kwbhealthcom.com) is a science editor at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

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