December 2013

A random walk to the career I never knew I always wanted

My high-school plan to major in chemistry, earn a Ph.D., become a faculty member and cure cancer worked to a point. I did major in chemistry, and undergraduate research experiences led to graduate school. But in graduate school, I realized I wasn’t happy in the lab. However, with no Plan B, I stuck with Plan A.
Plan A involved some magic: I thought that at some point an aspect of my graduate school research would speak to me and become my life’s work. So I was surprised when — just two-and-a-half years in — my adviser asked me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life so he could help me get there.
I started by considering the obvious — my own projects and then others in the group. I quickly dismissed them all. I wondered whether I should be in genetics or high-energy physics. After a few days, I knew the answer was no.
My consideration of these possible fields revealed two ways in which doing science was counter to my nature: I didn’t want to abandon an infinite number of interesting options to pursue a single avenue, and the process of science was too slow. To be motivated and satisfied, I needed more frequent deadlines and more frequent closure.

The author at the end of the 2013 Darlington marathon
A few years ago, Downer gave up competitive volleyball to take up long-distance running. She warns that some grants are marathons and some are sprints. Here she crosses the finish line of her second full marathon, held Sept. 28, 2013, in Darlington, S.C., her first of three marathons
this fall.

Frustrated, I wondered if I had enjoyed anything since beginning graduate school. A little voice inside me said yes — writing and editing. My adviser had asked me to research and draft a textbook chapter and to edit manuscripts authored by others in the lab. I’d poured myself into those projects and found great satisfaction in their completion.
While I knew only that I wanted to incorporate science and writing or editing, my adviser was a step ahead — he said he thought I’d like to be a science writer. “Great,” I said. “What’s that?”
True to his word, he helped me become a science writer, translating technical information into stories for a general audience. He connected me with a magazine editor at the university, for whom I wrote a number of articles. Those were my ticket to a 10-week Mass Media Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which I spent at Time Magazine in Washington, D.C. Once back at graduate school, I turned my experience into paying freelance jobs that I learned about through the National Association of Science Writers.
After finishing my doctorate, I started at Duke University Medical Center doing science writing and media relations for basic and clinical cancer research. A few years later, I left for Johns Hopkins Medicine, where I was a news writer dedicated to the basic sciences, cell engineering and genetic medicine.
An impetus for both job decisions was my desire to choose positions where I could learn from those around me, use skills I already had and build new skills by taking on new challenges. In each position, I also built strong relationships at every opportunity.
After a few years at Hopkins, I realized I didn’t want my boss’s job or her boss’s job, both of which involved being on call 24/7. I needed another new path. I could have stayed in science writing, perhaps switching to writing for internal publications instead of news, or at a college instead of an academic medical center.
Instead, I was offered and accepted an opportunity to return to Duke in 2006 at the invitation of Nobel laureate Peter Agre, whose work (and Nobel) I’d covered at Hopkins. After a few years of writing and managing projects for Agre and other medical center leaders, the economic downturn altered the landscape. Among my major projects at the time was a fledgling effort to create a large statewide innovation fund — now an instant nonstarter.
So I offered the medical school my scientific editing skills — which I’d used only as a freelancer — to help the institution apply for stimulus funds. My offer was readily accepted, and in five months I wrote three high-scoring institutional construction grants (one was funded for $15 million). Due to their success, I was invited by the medical school’s dean’s office to help faculty members develop complex research grants, an area in which Duke had been struggling.
On each grant team, I play whatever role necessary: leading, providing direction behind the scenes or picking up balls that have been dropped. I help the team establish and meet agreed-upon responsibilities and timelines. I pay attention to “boring” grant components, such as biosketches and management plans, and I make sure the grant manager — the financial expert — is engaged early. I help teams keep their science true to the funding opportunity requirements and intent, and I edit each application to ensure it is clear, compelling, consistent, concise and complete — my five C’s. I approach every piece of every grant as if it were my own.
My current job is part of a relatively new profession: research development. It unites my skills in building teams, explaining science, crafting compelling messages, editing scientific documents and doing all of it under deadline pressure. Each day, I use my existing skills and find new challenges. In the past few years, I’ve added three staff members to my team. Last year I started offering writing workshops to help faculty members learn to revise their own work more effectively. I’m still learning new things nearly five years in and with nearly three dozen complex research grants under my belt.
The hardest part of my job is meeting demand — and saying no. As the funding climate has tightened, good research-development professionals — or even freelance scientific editors — provide critical support to faculty members who need to make the strongest case for their research.
In some ways, I feel I found this career accidentally, just by following my nose. In other ways, it seems I have been training for it all my life — from playing competitive volleyball, to editing my high-school yearbook, to telling stories of discovery, to education and research in chemistry. I just love it when a plan comes together.

Is research development for you?

  • • Team oriented
  • • Exceptional attention to detail
  • • Excellent writing and editing skills
  • • Energized by deadlines
  • • Can balance multiple shifting priorities
  • • Finds inherent satisfaction doing high-quality work
  • • Enjoys helping others
For more information, visit, the website of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals.

Joanna DownerJoanna Downer ( is director of research development at the Duke University School of Medicine. Previously, she was associate director of science communication at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and before that she was a science writer in the Duke University Medical Center News Office. She earned a B.S. with honors in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University in 1993 and an M.A. and Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis.

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