So you wanna be in science communication?

Sarah  Ellinwood
By Sarah Ellinwood
Jan. 13, 2023

I’m managing editor of BioBuzz, a media platform that covers regional biotech, biopharma and other life science–related news. I had the pleasure of talking about my career path at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s fall Virtual Career Expo, which brought together scientists across many nonacademic fields to share their journeys and give words of wisdom.

I thought it would be helpful to summarize some of the questions I got as well as my responses, both for those who weren’t able to attend and for those who are just generally curious about what one path in scicomm can look like.

(Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared first in BioBuzz.)

First things first

Before we jump in, let me quickly summarize my journey:

I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2017 with a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology, focusing more specifically on infectious disease microbiology and immunology.

A few weeks after defending, I started my first job as a medical writer for Technical Resources International, a contract research organization that provides a variety of services and support to its clients. More specifically, I worked under a contract providing regulatory medical writing support for early stage clinical trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute.

After a year at TRI, I became a scientific analyst at Verge Scientific Communications, a boutique agency providing support to early stage biotech and healthcare companies. My role involved writing press releases, copywriting for websites, messaging planning, and acting as a scientific liaison between our team, our clients and our partners.

I was at Verge for three years before joining on the BioBuzz crew as managing editor in November 2021. I manage BioBuzz’s editorial strategy, content and writers. I curate our newsletters and work closely with our team to plan for growth in existing and new markets.

Now I’ll get into the questions people asked me during the expo. 

What is your day-to-day like?

Medical writer: My days were spent writing regulatory documents (Food and Drug Administration annual reports, investigational new drug documents, protocols), tending to my inbox and reviewing work by colleagues. My meeting load was pretty low overall.

Scientific analyst: I had a lot of meetings — usually at least two to three hours’ worth per day and sometimes a lot more. These meetings would be both internal (I’d work with the team to brainstorm or workshop ideas) and external (we’d be talking with our clients). When not on calls, I’d work on deliverables such as press releases, website copy, corporate slide decks and messaging documents.

Managing editor: A lot of my time is spent planning, managing and implementing BioBuzz’s editorial strategy. I also have a heavy hand in curating BioBuzz’s newsletters and working with our leadership team to plan our continued growth in existing and new markets. And, of course, I do some writing myself here and there!

What do you like/dislike about your job?

What I like: I love that I get to continue learning about cutting-edge science and therapeutics all the time, but I never have to hold a pipette or do a Western Blot again. I also get to learn about entirely new fields beyond what I focused on during grad school. I’m learning about cancer, medical devices, immunotherapies and more.

Challenges: I wouldn’t say I dislike this, but when you work at a small company you have a lot of roles, and things sometimes can be unpredictable because you’re laying down the train tracks as the train is moving. That said, I don’t feel siloed because the entire team is always accessible, and there are so many opportunities to learn, fail, and grow.

How do you apply what you learned during your Ph.D. to your work?

Although I’m not spending my days at the biosafety cabinet anymore, I still apply a lot of what I learned during my Ph.D. to my everyday work. A few examples:

Subject matter expertise: I’m not only knowledgeable about the field I studied but I also know how to navigate scientific literature to answer questions in other fields. When interviewing other scientists, I’m able to talk shop and understand their technical jargon.

Project management and multitasking: I’m skilled in moving projects forward and juggling. I know that working in an academic lab made the transition to working at a startup easier. Many people either don’t enjoy or get scared off from working at startups because they require a lot of multitasking, wearing many hats and uncertainty. There aren’t as many well-established standard operating procedures, and you often find yourself pivoting and trying new things to see what works. For a scientist who has worked in any kind of academic lab, that’s second nature. 

Did you know that you wanted to do scicomm from the start of your Ph.D.?

When I started my Ph.D. in 2012 I knew that I didn’t want to be a professor at a research institution, but I didn’t know what else was out there besides industry and teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution. I didn’t realize that you could make a career out of being a science communicator until my fourth year when I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting and started becoming more active on science Twitter. 

How did you prepare?

Once I learned that scicomm could be a good career path, I took advantage of all the opportunities I could to grow my skill set, including my soft skills. Here are few of the things I did:

  • I attended multiple workshops hosted by BIOTrain, where I learned everything from business communication skills to how drug development works and what “quality control” means in biopharma.

  • I continued volunteering with my local Women In Bio chapter, which helped me learn leadership skills and network with life science professionals.

  • I set up informational interviews with people I found on LinkedIn or through my network who were in scicomm roles to learn more about what they do.

  • I enrolled in scicomm workshops, including the ASBMB’s “The Art of Science Communication” and the American Institute of Biological Sciences’ “Communications Bootcamp for Scientists” and “Writing for Impact” courses.

  • I did an informal internship with the Drug Information Association through a connection I met at a Women In Bio networking event. I wrote short blog posts about topics related to DIA’s multitude of meetings and workshops, as well as attend a few of the workshops myself. I also had the chance to beta-test DIA’s e-learning modules, all of which taught me various aspects of drug development. This was something I did throughout the academic year, devoting about 10 to 15 hours per month.

What can I do to prepare?

Network, network, network! Go to life science networking events in your area. Set up a LinkedIn and reach out to folks who have interesting roles that you want to learn more about. Get involved in scicomm communities such as Lifeology and SciCommers. From my experiences, scicomm folks are generally a friendly and helpful bunch, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Build your writing portfolio. Scientists know how to write technical documents, but not all of them know how to write in more generalized styles. Find opportunities to build your skills:

Take a workshop or two. A lot of people underestimate the amount of work it takes to do science communication well. Many professional societies over the years have started establishing workshops and opportunities to help learn how to cut through the jargon and frame your communication for different audiences. For example, the ASBMB’s “Art of Science Communication” workshop is a great and affordable option and runs multiple times throughout the year. I’m also planning to teach a BIOTrain course on science communication.

What is your work–life balance like?

In all three of my post-Ph.D. roles my work–life balance has been pretty good, but a lot of that is attributed to me intentionally setting (and keeping) boundaries.

It’s definitely better than it was while I was a grad student: I don’t need to run to the lab on the weekends to split my cells anymore, nor do I feel guilty taking the time to binge-watch home renovation shows in the evening rather than read literature or analyze data. And now that I’m married and have a toddler, I’m even more intentional with making sure I make time for them and for myself.

Any job can have poor work–life balance if you let it get out of control. While there will be times when you need to devote extra hours to a project, I’ve seen folks working at all hours of the evening and into the weekend for no particular reason, especially during COVID when remote work has blurred the lines. It’s a recipe for burnout.

Read more of this story on BioBuzz.

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Sarah  Ellinwood
Sarah Ellinwood

Sarah Ellinwood is BioBuzz’s managing editor. A scientist by training and a science communicator at heart, she specializes in making complex concepts understandable, engaging and exciting. She earned her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology with a focus in infectious disease immunology from the University of Maryland and is passionate about all things related to scicomm, peer mentorship and women in STEM.

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