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For a long time I didn’t feel like the end of my PhD was actually happening. Multiple times I’d drafted an outline for a graduation game plan, and then unexpected experiment results upended those plans. But finally, towards the end of 2019, my scientific story was in a satisfying-enough place (I’ve learned we can never truly ‘finish’ a story) to make real graduation plans. Having navigated a 6+ years-long PhD, during which my labmates supported me through my Mom’s death, subsequent increased family responsibilities, and getting married, I knew my transition scheduled for March 2020 would be an emotional one.
What I didn’t know, was that March 2020 would also bring to light the reality that SARS-CoV-2 had caused a pandemic, and that an exponential rise in cases in the greater NYC area would bring life in my neighborhood to a screeching halt.
My in-person defense on March 3rd happened as planned just before social distancing measures went into effect—many others have not been so lucky. My labmates prepared an epic party, for which I’ll be forever grateful, as my graduation ceremony scheduled at Carnegie Hall will now be a virtual event. I was set to spend a few more weeks in the lab, finishing up one last experiment, calmly organizing the stocks and notes I’d leave behind, and sending off my manuscript for submission. But with the sinking feeling that it might not be a good idea to commute on public transit anymore, I squeezed all lab-based tasks into just one week and opted to work from home for the remainder of my time at Cornell. I never imagined myself organizing 6 years of freezer stocks like it was a race for my life, and saying goodbye to my dear labmates via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but these are minuscule sacrifices in the grand scheme of all that is happening right now.
I have a cousin who is an ER nurse, having to re-use the same kind of PPE that I wore all the time in BSL-3 without a second thought. I have a brother with Down syndrome who lives in a group home; thankfully his fellow residents and amazing staff remain symptom-free, but fear over what could happen to him is always just under the surface of my thoughts. I have elderly loved ones I think about, like my 95-year old grandmother, but I’m also aware that no age group is being spared entirely.
It is in this mindset—worried, watching the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker daily— that I have spent my first few weeks of my new position as a medical writer. The medical writing (also known as medical communications or ‘medcomm’ for short) industry, “provides consultancy services to pharmaceutical companies, and the role of the medical writer is to use science and language to deliver these services successfully, while working to the highest ethical standards and adhering to industry regulations and guidelines (Moon, 2020).”
I spent a lot of time in graduate school weighing different career paths (too bad I never saw the above equation, it would have saved me a lot of time), but my experience as a blogger and editor for this very site clearly indicated that a communication-centered role would be the most appropriate for me. As I watch the ways lives are negatively impacted by inaccurate or poorly-handled medical communication right now, I feel there is a need for all science ECRs to consider themselves communicators. We can use our training to positively impact our communities if we can share our knowledge clearly and with compassion.
As a way of saying goodbye to my tenure as a PLOS ECR editor, I want to share relevant lessons I learned from my time with PLOS:
- Be active on Twitter: If not for Twitter, I would have never heard of this blog and I would have missed the opportunity to work on my writing and interact with other ECRs interested in communications. Twitter is an excellent platform to engage with other scientists about COVID-19 (or any other matter), and also allows you to interact with friends in other fields simultaneously.
- Collaborative projects are awesome for many reasons: Some of my favorite posts have been collaborative pieces where different writers each took responsibility for one component. This allowed us to quickly convey information with greater depth than any one writer would have had time for, given that none of us do this as a full-time position (we actually did this for our post about COVID-19 in early February—it is shocking how much has changed since then). Collaboration also helps broaden the audience of your message. A few weeks ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared in an Instagram Live interview conducted by basketball great Stephen Curry. Fauci himself has no public Instagram or Twitter account of his own (there is a fan club one though). Curry, meanwhile, has 30.4 million subscribers to his Instagram. Curry gifted Fauci a chance to share factual information in a relatable manner to a huge audience. And Fauci, as a talented science communicator, was able to do so with the warmth and competence needed to connect with the viewer. This leads me to the most important lesson…
- Remember the “science of science communication”: Two of my favorite pieces that I wrote for this blog focused on best practices for communication, based on what I learned from a lecture by Cornell professor of science communication Bruce Lewenstein and my takeaways from the ComSciConNY workshop. I have been thinking about those two stories a lot over the course of the pandemic, and I’d recommend learning more about Lewenstein’s work and the ComSciCon offerings if you are interested in improving your communication skills. The most important takeaways, in my opinion, from these two sources together are:
- An effective expert has both competence and warmth. These two qualities together are proven to foster trust from the viewer.
- Trust matters more than the facts themselves. Put time and effort into the relationships outside of your research community to ensure a foundation of trust with all aspects of your identity. Lewenstein referenced the Perceptions of Science in America study for a deeper look at this topic. It also doesn’t hurt to admit when you’ve made a mistake, rather than try to cover it up. Simply put, nobody will care about your facts if they don’t trust you.
I will personally be carrying these lessons forward no matter where my career takes me. I am grateful to the royalty of competence and warmth, i.e. healthcare providers around the world, for the work they do to care for others in the face of uncertainty. I hope that as a medical writer, I’ll be able to earn the trust of these individuals when I communicate new discoveries to inform their work. Most of all, I hope our readers will feel encouraged to try their hand at science and medical communication themselves—write to firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Featured Image: Freely available from Pixabay.
Moon, Annick. 2020. From academic to medical writer. http://medcommsnetworking.com/careersguide.pdf
ComSciCon workshop blog: https://comscicon.com/news/introducing-comsciconversation
Bruce Lewenstein publication list: https://blogs.cornell.edu/lewenstein/publications/