Jen is now the media officer for the Wellcome Trust having started her career in science communication with an internship at Nature. Her career journey shows how she moved from laboratory based science to her current job.
I completed my undergraduate degree in immunology at the University of Edinburgh. As part of that course, I was lucky enough to study in California for a year at UCSC and worked in a lab, which gave me the taste for research and which encouraged me to undertake a PhD - which I did in the Division of Academic Oncology at the University of Nottingham, from 2004 – 2007 (graduated in 2008). I was investigating a vaccine for cancer – the idea was that by arming the immune system to attack the blood vessel network within a tumour, we could starve the tumour of essential nutrients and ultimately cause cancer regression. If it worked (quite a big if!), the vaccine could in theory be used against any solid tumour with a blood supply.
Now I’m a media officer for the Wellcome Trust, an independent medical research charity and the largest UK charity. My job is to garner media interest in the work of the Trust with a view to raising public awareness of our achievements. The Trust is involved in a diverse range of activities in addition to funding basic scientific research – public engagement, funding technology transfer and commercialisation of ideas, we even have our own museum, the Wellcome Collection. We’re also involved in lobbying the government on issues surrounding science policy and we have a large investments team that manage the fund, so that we can continue to invest in our mission to advance medical research and the understanding of its history.
After completing my PhD, I decided that perhaps working in a laboratory was not for me after all, but I wanted to remain in a job linked with science. I realised that my skills lay more in the communication of science than actually doing experiments. My role at the Wellcome Trust involves preparing press releases about our work, offering up our broad range of experts for comments on relevant news stories, responding to journalist enquiries and training our grantees on how to deal with the media. For bigger stories, we organise press briefings, events and photocalls with journalists to maximise our media impact.
Whilst writing up my thesis, I managed to secure a place on an internship scheme with Nature Publishing Group. I started out managing a specific project within the publishing team for six months, which gave me an insight into different career paths available within science communication. At the end of the scheme, I applied for and was offered a position within the press office. This was really a turning point in my career as it gave me the opportunity to really learn about how the science media works and introduced me to a wealth of journalists and press officers. And it was great fun helping to turn complex research papers into meaningful headlines! I also learned about how to manage the media, to stop misreporting and ‘hyping’ of results.
Although I have very fond memories from my time at Nature, I felt that I had reached my potential in that role and decided to move over to Wellcome, where I am learning more about the strategy of placing news stories in the media. I’m also working on a more diverse range of stories – from an opera about dementia, to genetically modified mosquitoes to stop the spread of dengue fever. No two days are the same and I love it.
Although having a doctorate is not a requirement for my job, it certainly does lend kudos when I’m trying to explain to journalists why something is important. Similarly, it helps to build trust with the researchers that we work with. The main skill from my PhD that I use on a daily basis is the ability to quickly digest complex research ideas and distil them into a language that can be understood. That doesn’t always necessarily mean a lay summary – it’s about tailoring communication to the level of expertise of your audience. The many presentations that I did throughout my PhD were great training in being able to verbally communicate and ‘pitch’ science stories, and respond to questioning under pressure. Obviously, subject knowledge is helpful but in this job, you need to have a broad overview of all subject areas and be able to get up to speed pretty quickly! Having a first-hand understanding of how research works also helps with spotting the real news stories from the incremental advances.
The thing that stands out the most when I reflect back on my doctorate is not the lab work itself, but all the other things that went along with it – presentations, poster competitions, conferences, teaching. These are the things that really gave me the skills and confidence to take forward in my career. Given my time again, I wouldn’t get so stressed about the (lack of) results and would try to enjoy the experience more – then perhaps more of my experiments would have worked!
Jen's advice to other researchers
If I were to give advice to researchers considering a similar career to mine, I’d say that you need to prove yourself – all scientists ‘think’ they’re good at communicating but you need to demonstrate that you can. Enter competitions, start a blog, get writing. Twitter is a really great place to build up contacts and networks in the sci comm community.
I’d also say get involved - there are a number of volunteering opportunities available at local and national science communication events. The annual British Science Association conference is always in need of good volunteers to help run the press office for the week. Don’t be too proud to take a couple of weeks’ unpaid experience, as it will pay off in the end! The Nature internship scheme is paid (nominally) but is competitive. You have to be in it to win it though – I never thought I would have a chance! I took the opportunity to enter a number of regional and national presentation competitions organised through the Graduate School and I also participated in the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme – a competition to raise awareness of the commercialisation of ideas. These experiences were invaluable in improving my ‘transferable’ skills – e.g. communication skills, confidence to talk in public, understanding of how business works.
I also went to a number of presentations about alternative careers for PhDs, which helped me to realise that there is life outside the lab. Once I had made the decision to look for jobs in science communication, I had great support and advice from a careers adviser, and a lot of help with my CV! Take advantage of the Careers and Employability Service at Nottingham – they will help you to highlight the right experiences on your CV and help you articulate them.