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Environmental Factor

October 2011

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Writer and editor kick off trainees' brown bag lunch series

By Jeffrey Stumpf
October 2011

Sophie Bolick, Ph.D.

According to Bolick, medical writers for MedThink Communications have to write quickly and efficiently but, unlike postdocs, rarely have to take their work home. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Laura Stemmle, Ph.D.

Stemmle works mostly from home, but spoke about the fun, coffee-shop style office where she and other telecommuters meet regularly. As a booming company, she said, “AJE always has open positions for people with Ph.D.s in science to become managing editors. (Photo courtesy of Laura Stemmle)

The NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) kicked off its new series of career-development brown bag lunches Sept. 9 with a session on scientific writing opportunities. Two professionals in the science writing and editing fields, Laura Stemmle, Ph.D., and former NIEHS postdoc Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., discussed life in the communications industry, before a capacity audience of postdoctoral fellows during the inaugural session.

The lunch series was initiated by the NTA Steering Committee to highlight careers for trainees in all areas of science. Tammy Collins, Ph.D., an IRTA fellow in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, heads the committee that schedules the series' speakers and moderates meetings. The steering committee recognized a demand among postdocs for information about a variety of science careers, which Collins said the group hopes to meet.

“There is not an academic [research] job for everyone,” Collins commented. “We need additional ways for postdocs to learn what is out there and marketable, even if it is not working on the bench.”

An intimate setting conducive to networking

The lunch series will meet in the executive conference room on the second Friday of every month at least until April 2012, excluding federal holidays (see text box). The topics for discussion include careers in academia, industry, and policy. IRTA fellow Jill Hesse, Ph.D., noted that the intimate setting provides an opportunity for engagement by trainees that would be difficult in a large seminar.

“The lunch provides a forum for the fellows to ask questions and really get a sense of what is required day to day,” Hesse remarked.

Like any career planning event, Collins believes the ultimate prize for attending the lunch series is building that all-important network. “Every time we bring someone here, it's a chance to meet local people who may be able to help with job openings,” Collins explained.

Transitioning from bench to communications

Stemmle and Bolick both told stories of leaving bench science behind for a career in science communications. For Bolick, who wrote for the Environmental Factor and Environmental Health Perspectives during her training at NIEHS, the transition from NIEHS to her medical writing position at MedThink Communications( Exit NIEHS was not difficult.

Changing careers to science writing involved developing a different intellectual skill set than research scientists generally use. Bolick said she found that writing about a variety of different subjects, in short time spans, required broadening her interests. “As a postdoc, I knew a lot about a narrow subject,” Bolick recalled. “Now, I know a little about a wide variety of topics.”

“I'm glad I don't have to hold a pipette anymore,” joked Bolick. “But you have to want to write, to take this job.”

Stemmle, a general manager of author services at American Journal Experts (AJE)( Exit NIEHS, provided a different perspective on medical communications. In contrast to a fixed work schedule with time sheets, Stemmle talked about the freedom of telecommuting from home, accompanied by potentially odd working hours and a self-professed addiction to email. “I'm glad to be able to maintain a balance between work and family,” Stemmle reflected.

AJE provides an editing service, mainly for scientists who are not native English speakers. Stemmle believes in the mission of helping improve the language of a manuscript, so that it is properly judged only on its scientific merit.

“When you read a paper that is not written well, it's easy to throw out the data,” Stemmle explained.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

Tammy Collins, Ph.D.

In addition to her work in the Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group, Collins organized the brown bag lunch career series for postdocs - not only to learn about what careers are marketable, but also to understand different professional cultures. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jill Hesse, Ph.D.

Like many other postdocs, Hesse is interested in learning about careers beyond the postdoc experience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The series of informal discussions continues

On the second Friday of each month, the brown bag lunch series will highlight a different set of Ph.D. careers to provide fellows the opportunity to meet with individuals with firsthand experience in them. At least one speaker will be more seasoned and will comment on careers in that field, while another speaker will discuss the transition from postdoc to the career. In contrast to typical career fairs, the lunch will provide an informal and more intimate atmosphere for postdocs to ask questions and hear more about the career path.

Brown Bag lunch series schedule:

Date                            Host                                        Topic

10/14/2011                  Abee Boyles, Ph.D.                Science Policy

11/18/2011                  Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D.           Industry, Research

12/09/2011                  Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D.         Academia, Teaching

01/13/2012                  Tammy Collins, Ph.D. Academic, Administration

02/10/2012                  Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D.           Nonprofits

03/09/2012                  Bhargavi Rao, Ph.D.               Regulatory Affairs

04/13/2012                  Chaitra Cheluvaraju, Ph.D.     Industry, Non-research

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