How I Transitioned From Bench Science To Medical Writing

I get emails weekly from people who want to know how to switch from bench science to medical writing. I don’t have a good answer, but I can share how it happened for me, which was a combination of luck, persistence, and New York-style chutzpah.

Soon after I began my post-doc at NINDS, a postcard arrived in our lab saying, “Congratulations Dr. Baker, you have been chosen from among hundreds of applicants to be one of a dozen post-doctoral fellows to participate in a prestigious writing seminar.” The workshop was to be taught by Dr. Ruth Levy Guyer, herself a bench scientist-turned-renowned writer of books, essays, articles, reviews, and commentaries. As luck would have it, Dr. Baker had departed for a job at Genentech the week before. Naturally I went to the workshop, and was permitted to stay because Dr. Guyer admired my moxy. I enjoyed her course thoroughly and remember many of her lessons to this day.

I love to write. Invariably the feedback on my dissertation, grant applications, and journal articles began with praise for the writing. So when a fellow post-doc asked me to edit an article for her because she was bogged down with work, I readily accepted. It was not a research article—she volunteered as an editor for a journal called Women In Science. I enjoyed editing the article so much that I too began to volunteer. Soon thereafter the editor, Pam Hines (a senior editor at Science magazine), gave me a column as well.

One day an article arrived for me to edit, and the author was none other than Dr. Guyer. The idea of editing the work of my writing teacher filled me with dread. I must have proven myself a marginally acceptable editor, because afterward Ruth graciously informed me that her husband worked for NHGRI and that soon the institute would be advertising for a staff writer. Was I interested?

I was not on the job market and had never considered leaving my post-doc after just two years. But off I went to see Leslie Fink, the head of communications at NHGRI. I had no writing samples but Leslie took a chance on me: Had I seen a movie lately? Could I write a review?

So I landed my first medical writing position with a “review” of the wonderful Muhammad Ali documentary “When We Were Kings.” Leslie took a risk, but so did I: I agreed to work at my post-doc salary, which was half what they paid writers; but worse, I agreed to work for six months with no obligation for them to hire me. The conventional wisdom was that if you left the bench for six months, you were finished in medical research. So I was burning a bridge with no promise of a future in writing.

My lab chief at NINDS thought I had lost my mind. My department chair at Mt. Sinai Medical School, where I had earned my Ph.D., called to express his dismay, telling me, “You are one of the ones who would have made it.” (My dissertation had been published as a two-author paper in a prestigious journal.) My research colleagues almost without exception told me frankly that I was making a huge mistake and would live to regret it.

I didn’t. I set to work at NHGRI, happily clocking the insane hours to which I had grown accustomed as a post-doc. Those working in government administration are not necessarily known for working long hours, so I quickly impressed my supervisors with my hard work, if not my dazzling writing skills. Shortly after arriving they advertised for a writer (“Seeking a medical writer with curly brown hair and blue eyes, who plays French horn and piano and trained as a dancer…”—the ad fell just short of this level of specificity) and I became an inside hire, as often is the case at NIH.

I learned a great deal while working in the Office of Press, Policy, and Communications, as the NHGRI budget at the time allowed for only one staff writer position. I drafted press releases, fact sheets, policy documents, appropriations testimony, budget justifications to Congress, meeting summaries, and annual reports. I helped with fact checking, press prep, lecture prep, speech writing, and book chapters. I even got to work on a Shattuck lecture for the New England Journal of Medicine. Leslie Fink was patience personified in teaching me the basics. I learned about policy from Dr. Kathy Hudson, our hard-nosed and extremely talented policy wonk who was herself a former bench scientist (Kathy is now in a top leadership position at NIH.) I had the extreme good fortune to work under Dr. Francis Collins, then NHGRI Director and head of the Human Genome Project (now NIH Director.) Those who read my blog already know of my high regard for Dr. Collins.

Take-home messages for those looking to transition from bench science to medical writing:

  • Be persistent. Expect that most avenues you pursue will lead nowhere. When I started my own medical writing company, I must have shaken a thousand hands at hundreds of onerous networking functions before I got a break. When I was considering a career change, I joined National Association of Science Writers (NASW), D.C. Science Writers Association (DCSWA; lyrically pronounced “duck-swa”), and later the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). I participated in any and all forums they offered, both electronically and otherwise.
  • Be pushy. Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR (and married to Kathy Hudson), gave a talk on how to break into science writing. His advice was, “Shamelessly exploit every contact you have,” or something to that effect. When considering a career change, I told every person I came across, whether they were in research, writing, or they happened to be sitting next to me on the metro. Hey, you never know. When that postcard arrived in the lab announcing Dr. Baker’s acceptance into a writing workshop, there was no question that I would go in her stead.
  • Take risks. I accepted the position at NHGRI knowing they had no obligation to hire me at the end of my contract, and knowing that I could not return to bench science. Had I not done so, I would probably still be plating cells and running gels.
  • Expect to work your arse off. I succeeded at my first writing job in large part because of the hours I put in. Later, I succeeded at launching a medical writing company in the middle of a recession while living in the middle of nowhere, in large part because I worked seven days a week. My company has been extremely successful, and I still work seven days a week. If you love what you do, you won’t mind, or even notice, usually. (Please note however that your family will notice. And mind.)
  • Don’t be bothered by the naysayers. I took an enormous amount of flack from my research colleagues when I made the switch. This is only troublesome if you fail afterward. When you succeed, they will all suffer collective amnesia concerning their doubts and criticism, and will be full of praise for your successes.
  • Do it for free. Perhaps the best piece of career advice I have ever received. If you want to transition into something new, do it for free for a while, at least part time (time and finances permitting.) I volunteered to write and edit at a free journal. It led to my first job offer, and put me in contact with an editor at Science magazine. I also accepted my first writing position at a greatly reduced salary (short-term). Few people will turn down free (or greatly reduced cost) work, and it will help you gain experience, contacts, writing samples, and references in your field.

I hope this story is helpful to someone, or at least was mildly entertaining. Best of luck to anyone looking to make the switch!

Where Has Genome Sequencing Gotten Us?

Though I still consider myself a die-hard New Yorker, I do read the Boston Globe (after The New York Times, of course). Today I was not disappointed: Carolyn Y. Johnson has a nice article on the front page about the Broad Institute in Cambridge http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/.

In it, she describes the large, well-funded institute’s approach to sequencing. The Institute was founded in 2003 by Eric Lander, a figure who featured prominently in my world at The Human Genome Project in the late ‘90’s, a hot-headed, larger-than-life person whose mathematical approach to sequencing provided the key to ramping up the sequencing effort.

The Broad is known for providing a dream environment for scientists. It has deep pockets, is highly collaborative, and encourages broad thinking and intellectual leaps of faith. Indeed, the research enterprise in the United States is often criticized for lacking just that kind of intellectual risk-taking. The NIH in particular has often been criticized for funding only next-logical-steps research. In response to such criticism, the Transformative R01s (TR01s) were implemented under Elias Zerhouni’s leadership, and most recently we have the NIH DP3 grant mechanism, designed to fund think-outside-the-box research for Type I diabetes.

One must applaud and admire the Broad for creating an environment that provides such fertile ground for intellectual pursuit. When I was a bench scientist, I would have found it to be nirvana.

That said, such research must give one pause. The article points out successes (as recently as 2004, common genetic variations that play a role in disease were unknown, and now we have identified over 1,000.) However, Francis Collins states, “The bad news, which we had no way of knowing ahead of time, is most of these variants have quite modest effects on risk, so as predictors of future illness they’re not as impressive for many diseases as people had hoped would emerge.” The article goes on to point out that of 95 genetic areas recently identified as playing a part in cholesterol and triglycerides, these genetic areas only account for about 10-12% of the differences in people’s lipid levels.

So what’s the other 88-90%? The vast majority of that difference is likely due to lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise. The diseases that plague the developed world are not infectious diseases, but rather conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, for which diet and exercise play a crucial role. The NIH provided about two-thirds of the Broad’s staggering budget in fiscal 2009. It would be nice to see such federal investment of taxpayer dollars into research on the major contributors to the diseases that afflict American taxpayers.