For this interview, I spoke to Karen over the phone. She is the Website and Social Media Manager at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is a state agency dedicated to accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs by funding stem cell research in California. She has been working here for a year-and-a-half.
Describe what you do on a day-to-day basis.
I work on CIRM’s communications team as their website and social media manager. Our team is only three people so I’ve also taken on a few other communications roles including writing about stem cell research for our Stem Cellar blog, attending scientific conferences, developing marketing materials for our scientists, and directing a high school educational program.
For our website, I manage and update content about our funding opportunities for researchers and about stem cells and clinical trials for patients. I also manage CIRM’s social media accounts which include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Each platform has a slightly difference audience that I engage with. For example, on our Twitter account we have a lot of scientists that follow us so we tweet about the latest published stem cell research. On Facebook and Instagram, we have more patient and public followers that we like to share our lay-person friendly blogs and videos with.
One of my favorite things I do at CIRM is manage a high school educational program called SPARK. Each summer, seven SPARK programs at research institutions across California provide stem cell research internships to high school students from underprivileged communities. The program is basically a summer of exposing students to what it’s like to be a graduate student or scientist. Students are placed in a stem cell research lab and paired with a mentor who helps them work on a stem cell research project. They also take science courses and attend seminars. At the end of the program, there’s a SPARK conference where students present their work and meet each other – it’s a fun way to get them to interact and communicate their experiences. If you want to see these students in action, you should check out CIRM’s Instagram page (@CIRM_StemCells) and the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag.
Tell us about your academic background (describe your science at an undergraduate level)
I received my PhD from UCSF in biomedical sciences. My thesis project focused on cellular reprogramming, which involves taking mature, adult cells and genetically reprogramming them back into a stem cell-like state. My research was inspired by Nobel Laureate Dr. Shinya Yamanaka who discovered how to reprogram adult cells like skin into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are almost identical to embryonic stem cells. His technology is extremely useful because it allows scientists to model human development and disease in a dish using stem cells that can turn into any cell type found in the human body. For my thesis, I developed a similar method that reprogrammed skin cells into neural stem cells found in the brain. My goal was that these induced neural stem cells could be used to model and study neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease.
For my postdoc, I joined a Huntington’s disease (HD) lab at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. For my project, I used iPSCs to model HD at the developmental stage where brain stem cells are specializing into neurons. Our goal with this research was to identify molecular pathways that might be disturbed as HD stem cells develop into neurons and eventually identify drugs that could prevent these disturbances from happening.
How did you find your first job out of academia?
I always liked doing bench science and was thinking that I would continue with it after my postdoc, but I had done a lot of science writing on the side and started a blog for the Buck Institute. Both these experiences inspired a new passion for science communication. I didn’t seriously consider an alternative science career until companies started to reach out to me on LinkedIn about science communications positions. They seemed interesting, so I began interviewing and exploring these types of positions.
After interviewing for a few communications roles, I started to realize that as much as I liked bench work, I liked writing and talking about science more. It felt less isolating and that I was reaching a wider audience with my science education. So. when I saw a job opening on CIRM’s communications team, I eagerly applied and was so excited to get the job. It was scary to leave the lab bench knowing that it would be hard to get back, but it’s been more than a year now and I have no regrets about my career change.
I think it’s important to find a job where you’re excited to go to work every day. If you’re in communications, you should have fun with what you do. Sometimes, when I was in research I didn’t always have a positive outlook, because of setbacks and experiments that kept failing – but now I look forward to going to work every day because I’m excited to share our important work at CIRM with the world.
What is your favorite part of your current job? I know you mentioned that you really liked working with the high school students.
Yes – I love inspiring students to try out stem cell research and consider a career in science. The SPARK high school students are some of the most talented students I’ve ever met. Their presentations are professional and high-level and could give most grad students a run for their money! I really hope that some of them will pursue science-related careers.
My other favorite thing about my job is being able to interact with the public about stem cell research. I meet lots of people at conferences, patient focused-events or support groups, and on social media. Some of these people don’t know much about stem cell research and I get to educate them on the basics and about the clinical benefits that stem cells could have for many diseases in the future. However, many of the people I meet are knowledgeable about the potential for stem cell therapies and they’re motivated to learn more about what they can do to promote and support the research. Either way, it’s really fun for me to engage people on a wide range of stem cell-related topics.
What are the unique challenges of this line of work?
There are a few. One of them is pretty basic – you have to be really organized with your time in this line of work to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. There needs to be time to take care of the website, social media, blogging, etc. You should learn how to multitask efficiently.
Another challenge is that some people are very skeptical about stem cell research. They’ll say, we gave you this much money to fund research and what do you have to show us? Where are the cures? The problem is research and progress take time, and it’s not feasible to assume there will be cures after only a decade since CIRM was established. We need to communicate this message and educate people about the promising clinical trials we’ve funded that could potentially lead to cures in the future. We also need to convince the public why they should continue to stem cell research so that the progress that has been made doesn’t go to waste.
Do you have suggestions for how to get into a science communications positions?
I think it’s important to start writing and doing other forms of communications early in your scientific training if you want to go into science communications. Having a graduate degree or postdoc experience isn’t enough – if you don’t have a portfolio of science communication work, companies won’t hire you because you don’t have proper experience. And be sure that you get science writing experience outside of publications and grants, which involve a very technical style of writing. For more general communications roles where you are writing press releases or blogs, companies want to know that you can talk about science in a less technical way.
So my advice is to find writing opportunities or make your own. I found a few contract science writing and blogging jobs when I was in graduate school and continued to take on new experiences during in my postdoc, where I started a blog about aging research at my institute.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for a job now?
I have a lot of advice to give on job hunting, but I’ll say that my network was the most useful thing in helping me get a job. I built a solid network of academic and industry connections during my PhD and postdoc, and this came in handy when I was on the job hunt. For my current role, I had previously met with someone at CIRM for coffee to find out more about the agency and whether there were positions there that would fit my background. I decided not to apply then, but when I found their communications position a year later, I re-connected with my contact at CIRM. He told me more about the role, answered my questions about CIRM and what it’s like to work there, and gave me advice on how to do well in a CIRM interview. Interviewing for a communications role is very different that interviewing for an academic or scientist position, so I was grateful to learn more about the interview process.
You can expand your network by attending science-related events and setting up informational interviews with people who have careers you’re interested in. This often requires emailing people you don’t know, and you can suggest either doing a phone call or meeting in person for coffee. These informal interviews are very useful: you can learn about a new career path, about a person’s company and about open positions that they know of. Another way to expand your network is to ask new or existing connections if they know anyone else you could talk to in a certain career path.
I’d also recommend having an up-to-date, detailed LinkedIn profile. I think there’s a misconception among some scientists that it’s not necessary to have one, but these days it is used a lot by recruiters and companies looking to hire scientists for various types of positions.