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Beyond Grant Writing: Exploring Career Opportunities in Scientific Communication through the Vanderbilt ASPIRE Program

Posted by on Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Announcements .

This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 Annual Report. 

By Natalya Ortolano, Graduate Student

I had an interesting discussion about future career options with my six-year-old niece recently who asked a question I ponder daily, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I explained in kid-accessible terms that I was currently a researcher, working tirelessly in the lab doing experiment after experiment, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep researching or mentor people on how to do that as the principal investigator of my own lab. Uninterested in my dilemma, she asked how long you had to be in school to become a mermaid. As unremarkable as this conversation may seem, this conversation stuck with me. What if I wasn’t even aware of the career best suited for me?

Identifying my scientific passion
In preparation for my graduate school qualifying exam, I wrote an NIH-style NRSA grant application to submit to my committee proposing my dissertation work. From that moment forward, I became entranced with writing grants, developing a story from my data, and proposing exciting new venues for my research. Grant writing had reignited my passion for writing.

Discovering the world of scientific journalism
To get myself back in the habit of writing, I signed up for a course offered through the ASPIRE program, which provides meaningful opportunities and experiences for graduate students in biomedical research programs to explore diverse career opportunities. One of the ways that the ASPIRE program facilitates exposure to a variety of career paths is through modules, brief non-credit electives that provide training in a specific field outside of the lab.

I was able to take two courses: “Practical Strategies for Strong Writing” and “Biomedical Research and Media.” The former greatly improved my writing skills. In the course, the instructor gave us short writing samples and asked us to edit the articles sentence by sentence to improve the structure and overall flow of the pieces. This course was instrumental in helping me read my work with an editorial mindset, helping me improve my writing.

“Biomedical Research and Media” went a step above and taught me not only how to become a better writer but introduced me to the world of science journalism. We would read an article from magazines and discuss how the author was able to take the complex scientific concepts in a highly technical publication and turn it into an exciting and accessible story for the public to read. To put our newly learned skills to the test, the instructor assigned everyone a small and a large article to write for the VUMC Reporter. To write these articles, I first had to interview the researchers and determine which of their publications to highlight.

We spent time in the class discussing how to interview someone about their science, how to select quotes for your article, and how to encourage those to whom you are talking to break down their science into easily digestible terms. This course showed me that I could find a career combining my passion for writing with my scientific knowledge to tell researchers’ unique stories to the public. Since the course, I have continued to be an active scientific writer by identifying opportunities, mostly facilitated through the ASPIRE program. Most notably, I have been a productive writer for the Results and Discussion Newsletter, which highlights the research of fellow graduate students. Additionally, I was able to write an article for the Vanderbilt Magazine highlighting the research of a recent Ph.D. graduate.

The ASPIRE program has also already begun helping me to identify potential internships, which I hope to apply for either after my dissertation defense or shortly before. Their team has also connected me with others who have participated in internships like the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship.

Continuing exploration in scientific communication
Since pursuing my interest in scientific journalism, I have begun to explore other careers in scientific communication. Another resource the ASPIRE program offers is a monthly seminar series where speakers are invited to discuss their career path and professional experiences called “PhD Career Connections.” I was able to make a valuable connection during one of these seminars with Tiffany Farmer, Ph.D., an alumna now the Director of Education and Community Engagement at the local science museum Adventure Science Center. After seeing Tiffany’s seminar, I became interested in careers in scientific outreach. While I had always done scientific outreach, I didn’t realize there were career options in that field beyond teaching. I was able to contact Tiffany directly and meet with her one on one to discuss her career and see if scientific outreach was a good fit for me.

Overall, the ASPIRE program helped me realize I could do more with my passion for communicating science than write grants. If I so choose, I can use my love for communication to promote scientific literacy through scientific journalism and/or advocacy. Although my favorite part of my graduate career has been writing grants for fellowship applications and presenting my work at conferences and in committee meetings, the ASPIRE program showed me what I could do with my interests and strengths outside of academia, without discouraging me from pursuing academia. Although I am still in the process of determining if science communication or academia is the best fit for me, the ASPIRE program and the incredible staff that work there are helping me figure that out.

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