Why would you go and do THAT?

“Kid, what do you want to be when you grow up?” "I’m going to be a writer!"


"Or a dolphin trainer. Or a doctor like my dad."

Fast forward.

I’m a nerdy teenager who likes to dream big. One of my favorite memories from my homeschooling experience is sitting down in our sunroom every week with a heavily pierced and tattooed creative writing tutor who moonlighted as a fire baton-twirler. She would open a book of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, point to one, and tell me to write. Anything. No thinking, no formal sentence structure. It was stream of consciousness, poetic freedom, and it was beautiful. I used the words undulating and scintillating many times over. And oddly enough, I think science crept in. Undulating waves on a primordial soup of a sea. A scintillating, pre-eukaryotic freedom.

Blue and Green Music, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921. Public Domain.

Fast forward.

I am a biological engineering undergraduate student at LSU. I make a terrible engineer in my own opinion – creative without the strict eye for structural details, load-bearing scenarios and factors of safety. I’m a brilliant biologist though. My fortes include memorizing molecular pathways and the intricate inner details of cells. That, and I had mad skills at confocal microscopy – lab meetings were spent oohing and aahing over the fluorescent micro-structures I managed to capture under the scope.

But somewhere along the way, the creativity was lost on long nights of cell culture and preparing intricately designed nanoparticles only to hand them over to postdocs. I lost the sense of understanding and contributing to a bigger picture. I was a single cog in a laboratory wheel, and I didn’t have any sense that what I was doing mattered.

Aren't they pretty? My confocal image of fluorescent DNA nanoparticles in HeLa cells, a human cancer cell line.

So I decided to start a blog. I mean, who wouldn’t? From The Lab Bench was born, named by my now husband because, quite naturally, I was bringing science to my readers ‘from the lab bench’! Little did I know – but perhaps it had been there all along – that soon thereafter I would indeed be moving from the lab bench to the field and study of science communication. Breaking that move to my PhD adviser in biomedical engineering wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, though.

A career mentor told me this when I consulted her before telling my adviser at the time: “I wouldn’t let that cat out of the bag yet. If you tell your prof your plans to pursue science writing, he will probably write you off…” (Ironic) “…and not take you as seriously as he will the other research grads.”

But I did let the cat out of the bag. I couldn’t help it. When I told him, he was about to go on a trip overseas for several months.

“Science writing?? Why would you want to be a science writer? Don’t go and do something stupid like quitting while I’m gone.”

I did.

Fast forward again.

“Why would you want a PhD in mass communication to practice science communication? You don’t need a PhD for that.”

Got it, PhD is for research. Wait…

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t leave the lab bench because I didn’t enjoy research. I LOVE research! I love exploring questions, collecting data and testing my hypotheses. I love thinking up new research designs.

If there is anything scientific training gives you, it’s the ability to apply the scientific method to almost any question you approach. And THAT is a powerful thing. This is the only reason a move from a PhD program in biomedical engineering to a PhD program in mass communication is even possible. That and a flexible mind. Believe me when I tell you, I didn’t take a lick of English, writing or mass communication in undergrad. I avoided those courses like the plague. I believe I got by with a whopping humanities course load of two: psychology and theatre and my first ‘B’.

But I enjoy research most when I see the big picture. I enjoy it when I can talk to people about problems they are seeing in the real world, like a struggling-to-survive science journalism ecosystem, and learn more about those problems in order to help solve them. I enjoy it when the research has meaning for me and for the people I interact with. I enjoy putting my expertise into all the different facets of research: designing the study, carrying it out, collecting the data, analyzing the data, sharing the data and translating the data into meaningful narratives for other researchers and science communicators. I enjoy sharing knowledge and co-creating knowledge with people who aren’t necessarily scientists themselves, because they have insights that I don’t.

You see, being the ‘lab rat’ who created the nanoparticles and then handed them off, like a cog in a well-oiled research machine, was not ‘research’ to me. It was work. Which is fine, but it wasn’t work that used all those different parts of my brain that I’d been training for so long – the designing, the problem-solving, the interpreting, the writing, the storytelling. The creativity.

Jason Snyder from Washington, DC, United States. Wiki.

Why do we so often partition research and practice? Get a M.S. if you want to go into the ‘real world’ afterwards, we say. Get a PhD if you are ready to do nothing but research (and ideally stay in academia), we say. Why are these even real dichotomies?

I started a PhD in mass communication because I wanted to be immersed in the communication aspects of science. I wanted to live and breathe science communication, to learn as much as I could as a ‘late bloomer’ in this field. And if that included doing research in science communication, I was ready for it!

Being a PhD student who studied science communication but didn’t practice science communication was never my plan. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t go for a PhD in this field if my goal was to become a better science communicator, or a better science blogger, or a better science journalist.

I guess you could say I’ve been asked a lot of variations on the question, ‘Why would you go and do that?’

And the answer, as always, is because I feel like it. Because something inside of me has always screamed for not just risk-taking, but a balance of interests. And because darn it, why can’t I do it all? And why can’t you?

If there is one thing I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: Don’t follow all the rules. Don’t listen to every piece of advice. If you are a PhD student, spend a good portion of the time you are *supposed* to be spending on research doing things you are passionate about tangential to your research. And if your career decisions make sense to no one by yourself, you might be onto something!