Erica Brockmeier is a post-doctoral researcher in computational toxicology at the University’s Institute of Integrative Biology. She is also the lead writer of Science with Style, a weekly professional development blog for PhD students and early career researchers. You can follow her story of transitioning towards a career in science writing at @EKBrockmeier.
“I am a self-proclaimed Scrooge of sorts—certainly not the kind of person to become overly excited about the holiday season apart for the mulled wine and mince pies. The thing that I do really love about Christmas is that it’s a time of the year when we’re surrounded by stories. This self-proclaimed Scrooge has a great fondness for A Christmas Carol, along with looking forward to seeing one of the many December films out in cinema or telling anecdotes about life in the UK to friends and family back home in the US. Even outside of the holiday season, our lives are surrounded by stories. We cheer on our favourite movie characters or TV show contestants (as well as against the ones we don’t like particularly well). We can feel a strong connection and empathy for people whose stories remind us so much of our own, whether it’s our favourite fictional superhero or an inspiring person from history.
Science is not generally a topic we associate with the type of stories we connect to on an emotional level like those of our favourite protagonists. We might picture scientists as solitary, idea-driven machines, furiously working away at understanding the intricate questions of the universe. While science has become more open and more in recent years, this image of science and scientists that those standing outside the ‘Ivory Tower’ might have in their minds is the start of a potentially divisive story. In a year filled with fiery debates on Brexit and the US election, a dualistic ‘us versus them’ type of story has become the norm: Leave versus Remain, Democrats versus Republicans, Experts versus The People.
This sentiment was part of what fuelled my motivation to step into the offices of four researchers here at the University. The Institute of Integrative Biology (IIB) has been my place of employment for over two years, a place where researchers work across the breadth of the biological building blocks of life, everything from understanding genomes to the impacts of climate change. Even in my network of peers here in IIB, I felt that I only understood part of what our institute was all about. Last summer I took the opportunity through my role on IIB’s public engagement and communications committee to share the work done across our research themes and to highlight the research that forms the core of our institute.
Attempting to explain in a short written piece the ground-breaking work done by someone in a completely different field was a challenge on its own, especially in an institute where the work varies considerably just as you walk down the hallway. Thanks to the support from the passionate and enthusiastic PIs I interviewed, I found that I greatly enjoyed the task of putting together their stories, both the personal and the scientific ones. I learned about arthritis, bioengineering, salmonella, and landscape restoration from four professors who were more than keen to take time from their busy schedules to discuss their work to me.
It wasn’t just their latest publication or most recent findings from the lab that intrigued me: the stories of who our IIB researchers were and what it took them to reach that milestone, be it a paper or a new result, was inspiring and fascinating on its own. From the 5-year project that finally came together with beautiful results (‘A Tale of Two Salmonellas’) to the challenges of looking for permanent positions while as an early career researcher (‘Building better landscapes for wildlife’) it was clear that research isn’t something that happens overnight and that real progress takes a good deal of courage and fortitude. I also enjoyed hearing what drove professors to a life in research, from those driven by curiosity and technical challenges (‘Understanding molecular machinery‘) or to those whose work involved shifting towards medical applications in order to gain the opportunity to work more with people (‘Providing new hope to patients with difficult-to-treat Rheumatoid Arthritis‘).
But perhaps the biggest thing I realised through writing these pieces and speaking with these passionate researchers connects back to the idea of ‘Experts’ and ‘The People’ being separate groups. Just because scientists work on complicated questions or highly technical day-to-day activities doesn’t mean that their stories are less inspiring or less human. We all have dreams, hopes, aspirations, and families, even if what drives us might look more technical, difficult, or intimidating when you look at it closely.
I’m optimistic that science and scientists will continue to have a more open approach to the work that they do and will continue to bring in people without science backgrounds to hear about and discuss their work. There is still a gap in the academic culture in terms of understanding the importance of science communication and outreach, but I believe that scientists have and will continue to make great strides in demonstrating first-hand that it’s not ‘us versus them’, but that we’re all in this together.
As for my own story, my time spent here at the University has inspired me to transition into a career focused on science writing and communication. I greatly enjoyed being able to tell the stories of other scientists and seeing their passions become evident through their research. Crafting these posts also helped me realise that my own passions lie in telling these science stories more so than doing scientific research. As I look forward to drafting the next pages of my own story, I’m thankful for the career transition support that’s been provided by IIB, including the Johnston post-doctoral professional development award, and most importantly for providing me with an environment that encouraged me to find and pursue my own passions as an aspiring science communicator.”