A Reading Diet for the Writer

Whenever people discuss “science communication”, they generally talk about it in terms of the main outputs: writing and speaking. Of course, this emphasis on outputs makes perfect sense. After all, a communicator uses words, pictures, and whatever else is appropriate (even interpretive dance) to convey ideas. But one thing that I think science communicators shouldn’t underestimate is the importance of reading broadly.

If you’re doing research, it’s far too easy to get sucked into the endless collection of literature within your particular field of study. In my graduate student days, I always had mounds of printed PDFs sitting on my desk in the lab, along with another pile of papers sitting on the floor of my apartment. I had such a constant flow of papers that were relevant to my research area that I barely had the time to read anything else.

Scholarly reading beyond a single field has its challenges. The choice is overwhelming nowadays, so how can you be more efficient and always read the most interesting, high-quality material? It takes some time and effort to pinpoint the types of material you’re interested in and how to get it. The tried and true methods (i.e., PubMed searches) are reliable, but if you’re not looking for something highly specific, it’s actually pretty easy to quickly add some diversity to what I’ll call the “reading diet”.

The main tool that I should mention is Twitter. I joined Twitter during the second year of my Master’s, and only then did I start to regularly read articles from other fields. I didn’t begin using Twitter with the intent to read broadly. Up until then, I’d been resistant to joining yet another social media network (which I assumed was only filled with inane status updates), but I ended up being convinced by a friend who had a wide interest in science and had had fruitful Twitter conversations with other academics.

The value of Twitter started to become more obvious to me after I followed my neuroscience heroes: Oliver Sacks, Adrien Owen, and the like. Then I followed the rest of the typical science crowd: journal publishers, news outlets, organizations, societies, bloggers, and journalists. And so I was hooked. Since then, the benefits have been quite remarkable: in addition to learning more about new research, I was able to learn an incredible amount about the culture of science, the world of scientific publishing, and much more.

As long as you’re following enough accounts with a lot of regular, high-quality content, Twitter is great for the passive discovery of research news, blog posts, and scholarly papers. The relative proportions of links to these that you see on your feed would be determined by the types of accounts you follow. After everything is set up, you literally have interesting links thrown at you whenever you care to tune in, so it becomes quite easy to supplement your reading with new stuff via Twitter.

However, there is always an element of randomness, and the transience of tweets means that if you’re not tuned in 24/7, you’ll inevitably miss something good (unless it goes viral and is re-tweeted by many people). For this reason, regularly following the RSS feeds of specific news sources and science communication blogs is probably a good idea, and this ensures that you always end up knowing something about new research in various areas.

I’m passionate about the field of science metrics (which deals with new ways to measure research impact) and also do a lot of writing as part of my job at Altmetric, so of course I should mention that there are also ways to balance your reading diet using “altmetrics”, also known as alternative metrics. (To learn about altmetrics, you can read the “Interactions” series that I write as the blog editor at Altmetric.) Ranking articles by they attention they receive and filtering by topic gives you lists of “crowdsourced” things to read, bypassing the issue of missing transient tweets. I’m obviously biased, but I genuinely feel that tools like the Altmetric Explorer and the site SciCombinator (which runs on the same data) are some of the most powerful altmetrics-based ways to discover articles that are worth reading.

Now, to get back to science communication. First of all, I haven’t done any formal training in writing since high school, so I can’t claim to be a professional of any sort. But from my point of view, it doesn’t matter if I’m writing a thesis, a journal article, or a blog post: reading a lot of different things (even if they’re not related to what I’m writing) helps me to write better. Reading almost seems to prime my mind for language, helping me to find the right words and phrasing. Most importantly, reading broadly helps me to put things into perspective and can sometimes even lead me to draw unexpected connections between seemingly disconnected threads.

I keep mentioning this idea of a balanced reading diet, but to be honest, I’m not really sure what the ideal balance is. It must depend on the person, as well as on other factors, including profession, stage of career, research field, personal interests, and schedule. When I was in graduate school, my balance might’ve been an 80%-20% split between pain research-related and other articles. Now I focus less on pain research articles (although I keep up as best I can, as I’m still collaborating on papers and interested in the field) and more on the other stuff.

Whatever your exact reading diet is as a writer, I think that a great way to be productive when not writing is just to keep reading. Some might call it procrastination, but at least occasionally I find that the best way to get past writer’s block is to hit refresh on my Twitter feed. I’ve certainly been surprised at how often unrelated ideas could point the way to the ones that were just waiting to be written down.


My Other Lab Coat Is a Business Suit

Two weeks before embarking on a life-altering overseas move from Canada to the UK, most people would probably spend their time packing, selling possessions, taking care of finances, finishing up work commitments, and saying good-bye to friends. But if you’re a die-hard neuroscience enthusiast like I am, then you would do the aforementioned things while also participating in an intense 12-day long Summer Institute about the business side of neurotechnology.

1. Business, Neuroscience, Law, and Everything In Between

The Summer Institute on Neurotechnology, Innovation, and Commercialization (NICE), was held for the first time ever at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) from August 12 to 24, 2012. Organized by Dr. Aaron Newman, along with other faculty members of Dalhousie’s RADIANT (Rehabilitative and Diagnostic Innovation in Applied NeuroTechnology) program, the Summer Institute was designed to complement the traditional education of neuroscience trainees by providing a series of in-depth, interactive workshops relating to entrepreneurship, innovation, business, career development, and communication. The overarching goal of this multifaceted Summer Institute was to allow neuroscience students of all backgrounds and levels to develop the skills, knowledge, and tools to bring innovative ideas out of the lab into the world. As the RADIANT website puts it:

“NICE is targeted at science trainees who are fuelled by passion and curiosity about neuroscience, but are frustrated by the apparent obstacles between work done in the lab, and things that can have a real impact on people’s lives.”

The first cohort to participate in the Summer Institute was composed of 18 people, including myself. All of us possessed different undergraduate and graduate backgrounds in various fields, including neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and business. While most participants were studying at Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto, a few attendees were visiting from abroad. It was an amazing experience to get to befriend, interact with, and work alongside people with such diverse interests, ideas, and talents. The environment of the Summer Institute was extremely welcoming and friendly, and we all got to know each other better by relaxing over several great meals (including Dr. Newman’s epic lobster cookout last night) and social events. Hopefully we can all meet up again someday, and I invite all of my new friends to say hello if they ever find themselves in London.

Over 12 days, we soaked up the expertise of various visiting speakers, which included an impressive array of industry executives, lawyers, neuroscientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists. We were exposed to the processes of thinking creatively, conducting market research, creating business models, abiding by research ethics guidelines, protecting intellectual property, as well as communicating science through journalism. All of this served to give us a sense of how to bring science into business.

While I won’t get into the details of exactly what I learned during the course, a few workshops stood out for me. My favourite session was the one led by entrepreneurship professor Dr. Mike Goldsby (Ball State University, Indiana, USA), a charismatic, engaging, and inspiring speaker who certainly sparked the imaginations of everyone in the room. Dr. Goldsby proclaimed that, beyond the traditional view of entrepreneurs as businesspeople, entrepreneurs are artists and facilitators of new ideas. Arguing that the iterative process of bringing a new idea to market requires not only intuition and passion, but also skills in three broad domains (research, creativity, and expression), Dr. Goldsby gave us a crash course in starting a business, breaking down the factors that are critical for success. Although I don’t necessarily plan to start my own business now, what I took away from Dr. Goldsby’s workshop was a sense of the entrepreneurial mindset, which will directly help to shape my career path and boost my employability. Thinking of new career or school opportunities as entrepreneurial ventures would certainly not be a foreign idea to any graduate student who has ever had to apply for a scholarship. For example, the concept of “salesmanship” in business is virtually identical to “grantsmanship” in the academic sphere. Essentially, graduate students (or entrepreneurs) are trying to prove to a funding agency (or venture capitalists and angel investors) that, as newcomers to the science world (or the business world), they are capable and innovative enough to complete a project that will benefit society. Along with all the other skills that we need to develop during our scientific training, salesmanship/grantsmanship and being able to think in terms of the “big picture” are hugely beneficial, whether the goal is to stay in science or take things beyond the lab.

Another highlight for me was the “More Than Money” careers workshop held by the cognitive neuroscientist-turned-career-coach Dr. Mrim Boutla. Dr. Boutla’s unique approach for mapping out key priorities in life to inform future career moves really resonated with me, especially since I’m in the midst of making my transition from graduate school in Canada to working life in the UK. I have always said that my goal is to find a career in which I won’t look forward to the weekend so much. I want every day to be fulfilling. I want to love what I do, and not be counting down the seconds until Friday evening. As such, the concept of finding a career that is about more than the money really clicked with my outlook.

The RADIANT Summer Institute was packed with lectures and workshops by a whirlwind stream of experts, but we were also expected to apply what we had learned through an ambitious group project. We formed teams of 3-5 people and developed a novel business idea that we had to pitch to local venture capitalists and business leaders during a final “Dragon’s Den”-style session. I, along with 4 others, decided to target the issue of chronic low back pain, and proposed the development of special type of pain tracking/monitoring app. Over 12 days, we did market research by interviewing clinicians, researchers, and pain sufferers (locally and online via surveys), analyzed the competitive landscape, fleshed out the features of our product, then came up with a business model and customer acquisition plan, before finally putting together a presentation for the Dragons. The project was an intense exercise in teamwork, but overall an enjoyable and useful way to apply the knowledge we’d gained from the workshops. In the future, it would be useful for the organizers of the Summer Institute to break down the project into more focused milestones. From my team’s experience, the hectic nature of the course schedule, the order of the course topics, and the lack of cohesion between some of the speakers made it difficult to plan out project parts in advance. This resulted in too much stalling in the “brainstorming stage”, an excessive amount of market research, and a lack of emphasis on the financial planning. In spite of all the challenges, every team produced stellar business pitches that definitely seemed to impress the Dragons.

A RADIANT Summer Institute 2012 group shot. Photo courtesy of Dr. Aaron Newman.

2. The Issue of Science Communication

While we were very fortunate to be able to listen to such a varied group of experts, not every session was well-received by the attendees. The general consensus among our group was that the weakest session was the “Journalism 101” workshop given by several Canadian print and TV journalists, in conjunction with a Dalhousie biologist and the Science Media Centre of Canada. Given my interest in science communication, I was particularly looking forward to this workshop. The intent was to educate scientists on how to communicate their research findings to the public, but I feel that what ensued did not adequately achieve this goal. Only 1 of the journalists had any kind of formal training in the sciences, and so, instead of teaching scientists how to improve public outreach and education about science (e.g., how to tell the story effectively), the workshop ended up being more of a lecture on how scientists are inherently bad at communicating and need to make the deadline-driven lives of journalists easier by “being able to string a sentence together”.

I was disappointed in the brash and arrogant “band-aid” approach to scientific literacy that was conveyed during this workshop. Scientists and journalists may have completely different objectives, but they should both share the responsibility of ensuring that the public is well-educated and well-informed about science. It is certainly true that many scientists are bad at communicating their findings, but they need to be taught to do better. Since publicly-funded scientists owe it to the public to be able to articulate their findings clearly, they need to hone public speaking and writing skills, perhaps through mandatory communication courses during undergraduate- and graduate-level science training. On the journalism side, the effectiveness of scientific communication can be severely hampered by those “killer” deadlines, which lead to a dangerous reliance on minimal background research, inadequate fact-checking, and biased sources. From the workshop, it seemed like some of the journalists regarded members of the general public as simple consumers of scientific news information. In effect, there is a lot of science reporting in Canada that ends up treating the general public like children with short attention spans, who must be placated with sexy, punchy stories without giving a real sense of research impact or a broader context. From an educational standpoint, this approach is condescending. As scientists, we must do our part to stimulate interest in our work so that we can change the way the public thinks about and discusses science as a whole. We need to ensure that non-scientists can always access clear, good quality, accurate, and well-balanced information. Science touches the lives of everyone on the planet and affects every aspect of modern society. Communicating science poorly or superficially does everyone a great injustice.

In the future, the Summer Institute would benefit from also bringing in other science communicators, such as curators of museum exhibits, medical writers and copywriters, science bloggers, science policymakers and ethicists, and even science teachers.

3. Why Every Neuroscience Student Needs to Take a Course Like This

Being a part of the RADIANT Summer Institute has been a great experience, and it was a perfect way to finish off my MSc in Pharmacology/Neuroscience at Dalhousie University. (Now I can honestly say that the words “competitive advantage valuation” will no longer make my eyes glaze over!) Below, I’ve drawn a little concept map of different skills that are useful in science. Prior to attending the Summer Institute, I wouldn’t have intuitively considered salesmanship and creativity (innovation) to be essential skills for scientists to have. It turns out that these two skills are as important as lab or communication skills. In the constantly shifting career landscape, it will become increasingly important for scientists to understand the intersection of science with business, law, ethics, and communication. As a neuroscience student, even if you don’t create your own business, you still need to be able to understand a) how businesses grow and operate, and b) the “big picture” of how your scientific research could make an impact in the world. Hopefully, the RADIANT Summer Institute will be continue to be offered for many years to come. Congratulations to RADIANT, Dalhousie University, and Dr. Newman for developing a very useful adjunct to traditional neuroscience education in Canada.

The Five Week Farewell

The past week or so has sped by in a dizzying blur. In between successfully defending my Master’s thesis, celebrating with my lovely friends at the local watering holes, and entertaining an Ottawa friend during her first visit to Halifax, I have scarcely had time to catch my breath, let alone really think about the reality of the life that faces me now.

So here it is: I am no longer a graduate student. In 5 weeks, I’m going to bid farewell to Nova Scotia, uproot my existence in Canada, and move to London, England, where a new and presumably more exciting life awaits me. I currently have a few contacts in London (they can be counted on one hand), some meagre life savings (I reluctantly acknowledge that these must be converted from $ to ¬£), and an exhaustive list of “opportunities to explore” (scribbled on a sheet of graph paper). To prepare for this adventure, I’m downsizing the complexity of my life, purging every unnecessary or frivolous item in my possession, and keeping only the minimum that will be required for me to A) survive and B) look presentable.

Some days, I have boundless enthusiasm, chirping cheerfully about how freeing this adventure is going to be and how fun it’s going to be to try and “make it” (whatever that means) in one of the most impressive hubs of scientific activity in the world. Then, on other days, I am lightning-struck by a feeling of pure terror. What if I end up as a lunatic in a pub, drunkenly singing “Barrett’s Privateers” at top volume? What if I fail at everything I set out to do? What if I go broke?

Well, one thing is for certain – I’ve lived in Halifax for 2 years and haven’t managed to memorize the lyrics to “Barrett’s Privateers”, so the first worst-case scenario is out. At any rate, I’m fully anticipating that this adventure will be equal parts exhilarating and depressing (at times). I know that I will just have to be resourceful when I tackle new and surprising problems. Whatever happens, I’m determined to improve and enrich my life in new ways, and on top of that, I have a healthy appetite for change. So seeking happiness on another continent it is!

On a slightly unrelated note, I also have plans to expand my skills as a writer in my newfound spare time. Over the next year or so, I’ll be collaborating with my MSc supervisor in writing articles relating to the pain research we’ve conducted. Additionally, you can expect more frequent updates of this blog, with posts about various topics, ranging from my London adventure to anything that is currently striking my fancy in the field of neuroscience.

The Master’s: A Degree of Freedom?

Whenever a graduate student saunters down the hallways holding an enormous stack of paper and wearing an excessively wide grin, everyone else immediately understands what’s happened. This student has completed their thesis. That hefty document isn’t simply a culprit in the murder of a perfectly good tree – it’s the culmination of several years’ worth of lab research, and is the ticket to the grand finale of the degree, the oral defence.

Today, after nearly 2 years filled with coursework, sleepless nights, caffeinated beverages, toxic lab chemicals, sketchy lab coats, steep learning curves, experimental results that fell on the cusp of statistical significance, as well as several¬† exhilarating and meaningful discoveries (which made everything completely worthwhile), it was finally my turn to jaunt over to the departmental photocopier with a 145-page document in hand. Although I had spent the last few months writing furiously (in what was essentially a state of hyperfocus), and had neglected many other fun things in life (including this blog!), I had finally finished writing my Master’s thesis. My sigh of relief lasted for nearly a minute.

Neurons in the rat brainstem stained for tyrosine hydroxylase

Who knew that tyrosine hydroxylase-stained neurons in the brainstem could be this beautiful? If the science thing doesn’t work out, I may have a future in art. Move over, Jackson Pollock!

And yet, after all the hard work that I put in to my degree, I have been forced to critically evaluate the question “what is the worth of a Master’s degree?” Last year, a guest lecturer visiting from the United States met with graduate students in our department and declared (much to our collective chagrin) that the only students worth training as researchers were those who were committed to pursuing a PhD degree only. This professor argued that 2-year Master’s research programs were too short for any “meaningful” work to be conducted, and that investing in a PhD student who was “serious” about science would allow supervisors to reap the appropriate benefits in terms of research output. It appears that some believe that the Master’s degree is simply a relic of old academic career trajectories that deserves to be phased out of modern graduate education. Conflicting interests clearly play a role in this view. Supervisors may be more inclined to keep well-trained (and cheap) personnel in their labs, whereas graduate students may wish to seek different opportunities that cater to their own career paths and interests.

While it may be an uphill struggle (or impossible) to land certain science jobs if one lacks a PhD, is a Master’s degree actually useless? Given that I’m only a few weeks away from completing a Master’s research degree, I’m obviously very biased about this topic. However, I believe that this degree has been valuable in my own development as a pain researcher, and also as a scientific writer. While I learned various transferrable neuroscience techniques, my most worthy accomplishments were that I learned how to THINK, ANALYZE, and PROBLEM SOLVE (often on a very restricted budget!). These skills are useful in any endeavour. In terms of research output, I felt that I had a sufficient amount of time to undertake and complete two separate research projects. (The “meaningfulness” of the work will be judged when I submit my first manuscript for publication!)

One of my peers likens the Master’s degree to a “mini-PhD”, because we are getting the whole experience of being truly immersed in research. We experience our fair share of successes and failures. To cope with the daily grind in between, we must stay interested in what we are learning about. We can be just as passionate about our projects as a PhD students are, only we must complete everything on a compressed timeline. Of course, it will mean that our supervisors will need to find other students to fill the void when we leave, but for our careers, the compactness of this degree gives us the flexibility to gain new experiences in other labs (or even other fields) without compromising the development of our research abilities. Ultimately, this is a degree of freedom (pardon the statistics pun), which allows one to either specialize in a particular field, or pursue something else that is more personally fulfilling.

So how will having a Master’s degree in Pharmacology and Neuroscience prepare me for what comes next? The answer, at this point, is unclear. But in less than 9 weeks, I will be propelled from my cozy graduate student lifestyle into the vast, uncharted wilderness that is The Real World. After months of careful deliberation and planning, I’ve chosen to enter reality (read: the work force, at least for now) as a Canadian in London, UK, and have obtained a 2-year UK work permit to make this all happen. Of course, I love science enough to want to pursue a PhD – however, choosing the right program is not a decision that I want to make lightly. Until I find a suitable program and research topic that fits with my specific goals, interests, and needs, I want to soak up as many new experiences relating to neuroscience and science communication as I can. London, it seems, is a great place to start looking for these experiences. And it really is time to take my brain outside of the lab, because there is so much else that is going on in the world.

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