Category Archives: Training

Learning to write

It’s terrible to admit: I didn’t learn to write until I was in college. My freshman year at a liberal arts school was brutal – but by the end of four years, this science major managed to catch up. (Look at me now, Ma!) The difficult memories of writing tutors and tears resurfaced when I read an article in The Atlantic on teaching analytical writing in high school. Oh, how I wish I had been taught to write in high school!! All I remember is stacks of note cards I was supposed to assemble into paragraphs for English class essays. Despite my embarrassing beginnings, though, I decided to become a professional writer/editor.

Today, even though I consider myself somewhat experienced, I constantly seek out professional development opportunities–taking seminars, reading the literature, going to professional meetings–not only to stay current on the issues within my field, but also to make me a better writer. I recently took an online science writing course from Stanford that was offered through Coursera (along with many of my medical writing and editing peers). It would be an understatement to say it was a great experience.  I consider the notes I took during the class to be priceless, and I am amazed at how often I go back and refer to them in my everyday work. It reminded me of how important it is to return to the basics, even when I consider myself to be a veteran writer. I would recommend the first few weeks of the class to anyone who writes – not just those who write in the sciences.

Reasoning, arguing, and biomedical writing

Now that I’ve completed the Writing in the Sciences course on Coursera (and received my official certificate, yay me!), I decided to take a course called Think Again: How to Argue – along with 72,000 other people around the world. I originally signed up to learn how to argue politics more civilly with my family-who-supports-the-other-party. But as the class moves through week 2, I’m realizing how much the concepts taught in this class also apply to my professional life as a biomedical writer/editor.

For example, take “the problem of infinite regress” and “authoritarian assurances.” These concepts are the basis for some of our universally accepted writing practices, such as why it’s better to cite the primary reference rather than a review. But they also explain the larger value of skepticism, why all research results should be questioned and tested, and at what point the transition is made from experimental results to accepted fact. “When can I be assured that what has been reported is true?” “What is the standard for trusting the source enough to be assured that something is true? Is it enough that the person who is saying it is considered an authority or is citing an authority? Or is it the institution where the work was done? Or the journal that published it? Or the number of other studies that produce the same results?” The upshot — I am more aware of instances when assurances (research results) suddenly turn into givens (facts). And when this happens, why it is critical to look deeper into the literature before citing it in my writing.

If you’re not bored yet, I have one more thought: one concept that caught my professional writer’s attention this week was “guarding the premise” – making your premise weaker so that it is more likely to be true and less likely to raise objections. I think this might be the reason why scientists (including me) are taught to use the word “may” in their writing (and why the Writing for the Sciences instructor tried to beat that out of me with strong verbs and active voice).

Needless to say, this class has gotten my mind going on the anatomy of an argument and how humans reason. I guess I should have taken more philosophy classes when I had the chance as an undergraduate?

Addicted to learning

Am I crazy? Don’t I have enough on my plate already? Thanks to my AMWA colleagues (I’m looking at you KOKedit!), I was introduced to the world of free online courses at Coursera. Essentially, Coursera has enabled my addiction to school. Since graduating, I’ve often mentioned that it would be nice to go back to school – and now I can for free. I’m a little more than halfway through a science writing course from Stanford and in week 3 of a genomics course from U Penn, and as much extra work as it is, I am having a blast.

The writing course in particular has been a priceless experience. Great tips, great exercises, just an overall great refresher on how to write better.

The genomics class is making me work hard – it’s poking that part of my brain that has been dormant for a decade – the part that remembers homework and writing papers. But I love it. I might even be a better student now than I was back then – but maybe that’s because the stress level is a little lower. I get a certificate if I complete the course with a decent grade, but the most valuable part of all this is the access to the class content. It’s learning for learning’s sake, and that’s just enjoyable.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t sign up for too many at a time…

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.

Training grants: I had no idea…

I just finished working on an NIH training grant (T32) for the very first time, and I have to say, I had no idea.

First off, a definition: the NIH T32 grant mechanism is “the primary means of supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral research training to help ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles related to the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research agenda.” Okay, so NIH is putting funds toward training tomorrow’s scientists. I can understand that.

So what was I floored by? Not just how involved the preparation of a training grant is, how many tables there are, and how much information is requested from the NIH (and it is truly immense), but that NIH-funded training programs at academic institutions rely on the success of their graduates and fellows. And that “success” is very precisely defined and quantified. From the T32 parent FOA, here are the scored review criteria for the program’s training record:

  • How successful are the trainees in completing the program?
  • How productive are trainees in terms of research accomplishments and publications?
  • How successful are trainees in obtaining further training appointments, fellowships, and career development awards?
  • How successful are the trainees in achieving productive scientific careers, as evidenced by successful competition for research grants, receipt of honors or awards, high-impact publications, receipt of patents, promotion to scientific leadership positions, and/or other such measures of success?

As a grantwriter, none of this should have surprised me. But my first reaction was, “Wow, I bet my institution’s program directors cringe when they have to add my information to their tables.” My second reaction was, “At least I am nearing the 10-year mark, so they won’t have to put my information in their tables for much longer.” I published 3 papers and several reviews and textbook chapters and completed the PhD program, so that’s at least something, but I promptly left academia to be a biomedical writer. Oops. At least now I know one of the reasons why professors shake their heads sadly when they watch their graduate students leave academia…but that’s being cynical, so anyway…

After getting over my initial emotional and somewhat defensive reaction, I started wondering how much (or how little) graduate students on training grants really know about where their stipends and tuition come from. I knew I was on a training grant at two different points during my time in graduate school, but other than that, nada. Like all students, I knew I had to publish, present my work at meetings, and participate in journal clubs and seminar series in order to graduate. But I had no idea that these performance expectations were specifically associated with training grant funding or that my personal success would have an impact on future training grant funding for the institution. I didn’t know that my recruitment and enrollment in the program were just as crucial for me and my career as they were for the institution and its future in graduate training.

I wonder how much of this information is ever shared with trainees. Are trainees curious about this, or did they, like me, have their nose down at the bench, blinders on, just working towards the next paper, meeting abstract, and eventually, their degree? Of course, graduate trainees are encouraged to “succeed,” but I wonder if they realize just how much the institution depends on them to succeed and to do so in very specific ways (see list above). I think that even though it might not change how hard a graduate trainee works, it is surely helpful to let them take a look inside the machine and understand the importance of their own training success on the program as a whole.

In the end, working on a T32 helped me appreciate how graduate programs are judged by the NIH, the criteria that are used to measure success, and why graduate trainees are encouraged to stay in research. Which is good for a me to know as a grantwriter, even if I had no idea during graduate school.

On becoming an expert

I had a great afternoon and evening with my fellow Chicago-area AMWA colleagues last week. We don’t meet often, and probably recognize each other more by our listserv postings than by sight. Naturally, we all must introduce ourselves, share our backgrounds, and add our two cents on a particular topic within the biz. I’m not sure when this happened, and I don’t particularly see myself as one, but somewhere along the way, I became an expert. I was actually asked for my opinion more than once about my work, my business, and current controversies and topics within our field. But I’m still learning! How can I be an expert?

Maybe it’s my accumulated writing experience, in academic writing, continuing med ed, healthcare comm, and now as a freelance business owner?But experience doesn’t necessarily make me an expert. Experience makes me a veteran–what makes an expert is the ability to learn from past/present experience, apply new knowledge, and continue to seek out new experiences.

And expertise is relative, isn’t it? There are certainly more expert-y experts than I (I was sitting next to one at dinner), and I might be considered an expert in certain areas and a complete novice in others. I lie somewhere on the continuum for any number of skills within medical writing and editing. And anyway, can someone become the absolute expert of anything? Isn’t there always room for improvement? I think so.

Which brings me back to the idea of my very first post – time debting (Happy blogiversary to me!). Really, it’s investing in myself and my development as a professional medical writer/editor, beyond the experience of writing and editing that I get paid to do. There are always areas where I need improvement, and it is essential that I stay plugged into the conversations and topics of the day within my field. In a nutshell: my professional development is as important as my background and experience. No matter how many years of experience I have within medical writing/editing, there will always be a need to continue learning, hone my skills, and accumulate and apply new knowledge.

So, even though it’s non-billable, I try to spend at least an hour a day keeping up with the latest news and topics in medical writing and interacting with my peers online. There are many free resources online, but I will pay for certain types of continuing education as long as I can justify the expense with some tangible benefit to me as a writer/editor or business owner. Here are a few of the resources I tap into:

LinkedIn groups – Sometimes there are really good discussions (though you might have to wade through some spammy posts), and they are a great place to hear about new topics and ask your colleagues for advice or opinions. You can sign up for the once-a-week digest, rather than getting your inbox inundated with updates all day long.

Twitter – Even if you just lurk, you can still learn a lot. (Though I highly recommend tweeting as well.) I (and the accounts I follow) use Twitter to share interesting articles and resources, and I tend to post about my love of science maps and art.

AMWA listservs – These are truly invaluable resources for AMWA members. Enough said.

Blogs – I read a few blogs posts a day, and follow blogs from researchers, doctors, other bioscience and medical writers and editors, journals, and professional associations. The posts usually lead me to other interesting blogs, articles, or links that I can share with my peers.

Journals – specifically, the AMWA Journal and Science Editor from the Council of Science Editors.

Meetings – AMWA of course. I can’t say enough about how much you can absorb by attending the annual meeting. There are also other meetings out there, both national and regional, where you can meet and learn from your professional peers.

Training – this fall, I am taking a grantwriting course at Northwestern, and next spring, I’m planning to attend the NIH Regional seminar.

In which my career path becomes a little bit clearer…

As I had hoped, attending AMWA 2010 last week solidified some of the thoughts I touched on in my post on officially branching out into grant writing. And I’ve come to the realization that I may actually be on the right track here, career-wise. Actually, this post brings together some thoughts from older posts on marketing science and storytelling in academic writing. Not sure why it took me so long to connect the dots, but I finally did. I’ll chalk it up to lack of sleep.

So let’s take a look at my career path thus far. Seven years in grad school (and 2 summers in undergraduate research programs), where I wrote oodles–yes, oodles–of abstracts, posters, manuscripts, grants, textbook chapters, etc, etc. Then 3 years in continuing medical education, writing physician and nurse education programs and learning how to craft a complete story, insert fair balance, and meet specific educational needs of a clearly identified target audience. Now, with 4 or so years in healthcare communications/advertising, I can add the skills of marketing, messaging, identifying target audiences, developing tactics, and strategic planning to my resume. And through all of this, I have been a freelance business owner, stumbling through financial planning, business planning, tax law, and return on investment.

And where has that led me? I know you just…can’t…wait… To becoming a professional grant writer and editor! Ta Da!

No, seriously. I suppose this epiphany might be a little more exciting to me than to others. But I realized that grantwriting draws on my academic background in life sciences and my ad hoc post-graduate clinical education and combines it with the skills I have developed in crafting educational narratives (from CME) and using persuasive, targeted language (from healthcare communications). So here I am, with a background and skill set that seem to fit well with grantwriting and editing.

So what’s the next step? There is a certification for grant professionals out there, but I think that’s at least a few years off. I recognize that I still have a lot to learn, particularly about the inner workings of the funding agencies and the review process, and I will make good use of the recommended reading list we were given at the NIH grant writing workshop at AMWA 2010.

Of course, if anyone wants to share their tips or send me some resources, that would be great. Now, I’ve gotta figure out how to retool my tagline…but that’s a whole ‘nother post!