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…

Descriptive vs. Experimental Research

Because I have this handy soapbox, I’m gonna use it. Here’s the thing. There is descriptive research and there is experimental research. Descriptive research on its own is not enough. You’ve got to get in there, change something, and see what happens. Just reporting on what you see under the microscope or on a blot is NOT hypothesis-driven science. Descriptive science is a starting point, it sets the baseline, the control state, what is known. Experimental research tests a hypothesis, which means altering a variable in the known system and seeing what happens – the result will lead you to reject or fail to reject either prove or disprove your hypothesis. Of course you’ll repeat the experiment in exactly the same way several times so you can be confident your results are statistically true. But then you’ll need to try changing something else, repeat, repeat, repeat, and so on.

In a research grant proposal (and I’m coming from the NIH perspective here), each aim should independently test your central hypothesis from different angles. Angles meaning using different methods or combinations of methods, or working at different levels (biochemical, molecular, cellular, tissue, organism, ecosystem, etc). What you learn in each aim will come together to shed light on the system you are studying.

Now, one of those angles might be descriptive, but I would argue that a purely descriptive aim is going to be your weakest aim. Devoting an entire aim to descriptive science breaks two rules in scientific grantwriting – descriptive science is not able to test your central hypothesis, and your aims must not depend on each other. (Because if one aim fails, there goes the entire proposal, and no agency will be interested in funding something so risky.) Any aim that is descriptive will be dependent on what you find in the other two aims.

The same descriptive vs. experimental idea applies to journal articles too. If your article is just descriptive, you’ve got half a manuscript. Sorry, but it’s true. The best, most compelling, field-advancing, paradigm-shifting articles are those that have a clear hypothesis, describe what is known (from descriptive science), and then describe a logical progression of changes made to the known and what happened. I know you’ve heard this before, but the best paper tells a story, leads the reader into the known system and the hypothesis, and then through each question, discovery, question, discovery, until the Discussion section brings the reader back around and gives some context. I know, some journals will accept purely descriptive articles, but in my experience, those are the smaller, second-tier journals. Not the Cells, Sciences, Natures, etc.

It’s getting more and more competitive out there – for research grant funding and publishing articles. So get in there. Get your hands dirty. Know your system then change it and see what happens.  Then change it again and see what happens. And if you need help telling your story, getting other people to understand exactly what it is you’re doing, I’ve got your back.

Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

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.