Tag Archives: research

What I do

I have been meaning to do this post for a while, but finally got down to it after reading an excellent post describing substantive editing, and another post on the importance of building off your unique set of skills and background. For some reason, I’ve often struggled to describe exactly what I do, beyond saying I am a biomedical editor. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just fails to capture the nuance. I could get really philosophical about what it means to be an editor, but Rich Adin over at An American Editor has done a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and thinking–really struck me.

So back to my purpose. How do I describe what I do? Of course, what I do differs based on my client, so I will focus on what I feel I do best – scientific grant and manuscript editing. There are really several different levels of editing going on here.

1) Basic editing: Checking spelling and grammar, fixing awkward sentence structures, simplifying the language, and checking verb tenses and parallelism. This is a part of the “mechanics” pillar of editing.

2) Substantive editing: checking the flow and logic. How is the story being told? Is it clear what has been done and what needs to be done? It is clear what hypothesis is being tested and why? Are the right headers being used to help the reader through the document? Obviously this is part of the “thinking” pillar.

My goal here is to make the paper or grant proposal something that the reader wants to read, that the reader actually enjoys reading, rather than just skimming the abstract and figure legends. As a graduate student, I read many, many, many papers, but there were only a few that sucked me in because they were just written so well. There was a clear explanation up front about why the research was being done, each experiment in the results section flowed logically into the next, and the discussion put all the data in perspective, in the context of what is already known. I almost felt like I could see the authors at the bench, working through the data, designing the next experiment. Those are the papers I want my clients to publish. The same thing goes for grants – if anything is confusing or convoluted, the grant reviewer is going to pass it over. I edit grant proposals so that they are as clear and logical as possible, so that the reviewer immediately understands and appreciates the problem that needs to be solved, sees that the proposed aims will answer a clear set of relevant questions, and agrees that the methods used and people involved are up to the challenge.

3) Content editing: Another one for the “thinking” pillar. This is where my unique background fits in, where I can look at the experiments and the results and think about what conclusions are being drawn and whether they are being communicated accurately. Is the experimental design sound? What are the caveats? Are the statistics appropriate? Are the proposed experiments going to test the stated hypothesis? Have the data proven or disproven the stated hypothesis?  How do the data compare to what’s been done before? What are the implications for future basic or translational research? For research grants, I also draw on my background in promotional writing – will the science as presented convince the reviewer that this is a worthy problem (or gap in knowledge) to tackle and that the proposed experiments will provide the data needed to solve the problem?

4) Formatting: This also falls under mechanics – it’s making sure that the manuscript follows the journal’s editorial rules, and that the grant proposal follows the structure stipulated in the funding announcement. There are a ton of rules and regulations for preparing federal grants, and even more embedded in specific funding announcements.

So that is what I do…and now I can just direct friends and family here when they ask (hi mom!).


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?

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.

2011 Freelance Retrospective

Wow. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The last three months have been absolutely crazy-busy. Which isn’t necessarily bad for a freelance. Looking back, it took me years to decide to finally take the plunge and become a full-time freelance, but only a few months to reach full capacity. As much as I love what I do, though, there is only one of me. And one of the hardest things for me to realize this year was that I do indeed have an upper limit of what I can handle. There comes a point when the brain just cannot function, let alone edit complex grant proposals, without adequate sleep. So as this year comes to an end and I start planning my 2012 project schedule, I hope I can remember the perils of being too busy, and that I will give myself a more realistic workload, even if that means even saying “no” once in a while. {{gasp!!}}

I’ve also come to realize that most of my clients are not one-project clients; again, not such a bad thing for a freelance. I am gratified and incredibly honored that the researchers I work with trust my ability and judgment, enough so that they come back to me with more projects. As I near a decade of providing editorial support for these researchers, I’m starting to realize that I have been a witness to their careers, as they are published, awarded funding, take on new post-docs and new graduate students, and shift their reasearch focus. It’s helped me to see the overall picture – the entire research program that stretches out over time and subtly shifts based on each new discovery – rather than a single research project or single manuscript. You know, I kinda like this view…I think I’ll try my hardest to keep it.

Finally, I’ve learned that having at least a few months’ pay in the bank as a cushion is not just a “nice-to-have” for a freelance. It’s essential. I simply hate waiting to be paid – the mental and emotional strain is incredibly disruptive, to the point where I start second-guessing my decision to go freelance. So next year, one of my highest priorities is to build up a proper savings account and remove that source of stress once and for all.

These are the things I have learned this year, things I will need to improve upon in 2012.

So what have I accomplished in 2011? The biggest thing is that I finally decided to go freelance full-time. I set up a proper office, with two computer screens, a kneeling chair, and time tracking software. I quickly realized that marketing myself would not be as easy (or hard) as setting myself up on ifreelance or with cold calling; in fact, cold calling would never work for the kind of services I provide. I turned instead to my blog, and then promptly discovered that I was too busy to post as regularly as I’d like! (Another thing I’d like to change in 2012). But I did gain a few new clients — who found me and decided to take a chance on me based on my blog posts, of all things. And I’ve found myself in the position of having to turn down projects. I went to the AMWA  Annual Conference in October and finished my basic skills certificate, and took a grantwriting course at Northwestern that was truly invaluable.

Goals for 2012? I listed a few above: more realistic scheduling, building strong relationships with my clients, and building a financial cushion. Others include attending the NIH grant course in Indianapolis in the spring, updating to EndNote X5 and gaining at least one more client-researcher. And taking one two-week vacation during which I will not work. At all. Even at night. I think that last one might be the most challenging goal to achieve, actually.

So that’s it. The freelance biz is up and running, a bit rocky at times, but it’s running. I think I might call 2011 a successful, busy, and tiring year for The Tobin Touch. But an extremely gratifying year, professionally speaking. I hope to get another post in before the end of the year, but if not, hope everyone has a great holiday and all good things in 2012!!

Marketing Science? Eeeew!

How dare I? Right?

I’ve been wanting to write about how my experience in CME and healthcare marketing has made me a better academic writer, but this post has been really challenging for some reason. Maybe because it treads into that no-man’s land between the pure, untainted world of lofty scientific endeavor and the seemingly sly, underhanded world of marketing and advertising. So this post rambles. You’ve been warned.

When I climbed down from the ivory tower and started working as a medical writer in CME, I quickly had to learn about marketing science. CME is not marketing, you say? Come on now. There is a reason that CME is seen (at least by some) as tarnished – even indirect contact with pharma appears a bit…unseemly. But however you might feel about CME, that was where I first learned about key (educational) messages and crafting a story that starts in science and ends in patient care.

Stay with  me now…I swear there’s a point in here somewhere.

Two recent posts on grant writing got me thinking about the topic of storytelling and marketing in academic writing.

The first post was by Prof-like Substance, who explained exactly how your grant proposal gets reviewed. (Kinda reminded me of “I’m Only a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock.) But the part that got me was this:

“Undivided attention to your proposal is probably unlikely. What have you got that is going to capture my attention and keep me from answering that phone or email? Is your proposal going to make me tell one of my grad students to come back later with their problem?”

Ah – you mean grant writing takes a little bit of marketing…Ugh. How gauche! Good science doesn’t need to be sold, yes, yes, I know.  But it’s, like, über-competitive out there, dude – we all know that. Furthermore, the NIH seems to be refocusing on the “H” with their new grant format, and it’s become crucial that researchers find a way to communicate—and succinctly at that—how their particular bit of research might be ultimately applied to improving human health. The story’s origin is certainly the breathtaking science, but within that very limited research plan section, the rest of the story has to be laid out in a compelling and logical way that takes the reviewer all the way to the bedside. Even the best scientists, who might have the most amazing, innovative ideas that will lead to breakthroughs that simply revolutionize healthcare, may not be able to communicate their ideas in a way that compels a reviewer to stay riveted to the page. Or compels a funding agency to help support that absolutely groundbreaking research plan. (I think the only superlative I left out was “earth-shattering.” Darn.)

Then I read “The Art of Grant Getting” over on Naturally Selected, which spelled out four obstacles to getting a grant funded. Take a gander at obstacle number four:

“4. That “marketing” your work is somehow underhanded or bad. Let me assure you: all truly successful scientists (or at least those with funding) know a thing or two about marketing.  They may not label it “marketing” but the name doesn’t matter.  That’s what it is.”

The post at Naturally Selected went on to list some strategies to overcome obstacles to successful grant funding – one of which was KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Rule number uno in marketing. So it may seem icky to have to “market” your science, but even a grant proposal must have clear, key messages that target a specific audience. In the end, funding agencies want reassurance that they are investing their relatively teeny tiny budget allocation in the best, most innovative, most impactful research that will advance human health.

So, I suggest that marketing science doesn’t somehow imply deceit, but rather a process of careful thinking about how to tell your science story so that it gets heard. Call it marketing-lite, I guess. It’s necessary, not icky. I think the shorter NIH grant format actually forces researchers to dig themselves out from the minute details of each and every proposed experiment, and asks them to take a step back to identify the overall research direction, the long-term goals, and the larger potential impact of their work. (I realize that I’m probably placing myself in the minority by admiting I like the new format, especially because the change was so drastic, and put much less emphasis on the experiments themselves. I guess I really have turned to the Dark Side.)

And that brings us back to my original point – why my experience outside academia, in CME, healthcare communications, and (gasp!) advertising, has made me a better academic writer and editor. Eight years away from the tower, I have been able to wade out of the experimental weeds and step back to appreciate the larger themes of innovation, impact, and plication to health in a grant proposal.  Man, that tower is really really tall – climb down here and take a look.

Did I sell out? Nope, but thanks for asking.

Okay, so this is as close to a rant that you are going to get from me, and it’s more of just a setting-the-record-straight type of rant, since I don’t rant. Okay, so I don’t rant often. It rarely happens that I rant. Oh, never mind.

This pseudo-rant was touched off by a series of posts on the overproduction of PhDs here, here, and here. Granted, the authors come from various scientific fields, each of which has its own issues in terms of the prospective job market, but even so, I thought I would tell my story, since I appear to be one of those out-of-luck PhDs that might have been overproduced.

First, a little context for my non-rant. I decided to get a BS in biology because I fell in love with biology in 7th grade and I never looked back. As an undergraduate, I was a bio major, chemistry minor. I was NOT a pre-med. I started as a freshman with no intention of taking the MCATs, and I never did. I graduated magna cum laude, did well enough on my GREs to get into 3 pretty decent grad schools, and was on my way to a PhD. Again, for the record, grad school was NOT my plan B if I didn’t get into med school. I CHOSE to become a scientist because I love science. Not because there is anything wrong with a career in medicine or because I wouldn’t have cut it in med school. It just didn’t inspire me like scientific research did.

Defending my path to grad school actually continued through grad school: right before my thesis defense, I happened to be at a doctor’s appointment when the doctor asked me, “Why didn’t you just go get an MD rather than a PhD?” “Because I didn’t want one,” I said. He just shook his head sadly. I gave up trying to justify it. I also get it at the communications agency. A few years ago, one coworker came to me with a medical question, and after insisting that I’m not that kind of doctor, he said something like, “But you’re so smart, why didn’t you just get your MD?” Arrrrgh.

Then came my decision to pursue a career in writing after grad school. Like I said in a previous post, it became clear to me very early into grad school that I did not want to stay in academia. Not because I stopped loving science and research, or because I couldn’t hack it at the bench, or because my advisors couldn’t persuade me otherwise, but because I realized that running a lab; writing grants; managing post-docs, grad students, undergrads, and staff; handling teaching responsibilities and committee commitments; etc, etc, would NOT make me happy. (I went to a liberal arts school for undergrad, where science majors are required to take core courses like philosophy and ethics, and Aristotle’s concept of happiness and the good life was one of those ideas that struck a chord and has been with me ever since.) Honestly, I just didn’t have the passion that it takes to pursue a career as an academic researcher.

But I was trained to think and communicate like one! Writing about science, thinking about science, planning and designing experiments, yes, those were things that I truly enjoyed and could do well. So when I was finishing up the last few experiments for my final paper and writing my dissertation, I also started learning as much as I could about the types of writing careers that were out there. Pharma, no. Advertising, no. Journalism, no. Education, yes. Academic writing, yes. And there you have it. I continued toward my CHOSEN career path in science and medical writing.

But I didn’t make the transition unscathed. I felt like I had to defend myself to my fellow grad students, post-docs, even some faculty (but not my advisor, and I am forever grateful for her unwavering support of my writing career). Like my own personal career gauntlet that I had to run through on the way out of the lab. One (well-intentioned) assistant professor even said he would hire me as a post doc, just to get me back in the lab, even though it was in a completely different field and I would have no clue what I was doing. It felt like he was trying to save me from my bad career decision. To this day I hear from academics: “Why did you leave? You seem pretty smart.” And from the communications agency side I get: “Why are you here? You seem pretty smart.” Again, arrrgh.

So yes, there probably is an overproduction of PhDs…if the only career path open to them is academia. Many students may enter grad school unaware of how bad the job market is in their particular field, and end up disappointed and defeated. But then there are those who get their PhD because they want to, because they love science and research, regardless of where they go after they graduate.

It is unfortunate that grad students are not aware of the low odds of getting an academic position after they graduate. But I think it’s even more unfortunate that grad students are not told about the many other ways they can apply the knowledge and experience that come with a PhD (and not because of a lack of interest in alternative careers: go here for a recent post on this and then here for a pretty comprehensive list of alternative careers for PhDs in the life sciences). Grad students and post-docs need to be made aware that these non-academic career paths are legitimate, challenging, and fulfilling, and they must not be made to feel as if they are selling out or not good enough if they take these paths.

Okay, no more ranting, I promise.

Write Young Grasshopper! Write.

I know I said my next post was going to be about marketing and writing, but I got sidetracked (things get busier as the school year begins) and then a few recent blog posts got me thinking back to my own experience with writing while in graduate school.

In this post, Dr. O explains why grad students shouldn’t feel like they need permission to write their dissertation (or to write in general, in fact):

“On the contrary, grad students should be continually writing throughout their thesis work, one results section at a time. For papers, if possible. If not, then for practice. Writing is an art, and it takes lots of practice. You understand your data and results better when you have time to write and reflect on them. Speaking on those results is important too, but unless you can convey your message on paper, you’re doomed.”

This advice was seconded here:

“Grad students, [writing]’s a great habit to get into RIGHT NOW–write a bit every day (or every week, if you’re like me and prefer to vomit papers up in  larger chunks)–just get into the habit of doing it regularly and you’ll be way ahead of the game when it comes to your thesis or dissertation.”

I wish I had received advice like this a little earlier in my grad school training, maybe even in year one. It actually took me a few years to cop on that one paper equals one chapter of my dissertation (I know, duh!).

So I’ll throw in my two cents here – I recommend that first-year grad students be required to write up what they accomplished after each lab rotation (even if it was very little), as if it were going to be submitted to a journal. I ended up developing my writing chops despite being clueless about how crucial writing and communication skills really are to being a successful scientist, because I actively sought out opportunities to write for my own reasons. But I don’t think this is true for most grad students, who are already completely overwhelmed with their experiments, lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, conferences, abstract submissions, self-doubt, sleeplessness, etc, etc, to be worried with whether or not they can or need to practice writing. For the grad students I knew, writing the paper often seemed like an afterthought at best, and at worst, like drudgery and punishment that required time away from the bench. So I think Dr. O has it right – writing should be happening all the time, not shoved aside until it absolutely must be done to meet an abstract deadline or submit a paper. More than that, I think all graduate students would benefit from formal training in manuscript writing and grantsmanship. Just a single quarter’s worth, one class.

Expanding on this theme in another post, Dr. O lamented the fact that grad student training tends to be a little light in the grantsmanship department. She went on to explain why grant writing seems like (is) such a Herculean task and why putting it off to the last minute is not a wise strategy.

When I joined the lab, my research project R01 funding had just been renewed for another 5 years, so I was able to pretty much keep my nose to the bench, and produce data, abstracts, and papers…until around my 4th year when it was time to start working on the competitive renewal. Wait…wha? I look back and picture myself coming up for air and then looking around to find myself on Mars. I had to learn pretty quickly about what goes into a grant submission. Blood, sweat, and a lot of tears, as it turned out. And I think some brain cells were sacrificed as well.

So I’ll add another three cents to make it an even nickel – immediately upon joining their thesis lab, grad students should be handed a copy of the grant(s) that is funding their research. It should be required reading. Students should have an understanding of where their research fits into the aims of the grant, how their data will support future grant applications and inform the direction of the next 5 years of research, as well as how the grant fits into the overall research goals of the lab. (In defense of my advisor, she excelled at sharing her vision with us in yearly State-of-the-Lab addresses.) While reading the grant will help grad students appreciate what grant writing entails, I would further suggest that every graduate student, whether or not they intend to pursue a career in academia, needs to help prepare a grant submission before they are allowed to graduate. (Sorry guys, it’s for your own good, I promise.)

In my post-graduate career as a freelance academic writer and editor, I have had plenty of experience preparing and consulting on grant applications. But I think I would have benefited from more formal training in writing and grantsmanship when l was a grad student.