Well, How Did I Get Here?

To celebrate National Chemistry Week, the esteemed synthetic chemist blogger See Arr Oh put out a call for folks to describe to younger folks how they got where there are in the broad field of chemistry:

What do you do all day? What chemistry skills do you use in your line of work? How do you move up the ladder in chemistry? What do I need to do to be in your shoes?

The resulting answers from other bloggers — and any respondents, for that matter — will be compiled at his blog, Just Like Cooking, in what’s called a blog carnival. Specifically, contributors to blog carnivals are asked to respond to a theme or a series of questions. In this particular case, we are tagging our posts with the hashtag, #ChemCoach.

Here’s the list and below are my responses. You may find it helpful to play this Talking Heads video while reading my answers.

Your current job.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

How does chemistry inform your work?

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

The most important question to ask yourself - If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?

My current job

My official title is Director of Science Communications for the Nature Research Center (NRC) at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. I’ve only been in this job since January 2012. This position is jointly sponsored by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS) at North Carolina State University (“State” for the locals) where I have an appointment as Adjunct Associate Professor of English (faculty page). There, I teach a graduate course entitled, “Science Writing for the Media,” and will be teaching an basic news and reporting class for undergraduates in the spring. I also take interns at the Museum from State’s M.S. program in Technical Communication.

 

What do I do in a standard “work day?”

My job is to serve as a technical compliment to our Museum’s public information, public relations, and marketing team. My boss is NRC Director and well-known conservation biologist, Dr. Meg Lowman, also known simply as “Canopy Meg” for her pioneering work on the biodiversity of life in tree canopies.

Typically, my position would be occupied by a card-carrying journalist experienced in science writing. However, Meg and the Museum director, Dr. Betsy Bennett, envisioned this position as a scientist communicator, requiring that the candidate have a Ph.D. in a biological or chemical science with a track record of teaching, writing, and engaging the public from “K-to-99.”

Each day is different. The NRC wing was added to the Museum this past April to show the public “how we know what we know,” as a compliment to the traditional natural history museum that shows visitors “what we know.” This means sharing with the public all aspects of the scientific process. I’m part of a team that administers our scientific programming at the NRC in both our on-site restaurant/pub and the Daily Planet theater, a three-story 42-foot high multimedia learning space together with Curator of the Daily Planet, Brian Malow.

Multitasking. Credit: Russ Creech

Much of this work involves identifying scientists with special aptitude for talking directly with the public — Museum and other local scientists from universities and industry as well as scientists around the world who livestream into the Daily Planet to show audiences what they’re doing out in the field. I also work with our marketing and education team to book presenters at our weekly Science Thursdays program at that includes presentations and demonstrations of the science of food and foodmaking (beer, cheese, coffee), our traditional Science Cafés where we bring in scientists to talk about their work (but mostly answer questions from our audiences), and shorter “lightning talks” initiated by Brian. I promote these programs through our social media outlets such as our Twitter and Facebook accounts and write pieces on our programs for our website, newspapers, and magazines while also speaking about our science to Museum donors and advisory boards.

Looking at my desk right now, here’s what’s on my docket: I have a 1,600-word piece that I need to write for State’s research magazine about how our scientists work with research and education programs at State (it’s only 2-3 miles away); schedule a time to speak to a class on ethics in science communication; work with scientists who want to do an interactive weekend series of math exercises; recruit high schools around the state, country and world for a major scientific program we’re having in December; coordinating our role in this Saturday’s Awards Gala for the National Association of Science Writers; meeting about our new cell culture room; updating my own chemistry-related Daily Planet presentations on thermochromics, designer drug manufacture and detection, and the science behind this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry; grading stories from my graduate science writing class.

Frankly, I am the most exhausted and scattered that I’ve ever been. But I’ve also never been so fulfilled.

 

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

Everything, yet nothing.

I do not have a journalism degree or any formal science communication training. I’m a classically trained scientist who wanted to work in a drug company but ended up in academic pharmacology and drug discovery. I have a B.S. in toxicology, a Ph.D. in pharmacology, postdoc in medical oncology and endocrinology, and spent most of my career as an academic or research institute researcher and educator fighting for the same NIH grants as everyone else (my full story is on my About page).

But what I’ve always had is an interest in talking to people about my science. And I loved — and still love — my teaching.

In pharmacology, almost everyone you chat with has a direct connection to your science. I mean, who hasn’t taken a drug or one sort or another? Once I get past the fact that I don’t work at CVS, people are deeply interested in the medicines they take, why they have side effects, and why they work for some people and not others. So, I was already set up for my career to at least involve focus on the public understanding of science.

I pretty much took every opportunity I could to speak to the public even while an assistant professor, and was frequently called upon to talk to state politicians and donors to our cancer center when I was at the University of Colorado. I was fortunate to have my work covered by local TV and the Denver Post and my interactions with journalists were almost entirely positive. When I was in high school, I had thought about going to a trade school to be a radio disc jockey and have always been interested in the power of mass communication.

So when I moved to North Carolina in 2000, I was encouraged to seek out Joe and Terry Graedon of syndicated public radio show, The People’s Pharmacy, and Dr. Tom Linden, Director of the Medical and Science Journalism Graduate Program at the UNC-Chapel Hill. I was on the Graedons’ show a few times and Dr. Linden had me guest lecture in his classes and serve on the program’s advisory board. At that time, I was still had a lab and was trying to stay funded.

But then I read an article in The Scientist (1 August 2005) where pharma industry medicinal chemist Derek Lowe was talking about having a blog and wondering why more scientists weren’t engaged on that platform. So, I read blogs for a few months to see if my field was represented in this medium. Nope, it was pretty much just Derek in the (legal) drug space. By that December I had set up the original version of Terra Sig at Blogger and just started writing.

And this is what science writers have pretty much told me: just do it.

Within six months I was invited to the second wave of bloggers for the then-new ScienceBlogs.com network. The platform brought speaking gigs, interviews, and set me up in a network of scientists dedicated to reaching out to the public as well as professional science writers who wanted to engage with scientists. The networking inherent to being a blogger cannot be underestimated. I was also in North Carolina when these guys named Bora and Anton launched what’s now known as ScienceOnline from a local community effort Anton started called BlogTogether.

I had no idea if I could ever make a living at science communication. Journalism is just as competitive now as trying to score an NIH or NSF grant. But I was trying to at least plan to make writing a bigger part of my career.

By 2008, I had risen to be a full professor and department chair. Here I found something that did not suit me well: administration. I was in an odd position of having responsibilities but no resources or authority at a undergraduate-intensive school with an archaic document handling system. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have taken the job but that was the trajectory we’re expected to take in academia, right? I’m glad there are people who are passionate about administration but I was not, at least in that environment.

At the time, I was 47 and wondering what I was going to do to get out of this jam. I got picked up by the kind souls here at C&EN and then PLOS Blogs, writing beside pro journalists. My friends here at C&EN had me up to DC to see how the sausage is made and several very accomplished freelance writers I met along the way shared their insights. My wife and I talked about my trying to plan to be a freelance science writer but it was tough to give up even a miserable job that paid very good money. So, we did some things to prepare, like refinance our house to reduce our payments. I went to the 2011 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop to learn from some of the best science writers in the country. I applied for every position I could find locally for any science communication position at any version of scientific institution. No luck.

Then from nowhere came the position that I ended up getting at the state museum. I had to make the tough decision that I was *really* going to give up my laboratory after 20 years. I won’t admit it was easy. But I finally had the chance to do what I really loved now at 48, something very different than I had wanted at 28. But I realize now that all the experiences I’ve had in my career prepared me for this unlikely stage where I am now.

 

How does chemistry inform your work?

So you’re probably wondering why I’m even writing this post for folks interested in chemistry as a career. Yes, I’m trained as a pharmacologist. But a pharmacologist knows that they are only as good as the chemicals that allow them to probe their particular biological system.

In fact, the American father of pharmacology, John Jacob Abel, founded the Journal of Biological Chemistry and did some of the earliest work on isolating epinephrine, insulin, and several amino acids (Abel was also the inspiration for my original blogging pseudonym, Abel Pharmboy). My first research internship was at SmithKline & French where I used radioactive and fluorescent substrates to evaluate new drug effects on Phase I and Phase II drug metabolism. So I had to learn stuff like this. As a graduate student at Florida, I worked on a NCI National Cooperative Drug Discovery Grant that brought me in contact with medicinal chemists. I came up in the field through the tail end of pharma chemistry’s heyday. And while all of my contemporaries were raving about the ability to PCR and synthesize DNA probes, I continued my deep respect for synthetic chemists because, after all, you can’t just PCR up an epipodophyllotoxin.

I’ve always been interested in structure-activity relationships, drug metabolism, and drug interactions. These areas of pharmacology are intensively dependent on chemistry.

But what about today?

I’d say that I’ve had to learn about the remarkable breadth of chemistry in fields as afar as astronomy, paleontology and geology, genomics and microbiology, and mammalian biodiversity. The Mars Curiosity rover is essentially a mobile analytical chemistry laboratory. Wallabies and kangaroos can develop in their mother’s pouches without an innate immune system because the mother makes antibiotic peptides. Ants can evade destruction by other ant species by modifying the lipids they synthesize so they’re not perceived as invaders. Geology is chemistry. Paleontology is dependent on radiochemistry. I could go on. But my goal now is to show just how pervasive chemistry is in the natural world.

Short answer: I’ve always had a healthy respect for chemistry, both synthetic and natural products. My new job allows me to further develop this interest by seeing — and sharing — chemistry everywhere.

 

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

The most interesting or bewildering thing I can tell is that I gave up tenured faculty positions twice in my career, once for love (to be with my new wife in North Carolina) and once for this new job. You could say this was crazy, career suicide. Perhaps for my academic research career. But the decisions were right for me and what I wanted out of life at the time I made them.

I was also hit on my bicycle by a boat while I was a graduate student.

 

If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. You tell me.

Some highlights:

Strike a good balance between working hard to drill down into a specialty but also be aware of the breadth of your field and its applications outside of your sub-sub-sub-discipline.

Go to all seminars in your department, especially the ones you think won’t interest you. Several valuable professional relationships and at least two jobs came about because I could speak reasonably well about the work of others outside my field.

In fact, go to seminars outside your department and your school. Even those not about science. My life is richer for learning from Denver’s Paul Stewart about Black cowboys of the American West.

I’ve written about this before but don’t be afraid to feel that what you wanted in graduate school might not be the same thing as when you’re in a second marriage with a 10-year-old kid (that is, a second marriage to a woman with whom you have a 10-year-old kid).

Listen to others’ stories. Again, listen. Don’t ask questions if the purpose is to talk about yourself. Humility is golden.

Don’t miss out on networking opportunities.

Go to as many professional meetings as you can.

Invest in hobbies outside of science or, as I did, on aspects of science outside of my day job. Even in grad school, pick one thing outside science that helps you relax or restores your soul. Mine alternated between doing triathlons and playing music.

Pay attention to your personal finances. Save when you can. Have only one credit card, one that you pay off every month. Eat the store-brand granola bars. Put as much as you can into your retirement account. Getting your finances together can help you feel less trapped when you have to make life decisions that lead to happiness but far less income.

Learn the history of your field. Go to the library or to online journal archives to read the original papers from before 1966 that form the basis of your discipline.

Respect other cultures and enrich yourself by learning about them. Good science happens everywhere.

Don’t be blindly impressed by people from so-called top-tier institutions and don’t look down upon folks from institutions with lesser reputations. Just as with the NFL, great talent comes out of the most likely AND unlikely places.

Respect all of your labmates and fellow grad students and postdocs outside of your lab. You have no idea how many times those relationships will help you make contacts over the next 20 or 30 years.

Drink very scant, if any (from Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s resolutions)

Write one paragraph a day. Especially in graduate school.

Exercise three times a week. It’s good for your brain and will make you feel less regretful in your 40s.

Start going to a therapist or other mental health professional while in graduate school. You want to know yourself well before you start making even bigger decisions. Think of it as preventive maintenance.

Some people in your life will not be fair or kind. Do not stoop to their level. Take the high road.

Success is how you define it, no one else.

Success is overrated.

Happiness is underrated.

 

###

 

 

Author: David Kroll

Share This Post On

2 Comments

  1. It’s funny how we all enter our careers! One door closes and another opens. I work with such a diverse group on scientists, paleontologists, and geochemical engineers… all from different backgrounds.