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Leverage Scientific Communication Skills (Or, Nerd-Speak) To Get Hired

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3:45 Show Me The Data
23:05 Cara Santa Maria
47:25 Robyn Marty-Roix, Ph.D.

Do you enjoy talking or writing about science more than actually doing it?

Learn how you can leverage your PhD to pursue a science or medical communications career. 

In this episode, we are joined by the award winning journalist, science communicator, television personality, author, and podcast host Cara Santa Maria! She is a correspondent for National Geographic, hosts a weekly Podcast Talk Nerdy, and was previously a correspondent on the Netflix hit Bill Nye Saves The World. We are also joined by Robyn Marty-Roix, PhD a Principal Medical Writer for Boston Scientific. She will share her experience transitioning from academic to industry, discuss what medical writing is and explain how you can pursue a career in medical writing. It’s our privilege to hear from Cara and Robyn and to learn about how you can leverage your science background to succeed in science communication.

About Our Guests

Cara Santa Maria is a Los Angeles Area Emmy and Knight Foundation Award winning journalist, science communicator, television personality, author, and podcaster.  Cara is a correspondent on National Geographic’s flagship television series Explorer. She is the creator and host of a weekly science podcast called Talk Nerdy with Cara Santa Maria, co-hosts the popular Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and hosts the new podcast Fixed That for You. She co-authored the Skeptics Guide to the Universe book with her podcast co-hosts and is the spokesperson for National Geographic’s Almanac 2019. She is a founding member of the Nerd Brigade and cofounded the annual science communication retreat #SciCommCamp.

Previously, Cara was a correspondent on Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World, TechKnow on Al Jazeera America, and Real Future on Fusion. She earned her B.S. in Psychology from the University of North Texas, followed by an M.S. in Neurobiology. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in Social Justice and Diversity from Fielding Graduate University.

Robyn Marty-Roix earned her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Biomedical Science, focusing on immunology and virology. She started her industry career as a Scientist II with Boston Scientific and currently works at Boston Scientific as a Principal Medical Writer.

Throughout her career Robyn has used the knowledge she gained in one field to learn and succeed in a new field. She has 14+ years of preclinical research, leadership and project management experience in multiple disciplines. She is

driven by a desire to lead and learn, regularly volunteering with professional development organizations. Most recently, she has joined the board of the Association for Women In Science as the Events Director and helped to establish the Central Massachusetts Chapter to bring educational and professional development events to Central Massachusetts.

Key Takeaways

1. PhDs can bring a high level of credibility to science communication. It also allows you to leverage your science background and your communication skills. 

2. Science communication comes in many forms, writing, podcasting television, outreach. It’s just about finding the one that’s right for you and then leaning into what makes you unique.

3. If you are struggling with depression, it’s okay to see someone and find out what all your options are. It doesn’t mean you are weak or that you are a failure. It means you are human.

4. Always follow up after an interview even if you don’t get the position. Don’t waste the connections you just made with people at that company.

Why PhDs Make Great Science Communicators 

The role of science communication in all its forms is growing.

The University of Nottingham found that the number of publications about science journalism, public engagement with science and dissemination of science via media have increased dramatically over the pas decade.

Specifically the number of papers about science debates and the role of journalism increased from less 20 published per year to more than 300 published per year.

It’s becoming more important for science to be communicated to a wide variety of audiences and PhDs bring a high level of credibility to science communication.

While the public tends to mistrust the media, they actually have a relatively high trust in scientists

According to the Pew Research Center, only 13% of the public said they had confidence in the press but 44% of the public said they have confidence in scientists.

You position as an expert scientist makes you an excellent candidate for science communication.

Leverage Scientific Communication Skills (Or, Nerd-Speak) To Get Hired: A Conversation With Cara Santa Maria

Isaiah: Can you unpack what science communication is and what you actually do on a day to day basis? 

Cara So it’s being this bridge between the academic kind of scientific establishment and people who are reading science news people who are watching television people who are listening to podcasts.  So I have a lot of friends that are science writers that are incredibly talented science writers. I don’t do that much science writing mostly because I hate writing. It’s not it does not come easy for me. So it takes me probably 10 times the amount of time to write the same number of words and I’m frustrated the entire time.

But my platform historically has mostly been television. So I do three different podcasts as I mentioned and I do love podcasting. I think it’s a great it’s a great platform for being able to communicate science. But there is something very special about television because you have that multimedia component and you can tell stories in a way that are really visually compelling.

Isaiah: I want to frame it as like a career path. How do you actually make money off this? I really want to I want to share that trajectory but I want to start at the point where you made that transition from something you just like to do to getting paid for it.

Cara: Yeah. And it doesn’t happen overnight. And I think that’s something that’s important for people to realize. I do highly recommend if you’re going to start science communication and you really do have an interest in making this your principal moneymaker that you have something happening in parallel. You should have either a backup plan, be actively working on your degree right or have a day job because it is very, very difficult to immediately start making money doing this. I mean part of it is just the name of the game when you’re a freelancer right.

That we hear terms like net 30, net 60, net 90. What that really means is that when you send that invoice to whoever has hired you for something they have 30, 60, or 90 days to pay you back. So I mean think about a two week window in your job right now or maybe a month window.

It can be really difficult. So oftentimes as a freelancer you’re juggling a lot of open invoices and sometimes you have to chase people up, which is kind of frustrating. You know early on when I was doing television, I was brought on as an expert guest for a lot of things. When you’re an expert guest, let’s say you’re on a panel on a news show or you’re coming on to explain some sort of big finding on your local television station, you’re usually not paid for that.

Usually it’s not until you’re actually doing hosting work that you start to get paid in television. So I wasn’t making money when I first started doing on air work. Same with the podcast. You know a lot of people will start a podcast and until you actually have decent listenership you’re probably not going to be able to monetize your podcast. Now I’m in a place where my podcasts are monetized. You know I sell ads in every podcast episode. I have a patron for Talk Nerdy Talk Nerdy. It’s my show. So I produce it and I get an income from that.

Isaiah: I want to go back and talk more about the struggle of leaving academia, because we have a lot of people who are listening who are in you know what we call those kind of darkest hour moment. What was your darkest hour when you know that moment when you realized the pain got bad enough that you realized you had to make a change what did that look like what brought that on?

Cara: The funny thing is my darkest hour came I think after my darkest hour because my real darkest hour was after I made the change but wasn’t sure if it was the right decision.

So I had my darkest hour in New York first which again it was a transition from Texas to New York which was tough for me. It’s funny because people always think I’m a New Yorker like I’ve got a New York vibe but the truth is I like it when people  friendly and not in a hurry. I’m not saying New Yorkers aren’t friendly, they’re real friendly but culturally there is a vibe that there’s too many people and you just don’t have time for courtesy with every single person you meet. So that was a big shift for me coming from the south.

Also during that time along with the inner interpersonal stuff I was really broke. That was really hard for me, New York’s a hard city to live in when you have no money. I was living in Queens not really in Manhattan proper. So I felt like I was sort of on the outskirts because I was at Queens College at the time and more and more than anything it was like really mental health issues.

So I’ve always had clinical depression. I’ve always been very open about that and I’ve always advocated for reducing stigma around mental health concerns. But when I was in New York I didn’t yet have a psychologist. I was not yet on a medication regimen. I was in a place where I was really feeling like, “Oh I’m not sick so I don’t need to take meds and if I need to take meds that means I really can’t handle myself.”

I think it’s a common kind of self talk that a lot of us in academia have where we’re experiencing classic symptoms of mental illness yet we feel like, you know we have a lot of self efficacy. We have a strong internal focus of control so we can just kind of get through it. And it took many years before I realized that I needed a change.

So you know at first it was hard, I decided let’s go to L.A. and see what happens. It’s like a door opened and I walked through it. And then after a couple of years in L.A. I wasn’t sure if I made the right choice. It was tough. I had a couple of great opportunities very quickly and then all of a sudden they died down. I wasn’t making good money. I was struggling a little bit.

I found a good therapist and at my darkest point I was like maybe I need to take medication and I started to see a psychiatrist. I started taking an antidepressant which I still take to this day everyday. And you know I had this epiphany that a lot of people have when they’re struggling with mental illness and then they finally do decide to seek all of their options and see what’s right for them. A lot of people when they first start taking medication are like why did I wait so long I could have felt like this years ago I could have experienced a new normal for me that is much more functional. And I had that epiphany. Not everybody has it.

For some people medication doesn’t work for some people it’s not right for them. But I mean the one thing that I would say to anybody who is watching this right now who’s struggling with depression and anxiety feeling incredibly overwhelmed and realizing that it’s seeping into their academic life their vocational life their interpersonal life their relationships, they’re not sleeping.

You need to see somebody  and see what your options are. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean that you failed. It means that you’re a human being. You’re a human being who has who is doing superhuman things right now and you might need a little bit of help.

So that for me was a big change. I think getting my mental health in check establishing a functional work life balance. That’s when things really started to pick up because I was I don’t know I was awake I was capable and I was able to balance things a little bit better than I had previously.

Principal Medical Writer Career Track: A Conversation With Robyn Marty-Roix, Ph.D.

Isaiah: You taking advantage of networking was important for your transition. What did that look like practically?

Robyn: For me I mean I was going to a lot of events, but they weren’t really suiting my needs. So I really tapped into my more close personal network. I happened to be really close friends with somebody who had a high position at the company where I am now.

I mean she didn’t give me the job but she got me a face to face first interview here at the company, which was for a full time job as a medical writer. I actually did really well through the interview process and everything but they end up going with somebody with more experience. But I tapped into that hiring manager who turned me down and she actually helped propel me into some other things here.

Isaiah: You brought up that you talked to the hiring manager after you didn’t get the position. How did that go?

Robyn: I was probably like everybody else I was really nervous to do it. But I had contacted during the interview process, so I felt comfortable reaching out. She just said they ended up going in another direction with somebody who had more experience. And so I said I really appreciated her input. That was great. I mean she complimented me on my writing tests which I’d never done one before. So I was like oh she’s being serious but I told her you know I acknowledge that I’m sure it was a really hard decision and that if something were to come along later or please keep me in mind. It was just that standard sort of language but it was just really appreciating that the time and effort she took to respond to me as well as just interviewing me.

** to hear the full interviews watch the full episode in the video above.

To get advanced access to the full length versions of these podcasts, as well as access to our live training webinars, exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association now.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.