My transition from laboratory research to a medical communications agency

Published on July 29, 2020

My former laboratory is a cluster of individual rooms, each with a specific purpose for conducting neurobiology experiments. Each room is unkempt, with old dusty microscopes and computers stacked atop each other. An assortment of hard drives resembles a museum display of technological advancement over the years: A large 5GB hard drive covered in dust sits next to a new 4TB hard drive connected to a computer. In the middle of each room is a rig, a finely tuned microscope encased in a Faraday cage and surrounded by custom high-tech machinery used to carry out experiments. These experiments allow undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows to inject protein-altering viruses into the brains of mice. Another rig can also be used to record electrical currents from single mouse neurons and image these cells with fluorescence to visualize individual protein clusters. Combined, these data will be used to write a manuscript describing the findings, which will eventually be included in a dissertation—a document that might explain the differential expression patterns of certain genes that, when deficient, impair human vision. Often such findings open the floodgate to many more questions. 

Working in a laboratory is exciting and thought provoking but performing experiments can also be tedious. Experiments often fail, usually because of errors by users in the beginning stages of training; after the protocol is fine-tuned, systematic error may still occur.  Experiments recording currents from neurons are especially fastidious because neural tissue must be obtained from live animals or the tissue must be meticulously prepared for in vivo experiments. Experimental equipment must be prepared and calibrated, along with all experimental solutions (usually drugs), which must be precisely measured in micro- and nanomolar concentrations. These experiments typically take around 10 hours. Some days are excellent and produce gobs of data, while others send students home empty-handed, with broken spirits.  

Experiments, all that data they produce, and all the ups and downs, are only one aspect of laboratory research. Another aspect is thoroughly intertwined in the science: communication of the experiments and their data, results, and conclusions. Communicating the results and interpretations of research findings to the scientific community is as crucial as the experiments themselves. Thus, many academic researchers in the life sciences have developed the skills necessary for medical communications in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.  

One such skill is writing for a target audience. In academia, scientific communications are often posters, slides for oral presentations, manuscripts, literature reviews, or grant proposals. In each of these formats it’s essential to carefully craft language to convey complex ideas and information succinctly while simplifying them for the target audience of a journal or meeting. Although I’m no longer in academia, I find that I continue to use and further sharpen this skill as a medical writer in industry. In this setting, my target audiences are typically no longer scientists in specialized fields but rather healthcare professionals (HCPs), payers, and consumers. As I develop any document, I ask myself, “What is the audience’s background knowledge on this topic?” “What information is important to them?” and “How do I present information to engage this audience?” Regardless of the audience (academics, HCPs, payers, or consumers), considering their perspective can help me present information for them to easily digest.  

In scientific writing, both for academia and industry, the ability to engage the audience is essential to effective communication, as are understanding what’s important to them and telling the story well. In scientific communication, complex ideas can be broken down into digestible pieces and presented logically; each idea or concept should seamlessly transition to the next to tell a story that impacts the audience. 

The greatest responsibility of any scientific communicator is to present information accurately, which makes critical thinking and integrity imperative. In academia, researchers are trained to describe their results, examine study limitations, and discuss caveats in their communication. This skill translates directly to industry communication, where presenting data in a way that is accurate, not misleading, and unbiased is required.  

The ultimate objective of research in the life sciences is to make discoveries that will lead to advances in medicine and improve human health and quality of life. In academia, I often used scientific communication to share my contributions to the field with the hope that other scientists would build on them and eventually lead to advancements that would improve human health. As a medical writer in the pharmaceutical industry, while I’m not presenting my own research, I’m sharing fully realized medical advancements that may impact patient lives in a meaningful way. Experiencing this impact made the transition from laboratory research to medical communications natural and it has been a rewarding experience.


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