Discovering a 'Fire in the Belly'
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
If Polonius had been a woman, and his son Laertes a group of young scientists, then the recent NIH fellows committee workshop on careers would certainly have been a Shakespearean revival of Hamlet. Throughout the afternoon, a careful listener could hear voices of experience delivering the well-tested, sage advice: "This above all, to thine own self be true."
"The trick in life is doing something you like and something worth doing," said Dr. Ruth Levy Guyer, one of two guest speakers at the third in a series of five free workshops titled "Scientific Careers for the Next Millennium." The May 11 session focused on bioinformatics and science writing.
Dr. Ruth Levy Guyer discussed creative careers for postdocs.
A former NIH fellow in the 1970's, Guyer left the lab and used what she called "the ol' neighbors' network" to forge first a career in science communication as a writer at Science magazine, then in science education as a staff member of NIH's Office of Science Education. Currently she combines the two, explaining humorously that she now "does five things for pay": consultant and developer of bioethics materials for high schools at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics; instructor of science writing and faculty advisor at Johns Hopkins University's Dupont Circle campus; script writer for a new exhibit, "Living in a World with AIDS," at Walter Reed's National Museum of Health and Medicine; instructor for a science/medical feature-story writing course at the Bethesda Writer's Center; and freelance writer with recent work in USA Weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Potomac Review, a local literary magazine.
"Most scientists don't end up doing bench science not because they couldn't, but because they find something they like better, something that animates them more," Guyer said, encouraging the fellows to recognize that a scientist's "fire-in-the-belly commitment" may not translate into a commitment to the research laboratory.
Guyer said she decided to pursue her passion for writing following the birth of her first child, whom she could not imagine leaving to return to work full time. She was mowing her lawn one day in the mid-1970's, when a neighbor approached her with the idea of editing and organizing some research notes for an NIAID immunology lab. Through that conversation and the NIAID network, she landed her first writing job working for NIAID scientific director Dr. Kenneth Sell. By 1981, she had been writing and editing for several years when she stumbled on articles about an unusual disease revealing itself in gay men the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. "After that," she recalled, "I spent 4 years writing exclusively about AIDS." In 1985, the new editor of Science hired her to compose the column "This Week in Science" and Guyer found herself enjoying "telling people about science who were not scientists." Throughout these years, she was also combining time with her children with modest forays into science education. She was organizing non-competitive science fairs at schools and introducing new generations to scientific pursuits.
"I never felt I lost anything by deciding to spend more time with my children," Guyer pointed out. "I have chosen to work part time so that I could spend time with my daughters."
By 1991, she was noticing a growing gap between what scientists know and what everyone else understands. She imagined that a good communicator might help bridge the gap. She took a position at NIH's Office of Science Education, where until a couple of years ago, she tackled a variety of topical biomedical issues in articles easily digestible by a lay audience.
Her science career path may have diverged from the traditional, but Guyer discourages using the word "alternative" to describe it. In a 1997 article called "A Career in Science: Consider All Options" that she cowrote with Dr. Lana Skirboll, director of NIH's Office of Science Policy, Guyer said "alternative" suggests an either-or choice, whereas all careers are equally legitimate and a career like hers (or other combination/creative careers) might best be described as more this-and-that.
"Evolution goes on not only with the organisms that the researchers study," she explained at the workshop, "but also with the researchers themselves. As things evolve, priorities change, goals change."
GenBank coordinator Dr. Ilene Mizrachi of NCBI is a postdoc who found an 'alternative' career.
The second speaker of the day, Dr. Ilene Mizrachi, GenBank coordinator, seemed to agree. A former NIH laboratory postdoc, she now works at NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information indexing, reviewing and analyzing submissions to its databases. A few years ago, she said she was anxiously contemplating the stiff competition for the few rare job openings in academia; now, she's supervising a group of 20 annotators mainly science-field Ph.D.s who work for ComputerCraft, a bioinformatics contractor hired by NCBI to make sure the more than 8,000 submissions per month meet international standards of quality for sequence databases. The work which she admits is doubling every 14 months allows her to keep her finger on the pulse of science without maintaining a place at the bench.
"Although I'm not working in the lab anymore," she said, "I still keep in touch with what's going on in molecular biology. The work of the group is very inter esting and I get a chance to learn about many types of biology." In addition, she uses state-of-the-art computer systems and communicates with scientists around the world. Like Guyer, Mizrachi told the audience that opportunities similar to hers are out there, if interested people are willing to explore them.
"Figure out the right path for you," Guyer concluded. "It doesn't matter what your P.I. [principal investigator] thinks. You are the only person who's living your life."
The final workshop in the series, "Science and Public Policy," will be held on Tuesday, June 22 at 2 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10. For details, visit the NIH fellows committee Web site at ftp://helix.nih.gov/felcom/index.html or call 402-1914.
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