Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Karen R.

Happy January all!

I hope the January blues haven’t been hitting you too hard. So far I’ve managed to avoid them by focusing my efforts on things like blogging or planning new science articles. My transfer is FINALLY out the way so now I can get back into a routine and get organised again with my blogs, my meals and my exercise – and of course lab work as soon as the cells are ready.

But a new month, also, means a new ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’. As I’m sure you all know, one of my main motivations for writing about my PhD life and sharing science with you all is to inspire a younger generation and get them interested in science! And more importantly, I want to show everyone that being a scientist doesn’t mean you are a old man with glasses working in a lab doing 9-5 every week! Over the past few months, I have ‘met’ some of the best scicomm-ers out there, and this month’s Spotlight features one of the first amazing scicomm-ers I came across on Twitter whose work and activities really inspired me to get committed to writing a science blog.

So, let me introduce you to Karen R.

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Karen was born and bred in California. Naturally, with the beautiful Californian weather, Karen loves to be outside – be it running, rock climbing or simply reading! She loves to dine out eating delicious food – some of her favourites are salmon, kale and pizza – hopefully not together 😛 But one thing she does love is cranes – the mechanical kind, not the bird! It’s a self-confessed obsession that she cannot seem to explain, but every time she spots one – and there are a ton all over San Francisco – it’s time to stop and take pictures until she realising she’s drooling! With the dream of operating a crane as a side job, I do wonder how there is any time for science 😛

Karen has done her time in the lab finding a way to genetically reprogram skin cells into brain cells that could be used to model neurological disease, and now works for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) on their communications team and has a passion for scicomm and teaching the world about stem cells and science – and showing us that not all scientists work in a lab!

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Tell me a bit about your science journey.

Karen: My science journey began in the womb. Both my mom and dad were science majors in college, and they raised me to love math and science from a young age. My dad loved to take me hiking and to keep me entertained. He taught me all the names of the trees and plants we passed and explained why they lived in that environment. My dad was also a scientist at a Biotech company, and he would take me to his lab occasionally to hangout and help him with experiments. I didn’t know it then, but he had be running ELISA assays! His passion for science and learning inspired me to study science.

Karen with one of her science role models – her dad 🙂

Fast forward ten years later, I majored in molecular biology at Pomona College in Southern California and then went to UCSF for a PhD in biomedical science. During my PhD, I focused on cellular reprogramming and neuroscience research. This was followed by a two year postdoc at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging where I worked on stem cell models for Huntington’s disease. That brings us to the present day where I now work at CIRM in science communications.

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When Karen was still at the lab bench as a postdoc at the Buck Institute

Most people think scientists just work in the lab, so tell me a bit more about your job in science communications?

Karen: I’m the website and social media manager at CIRM. It’s a state agency whose mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs by funding promising stem cell research in California. I work on the CIRM communications team, and our job is to promote our agency’s mission and educate patients and the public on our progress. My specific job involves updating the content on our website, managing our social media channels, which include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and writing for our Stem Cellar blog.

Because we are a small team, I also have a few other jobs I’ve taken on. I regularly attend scientific conferences to talk to researchers about CIRM and our funding opportunities. I also go to patient support groups to help patients understand how stem cell research could benefit them in the future.

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Karen at a work conference for CIRM

But my favourite part of my job is directing the SPARK high school internship program. This program gives under-represented students the opportunity to do stem cell research in an academic lab during the summer. SPARK students complete a six-week research project, attend lectures and learn about the patient side of science. I also ask them to document their internship by posting ‘in the lab’ photos on Instagram and writing a blog – check out the hashtag #CIRMSPARKLAB or visit the @CIRM_stemcells account! At the end of the summer, they present their research at the SPARK conference in front of scientists and their families. It’s a spectacular program. These students are beyond talented and very motivated about their research. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them who have told me that they plan to pursue science in college and as a career. That really is the icing on the cake for me!

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Karen with one of her SPARK students from the internship program she loves.

What have you been doing in your job most recently?

Karen: I launched a really cool campaign this month on social media, challenging people to make stem cell resolutions. My goal is to raise awareness about the importance of stem cell research by getting scientists, patients and the public to share their resolutions on social media using the hashtag #StemCellChampions. The response has been great on Twitter so far, and we also have had some participation on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll be promoting the campaign during the month of January and at the end, I will blog about the most inspiring resolutions and the people behind them.

My next goal is to spend more time on our website. I recently updated the CIRM homepage with new pictures and content, and would like to show more love to some of our other webpages. Our website has a lot of useful content for scientists and patients, but it’s very text heavy and tends to make people’s eyes glaze over. I’d like to make these pages more engaging and visually appealing by adding graphics, interactive charts and videos – so watch this space!

What was it like transitioning from the lab into scicomm?

Karen: At first it was weird! I was culturing stem cells in the lab one week, and the next I was sitting in an office in my own cubicle blogging about stem cells and learning how to manage a website.

I think my mistake was not taking a vacation in between jobs. I had a big Europe trip planned in the Fall and wanted to get a head start on my role at CIRM during the summer. So there was no time for me to decompress and reset after my postdoc. But my team at CIRM was very supportive and after a few weeks, I felt much more comfortable. It’s like learning to drive, at first it’s super awkward and you’re terrible at it, but eventually it becomes second nature. After a few weeks, I found my routine of writing blogs, doing social media, and updating our website. Now it feels like I’ve been doing this stuff for ages, but it’s only been a year and half.

What advice would you give to someone considering transitioning into science communication after doing a PhD/postdoc?

Karen: My advice would be to take a stab at science writing or other forms of science communication while you’re still doing your PhD or postdoc. While you’re working your ass off in the lab, you still have a more flexible schedule than desk jobs like me. If you’re experiment decides to fail, you can take a break and read your favourite science blog or write one of your own! It’s pretty easy to get into science communications, you just need the motivation to start, a support group to cheer you on, and the persistence to keep up your good work.

My other advice is that you need a portfolio of work to show that you’re qualified for transitioning into science communications. For example, you probably won’t get hired for a science writing job if the only things you’ve written are scientific publications and your thesis. Build up a portfolio of blogs, writing, and other communications experience so that when your perfect job comes around, can easily prove that you’re qualified.

Why is scicomm important to you?

Karen:  It’s important to me because there are a lot of people who don’t understand science and how vital it is for improving people’s lives and keeping our planet healthy. There are also people who care about science but don’t fully understand the stories they hear about in the media. My goal is to help my friends and other people understand the science, what’s real and what’s hype, so then they can make their own educated conclusions and opinions.

And you want to achieve this goal through your Instagram account?

Karen: I blame @science.sam for my scicomm Instagram account :). When I met Sam at a conference last year, we bonded over wanting to get more involved in scicomm. She told me that she recently started an Instagram project to show people that scientists are normal and that women can love beauty and fashion and also be very talented and smart. This experiment introduced her to an amazing community of science women on Instagram. When she told me this, I realised that a supportive group of women scientists was exactly what I was missing and desperately needed after leaving academia. Sam also asked me why I didn’t have an Instagram account to talk about the cool things I do in my job and all my scicomm projects. I didn’t have a good answer for her, so I started my account in October and have been having fun with it ever since!

I decided to focus my posts around three topics. For #MotivationMonday, I talk about what or who motivates me to do science communications. Next up is #WorkWednesday where I post about my job. I get lots of “what do you do at CIRM?” questions from people who want to transition into scicomm, and Instagram is the perfect place to explain that in a fun, interactive way. My final topic is #CasualFriday. This is my favourite one because I talk about anything I want. I’ve posted about my love of climbing, photos of me outdoors, and also out with friends. I like doing these posts because my followers have said that they enjoy getting to know me on a more personal level aside from my scicomm persona.

Are there any other scicomm activities you are involved in?

Karen: I have so many scicomm side hustles that it’s hard to keep track!

One that I haven’t mentioned yet is the podcast I record with my Twitter friend @DrMikeographer. We like to talk about intriguing science stories (see our episode on plant-based burgers), share tips about how to improve your scicomm skills, and interview interesting scientists and communicators.

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Karen doing one of her many scicomm activities – podcasting with Dr Mike

Outside of social media, I help organise a scicomm meetup group in San Francisco. We do happy hours and sometimes have guest speakers. I’m also getting back into science writing. I have plans to write a book chapter about the importance of public engagement and science communication in stem cell research. I’m also writing a children’s book about stem cells with Thomai Dion who you probably know as @TDtheScienceMom on Instagram and Twitter. She is a super talented artist and science writer for young minds and I feel very lucky to be able to collaborate with her on this project!

In your opinion, how can we as scientists do better at communicating science?

Karen: I could talk FOREVER on this topic but I’ll keep it short. We can do better by listening to our audience and tailoring our communications to meet their needs and concerns. We also need to step outside of our bubbles and reach out to communities that don’t have much exposure to science and figure out the most effective ways of engaging those people in an effective way.

That is ALOT of scicomm you get up to! But where would we find you when you’re not inspiring others?

Karen: I like to climb, run, eat good food, hangout with friends, go hiking and camping, and read science fiction and fantasy novels. My favourite sport is rock climbing. I discovered it four years ago and climb a few times a week with friends at the gym. I also love dreaming, as in the sleeping kind. My mind takes me on really crazy journeys when I’m unconscious and it never ceases to entertain me.

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Karen and her fiance Steve climbing in Joshua Tree
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More hiking. More breath-taking views!

If there is one thing I am truly excellent at, it’s having a healthy work life balance. Even in grad school, I made sure that I didn’t slave away at all hours in the lab. For me, exercise and having a social life are just as important as doing well in my career. If I work too much, I get unhappy and feel unbalanced. It’s not worth it for me, and it’s a decision I’m comfortable with. Plus you have to think long-term –  you won’t be working forever! When you retire and you’re old is that really the time you want to carpe diem and climb machu pichu?

So I’ll reference Nike; I “Just do it”.

Has your science journey been what you expected?

Karen: Not at all! I thought my path following my PhD was a research job in industry, but it didn’t turn out that way. Science communication snuck up on me and all-of-a-sudden, I realised that it was my next career move. I didn’t know much about science communications in grad school – it wasn’t something we were trained in. When I started writing more during my postdoc, I realised that I was more passionate about communicating science than actually doing experiments. Now that I am in communications, I know it is the right path for me. I am happy every day doing what I do and I didn’t always have that feeling when I was doing research.

I’ll end with a secret. I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome off and on during my career. I battled it when I was a postdoc wondering if I would succeed in landing a science job in industry. I battled it when I started blogging and doing social media worried that people wouldn’t like my writing or my ideas. To overcome these feelings, I had to train myself to act confident even when I didn’t feel like it. ‘Fake it till you make it’ is a really good motto and it worked for me. If you ever feel that confidence is a real issue for you, I suggest talking with friends and colleagues in your field. Open up to them about your concerns and frustrations. Usually you will find that you aren’t alone and other people have experienced similar feelings. Having that support network will allow you to see things from a different perspective and will help you to come up with new strategies to move forward with your career and your life.

And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?

Karen: You should visit Basque country and take the Train de la Rhune. It’s a mountain in the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border and it has breathtaking panoramic views. My fiance and I went in the fall a year ago and stayed in Biarritz – also a lovely place to visit – on the coast of Southern France. While we were there, our friend told us to visit La Rhune. At the base of the mountain is an old train that winds up through the herds of sheep to the top of the mountain. But there’s also a hiking trail so we opted for the exercise! It is a hardcore hike with steep trails, but the view is beautiful the entire way. When you get to the top, there’s a restaurant and bar that serves delicious beers to tide you over until it’s time to take the train back down.

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Karen and Steve at the top of La Rhune

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Once again, these featured ‘Scientists in the Spotlight’ have inspired me! I do not know how you all fit everything in! Thank you to Karen for getting involved in my blog – I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about all the scicomm things you’re involved in. It’s definitely given me some ‘food for thought’ on what else I can get up to. I will definitely be in touch for more info! And I think I might have to take up hiking if it means I get to see unbelievable views like those in the photos above! Feel free to ask me or Karen any questions – it is great to get some reader feedback 🙂

Stay up to date on the incredible work Karen gets up to by checking our her Stem Cellar blog, and following her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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3 thoughts on “Scientist in the Spotlight. Karen R.”

  1. Great to see young ladies inspiring the next generation to get enthusiastic about stem cells and science in general. My daughter is currently working on unsupported cartilage cells culture technique for her PhD and she has excellent communication skills to explain difficult material in a compressible way. Boundless opportunities for today’s youngster!

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