Molecular biology, to its victims, can seem a cruel mistress. A black box, where hopes and dreams (and your last microgram of precious sample) go in, and nothing but inexplicable, irreproducible failure issues forth. Contamination, artefact, false positive, spurious cross-reaction; the ancient scripts and mystical incantations of Hogwarts have nothing on the dark arts of Sith Lord Maniatis. Einstein’s spooky actions at a distance have nothing on the bizarre and terrifying actions of PCR amplification enzymes or blotting antibodies or prohibitively-expensive reagents which, with no rhyme or reason, choose no longer to amplify or blot or reage. (That’s a word. No, it is. Look, it is now, so shush.) In short, if you’re starting out in a molecular lab and you don’t have green thumbs (or the molecular biology equivalent – green nitrile gloves maybe?), you’re cactus. And it’s depressing. It feels more like cookery than science, and it can cause you to lose sight of the reasons you wanted to do science in the first place.
This, unfortunately, is the experience of more baby molecular scientists than the field would want to admit. It certainly was for our curator for this coming week, Eva Amsen aka @easternblot. However, molecular biology’s loss was science communication’s gain. Eva’s story, in her own words:
When I was 17 I decided that I was going to save the planet by becoming an environmental scientist. The environmental science program I applied to didn’t start until the second year of university: students first had to complete the first year of a more basic science degree. I enrolled in chemistry, and within that first year realized that the actual research side of environmental chemistry was not as exciting as I hoped it would be. But I loved the amazing cross-disciplinary puzzles that I was introduced to in my first year biochemistry course, so I did that instead. Sorry, planet!
After finishing my undergrad and masters degrees in Holland, I moved to Canada to do a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Toronto. I researched some of the molecular mechanisms that are involved in producing the skin pigment melanin. As you will have noticed from the large variety in skin colours out there, between people but also between parts of your own body, and depending on the weather outside, pigmentation is a very fine-tuned process. It involves LOTS of different molecules, and they interact in complicated ways. I discovered that one particular protein was one of the many, many molecules involved in this complicated pigmentation process.
But experimental work – especially in molecular biology – is very frustrating. I often felt as if I had no control over whether or not I was successful at my job. I could work REALLY hard for months at a time and end up with nothing to show for it, or I could run into random luck and get my last experiment to work only because the supplier sent a stronger-than-usual antibody.
I discovered that what I loved about science was learning about it, and not DOING it. Unfortunately, science is a very hand-on discipline. Many people love that. I don’t. I would rather read about work that others have done, or watch a cool video. I started to write about science on my blog, both to share science with my friends outside of the lab, and to make myself love science again by thinking about other aspects of it besides my tedious experiments. Then I moved all the science blog posts to their own blog. People started reading it. I was invited to join a blog network. I met other people with similar interests. I was asked to write short pieces for money. It was AWESOME.
By the time I finished my PhD, I had been doing freelance writing for a few clients – including a really fun gig where I got to write about the science themes in a Canadian TV drama – and I fully intended to do this fulltime, and maybe find an internship in science writing.
Unfortunately, my PhD exam coincided with an economic crash. It was right after all the banks went bankrupt, and just as the US dollar plummeted. Nobody was hiring freelancers anymore. Internship programs closed down.
I made ends meet for a year, and then started applying to full-time positions. I landed a job at Development, a journal for developmental biologists based in Cambridge in the UK, and I spent three years setting up and running a community blog. It was fun, but it was time to move on. Also, I really didn’t like living in Cambridge, and I missed city life.
So a few months ago, I moved to London, and now I work as Outreach Director for F1000Research. It’s a new journal, launched in January of this year, and it has a very different method of publishing than most other scientific journals. It does peer review after publication, instead of the other way around. I’ll try to explain this in some of my tweets this week!
This month I’m also taking a writing course to learn how to pitch, because I want to get better at that and get some freelance writing gigs again. The writing I do at the moment is all unpaid. I write a regular science travel feature for the Finch and Pea, I have my own blog easternblot.net, and I guest blog here and there. Sometimes, instead of writing, I talk about science on stage. I’ve done Ignite London, Science Showoff, Geek Showoff, and Litmus Test.
I play violin, most recently in the internet-based Doctor Who Fan Orchestra, and in the (real life) City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra. Last summer I was also part of an amazingly fun theatre project, in their orchestra. I currently don’t play anywhere, but I’m working on a writing project about people who – like me – are both scientists and musicians. It’s really common, and I’ve been trying to find out why. Some of my thoughts on this are online, and I’ll link to some of those this week as well.
If Eva’s words have struck a chord with you (sorry, that’s an appalling pun) you’ll join me in welcoming her to @RealScientists for this week.