"Why not?" was my response when my entrepreneurial husband announced his intention to start an electronic magazine. Between us, we had acquired a certain amount of experience in business and in science writing since our postdoctoral days at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Moreover, our dispiriting time at the bench (personally speaking only ...) had engendered a certain devil-may-care attitude: "It couldn't be any worse!" We'd both made our way out of the laboratory not by any glorious trumpet call to our real careers but by scrabbling around for other means to exist.
After 6 years of graduate school, I wanted to be the expert I'd been trained to be. Yet, somehow, a tiny desk and lab bench in a basically windowless lab at NIH wasn't what I'd expected. Great things could happen at NIH, I knew, but after a while I realized that I wasn't going to be doing them. Thus, my talents must lie in other realms, right?
Well, here I have to be honest. For some of us (i.e., me), the stimulus for leaving the bench is less a reach for fulfillment in other areas than an acknowledgment of certain failure in the current one. I had had a miserable postdoc experience: I did not publish, and I could not embrace the long hours of repetitive assaying. I prayed for the opportunity and the insight to land me in the promised land of careers. Then I started my job hunt.
Even 3 years ago, those looking for alternative careers in science still suffered the distrustful looks of potential employers who felt that all Ph.D.s should be in the lab with assorted colored boiling flasks on their benchtops, trying to cure cancer. In other words, we should do the jobs we were trained to do, not hedge in on someone else's field. Teaching wasn't an answer for me. Lecturing-only positions were the only kind I was interested in, and they weren't plentiful enough. My husband and I did happily accept the opportunity to teach a night course for continuing education students; however, we didn't quit our day jobs.
Finally, I heard angelic voices when I read of a writing position at the Next Wave. The power of this Web site intrigued me, and I believed (and still do) in the importance of what they're doing. To prove that a lab rat such as myself could write, I wrote an article about the NIH postdoctoral experience. By the time this survey-driven article was published in The Scientist , I had learned that I did not get the job at Next Wave, but the endeavor helped propel me into a branch of science writing. I got a job with an NIH contract company, going to science meetings and writing the summary minutes. And in the past few years, I have used the experience gained in this position to flesh out my freelance career.
Many people find a suitable niche and morph to fill it nicely. However, I still felt like a square peg in a round hole. I filled the space as a science-writing secretary, but I was personally feeling a little squished. It was at this point that my husband made his announcement about starting an e-magazine called Popular Immunology. The angels that sang earlier had rusty voices, but I began to hear them more as I contemplated this new avenue to a career and as we slowly developed the concept of www.popularimmunology.com. I have long felt that there is a gulf between clinicians and researchers in the understanding of disease. Here was my chance to address this disparity and bring in those who experience disease as well!
We designed a three-pronged approach for our coverage of immunological diseases and disorders, interviewing clinicians, researchers, and patients, and the results so far have been terrific. It also hasn't hurt that we've partnered with a Web developer who is as cutting-edge as the science we present.
To start something like this, I highly recommend some business sense. While I was gaining experience as a science writer, my husband entered the business world and eventually started his own company called Immunarm Inc. He learned just enough about management and marketing, legal issues, and accounting to get himself into this new world. In particular, I remember he bought one of the ubiquitous Idiot's Guide books to something called a "business plan."
So my husband and I have now stumbled down a 9-month path to the first issue of our wonderful new arts and sciences e-magazine. The Web is an incredible medium, and I believe its impact on each of us will be roughly equivalent to the impact the printing press had on the world in the 1450s. However, the Web is no longer a place where you can "build it and they will come." My husband and I are now delving into making this magazine a financial success. The feedback we've received lately from a company that markets continuing medical education material seems promising. I may be living on hopes, but I know that such a life is better than one lived in depression.
I really believe in this venture for its importance in education and awareness, and for its innovative art and science treatment. Frankly, work can be fun and invigorating, and I know we have just started tapping into the potential of communicating through Web media.
Did I anticipate where my career search would lead? Certainly not. But maybe the risks I took in grad school to earn my Ph.D. translated into an ability to embark on another risky venture--to figure out what would be a more fulfilling career for myself. There was no preliminary exam to take, or dissertation to write, or other milestone along this journey. I had to listen to those angel voices that alerted me to what I personally felt motivated to do. My advice is to recognize that each of us is different and to accept that it is OK to love science but not benchwork. So listen to the voices of your own angels, and good luck with whatever it is they persuade you to do.