A Day in Internal Communications


As a high school student in the Netherlands, I dreamed of a career in which I could pursue my interests in chemistry and biology. I never imagined my career would take me to Toronto and connect me to the whole spectrum of research and development in arthritis.

Early in the morning, my husband, a public affairs manager with a major television network, and I get our two pre-school sons ready for the day. I drop the older one off at the daycare centre and continue to the office. My work at the Canadian Arthritis Network involves contact with scientists, physicians, trainees, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government, and people with arthritis. With a quick cup of tea, I check my voicemail and e-mail messages to see if there is anything urgent and start the round of phone calls and meetings that make up my busy day.

The Network is a not-for-profit organization, funded by the federal government through the Networks of Centres of Excellence. There are nine administrative staff members and more than 140 scientists and clinicians within the membership. The Network distributes grants for research and training into the causes, treatments, and cure of arthritis, which affects one in seven people. It also brings scientific discoveries to market by facilitating technology transfer and commercialization.

As the executive director, research and development, one of my jobs is to coordinate the R&D within the Network by speaking to the members about their work, acting as a conduit, and sharing information. My focus is on internal communications that link our members scattered through 40 academic institutions across the country.

We are a virtual organization, so keeping members linked is essential. Traditionally, scientists worked alone, driven by their curiosity. The Network forges collaborations that unite people from disciplines as varied as cancer research, veterinary medicine, diagnostic imaging, tissue bioengineering, and methodologies and outcomes. These multidisciplinary groups form unique collaborations that result in an integrated approach to research.

My first call is to a pain specialist in London to discuss his research interests. I find out what he needs for his latest project and I start the search for collaborative opportunities. A Network member in Vancouver is an epidemiologist. I make a note to call him at noon to set up a meeting in which the two investigators can discuss their mutual interests and develop a project.

I receive a call from a graduate student who is working on one of the Network-funded projects. Her area of specialty is diagnostic imaging using micro CT. It's time for matchmaking. The student has to learn a number of techniques that will be applied on the project, so I call a veterinarian in Montreal to arrange a placement in her lab for the student as part of a Network program of student rotations. The student will learn about the anatomy of a joint and the pathology associated with arthritis in the Montreal lab. I then call a Network member who works with ultrasound and arrange for the student to do a rotation in his facility in Toronto. I contact an MRI specialist in Hamilton who agrees to a third rotation to complete the student's learning experience.

By then it is time to call the researcher in Vancouver. He is excited about the possibilities and we arrange to meet with the pain specialist. He suggests another scientist who can offer expertise that would really help the project. I add another Network member to the meeting.

Someone in the office orders sushi for lunch and we share our morning experience in the boardroom. A colleague tells me one of the researchers she is working with would be an excellent resource for the pain project. I add him to the list.

My phone rings again. This time it is a young scholar working on implants and devices. He has just started his career and does not know too many people. He needs a clinician with experience in imaging--another matchmaking opportunity. I make some suggestions and he is quite pleased with the ease with which he can tap into the pool of expertise in Canada in arthritis research.

A commercial opportunity then presents itself. A scientist in Kingston has disclosed an invention. A patent search shows there is an opportunity for commercialization. I do a bit of market analysis and call some contacts in the pharmaceutical industry. There is some interest in the discovery. I arrange a meeting to explore that interest and see if we can get financing or if there is an opportunity to co-develop the technology and perhaps an interest from the company to acquire the license. This is a large pharmaceutical company in the United States and the discovery may fit into their drug development pipeline. The energy levels are running high by now. Time for another cup of tea!

The phone rings again. A colleague in Germany is working late and calls to talk about the bilateral exchange program we are setting up. It will offer young Canadian researchers an opportunity to work in Germany for 3 months during the summer and makes positions in Canada available to young German researchers. This program will give young people exposure to the leading scientists in their field and may help us attract foreign students to make their careers in Canada.

A reporter calls and I do a media interview for a newspaper to explain the unique approach (multidisciplinary and virtual network) of arthritis research in plain language that everyone can understand. I then go to a meeting with the president and director of public affairs to work on the content of our annual report.

My last call of the day is to a prominent scientist I am trying to get to deliver the keynote address at the annual scientific conference. I already have commitments from Network members, well-known researchers, and pharmaceutical company executives to deliver presentations. I have to organize a workshop for the students and make a note to phone a few people about that tomorrow morning.

I rush from work to the daycare centre to pick up my son and then home. My day ends with my family. My older son likes to help me cook dinner and produces great works of fridge art. We read and play together.

Juggling my time to accommodate work and family responsibilities remains a challenge. As an immigrant, I don't have any close family at hand to help out, but a supportive husband and dedicated caregiver enable me to travel to attend scientific conferences, meetings with Network researchers, and other arthritis related events.

I didn't plan to work in communications, but my current role seems a natural fit. Science needs good spokespersons to demystify it and make it accessible. We often talk about complex things that only other scientists can understand, using too many long, complicated words. A media interview forces you to translate the jargon into ordinary words. And writing an annual report teaches you how to tell your story in a compelling way.

The path that brought me here began in high school. I wanted a university degree that would include my favourite subjects. The University of Amsterdam developed a course called medical biology to encourage young people to become researchers. Traditionally, scientists had a background in medicine or biology. Those from medicine often did not have enough laboratory or technical expertise and those from biology had spent a lot of time studying botany or ecology but not enough on medical science related to animals and humans. The new program addressed these deficiencies and was a perfect fit for my interest in human biology and chemistry.

I spent the final year of my undergraduate program on a science project in a laboratory. I decided to work in a laboratory in the United Kingdom to improve my scientific English and was fortunate in being able to work for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly on the progression of arthritis. On my return to the Netherlands, the company offered to fund my PhD studies if I continued my arthritis research in their laboratory. After obtaining my PhD from the University of Sheffield, I had to decide whether to remain in academia or venture outside, ideally to find a position where I could use my scientific knowledge while incorporating business and communications.

My advisors suggested postdoctoral work, and to my mind the scientist doing the most interesting work in arthritis was in Montreal. Dr. Robin Poole takes a broad approach, looking at the progression of the disease rather than focusing on one element. After viewing my presentation at a conference in Vienna, he offered me a position in the Joint Diseases Laboratory at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Montreal. While completing my studies in Montreal, I did consulting for pharmaceutical companies, which exposed me to the business side of scientific research.

After considering jobs with a public relations firm and a management consulting firm, I accepted a position as a drug development specialist with Apotex, a Canadian pharmaceutical company. My role there was project management, coordinating the work of people in different laboratories in different areas to develop innovative products to the clinical trial stage.

The Canadian Arthritis Network took an interest in my background and experience and recruited me in 1998. My role combines knowledge and understanding of arthritis research, communicating, networking, and business. While I had experience in the first three areas, the Network is providing me with an opportunity to learn about business development and knowledge transfer. Unlike working in the pharmaceutical sector, working in a not-for-profit environment means a lower salary, no bonuses, and no stock options. Nonetheless, the benefits of my current position far outweigh this when I look at the learning opportunities and the contacts I have made over the last 4 years.

Next steps? The combination of science, business, and communications offers a wide array of choices. I could round out my education and experience with an MBA when my children are a bit older and in school all day. In the rare moments I have to relax, while tending to my patio garden or helping friends decorate their homes, I think about the future and how far my experience with the Network will take me.

But now I must run. I must make advance preparations for a dinner for 10 tomorrow night--woman cannot live by tea alone!"

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