A Career Eureka Moment

During her postdoc years, Linda Ko-Ferrigno started doubting that her career was meant to be in research. This was in 1995, and in those days awareness of the varied career options available to Ph.D. graduates was poor. "There was a strong pressure to stay in academia," she says. But one day, as she was browsing through recently posted content on Science's Next Wave, she came across an article written by science journalist Marcia Barinaga describing her career transition from the bench to science writing. "A light bulb went off in my head. It was a eureka moment," recalls Ko-Ferrigno.

A decade later, Ko-Ferrigno has made the transition from the lab to science writing and editing, working at first as a science editor at a prestigious journal and now as an information and communication specialist at a research institute. Whatever career trajectory you may choose, says Ko-Ferrigno, the most important thing is "figuring out what you really like. You have to make a realistic assessment of yourself."

When Ko-Ferrigno graduated from Brown University with a undergraduate biology degree in 1987, she went to work for an environmental consultancy in Washington, D.C. "I wanted to see what I could do with a biology degree," explains Ko-Ferrigno. But a year later, she was disappointed with her role and the level of responsibility she was given and decided to embark on a higher degree.

Ko-Ferrigno started a Ph.D. in molecular biology at Northwestern University in Chicago, working on the so-called GATA transcription factors. She enjoyed working in a lab but "didn't know if I ever wanted to be a PI." She decided to gain more research experience in order to find out. So in 1994 she started a 3-year postdoc in the lab of Carol Prives at Columbia University in New York City, working on the tumour suppressor p53.

Ko-Ferrigno started her postdoc by writing a fellowship application. When that was done, she spent many months co-authoring what she calls a mammoth literature review on p53. She won the fellowship, and the review was warmly accepted. At that stage she was 1 year into her postdoc, and it dawned on her that during all that time she was writing, "I hadn't been working at the bench, but I was really happy." To her, this was a clear signal that she might not be in the right job: "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I enjoyed reading and writing."

When Ko-Ferrigno read Barinaga's article, it sowed a seed. Reading about another postdoc who loved writing more than experimental work was reassuring, she recalls. For the next several months, she considered her options. "For a period of time, I thought I wanted to be a science writer," she recalls. But after looking into several science-writing master's courses, she realized that "there is a difference to being a scientist that likes writing [and] being a science writer." Science writers, she observes, must absorb complex information quickly and write fluid prose, but they don't have to be specialists. She decided that she would prefer to be able to use her specialist knowledge and talent for details. Science writing, she thought, might not be a perfect match.

So Ko-Ferrigno started looking into editing jobs and began to realise that there were various roles behind the scenes of a journal. After some investigation, "I found that manuscript editing suited my experience best," she recalls. Manuscript editors manage the review process for research articles and commission and edit reviews. In 1997, Ko-Ferrigno applied for a manuscript-editing job at the journal Cell , which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was hired as a senior editor. She worked at Cell for the next 3 years. "It was really great," she says.

In 2000, she left Cell along with Benjamin Lewin, the journal's founder, for a new venture called Virtual Text, an online life sciences resource whose projects include publishing undergraduate biology textbooks online. Ko-Ferrigno joined the project at its development phase and worked as a commissioning editor. She left Virtual Text in 2001 when she was offered a communications role at the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre in Cambridge, U.K., a research institute that aims to bridge basic research with oncology, where she and her scientist husband had applied for jobs in parallel.

Since 2001, Ko-Ferrigno has worked at the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre as an information and communication specialist . She says her role is diverse and includes compiling the institute's annual report, writing press releases, scanning relevant literature for the institute staff, and organising content for the Web site. She also interacts with the institute's staff as well as external organizations, which she enjoys. It is, she says, "behind-the-scenes work", but "it's very rewarding."

Ko-Ferrigno believes that career trajectories should be flexible, that people should have the freedom to refine their choices as they go along. Having dug out her own career path, she urges early-career researchers not to feel "shoehorned." Although an academic career may well be a wonderful choice for the right person, she warns, "don't try to force yourself to stay in the lab."

The perception that a Ph.D. graduate has to stay in academia has slowly changed over the last decade, she thinks, and "now even coming into a Ph.D., I think students are aware there are options." Still, to choose an alternative career path, "you have to actively step out of the stream."

Making courageous career choices, she says, is a lot easier when "you have someone cheering you on." That, she says, is why Next Wave has been important for her, along with the people (on and off Next Wave's pages) who have found their own rewarding careers and chosen to mentor others. Before coming across Next Wave, she recalls wondering, "Where do I start?" Nearly 10 years later, she has some answers and is passing them on to the next generation. "Next Wave was very helpful to me. People need a little boost."

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