Playing to Native Strengths


I work in the Science Policy Department of the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares ( CNIC), the Spanish national centre for cardiovascular research, which was established by the Spanish ministry of health as a centre of excellence to give impetus to biomedical research in this area. My somewhat vainglorious job title seeks to describe a range of activities, all of which require an ability to communicate information about scientific research clearly in English.

In my previous existence I was a none-too-happy postdoc researcher in London. Like others have before me, I realised that I preferred writing about science than doing experiments at the bench. I began looking into training as a medical writer and took the excellent short course in medical writing run by the Continuing Professional Development department at the University of Oxford. Had I stayed in the UK I might have ended up working with a medical communications agency. But at this time my wife landed a prestigious Ramon y Cajal fellowship in her native Madrid, and so I began to investigate the options here in Spain.

Polishing up the language

There are not so many opportunities for English science writers here, so it was important to be flexible. One of my first steps, while still based in London and finishing off my postdoc contract, was to set myself up as a freelance editor and reviser of research papers. Many Spanish scientists recognise that, no matter how good their English, writing in a second language can put them at a disadvantage with time-pressed reviewers, and they therefore seek help in polishing their English documents before submitting. There is a steady demand for this kind of service, and although it doesn't pay that well, it is an excellent way to hone your editing skills.

It is also a great way to make contacts, and this is how I first heard about CNIC, from one of the principal investigators joining the centre. The centre's scientific director is Salvador Moncada, the discoverer of nitric oxide's biological role and one of the world's most cited researchers. It was my good fortune to be working in London, where Professor Moncada heads the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, and my boss provided an introduction. Through writing an article about CNIC for Next Wave, I not only learned more about the centre, but also got to know people working here. This led to some freelance editing work, and a few months later CNIC offered me a job.

Since starting here at the end of 2002 I've continued revising scientific papers for researchers at CNIC, and I wrote or edited the scientific content of the annual report for 2002. But science writing is just one part of my job. I cover all aspects of the department's work that needs to be in English, such as a recent complete reorganisation and revision of the Web site content.

Developing a high international profile is a key ambition of CNIC, and the establishment and maintenance of contacts and collaborations with centres outside Spain is an area of my job that is set to grow in importance. One of the key projects already launched by the centre is a 6-year postdoctoral training scheme called the Programme 3+3. Under this scheme young scientists work outside Spain for 3 years and then return for a further 3 years to work within the CNIC network. I work with the rest of the Science Policy team on the documentation and forms, publicity, and the initial review of the applications. I also have particular responsibility for developing links with the fellows' host institutions outside Spain, including establishing formal research agreements with them and negotiating our respective intellectual property rights.

Many of these tasks have taken me away from direct contact with lab work and into a more general communication/administration role. I'm finding this variety both stimulating and, as they are areas in which I had no previous experience, challenging!

Investigatory skills transplanted from the lab

I can draw on my experience in research in most areas of my new job and, as it turned out, being familiar with the jargon and forms of communication used by scientists is much more important than a knowledge of Spanish. This is obviously the case for the writing and editing work, but applies equally to some of the more administrative tasks: After spending most of my adult life at university I guess I have a good feel for how big institutions are run! More generally, I think a training in science to PhD level gives you invaluable knowledge about how to seek and sift information, and this analytical and questioning mindset is applicable in almost any area. This is an often-made point, but I think it's one many PhDs underestimate--probably because we've been surrounded by others with the same skills and so have come to regard them as normal.

The fact that I have "been there and done that" gives me an immediate rapport with the researchers here in the centre. This is essential for the editing work, fostering a relaxed and open relationship where questions and criticisms can be exchanged freely. Best of all, I still have the feeling of being "one of them", which I'm sure comes from having a common background and similar outlook. This view is shared by my three Spanish colleagues in the science policy department, who also have science backgrounds (two to postdoc level). A common recollection of our experiences as researchers is the negative impact that patchy, inadequate training programmes and poor career structures have on young scientists' morale. All of us aim to use our present situation to improve that picture.

On the downside, a role as an administrator requires a certain separation and distance, as it normally involves setting limits and imposing procedures. This doesn't always square well with an easy-going relationship. The appreciation of researchers' needs and priorities gained from having been one yourself undoubtedly helps here. But all the same it is sometimes necessary to be insistent or demanding, and this can jar with your researcher colleagues. It can take a while for everyone to adjust to your being on the "other side of the fence", especially if you previously worked at the bench with the same people.

Reflecting on the chain of events that led to me getting this job, the important lessons I've learned are to be clear about what skills you have and what you want to do, to seek out and talk to people who can help you, and to take every opportunity you can to get relevant experience and training. Above all, you should never underestimate the value of the general skills you have acquired as a researcher.

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