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Science and the City


August 2004 saw a number of auspicious events take place. The finest athletes in the world congregated in Athens for the 28th Olympiad. Two new moons were discovered in orbit around Saturn. And the world witnessed my escape from a career in academic science. I have indeed managed to persuade a large cancer research charity that my assortment of finely honed skills--including a chronically short attention span and the ability to write endlessly--made me the perfect candidate for a vacancy in their communication department. In my new disguise as a science information officer, I have finally infiltrated the world outside the ivory tower. As a service to those of you who are wondering if there is any world out there, let me bring you my latest findings.

The work

So what do I actually do, now that I have spurned the world of samples and centrifuges? My new job combines two of my favourite things--scientific concepts and writing--in small and fascinating doses. I act as a science "translator" within the charity, converting heavy science into English so it can be communicated effectively to the public, hopefully persuading them to take greater care of themselves and also donate some cash to this worthy cause.

To give you an impression of the fabulous variety I now work with, in the past week I have tackled issues related to gene therapy, herbal medicine, psychology, and prostate cancer. I have composed descriptions of our work on oesophageal cancer, learned of the dangers of coffee enemas, and highlighted the importance of eating your greens. The work is fast and furious, requiring huge amounts of complex scientific information to be boiled down into succinct paragraphs in hours or days. This implies that time-management and multitasking skills are essential--something which suits me and my goldfish-like attention span down to the ground.

Welcome to "The Office"

To my surprise, office life is not so different from the lab after all, except that the peculiar smells come from leftover packed lunches rather than volatile reagents. Because the work is very science-based, many of my new colleagues are also refugees from the ivory tower. Precisely the kind of people I know and love. We share a slightly nerdy sense of humour, an affinity for communicating the joys of science, and a hearty dislike of mini-preps. I soon felt right at home, with piles of unread scientific papers stacking up all over my desk by the end of my first week! However, it did take slightly longer for me to shake off the nagging feeling that I should have been given a set of pipettes and a lab coat when I arrived.

She got the look

A new office-based job, of course, requires a whole new wardrobe. Gone are the days of comfortable T-shirts advertising the wares of molecular biology companies. Like the transformation of a scruffy adolescent before a university interview, I have become a proper city-type. You can now spot me in the mornings sporting proper shoes (with heels!) and smart trousers (without bleach stains!), pretending to be a captain of industry while commuting on the London underground. Unfortunately, underneath the cover I am the same person I've always been. By the end of the day my elegant outfit is covered with as many stains as when I was a scientist--but at least they're coffee rather than chemicals.

Learning the lingo

Any work culture has its own language, and a large organisation is no exception. To my inexperienced ear, corporate vernacular seems as foreign and incomprehensible as Mongolian. How on earth do you "flag something up"? Can I use the word "facilitate" without bursting into laughter? Do we need a "protocol" to have an informal chat with colleagues? And I don't think I even want to know what an "organogram" is--it sounds like a package of offal sent through the mail. *

A brand new experience

Perhaps the strangest thing I've had to come to terms with is the notion of science being subject to corporate branding. As an author of academic papers, talks, and posters, I enjoyed a relatively large degree of freedom and artistic licence. But not anymore. From typeface to vocabulary, I now have to keep my writing "on brand". As a whole organisation we stick to particular colours and fonts, and there are certain words we don't use. Reports of laboratory advances have to be hedged in cautious language for the sake of patients and their families, talking in terms of "treatment" and "survival" rather than "cures".

Although there is an unexpected twinge of sorrow that I'm only reporting science, rather than getting my hands dirty doing it, I really enjoy the faster pace of my new job. For me, life in research had dissolved into a never-ending to-do list, focused in ever-greater depth on a shrinking field. Now I get to see the big picture, read the great stories, and hear the whoosh of deadlines as they rush past. And best of all, I have something tangible to show for my work at the end of the week. My training in academic science has been invaluable, and--who knows?--one day I may return to it. But for now, as the old song goes, "Non, je ne regrette rien. . . ."

Kat Arney is currently contemplating buying her first pair of Manolo Blahniks . . . .

* "Organogram: A chart showing the working relationships of all staff positions within an organization or program and the formal supervisory structure and reporting relationships between different functions and positions of the management and staff. (From the Manager's Electronic Resource Centre.)" Nope, that makes no sense to me either. . . .