Carla Brown discovered her passion for health and science communication as a teenager. One day when she was in her doctor’s office, she remembers looking at a poster on the wall, which listed instructions for washing hands. She said to her mom, “When I’m older, I’m going to do stuff like that, but way better,” Brown says. She has since embarked on a career that aims to communicate health information in an unconventional way—using gaming technology.
For her Ph.D. research, Brown investigated new antibiotics to treat gut infections. On the side, she ran microbiology workshops to educate children about the responsible use of antibiotics. Through the workshops, she became interested in finding new ways to engage children in the learning process, so she came up with the idea of developing a competitive card game they could play with one another. Named “Bacteria Combat,” the game asks players to fight their opponents using cards representing good and bad bacteria, as well as antibiotics. Some bacteria are impervious to antibiotic attacks, teaching game players about antibiotic resistance.
Brown, who was “a massive gamer” when she was a child, secured funding to convert her card game into a mobile app. Then, upon finishing her Ph.D., she launched her own company called Game Doctor to develop evidence-based digital games for education and health care organizations.
In the company’s early years, Brown, who was on Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list in 2017, worked to develop Game Doctor in her spare time while she completed a postdoc researching the effectiveness of science education games. She then worked for Public Health England for 1 year, designing a broad range of teaching materials.
Last year, though, she decided to commit fully to her company to see it grow to its full potential. It’s an experience that she has found challenging, but also fun—with similarities to the experience of playing an actual game. “It’s almost like working on a puzzle all the time,” Brown says. “You’re constantly trying to figure out … what’s missing from my business? How do I get it?”
Brown, who serves as the science director of Game Doctor and works with a team of freelancers and collaborators, shared her professional joys and challenges with Science Careers as part of our ongoing “A Day in the Life of a Scientist” series.
Q: What main tasks does your job involve?
A: My job is so varied, but I love that aspect of it. I spend a lot of time meeting with academics, doctors, public health professionals, and pharmaceutical company representatives to understand what kind of education project they want to develop. Then I work with the concept to design the game, and I speak with my artist and developer to figure out how to implement it into a computer game or mobile app. Throughout the whole process, I make sure that the science is accurate, and that the content is engaging and targeted to the audience. Moving forward, however, I want to hire someone to work on the design and science aspects so I can focus on developing the business side.
Q: Do you work on long-term projects, or is your work fast paced?
A: In technology, it’s always really fast paced. Right now, we’ve got some Innovate U.K. funding to develop an education game about the new coronavirus, a game that we’re super excited about. We want to encourage teenagers to adhere to government guidance for avoiding infection, and we also want to reduce their anxiety during the pandemic. This last month, I’ve been working with 300 students across the United Kingdom to identify their knowledge gaps, their attitudes, and their beliefs about the virus. I’ve also been collaborating with COVID-19 researchers and a health psychologist to design the content. We have just started prototyping the software, and the game is due for launch in September.
Q: What is your work schedule?
A: I have quite a strict schedule—from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. during the weekdays—because I could sit and work all night and then just exhaust myself. That allows me to spend time with my partner and my cat, do some exercise, make dinner, have a glass of wine, and be ready and refreshed for the next workday. I’d rather make a little bit less money and have a good work-life balance.
Q: What does your usual workspace look like?
A: Currently, I am working from my home in Glasgow, Scotland, due to the pandemic, but in January I moved to a co-working space that’s located in an old building here. It has one huge shared room filled with tech companies and agencies, and it’s totally buzzing. There also are lots of little nooks where you can sit and have meetings with clients.
Q: How has the lockdown affected your ability to do your work?
A: I find it quite difficult, because I am such a people person. Also, I used to travel quite a lot for conferences, pitching my business and trying to get investment. Having said that, not traveling this year has given me time to focus. I’ve also had time to play other games again and this has really benefited my work. That’s been a massive learning experience for me—that you need to save time for the things that inspire you, because you can’t just work all the time and expect your work to be high quality.
Q: What elements of your academic training are you still using today?
A: I brought my analytical skills. I’m able to problem-solve quickly. I also brought my knowledge of science and my connections within academia.
Q: What other skills did you have to learn?
A: Definitely organization and budgeting skills. At the beginning, I was just very excited about projects, but now I realize you need to cost it up—because if you’re not going to be able to pay yourself and your team properly, it’s not worth doing. I had to learn about funding and investment, business plans, marketing, and sales strategies. You don’t get any training during your Ph.D. on how to recruit and manage people. So I’ve also had to learn how to deal with uncomfortable conversations, like when you need to say to someone that actually, they’re not right for the project.
Q: What is your least favorite part of the job?
A: The administration and accounting side is my least enjoyable—looking at cash flow projections and planning how much money I have to make to pay everyone. I feel less creative and it can be quite stressful.
Q: What have you found most challenging so far?
A: Probably just growing a company, because you have to get to know people and then they have to trust you. Earning their respect and demonstrating my value as a business owner and a game designer has taken a long time. And then, if you take your foot off the gas, you can lose all your projects. So, surviving has been challenging, but rewarding as well.
Q: Do you miss anything from academia?
A: I miss research in general. But I’m glad that I don’t work in a lab; I wasn’t very good at that. Still, when you’re a Ph.D. student, it’s so easy to get on that conveyor belt and then feel bad about yourself when you don’t become a PI [principal investigator]. After I left academia, I felt like I lost my identity a little bit and I took a step back to look after my mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy has helped me identify what I value, what makes me happy, and what I want to do in my life. I’ve been able to build myself back up again.
Q: Do you have any advice for early-career scientists who are thinking about following a similar path?
A: A lot of the time, you think that you want to do something, but you’ve actually not experienced it. Do some small projects on the side to see if you like it and make connections. And then, it’s scary, but I’d tell anyone who has a business idea to try to do it full-time even just for 2 months, because it allows you to see how much more you get done. Be confident in yourself, as you’ve already started to develop the skillset of an entrepreneur during your Ph.D., having had to problem-solve, think about how things need to be done, and act quickly.
Finally, don’t take everything so seriously. If you’re stressed and you are worrying, time just flies by and you’ve not actually enjoyed any of it. So just try and enjoy all the little things that you’re doing—every small conversation, every conference, every meeting.