Why I Love Contract Science Writing, an Evaluation

Science Writing for Everyone

As an engineering consultant, I knew I was busy, solving problems, slogging through tedious environmental regulations (CFR Title 40 still gives me the willies), and enduring round after excruciating round of report editing; but I never considered why I was doing these things or what skills I was gaining. I did not appreciate the value of my circumstances. Years later it become obvious that what I was really doing as a consultant was developing amazing technical writing skills; acquiring a keen attention detail; learning to manage projects, teams, and clients; learning how to sell products; and, this is the big one, learning how to take relentless critical feedback and integrate it without any sense of personal attack. If I had realized this at the time, how much more could I have grown? How many opportunities did I waste?

I like to think I learn from my mistakes, and since I prize the efficient use of time, it is now standard practice to reflect on any project and evaluate: 1) what am I learning, 2) what skills am I developing, and 3) how can I gain as much transferable experience as possible?

Over the last two years, I have taken on several technical writing contract projects and love them. Below are my reflections on the “why” and the general criteria they meet:

1) Exercise an existing skill: technical writing skill

Neglected skills atrophy the same as unused muscles, regardless of the number of years invested in developing them. I spent five years learning Italian and how much can I speak now?- nada..or is it niente? Contract writing for multiple companies provides excellent skill reinforcement since each project is different. It hinders recycling a formula from project to project and requires active thought and growth.

2) Expand an existing skill: scientific communication to a broad audience

Scientists talk a great deal about the importance of communicating science to the general population, but most of us never do. A poster or a talk at a general interest conference doesn’t count. The closest I had come was writing due diligence reports to business people with Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR).

This is not Science Writing

Tucker Martin, Worchester Polytechnic Institute

When I started writing service descriptions for Science Exchange (SE) I learned what it meant to write for anyone. Describing “science for the people” forced me to distill concepts to the basics and to ask for feedback from naïve audiences. It became clear that examples of when to use a service are most important and reinforced the idea that analogy is usually the best tool for disseminating knowledge to uninformed audiences.

3) Develop new skills: learn novel techniques and fill-in knowledge gaps

Writing service descriptions and especially grants for different companies requires learning about new fields and techniques outside the narrow focus of my research. It forces me to stay up to date on current science and technology trends. Contract writing can bring to light any gaps in knowledge, as well. I have had to fill-in plenty of holes in my areas of expertise.

4) Lead to additional opportunities: other contract projects

Learning the theory behind new fields helps me find opportunities to gain technical experience in areas outside my existing expertise like next-generation sequencing. It also provides conversational knowledge for conferences and networking events. Through engaging people in deeper conversations other opportunities arise that allow me to stay on that exciting slope of the learning curve and keep cycling through the list above.

Deer Mountain: the basis of my first writing contract

My first paid writing project in 2nd grade entitled “3 miles that became 6″ tells the harrowing tale of my family’s hike on Deer Mountain. Critical acclaim has been slow in coming.

Perhaps these general criteria will provide something to mull over the next time you evaluate a project and consider stepping a little outside your comfort zone. Always keep asking, “what am I gaining and could I grow more?”

Connect with me on Maven

Too hot to hold?: “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” event reflects competition in biotech

Biotech is on fire with new tools

The October 1, 2014 “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” event at Bio-Rad hosted by the Women in Bio San Francisco chapter highlighted the excitement of emerging biotech resources and profiled some of the women that are pioneering these technologies. However, each of the panelists has challenging competition to consider, as the scary side of great ideas is that they rarely come from only one source. The approaches these companies are taking, or will take, to carver out their niche in the rapidly growing biotech market should provide good parables for anyone considering entering the biotech startup world.

Dr Rachel Haurwitz, President and CEO of Caribou Biosciences, was the panelist that most represented how a hot idea in biotech spreads like wildfire and how focusing on a specific application of your tool can keep you relevant.

Caribou is in the CRISPR system genome editing game. When the CRISPR system was first described in Science in 2007 it was esoteric and best left to PhD molecular biologists. However, people wanted it and the demand sparked a race to simplify the system into a tool for anyone. Today, a search on Science Exchange brings up ten providers offering CRISPR contract services. To do-it-yourself, Addgene provides extensive resources and kits are available from Clonetech, OriGene, System Biosciences, Life Technologies, and more.

As a small startup, Caribou is avoiding being engulfed by the CRISPR blaze by focusing on a narrow market in a sexy field: epigenetics. Modifying epigenetic markers adds additional complexity to genome editing that the large kit makers are not ready to address, but that academic and industrial researchers need. This niche is giving Caribou time to grow and evolve. It also may make them attractive to those big companies.

Jessica Richman, President and CEO of uBiome, may face a similar challenge. uBiome is in the hot field of microbiomics and companies are popping up all over to stake early claims. Microbiomics is so nascent that the majority of these companies are in extreme stealth-mode; however all biotech startup expositions and competitions seem to include at least one, if not several. Watch closely, the microbiomics explosion will soon provide plenty of marketing and business development lessons.

Microbiomics and Dr Natalie Wisniewski’s PROFUSA, Inc., which is focused on implantable devices for monitoring tissue oxygen levels, also brought to mind the issues with “quantified self” product competition. Quantified self is commonly associated with “wearable” devices, like FitBit, Nike Fuel, and old-fashioned pedometers, but it can encompass any type of self-monitoring. Buy-in for these products is extremely low outside of tech bubbles like San Francisco according to TechnologyAdvice but more and more continue to flood into the market. Furthermore, NBC News reports consumers bore of them quickly with 40 percent of owners abandoning the product. This does not bode well for products that rely on a consumers attention span.

As an implantable device, PROFUSA is, according to Wisniewski, “what comes after wearables.” It has a medical application, but they will still face the wearable challenge of making continuous monitoring records useful to doctors. A The Daily Beast article highlights how these devices can be valuable tools, but concedes that most doctors have no interest in the data, which can come in an indigestible deluge. Without the acceptance of the medical community, and until doctors and insurance providers start requesting this information, self-monitoring devices may struggle.

As the title “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” suggests, biotech is full of scorching new ideas; but it never hurts to remember that to keep a company vibrant takes as much innovation as that first idea.

Connect with me on Maven

The world of fecal microbiota transplants

Poop pills or bacteria pills

Not to be confused with these poop pills, FMT requires transplantation directly into the colon

This is the link to my most recent post for uBiome on fecal microbiota transplants (FMT).

A little taste:

Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is the therapeutic process of transplanting feces from a healthy individual to an ailing recipient. Despite the obvious “ick” factor of receiving healthy poop from your sister, husband, or friend, people suffering from debilitating Clostridium difficile bacterial infections are overlooking the ick in hopes of a C. difficile cure. Currently the only indication for which FMT is approved by the FDA is C. difficile colitis and there is contention as to the efficacy of FMT for C. difficile treatment.”

Thank you from California Academy of Sciences

Oral swabbing for uBiome by Cal Academy

Angus Chandler, Academy postdoc, and Sean Edgerton, graduate student at SFSU, demonstrate oral swabbing

Check out my blog post on the wonderful thank you letter we received at uBiome from the California Academy of Sciences.  Visit both uBiome and the Cal Academy at Bay Area Discovery Days November 1, 2014.