Episode 17: From laboratory research to science communication

Dr. Brittany Uhlorn in the promotional card for BIO5 Science Talks podcast
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Pursuing a doctorate in STEM doesn’t mean one is destined for a life at the lab bench. Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, coordinator of marketing and communications at the BIO5 Institute, shares why she transitioned to science communication after obtaining a doctorate in cancer biology. She also discusses how her training as a bench scientist benefits her new career writing stories for lay audiences and co-hosting Science Talks

The COVID-19 pandemic began just as you were finishing your Ph.D. Can you talk about the experience of graduating during a pandemic?

It was most definitely a challenge. Things started shutting down around March of 2020, and that was right around the time when my dissertation was due to my committee, and I was starting to plan my defense. My parents had their flights and hotel booked, and we had already picked out a place to go for dinner after my graduation. 

There was just so much excitement prior to the beginning of 2020 about my defense, so when COVID happened and things started to shut down, I started to realize, ‘Oh no, I won't be defending and giving my presentation in person. I'm going to have to stop my research early. I have to transition to finishing from home.” It added a whole lot more stress and emotion to an already stressful and emotional time. 

It was difficult, but I think something like that was a positive of the experience is that I was able to defend and give my presentation remotely. I had so many more people that were able to view it, including friends and family around the country that would have never been there in person. It was really special just knowing that so many more people could actually attend, even though I was giving this talk to just my computer screen in a conference room alone with my husband. We made the best of it.

You were in research - you got your Ph.D. in cancer biology - and now you're a science communicator. You're still in science, but it's completely different. How did you get to where you are today?

Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to be in science and be a scientist. That’s path that I followed through high school, and in undergrad, I got science degrees. I pursued grad school in cancer biology and did laboratory research, but during grad school, I found that while I loved science, I wasn't as excited about doing my own research. I didn't see myself sitting at the bench every day for the rest of my life. I couldn't get excited about pursuing just one project or one avenue, but I knew I loved talking to other people about the research. I loved learning about so many different disciplines outside of my own wheelhouse of biology and chemistry. 

That's why I transitioned into science communication - I can still be at the cutting edge of science and of research and still reading about it and writing about it. I'm interacting with researchers, but I'm not doing my own research. 

The two roles in essence are very different because one is doing research while the other is writing about research, but I also see them to be very similar in their methodology. For those of you who are familiar with the scientific method, you follow a certain process: you have a new question and a hypothesis, you write your methods and perform your experiment, you get your results, and you write up your conclusions. It also kind of works that way when I'm writing a story: I have a topic I want to write about. I have an idea where I think that that story might go, and then I got to collect my background research. My “experiments” might be interviewing researchers, students, program coordinators or people like that. Then I take all the pieces - all my data - and I see what the best story is going to be. What's the picture that I want to paint for the people that'll be reading? Then I write the story. 

That's one part of my job that I see that really aligns with kind of my scientific bench science training. 

In terms of what I want to do when I grow up, I'm not really sure. Maybe one day I might want to go back to the bench. Maybe I’ll want to stay in science communication. I think what is so important is that I found that there are avenues outside of research. Something that's so important for undergrads and grad students to learn is that if you pursue a science degree, that doesn't mean you have to stay as a traditional scientist. There are other options like communication and marketing and policy and education that you really can find a fit for yourself, given the training that you've had as a scientist. 

What the future holds for me, I'm not sure, but I know that's okay. It'll definitely be something in science, and I'm starting to embrace the unknown and just see where life takes me because it's been fun so far. 

Could speak to the importance of mentorship, both in being mentored and being a mentor to others, and why you would encourage anyone to seek out that in their lives?

Being a mentor and a mentee have played such an important roles in my life, both personally and professionally. I have found through my experiences that we create community through sharing our stories, both the good and the bad. It's been important to me, as I've progressed through school and now a little over a year into my professional career, to have mentors to bounce ideas off and to say, “Hey, I'm not really sure what I want to do. Do you have any people that you can connect me with that might be able to help me with this?” 

I find that most people are really willing to help and sit down with you. They'll tell you, “This is what I've been through. This was my journey,” but I think it's also important as the mentee to not feel the need to follow any exact path of your mentor. Take that advice but take the advice of multiple mentors and create your own path. 

Being a mentor, I have just loved the opportunity to help, whether it be undergraduates when I was a grad student to teach them how to do science, how to apply what they were learning in the textbook. I always encourage my mentees to look at how the personal and professional aspects of their lives collide. It’s not just thinking about the career you want the degrees you need to get there but thinking more about how it fits in with what you want for your life. It’s always important to keep asking, “How does this support my mental and emotional and physical health?” 

Talk about how you approach writing about complex scientific studies for general audiences. 

I have a unique perspective on this because I'm a former researcher and now I write about science - I talk to researchers, but I write about it for lay audiences. 

When I was a researcher, if I read something that was in just a slightly different field, there's no way that I could have understood it, even though I was in science. As a researcher, most of us are writing for our specific group. We're using very heavy jargon language that only the people in our field can understand. That's important for science, but that's not accessible to the general public at all, let alone people outside of your field. 

Now as a science communicator, when I'm thinking about the subject of my story, I like to think about the big questions in the world - the big scientific mysteries or the biggest challenges, whether that be in health or the environment. That's what they want to hear about. They want to know what researchers are doing to tackle cancer and food sustainability. When I'm going to talk to a researcher, I will read their primary research papers. I'll try to understand the science, but what's important is asking bigger picture questions, like how their work impacts the world, or what makes their science unique. It's pulling out those bigger puzzle pieces that make the science more digestible, understandable and relatable. 

When I'm writing, I always try to think of it as a story or a narrative. If there's a unique human component, I love bringing that in. For example, one of the stories that I wrote that I really like was about a student researcher who was collecting samples from COVID patients in the hospital. She was telling a vivid story about how she was emotionally impacted by seeing someone on a ventilator. I think it can be neat to start a story like that, to bring readers into this visual, to this experience and show them this human impact of this complicated research that this student was doing. 

Switching gears, in a previous interview, I recall that you told me that something others might not know - you love cooking. Can you tell us about that passion outside of work?

I absolutely love cooking and baking. I remember when I started to get old enough to be able to be around the stove and knives, my mom started to get me to cook. Every Thursday night in the summer I had to make dinner, and I hated it at the time. I hated being in the kitchen. I hated touching raw meat. In college, when I finally got out of the dorms and I was living in my own place, I realized I had very few recipes in my wheelhouse – maybe three or so. I remember going to restaurants and being amazed at the variety on the menus, so that inspired me to get more creative in the kitchen. It was then I found a love and passion for cooking.

Cooking is a science in my opinion. I have found, especially with baking, if you tweak something really essential to the recipe, you definitely know when it goes wrong. The scientific method is totally embedded in there.

You've been part of a couple of different parts of the BIO5 organization over the years – talk about how BIO5 has been important to you. 

I've been with BIO5 for almost 10 years now, since 2012, when I started my research as an undergrad. Even though I've had different roles over the years, BIO5 has really taught me a lot about collaboration and opportunity in research. When I was both in undergrad and in grad school, I saw how BIO5 brought my mentors together with so many other faculty members in different disciplines. 

As an undergrad, I worked with Dr. Todd Vanderah in the Department of Medical Pharmacology, and I was able to work on projects in many other fields like neurology and cancer biology. It was fascinating to see how BIO5 brought those researchers together. I had a very similar experience in grad school with the collaboration between my PI, Dr. Sam Campos, and Dr. Koenraad Van Doorslaer, and the different core resources that we have here that I was able to take advantage of. 

At BIO5, there is so much opportunity for growth. I have felt as a former student that I had all this training and this expertise around me to help me become the scientist that I wanted to become. Even when I knew I was transitioning into communication, there were times during grad school where I came and I talked to Lisa Romero, who is now my boss. I asked her about her job and sought out small writing opportunities to help build my skillset during that transition. 

The environment at BIO5 is so supportive to its students, researchers, and staff - they really give you whatever tools that you need, whether that is a physical tool or more of an intellectual tool to help you succeed personally and professionally. BIO5 has been great to me, and I'm just so excited to be continuing here in this role and to be able to show to all of our different audiences how wonderful this Institute is.

Do you have one last piece of advice for our audience?

These past few years have really involved a lot of self-discovery and learning how to take care of myself, as well as learning what I want in life. 

I grew up as a people pleaser and a perfectionist. I think a lot of us who are Type A live similar lives, where we're really trying hard for something, but I'm not sure we really know who we are. The pandemic has really brought into perspective the things that we sometimes take for granted and how we can sometimes not take care of ourselves, or take care of the ones around us, as well as we should be. 

It's important to take a step back and really check in with yourself and those people who are in your bubble - whether that's your family or your close friends – and see how everyone is doing. Also get honest with yourself about how you’re doing, and ask what you need to do in your life to better support yourself and the ones that you love. 

I find that when I'm taking better care of myself, then I can be a better employee, a better wife, a better friend. It’s really, really important to always remember to take care of yourself.