This article on writing about biomedical researchers is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Today’s expert is genetics researcher Dan Koboldt. He became a researcher in 2003 when he joined a laboratory at Washington University that was part of the International Haplotype Mapping Project (the sequel to the Human Genome Project). Over the next fourteen years, he worked on the 1,000 Genomes Project, the Cancer Genome Atlas, the Alzheimer’s Disease Sequencing Project, and other research efforts. He also co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals.
As you probably now, Dan dabbles in science fiction and fantasy. The final volume in his Gateways to Alissia series will be published by Harper Voyager on February 2018. He is also the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction, a reference for genre fiction authors that will be published by Writer’s Digest in Fall 2018.
Writing About Biomedical Researchers
Scientists are among the most-maligned professionals in genre fiction. Having spent fifteen years as a biomedical researcher, I can tell you that the way we’re portrayed in books, movies, and television rarely reflects the reality. The most common stereotype (and the one that offends me the most) is the bookish, dusty academic with his head in the clouds. You know, the nerdy guy with glasses and no social skills.
Sure, I wear glasses most of the time and my social skills leave something to be desired. But we’re not all like that. Similarly, female scientists (yes, there are female scientists; they make up 30% of the science and engineering work force) are not all manic pixie dream girls like Abby in NCIS.
Beyond these stereotypes, there are also a lot of misconceptions about how biomedical research is done in the modern (Western) world. In this post, I’ll teach you enough to write about it competently.
Part 1: The Training Montage
Most scientists, particularly those on research and tenure tracks, have followed a fairly structured training program:
- Undergraduate studies, typically in a STEM major (Science, Tech, Engineering, or Math). If you’re serious about a career in research, you have to take all of those pesky “weed-out” courses, like discrete mathematics, physics, and organic chemistry. And you have to work hard so that you can get into a good grad school program.
- Graduate school, most often a PhD (4-5 years) or MD (4 years). The best programs are extremely competitive, attracting a host of well-qualified applicants from all over the world. There’s almost always an in-person interview with members of the department. In this period there are classes (of course), teaching responsibilities, and lab rotations where you provide free labor to departmental labs.
- Post-doctoral training (2-3 years), informally known as your “postdoc.” In this stage, you have a graduate degree but are still a glorified grad student. It’s almost like an apprentice position where you work closely with an established researcher to learn the ropes. Basically, you get worked like a dog for not much pay and do the projects your advisor doesn’t have time to do.
While in your post-doc, you’ll begin applying and networking with researchers in hopes of taking your next step.
Part 2: The Startup Faculty
The next move is often the most difficult: landing a faculty appointment at a research institution. Notably, there is a HUGE supply of PhDs and post-docs competing for a very limited number of assistant professorships. Often before taking this leap, young scientists will take “staff scientist” positions which pay better than post-docs and provide additional experience.
But the ultimate goal is to land a position as an assistant professor. If you’re lucky enough to land a job offer, it usually comes with a “startup package” — a commitment of salary, research funds, laboratory space, and other resources to kick-start you research career.
Your main responsibility as a young faculty member is to (1) publish peer-reviewed research papers and (2) win grant funding. Note that successfully doing item #1 is generally required for #2, which is why you need the startup funding. By the end of the startup, you’re expected to have won enough grants to fund your own salary and your research program.
Part 3: The Mid-Career Researcher
If and when you have established (and funded) a research program, you keep going. More papers. More grants. If you’re tenure-track, you’re trying to land papers in top-tier journals like Nature and Science. Most of the time, the research required to merit such a publication takes a well-funded group years (and a lot of money) to complete. Your next promotion is to associated professor, which is where many researchers spend a large portion of their careers.
Tenure-track, which is the most competitive faculty track, comes with a clock. You have a finite number of years (usually around five) to build the credentials that merit a tenured position. If you get it, you’ve hit a major career milestone. If you don’t, you’re fired.
Part 4: Full Professor and Beyond
At most institutions, there is still a hierarchy among tenured faculty. The full professorship is the golden ticket item; often this an “endowed” professorship which means that there’s big money behind it. Endowed professorships require well-heeled fundraising by universities, and are used to lure high-profile researchers to bring their programs to the institution. They’re also the golden cup award for the most successful in-house faculty.
There are leadership positions as well — memberships on university committees, institutional review boards, etc. The department chair is arguably the most obvious coveted position for an academic researcher. Department chairs have a lot of administrative duties, but also a great deal of prestige and influence over department decisions.
Life As A Biomedical Researcher
The day-to-day activities of a biomedical researcher can vary widely depending on their specific expertise, the size of their operation, the type of research being conducted, and to some extent personal preference. One common misconception is that high-level researchers spend a lot of time in a laboratory wearing a lab coat. Successful researchers don’t have time to run experiments themselves. They employ lab technicians, postdocs, grad students, and staff scientists to do most of the actual lab work.
Also, biomedical research is an increasingly data-driven field, with much of the work being done on computers. This is especially true in the field of genetics. I spend much of my day running analyses and looking at results on a huge monitor in my office. I do have a lab coat, but mostly because I’m expected to have one. If I put it on and walk into the lab, my co-workers will rightly assume that something has gone terribly wrong.
A researcher like myself (an assistant professor) divides his day into a number of activities, including:
- Lab, team, administrative, and project meetings
- Planning experiments and analyzing data
- Conference calls, especially for collaborative projects
- Writing and revising manuscripts and grant proposals
- Reviewing others’ manuscripts and grant applications (peer review)
- Training/advising graduate students and postdocs
- Various administrative tasks like reports, annual reviews, financial disclosures, etc.
Yes, I’m a biomedical researcher, but I don’t live in the lab.
Tips for Writing About Biomedical Researchers
Finally, I’m going to give you some esoteric bits of information about biomedical researchers (and academia) to help you write about them more accurately. Here are some things you might like to know:
- We love coffee. I’m never more than 50 feet from my dark master. Not everyone drinks coffee, but it’s pervasive at meetings, seminars, conferences, and everywhere we gather.
- Things start late. Conference calls, meetings, and other scheduled events traditionally begin about five minutes after the scheduled time. It drives our private sector friends crazy.
- E-mail is the preferred channel. Most of us use e-mail as the primary communication tool, and prefer to be contacted that way. We see the phone as a necessary evil, but avoid it when possible.
- Tweed jackets are rare. In most research labs, business casual is the rule. It’s probably more casual than most private companies require of their employees. In contrast to the stereotype, however, many of my colleagues are quite snappy dressers. For real.
- Everything is a team effort. Most successful researchers have an entire staff working for them who share some (but not all) of the credit for the work. Most high-impact projects involve groups from multiple institutions around the country (or even the world).
- We’re good writers. We have to be, to get papers published and grants funded, but I’m continually impressed by my colleagues’ writing. We also have the benefit of constant peer review/critique which helps us improve our work on almost everything we submit. Virtually every accomplished scientist I know is an excellent writer.
- We’re often good presenters, too. Our work often requires us to do a lot of public speaking. This is a sill that’s been useful in my author career, as I’ve presented to rooms of 800 fellow scientists (some of whom are Nobel laureates). It’s intense, but I like it. Successful scientists are often very, very good at presentation and storytelling. Some even go so far as to get stage training. Seriously.
- You get all types in science. Types of people, that is. Research is our day job. Outside of it, my colleagues are competitive athletes, elected officials, gun nuts, dog catchers, and amateur wrestlers. Those are just the first few that came to mind.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about biomedical researchers and a day in our lives.We defy stereotypes in countless ways. If you write scientist characters, please give that some thought. And hey, drop me a comment or an e-mail if you have any questions!
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