NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 16 – Media Relations Representative, JHU Medical Institute

This is the Sixteenth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Vanessa McMains

Current position: Media relations representative, Johns Hopkins Medical Institute

Location: Baltimore, MD

Time in current position: 1 year 4 months

Graduate work/postdoc: Function of the protein complex g-secretase in Dictyostelium with Alan Kimmel at NIDDK

Day-to-day: I promote the basic science up at the medical school. It’s a small team. I do anything from writing press releases to leading media around with camera crews. I do a lot of Web work like design and updates, and I do a lot of Web writing. We try to promote our researchers to a non-scientific audience. We have pages called “Meet Our Scientists” where we do Q&As. That helps the general public understand the research that’s going on, or even postdocs who may be switching projects and may not be familiar with the terms. I also organize a yearly conference for science writers. And I run social media sites, like our Facebook pages. When I was looking for jobs, I wanted something that was mainly writing. This is maybe more like 30%—but that’s okay with me. I’m always stimulated. If I were writing all the time, I might get bored.

Finding the right fit: That was my problem in science—I got bored. As a scientist in training, you’re always learning new things, but after the first few years on a project, you know all the experiments you have to do and there’s nothing new. Every day felt like the same day. I felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Halfway through grad school, I started considering alternate careers. I went to all those events through OITE where people came in and talked about different jobs.

I had a friend who was in a science writing program, but I thought writing was a horrible task. I thought I might go into editing. There was an NIH group of mostly postdocs who would meet once a week and go over people’s papers and offer tips before they submitted to a journal. I enjoyed that, but I didn’t want to do it full-time. I realized I was becoming very picky.

Train yourself up: I also got married around that time. After all the planning was over, there was this void in my life. I decided to start a grad student newsletter. Then I started asking around about what to do if you did want to be a science writer. They said you need an internship. To get an internship, you need writing samples. Well, where do you get these magical writing samples? I met someone from the NIH at a conference whose wife volunteered for NIH Research Matters. He introduced us via email and she introduced me to Harrison Wein. I wrote up a couple of things for him. He gave me really good feedback to help me learn writing. Then I was in the OITE office one day when a staff member walked by and said the NIH Catalyst needed a writer. She introduced me to Chris Wanjek, and he was like, here, have a feature story. I was totally overwhelmed at first, but I did this shark cartilage article and a few more things.

Before my final year as a grad student, I found out about the Santa Fe Writers Workshop. It’s like a boot camp for science writers. My mentor at the NIH was really great and sent me there when they accepted my application. He said it was his job to train me for my career, even if it wasn’t as a bench scientist.

The following summer, he let me apply for a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. [I was accepted, and] it was pretty much the best thing ever. I was placed at the Chicago Tribune as a science reporter. I did a couple of very good stories there, even a cover story.

Biggest frustrations: In the fall when I got back, I worked on my dissertation and started applying for fellowships and jobs. I defended in December and started a postdoc in my lab, basically tying up loose ends and getting negative result after negative result. I ended up doing that for six months. It really reinforced my thinking that I didn’t want to be a scientist. In the meantime I applied for internships at Science and Nature, the NCI communications fellowship, stuff at USA Jobs, science foundations, a company that wrote materials for undergrads, probably 20 jobs. From all of that, I got two interviews. I was totally crestfallen. I had great credentials for an opening position. OITE went over my cover letter and resume and said they were fine, although they did offer me some extra tips and advice. The economy just sucked and there were no positions. I was ready to take anything that wasn’t pipetting.

How I got my job: Someone at OITE said to go through my directory and just ask people if they knew of any open positions. I have a LinkedIn account, and I always added people after meetings and sent them a little note so they’d remember me. There was someone I knew who had taught me in a grant-writing course at Hopkins. She’d ended up in science writing there. When I contacted her, she said, “I’m actually hiring. I remember you. When can you start?”

I went in for coffee and to talk about the position. She was afraid I wouldn’t want to do the non-writing parts of the job like event planning, but I’d done that with my wedding and OITE Career Day. I went through the interview process, and when I met with the director of communications he asked me: “We have 100 applicants—why are you qualified?” I was taken aback, because it had sounded like the position was mine. But obviously, I got the job.

It’s really all about who you know. I guarantee you that if she hadn’t been working there, they would have passed over my application along with the 99 others they didn’t hire.

Essential skills: You need an incredible amount of multitasking and organization skills to do this kind of job. There are times I’m working on 10 projects at once. If you can’t stay on top of them, you’ll fail miserably. Also, there are deadlines you have to meet. It’s not like your experiment didn’t work so you can try again next week. It’s more like there’s a newsletter that has to go out tomorrow and you’ll stay until it’s finished. You need people skills to build relationships with the media and researchers; you can’t be a hermit-in-the-lab person in a setting like media relations.

The downside: It’s really a starter position. I think of myself as still being in training. People my age in journalism are more experienced because they got started in their early twenties. The salary was also something of a shock because while on paper it’s a little more than I would be making as a postdoc, the insurance and taxes are much higher. But there are great benefits and a pension. There isn’t much opportunity to move up where I am, but I think of it as putting in for the future.

The upside: I love my job. I get to do lots of things. A lot of people here used to be science writers for the Baltimore Sun. They’re very, very experienced journalists and I’m very impressed with them. But they’re very impressed with me because I have a science background. They give me writing tips, and I explain papers to them. It works out really well.

Vanessa can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.