Stephanie Veerasammy, Ph.D., is a Rutgers alumnus and currently a Scientific Writer at Regeneron. As a scientific writer she writes about ‘nonclinical pharmacological studies performed to characterize the pharmacodynamics of a drug’. She credits the SciPhD program in preparing her for her career. It gave her the skills necessary to make the transition from academia to her current job. iJOBs blogger, Urmimala Basu, spoke with Stephanie to explore her journey from graduate school to the world of professional scientific writing.
Q1: Let’s begin with your early career: where did you go to school for your undergraduate studies and what was your field?
I decided to pursue my passion for understanding how living things work in the Biochemistry program at Cook College, now known as the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. I developed a deep appreciation for proteins during my time there. I absolutely loved the professors and the courses. There is so much that I still use on a daily basis that I learned so long ago with them!
Q2: Please tell us your experience working as an intern at the Colgate-Palmolive Company.
After contemplating my interests in the field of biochemistry and career possibilities during my junior year of college, I opted to join my college’s cooperative education program to get some real world working experience. I expressed, to the program coordinator, my interest in toxicology, and after reviewing relevant options for the co-op, I chose an internship opportunity with the department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety at Colgate-Palmolive in Piscataway. During my one-year internship, I worked with scientists to research the toxicological profiles of all base compounds used to make Colgate-Palmolive products. It was a great opportunity to experience industry and learn about the various roles that scientists have in an industrial setting.
Q3: You also worked at Roche Pharmaceuticals. Please tell us about your experience at the company.
I began working for Roche as a contractor at the end of the summer, after graduating with my Bachelors. I was hired to work under the direction of a scientist responsible for drug transporter studies with small molecule drug candidates. I helped her perform routine drug transporter assays that were required for IND (Investigational New Drug) applications, such as the characterization of blood brain barrier permeability of a drug, as well as other drug transporter assays that elucidated any ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion) issues scientists observed in nonclinical animal studies. After a year I was hired as a full-time regular employee, and over the next few years was given more research and writing responsibilities, in addition to the administrative duties within my department. I was really happy with the opportunity to grow within my department during my time there.
Q4: Tell us about your graduate career: where did you go to graduate school and what did you work on? What was your motivation behind going to graduate school?
I began my graduate school career as a part-time Masters student in the graduate program at NJMS while I was a full-time employee at Roche Pharmaceuticals. I joined the Master’s program as a way to strengthen my knowledge base and become a better bench scientist. After a few years of working in the pharmaceutical industry, I felt that I wanted to revisit research in an academic setting and build a research expertise that would allow me to take on more responsibilities. I knew I needed training, at the Ph.D. level, to have the expertise I desired, so I made the decision to go back to graduate school as a full-time Ph.D. student. I was really happy to be accepted to the program at Rutger’s NJMS. I had an interest in neuroinflammation in the developing brain, and luckily for me, I found a lab that had those very same interests. I joined Steve Levison’s lab and developed a project using a mouse model to study the effect of inflammation on the premature infant brain. The focus was on the hippocampal neural stem and progenitor cells and functional hippocampal development. Life as a Ph.D. student is challenging, to say the least, so working on a topic that I was curious and concerned about was crucial for my motivation.
Q5: Why did you transition from a research scientist to a scientific writer?
While I did consider a range of careers after my Ph.D. training, I realized that technical scientific writing was a natural fit for me. As a student, I had a quite a few opportunities to practice scientific writing. I wrote and edited grants and a book chapter and also reviewed papers as an ad hoc reviewer for a peer-reviewed journal. Through these activities, I found that I enjoyed the task of digesting technical information and coming up with a way to present those ideas in a concise and straightforward way. Aside from enjoying these tasks, I had often received positive feedback on my writing from my advisors, which gave me more confidence in the possibility of writing as a career.
Q6: Please describe your current job as a Scientific Writer for Regeneron. What are your duties and how do you manage them?
As a Scientific Writer, I am responsible for writing up reports that describe the nonclinical pharmacology studies performed to characterize the pharmacodynamics of a drug. These reports are presented to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) within an IND (Investigational New Drug) application in which pharmaceutical companies request permission to test the drug in humans. On average, my day consists of meeting with scientists to discuss their data in preparation to draft a report or to discuss comments and revisions to the report as it progresses through various cycles of review. In addition to these types of meetings, I spend majority of my time drafting reports on a daily basis. Drafting involves editing and assembling figures and tables of data and writing the text for all experimental details, including the overall interpretation of the data. On a weekly basis, I attend group, departmental, and research team meetings to keep abreast of the different goals my teams have at these levels. Even as a writer, I have to communicate with many different individuals and attend a lot of meetings, so my email and calendar are essential organizational tools that keep me moving along at my job.
Q7: What are some of the major hurdles you face in your current job?
I think the biggest obstacle for a Scientific Writer would be the constantly moving timelines. There are a lot of activities that are interdependent and occur simultaneously across research and development, so when one timeline changes it affects many other timelines. For this reason, a Scientific writer has to be flexible and very efficient at both multitasking and prioritizing.
Q8: What skills can students pick up in graduate school that can help with a career in scientific writing?
Aside from the ability to digest and communicate scientific information to your target audience, multitask, and manage timelines, scientific writing also requires excellent interpersonal or “soft” skills. Scientific writers must have the ability to collaborate, resolve conflicts, and communicate ideas efficiently and effectively, both in person and in writing. My advice to students interested in scientific writing or any corporate career path is to get involved in activities that require teamwork so you can hone these “soft” skills way before you start your job search.
Q9: What is a major caveat, in your opinion, of graduate education today?
I feel that a lot of students are afraid of taking time outside of the lab to work on professional growth. I often see students refusing to think about their future before graduating because they “don’t have time” and then struggling after graduation to find a job due to a lack of professional insight. While it seems like there is “no time” during your Ph.D. training, students need to acknowledge the importance of career planning and make time for associated activities. Just as important, students need to have the support of their advisors as they seek professional growth.
Q10: Have you ever been involved with the Rutgers iJOBS. How did it contribute to your career development?
The iJOBS program started when I was a bit further along in my Ph.D. training so I didn’t have the chance to participate in the full range of opportunities the program provides. Luckily, I participated in the SciPhD program hosted through iJOBS. The program was an excellent way for students to understand their potential in a non-academic environment and learn how to market themselves effectively during a job search. I found the SciPhD program very useful in my own job search, and I think most, if not all, of the students and post-docs who have participated in it would agree. I also had the opportunity to attend talks and events both on and off campus that were hosted or promoted by iJOBS or the ACA at NJMS. These events helped me network with professionals who gave me unique insights and career advice. I always felt more confident about my future after attending these events, and as a result, I developed a more positive mindset while chugging along in graduate school.
Q11: What is your parting advice to graduate students interested in scientific writing?
My advice to students who are interested in scientific writing is to actively seek opportunities to contribute to scientific writing. In your own lab, you can offer to proofread and edit your colleagues’ manuscripts and grants or even volunteer to coordinate and write a review article. Some aspiring scientific writers contribute to science blogs, which is a great way to both practice writing and showcase your thoughts as a scientist. In addition to getting more experience with writing itself, I would also suggest getting some experience working on teams since no scientific writer works alone. I think the most important piece of advice I can give to any student, whether they are looking for a career as a Scientific Writer or are interested in another field, is to take as many chances as possible to meet professionals and have extracurricular experiences outside of your lab activities. Aside from making you a well-rounded job candidate, these are the opportunities that will help you fully understand your interests and strengths, both of which are key factors to consider when planning your career.
This article was edited by Maryam Alapa