donderdag 23 februari 2012

PCD-You: Meet Marja


From scientist to consultant ’science and society’
Marja was born in 1976 in Wageningen. After high-school she moved to Leeuwarden, where her family originated, to get a bachelors degree in laboratory science (HBO). Following, she moved to Dordrecht, and worked at Erasmus MC as a technician for a year. During that year, she found herself highly interested in biology and decided to go back to University. After finishing her Master-degree in Biology in Leiden, she started her PhD in 2001 at Erasmus MC.
As a young PhD student, Marja wanted to pursue a career in science, but changed her mind towards the end.  She finished her PhD in 2007, a year after giving birth to her first child. This was planned as Marja had always wanted to have a family. But during her PhD, she realized that if she wanted to be a successful scientist, this would mean that she could not have her family the way she wanted:  For her it was either being a scientist ór having a family.
Marja really loves science, so in her career she wanted to keep science close to her heart. She considered different options, but there was nothing that really grabbed her. Teaching for example, would draw her too much away from the real science. And then, she just happened to come across a job-ad for ‘consultant science and society’ at the department of Cell Biology at the Erasmus MC, where she used to work. She never even thought a job like that existed, applied and was successful.
Her tasks as a consultant science and society include writing press releases about discoveries within the Erasmus MC, writing content for websites, organizing public lectures, discussion nights and science-theatre. She works 3 days a week, which combines very well with her family that has grown to three kids.
Her biggest success so far was a press release she wrote about a novel scientific finding that even made it to national TV (NOS). Prior to the broadcast she spent hours on the phone speaking with journalists. This illustrated that her decision to communicate this research had been a good one. (Read the news article here [in Dutch])  

 Luck or a planned career?
In retrospect, becoming a science communicator was actually quite an obvious career choice. During her masters, Marja already followed courses in science journalism and always loved to explain her research to others. But she had never thought that these skills could be useful for her future career.
Whether this career path is a lucky shot or not, Marja loves her current job. There is lot of variety of activities, days are never similar. She is in close contact with not only scientists, but also artists, actors and other people of the creative community. She enjoys her work most when an event has been successful: when science was well presented and both the scientist and the audience had fun. What she finds challenging in her work is making scientists aware of the need for science communication. According to Marja, scientists are very modest about their discoveries. Of course, explaining the relevance of fundamental research to lay people can be challenging, but often scientists don’t see the urgency to present their findings to society at all. Even the scientist whose research made it to Dutch national TV wanted to go to a research meeting first before talking to a journalist, while Marja had been continuously receiving phone calls from 8.30h on that morning. That’s why Marja has the important task of approaching and encouraging scientists to write press-releases or to speak at a public lectures.

Unrealistic perspectives
During her undergraduate studies, it was made clear to Marja and her fellow students that the default career path was 1) obtaining a PhD, 2) going abroad for a postdoc, and 3) becoming a professor. The fact that eventually such a career would only work out for the happy few was never explained. Almost all beginning PhD students see themselves as professor in the future, and that is something very unrealistic. Marja hopes things have changed over the past years. For example, she notices that working for a company is no longer considered as something 'indecent'. Marja thinks that students should be aware that not everyone can be a top-scientist, and a PhD might not be necessary for every job. She thinks there should be positions for master-graduates other than technician or PhD student, some in-between functions that so far don’t exist.
Making students aware of their choices and options in an earlier stage, maybe even before they start a PhD, is very important according to Marja. Career fairs are useful, but often very large-scale. As PCDI´s activities are at a smaller scale and therefore more personal than career fairs. She hopes there will be more of those in the future. Although PI´s should become more aware of the need for career development, it should be the PhD student to initiate career development-activities. Graduate schools and courses may help with that, but at Erasmus MC Marja doesn’t see many things happening yet.
Although now in a very different field, Marja appreciates her PhD degree. Many things she learned such as writing in English, presenting her work, being organized, networking, now come in hand. Just like when she was a scientist, she needs to keep looking at the big picture without losing track of the details.

The future of science communication
At the moment, Marja is happy with the work she is doing. But she is also realistic: with science budgets being cut, extra ‘services’ as a department-science communicator are the first positions that are at risk to be made redundant.
Working in a close relationship with society is great in her current job, a big contrast to when she was a scientist. It is also great to be able to combine this career with her family; a 3-day working week would not have been feasible for a postdoc. She looks forward to work more hours when the kids are older and follow courses again for her personal and career development. At that moment she would have more time again to visit science events. Life is full of choices and Marja is happy to have made this one.
Her message to young scientists who don’t know which way to go is one that also applies to life in general: Always follow your heart. It is possible to combine a (large) family with a challenging career, even one that keeps science close to your heart!

This interview was posted on PCD-You 

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