How I Got My Job: Science Communications Officer Joanne Duffy

Joanne discusses her role at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

 

When you’re in school, it’s super hard to decide on your future career. There’s already hours of homework and study, now you’ll soon add decisions about college courses and jobs to your list. Here at KISS, we’re chatting to people in different industries about how they’ve landed their dream role, what they actually do, and their advice to you. This week, we’re chatting to 

What is your current role?

I’m a Science Communications Officer at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

Can you describe what your general day to day looked like before lockdown?

On a typical day, I hop on the tube to our offices in South Kensington. Every day is different, but I’ll usually be reading through some of the scientific papers our researchers have published in academic journals. I get in touch with the scientists to make sure that I fully understand the paper and then try to simplify the science so that someone with no scientific training can understand it. From there, I’ll write up a piece of news describing the science, or a blog to get people interested. Sometimes, I’ll be writing something for a leaflet or magazine which goes out to the people who support our research with their generous donations.

I also work on video projects and infographics for our social media channels, explaining our science in a way that gets people excited.

How did you decide on this type of career?

In my last two years at university, I started to become really interested in science communication. I entered a competition on the NUI Galway campus which gave students funding to run a project – my idea was to run the first-ever undergraduate science fair. After that, I started thinking about other ways to communicate science, and I ran a science radio show called Schrödinger’s Chat on the campus radio station, Flirt FM. I entered some public speaking science competitions and was lucky enough to win lots of awards in those, and I knew I wanted to talk about science for a living.

What course did you study in college?

My degree course was general science in NUI Galway – you do a broad range of subjects in the first year and then narrow your focus as you go. I studied microbiology, zoology, and botany in the second and third years, and my final degree is in microbiology.

In college, I did maths, physics, chemistry, and biology in the first year, but I knew I really wanted to continue with the natural sciences moving into the subsequent years. It was really hard to pick which subjects to continue with because I really enjoyed everything, but I just LOVED microbiology. It’s like learning about a whole invisible world that is all around you all the time. There was no formal training in science communication in my degree, that was something I became interested in outside of my studies. I am super enthusiastic about science and nature, and people used to say to me that I “light up” when I start talking about it. I also noticed that lots of my friends found it really helpful when I would help them understand something when we studied together, so I guess I have a bit of a knack for explaining things. After my degree, I started doing a Ph.D., where you research in a lab for four years, but six months in I was itching to get out from behind the lab bench. I wasn’t enjoying it at all, so I left that and started applying for jobs in London. I started out working as a communications officer at a trade association for biotechnology companies called the BIA. That was a great role because I got lots of experience working on lots of different things like writing, social media managing, graphic design, print publications, managing committees, video work, etc. I really enjoyed the role but I wanted to get into something more science-focused rather than science-business-focused, so I started applying for new roles with a bit of experience under my belt and got my current job at the Institute of Cancer Research.

What are the ups and downs of the role?

It’s great to see a piece of writing out in the world, explaining science in a creative way. There is a great feeling of “Look! I wrote that!”. In terms of downs of the role, I think it’s really hard to read some of the statistics around cancer research sometimes, particularly around childhood cancer. Cancer research makes such an incredible difference in people’s lives, and it is so wonderful to hear those stories, but it’s not the case for everyone, and the sad stories put it into perspective some times that there is still so much work to be done. I’m glad I get to play a small part in telling the story.

What advice would you give to a student looking to get into your line of work?

I think it’s important to look at your education as a grounding – there is no one path to any job. Think about the kind of work you want to do and ask yourself what skills that person might need. See if you can pick up those skills along the way. For someone looking to get into science communication or communication generally, I would say try things like writing for your student newspaper or volunteering at your campus radio station. Not only will you get a chance to write and pick up broadcasting skills, but you’ll also meet people with shared interests and be able to bounce ideas off of them. I’d also recommend learning how to use programmes like Photoshop and PremierPro – you don’t need to be an expert, just some basic skills will go such a long way. It’s important to ask yourself what you really want too – I would still be stuck doing research I really wasn’t enjoying if I wasn’t honest with myself about where I wanted my life to go!

For more career chats, check out our series here.


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