By Joana Dias, Ph.D., Visiting Fellow at the Vaccine Research Center, NIAID and Eimear Holton, NIAID Training Social Media/Web/Outreach Program Specialist
On October 28, 2020, the NIH FelCom’s career development subcommittee hosted a seminar on “Careers in Science Communication” featuring panelists from government, academic, and pharmaceutical sectors: Dr. Swati Dadhich, Medical Writer III and Regulatory Affairs Specialist at the Center for Cancer Research, NCI; Dr. Vanessa McMains, Senior Media Relations Representative at Johns Hopkins University; and Dr. Scott Vuocolo, Medical Communications Lead at Viela Bio.
Science communication careers range in types of roles, required skillsets, and day-to-day functions. Under the umbrella of science communication, many different niche areas exist that don’t necessarily overlap, including scientific editing and publishing, outreach, marketing, and regulatory and scientific non-clinical writing. Understanding where your own interests and expertise fit under this umbrella is an essential first step when considering this path.
Regulatory Medical Writer in Government
As a regulatory medical writer, Dr. Swati Dadhich explains that there’s little room for creativity when writing SOPs, policies, and clinical trial protocols—assignments that align with her process-driven mentality and affinity for detail-orientated work. Flexibility and the ability to work well with large teams to put their ideas to paper is a significant aspect of her role. From her postdoc experience, she recognized that she loved collaboration, a key element of her chosen career path, which includes project management, leadership, conducting meetings, and communicating with project stakeholders.
Science Media Relations in Academia
Identifying her likes and dislikes was the first step on Dr. Vanessa McMains’s path from Ph.D. to science media relations and communication. She began to run mini experiments in grad school to test science communication roles against her interests. These small tests led her to realize she preferred writing over editing, and she subsequently wrote for various NIH campus publications, including The NIH Catalyst and Research Matters. She also helped found the Graduate Student Chronicles. Her current role in media relations at Johns Hopkins University is varied and unpredictable. She writes press releases and organizes interviews between the media and researchers, using video, graphics, and audio to communicate the science effectively.
Medical Writer in Industry
Dr. Scott Vuocolo’s role encompasses writing abstracts, presentations, manuscripts, posters, and related documents as well as answering questions from healthcare professionals about a company’s drugs and products. He acts as the intermediary between basic research and commercialization. The majority of his work revolves around preparing, tracking, and disseminating data. He has experience as a medical writer ranging from working for pharma giants like Merck and Pfizer to his current role at Viela Bio, a small biotech company with one recently launched product. Dr. Vuocolo emphasized that his specific job title exists at many companies, but the actual position often encompasses different roles and responsibilities depending on the company.
For those interested in this career path, all three speakers advised session participants to practice and develop writing skills by attending classes and workshops, applying for internships/fellowships/volunteer opportunities, or joining writing associations. Networking and conducting informational interviews are great ways to meet the right people to learn from and allow you to demonstrate your interest in this career path—and might even create possibilities you didn’t know existed.
Writing training and resources
- National Association of Science Writers
- D.C. Science Writers Association
- International Society for Medical Publication Professionals
- American Medical Writers Association
More detailed information about the roles and responsibilities of medical writers, as well as the knowledge and skills required to succeed as a medical writer, can be found in the following articles:
- Clemow, D.B. et al., Medical Writing Competency Model - Section 1: Functions, Tasks, and Activities. Therapeutic Innovation & Regulatory Science, 2018. Vol. 52(1) 70-77.
- Clemow, D.B. et al., Medical Writing Competency Model - Section 2: Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Behaviors. Therapeutic Innovation & Regulatory Science, 2018. Vol. 52(1), 78-88.