Interview with Dr. Betty Zou, Communications Officer at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center

betty_zou_imagePlease give us a little background about yourself.

I completed my Bachelor’s degree at Western University specializing in genetics. After that, I came to U the University of Toronto to do my PhD in the department of Molecular Genetics with Dr. William Navarre. I defended my PhD in November 2014 and stayed in the lab for a few months to finish up some projects. During that time, I was also searching and applying for jobs. I started my current job as a Communications Officers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in February 2015.

At what point in your career did you realize you wanted to leave academia/work in science communication and what influenced this decision?

For me, the realization that academia wasn’t for me came fairly late – about four years into my PhD. A big part of that came from just being around my peers. By that point, I could tell that some of my friends were incredibly passionate about research – they lived and breathed science. While I love science, I just wasn’t as passionate about it as them. This was also around the time when people started talking about funding issues in Canada and the USA and the dismal job market for scientists in academia. I decided that without the passion and dedication I had seen in some of my peers, pursuing a career in academia was not going to be worthwhile for me.

After I came to this realization, I started to seriously look at other career options. I attended every career event organized by LSCDS and other groups. One day I was skimming through the weekly table of contents from Nature and saw an article in their careers section about public information officers (PIO). These are communication officers who work at universities and other research institutes in the US. The article described the role of PIOs and how an increasing number of scientists were leaving the bench to take on these communication roles. As I was reading this article, it was like a light bulb went off – this sounded like the perfect job for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing and outreach and have been told that I’m a good writer. The idea of writing and communicating the newest—and coolest—research in different areas also really appealed to me, especially after years of studying a single pathway in a single organism.

What does your role as communications officer entail and what is your average work day like/some of the tasks you complete?

Most of my job is focused on writing. If I’m working on a story, my day will involve reading and researching background information, interviewing scientists, transcribing the interviews, writing and editing. There’s also a visual element to my work. I often create infographics and design layouts for different projects. Other parts of my day are spent doing administrative tasks like helping scientists update their web profiles, make sure that the website is up-to-date and looking for new story ideas by searching through PubMed, EurekAlert and social media.

What 3 skills do you think are necessary to be successful in science communication?

The number one skill you need is the ability to write clearly and effectively. In addition to that, you also need to have good interviewing and listening skills. Sometimes the best part of the story comes out during the interview in an unexpected way. Lastly, you need to have good time and project management skills because you’re often working on several different projects at the same time.

You did a lot of writing while in graduate school for various organizations. Are these experiences essential? What qualities or experiences would set a candidate out from the crowd when applying for science communication positions?

Yes, the writing I did for my blog and the MoGen newsletter were instrumental in helping me get my current position. Without these positions, I would not have had a writing portfolio to show potential employers. Many writing and communications job applications will require you to submit samples of your work so it’s important to have a collection of work ready. Otherwise, you’ll be scrambling to write pieces and put your application together at the same time.

Any non-academic writing, public outreach or communications experiences would complement your scientific training. Being social media savvy is also really important nowadays. If you’re able to communicate science using different media (ie. video, photos, art, podcasts, etc…) and have experience doing so, that would really help you stand out too.

What do you enjoy most about your current position? What is the most challenging part of working in science communication?

What I enjoy the most is definitely getting to know all the scientists and their work. It’s very rewarding to be able to take the excitement of their latest findings and convey that to a broader and larger audience.

The most challenging part is also related to the scientists. Sometimes when they review the story you’ve wrote, they can ask you to make a lot of changes—some of which will improve the story, others not so much. For example, they might want to add in a lot more detail about the methodology that they used but not really appreciate that it is too technical for a general audience. It can be tricky to manage their expectations and balance scientific accuracy with clear and effective storytelling.

How has having your PhD helped you in your career, if at all? Is having a PhD necessary to secure a position such as yours?

A PhD is not necessary for my position but I think it helps a lot. Having come from a research background, I can read the papers and familiarize myself with the background material more quickly. It also allows me to more easily grasp the nuances of a paper’s findings and gives me better insight into why a study is significant. I find that when I interview scientists, they are pleasantly surprised that I have a PhD and really appreciate the additional insight and expertise I bring to the story. My experience in research also allows me to ask better questions during interviews, which helps me to gain the scientist’s trust and respect.

 What 3 pieces of advice would you give to current graduate students looking to work in science communication?

  1. Practice, practice, practice. No matter what type of science communication you want to do, practice is key. Whether it’s writing or visual arts, the more you do it, the better you’ll become.
  2. Put yourself out there. Science communication is all about getting the message out. Once you feel comfortable with sharing your work, get on social media and promote it. It’s a great way to get your name out there and join a network of like-minded people. Don’t be shy to ask for feedback either!
  3. Be open-minded about opportunities. You may not find your perfect job straight out of grad school but you will likely come across opportunities that are a 60% or 75% match to your ideal career. Look for opportunities that will allow you to hone your craft, build your portfolio and receive mentorship from seasoned science communicators. And if the job calls for something you’ve never tried before, all the better – you might discover that you have a hidden skill for something new! Contract positions like maternity leave replacements are a great way to get your foot in the door and to try something new. If you don’t like it, you can leave after the contract ends. If you do enjoy the work and your employer likes you, they will generally try and find ways to keep you after your contract ends.


Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Neeti Vashi

Neeti is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics, pursuing her research in the lab of Dr. Monica Justice. She is interested in a career in Medical Affairs or Medical Writing. She can be found on LinkedIn here.