On the job with…Dr Leah Cannon

EMCR Forum interview with Leah Cannon
Editor, Life Science Network

What is your current occupation or position?

Community and Content Manager at Life Science Network.

How did you get into the area?

I've always loved writing, so when I started my postdoc in San Diego I volunteered to write and edit for a student and postdoc-run organisation called Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR). I ended up becoming Editor-in-Chief at OBR and managing a team of writers from different chapters around the world. That position gave me the chance to learn about content writing and marketing and also allowed me to build up a network of contacts in science communications.

I also did some volunteer communications work for the community lab Bio, Tech and Beyond and joined a startup company called SciStart as the Director of Marketing (working for equity not a salary). All this unpaid work allowed me to connect with my boss who asked me if I would like to take on my current role. It's the perfect job for me, so of course I said yes!

What do you enjoy most about working in this area?

I love science and learning about new areas but I didn't love the day-to-day tedium of bench work. I also didn't love the very poor job prospects in academia, so I knew I should be one of the over 80% of people who eventually leave.

I wanted to find a job that combined writing with science and one that is flexible in terms of hours since I have a young family.

I really enjoy talking to scientists and other industry professionals about their work, their challenges and their solutions, and sharing their stories with the world. I also love working with new writers and seeing their writing skills and their confidence improve over time.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

I work remotely and I also do some freelance jobs as well as my main job. There is no one looking over my shoulder making sure I work and I don't have a set schedule or specific tasks that I have to do everyday. I am free to decide what I want to write about and publish and who I want to talk to. While that freedom is one of the things I love about this job, it is also one of the most challenging. I have to be careful not to spend too much time on social media or researching one particular article just because I find it interesting.

I work from home so it can be isolating and lonely.

Also I am based in Perth, Australia, but Life Science Network is a global platform so I have to work across all time zones which can make scheduling phone interviews and meetings tricky and means I am often working late at night.

Describe a typical day in your job?

I start with answering emails from writers or from people with whom I am trying to set up an interview. Then I post articles on social media because my morning time is late afternoon/early evening in the US.

I also use social media, particularly twitter, for story ideas. If I see an interesting tweet from someone, especially about early-researcher career development or about startup companies, I usually contact them to see if they would like to do an interview.

I write at least one article a day.

Then I take a break to pick up my kids and do dinner, bath time, bed time. Then after 8pm I often do phone interviews with people in the UK, Europe or the US because of the time difference and more social media because now it's a good time for people in the UK and Europe.

What excites you about your area?

So much exciting research is going on and there are many really interesting startup companies being spun out of research. I always get very excited hearing about that and also hearing about people's career transitions and all the different types of jobs there are that are related to science.

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research assist you with a career in this area?

I would not be able to do this job if I didn't do a PhD and postdoc. That training taught me how to read scientific papers and learn about areas in which I am not an expert. This gives me the confidence to talk to scientists working in many different fields. It also means that I do really understand what it means to be a PhD student and a postdoc. I also understand the challenges of transitioning away from the bench so when I talk to people, I am coming from a genuine place of understanding and I don't feel like a fraud. I think this helps me to ask the right questions.

Any advice for EMCRs wishing to pursue a career in your area?

You can't break into this field without networking and gaining experience. People want to see examples of what you can do and where you have published work (blog posts, articles in popular media etc not academic papers). While that can seem daunting, if you just take small steps, you will get there.

Reach out to the communications team at your institution—they are usually very friendly and willing to let you publish on the institution's blog. They may even have an official internship program.

Life Science Network is an open community-based publishing platform, so anyone is welcome to sign up and publish articles related to science. I am happy to work with any novice writers to come up with an idea and polish a draft to publication level.

Big publishers like Nature and Scientific American also have community blogs and those editors are very friendly so you can pitch article ideas to them over email and they will often say yes.

If you have any questions about science communications, I'm happy to answer them. My email is lcannon@lifesciencenetwork.com.

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