Raeka Aiyar, PhD
I started off as a genetics researcher, driven by figuring out the basis of human health and disease. I did my PhD work in Germany, and as the only native English speaker I was frequently asked by my labmates to proofread their science documents – manuscripts for publication, grant applications, presentations. I had always enjoyed writing and language, but helping them out in these tasks sparked my passion for writing about science. Before that I had never considered how to incorporate my passion for writing into a scientific career, but I realized that there’s a real art to taking a complex concept like a scientific study and ‘translating’ its importance for different audiences (be they other scientists in different fields, funding agencies, or others) while maintaining accuracy. Around the same time, I started volunteering for some outreach and education opportunities (for example, speaking to teachers and reporters about the promise of precision medicine), which drove home for me how important – and rewarding! – it is to share the excitement of scientific discovery with non-scientists. These experiences collectively inspired me to dedicate my career to science communication.
To build my ‘scicomm’ muscles, I volunteered for every writing and outreach opportunity I could find. I started a blog and I joined Twitter. There’s an amazing amount of scientific discourse that takes place on Twitter and most news worth hearing hits Twitter first. I love live-tweeting scientific conferences because taking notes helps me process information, and because it’s a really fun science writing exercise: how do you distill down the most important points from a complex scientific talk into 280 characters? And I networked like crazy with anyone else interested in science writing, which helped me get a picture of what my career could entail.
Today, as Director of Scientific Outreach for the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute, I get to do a wide range of science communication activities that I love, for an organization that truly values outreach to all the communities with a stake in science – the public, students, teachers, donors, funders, and scientific researchers. I help plan events that we hold for these communities so that they effectively convey the importance of stem cell research and our role in the field. I write content for our website, social media, and print materials to promote awareness of our achievements and activities. I work on grant proposals to fund the research we do in-house on a variety of diseases. Every day is a bit different, and there’s never a dull moment!
I think of my responsibility in biomedical science writing as balancing hope and hype. It’s crucial to get that right, because all too often exciting discoveries are overhyped and oversimplified in a misleading way, but it is important to keep all of our audiences hopeful in a measured, informed way so that these discoveries continue. That’s why I think it’s absolutely critical to get more scientists and science-literates involved in science writing! It’s one of many essential ways to drive scientific progress.