Member profile: Anne Chang

Thank you to Anne Chang for telling us about herself!

I wasn’t one of those people who knew what they wanted to be from a young age, unless you count being a princess (which I still wouldn’t mind being). Growing up I was exposed to science at a very early age; but I quickly realised I disliked inorganic chemistry, and I found biology boring (thinking it was predominantly about taxonomy). Yet, somehow, I found myself at the University of Oxford studying Biochemistry.

To me, Biochemistry presented the perfect mix: there was Chemistry, but it was all about how signalling pathways worked to produce phenotypical results; there was Maths, but that was mostly used for analysing scientific results (except for one brief traumatizing course on biophysics); and there was Biology, but in the sense of examining how metabolism and other biological systems worked, no taxonomy required. As my studies advanced I even threw in a little Engineering, but only in the context of tissue engineering – the creation of new organs using biochemical principles is, in the big picture, not as hypothesis-driven as pure biochemistry.

Best of all – Biochemistry at Oxford is a writing-based subject. We might have been studying chemicals, and molecules, and biological processes, but out of a total of 8 exams taken for the course, only one involved calculations. I was lucky enough to have attended a high school that taught students how to easily write large quantities of material, but my Biochemistry degree taught me how to write about science, after all, knowledge doesn’t count towards your degree if you can’t put it into words.

Following my undergraduate degree I embarked on a doctoral degree joint between the University of Oxford and the National Institutes of Health, in the US. This was a terrific program to be on, and it was a great learning experience, both in terms of scientific technique, but also into the minds of academics, researchers, and businessmen. This last category I met in the second year of my PhD, as I met them through my fiancé who was studying for his MBA at the Said Business School in Oxford – and it was an eye opening experience.

Science can be a bubble. Scientists (academic at least) live in a world in which they are surrounded by their experiments, absorbed in their experiments, performing experiments, analysing experiments, and planning  future experiments. In this world it is very easy to just put up the barriers and growl at unwelcome distractions such as paperwork, grant proposals, teaching, even writing up and publishing papers distracts from actually performing experiments.  For the first year of my PhD this was my existence, I lived in my scientific bubble, but then when I met all the students at the Business School that all changed. So far I’d only explained that science I was researching to other scientists, but now suddenly I had to explain what I did to people who might not have taken any science after high school!

The response I got blew me away. To be fair, Oxford students aren’t exactly the everyday person you meet on the street, but it wasn’t just that these people were capable of absorbing high level  science if explained in the right way, it was their enthusiasm for the science. As a researcher you tend to gravitate towards topics similar to yours, or approach other fields with a similar mindset to your own. But once my new friends were able to understand what it was I did, I started to ask questions no research had ever asked before about innovation, applicability and potential value. Their enthusiasm to learn more meant that my science was no longer living in a bubble.

My experiences with these business school students lit a fire in me to communicate science with non-scientists because I realised that if they understood science, they could genuinely get excited about it. A lot of fear about science these days is very much grounded in lack of understanding, because scientists do not know how to communicate what research has been accomplished and what they are trying to achieve.  The final year in my PhD, I started a blog, called makingbones, which discussed the methods behind thesis writing, methods used in tissue engineering (explaining them both to the average Joe as well as detailed procedures for other scientists), and news in science and tissue engineering. The response to this blog, which I discontinued upon finishing my PhD, has been tremendous and exceeded my expectations.

I finished my PhD and moved to Australia in August of this year. I jumped straight into science communications, with the birth of a new blog, Science Snapshot. This blog is my way of communicating the state of current science. The premise is simple, take a ‘random’ paper published on the day I write the blog post (ok, I confess, I try to pick the ones with the more interesting titles) and write a blog article about it so that anyone reading it will get the gist of what is going on in the field regardless of any prior knowledge or lack thereof. So far I’ve covered topics ranging from cancer research, to rabies vaccines for dogs in South Africa, to the best ways to freeze turkey meatballs, and practically everything in between.

I’ve also started two very different science communications positions within the greater Sydney Area. I’m a Clinical Research Associate as well as the Communications Director at the Sydney Orthopaedic Research Institute in Chatswood. This is rather fitting as my PhD was in tissue engineering of bones (i.e., Orthopaedics). I enjoy this role combination because not only do I generate communications material for the organisation, I also get to interact with the main target audience, the patients, to perform basic communications research. My other position is as a science writer at a prominent Sydney-based university. Here I’m stepping into a position within a marketing team and it’s been great to learn the communications strategies used for both external (we’re developing a new website) and internal initiatives. I’m very confident that my decision to leave research for a career in scientific communications was the right choice, and am excited about what I can achieve while in Australia!

Anne Chang has been a volunteer writer at Australian Science Communicators since August 2013.