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Chemist stars in “Piled Higher and Deeper” The Movie

Evans Boney plays the role of Mike Slackenerny, at bottom right. Photo credit: The PhD Movie www.phdcomics.com/movie

The new Ph.D. movie, based on the well-known comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham has been taking college campuses by storm since its release last Fall.

If you haven’t seen it yet, like me, I know you’re dying to get your chance. I just found out my campus is screening it in February—I’m super psyched about this!

Well, did you know that one of the graduate students starring in the film is a chemist?*

That’s right. Meet Evans Boney. He’s a chemistry grad student at CalTech, where his research efforts focus on astrophysics, surface vibrational transfer, novel photovoltaic designs, evolutionary theory, and statistical econophysics.

But in his spare time, such as on weekends and in the wee hours of the night, Evans enjoys writing, acting and producing.

Film + science = dream job

After graduating from MIT (B.S. Chemistry and Physics, Math Minor, 2006), Evans’s long-term plan was to… well, he didn’t have one. That’s why he came to grad school.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and it seemed like a conveniently long number of years to delay the decision,” he says.

In the past two years, Evans got into acting and film production with the help of his wife, Susanna Boney, who works in the film and television industry.

“My wife started working her way up the ladder in Hollywood… so I started looking on the other side of the fence at her workplace and the grass seemed a lot greener,” he says.

When he was finally honest with himself about his dream career, he realized he really wanted to be someone like  Bill Nye the Science Guy: a writer, actor and producer of science-related content.

His biggest break has been with The PhD Movie

, where he plays the part of Mike Slackenerny, a wizened nth year graduate student mentor to the Nameless protagonist. Continue reading →

You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:

Don’t be surprised when people give you a blank stare after you tell them about your nontraditional career plans. Photo credit: flickr user lungstruck

So, what did you study in college?


Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying?


Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.?

Become a writer.

(Blank stare).  Hmm… how does that work?

At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand.

I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this.

I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path.

Don’t be afraid to be different and pursue your passion, even if you’re going against the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user Ben Heine

I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in.

Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing.

Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry.

I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college.

That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start…

I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little, too…

Take what you can from where you are

I’m back in the lab!

I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!).

My internship was like a pit stop-- now I feel recharged and ready to finish strong. Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway

It actually feels good to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I’m still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn’t involve working at the bench.

But I’m excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong.

A much-needed break

The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained.

The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little.

Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer.

While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I’m really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!

A new attitude

As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I’m realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment.

Apparently changing your shoes can help change your 'tude. Another excuse to go shoe shopping! Photo credit: ShirleyRC

Formerly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery.

This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don’t love.

While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I’m becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin:

There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones.

That’s the attitude I’ve decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research.

It’s been about a week, and so far, so good.

To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I’ve put post-its around my desk.

One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity.

I’ve also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

I resolve to make the most of my last leg of grad school before moving on to pursuing a science writing career… wish me luck!

Book editing and publishing: A scientific book worm’s dream job

There is no such thing as a typical day for Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). His primary responsibilities include finding authors and editors to write new academic books and book series, managing the portfolio of already published works and seeking out opportunities for new publishing products.

I met Merlin at PittCon 2011 this past March, where he was scoping out potential new book opportunities, and I soon found out he was a chemist-turned-book editor. Fascinating, I thought to myself, tell me more!

Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Courtesy photo.

Merlin’s background is in biology (B.Sc.), applied environmental science (M.Sc.), and agricultural sciences (Ph.D.). His graduate research and ensuing post-doctoral work were focused on environmental/analytical chemistry and biogeochemistry.

So, how did the transition into publishing happen? Well, after his post-doc, Merlin landed a spot in the RSC graduate programme, where his job was to handle the peer review process for journal articles. After 18 months in that position, an opportunity to work in books came along and he took it.

Since he was always interested in books and had research experience, he felt the two viable career paths for him after his Ph.D. were publishing or working in a lab. He chose the former and says he doesn’t regret that decision.

Although the graduate and post-graduate work weren’t required to get into publishing, he said he is glad to have gotten the additional training in teamwork, keeping to budgets, and working on a set timeframe– all transferable skills that he carries on with him as he pursues his non-traditional science career path.

“A book can take two years to write and needs dedication and focus – much like a long project or Ph.D., so yes, I think having a Ph.D. lends some empathy to what authors are doing – as well as a better understanding of what academic life is like,” he said.

What Merlin likes most about his job is being able to travel and meet new people, as well as having the security of a permanent job. But he occasionally misses being in the lab, especially when he visits a chemistry department.

Merlin’s environmental and biogeochemistry graduate work was largely composed of fieldwork in the great outdoors. While he doesn’t do this type of research anymore, he finds other ways to satisfy his craving to explore nature.

“I grow vegetables at home and do voluntary conservation work most weekends, so I’m still getting outdoors,” he said.

Merlin said it is satisfying to see a book he worked on finally come out in print and to see it on the shelf at a bookstore. He also loves learning about all kinds of science and meeting interesting and clever people in science, including Nobel Laureates.

The most challenging part is when a book project gets cancelled—but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.

For chemists and others out there interested in publishing, Merlin says: “Get talking to publishers! They are usually at conferences.”

Merlin says one of the highlights of his job is seeing a book he worked on for years finally make it onto the shelf in a bookstore. Photo credit: flickr user boopsie.daisy.

So, next time you’re at a conference, scope out the booths at the Expo’s, the huge area where companies come out and set up their booths and demo their new products. Book publishers can often be found there, and with a little bit of investigative work, you should be able to find them.

As far as getting jobs in the book publishing industry, Merlin said there is certainly some tough competition, especially for the more senior jobs, but it helps to develop a good network with other publishers.

Regarding the whole ongoing transition of books from print to electronic, he said it may not be such a terrible thing for those in publishing.

“The recession is beginning to impact publishers as library budgets begin to feel the pinch, but the growth of electronic publishing, and broader acceptance of eBooks, means there are exciting times ahead,” he said.

So is Merlin happy with his decision to pursue this career path?

“Oh yes, I love science and have always loved books and reading,” he said. “It’s great to be part of communicating science.”

Find out more about the graduate programme offered by the RSC online.

The value of internships for non-traditional science careers

One way to find out about internships is through job and internship fairs, such as the one hosted by AAAS every spring. Photo credit: flickr user IPFW.

So I want to be a science writer. But I’m a grad student who has been working in a lab doing research for the past four years. Will I be qualified for a job in my non-traditional science career of choice when I graduate? How can I poise myself to be competitive and market myself as a science writer when the reality is that I’m a bench chemist who has been dabbling in writing here and there?

Bingo. An internship. A real hands-on experience doing the work I want to do. An opportunity to make connections with people in the field. And last but not least, a little breather and some time away from the lab doing the job I can’t wait to do once I’m out of school.

Since the time I started considering science writing as a future career, I have been connecting with science writers—learning about their career paths and asking for advice. I have gleaned all sorts of useful information through these “informational interviews.” Every science writer I’ve talked to seems to have taken a slightly different path to arrive at the same destination. But there was one piece of advice that nearly every science writer gave me: Take an internship.

Internship— sounds great! Now just let me go ask my adviser for three months off. Many advisers, I believe, would not be thrilled. My adviser was supportive, perhaps hesitantly. But in the end he wanted me to do what I needed to do.

So I applied for science writing internships earlier this year and I landed the science writing internship at a high-energy physics lab. I’ve been working full-time as a science writer for nearly a month now. And I LOVE it.

I’m growing as a writer and reporter, I’m learning about all the awesome physics that the lab is up to and I’m exploring the world of web interfaces as I manage the daily news site.

One particularly satisfying aspect of taking this internship has been that every day I wake up and my job is to be a science writer. No more late nights spent writing my stories after a long day in the lab (except for when I’m blogging for JAEP!). It’s awesome.

I could easily spend the rest of this post gushing about how much I love my internship, and how awesome internships are, and how everyone should do them.

But I decided to seek some input from other science writers and hear what they had to say on the topic. After all, everyone’s experience is different. And internships are really competitive—so I wanted to gather advice from different people on how to land one.

I posted a few questions to the NASW listserv and a handful of responses poured in. Granted, these answers are all specific to science writing internships, but I’m fairly certain that many of the principles apply to other non-traditional careers in science. If anyone else out there on a different non-traditional career path wants to chime in, please feel free to leave a comment! Continue reading →

Pushing on

Or: Reject no more!

That’s right, kids. I managed to snag myself a writing internship at last. I’ll be starting at Reuters Health next week. Don’t have much of an idea how I managed to do it, but I did write the world’s most obnoxious cover letter for that application. That might have gotten the editor’s attention. It was a combination of that plus persistence, I imagine. Regardless, yay me!

Off I go, into the wild murky yonder. Photo by flickr user Vermin Inc.

But this is mixed news. I’ll be pretty busy with this internship (and I’m also still writing my thesis, ag), so I won’t be blogging here any more. That’s the sad part.

I want to thank everyone for reading for the past six months. It’s been mostly fun, occasionally hard, and always educational. The blog roundtable from a few weeks ago was definitely the high point, although my interview with Conservation Scientist Greg Dale Smith was a blast, as was meeting Jorge Cham. Smashing a vuvuzela ranks up there, too.

I also want to send my gratitude to my fellow roundtable bloggers: Matthew Hartings, Paul Bracher, and super-duper most especially Chemjobber. He started out as a resource, and turned into a friend. I’ll miss chatting about job stuff with you, CJ.

And sorry if this is starting to sound like an academy award speech, but I also want to thank everyone at CEN for their advice and support, especially Bethany Halford, Jyllian Kemsley, Carmen Drahl, Amanda Yarnell, and Rachel Pepling. Especially especially Amanda and especially especially especially Rachel. How will I cope in the future, in a post-Rachel world? I really don’t know.

So. While all this is sad for me, it might be good for you–a new Electron Pusher is needed. CEN wants to keep this blog going! Send an email to r_pepling AT acs DOT org if you’re interested. We’ll also need a few guest posts too, if you want to test the waters before plunging in, polar bear-like. Or if you just want to write one post. Whatever.

Okay, I’ll be moseying along now. You can still find me at my sad neglected blog (maybe), but definitely on twitter. See ya around.

Science writing, plus puppies

Okey dokey, so last week I talked about some of the stuff I’ve been doing to try to break into science writing.
But before we go along on our happy little merry way and talk about how you can get into it, I think a quick reality check is in order.

It’s pretty hard to be a science writer right now. Newspapers are seriously struggling, which means they’re laying off writers of all types like gangbusters. Magazines aren’t having an easy time of it either. This basically means that there are A LOT more people competing for the shrinking number of jobs. Hell, there are even people that used to have writing jobs that are now competing for internships. So keep this in mind as you read along. Although honestly, traditional chemistry career paths are looking pretty shady right now, too. I have some chem friends telling me about the ungodly huge numbers of people who apply for a single industry job. The job market is complete crap!

All right, enough of that. Look, a puppy!

image by flickr user dakotaduff

So. Still want to try science writing? Here are a few tips to get started:

Continue reading →