In 2016, the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) decided to both incentivize and reward members who were particularly active in the committee throughout the year. This award is given for contributions in writing and editing the highest number of (influential) COMPASS blog posts, as well as high activity in the COMPASS Facebook group. Judges for this competition in 2016 were the co-chairs of the COMPASS Communications subcommittee (Adriana Bankston and Sushama Sivakumar), COMPASS co-chairs (Pinar Gurel and Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo), as well as current and former ASCB staff members (Thea Clarke, John Fleischman and Christina Szalinski).
We have the pleasure of awarding the inaugural “COMPASS writer of the year” to Travis J. Bernardo, Ph.D. for his outstanding contributions to the committee in 2016. We conducted an interview with Travis (below) to showcase his COMPASS contributions and how they helped shape his career path. We hope this award will be beneficial to COMPASS in rewarding its most deserving members over future years of the committee.
How long have you been a COMPASS member?
I joined in March 2015, so I’ve been a part of COMPASS for about a year and a half.
(Sadly, my tenure will be ending at the start of the New Year! Quite bittersweet.)
What was your involvement with the COMPASS communications subcommittee?
I was involved in the weekly process of editing posts for the COMPASS blog, and contributed my own pieces once every few months. I also posted occasionally to the COMPASS Facebook page, but my focus was primarily on writing articles and helping my fellow writers as an editor.
Which of your blog posts did you enjoy writing the most and why?
Being somewhat impulsive, my writing interests tend to skip around a bit. But, my favorite pieces are inevitably those that land squarely in politics. I’ve been a political junkie since I was a teenager, and it’s always stuck with me. As for my favorite, I’d probably say it was the most recent one (Add an Extra Dose of Science to Government Rulemaking), because I discovered a fascinating aspect of government entirely by accident. I was planning to write an article on GMO mosquitoes, and instead ended up reading a dozen or so academic papers on federal regulatory processes. (I was also probably the only person on the morning train reading environment impact statements for pleasure.)
I’m a metaphorical “perpetual student,” and whenever I come across a topic that intrigues me I always want to dig into it. Every post is a great learning experience, as I get to read in-depth about a topic that I usually only understand superficially at the outset. And I find no greater joy in writing than when I get to poke at, unravel, and deconstruct an issue that bridges science and politics.
What is one interesting topic you learned about through the COMPASS blog posts?
Truthfully, it’s hard to pick; we’re fortunate to have a great set of writers in COMPASS producing some very thoughtful pieces that hit right at the heart of the graduate and postdoctoral experiences. I’ve learned a great deal about the long-term career prospects for scientists through this blog, and COMPASS has done yeoman’s work pushing this issue to the forefront.
But to stay lighthearted, I think my favorite piece was an older one written by Jessica Polka called “How to Print a Fabric Poster.” I had never heard of a fabric print before, but now having tried it I have to say I don’t know how I lived with paper posters. I recommend fabric to any academic who asks, and I even went and re-printed some of my old graduate school posters. They look beautiful! Every conference-goer should read (and bookmark) that piece.
What do you take away from your experience with COMPASS?
Peer-editing was a great experience. Other places I’ve written for haven’t had that as part of the publishing process, and I think it’s something every writer should have a chance to participate in. It’s rewarding to feel that you are part of a team of writers helping to hone each others’ messages, share information, and build a small intellectual network. The community spirit of peer-editing creates a wonderful atmosphere for budding writers.
What is your current affiliation?
I’m currently employed as a Medical Writer at BGB Group, a medical communications agency located in New York, NY. My job is to help pharmaceutical companies develop a variety of communications products to support sales for their therapeutics. For example, when a drug gets approval by the FDA, the pharmaceutical company will want to know why physicians might decide to put patients on the new drug versus other drugs on the market. So they will hold meetings bringing together physicians, who participate in seminars and discussion sessions. The meetings require extensive materials to facilitate the various activities—information about the disease, details about the drug’s mechanism of action and safety profile, guiding questions for discussion sessions—and the medical writing team develops the content and ensures that it is both scientifically accurate and within the boundaries of the FDA’s regulatory requirements.
How do you think the COMPASS experience will help in your future endeavors?
Writing for COMPASS was actually a major contributing factor in my decision to leave academia for a career in scientific writing. Although I’d published manuscripts as part of my academic training, I find that blogging gives me a sense of ownership over my ideas that I enjoy immensely. The constructive criticism and encouragement I received from other COMPASS members also helped build my confidence that I was making the right decision—and that I had what it took to make a career out of something I love to do.
What is your advice to anyone who wants to improve their science communication skills?
Simple: practice, practice, practice!
Okay, I’ll elaborate a little. If you’re passionate about writing and want to improve your craft, you should seek out any volunteer opportunity to write, no matter how big or small the venue. The most useful opportunities are those that require your work go through some kind of editorial process (as opposed to, say, a personal blog) because you’re more likely to get critical feedback on your writing. If your institution has a writing/communications department, definitely reach out to them. They may offer writing internships, and if they don’t there’s a good chance they may still accept help writing pieces (institutional work often goes to freelancers who need to be paid, so it’s a win-win situation if you’re willing to work for free). In addition to practicing, consider picking up a book or two on science writing, grammar, or linguistics.
How can readers keep in touch with you following your time in COMPASS?
Thanks for the chance to do some shameless self-promotion!
I plan to continue writing as often as I can. That will primarily take the form of posts for a blog I recently started—Liber Et Scientia—that gives me free reign to play around with my interests in science, policy, and politics. I’ll also be writing freelance at various venues, and anyone who’s interested can follow me on Twitter (@TravisJBernardo), where I link to new pieces as they come out.
One last thing—I want to give a final thank-you to COMPASS for the opportunity to serve as a member. It’s been a fantastic experience and I encourage anyone out there who enjoys writing (or wants to be proactive in helping their fellow grad students and postdocs) to become a part of the organization! (And no, they didn’t ask me to say that.)