Promoting Scientific Initiatives through Science Communication
I joined the Office of Cancer Genomics (OCG) as a fellow through NCI's Health Communications Internship Program (HCIP) after graduating with a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Missouri, Columbia. As a graduate student, I studied the plasticity of neurons in major pelvic ganglia (MPG) involved in the micturition pathways in response to spinal cord injury. Although mobility is an apparent disability in spinal cord injured patients, autonomic functions such as micturition and defecation are the lesser known functions that are also compromised. My dissertation work focused on plasticity of neurotransmission at the MPG in response to loss of input. My work shed some light on how loss of neural inputs affects synaptic events such as response to neurotransmitters and the input-output dynamics of the MPG synapses.
As much as I enjoyed being a laboratory scientist, I realized after a few years in graduate school that I would like to support scientific projects from a different role: by facilitating day-to-day functions of scientific programs so that I can contribute to a broader context while staying abreast of scientific endeavors and findings. Specifically, I wanted to be involved in scientific communications since I realized the importance of making scientific facts and information widely available to the public. In this day and age of advanced technology and social media, one can find an enormous amount of information on any topic. While there are true facts and information from many reliable sources, there are also plenty of misleading or false information from non-credible sources. It is the responsibility of scientists, professionals, and educators to lead the public to accurate information based on facts and evidence. By communicating scientific findings to the non-expert general public, I aspire to take part in increasing scientific literacy and awareness of the public. Hence, I sought opportunities where I can apply my scientific background and improve skills in scientific communications.
As someone straight out of graduate school who would like to transition from the bench to facilitating scientific programs, the health communications fellowship at the OCG was a perfect opportunity for me. OCG currently has four main scientific programs which are supporting research to better understand molecular underpinnings of cancer with the goal towards precision oncology. OCG programs support the development of technology, tools, and human tissue-derived next-generation cancer models for rare, pediatric, and high-risk adult cancers.
OCG communications play important roles (as shown in the figure) in ensuring the continuous flow of information not only within the OCG and the NCI but also to the scientific community and the public through our web pages, newsletters, and social media. The OCG website functions as the main source of information on OCG programs, resources, guidelines to data usage, as well as news and publications.
Figure: The diagram indicates various communications functions within the Office of Cancer Genomics. (SOPs = standard operating procedures)
As a health communications fellow, my goal is to maintain the accuracy, user-friendliness, and readability of our web content for the target audience, as well as to broaden our reach to researchers and the non-scientific audience. One of my main responsibilities is managing content on OCG webpages to ensure that the content is up-to-date, accurate, engaging, and functional. In addition, I contribute to developing content for the OCG e-Newsletter by suggesting topics, editing, and writing articles on topics that highlight the scientific technology and findings from OCG-supported programs. To make OCG program highlights and outcomes more visible and reach a broader audience, I am involved with drafting tweets for the NCI Genomics Twitter account. One of the important tasks is assessing website engagement through web analytics data because this provides us with tangible feedback on how our communications efforts are being utilized. As a part of communications team, I prepare bi-monthly (every two months) web-analytics reports and present data to the office staff. This process assists us in understanding web user engagement and formulating strategies to increase user traffic. My other duties include working with program managers to develop editorial guidelines and fact sheets, and presenting OCG initiatives and promoting OCG-supported resources at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) research festival and American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting.
Since the inception of my fellowship in August 2018, I have learned the integral role of communications in: 1) facilitating information flow within the NCI, as well as to extramural researchers involved in OCG-supported programs and to the general public; 2) the significance of precision in language and timely communication in carrying out scientific programs; and 3) the importance of multidisciplinary research in a disease such as cancer—a global adversary experienced across various races, sexes, and ages.
Despite its widespread nature, the heterogeneity of cancer makes effective treatment difficult. Cancer is diverse, and ‘personal’, and hence, it is important for the global research community to work together and come up with treatments that are tailored to a specific type of cancer, patient demographic, and clinical background. My current position at OCG allows me to appreciate the highly collaborative nature of scientific initiatives where researchers from around the world come together to fight against a common cause—cancer. I hope I can apply the broad communications skills that I am learning as an HCIP fellow in facilitating and managing global health and scientific research initiatives in the future.
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