Brooke LaFlamme, Ph.D., is well positioned to advise scientists on maximizing the impact their work will have; she is the Chief Editor of Communications Biology a publication of Nature Research. The journal publishes high quality primary research, reviews and that have potential to influence future biological research. LaFlamme started at the UA with a declared major of English and as a Ph.D. student LaFlamme enjoyed writing papers and found the process interesting. She also enjoyed helping her colleagues draft and edit papers. Given her interest and skill in science writing, one might think her path from English major to Chief Editor of a scientific journal was straightforward, her career map depicting a straight line from English major to Chief Editor, with the requisite checkpoints along the way. That however, is not the case, “I am definitely not a professional who had my life planned out from the beginning and then followed the plan. I always wanted to be a writer. That was my original plan,” she says. As LaFlamme described her path from English major to Chief Editor, I was mentally drawing a map, and it was anything but linear. LaFlamme’s career path alternated between doing “what was expected of me” and “going with my gut and doing what I was most passionate about”.
LaFlamme entered the UA as a first generation college student. In addition to focusing on her studies as an English major, she also had to navigate FAFSAs, learn how to get student health insurance, and develop and understanding of how college expectations differed from those of high school. She took her first Gen Ed course as a freshmen and chose a cosmology course. “That course changed my mind about what I wanted to do. The professor emphasized the importance of the scientific method and understanding how things around you work.” After she completed that course, LaFlamme changed her major to English and MCB. She chose MCB at the time because “it sounded cool!” As she took more MCB courses, she realized that English as a major was no longer a good fit and declared MCB as her sole major. She joined a lab as an undergrad researcher and discovered that she loved research. She was accepted into the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) program, and Biomedical Research Abroad: Visas Open! (BAVO) programs. She was a UBRP student her junior and senior years and did her BRAVO program in Japan. She graduated UA in 2006 with a dual major in MCB and EEB and minors in Japanese and Chemistry.
Graduate school wasn’t in LaFlamme’s plans when she started college. “I had no idea people went to college after they graduated from college!” LaFlamme told me. Her experiences in the labs convinced her to continue her education. “I really enjoyed lab work and the collaboration with other students and faculty.” LaFlamme chose Cornell in Ithaca New York to get her Ph.D. in Genetics. “I was really attracted to the comradery at Cornell, and I wanted to push myself to live somewhere cold” to contrast her experience living in Tucson native. She adjusted to the weather, enjoyed her project at Cornell, but ultimately came to the conclusion that full time research wasn’t where her passion was. “I wanted to know when I finished something. In academia, projects are never really finished. It’s great for many people, but wasn’t a good fit for me. I also realized I wanted to focus on something other than one specific problem for years and years.” Although she knew her heart wasn’t in it, she stayed on the research trajectory and accepted a postdoc at Weil Cornell Medical School. “I kind of knew I didn't want to stay in academia, but there weren't a lot of discussions around that time about careers outside research. There is still a bit of stigma around leaving academia. The community message was more that you were a failure if you left. I did a postdoc more because it was expected, not that I was passionate about it.” Although her postdoc advisor and lab were very supportive and great to work with, LaFlamme struggled a lot during this time because she was torn between doing what was expected of a Ph.D. and finding a career that fit her. “I didn't have one moment where I just decided to get off this path, but it grew over time. I came home one day during my postdoc and told my husband I was quitting my job in three months and would find something else. He was terrified; I felt relieved to have made a decision and because I realized I can't do things just because people expect me to.” Now, she just had to figure out how to turn her interests into a career. “I had to figure out what the options were out there!”
As research is something LaFlamme excels at, she used her research skills to explore what careers options she had. During this time, LaFlamme read a lot about how to make big life changes and she listened to other people's stories. She spent a lot of hours doing informational interviews, reaching out to other professionals, including editors. During one of her informational interviews, the person she was meeting with told her there was a job opening at Nature Genetics; she applied and got the job! “I was lucky to stumble upon editing. It is a good combination for me – my love of science and my love of writing.”
LaFlamme’s education and experience as a postdoc make her well suited to the science publication business. When I asked her what she most enjoys about her current role she said “I like the variety of my daily work; from the variety of science we publish to working with authors. It’s my goal that the authors have a positive experience.”
As we talked about science communication LaFlamme emphasized how important it is to communicate science to a broad population. The Communications Biology Journal isn’t geared toward general population; its target audience is the broad biologist population. Even with a more specific audience, LaFlamme says their goal is to “reach other scientists outside a specific biology field. Even a scientific publication meant for other scientists needs to talk to a broader audience.” Part of her role as Chief Editor is to write press releases that they hope will be picked up by the national press. “I have to describe the article to a general population and make it accessible and accurate and without hyping claims in any way. I have to find the balance to sell the research and make it accurate.” When I asked LaFlamme what advice she would give students when writing about science she said “be aware of when you are using jargon. It's easy to forget that the words you use are not in common usage. I recommend having a science blog just to practice writing science that is understandable and accessible to the general population!” LaFlamme wrote a science blog during grad school and found both the writing of the blog and getting feedback on the blog immensely helpful in honing her writing.
I closed by asking LaFlamme what one piece of advice she would give to MCB students. “Take classes that sound interesting even if they don't have an obvious relationship to your major. You never know what you'll discover that sparks interest for you or will give you an idea of something you want to do later in life. I think people specialize too early. If I hadn't taken the cosmology course, I may never have fallen into this path. You won't lose out; you'll always have time to fit in the requirements!” She also noted that students should listen to their intuition. “It took some time to go with my gut and follow my passion, but I’m happy that I did!” We are too Brooke! You are an inspiration to our students and we are sure your story will give other students the confidence to follow their intuition as well!