Dr. Jory Weintraub, Science Communication Director, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, pursued his undergrad education in a manner similar to his contemporaries. However, during grad school his path took an uncommon turn that resulted in new and exciting opportunities that set him apart from his peers. In this interview, Jory describes his unusual career path - from bench science, to science communication and outreach - providing valuable insight for would-be scientists who want to consider their impact beyond the lab.
“STEM fields are so incredibly dynamic. It is essential to keep up with all the latest developments and constantly adapt to incorporate them into your work”
You are a scientist by training, yet your career is focused on science communication, not on practicing science. How did this come about and where are your boundaries?
Over the course of my career I have worn lots of hats: research scientist, immunologist, science educator/teacher, science outreach professional, science communicator – to name a few. So, I guess the true answer to your question about boundaries is that there have been none. I’ve just followed my interests and passions down a variety of different paths. All of them have been fun and rewarding in different ways. One of the common threads in my various positions over the years has been a focus on trying to make science more diverse and create opportunities for everyone – regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. – to feel there is a place for them in science.
What are you most proud of in your current job and career?
In my current position, I spend most of my time focusing on two things: teaching science communication courses and workshops, and helping research scientists develop outreach activities to communicate their science to the general public.
In both cases, I feel privileged to be able to help empower scientists to communicate the importance of their work to broader audiences. If I’m doing my job well, ultimately scientists will feel more enthusiastic and excited about communicating their work to the public, AND the public will be more informed and engaged, with respect to science. Those are two pretty great outcomes!
Looking back over my entire career (to date), I would like to think that I played some role – however small – in making science more diverse and inclusive by helping to empower people who are traditionally under-represented in science to pursue their scientific passions and curiosities.
“If I’m doing my job well, ultimately scientists will feel more enthusiastic and excited about communicating their work to the public, AND the public will be more informed and engaged, with respect to science.”
When did you find your passion for this work and how do keep it alive?
I’m still finding it out, every day. Each day that I go to work, I learn new things, discover new passions and try to figure out how to follow/pursue them. The fact that I’m able to do that is one of the greatest things about my chosen career path! I always just try to keep an open mind, and open eyes and ears, and follow my interests.
I’m not sure there is any recipe for accelerating the timeline for figuring it out. I think you just need to be patient, open-minded and curious, and opportunities will arise. “Patience” might be the hardest part of that equation, but it is incredibly important. Being impatient and trying to figure it all out too quickly is not only unlikely to get you where you want to be, but may blind you to interesting opportunities.
“For every great job opportunity I’ve had, or for every grant or award I’ve gotten, there are probably ten or more failures”
In a previous interview, you mentioned that “nothing about your career track was normal or predictable” and serendipity played a role in your professional destiny. What advice would you give young scientists planning a future in research and science policy?
Looking back on the twists and turns of my career path, I don’t think there has been a single step I would have predicted before it happened. I was just open and opportunistic, and things arose that sparked my interests. And, when this happened, I pursued those opportunities.
I think one of the keys is not being afraid of failure. For every great job opportunity I’ve had, or for every grant or award I’ve gotten, there are probably ten (or more!) failures. I’ve pursued things (work situations, fellowships, etc.) that I thought I had no chance of obtaining because my attitude has always been “what do I have to lose by trying?”. The great Wayne Gretzky said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, and it couldn’t be more true, or more applicable when it comes to your career.
Give me an example of failure in your life that you now cherish because it led to further accomplishments.
Oh…so many….where to start?!? I guess one that any graduate student can relate to is my experience with my qualifying or “prelim” exams. These are exams you typically take at the end of your second year of your PhD program, and they are necessary to advance to PhD candidacy. In my PhD program, one could get a “pass”, an “incomplete”, or a “fail” on the prelim. (Almost nobody gets a “pass” on their first try!)
Like most grad students, I was terrified I would fail, so I worked my butt off to prepare. I felt like I aced it, but I got an “incomplete. I was asked by my committee to make a few small changes and resubmit. At first, my ego didn’t allow me to be receptive to the feedback I had received). I took it personally and refused to learn from their suggestions, which, ironically, mostly focused on my communication skills rather than my science. (This is ironic, of course, because I now teach science communication!) But, after a lot of soul-searching and ego-checking, I looked closely at the committee’s comments, and incorporated their suggested changes. More importantly, I opened myself up to learning from their suggestions and continue to use – and benefit from – their advice to this day.
It was a lesson about ego, humility, perseverance and, ultimately, maturity.
“Scientists and engineers typically have their own vocabulary, but communicating without lots of jargon is really difficult.”
One of your roles is to show passionate scientists that a career in science is within their reach. Name three essential things/skills that a scientist must have or build in order to have a successful career today.
Everything you need to do to be successful in science (getting grants, getting papers published, engaging the public – including potential funders, engaging the media and policy makers) is dependent on effective communication – both written and oral. And the best way to do this well is practice, practice, practice!
Another essential skill is to be able to work effectively in collaborative and interdisciplinary settings. The days of the solitary scientist slaving away in his/her lab late at night and being successful doing so are long gone. Science is now a team sport, and the teams necessarily include diverse players with different backgrounds and skill-sets.
Finally, I think it is more important than ever to be flexible. STEM fields are so incredibly dynamic. While it might sometimes feel like drinking water from a firehose, it is essential to keep up with all the latest developments and constantly adapt to incorporate them into your work.
Have these skills changed over time? Will they be the same in 5 years?
I think good communication skills have always been important. What has changed is that science has become more collaborative and interdisciplinary, and technological advances are probably coming at a greater pace than ever before.
Another thing that has changed is that funding is getting tighter than ever, which just increases the importance of the skills mentioned above. It’s always hard to say how things will change in the future, but I think communication, interdisciplinary collaboration and flexibility will continue to be essential skills.
What is the most common challenge that scientists face and how does it affect their career success? How it can be overcome?
Scientists and engineers have such highly specialized knowledge-bases and skill sets. In these fields, you are rewarded for focusing on minutiae – often at the expense of the big picture.
So, when scientists and engineers communicate about their work, they often provide a much greater level of detail than what is necessary or effective for engaging a non-scientific/non-technical audience. Additionally, as with any specialized field, scientists and engineers typically have their own vocabulary, but communicating without a common vocabulary (i.e., with lots of jargon) is really difficult. So, a lot of our effort in our classes and workshops is focused on communicating the big picture (as opposed to the small details), using little or no jargon. These are often challenging tasks for scientists and engineers, but with just a little practice almost everyone shows significant improvement.
Learn more about Jory’s work by visiting The BIRC or reach beyond the lab and incorporate science policy, ethics, and communication into your education through the Duke Master of Arts in Bioethics & Science Policy.