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Jennifer Olson, Ph.D.

Academic and Medical Writing

I am a medical writer at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), which is a part of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. Recently, one of my papers was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  If you take a look at the paper, you’ll see my name—not up in the author list but all the way towards the end, in the section entitled “Acknowledgements.” The authors would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Olson for editorial assistance with this manuscript.  It’s not as glamorous as being listed as an author—and I certainly contributed more than simple “editorial assistance” during preparation of the manuscript—but my name is in PNAS (and many other journals) and at this stage of my career that’s enough.

I wasn’t always a medical/science writer.  In fact, I didn’t even want to be one until just a few years ago.  Growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist. To that end, I received my BS degree from MIT in nuclear engineering in 1996, and then a Ph.D. degree from UCLA’s Biomedical Physics Interdepartmental Graduate Program in 2001.  My dissertation research involved the responses of normal brain tissue to irradiation – in particular, I studied the role of tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α) after irradiation for brain tumors using TNF-receptor knockout mice.  After receiving my PhD degree, I did two stints as a postdoctoral scientist:  first at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN and second at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in the Department of Radiation Oncology. 

After arriving at Wake Forest in 2005, the plan was to do a three-year postdoctoral fellowship and then secure a faculty position at an American academic institution. Obviously that did happen; mainly because I couldn’t stand my postdoctoral research project and I grew tired of spending 100 hours in the laboratory every week.  Also, I realized that the likelihood of finding a permanent academic position in radiation biology was diminishing.  Further, my husband, who also works at the university, and I didn’t think that the two of us would be able to land permanent academic jobs at the same institution (I didn’t want to be one of those couples that are all too common in academic science, the ones that work in different states and see each other only on weekends). Consequently, it became apparent that I needed a plan B.

I decided to give medical/science writing a try because it meant that I wouldn’t have completely abandon science and I could indulge my passion for the written word (I had previously taken a few writing classes and workshops as an undergraduate student).  After learning about a writing job at WFIRM, I applied and landed the job.  Surprisingly, it was only 4 months from the time that I decided to give medical/science writing a try and my first day on the job at WFIRM

As an academic science writer, I mainly write and edit peer-reviewed manuscripts and prepare numerous grant applications.  My role as an academic medical/science writer is much different than that of a medical writer who works at a pharmaceutical or biotech company.  For example, if I worked at a company, I likely would be asked to craft manuscripts, abstracts and poster etc after receiving raw data and the requisite background publications.  However, that is not the way things are done in my current position, because our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are required to learn how to write as part of their training.  To that end, graduate students and postdocs typically are responsible for crafting first drafts of manuscripts which are then given to me for review. 

I edit the manuscripts for scientific content, organization, and proper language (grammar, spelling, etc) and often catch errors of scientific fact and suggest additional experiments that would strengthen the manuscript. Also, I frequently provide ideas on how to reorganize the discussion section so that it flows better for the reader.  Mostly, I do a lot of structural reorganization and rewriting at this stage, but I always leave some of the work for the students and postdocs do to on their own.  Once I’ve reviewed the first draft of a manuscript, I sit down with the student/postdoc and their mentors to suggest and discuss changes, revision and corrections that ought to appear in the second draft of the manuscript.  After I review the second draft, make necessary changes and getting the go ahead from the authors, I format the style of paper for submission to a selected journal and then shepherd the manuscript through the review process.

In addition to my work on peer-reviewed manuscripts, I frequently write review articles and book chapters for faculty members who are invited to do so.  In this scenario, I generally craft first drafts of the manuscripts after in-depth discussions with faculty members who rework the first draft into a second draft and ultimately into final form (with my help) for submission.  Finally, I prepare a variety of other departmental documents including animal handling protocols, internal review board (IRB) forms and even our department’s student recruiting brochure! 

With over 200 scientists at WFIRM, there is never a shortage of work for me.  I often take work home at night or on the weekend to complete it.  Typically, I work on 7 to 12 projects at one time (in contrast, most industrial medical/scientific writers will work on 1-3 projects at a time). Not surprisingly, it takes strong organizational and project management skills to insure that I expeditiously meet my deadlines.  Finally, it is not easy managing and working with the “big personalities” commonly encountered amongst our faculty members. 

Unfortunately, despite my hard work, I am rarely listed as an author on most publications that I craft and, as mentioned above, my name is usually relegated to a mention in the acknowledgement sections of a manuscript.  It is important to point out that this is a common practice in academia, so if  you are seeking  credit or recognition for your contributions to a manuscript, than academic science writing may not be “your cup of tea”  or a viable career option.

Despite a sometimes challenging work environment, there are many perks associated with being an academic science writer.  There is a lot of academic and intellectual freedom that trickles down to me as a departmental writer.  Also, I make my own schedule and the job is not an 8am to 5pm one.  Sometimes I work from my home office or from a coffee shop—just to remain connected with the outside world and to “keep it real.”  Basically, all I need to do my job is a laptop computer, WiFi Internet access, and a cell phone.  As a writer (where I work anyway) it doesn’t really matter when or where you work, as long as the work gets done!

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