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So You Want to Be in… Scientific Public Relations

by • May 25, 2016 • Career, Grad School, Sally Burn, Science Communication, Scientific Training, So You Want to Be a...Comments (1)1933

By Sally Burn, PhD

Scizzle was recently fortunate enough to chat with the infectiously upbeat, super accomplished Cherise Bernard, PhD. Cherise is Senior Manager for Elsevier’s U.S. Engagement Program, as part of their Global Academic Relations team. She acts as a conduit between the publisher and academic institutions and performs scientific public relations duties (in addition to being a “technology midwife”… more on that later). We got the lowdown on the publishing world, what her job entails, and how you too can move into this exciting sphere of work.


Hi Cherise! So, what does someone in Scientific Public Relations do?

Basically, my responsibilities align around being a thought leader. When I say a thought leader, one of the primary responsibilities that I have is to build relationships, programs, and initiatives with different US universities. One topic that my company is very passionate about right now is precision medicine. We identify universities in the country that are also passionate about precision medicine and we network with them to understand their challenges. When I say I need to be a thought leader, I need to be having very up-to-date conversations about precision medicine to recognize what the field is lacking and what steps need to be made to propel the field forward. The execution aspect of my job is to make sure that I build relevant programs in order to do those things. For example, let’s say Stanford University is known for its work in precision medicine. What I would do is to go meet with, let’s say the vice president of research at Stanford and then build some program around precision medicine where Elsevier and Stanford are both contributing data or resources, jointly resulting in a better understanding of precision medicine at Stanford and as a whole.


What kind of data do you contribute, specifically?

Elsevier is a scientific information solutions company. We publish over 2,500 scientific journals, both online and in print. Not only that, we also provide other digital web-based solutions for the scientific community such as Scopus, Mendeley, and Science Direct. Scientists all over the world use these resources in order to disseminate their research. For example, using our SciVal platform, universities can actually create custom reports indicating what their top research areas are.  How would that be helpful for an institution? This can assist them in making targeted investment decisions for areas that they dominate in. My job is not black and white; there are no two days that are the same. It differs with every single engagement that I’m involved in. But it’s always going to be a mutual exchange of information to promote an extensive learning opportunity or to promote advancement in a particular field or initiative. This should be a really interesting blog post because, honestly, my job is not one that biomedical life scientists have traditionally considered and said, “I want to do that with my PhD.” It’s something that I just fell into. It allows me to use creativity every day. And so far it’s awesome.


How did you get this job? What is your background?

I always tell people I’m a recovering scientist because that’s exactly what I am. When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to go into research. That interest led me to major in chemistry as an undergrad. Then I pursued my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, focused on cancer research. Then… I don’t know when there was a shift but somewhere during graduate school I realized that I wanted to see how the research applied more to the patient. I’m at the bench, I’m doing my research but – what happens to the research after it leaves the bench? What is the impact on society once the paper is published? Does it have an effect on the actual patient? It was then that I decided to do a little bit of research myself into the process of taking research findings and bringing it to market. I learned about the field of technology transfer (or scientific commercialization) and began to understand that this is how inventions are translated from the academic bench to industry, then to the bedside. So, with this knowledge, I decided to pursue a mini-MBA certification at Rutgers while in the thesis phase of my PhD program, just to get more of an understanding of what the business aspect of science looked like. Everything that a full MBA would cover, we touched on it in a span of twelve weeks. It was a very intensive program. But I was able to do that at night while still working in the lab during the day. It was extremely difficult but I felt like I needed to get some framework behind what I was interested in doing.

That mini-MBA helped me land an internship with the Rutgers Office of Business Development and Technology Transfer. The internship allowed me to not only learn about the intellectual property process, but also taught me how to evaluate, market, and license new technologies coming out of the university to commercial partners. The commercial partner used the licensed technology in coordination with their own technology portfolio while the university received licensing fees and profit shares from any resulting products. Prior to the internship, this whole concept was foreign to me. As a scientific researcher, no one talks about this really, unless you are in a lab that already has a relationship with a commercial company. I learned that there were technology transfer offices at the majority of universities, commercializing the research taking place at the bench. I was completely intrigued and I knew that I wanted to pursue it further.

My Rutgers internship allowed me to get a paid position at Rockefeller University’s technology transfer office, where I stayed for two years. From Rockefeller, I moved on to Mount Sinai Innovation Partners at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That’s where the creativity started for me. I was able to align my commercialization experience with my passion for education. The director at Mount Sinai Innovation Partners gave me the creative freedom to build a commercialization internship program. From that opportunity, I was also able to build other programs, educating the Mount Sinai community about entrepreneurship and scientific communication. Mount Sinai was the place where I learned that I could think like a scientist but I could also be creative. That whole concept was foreign to me because as a scientist you follow protocols. You read papers. You see what other people have done. The whole concept of creativity, of building things right from scratch not knowing what the process will be at all was something that I hadn’t experienced before and now I was. I started realizing that this is exactly what I wanted to do. That experience led me to my position now at Elsevier – so you can see the transition, right? I was able to build programs, initiatives, and learning opportunities at Mount Sinai and now I’m at Elsevier with the amazing opportunity to create on a national level with a portfolio universities and organizations!


Do you feel like the mini-MBA was essential for getting to where you are now?

This might seem like a strange answer, but in terms of the content, it was not essential. The content helped. I became familiarized with a lot of business terms. But it was essential in terms of me proving my commitment to learning about this field. I tell PhDs and postdocs this all the time: sometimes you need to make certain moves to push your career forward… and it’s not really so much about what you’re doing, but more about you proving your commitment to identifying your skill sets, learning your personality, understanding what you like, what you don’t like. Everything will not always work. Everything will not always be a home-run. Trust me, I did things that I’m not even discussing here that I was just like okay, no, I don’t want to do that. But I made a decision for myself to always follow my instincts. That’s another concept that I’m actually going to be trying to write a short book about – following your instincts as a scientist and not always staying “within that box” of the norm.


You’re outgoing with great communication skills. Would you say those are essential skills in your job?

Yes. Outgoing, being a great networker. But I wouldn’t just say “go network”. I would say do targeted networking. Find the people who you can actually have a great conversation with. Find the people who it’s strategic for you to talk to and it’s strategic for them to talk to you. To do that, you have to do your research. That’s another thing that my PhD taught me, which may be underutilized by other PhDs – you know how to do research. You know how to find stuff out. It doesn’t have to be about a protein. You can also find things out about people. If you make your networking more strategic and have more of a purpose, then follow your instincts, your networking will turn into relationships and that’s the crux of what I do right now – relationship building.


Do you think LinkedIn is important for somebody who wants to get into your industry?

Definitely. I think LinkedIn is just important for getting into any industry at this point. I think it’s a great way to initiate cold meetings. If you don’t know someone and have never met them but you would feel they would be beneficial to know, LinkedIn is a great way to introduce yourself. If you are able to then send them a little note, or do your research, find out their e-mail address, find out their phone number, do a cold call. These are the kinds of things that people really need to take initiative on nowadays – really just put yourself out there and don’t necessarily care about how you look all the time. Just put yourself out there.


In addition to taking the initiative and networking, do you have any other advice that you would give to someone who wants to get into your field?

The first thing I would advise is to understand who you are. I know it sounds a little bit cliché, but when you are going into a field that’s not very heavily populated, especially by scientists and by PhDs, you have to be extremely sure of yourself and confident (even though the confidence may not be an everyday occurrence!) Know what your interests and passions are. Know what your personality is like. If you don’t like to talk to people, this is probably not the best job for you! My second piece of advice is to read. Read what’s on the cutting edge (this is important for scientists who are interested in technology commercialization as well). What are the hot topics right now? Last year, President Obama did his State of the Union Address and he talked about advancing the fight against cancer. When I listen to that, I’m not just listening to it as Cherise in my living room. I’m also listening to it for work because when I meet with the NSF and the NIH, they are taking their cues and forming their priorities directly from The Office of the President. I need to be well versed so that if I have a meeting at NIH and the NSF, I know what I need to talk to them about. The only way to do that and to be confident in those types of conversations is to be really aware and be on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the country and even globally in terms of scientific research, technology, and data.


How do you remain on the cutting edge? Are there any sources of information that you particularly rely on?

I read reputable blogs by thought leaders in the fields that interest me.  I try to stay up to date on articles in Cell, Science, and Nature. They are pretty much always on the cutting edge. And of course, reading the journals that Elsevier produces. It’s also cool because I come from a commercialization background so I am still on top of those kinds of literature too. When you read about startups, they are usually a couple of years ahead of where the rest of the industry is currently. I also read venture capital blogs because their investment decisions contribute a great deal to the technology commercial landscape.


What are the top three things on your to-do list for today?

I have a portfolio of programs and initiatives that I’m working on. One of the things constantly on my to-do list would just be e-mailing and phone conversations with colleagues and partners to find out where we are on certain things and to ensure that the plans are moving forward. I spend a lot of time as well reading and understanding the strategic goals of the universities that I’m working with, identifying openings and gaps in their capabilities, and assessing if there’s an opportunity for us to partner with them. I need to constantly track updates and relevant public relations topics happening with our partners and distribute that information to my team. Another item on my to-do list is focused around more logistical efforts. If I have meetings next week on the West Coast, I need to be churning out the agendas for these meetings to everyone on the team. I’m on the thought leadership side but I’m also on the program management side.


What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

I guess my favorite part would be the travel because obviously I get to see places that I’ve never seen. Another great thing about this position is that it’s a great work-life balance. I get into the office about 8:00 a.m. every day and I pretty much leave around 5:00, 5:30. Since we’re a global company, it’s also pretty feasible to work from home. My first day here I was given a work cell phone and laptop. So I take work everywhere I can work, especially since I have colleagues that are in Asia – sometimes I have to wake up for 7:00 a.m. calls with them because of the time difference. But I can just work from home if needed. That’s another really cool part that I really love. It’s the flexibility to do that. I also really enjoy the fact that my role is a brand new one, but that’s also my least favorite part! It’s my least favorite only because everything is from scratch. Sometimes that’s a little bit scary because I don’t know if I’m doing something in the right way. Nothing is set in stone and it’s just difficult to measure my success. But that’s also the really intriguing part of my job, too: that I don’t know. I have to figure everything out and that actually motivates me to get up and try new things every day. It’s my least favorite and most favorite part of what I do.


Do you miss academia at all?

No, I don’t. Honestly, I get a healthy dose of academia without actually being in it, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I still work with academia on a very regular basis so I can’t really miss it. But I’m far enough away from it that I’m not dealing with the politics of it. I have other politics now but it’s not academia politics, which is great. Obviously, there are other benefits to not working in academia like a higher pay range, bonuses… those types of things that academia historically does not offer.


How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?

The way that we disseminate research is changing rapidly because of technology, because of social media. I think that in order to make that change amenable to universities, you need some liaisons, the kind that know both the old way and the new way to be there to push that change forward, and I think that’s what I am. In all of the topics that I’m working on [at Elsevier], we are trying to change the face of them, be thought leaders in them because we are trying to go from what’s old to what’s new. I’m like a midwife to push technology forward! All aspects of science will change rapidly within the next ten years, including how we educate and train our professionals and disseminate our findings.  We’re going to have to switch from the bench mentality to what the bigger, more global impact will be. We’re going to have to start changing the way that we educate our scientists, the way that we produce scientists. We’re going to have to change the graduate curriculum to account for the surges in technology that’s currently happening. We’re going have to change the way that we educate medical students to account for artificial intelligence and digital health in medicine. All of these things won’t happen overnight. The field requires these champions that are right in the middle of it to say, “Come on. Let’s go. We know you don’t want to leave this old way but we’ve got to go. We’ve got to move forward.”


What kind of positions does someone like you move on to?

I haven’t started thinking about it yet but now that you’re asking me there are a lot of things I can do. I think that I can probably transition from here into leadership roles in academia. I think that vice presidents of research and deans, they really need forward thinking people. They need people who are inventive, creative, and willing to take some risks. That’s possibly something that I could do if I wanted to return to academia. I also see myself being a motivator and public speaker in terms of scientific education, making sure that US universities in particular stay on the cutting edge of educating our scientists. Maybe an education consultant – helping universities switch gears to move their curriculum forward. Then, in terms of publishing, what I’m doing right now has its own ladder as well, because right now I’m a senior manager but I could become a vice president in our Global Academic Relations team.


Final, most important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse what skills would someone in scientific public relations bring to the table?

I would probably be the one trying to befriend the zombies and saying: listen, that zombie right there, he might be able to help us. I’d say I know you guys are afraid of the zombies, but I don’t think all of them are bad. We can’t talk to all of them, but let’s look for one of them that can give us some inside information. I will be the one in the zombie apocalypse to bring all the inside information to the table. You have to be like an advocate for at least one of them because that’s the only way we’ll know what their plan is. I’m all about building strategy and you have to be able to view people as a resource in order build strategy.


Cherise can be contacted by email at c.bernard@elsevier.com or via LinkedIn.


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