For many scientists, translating science from tech-talk to public-friendly, jargon-free English is about as much fun as disinfecting petri dishes. But for others, such as Kristine Kelly and Lynne Brum, it's a welcome and exciting challenge. Both Kelly and Brum have leveraged biology backgrounds to craft careers for themselves in the public relations (PR) industry. They, their bosses, and at least one PR-industry expert agree that scientific training allows them to deliver unique value to their clients and the public they serve.
The bench advantage
"A bench scientist who can explain, in lay terms, the science of pharmaceuticals, research, disease, etc., to the general public" is very valuable to a science-focused PR firm, Jeff Picarello writes in an e-mail. Picarello is vice president of the public affairs group Edelman, one of the world's largest independent PR firms, and Kelly's boss. "I knew that Kristine would be able to help us tell the stories of our clients in health better as a result of her scientific background."
That science background consists of a B.S. degree in biology and English from Tufts University and a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Cornell University. She has been doing PR work for about 7 years, and today she works in New York City as an account supervisor in the corporate and public affairs division of Edelman.
Brum started doing PR work a year after she finished her bachelor's degree in biological sciences at Wellesley College. She has been doing it ever since, for more than 20 years. Based in Boston, Brum is an executive vice president of Porter Novelli Life Sciences (PNLS), which is part of Porter Novelli, an international PR company with offices in 54 countries.
Kelly and Brum say their science training allows them to communicate better with science-focused clients and to understand the potential of client technology and the uses to which it is put. Sometimes it helps them identify unique opportunities for promoting their clients that less science-savvy PR professionals might have missed.
"Kristine's natural interest in science means that she's always reading and seeking new information about scientific developments," Picarello writes. "She's a trend spotter for all things scientific," a talent that once led to the strategic placement of an op-ed piece that indirectly promoted a client's technology, Picarello continues. For another client, "she was able to identify a number of scientific conferences they should attend ... to meet influential scientists and scientific media," he writes. Those relationships led to collaborations that "could be worth billions of dollars if a product is developed," he says.
Carin Canale, Brum's supervisor as president of PNLS, has seen Brum's science background lend the company unique credibility. "We were in a competitive pitch for a sizable piece of business with a very large technical-tools company," Canale says. PNLS won the account because its representatives demonstrated that they understood not only the communications and marketing needs of the client but also the technical aspects of the work, Canale says.
Drawn to and from science
Brum says she has always had "a passion for science," and she has long been attracted to what she calls "opportunity identification." "It's this idea that we are always on the lookout, that something new could arise in front of us," she explains.
One opportunity she identified early was the career potential of the emerging biotechnology industry in the mid-1980s. Drawn toward biotech by the success of interferon, which made the cover of Time magazine in 1980, she researched companies in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area and ended up at Biogen, for which she worked briefly as what she calls a "lab rat." She didn't stay at the bench for long, but she says that it was enough to discover "how much I loved biotechnology."
A lab accident led her to investigate career alternatives. "I've been doing this for 2 months," she recalls telling her parents, "and I just had this accident. I've never had stitches before in my life. I think I will start to think about what I will do next."
A few months later, the company's communications associate departed, and Brum was encouraged to apply for the post. She got it, despite her lack of PR experience. "What was great for me about that experience was that I knew a lot of the people at the scientific core of Biogen but got to do something that was more suitable to my personality and skill set," she says.
Brum remained at Biogen for 3 years, completed a 1-year MBA at Simmons College, and then joined Feinstein Kean Partners, a Cambridge PR firm that focuses on life science start-ups. Four years later, she moved to Vertex Pharmaceuticals, also in Cambridge, at which she spent 13 years, advancing to become vice president of strategic communications.
Kelly's interests have long encompassed both science and communications. "I was the kid in second grade who knew how to spell and describe photosynthesis," she laughs. She was attracted to subjects "where I didn't think people knew much, [and] where there were questions to be answered." Science fit the bill.
As an undergraduate, she studied writing and poetry as well as biology. But, she says, "by my senior year in college, I was starting to question whether I really had the dedication to be an academic scientist." Attributing these doubts to "burnout," she applied to a Ph.D. program anyway.
During graduate school at Cornell's biomedical campus in Manhattan, Kelly says that she had "a great time in the lab" but that academic politics and conflicting personalities reinforced her earlier doubts. "It seemed logical ... that science writing could be something that I could try," she says. So she e-mailed the editors of every hospital publication in New York City, she says, "begging" them for an opportunity. "I just want to write," she told them.
She landed a position with the PR office of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, writing press releases. Soon she started freelancing, writing science-related releases for Cornell. In 2003, she applied for and was awarded an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. She followed the fellowship with a position as a science writer for Rockefeller University. She was hired by Edelman a couple of years later.
Not selling out
Kelly wasn't particularly conflicted about entering the PR field, but the transition wasn't comfortable, either. "It was a feeling I got from my committee that I had sold out," she says. It was as if "I wasn't really worth investing time in anymore because I wasn't going to be a career scientist," she recalls.
She admits to some anxiety over the decision to leave her university PR position for the corporate world. "When I worked at a university, I felt I was on the side of the scientist. I was there to communicate science in its truest form," she explains. "And when I made the decision to go to a PR firm, ... I knew that came with baggage." She says that she was "worried that I was setting myself up to sell something or promote something that I didn't believe in."
That's why she chose Edelman's public affairs section instead of its health practice section. In health, she expected "I would be working to promote a drug, and I didn't know how comfortable I would be with that," she says. "I didn't want to be a salesman, and because someone was paying me, I [would have] to say their drug was wonderful."
As it turned out, she started working with pharmaceutical companies almost immediately--and that was okay because she developed a more nuanced view, she says. She realized that there's a difference between PR and marketing and that PR is about more than just "talking about a drug. It's also about reputation management and issues management," she says. And every organization, she says, has good and bad elements to it, "but sometimes that good stuff can really help somebody. That's how I find the balance." It helps that her company has what she calls a "moral barometer" and only accepts clients they believe in.
"The public relations industry has a long track record of attracting personnel from a variety of disciplines, such as journalism and finance," says Arthur Yann, vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America in New York City. "Individuals with science backgrounds certainly have an opportunity to do well in the current environment, especially at firms that specialize in health care, biotech, life sciences, and other [industries] where their knowledge and expertise offers distinct advantages."
Some employers recognize those advantages. At PNLS, 25% of the employees have science degrees. "It has always been our MO to have a mix of scientists and communicators," Canale says. "We believe that we have to hire scientists who understand the work that our clients are performing." And "the more we understand their business and how their technology works, ... the better we can work for them."
Alaina G. Levine is a freelance writer who has done PR work.