In a talk  at a TEDx event last month at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Mary-Rose Hoja described a 1950s invention idea of a hair trimmer. When placed over your head, it would suck your hair upward and burn hair ends by contact with little electrical circuits. “Great idea,” said Hoja. “The catch was that you’d get electrocuted.” Hoja used the example to demonstrate how important communication is for innovation. If the inventor “had gone out there and started talking to people and telling them about his ideas instead of sitting in his lab, … he would have realized that no sane person would put their head into this.”
Talking to people has been essential in getting Hoja where she is today. A biomedical researcher by training, Hoja, aged 38, has forged a career as a manuscript editor and consultant in mingling and strategic networking. This odd combination isn't something Hoja anticipated or planned for; it emerged ad hoc from hard work, boldness, and a desire to help others. “Stick to the things you love doing and build on that, and everything will come naturally,” Hoja advises.
Born in Scotland to a family of medical doctors, Hoja grew up in a culture that valued medicine and natural history. But “I had more of a natural interest in arts and language,” Hoja recalls. She loved to draw, especially plants, and did a lot of embroidery, arts and crafts, and sculpting in clay while growing up.
But in keeping with her family’s culture, in high school she focused on science. Starting in 1991, she studied biochemistry for a B.Sc. degree at the University of Edinburgh . “It was kind of leaving a door open … if I wanted to do medicine later on,” Hoja says. She learned from her undergraduate lab experiences that she “really enjoyed … the physical bench work.”
In 1994, for the penultimate year of her degree, Hoja joined a student exchange program at Uppsala University  in Sweden. She stayed over the following summer, working in the lab of structural biologist Alwyn Jones, figuring out how to make proteins soluble so they could be crystallized. She enjoyed the trial-and-error approach of research. “It was very fun being able to see crystals and not crystals, and just the whole process of doing it.”
After she graduated, Hoja returned to Jones’s lab to do a Ph.D. “But then it didn’t really work out doing crystallography for me,” she says. She didn't enjoy her new project and could not see a Ph.D. at the end of it. So 1 year in she scheduled a face-to-face meeting with her supervisors to tell them she was leaving. "It was important for me to feel good that I had that meeting with them and I told them I don’t think this is working.” It was a daunting decision, she says, but for her it was a matter of personal integrity. “To be bold and brave even if you’re scared” is character building, she says.
In 1998, Hoja started over again as a Ph.D. student in the lab of Christer Höög at the Karolinska Institute (KI), a medical university based in Stockholm. She identified Höög’s lab through Paul Beatus, a Ph.D. student in developmental biology at KI whom she had met during a 2-week molecular biology course in Greece (and who later became her husband). Her false start didn’t bother Höög. “If you change course early during the Ph.D., it is not likely to affect your career. What is important is that you convincingly can explain why you wish to do this,” Höög writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “If you are not motivated and enthusiastic about your project after 6 months, you probably should change project.”
At KI, Hoja used microscopy to study how proteins affect the integrity of chromosome dynamics during the development of eggs and sperm in mice. “She characterized a set of proteins that, if damaged, results in reproductive impairments,” Höög says. The work required dealing with a lot of “beautiful pictures,” which “did probably appeal to the artist in me,” Hoja says. She also enjoyed Höög’s prompt and candid communication style.
Hoja was determined to do a Ph.D., but after that, her path was less clear. A career other than an academic one kept tugging on her sleeve. Because she was a native English speaker, people started asking her to proofread manuscripts before they submitted them to journals. This began when she was in Uppsala and continued at KI. Then Hoja helped people with their Web sites and annual reports, “so it really started to snowball.” As she learned the local language, Hoja started translating Swedish texts into English. In Stockholm, she added a social dimension, setting up a pub in her department as a meeting place. “I really enjoyed speaking to professors and the visiting researchers, the students, and so on, and when we were talking about text … [sometimes] you want to do it over a beer,” Hoja says.
The momentum gathered quickly. Hoja began to charge for her consulting services. A woman she met at a party passed her contact details on to her company, offering Hoja's translation services. The catch: Hoja couldn’t get the job without a company of her own. “So I set up a company,” she says. It was in 1999, and she was in the second year of her Ph.D. “I became known as a manuscript doctor and that really helped my own publication work,” Hoja says.
After obtaining her Ph.D. in 2002, Hoja set off for Australia with Beatus, who had secured a postdoc at the University of Queensland  in Brisbane. There, she worked as a senior administrative officer at the university’s grants office, and as an education officer and project manager at the nearby Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB). All along, she kept her own company going.
During her time in Australia, Hoja attended many events organized by the University of Queensland. She organized a conference for CRC SIIB, which was partly intended as a networking opportunity for scientists and company managers. Some other events she attended focused on entrepreneurship, “which led to a strong network of expertise that I still actively tap into,” she says.
But one thing that struck her is how, for many academics and R&D people, “the thought of stepping into a room filled with strangers, stretching their hand out and shaking their hand, and explaining what they do, terrifies them,” she says. “They can’t speak to investors or to prospective collaborators or to a prospective Ph.D. supervisor.” A couple of years after returning to Stockholm, she organized, with the help of her husband, a free “pilot mingle workshop,” spending 3000 Swedish Krona (about $440) on wine and snacks in exchange for participants’ honest feedback. One of the participants, a journalist, wrote a report about the event. “The workshop has exploded,” Hoja says.
Hoja has continued her practice as a manuscript doctor. She writes brochures, marketing texts, Web site copy, and annual reports for companies -- but networking is increasingly a part of her consulting services. Today she is more and more often called upon as an "edutainer” -- “someone who conveys an important message in an entertaining and engaging way,” she explains -- and as a social media consultant. “I help people understand the power of social media” in combination with face-to-face interaction, she says. Her main clients are life scientists and pharma companies, educational institutions, and professional women’s networks.
When Hoja decided to launch her company, she had no other vision than to make a little extra money doing something she enjoyed. “My business developed very organically,” mainly through word-of-mouth, she says. She has now reached the point where she has to decide if she wants to expand, hire employees, and take on a partner. One factor in her decision will be her family. A mother of two children aged 7 and 5, “I’ve accepted that for my overall happiness and the happiness of the people around [me], … I can’t go all out as an entrepreneur right now,” she says.
Having her own company has helped Hoja “understand what ... people see in me that’s really valuable to them,” she says. “You learn a lot about yourself and you learn about what is your professional identity.” Knowing what she knows now, she probably would never have chosen to study science in the first place. But “I’m very happy where I am now, and I wouldn’t be in that position if I didn’t have my Ph.D.”
- Prepare before the event. Know what you want to get out of it. Get hold of the list of participants and research the people you want to meet. Use LinkedIn, Twitter, and other forms of online media to initiate relationships before meeting in person.
- Focus during the event. Events are opportunities for scientists to meet new people, strengthen relationships, and get people to buy in to their ideas. Aim to fascinate people, and ask questions. If you’re shy, expose yourself to the environment that gives you problems.
- Follow up after the event. Follow up within 24 hours, before memories fade. Send LinkedIn invitations. Focus on helping others, for example, by putting new contacts in touch with people you think they ought to know.
There's more advice in Hoja’s TEDx  talk.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.