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Meet a real Science Writer, Alisa Machalek
Interview

Alisa Machalek, M.S., Science Writer, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
Alisa Machalek, M.S., Science Writer, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland

1. I chose this career because...

2. My career exploration...

3. My typical workday involves...

4. What I like best and least about my work...

5. My careers goals are...

6. When I'm not working, I like to...


1. I chose this career because...

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Alisa writes at her desk
Alisa writes at her desk

I chose to become a science writer because it was a “‘best fit’” job for me. I explored many career options, then geared my education and training toward science writing. It best combined my interest in science with my other skills and interests. After obtaining my education and certification, I came to work for NIGMS and have been here now for 8 years.

You know what’s ironic? I did a lot of searching before figuring out what I wanted to do with my professional life. Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve always written as a hobby. I’ve kept journals and written poetry and short stories. Yet I never dreamed I’d become a professional writer!

Education
  • Bachelor of Science, Biochemistry, Michigan State University Honors College
  • Master of Science, Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Science Writing Certificate, University of California, Santa Cruz

2. My career exploration...

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College

When I entered college, I wanted to be a medical researcher. I wanted to discover the unknown and make a contribution to the nation’s health. During my college education, I explored the laboratory environment to discover what I liked best. I purposely worked in different science settings – academia, industry, and government, – and involving research on various kinds of tissues including plant, animal, and human. This work experience helped me realize that laboratory work was not for me. It seemed narrowly focused, slow in progress, and sometimes monotonous. I wanted a career that would provide more variety, so I explored other options.

Other careers I considered:
  • Medicine
  • Medical illustration
  • Law
  • Employee of pharmaceutical or biotech company
  • Science writing

My mother is a physician, so I had first-hand experience with the life of a doctor. I interviewed a medical illustrator, and a pharmaceutical company consultant to learn more about their jobs. It turned out that science writing was the best choice for me.

Graduate School

Once my career choice was made, I plotted a suitable education path. I felt I needed more science, so I entered a graduate program that focused more on class work and less on lab work. While there, I helped two professors who were writing a textbook. I served as the editorial assistant, photoresearcher, and central point of contact for everyone involved in the project.

Even though I had made my career decision, I continued to explore. During my textbook project, I learned a Unix-based molecular-modeling program. It’s a program that helps create detailed images of molecules. I considered a molecular-modeling career as a possible way to combine my interests in art and science. I even did a 1-week private tutorial in San Francisco with a molecular-modeling expert. This experience helped me reaffirm my original choice to become a science writer.

Post Graduate: Science Writers Certificate Program

After obtaining my master’s degree, I began a science writing program at UC Santa Cruz. It was an incredible experience! The Santa Cruz program is unique because it’s specifically geared toward people who already have a science background. It focuses on the art of journalism and provides networking opportunities. Our tutors were well-known professional writers and editors from major newspapers and magazines.





3. My typical workday involves...

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Alisa displays just some of the many publications she has written
Alisa displays just some of the many publications she has written

During my workday I wear many hats – writer, editor, photo researcher, public information expert, media trainer. So every day is different. Typically, I’m working on a mix of short-term, medium-term, and long-term assignments.

My responsibilities include:
  • Writing assignments – news releases to the public and for Congress, featured articles, science education booklets, Web writing, scientist profiles
  • Collaborating with graphic artists on various publications and projects – such as designing logos for high profile programs, designing posters for lectures sponsored by my institute
  • Serving as liaison to the public – answering questions and referring journalists and other media representatives to the appropriate NIGMS scientists for more information about the research areas we support
  • Reading science literature to keep up-to-date – including major scientific journal articles, news releases from research universities, and other science news stories

See samples of my work at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences science education Web page.

Watch this interview of me talking about my job while attending a science writing workshop.

4. What I like best and least about my work...

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Alisa stands next a display that highlights many of the educational materials produced by her and others at the National Instiute of General Medical Sciences
Alisa stands next a display that highlights many of the educational materials produced by her and others at the National Instiute of General Medical Sciences

What I like best about my work is:

· Talking with smart scientists about their cutting-edge research
· Keeping up with a variety of science specialties and topics
· Conveying the excitement of science discoveries to others
· Contributing to the public’s understanding of science
· Being able to work on a variety of writing assignments
· Having the independence and freedom to do creative work
· Getting immediate rewards for labor

Calling-up Nobel prize-winners and asking them to explain their work is just part of my job. How cool is that?!

What I like leastabout my work has to do with bureaucracy. Along with the benefits of having a government job, you also have to follow rigid rules and regulations. Also frustrating is what I’ve heard called the “‘numbing minutiae of print publication’.” That means reviewing proof after proof in magnifying-glass detail.

5. My careers goals are...

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Alisa's knowledge of molecular modeling helped her in the design of the poster she displays
Alisa's knowledge of molecular modeling helped her in the design of the poster she displays

My career goals are to continue to grow as a writer and expand into writing for other independent science publications outside the NIH.

I’d also like to improve the communication between my counterparts at other NIH institutes. In an effort to achieve this goal, I founded a group called Science Writers at NIH (SWANIH). We meet once a month to discuss pertinent issues.

And finally, I’d like to explore my potential as a manager.

6. When I'm not working, I like to...

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Alisa holds her oboe, which she enjoys playing for chamber music groups
Alisa holds her oboe, which she enjoys playing for chamber music groups

When I’m not working, I like to spend time with my husband and young son.

I also enjoy swimming, hiking, mountain biking, gardening, cooking, and playing the oboe in chamber music groups.


















































     
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