Science Communication Close to Home

by Erica Landis

Learning how to communicate science to the public is vital for graduate students today; however, many programs do not offer formal training in communication. This gap has been filled by ComSciCon, an annual science communication training conference organized by and for graduate students interested in learning how to share their science knowledge with the wider world. ComSciCon is a national body which has given rise to a handful of regional meetings now joined by ComSciConATL. Organized by four graduate students (including our own Anzar Abbas), ComSciConATL brought together 50 graduate students from the Atlanta area and greater Southeast region in early March to learn science communication skills through interactive workshops, panels and networking with local experts, and collaboration between fellow attendees.

I first applied to attend the conference in December because I wanted an opportunity to improve my writing skills and learn more about science communication as a career. I was thrilled to hear a few weeks later that I would be able to go and even more excited to learn that fellow Neuroscience students Amielle Moreno, Carlie Hoffman, and Kristie Garza would be there too! By the time I left ComSciConATL after two packed days of learning and discussion, I felt more confident about my communication skills, had built a new and supportive network of peers and local communication experts, and was inspired to start telling the world about science. While I had dabbled in science communication previously, ComSciConATL prepared me to take it to the next level.

One thing that came up throughout the conference was the idea that there are many ways to communicate science but that doing it right requires intention. In each of the workshops and with each panel we learned about communication tools I had never thought to utilize before, including 3D printing and video games, plays and podcasts, and infographics and gifs. Now more than ever it seems young science communicators like us have access to a wide range of tools. Of course, each tool is only as good as its user. Several of the experts that participated in the conference stressed being intentional about how we tell science stories. We got advice on bringing rich details out of stories and how to balance the scientific accuracy with engaging details.

A moment of the conference that has stuck with me was during the panel on the second morning when scientist and outreach specialist Christopher Parsons reminded us that, “we have to have humility when approaching scientific engagement.” Scientists are becoming more enthusiastic about reaching out to the public but if we don’t take care to listen to what the public has to say or make those interactions mutually beneficial, we will only repeat mistakes from our collective past.

One of the best parts of being a ComSciConATL attendee was having the chance to discuss ideas like Parsons’ with the other attendees. In addition to hearing from science outreach experts, the conference allowed us to learn from each other, and I will say I really learned a lot. Toward the end of our two days together, we were invited to write our ideas on a Collaboration Wall where we could see projects and events others were planning and write responses or volunteer to help. I was impressed and inspired by everything my peers were thinking about, not to mention their ongoing projects in lab. We also had the opportunity to get feedback from each other on our elevator talks. This part of the conference was a surprise to us. Six of us at a time gave elevator talks in front of everyone throughout the two days. The audience got “Jargon” and “Awesome” cards to hold up as real-time feedback for the speaker. Giving a talk this way was intimidating but incredibly helpful. Activities like this helped us learn from each other and build a network of new collaborators.

While I went to ComSciConATL to practice writing and learn about career options, I left inspired and enthusiastic about the scientific research being done today and what it will mean for the public. Now, I and others that went to the conference have the skills to share that science with others. I believe the benefits of ComSciConATL will continue to help us in whatever comes next.

For other Neuroscience students interested in science communication, I strongly recommend applying to attend ComSciConATL next year! Expect those applications to open in late fall. You can also apply to attend the national ComSciCon meeting. If you just can’t wait, look out for the JPE 610 sessions How to translate “academia” into an accessible, meaningful story with Janece Schaffer, a playwright with The Alliance Theater who lead a similar session for ComSciConATL.

Photos taken by ComSciConATL organizers Anzar Abbas and Carleen Sabusap



Alumni Spotlight: Debra Cooper

by Kristie Garza

debra cooperDebra Cooper, Ph.D.
Year of Graduation: 2013
Advisor(s): David Weinshenker & Leonard Howell
Dissertation Title: Pharmacologic Dopamine β-Hydroxylase Inhibition: Effect On Cocaine-Induced Behavior and Neurochemistry

Current Position and Position Description:
Principal Consultant with the California State Senate Committee on Appropriations. Our office analyzes the fiscal impact of all bills that come through the CA State Senate. The basis of our analyses is “if this bill were to become a law, how much would it cost the state?” I am one of 7 consultants that produce these analyses. At the moment, I’m doing less “science policy” and more just general policy, though I intend to transition back into science policy eventually.

Why did you choose to leave academia?
I chose not to stay in academia initially because I didn’t enjoy grant writing. The less facetious answer is that I realized, through doing Brain Awareness Week and similar presentations, that I really enjoyed talking about science to non-scientists, and I wanted a career doing that. Once I made that realization, I started to look into either science communication or science policy as a career path.

What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
Networking isn’t a dirty word. People often make networking out to be this onerous task that’s a necessary evil. What I’ve learned is that successful networking is simply just building and fostering genuine relationships. The people who know you the best are the ones who are the most likely to recommend you to the next person or the next position.

What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferrable to transfer to your new job?
Most of what we do and learn in grad school can be transferred elsewhere. The most important skill in my job is communication (improved through posters presentations, talks, and papers). Other useful transferrable skills include being effective in fast paced environments (reaching deadlines), problem solving (adapting after negative/unexpected results), working well within a team (collaborations between and within labs), flexibility and adaptability (juggling experiments), being open-minded and willing to learn (every scientist naturally).

Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
In graduate school, we’re expected to do a deep dive into previous research when doing literature searches. We go through as much relevant research as we can, weighing the merits, and only when we feel like we’ve done a thorough analysis do we make a conclusion. My current job works at a much faster pace and doesn’t accommodate the time for such a deep dive. I have to make judgment calls based on a much smaller set of data than my ‘scientist self’ is fully comfortable with. Being able to rapidly pull small subsets of information and form quick conclusions is definitely a skill that I’ve developed after grad school.

What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
If you are even moderately interested in non-academic careers, start researching options today. Most professional society meetings have break-out sessions that highlight non-academic careers (I’m certain SfN and ASPET, the meetings I participated in the most, have them). I did the coursework for the Certificate in Translational Research while I was at Emory, which exposed me to people working in and around science at different levels. I never missed an opportunity to attend the non-academic careers symposia that GDBBS held. Attending these events alone isn’t enough though. It’s important to follow up with people that you meet at these events and really get any insight you can from them to try to figure out what career could work for you.

Any final words of wisdom?
Get involved in science policy even if that’s not something that you want to make a career out of. Legislation is always being created that affects scientists and that uses science to affect change in other ways. Who better to advocate on behalf of science than the people that do the scientific research? Getting involved can be anything from writing a letter to an elected official, going to a “Hill Day” and talking to congressional staffers, or actively pursuing a career in science policy. On top of that, not everything happens at the federal level – don’t forget state, city, and county policy. Having Atlanta as the state capitol of Georgia makes it that much easier to get involved right in your backyard.

Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice?  Yes

Preferred email?

Alumni Spotlight: Laura Mariani

by Kristie Garza


Laura Mariani, Ph.D.

Year of Graduation: 2016

Advisor: Tamara Caspary

Dissertation Title:
The Role of Arl13b and Non-Canonical Sonic Hedgehog Signaling in Joubert Syndrome

Current Position and Position Description:
Associate at Isaacson, Miller, an executive search consulting firm. When universities, non-profit organizations, and other mission-driven institutions need to find new leaders, they hire us to guide them through the complex process of identifying the challenges and opportunities that their next leader will face and bringing in experts who are up to the task. I specialize in recruiting senior administrators, deans, and department chairs in higher education, academic medicine, scientific research, and health care. I also help my firm recruit PhDs to join our team!

Did you choose to stay in academia? Why or why not?
By the end of my PhD I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do a postdoc. I loved working in research, but I wanted to move into a career where the things I was really passionate about in grad school — like serving on the Graduate Student Council and the executive board of Emory Women in Neuroscience — were viewed as valuable achievements rather than as distractions from the “most important” stuff in the lab. And, I’ll admit that money was also a factor.

What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
I recruit people in lots of different specialties, so I’m always learning! My projects have involved searches in pathology, nursing, family medicine, and lots of other fields I knew nothing about when I started this job. I’ve learned a lot about the health care industry. Also, I travel a lot, so I’ve learned some tricks for maximizing frequent flyer miles and hotel points!

What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferable to your new job?
I use my problem-solving skills all the time, it’s just a different set of problems. Instead of thinking about individual molecules, cells, or experiments, I think about large organizations made up of people with many different agendas, and how I can help them solve their problems. Being able to take in lots of information and spit out a coherent summary that highlights the key questions and prioritizes the next steps is a skill that I learned doing literature reviews, but it’s translatable to almost any career path.

Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
By the end of grad school you should hopefully have learned that there’s no shame in being the person at lab meeting who goes “Uh, what? I have no idea what that means.” But as a consultant in a client meeting, you do not want to look ignorant! You’re there to sell your expertise and to portray the company you work for in a good light. Presentations and meetings feel more high-stakes in the business world. No one in grad school ever acted like I had the power to represent Emory University as a whole, but sometimes I am seen in that way as a representative of my employer.

What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
Have a Plan B. Even if you want an academic career, force yourself to think about the next best alternative and make sure that you develop skills that are relevant to that alternative. Look at job postings and see what skills are actually in demand outside of academia. It’s totally possible to develop very marketable skills in the course of conducting your dissertation research: consider whether your dissertation project is relevant for clinical research or industry R&D, learn to code, learn translatable skills in statistics and data analytics, do science writing to build up a portfolio, do an internship. Life is unpredictable, and no one has ever said, “Gee, I wish I had FEWER options right now” on their graduation day.

Any final words of wisdom?
I met the most amazing people at Emory who will be my friends for life. They were there for me when stuff got real, and they made all the grad school struggles worthwhile. That said, you should also have friends who AREN’T grad students. Keep a healthy, balanced sense of perspective: failed experiments are frustrating and heartbreaking, but they aren’t the literal end of the world. Academic research is an amazing career path, but it’s not the only way to live a happy, fulfilling life. I took up running and singing in grad school because I needed to feel like I was making successful progress at SOMETHING, and the friends I made through those hobbies helped me remember that there’s more to life than mice and western blots.

Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice?
Yes! I can be reached at or on LinkedIn:


2017 Retreat Newsletter

by Elizabeth Barfield

If you couldn’t make it to the Neuroscience Program’s annual retreat weekend this year to pick up a copy of the Central Sulcus’ printed newsletter (retreat edition), you can check out some of the articles here!

For the “Status of Statistics” article, syllabi from the courses described can be downloaded here.


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By Erica Tracey Akhter

Fall One

Beginning jitters
Give way to anatomy,
Imposter syndrome.

Spring One

Chasing free lunches
And perfect labs, unicorns.
All are elusive.

Fall Two

Maybe we got this.
Lets breathe a few minutes we’re
Halfway qualified.

Spring Two

Beware the confound
And inadequate controls.
Man, f*ck writing grants.

Fall Three

Thank God that’s over.
Wait, shit, again qualify.
Imposter anew.


But then, you have passed.
They say the third year is worst
So lighten and breath

A sigh of relief
Until science proves again
Always, we’re its bitch.

Lessons in Professionalism: Emails

by Claire McGregor

I was recently told that every interaction that occurs in lab is a professional interaction and should be treated that way. I wasn’t totally certain what that meant, but my good friend Phil seemed to have it down. So when he asked me to demonstrate some techniques for him in my lab, I figured that while he was taking notes on me, I’d secretly take notes on him.

First, Phil greeted me not with the usual, “Hey, Claire!” but with a quiet, “Excuse me.” He was dressed like he worked in an office, albeit a casual one, though this quickly changed as he draped himself in PPE. He stood very straight, laughed politely at my jokes, but offered none of his own. While I was showing him my skills, he took notes, asked direct questions, and did not gum up the atmosphere with any personal questions or anecdotes. At the end of the encounter, he asked about meeting another time, and finished with “I’ll be in touch” before striding out of the room. “Just text me or something!” I called after him.

Phil had been serious about being in touch. A few hours later, I received an email. Before you read this, I’d like to remind you that Phil and I are actually good friends—we hang out on weekends, he hosts parties for watching certain TV shows, and we shared a tent at camping before retreat. So I have to chalk it up to his incredible skill for professionalism that he was able to send this email with a straight face:


I read this and I knew two things.

1. Phil had mastered professionalism in the lab, to the extent that I was nervous we might not longer be friends so much as colleagues and

2. I was ready to try my hand at this whole professionalism thing.

After copying and pasting Phil’s signature to be my own, I responded with this email:


Phil, not to be outdone in formality or professionalism, followed up with this email:



Nailed it.

Stuff you should know but no one tells you: Employee benefits of postdoctoral appointments

By Meriem Gaval

Central Sulcus picIf you’re planning on seeking a post-doc you’ll discuss your interests, skills, and ideas with future PIs and labmates during your interview. Sometime between your research talk and dinner you may discuss your potential salary and sources of funding but it is unlikely that you will hear about the additional benefits provided to postdocs at the institution. This supplementary compensation includes health and life insurance, paid time off, parental leave, and retirement plans, all very important things that will influence your lifestyle choices over the next several years.

There are many different ways to gain postdoctoral experience and, while the work expectations are very similar between these settings, your compensation and benefits are very different. These may not even be standardized across all postdocs within an organization! Some seemingly obvious choices can also radically alter the benefits you receive. What we’d like to do next is briefly discuss some of the benefits currently provided to postdocs in different circumstances, with the intention of arming you with knowledge to guide your questions during interviews and help you make informed decisions about your next career move.

If your new postdoc is in an industry setting, chances are your employee benefits will be very similar or the same as other company employees. These will include a retirement plan with employer contribution, clearly set guidelines for paid time off, health and life insurance, and the ability to contribute to the national social security program. The NIH intramural research program has defined paid time off rules and provides health insurance at no cost to the postdoc, but does not provide access to retirement benefits or social security contributions.

The compensation of postdocs working in academic institutions varies wildly, and this depends on the institution, departmental affiliation, and source of funding. Some common sources of funding include departmental funding, grants awarded to and managed by your PI, an institutional training grant such as a T32, or an individual training grant such as an NRSA. If your salary is being paid by your PI’s grant(s) or by the university itself, in many cases you are considered an employee and are eligible for benefits provided to full-time staff such as health and life insurances, parental leave, retirement plan, and paid time off. On the other hand, if your salary comes from an institutional training grant (T32), many institutions will consider you a stipendee, not an employee. Stipendees are not always allowed to take advantage of the insurance group rate provided to employees, nor retirement benefits. In this case the stipendee would be responsible to purchase private insurance. While the NIH allows trainees up to 60 calendar days of parental leave, additional paid time off is to be determined by agreement with the advisor. T32s provide a training-related institutional allowance per fellow (NIH guidelines for 2014 are $7,850/year). These are most often used for travel and supplies, but the NIH considers health insurance a training-related expense. As such, your department or institution may require you to use this money to pay for your health insurance directly, or to partially reimburse you for your insurance-related out-of-pocket expenses, decreasing the amount of money you can use for travel and supplies. It is worth noting that some institutions will consider this allowance as income, so that your tax documents would reflect an additional $7,850 to your salary, even though this was not a direct compensation to you. Also, while employees are allowed pre-tax contributions to pay for public transportation, retirement, and insurance policies, stipendees are often not. This means you would pay taxes on a greater amount of taxable income.

What about competitive funding mechanisms? We have all heard of the importance and prestige of obtaining individual training grants, such as an NRSA. Unfortunately, when you obtain an NRSA as a postdoc, your employment status may change from employee to stipendee (this is the case at Emory). If this happens, the same financial pitfalls just described may apply to you. That’s right- if you obtain your own funding you may receive a bonus in salary from your PI, but you may also lose your health insurance as well as pre-tax contributions and employee matching to your retirement plan. If you are able to get benefits through your partner’s employer and decide to go that route, be prepared to spend time and effort justifying your new NRSA as a ‘life changing event’ to your partner’s employer, so you can enroll in their benefits outside of open enrollment.

We would argue that this is an unfortunate way to disincentive truly great funding mechanisms for training. However, these small but significant differences in your compensation package are not well-known and seldom talked about, so most trainees don’t realize the financial implications of the awards until after they’ve been accepted and disbursed. This is not meant to discourage you from applying to any fellowship or from pursuing a position with T32 funding. You should use this information to discuss the implications with your PI. Speak with your PI about ways to offset the financial drawback of obtaining a training fellowship. You may be able to negotiate a salary supplement, funds to travel to specific courses, workshops, or conferences, equipment, or hiring an undergraduate or technician to work on your project and increase your productivity.

Central Sulcus figureIt’s imperative to highlight that these issues are not the same at every institution or department. This is partly due to the lack of NIH requirements or guidelines for academic organizations to follow regarding compensation and benefits. Even the “NRSA salary minimum” is not required to be met if your compensation is coming from a non-NRSA funding mechanism. This pilot survey from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) will give you a good idea of the diversity in institutional policy regarding compensation. The NIH is aware of the desire to standardize benefits for postdoctoral researchers and recognizes that training grants carry a financial burden on the awardee, as seen in pages 7-9 of the report seen here. As you interview for postdoc positions be proactive and ask current postdocs in the lab and the department about these policies. They are a valuable source of information and can put you in contact with key personnel to answer your many questions. Find out if the institutions belong to the NPA and whether they have an office of postdoctoral research, as these are a reflection of support and commitment to improving the postdoc experience. Better yet, become involved with the advocacy committee in either or both of these organizations and help change the current system.