Welcome to Talking Precision Medicine — the podcast in which we discuss the future of healthcare and health technology, and how advances in data and data science are fueling the next industrial revolution.
Our guest this episode is Dr. Susanna Harris, community lead at Vibe Bio. Susanna is a dedicated scientific communicator and an outspoken advocate for the mental health of PhD students and other science researchers. She has chronicled her journey from the academic lab bench to a venture incubator to a promising biotech company for a substantial social media following, and joins us today to dive into these topics and more.
Come on in and have a listen.
Decentralized science and communities
Decentralized science movement is formed around the idea that everybody who gets involved in a project should have some ownership over it and should feel empowered to lend their skills for the betterment of the entire group and their own progress. This is why a community consists of different groups of people as well as their activities. These are not just people that VibeBio is speaking to — we listen to them as they are doing such important work. Our job at VibeBio is to create a space where everyone can contribute their part.
“It’s important to distinguish between a community and an audience”.
Different groups VibeBio works with (patients and their families, funders, biotechs, regulators, clinicians …) benefit if effective drugs get into the market and the patients can access these drugs. It’s not about who is going to win — if either group loses, the rest lose as well. It’s less about creating incentives that align people but more about how we allow people to see that they already have shared incentives and missions. If we focus on these commonalities people can drive towards that, they don’t have to pick and choose. And the aspect of what and how you are communicating is really important in these situations.
Importance of communicating in science
“It’s not the question whether scientists should communicate but rather should communicators do science. We all learned to communicate well before we understood the scientific method.”
We all have an innate understanding of the importance of communication with other people. All scientists communicate every time we give a talk, write a paper or present at a lab meeting. Communication is what brings scientific discoveries to the public. There’ve been incredible discoveries that we don’t know about because we have no record of them and so they just don’t matter. The same can be said about negative data generated with invalidated hypotheses. This is something that you often can’t publish since it’s not what papers would get excited about. If we don’t put our knowledge and experience anywhere, this knowledge will just never be used or the same research will just be repeated over and over.
“I realized that my colleagues would write papers and grants and go to conferences so that they could do their science, but I was really doing the science so that I could go to the conferences and have something to talk about.”
Being a scientist outside of academia
“We need scientists in every single space.”
The view on career opportunities in traditional success or failure in academia is changing. Not a lot of grad students succeed in the rigid academic structure and the idea that there are a lot of ways of being a scientist and a lot of ways to be paid to be a scientist is starting to grow.
One of the best aspects of the academic world is probably the opportunity to attend seminars with the most brilliant people in the world for free. However, if you work in biotech, especially in communications, you are still going to interact with academics, you’ll probably even get the opportunity to meet and talk to all the brilliant people that make science happen (the academics, the VCs, the regulators …).
Advocacy work and PhD Balance
A paper published in Nature Biotechnology in 2018 stated that out of 2000 graduate students (mostly PhDs) included in a survey, 40% would qualify as being severely depressed or anxious. Based on a frustration that this topic is not being publicly discussed Harris created an Instagram profile called Phd Depression in 2018. It started as a social experiment to tell the stories we don’t normally tell each other along with the happy faces that we normally do. It soon evolved into the PhD Balance, which today is a lively community of current and previous academics who are dedicated to learning through shared experiences and shared resources, that got them through the difficult aspects of graduation school, from navigating academia to dealing with mental health struggles.