Alumni Profiles Series: Sheena Scruggs
Sheena Lee (Faherty) Scruggs received her B.S. in Biology and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and graduated with her Ph.D. in Biology at Duke in 2016. Her thesis research was conducted at the Duke Lemur Center and in Madagascar, where she studied how genetic changes contribute to seasonal changes in physiology under the advisership of Anne Yoder. During her time at Duke, she was selected as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow, which led to her first job after graduation as a Science Writer for the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, MD. She transitioned back to the Triangle at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), first as a Digital Outreach Coordinator, and currently as a Health Scientist. She continues to freelance in Science Writing and is passionate about science communication at all levels.
WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS OF CAREER DISCOVERY LIKE IN GRADUATE SCHOOL?
I always thought I wanted to teach, particularly at a small liberal arts school. When I got my first chance to TA in my second year of grad school, I realized that it was not a natural fit. That realization made me start thinking about other career paths, since I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to be a bench scientist. Fortunately, I joined a lab that didn’t have secured research funding for me, so I ended up writing a bunch of grants in my first few years—and I loved it. Most of these grants were read by funders outside my field, and I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining my genetic research to a general audience. When I started seeking out grants even after I had secured funding, I realized science writing might be the right path for me.
I found many opportunities to build my skills in science writing and communication outside of research. I contributed to Duke’s research blog, wrote as a freelance writer for Scientific American’s guest blog, and interned with the Duke Medicine News and Communications office. I also volunteered at Durham Museum of Life and Science and served on the organizing committee for ComSciCon-Triangle 2015. All these experiences helped me to discover areas of science communication and potential career fields that I thought I’d enjoy.
WAS THERE A MAJOR TURNING POINT THAT SOLIDIFIED YOUR TRANSITION INTO SCIENCE WRITING?
Before my final year of graduate school, I was selected for a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. For 10 weeks over that summer, I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer as a Health and Science Reporter. This opportunity was basically a crash course in science journalism and a huge turning point in my career. I learned so much that I felt confident to apply for my first position in science writing at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). When I saw this position posted, I knew it would be the perfect fit. So, I contacted my would-be boss to discuss the position, and he immediately recognized the intensive training the AAAS fellowship provided, and I was offered my first career position. I highly recommend this fellowship to anyone interested in science writing because it is recognized as one of the best training programs for scientists making this transition.
WHAT DOES THE LIFE OF A SCIENCE WRITER LOOK LIKE?
I was in my first position at the NHGRI Communications and Public Liaison Branch for about two and a half years. In this role, I did bit of everything. I wrote articles for newsletters and mailing lists, helped with social media posts, acted as a liaison between media personnel and scientists in the institute, and helped scientists prepare materials for press releases and interviews. When I moved back to the Triangle, I took a Digital Outreach Coordinator position at NIEHS. Similarly, I developed materials like newsletter stories, fact sheets, and research highlights for the NIEHS website, communicated research findings to a variety of stakeholders, and served as a media and interdepartmental liaison.
One benefit that made a significant impact on my life over that past year and a half is the ability to do much of this work remotely. When COVID restrictions sent us all home, there was really no change in productivity or work style. This type of role is conducive to the “work at home” lifestyle, which is a major benefit to some workers. Additionally, the field of science communication continues to grow with high demand for people with these skills. I am confident that with my existing skillset, I can seek new projects or jobs to stay challenged and excited by the work.
YOU RECENTLY TRANSITIONED TO A MORE MANAGEMENT-ORIENTED ROLE. WHAT’S THAT LOOK LIKE?
Yes, less than a year ago I took a new role at NIEHS as a Health Scientist in the Division of the National Toxicology Program (DNTP). This job is split pretty evenly between two main responsibilities. One is to lead the peer review unit that ensures that NTP reports (comprehensive documents on substances that might pose a risk to human health) get reviewed by external experts in the field. The other part of my job is to serve as the Designated Federal Official for NTP Board of Scientific Counselors meetings and Scientific Advisory Committee on Alternative Toxicological Methods meetings. This includes making sure the meetings run smoothly and serving as a liaison between board members and DNTP staff.
WHAT CAREER ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER TO CURRENT DUKE STUDENTS INTERESTED IN A SIMILAR CAREER TRAJECTORY?
For anyone interested in science writing, the best piece of advice I can give is to get experience now. There’s no better time to dip your toes into this field, and the more experience you have, the more likely you will secure a AAAS Fellowship or other internship position that will help you launch your career. Also, it’s important to realize that science writing experience can come in many shapes and sizes: you could write a post for your department website, start your own blog, intern at the Duke communications office, or submit a piece to an external website.
More generally, I advise all grad students to try everything! Do you like teaching? Try a semester of TAing. Do you like speaking? Host a podcast. How about project management? Join a Bass Connections team. This is the time to test the waters!
Christine E. Crute
Ph.D. candidate in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program
Christine Crute is a Ph.D. candidate in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program. Her overarching research objective is to better understand how environmental factors impact maternal and child health throughout reproduction, pregnancy, and child development. She is passionate about science education and communication and hopes to pursue a related career to promote science literacy, community empowerment, and improved health outcomes for all.