Apr. 26, 2007 STC Writing for Biomedicine

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Apr. 26, 2007 STC Writing for Biomedicine

On Thursday April 26, 2007 the STC Silicon Valley Chapter hosted a presentation on writing for biomedicine.

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Mimi Wessling, manager of the STC Medwriters SIG, moderated a panel consisting of Susan Caldwell, Ingfei Chen, Catherine Magill, Naomi Ruff, and Hillary Russak.

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Susan Caldwell earned a doctorate in medical microbiology and immunology and her postdoctoral training at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. For twenty years she has worked in biotechnology, from Berlex Laboratories to Pharmacyclics to Abgenix to ICON Clinical Research. Caldwell recently joined Dr. Michael Cerrone to start Biotech Ink.

Many biotech companies fall into the trap of not documenting their work as it happens. Talking about starting a clinical study report is easier than completing one. The need for delivering documentation to regulatory bodies is driving the demand for medical writers. There are about 300 writers in the Bay Area with this rare skill, a very small pool for over a thousand biotech companies. Experienced writers know how to submit documentation to the FDA so it is accepted the first time.

Having a strong science or medical education is important, but there are writers who can learn through exposure and experience on the job. Taking courses can help. A mentor can help guide you through the process.

Caldwell has some advice for freelancers needing health insurance. Limited Liability Corporations (LLC) have certain advantages. An LLC is less likely to be audited by the IRS. LLC’s also mean you could qualify for group health insurance.

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Ingfei Chen earned her undergraduate degree in biology at Brown University, her master’s degree in journalism from Stanford, and became a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Chen became a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle and Hippocrates and Health magazines before becoming a freelancer. She then wrote articles for Discover, the New York Times, Science Magazine’s Science of Aging Knowledge Environment, Cell, CR magazine, and Reader’s Digest. Currently she teaches in the graduate science-writing program at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Chen majored in biology then became a journalist while in college. She recommends internships to build up a portfolio for paying jobs. As a freelancer, she sees a story idea, researches it, puts together a pitch letter to the publication of a few paragraphs on why their readers would be interested in the story she can tell. If accepted, a contract is negotiated and deadline set. Traditional journalism is under assault from the web, so it can be tough. The New York Times pays 55 cents a word.

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Catherine Magill earned her Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in Neurobiology and her PhD from Stanford in Neurosciences and her post-doctoral training in Molecular Embryology from Harvard. Magill returned to the Bay Area, focusing on the biology of oncology and inflammation. Working as a freelance scientific/medical writer in cell biology research, she is active in the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Northern California Chapter.

Magill says there is a lot of work out there. She turns down work and does not advertise. She started two years ago by doing gratis projects and worked on manuscripts from people she knew. Covering science symposiums helped develop her public portfolio. She also is active in professional organizations like the STC, AMWA and the Science Writers Association. Funding in biotech cannot continue without accurately communicating the research results to professionals and consumers. There is great demand for presenting material to biomedical sales representatives. The size and difficulty of the project determines whether to charge by the hour or by the job.

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Naomi Ruff earned her doctorate for a career in biological research and is a freelance writer and editor specializing in the preparation of scientific research and medical documents for a professional audience. This includes peer-reviewed journals, grant applications, review articles book chapters and continuing education. As founder of RuffDraft Communications, she also creates training programs for sales representatives and writes articles for biotechnology company web sites.

Ruff has been writing for seven years. She knew she was different from other graduate students when liked working on her dissertation. She started reviewing and editing other student’s manuscripts. She believes publication is the final stage of research and that any science you do without telling anybody about it is useless. A lot of scientific research is incomprehensible to most people and making it understandable is important. The challenge is to persuade scientists that they cannot write and that they should pay you to do that.

She started out by editing scientific manuscripts from Asia. The second project was yet unpublished book on Botox. Since then she is as busy as she wants to be preparing documents for a professional or educated lay audience. Grant applications to the NSF take four to six months before a known fixed deadline. Only nine percent of such grants are accepted on the first try. She will not take on such projects the weekend before they are due. If a regular client has job she cannot do, she will refer to someone she knows and trusts. For marketing or promotional work, look for medical communication companies. Many seem to be based in New Jersey for some reason.

She recommended that you negotiate your contracts and do not be afraid to release yourself of all liabilities for the things you write. The phrase is “Client takes full liability for final project.” but still consult your lawyer.

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Hillary Russak earned her degree in Technical and Professional Writing from San Francisco State University. Winning the STC’s Kenneth Gordon Memorial Scholarship, she later was a judge for it. Russak is a mentor and leader in several Bay Area STC chapters. At Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), she documented policy and procedures for high-energy physics research. At Genentech, she began documenting their biotechnology manufacturing procedures before working on their electronic document management system. This requires knowing what impact changes will have on company documents.

Russak does not a have a strong medical background. She majored in music. She worked as an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company’s occupational health department. She wrote procedures for dealing with exposure issues like health risks for executives traveling overseas or pregnant lab workers. She got very good at working with scientists to create standardized procedures. She wrote environmental and health processes for SLAC and decided to get a degree in writing. At Genentech she is a change manager for corporate documents that impact licensure or regulation. There are thousands of documents that need changing to comply with regulation. The challenge is making it understandable to a layperson that may be reviewing it years from now. She likes to work with interesting people and her career reflects that. She has a broad knowledge that helps her work with people who have very deep knowledge.

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Also attending was STC Newsletter Editor Emeritus Anne Wilson and new Editor Bruce Michaels.

Copyright 2007 DJ Cline All rights reserved.