An interview with Professional in Residence Rachel Bernstein: Shining a light on science communities

Rachel Bernstein, PhD, is a the editor of Science Careers. Bernstein is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on May 6 and May 13. Graduate students and postdocs may register for Bernstein’s PIR visit here. Bernstein spoke with graduate student Kaydren Orcutt about her journey from science writing to writing about the scientific community, and how her experiences at UC Berkeley helped shape her career.

A picture of Rachel Bernstein.
Rachel Bernstein. Image courtesy of Rachel Bernstein.

Kaydren Orcutt: Could you briefly describe your career trajectory?

Rachel Bernstein: My interest in science began with high school chemistry, which guided my decision to major in biochemistry as an undergraduate, but I had always been interested in English as well. So, I simultaneously pursued science and writing. I went directly from undergrad to a PhD program in chemistry at UC Berkeley and that was a great experience.

But towards the end of my PhD, I began to feel that staying in research and academia wasn’t the best fit for me, and it wasn’t where I would be able to best use my skills. So, I participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship the summer before I graduated, which was a foundational experience in establishing my new career direction. From there, I didn’t go directly into journalism; I went into journal publishing and served as an associate editor at PLOS One in San Francisco. My motivation to take on that role was partly because of the location — I wanted to stay in the Bay Area.

I spent about two years at PLOS, but had also been doing some freelance writing, some journalism, some educational writing, and there came a point when I decided that I wanted to commit more of my time and energy to freelance. So, I did, and I was a full-time freelancer for about two years. I was still sort of exploring various facets of the science communication world and then the reporter position at Science Careers opened up, and that was the perfect fit. It hit a lot of the spots that I was looking for in terms of journalism — writing about the scientific community more than about the science itself.

KO: How did studying at UC Berkeley and earning a PhD help your career?

RB: My first job out of grad school — as an editor at PLOS One — required a PhD, though different journals have different editorial structures. At PLOS One, I wasn’t delving deeply into the science of each of the manuscripts that I was editing. But I did need that PhD background to understand parts of the peer-review process and the nuances of publication and research ethics. Having a PhD was a clear prerequisite for that role — and that’s going to be true for many journal editor positions.

Jumping forward to my job now, where I’m focusing on careers and career issues for mostly PhD scientists and beyond, I consider my grad school experience a cultural education that allows me to write for that audience and to understand the issues that grad students face and what it feels like to be in a PhD program. People who haven’t been involved in academia often don’t understand the culture and academic audiences. I’m not using my hard scientific knowledge in my day-to-day work, but the lived experience of being a graduate student continues to inform my work.

Additionally, I’m interested in the similarities between journalism and science. There’s a research phase where you’re trying to understand the truth or the reality underlying some phenomenon and then there’s the writing and communication phase where you’re conveying that research to an audience. The methods are very, very different, but a curious mindset and critical thinking are key for both types of work.

KO: How did working with the Berkeley Science Review prepare you for your career?

RB: I had always been pursuing science and writing in parallel and Berkeley Science Review fit into that perfectly. I became involved in Berkeley Science Review early on and it was something that kept me fresh and intellectually engaged and provided some variety in my life. I went on to be the managing editor, then the editor-in-chief. The managing editor position provided a lot of good experience in leading and managing an organization effectively. The editor-in-chief role similarly offered great leadership experience. I believe that working with the Berkeley Science Review is a large part of the reason that I was selected for an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, which in turn was why I was offered some of the other writing and editing opportunities. That’s not to say that if you don’t have many writing and editing credits on your resume, you are not going to succeed. But the actual experience and having the experience documented for applications and interviews were helpful.

KO: What advice would you give to current graduate students interested in science communication or being an editor?

RB: In terms of science communications, it comes down to practice, practice, practice. Whether you want to go into writing or radio, it doesn’t matter if you have a tiny audience or you don’t know who you’re doing it for, you need to practice — just get those words down onto paper, get in front of that microphone or that camera. More broadly, it’s important to be thinking about careers and the best way to figure out if something’s going to be a good fit for you is to try it. Spend an hour doing an informational interview or three months doing an internship. There’s a huge range of commitments that can help you try out different career paths. It’s important to explore and not only think about your career from the isolation of your lab.

KO: Can a graduate student who is contemplating these career paths write an article for Science Careers?

RB: Absolutely. At Science Careers, we have the Working Life column that runs on the back page of the magazine every week. These are personal stories, sharing career lessons. Many of our authors are graduate students, and I work closely with them in a collaborative process. We don’t expect the authors to produce perfect drafts right off the bat. I want the editorial process to be a learning experience for the authors I work with. Nature Careers also publishes a lot of articles by graduate students, and trainees can look into their community blog guidelines. Graduate students can also sometimes write for discipline-specific societies. Newsletters for discipline-specific outlets, for your department or college, can be a good spot to get your foot in the door. It doesn’t have to be a high-profile publication; many journals and websites are eager for content.

KO: What’s your favorite part of your job?

RB: I feel like the work that I’m doing makes a difference. We help early career researchers and push the envelope on academic culture and career issues to make academia and  careers in science better for everyone. When it comes to the day-to-day stuff, I really enjoy editing. In grad school, I would frequently edit my lab mates’ manuscripts; being able to help someone else tell their story as compellingly and clearly as possible is an exercise I enjoy.

KO:  How has COVID-19 affected the science community?  Has what you do day-to-day changed?

RB: I had twin daughters born just a few months before the pandemic began. I was out on maternity leave when shelter-in-place orders when into effect, and I’ve always been a remote employee. In terms of my day-to-day life, the pandemic has not affected me as much as it has affected many other people.

We’ve written a decent amount, both in personal essays and in more traditionally reported articles, about the mental health challenges that were a major issue in academia prior to the pandemic. Continuing to address that and make sure that we are helping promote an open environment to seek support without feeling ashamed is a big part of our pandemic coverage. Particularly for the first six months of the pandemic, we had breaking stories of researchers in China who were feeling the impact and stories of scientists who had to abandon their fieldwork. I think it was useful to share those stories so broader audiences could understand how the pandemic was affecting the scientific community.

Rachel Bernstein is the editor of Science Careers, a publication of Science magazine and AAAS that explores issues and challenges associated with pursuing scientific careers. Prior to this role, she worked in other areas of scientific communication, including as an editor at PLOS One and a freelance writer and editor producing educational content, promotional materials about university research, and journalism. She received her PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley, where she also worked extensively on the graduate student-run magazine, the Berkeley Science Review, and she was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Los Angeles Times prior to graduating. She completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in biochemistry and minored in English. 

Kaydren Orcutt is a graduate student in Graham Fleming’s lab, where her research focuses on studying the fundamentals of photosynthesis with novel spectroscopic techniques. She is also a Berkeley SciComm Fellow and will be facilitating science communication and public speaking workshops starting this fall.