Spotlight on... Stephanie Johnson

29 April 2018 - By: Caroline Wood

Spotlight on... Stephanie Johnson

Steph Johnson

By Caroline Wood

Former SEB Young Scientist Award Winner Steph Johnson perfectly illustrates how the skills gained through a PhD in research needn’t tie you to the lab bench. Caroline Wood caught up with her to find out what happened since she won the award for the Plant Section at the SEB 2014 Annual Meeting in Manchester.

“Science always appealed to me because I felt that it could help me make a difference in some way in the world, even if only on a small scale” Steph says. She was inspired to choose the plant sciences when she was awarded a place on a plant science summer school funded by the GATSBY Charitable Foundation, during her undergraduate degree in biology (Durham University). This was an intensive course of workshops and lectures by world-renowned professors, with a focus on how research on plants can be applied to solve global challenges. “I was particularly influenced by a talk from one of the researchers involved with producing golden rice – it just seemed such exciting work!” she says. The following year, she applied for, and was awarded, a Sainsbury Studentship to fund a summer research project at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris, investigating receptors for the plant hormone auxin. “It was the first time I had lived away from home but I really enjoyed the experience – I loved having my own little project and learnt lots of new techniques, besides a bit of French!” remembers Steph.

For her PhD project at Durham University, Steph worked on sorghum – a grain crop that is often grown in very hot and dry conditions. Her particular interest was a trait called ‘stay-green’ which improves drought tolerance. Using transcriptomic approaches to investigate gene expression, she identified a number of genes and proteins that seemed promising candidates behind the phenotype. These included proline, an osmoprotectant that can protect against reactive oxygen species, and also genes associated with regulating water loss through the stomata on the leaves.

Steph became a member of the SEB right at the start of her PhD, the Society having been recommended by her lab group. Before the 2014 meeting in Manchester, her PhD supervisor (Marc Knight, Durham University) suggested that she submitted an application to the Plant Section for their Young Scientist Award.“When I was shortlisted, I didn’t know what to expect and it was an intimidating prospect to present my work to so many experts – the most people I had ever presented to at a conference” Steph says. “But I really enjoyed the preparations as it forced me to take a step back and think about how to present my work in a story that others could understand, and to think about the bigger picture. I was incredibly flattered to win the award, as it gave me real confidence in my abilities as a researcher.”

Perhaps the most valuable consequence of the competition for Steph however was realising how much she enjoyed communicating science. “Having to summarise my project for a broad audience really made me focus on what was most appealing and important” she says. “During my PhD, I also really enjoyed writing abstracts and papers, and taking part in science-outreach events.” It was thus only natural that, as she came to the end of her project, she was already thinking about science communication as a career.

Curiously enough, it was actually at the Women in Science Dinner at the SEB Manchester meeting that Steph first learned about her current work. “I happened to be sitting next to a medical writer who told me how her role involved turning scientific data into an interesting story that others could easily understand. This seemed ideal for me” Steph says. Just before she finished her PhD, she applied to be an Associate Medical Writer at McCann Complete Medical and now works as a medical writer at Nucleus Global, based in Manchester.

“Our main role is to act as a consultancy to the pharmaceutical industry, and advise clients on the best way to raise awareness of new drugs for different audiences” she says. Despite being a complete transition from plant science, she constantly uses the skills she gained from her PhD, particularly analysing results and deciding on the most effective way to present them. Far from being “one person sat at a computer all day”, she is keen to stress that medical writing is a very collaborative job and involves a real diversity of tasks. In the course of a single day, her tasks can include working with the digital team to develop content for an eLearning module, calling a client to discuss content for a new slide deck, organising logistics for an advisory board meeting or working on a manuscript describing new clinical data. For her, the variety of the role is one of the key appeals, besides the opportunity to work on many different therapeutic areas and projects. “But on the other hand, it does mean that I have to get to grips with different topics and new therapies very quickly. One of my current projects, for instance, involves new treatments for HIV, so I have rapidly had to become an expert in this area” she says.

One thing she does miss though, is coming up with her own hypotheses to test. “Most of our work is driven by our clients” she explains. “The more structured style of working was also a bit of a shock to the system to begin with, including having to fill out timesheets!” Having said that, she isn’t nostalgic for the more repetitive tasks that a PhD entails, remembering, for instance, that she used to spend a lot of time weighing leaves to measure water loss. “There was also the fact that you could spend weeks setting up an experiment, only for something to go wrong so that you didn’t get a result. Now, I know that if I work hard, I will at least get a physical result” she says. She also emphasises that a medical writer is a very secure job with a clear career progression: her current ambition is to be promoted to Senior Medical writer, with the eventual possibility of working as a freelancer.

To anyone interested in this career, she advises communicating and writing about science as much as possible, including abstracts, publications, blogs and at science outreach events. “They are all experiences that you can use in an interview to show that you can present science to different audiences” she says.

Outside her work, she is currently using her PhD project-planning skills to organise her wedding, whilst also training for a 10K running event. She also enjoys travelling and experiencing new cultures and reflected that one of the best things about her PhD was the opportunity to visit Australia and India to work with collaborators.“I feel incredibly lucky to have had such amazing opportunities during my PhD and I look forward to the many opportunities ahead in my career as a medical writer” she concludes.
Category: Plant Biology
Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.

Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.