We all welcome the slow but sure advance of precision medicine to the clinic. But within this landscape clear communication and education about the power of genomics has never been more vital. Mark Wanner, Senior Science Writer for the Jackson Lab, is at the forefront of the charge.

Mark Wanner

Mark Wanner

The Genomic Medicine stream made a welcome return at the Festival of Genomics Boston. The popularity of the session is easy to understand. Implementation into the clinic, and integration into healthcare systems is where we’re all pointing towards. This transition is also where many of the biggest challenges need to be overcome. Ahead of his presentation on November 5th, we spoke with Mark Wanner to pick apart some of these challenges and take a closer look at the need for genomic education.

FLG: You’ve been at The Jackson Lab for about 10 years now. Could you give us an insight into how you moved from studying microbiology to making that move into science communication?

MW: I went undergrad in biology, and took a year after that to work in my college’s PR office, which was sort of an odd thing for a biology major to do but I enjoyed writing and communications as well. All along I was intending to go to grad school, and so I applied around and got into some programs and ended up in Virginia in a microbiology program. It’s funny because my experience in the lab kind of parallels UK science communicator Ed Yong’s in that I really enjoyed parts of science but they were really more the communications end.

I left the program and went into book publishing for 13 years! Towards the end of that time I started thinking “Ok, I don’t want to stay in book publishing forever, what do I want to do?” And so I went back to science. I really enjoy science, I’m very curious about what’s happening and what’s going on. So I was able to transition to a job at the University of Vermont in the Department of Psychiatry working with a psychiatrist there on some communications around his work. Then 4 years later I came to the Jackson Lab as a public information rep. One of the things you do early in grad school is learn the language of science. I had the language and was able to understand what the scientists were doing, what the PIs were doing here, and what they were looking to do fairly quickly. That was hugely useful for me. I started an institutional magazine at the Lab called ‘The Search’, about the people here and the research we’re doing. Then about a year and half ago I wanted to get a little closer to the science so I came over to the grants writing office, or ‘scientific program development’. I work a lot on NIH grants and Foundation grants, but I’m also trying to build a more general research communications pipeline, working closely with our communicators here to spread the word about the research that’s going on at the Lab and also tie it in with the larger picture, which is where genomic medicine comes in.

FLG: It sounds like you’re a bit of a grant writing specialist! Do you have any top tips on what goes into a successful NIH grant?

MW: I don’t know about top tips! The main advice is to keep it simple. Don’t over complicate it, tell a clear story and put it in the big picture. You’ve got details about your research that you’re really excited about but those are important only in the context of what you’re trying to do in a larger picture. It’s combining the big picture stuff and the clear storytelling with the details about the research that demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about in this very specific area. That balance is tricky and depends on the study section and program officer, what are they looking for? You’ve got to read the RSA really thoroughly and try to get a sense of what they’re looking for. But I’m a communicator so writing is not as onerous for me. A lot of PIs are brilliant scientists but writing is not something that they’ve cultivated and helping them to put their ideas and their creativity, their ambitions down on paper and getting funded for it is a very rewarding thing to do.


You can read the rest of our interview with Mark on page 48 here.

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