Interview: Blogging and being social

Jennifer Tsang describes how her career path led her from microbiology to science communication and marketing.

During a postdoc investigating antibiotic resistance, microbiologist Jennifer Tsang started a blog that sparked her interest in a career based on communicating biology. She is now the science communications and marketing coordinator for Addgene, the nonprofit plasmid repository.

Jennifer Tsang. Image credit: Brandon Satinsky

Why did you pursue a PhD in microbiology?

I really enjoyed setting up experiments while working in a microbiology lab for the last two years of my undergrad. Once the novelty of agar plates and pipetting wore off, I realized I had so many questions I wanted to ask about microbes – I was also very interested in horizontal gene transfer and how microbes evolved – and so I decided to explore those areas further.

When did you decide to move from research into science communication?

During my postdoc I realized I wanted to pursue something that was broader than a single research topic. So I started writing a microbiology blog for fun, which I named The Microbial Menagerie. I realized during that time that there was just so much about microbiology that I didn't know about or had not explored. I also realized that I actually liked writing!

How did you hear about the role at Addgene?

I saw our Executive Director Joanne Kamens tweet about it. I looked at the job description and it was pretty much exactly what I was looking for – something where I could write, edit and do social media. I was very excited about it because the mission of Addgene – particularly their involvement in open science and sharing of reagents – really resonated with me.

How did Addgene assess your suitability for the job?

After an initial phone interview with HR, I had a writing assignment and a plasmid assignment to assess my writing style and plasmid knowledge. I then had an in-person interview.

What are your main responsibilities as science communications and marketing coordinator?

I primarily manage the Addgene blog and our social media accounts, including planning campaigns for special events like when we reached our one million plasmids shared milestone. That takes up maybe 75% of my time. I also help with designing fliers, swag and other marketing materials.

What did you get up to yesterday? Was that a typical working day?

There aren’t really typical days. Yesterday was National Croissant Day in the US. I’m part of the fun committee at Addgene, so a couple of us set up a croissant and hot chocolate breakfast. After that I scheduled some social media posts about the new plasmids entering the repository and edited a few blog posts on new plasmid technologies. I’m also piloting a rotation curation of our Twitter account at Addgene, so I worked on developing some guidelines and best practices that will help our Addgenies host the account.

Which part of your job do you value the most?

I have a lot of freedom to explore different areas of science for the blog. They’re mostly outside of my area of expertise from my PhD and postdoc so I’m always learning and staying current on new research. I also enjoy interacting with our community on social media and working with different teams at Addgene.

And which part of your job do you find most challenging?

In one day I can go from putting together a marketing ad, to planning a social media campaign, to writing a blog post about CRISPR. I enjoy the variety, but sometimes it’s a little challenging to switch gears so many times in one day.

Do you have any strategies to help you switch between different topics?

I have a checklist for everything I want to do on one day and I also have a Trello board for longer-term planning. I try to prioritize what should get done first and try not to switch between different things several times a day.

Overall, do you find it easy to maintain a good work-life balance?

Yes. I work 40 hours a week. Sometimes I do end up checking the Addgene social media accounts at weird times, but I don’t feel a pressure to work around the clock like I did in the lab. But the days are always full and busy. In the lab you might have some downtime but I don’t really have any here.

What are your main interests outside of work?

I do a lot of running, yoga and photography. One of my goals this year is to actually finish one of those 365 photo challenges! I also have a few writing projects outside of Addgene, including writing for my own microbiology blog, for the Marine Biological Laboratory, and for the American Society for Microbiology.

Which of the skills that you developed during your time in research have benefited you the most in your new career?

Time management. Juggling different projects in the lab was tricky, but doing that now can be even more tricky because there isn’t as much downtime built into the working day. Another useful skill is learning how to read a paper, which is often helpful for writing and editing blog posts on topics I previously knew nothing about.

What is the best piece of career advice that you’ve been given?

Go on informational interviews with people who have the careers that you want and ask how they got there and what their job is like. When I first started seeking informational interviews, it was really intimidating to email or send a message on Twitter asking to meet someone I did not know, but in general I found that people are very interested in helping someone in their career path.

And what advice would you give to early-career researchers who would like to move into science communication and marketing?

Look for opportunities beyond what your lab or program offers. There are many opportunities to test out the waters in science communication and I found many of those on Twitter. Academic societies also have blogs that you can guest write for (for example, the Addgene blog takes guest posts from scientists) and there are a lot of science writing internships available. The internship I did at the Marine Biological Laboratory was one of the best experiences that I’ve had for furthering my career and confirming that full-time scicomm was exactly what I wanted to do.

Jennifer Tsang CV

2018 – present: Science Communications and Marketing Coordinator, Addgene

2017 – 2018: Scientific Content Editor, JoVE

June – July 2017: Science Writer (internship), Marine Biological Laboratory

2015 – 2017: Postdoctoral Researcher, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

2009 – 2014: PhD in microbiology, University of Georgia

2005 – 2009: BS in microbiology, University of Rochester