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When Researchers Pursue Policy and Communications Careers

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Nicole Garbarini tries out a medical robotics console in the Qatar Science and Technology Park for the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists. (Image credit: Nicole Garbarini)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Nicole Garbarini is currently completing a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program. In this program, scientists and engineers are placed with congressional offices and federal government agencies to work on various science policy activities. In her placement at the National Science Foundation's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, Garbarini supported the agency's communications and outreach goals as editor of the Current, NSF's newsletter for congressional audiences and the general public; manager of the agency's YouTube page, and contributor to social media outreach efforts through Facebook and Twitter.

Garbarini studied neuroscience at Vanderbilt University in the lab of Eric Delpire, professor of anesthesiology and professor of molecular physiology and biophysics. Her thesis research focused on the regulation of a protein that — through transport of potassium and chloride ions in and out of cells — influences the electrical properties of brain cells, and plays an integral role in neuronal communication. Garbarini has also served as an associate reviews editor at the translational research journal Disease Models and Mechanisms, wrote freelance articles about science and health, and was a 2004 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Scientific American. Following her fellowship, she will continue in the field of science communications, working with the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health.

Name: Nicole Garbarini Age: 32 Institution: National Science Foundation Field of Study: Neuroscience

What inspired you to choose this field of study? The field of neuroscience is fascinating; I love learning how the brain works, exploring the interface of body and mind, and examining how proteins, DNA and chemicals manifest as behavior, moods, and actions. I still find neuroscience fascinating, but also wanted to explore ways to engage the general public in scientific research, and work at the interface of science and society, which led me to work in science communications and policy.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? It can be easy to become overwhelmed with projects, so I've found that the idea of staying mindful and in the present helps me in difficult situations.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? One of my earliest memories is that I would spend hours observing insects — for instance, watching ants build anthills and collect food. One day I picked up one of the ants because I wanted to see what would happen if I brought it to another colony. (It didn't end so well for that ant.) So I suppose that would be my first scientific inquiry — into the fields of entomology and animal behavior.

What is your favorite thing about your work? When I worked in research, I enjoyed analyzing data and putting the pieces of the puzzle together to tell a story. During my work as a fellow, I have enjoyed working with scientists and helping communicate their stories to a wider audience, particularly through social media and new media platforms.

Nicole Garbarini, 2009-2011 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. (Image credit: Nicole Garbarini)

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be effective in their work? Balance. Focusing on the details is a huge asset in many careers, especially science, but taking too narrow a perspective can limit creativity or hinder collaborative input. Finding balance — between looking at the big picture versus examining details, for example — is important.

What are the societal benefits of your work? Scientific research holds a lot of promise for improving human lives and the environment. I hope that my work sparks interest in the sciences, fosters a greater understanding of scientific processes and cultivates support for research.

Who has had the most influence on your work? I've had a lot of great role models, both in and out of the lab. Philip Zinsmeister, who became my undergraduate academic advisor at Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, Georgia, first encouraged me to pursue my interest in biology and consider it as a major. He is a great example of someone who brings science to a wider audience, in this case, through undergraduate science education in the liberal arts setting.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? I think a lot of people have the stereotype of scientists as not socializing much and keeping to themselves. There are many scientists out there who enjoy sharing their science and their life stories with people outside of their field, and working with the other fellows in my program definitely demonstrates this.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My laptop! It contains a lot of my writing, photos, and music, with the added bonus that I could get on Skype to call the fire department about the fact that my office is burning down.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? My account attests to my love of indie rock bands and singer-songwriters. However, when in my car, or when I used to work in the lab and there was no one around, I'd sing along with lots of Top 40 and hip hop guilty pleasure-type songs.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.