Chelsea Weidman Burke

she/her/hers

Where did you go to college and when did you graduate? 

I graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY in 2015. I majored in biochemistry and had a concentration (a step down from a minor) in American Sign Language.

Did you go to graduate school? 

I entered the chemistry PhD program at Boston College in the fall of 2015, directly after I graduated from college. At the beginning of my second year, I began having serious second thoughts about whether pursuing benchwork was actually what I wanted to do and whether I wanted to continue in the PhD program. I continued on and passed oral examinations at the end of my second year to become a PhD candidate, thinking my feelings may change after that. They didn’t. After much consideration (and many conversations with family, friends, and scientists in various positions), I decided to listen to my gut and leave with a master’s degree in chemical biology in Dec 2017. You can read more about my decision in my article “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (https://storiesinscience.org/2019/03/19/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go/). 

Current job title: Laboratory Technician and Clinical Study Coordinator,Freelance Science Writer

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

There isn’t a particular experience or “ah ha!” moment that comes to mind. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been curious and driven to science. Some of the first books I remember reading when I was maybe 7 years old were huge science books – the Handy Answer Books were my favorites! I was especially interested in insects and the weather and loved to play in the garden when my mom tended to it (think “cooking” with mud, grass, leaves, and flowers to make “concoctions” and observe all the different plants and insects). My first “what I want to be when I grow up” career declaration was an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects), specifically a lepidopterist (an entomologist who studies butterflies and moths). Fast forward to junior year in high school, I still had no doubt in my mind I was going to become a biologist. Then I took chemistry class – and I was fascinated. It was like looking at the world through a super powerful microscope, understanding *why* things looked/felt/reacted the way they did! I shifted my focus to chemistry, but never lost my love of biology, ultimately deciding to combine these two and major in biochemistry in college and chemical biology in grad school. While the subject of my questions has changed from bugs to molecules and medicine, the same curiosity drives me just like it did when I was a child.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

My mom always encouraged my curiosity and supported my interests, always patiently listening to my endless questions and facts about everything that I found interesting (and she still does!). My husband is also my rock, who especially helped me sort through my feelings and decisions in graduate school. Without their constant support, I would not have been able to pursue my passions and have the confidence to make the big (and uncertain) career move of leaving graduate school.

I am also very thankful for the professional network that I began growing in college – talking with people in various careers and at various stages of their career was extremely insightful. It was also a great way to become more connected with people in the science/medical writing industry when I first became interested in it during graduate school. Connecting with new people and conducting informational interviews about what they like/dislike about their job, anything they would have changed, and any advice they had for me immensely helped my decision-making. It was only after their feedback that I knew it was okay to leave with a master’s degree – I wasn’t “failing”, I was just choosing the best career path for me.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I was lucky (or naïve) and didn’t experience any serious moments of doubt or feelings of imposter syndrome until graduate school. Once I began to doubt the research career path that I had been faithfully following since I was a child, I started to doubt a lot about myself: why I was feeling the way I did, if I was good enough, if I would still be a “real scientist” if I left graduate school without a PhD and pursued a non-research career. A lot of those feelings got better as I began figuring out why I felt that way in the first place – I wasn’t happy at the bench and my passion didn’t actually lie where I had wanted it to. I also had no idea of other career options beyond teaching/research in academia and research in biotech/pharma/government. I had no idea scientists could be writers, policy makers, museum curators, and many other things. Talking with many other scientists (especially female scientists) in positions that I was interested in and considering switching to (science writers, medical writers, science editors, market researchers, etc.) greatly helped me make my decision and feel much better about

leaving graduate school. I wasn’t alone – many others have followed similar paths, yet I’d never heard of it before. Although I still have some lingering imposter syndrome feelings once in a while, I’m focusing on the activities that I’m interested in and what makes me happy to guide my career decisions.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

The most surprising twist so far has been my decision to leave graduate school with my master’s degree and pursue a career in science writing. Although I’m still full-time at the lab bench as a laboratory technician and clinical study coordinator for the time being, I’m also a freelance science writer on the side to gain more experience. It’s also a relatively surprising twist that I’m a freelance writer – if you had asked me during graduate school whether I would ever consider being a freelance writer, I would have laughed at you, thinking it was too hard and I didn’t know the first thing about being a freelancer. The funny thing is that you learn along the way, so don’t be afraid to try new things or go for something outside of your comfort zone!

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I have always been an avid reader and learner, and I also love explaining scientific concepts and how cool a new medicine or experiment was to friends and family, but I hadn’t seriously considered a career as a teacher. I always had a knack for writing in English classes in middle and high school, but honestly never thought twice about it since I was going to be a scientist (and I thought scientists needed to be able to write well, but more in the “scientific vernacular” rather than the typical English grammar, storytelling fashion). I had always loved reading the latest science headlines – the articles and summaries describing the latest innovations and scientists behind them. It wasn’t until I realized that it was someone’s job to write those that I first considered combining my love of science, reading, learning, and writing into a career in science writing.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Looking back, I wish I had known of the diverse career options available to someone with a science degree in college. Knowing all of your options helps you clearly evaluate each and pursue the ones you are interested in. The earlier and more exposure you get to various careers, the sooner you’ll find out if it’s a good fit for you and if you enjoy it enough to make it your career. You can never have too many experiences! And don’t be afraid to shake things up, go down a less trekked career path, and follow your heart and passions. I probably would have made different choices about graduate school and felt differently in graduate school when I felt my passions shift from research to writing. However, I wouldn’t go back and change anything myself – everything happens for a reason and helped shape where I am and who I am today.

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