Student Reflections: Dr. Ashleigh Pulkoski-Gross

Post date: Feb 10, 2015 9:44:28 PM

Ashleigh Pulkoski-Gross is a recent graduate of the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology graduate program at Stony Brook University. She completed her thesis on cancer biology in Dr. Jian Cao’s laboratory. She acted as a freelance writer during her graduate career and is now actively searching for a permanent medical or science communications position.

I was introduced to and captivated by the world of independent science research during my undergraduate and master’s studies. Because I loved research, I moved to Stony Brook University (SBU) to pursue my doctorate in the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology program. The experience I have had at SBU allowed me to grow as a scientist and gain professional experience. The beginning of my doctoral studies was similar to most other graduate students’ experiences; laboratory rotations, research, coursework, and teaching obligations took up my time and energy. However, I was also presented with multiple opportunities to edit documents produced by my advisor’s laboratory, such as grant applications or manuscripts. I applied for an F31 predoctoral fellowship and for a spot in the Chemical Biology Training Program, which is an institutional grant here at SBU; I maintained status as a CBTP fellow for two years. I also wrote several book chapters and assembled my own manuscripts and thesis. The writing opportunities I took during my graduate career were always welcome distractions. I never said no, even if it was not a topic I was totally interested in or familiar with. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about other areas of cancer biology and found it challenging and engaging.

Even though I was enjoying my thesis research, I never pictured myself having my own laboratory and I began to struggle with that idea. In an effort to understand what my options were, I participated in as many career events as I could in order to educate myself about “alternatives”. I went to seminars given by alumni to learn about their experience in transitioning away from the bench. I attended the career and networking symposium “Research Your Future” at SBU and the “What Can You Be with a Ph.D.?” (WCUB) event at NYU-Langone. I also joined the American Medical Writers Association to learn more about careers in writing.

What interested me most at WCUB was medical communications and science writing. I realized that I was skilled in writing and editing, and that I really enjoyed it. Luckily, a friend and colleague that I had met during my master’s studies was a panelist at WCUB, as she transitioned to medical communications at a healthcare consultancy firm (AXON Communications) after her post-doctoral training. I was able to talk to her one-on-one about her job and my desire to move toward science communications. Several months later my friend contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in doing some freelance writing based on our previous discussion. I did not even hesitate to say yes!

As a freelance writer, I get a quick run-down of the big picture project from the company and am given the materials necessary to accomplish whichever type of writing is necessary at the time. Sometimes it is a manuscript for a primary research paper and other times it might be a summary of a particular field that a client requires for a meeting, amongst other documents. The ability to explore a variety of topics in different ways is what draws me to this profession. Currently, I accept freelance work as it comes to me, but I am also pursuing full-time positions for medical and science communications.

I think that I was able to successfully complete these writing tasks because I have a good command of the English language, an eye for detail, and an interest in and understanding of the life sciences. The experience of writing certain documents, especially those as extensive as book chapters and grant applications, is certainly challenging. The sheer amount of material to be read in order to provide an accurate, current view of the field of interest can be daunting. My process for these kinds of projects includes generating and frequently modifying outlines and organizing my notes around those outlines. Perhaps what might be most challenging is adhering to deadlines. Some deadlines are longer than others, but either way a quality document has to be produced. Despite the challenges involved writing, overall I felt my experiences were positive and I learned something from each one of them.

My advice to current graduate students is to start exploring your options early, especially if you do not think you will pursue a more traditional academic track. Secondly, your friends and colleagues are your best resources for information and opportunity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be confident about your ability to excel at new things and it will allow you to say yes to any opportunities that do come your way!