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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / February 2021 / "My Experience as a Science Communication Intern "

"My Experience as a Science Communication Intern "

By Ashley Peppriell, MS, PhD Candidate in Toxicology

An old adage in the field of toxicology explains that anything can be toxic, given the dose and duration of exposure. This message dates back to the 16th century, yet there is still misconception surrounding toxic substances in the environment. I think that most people are aware that pollution is bad, but may not fully understand the societal impacts of toxic exposures. More work needs to be done to communicate the risks of toxic exposures to the public.

Based on my personal traits and proclivity for writing, I knew I wanted to address environmental health issues from beyond the bench in a science-writing role. However, I wasn’t initially aware of how to pursue this dream.

Fortunately for me, URBEST offers exposure to “non-traditional” career paths, including science communication. A previous alumnus from my Toxicology program, Claire McCarthy, had ditched the pipette in favor of a pen, and spoke about her path at a past URBEST event. She delivered an inspiring presentation entitled, “Advice from a youngblood in SciComm.” I remembered the talk and called her up a few months later for a career chat to learn more about her role at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as Health Policy Analyst and past as an NCI writing fellow.

She gave me the scoop, and also advised me to start building a portfolio of writing samples, or clips. The name comes from the outdated practice of clipping out one’s newspaper features as a testament to writing experience for a potential employer. Today, clips are digital.

I needed writing opportunities that would generate clips. So, I reached out to science communicators and writers in my network, including Elaine Smolock at the Writing Center. Elaine alerted me to a science communication internship opportunity with the National Carbon Monoxide Awareness Association (NCOAA). The organization is a nonprofit which strives to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning-related injuries and deaths through support, education, and advocacy. A major benefit was that the position was remote, which meant I could continue my experiments in lab while working as a part-time intern. I jumped at the opportunity.

After getting the go-ahead from my advisor, I worked with Eric Vaughn to craft my first-ever cover letter and complete the application for the science communication position. NCOAA notified me within a week that I got the position, and started working a few weeks later.  My supervisor, Brianna Sleezer, was a URBEST trainee before completing her PhD in neuroscience in 2016. She helped me learn the ropes, understand my responsibilities at NCOAA, and provided feedback on my work.

My work included writing, conducting interviews, designing graphics, and working the back-end of the NCOAA website to upload my pieces. The subject matter of my writing ran the gambit of technical to emotional. I wrote blog posts about chronic carbon monoxide toxicity, news pieces for NCOAA events, primary literature summaries, and Survivor Stories. The latter were personal accounts of carbon monoxide poisoning survivors and their families. At the end of the internship, I created the organization’s first newsletter which will be disseminated to stakeholders in the organizations mission to raise awareness of the dangers of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning.

My favorite part of the internship was working with Brianna; she was instrumental in making my internship a positive experience. I was initially unsettled by the organization and communication style of NCOAA, and unsure of my progress. Brianna reassured me that I was on track and doing well. She taught me strategies to adapt to the organization’s frequently changing priorities. Sometimes I had to abandon a writing piece to focus on the new interest of the organization. I learned to be flexible and not get overly attached to a writing piece. I think this is a key skill to have as a writer.

I’m grateful for the unique opportunity I had at NCOAA because I will now be more competitive for science writing positions after graduate school. Through the internship, I gained experience and more confidence in my ability to write for a general audience.  Of course, there’s certainly room to grow. For example, brevity is not my strength. But the first step to improvement is awareness, eh?!

Today, misinformation runs rampant. This is a huge problem when it extends to public health issues. I want combat this issue as it relates to environmental health issues, specifically. I want to use my career to report accurate, well-supported, and engaging information about environmental health and toxicology to the public. I want to devote my career to science communication.

If you are interested in working with me on a writing piece, or talking to me about how to get involved in science communication pursuits, please contact me at, and definitely follow me on twitter @PhDistance or check out my blog:!

Katherine Bognanno | 2/26/2021

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