Discoveries to the Masses
The Career of Alisa Machalek, Science Writer
BY DARYL RAMAI
Explaining science and the impact of important discover- ies in lay terms to the public at large requires the work of skilled, professional science writers. Among them is Alisa Machalek, a science writer at the National Insti- tute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of
Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.
Machalek is the editor of Findings magazine. This NIH publication showcases the cutting-edge work of young researchers, as well as their interesting lives away from the bench. Its
primary function is to educate the public about the mechanics
of research discoveries at NIH and the benefits resulting from
The typical day of an NIH science writer
On any given workday, Machalek might wear many hats, such
as writer, editor, photo researcher, public information expert, or
media trainer. “Every day is different,” Machalek explains. “
Typically, I’m working on a mix of short-term, medium-term, and
long-term assignments.” Her primary writing focus is within the
biomedical sciences, where she enjoys communicating with many
scientists and writing on topics such as cell biology, chemistry,
genetics, and pharmacology. Her job responsibilities include:
• Writing online articles, news releases, feature
stories, and scientist profiles.
• Collaborating with graphic artists to produce
science education booklets, classroom posters, and
• Answering questions from the public, the news
media, and, occasionally, Congress about the
research her institute supports.
• Keeping up-to-date on the latest scientific literature.
Forging a career path
In college, Machalek initially aspired to become a medical
researcher, but after many lab experiences and internships, it
became apparent that a career in research didn’t interest her.
Though still very interested in pursuing a career relating to science, she began exploring science-related careers that were
outside the lab. She conducted informational interviews with
pharmaceutical consultants and medical illustrators and also
had extended conversations with her mother, who is a physician. However, the chemistry involved in these fields just wasn’t
enough for Machalek!
At last, things came
together when she realized
she could incorporate her love
for science into her other lifelong passion: writing. After
earning a bachelor’s degree in
biochemistry, Machalek began
plotting her pathway. Needing more science, but not more lab work, she designed her own
master’s-level graduate program in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
With fewer lab reports due, Alisa began writing articles
about campus research for the school’s student newspaper
and also worked with two professors who were writing a biochemistry textbook. “I served as the editorial assistant, photo
researcher, and, for a time, central point of contact for everyone involved in the project.” In the process, she also learned a
Unix-based molecular-modeling program that allowed her to
create detailed images of molecules. While these experiences
expanded her understanding of science, they also affirmed her
original goal of becoming a science writer. Machalek completed
her education by entering the University of California, Santa
Cruz science writing certificate program.
Machalek’s advice for budding science writers
First and foremost, if you’re interested in becoming a science
writer, Machalek advises, “learn science and practice writing. It
is going to be an asset, no matter what field you go into.” It is
not the amount of education you have that makes you a good
writer. “Don’t think that a Ph.D. in biochemistry makes you a
writer. You have to practice. Successful writers write almost
If you are a graduate student in a master’s or Ph.D. program
and are thinking of moving from a research career to science
writing, Machalek notes, “education is never a waste.” By earn-
ing a higher degree, you demonstrate an ability to work hard
and overcome many obstacles. “These qualities are highly val-
ued by prospective employers.”
She further explains that the way to get any sort of science
writing job is to show that you can write about a complex topic
in a clear, interesting, and accurate way. At the outset of their
future careers, aspiring writers must be able to prove them-
selves to the broader community and employers.