ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year, but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Brittney G. Borowiec is an author on ‘ Science communication in experimental biology: experiences and recommendations’, published in JEB. Brittney is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Paul Craig in the Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Canada investigating hypoxia tolerance and metabolism of fishes, and is also an established freelance science communicator.
Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus
I started volunteering for Graham Scott as an undergraduate student at McMaster University around 2012 and didn't leave until I got a PhD in 2019. My doctoral work focused on how estuarine killifish cope with low oxygen conditions, especially in the context of how these fish use different strategies to deal with daily cycles of hypoxia-reoxygenation compared to constant exposure to low oxygen conditions. Four of the five core data chapters from my thesis are published in JEB (doi:10.1242/jeb.114579; doi:10.1242/jeb.190900; doi:10.1242/jeb.209692; doi:10.1242/jeb.222877). In September 2019 I started a postdoc position at Wilfrid Laurier University with Allison McDonald and Mike Wilkie, investigating the effects of lamprey-targeting pesticides (lampricides) on mitochondrial function in sea lamprey. Since September 2022, I've been at the University of Waterloo as a postdoc working with Paul Craig. So far I've done some whole-animal respirometry work on rainbow darters and some high-resolution respirometry on mitochondria isolated from tilapia, and have plans to return to the effects of oxygen cycles on killifish in the future.
The other part of my scientific journey is establishing myself as a freelance science writer and editor, which is something I've been doing professionally since graduate school. Some of my articles can be found in Nature, BBC Science Focus Magazine, a few episodes of PBS Eons, Massive Science and the entire run of the Crash Course: Zoology series.
How would you explain the main message of your Perspective to a member of the public?
My Perspective is about my experiences as a scientist who is also science writer and editor. I wanted to give readers a window into what it was like to juggle these two jobs and provide some suggestions for how they could get started with science communication themselves.
Is there anything that you learned while writing this Perspective that surprised you?
The publishing process for this Perspective was an interesting contrast to my previous experience with research articles. Perspectives are like an evidence-based op-ed, so I was able to write in a much more natural and straightforward style compared with a typical research article. There was more direct editorial involvement in the Perspective, which I didn't expect but found very helpful – I'm the only author on the Perspective, and it benefited from the extra pairs of eyes.
What was your approach in organising background material and shaping this Perspective?
I wanted to do two things with the Perspective: (i) detail some of my experiences as a science writer and editor and (ii) provide some practical and straightforward advice for scientists interested in getting into science communication. I started by writing out the main points I wanted to make for each section and the ideas I wanted people to be left with after reading the article. From there, I filled in citations from the science communication literature or personal anecdotes that supported and extended those original key points.
Are there any modern-day JEB papers that you think will be the classic papers of 2123?
I think it may already be considered a classic, but Boutilier's 2001 review (doi:10.1242/jeb.204.18.3171) about how hypoxia tolerant cells survive by balancing ATP supply and ATP demand is foundational to anyone interested hypoxia, metabolism, or related topics. The legendary Figure 1 of that paper inevitably shows up on a slide whenever I'm teaching about hypoxia, and it shaped a lot of my thinking about hypoxia early on in my career.
What do you think experimental biology will look like 50 years from now?
I think it will be a lot more interdisciplinary – a lot of the low hanging fruit is already picked, and we are going to need fresh perspectives and new, innovative approaches to answer increasingly complicated and precise questions. I hope we also move away from or at least update how academia functions as an institution, like how we evaluate grants, how we train and treat trainees, and what we consider ‘CV-worthy’ work. Traditional academia is set up to only serve a select few, and I think we need to update the system to make room for everyone.
What changes do you think could improve the lives of early-career researchers, and what would make you want to continue in a research career?
The hardest part of being a postdoctoral fellow isn't doing experiments, writing papers, or presenting at conferences. It's the uncertainty and at times hopelessness that comes from bouncing between short term contracts as you try to get a one of the very few permanent faculty jobs available. Solving the dumpster fire that is the academic job market is essential for convincing ECRs that a research career is worthwhile and viable. As for how to fix it … there's not much I can personally do as a ‘lowly’ postdoc. Everyone involved in making decisions that impact the job market – search committee members, supervisors with postdocs applying for jobs, grant evaluators, university administration, others – needs to take a good hard look in the mirror, think about what they can do to make things better and, crucially, do something.
What's next for you?
I'm working as a postdoc and freelancing as usual. I'm in the early stages of planning a big experiment that will (I hope!) answer some nagging and unresolved questions from my PhD work, so stay tuned for that!
Brittney Borowiec's contact details: Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G1.