Good old-fashioned perseverance and basic research have been the genesis of impactful scientific work. However, scientists blaze trails outside of the lab, too; and their stories unveil aspirations powered by the same pioneering spirit that drives discoveries at the bench.

Catharine Young, PhD

Catharine Young, PhD
Senior Director of Science Policy
Biden Cancer Initiative

Catharine Young, PhD, is the senior director of science policy for the Biden Cancer Initiative, championing scientists and their impactful work in cancer research. She reveals that she has always been drawn to science. Having grown up in South Africa, Catharine has cultivated a passion for travel and adopts a macro view of science and the part it plays around the world. She says that having a broader impact on a global scale has always been an inherent component of the work she does, and it is what ultimately drew her to the field of science policy.

Catharine was a keynote speaker at the Immuno-Oncology Summit in Boston last fall, where we were able to catch up with her and learn more about the inspiring path she chose.

How do you think the impact from a career in science policy has been different from, say, working in a lab?

I think this raises a key question about how we as a community measure scientific impact.  The contribution of a scientist working at the bench has incredible impact when it comes to discoveries that can be used for biomedical innovation and new medical therapies.  However, on the flip side the impact of science policy lies in providing the fundamental infrastructure for scientists to be successful – from protecting scientific federal funding to cementing the importance of the inclusion of science in government decision-making at both a national and international level.   

What do you think scientists can do better to improve their image with the world?

There is a slow shift in the scientific culture starting to happen (particularly with the younger generation of trainees) when it comes to communicating science to the public. But I think scientists in general need to become more vocal, visible and engaged in their communities. I believe we have a duty to be good stewards of our work and to share with the public the vast knowledge we’ve had the privilege to receive.

How can one do their part in advocating for science?

As a scientist I believe it is our responsibility to be engaged with the broader research system. This could include providing your voice and support for certain legislative action, or it could mean taking steps to reach out to the community and share your science in an effective and easy to understand way. Either way I believe that there needs to be a fundamental shift in our graduate program training; science trainees should not just be taught technical bench skills, but should have a broad understanding of policy, education, and communication as a core part of their curriculum. This way we can ensure that regardless of the path a trainee takes beyond their PhD, that they are equipped with the necessary skills to be proficient in advocating for science in multiple forms.

Science can be extremely esoteric. What is your top tip when it comes to science communication?

Scientists should be aware that there’s a growing body of evidence-based research when it comes to communicating their science to an outside audience. Do your research first before becoming a bullhorn for your work.  Understanding your audience, storytelling, and trying not to change minds by simply throwing around facts and figures are all imperative when communicating science.

Thermo Fisher Scientific joined the Cancer Moonshot Initiative  in 2016. The Biden Cancer Initiative builds on that work. Both programs are bent on accelerating science—do you have one of your own?

Supper with a Scientist —an effort to break down the barriers with scientists and the public and to have a dedicated and focused conversation about science, in an informal and enjoyable setting. Some of the feedback we have received has solidified that this is an experience people are yearning for, particularly as we find ourselves constantly bombarded with misinformation. One guest noted it was “one of the most eye-opening and most needed evenings in [their] recent history.”

Is science personal to you? How do you keep inspired? How do you inspire others?

Science is incredibly personal to me. It is the thread that has connected all that I have done in the past and it will continue to link all my future goals. I am inspired every day by being able to interact with people who are so incredibly passionate about the work that they do. It is my hope that in return, I am able to be a role model for our younger generation, to help them know that they are supported in every way possible and to be available as a mentor to anyone who desires it.

What’s most rewarding about your career?

The work we do collaboratively, with so many dedicated individuals and organizations, has the potential to impact people on a tremendous scale, and I love that the most. The field of science policy also allows for a much broader expertise level; rather than viewing things at the micro level, I now view them at the macro level. Every day is a different and exhilarating challenge.

Blazing new paths toward discovery

The advancement of science is a challenge that researchers both at the bench and beyond have tenaciously taken on. Whether you’re designing experiments or conducting them; defending a thesis or presenting decades of work; formally advocating for research or volunteering in outreach, everyone plays a critical role in championing science. No feat of trailblazing is too small—every effort is personal.

Read more about other trailblazers

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