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Meet a Research Communications Manager

Updated: May 24, 2021

Hi, I am Dr Stacey-Lee Leijenaar, and I am the Research Communications Manager at Arthritis National Research Foundation (ANRF), and an A level Biology and English teacher at BIC (The British international College, Pretoria Campus).

I have completed a BA Communications and Media, a BSc Zoology, a BSc (Hon) Environmental management, a Mphil Wildlife Management and a PhD Medical Immunology.

As I have two jobs there is a great deal of variety in what I do from day to day. I teach two days a week and dedicate three days to work as the research communications manager at the ANRF. Teaching is fairly typical with presenting work, setting and marking of assignments and tests. In my case teaching such diverse subjects keeps it interesting as do the students themselves. It’s incredibly rewarding to see students that have put in effort succeed and achieve their goals.

The ANRF raises money to sponsor the best and brightest researchers in the fields of arthritis and autoimmune disease. My key function as the research communications manager is to take the methods and data produced by these researchers and write articles in a way that the science is accessible to everyone, including those with no experience in the field. Additionally, my role expanded into researching and producing articles that assist patients in living with these conditions, these articles range from how to talk to those closest to you about your condition to a series on chronic pain management. Lastly, something completely different that I have just started doing is the production of an anti-inflammatory recipe tutorial series. This is not only fun to do but has introduced me to a number of anti-inflammatory recipes which I may not have tried if not for these videos.

In terms of teaching, there is satisfaction when you see something just click for a student because of how you have taught it. I would like to believe that by teaching I’m contributing in a small way to the next generation of scientists and writers.

I have always felt strongly that science should be inclusive, not exclusive. Throughout my studies, I noticed how frequently articles and presentations used unnecessarily complicated terms and phrases as if to demonstrate their superior knowledge of the subject at hand. I feel that limits the impact research can have and causes those that do not have the experience to be sceptical of the scientific process and conclusions that are drawn from it. This has become particularly evident with the large amount of fake news that has been bandied about during the COVID 19 pandemic.

My role at ANRF has allowed me to pursue this long-held passion – disseminating scientific research and information in a manner which increases its impact within the scientific community and beyond. Improving accessibility and delivering data to a wider audience fosters relationships and collaborative efforts between researchers, clinicians, patients and other role players in the field of arthritis and autoimmune research.

It can be frustrating to see students not fulfilling their potential no matter how much assistance you try to give them, but if you can help one student achieve their goals it makes it worth it.

As the ANRF is based in the USA, I work remotely from my home in South Africa. It requires a certain amount of self-discipline to ensure you meet deadlines. I am lucky as I have always enjoyed creating schedules and sticking to them. I do think sometimes it would be a nice change if I could occasionally go into an actual office and interact with my colleagues.

As is evident by my diverse academic career I made a number of changes in my career path. As a child, I wanted to be a veterinarian but after working at a practice in my final year of high school I discovered it was in fact not the career for me. The subject I enjoyed most aside from Biology was English, as such I ended up doing a complete 180 and studied a BA. After completing the degree and teaching for a period I realized I did still want to work with animals just not as a veterinarian. After researching alternatives, I decided zoology offered what I was looking for. I thrived during my studies and finished top of my class for my undergraduate degree. I had planned to do my postgraduate studies in environmental and wildlife management with the goal of working in the bush as a conservationist. Unfortunately, I became ill during my Honours degree and was diagnosed during my Masters degree with Idiopathic Intracranial hypertension which required insertion of a shunt and a number of additional surgeries. This put pay to the idea of doing fieldwork as I needed to stay in close proximity to my treating neurosurgeon. I had previously approached my supervisor to do my PhD evaluating the potential of immunocontraceptives as non-lethal predator control in an agricultural setting. My supervisor was both a zoologist and endocrinologist. He had been awarded a large grant to test a prostate cancer drug he had developed. As the drug worked on the same hormone cascade as immunocontraceptives he offered me the opportunity to do the first stage cellular research for my PhD. I accepted and learnt a great deal of new skills and information as this was quite a large deviation from the path I thought I was going to be on.

A colleague from the laboratory I was in knew I enjoyed teaching and had heard of the opening for a Biology lecturer at the British International College. I applied and was lucky enough to get the position. At the end of my PhD, a member of the board at the ANRF whom I knew suggested I send through my CV for the position of research communications manager knowing I had both experiences in writing as well as a scientific researcher, a rather unique combination. Part of my PhD research had focused heavily on the impact of the drug on bone cells which was particularly relevant given that the focus of the foundation was arthritis. After meeting with the director of the foundation I was offered the position which I gratefully accepted. My role at the foundation continued to change and grow and I knew I had found a career, which was not remotely related to the one I had planned, that I could be passionate about.

This is a rather unique career path but my advice to all students would be to be adaptable. Life throws you a number of curve balls and you may not be able to do the job you always thought you would. Try not to see this as a failure, try to view it as an opportunity to find another passion. Your happiness is not tied to one single career.

Don’t let anyone tell you your dreams are not achievable. Science was my worst school subject, I finished matric with C in Science. My first year as a BSc student was challenging as it was a general year so I had to do physics and chemistry, neither of which I enjoyed. Knowing it was necessary to pass these subjects before I could move on to my second and third year which were heavily centred on biology, I did as many extra lessons as possible and got there in the end. Funnily enough, I think it was my BA that allowed me to finish at the top of my class as I had been trained in essay writing which many BSc students have no experience in. In the end, my PhD relied heavily on both science and biology and I was more than capable at that point to excel at both. I guess my scientific abilities were late bloomers. So, don’t consider any of your education as wasted, turns out my odd academic background gave me opportunities I would not have had otherwise.

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