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Rafael E. Luna, PhD

Rafael E. Luna, PhD

Instructor, Harvard Medical School and Founder of Luna Scientific Storytelling, LLC

Rafael E. Luna, PhD,had been a research fellow at Harvard Medical School for six years when he hit a wall. A large collaboration with multiple high-profile researchers was rejected due to the authors’ inability to tell the complex story in a coherent manner. Below, Rafael shares how that experience lead him to adopt narrative elements in his scientific manuscripts and share his subsequent success via his own company.

When and where did you get your PhD? What did you study?

I received my PhD in biological sciences with a concentration in molecular virology from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. My dissertation research investigated viral entry of Kaposi’s Sarcoma-associated Herpes viruses into human cells.

Where did you go next?

After my PhD, I wanted to study something different from virology. I was interested in neuroscience, so I went to Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., for a year as a postdoc. There, we were doing surgery on rats, which I found was really difficult for me. So I asked myself, what can I do different that doesn’t involve live animals? That’s when I went to Harvard Medical School as a postdoc to study protein translation, specifically the dynamic interaction between human eukaryotic initiation factors, which I would grow up in bacteria.

How did you go from a normal postdoc in the lab to also juggling a side job as a scientific storyteller?

It started with my research paper being rejected. I was working with the top leaders in the field at Harvard Medical School, John Hopkins, Kansas State, Boston University Medical School, and NIH. We had a great story to tell, but collectively we didn’t put all the pieces together in a proper narrative, making it very difficult for the reviewers to appreciate the work. So, it was rejected from Cell, which was difficult to deal with due to the significance of the journal.

And so I hit “the wall” and thought maybe I should go back to my true passion, which is writing. So, I took a creative writing course at the Harvard Extension School. When I turned in my first short story, I thought my classmates in the peer-review workshop would love it, but they tore it apart! They told me that I didn’t have the proper character development, the thesis wasn’t substantiated and the theme wasn’t fully developed. These were very similar to the comments that my collaborators and the manuscript’s reviewers gave me. That was my “ah ha!” moment.

Perhaps I could fix my manuscript by applying the narrative elements —  protagonist, antagonist, scene, stakes,conflict and resolution —  from creative writing. When I did that, I realized that I didn’t have one story, but three different stories imbedded into one paper, and that’s what made it so difficult to publish. I pulled out the two smaller studies, published them separately,and submitted the primary work to CellReports, where it was accepted.

By applying narrative principles to a scientific manuscript,we took a rejected paper and enhanced its apparent impact to a wide range of scientific audiences. Then I had some of my colleagues at Harvard ask “Hey, can you show me how to do that?” Those requests for help kept coming, and now come from all over the world. I’m invited to give talks and courses, visit universities and conferences like ARVO, and I’ve even written a book on the topic entitled, The Art of Scientific Storytelling.

Have you encountered a large desire for better communication skills from the scientific community? If so, why?

I have and I think that’s new. When I was in my training in the 90s, there wasn’t a strong focus on science communication. I think people assumed that scientists already knew how to tell their stories. But, when I started to write my manuscripts, I couldn’t find any resources to help me dive into the details of good science writing. So, I’ve had to do it myself.

I think a big reason behind the greater need for better communication is that the practice of science has evolved. In the past, an organic chemist, for example, could just work in his lab and be successful. But now, the same organic chemist doing research on a compound needs to work with a biochemist to determine the mechanism of binding between the compound and target protein. Then a biologist would examine how the compound is metabolized in human cells. Each of these disciplines has their own language, so scientists need to be able to communicate with other scientific fields. Recently, a large proportion of the scientific breakthroughs have happened through collaboration between disciplines. That’s driving communication as a need in the scientific community.

How do you balance your time between the lab and your scientific storytelling?

It’s been difficult, but my scientific storytelling has helped me a lot in the lab. I work with many collaborators in different fields throughout the world, so the skills I’ve gained and taught have helped me to accelerate the scientific communication process, i.e. manuscript preparation, submission and acceptance.

Could you pursue scientific storytelling without your PhD?  

I think people are more likely to take me and my scientific storytelling approach seriously because of my PhD, postdoc and Harvard Medical School Instructorship, along with multiple published papers. I don’t think I absolutely need a PhD, but I have certainly benefited from my years at the bench.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were graduating with your PhD?

If I had to talk to myself 10 years ago, I would say “find out what you really love, and do it.” I love science, and I love the humanities. I started taking writing and humanities courses at Harvard in 2010, but I wish I had started doing that even earlier. I would have devoted more time to the humanistic side of me, which would have made me a happier, more balanced person during my first years as a postdoc.

Do you have any advice for current students?

Students are frequently told to spend an exorbitant amount of time in the laboratory when they begin their scientific career. What I’ve learned is, while doing science, don’t give up everything else. Spend time with your family and friends, and pursue your hobbies. Your outside interests give you the longevity needed to succeed in science and help you to enjoy the scientific ups and downs, which will turn out to become one of the best rides of your life. 

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