Interview with Chris Gunter, PhD

ASHG trainee newsletter writer Irene Park interviewed Chris Gunter, PhD, Director of Communications Operations at the Marcus Autism Center and Associate Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Human Genetics at the Emory University School of Medicine. Dr. Gunter shared her experiences in bringing science to the public.

February 2017

Chris Gunter, PhD (courtesy Dr. Gunter)

Although science affects many aspects of people’s lives, the general public’s scientific literacy is alarmingly low. The scientific community works hard to accumulate data in the laboratory to get one step closer to their next discovery, but there is a need for a bridge between researchers and the general public. That is where science education, outreach, and communication come in. These endeavors not only make it easier for the public to access and understand science, but also increase their appreciation for science.

ASHG: Could you describe your role in science education, outreach, and communication?

Dr. Gunter: Practically, what I do is manage communications in many different areas for the largest clinical center for autism care in the U.S. This means everything from revamping the tour process to educate 600+ community members in 2016 about autism and what we do, writing press releases for our papers and working with the media and social media teams of our two parent institutions to get stories out, speaking professionally at conferences or university courses about the role of science communication in your scientific career, and maintaining a Twitter presence myself to be part of the process.

I’m also involved in fundraising–we are a nonprofit and everyone needs money to stay open–and (fingers crossed) starting as the PI of a dissemination and outreach core on an NIH Autism Center of Excellence grant later this year. In my spare time, I am coordinating genetic studies for our center.

ASHG: What motivated you to be involved? What motivates you, currently, to stay involved?

Dr. Gunter: I originally got involved in science publishing as a postdoc. I looked around at my fellow trainees who were amazing scientists and not getting any job offers (and this was 1999!) and I looked at what was involved in being a PI, and realized that’s not what I like about science. In contrast, I really liked writing and editing papers, and helping authors put their work into the best possible light. So I worked in science publishing for almost ten years and have stayed involved in communicating science ever since.

What motivates me to stay involved? On a small scale, I love storytelling. I love being able to explain to a group of parents why, for example, sequencing studies in autism show us that there are no quick genetic tests for most children, but instead we can appreciate how much genetic variation we all possess. I absolutely loved organizing a panel on science communication for the ASHG 2015 meeting, and hearing that many attendees enjoyed it!

On a larger scale, it is crystal clear that there remains a gap between scientists and some sections of the public, and that this is affecting all of us. As I write this, a new administration has told some government scientists that they are not allowed to talk about their work on climate change. There are reports that an anti-vaccine advocate will head a commission to study vaccines and autism, despite the fact that millions of children have been studied and many rigorous, careful studies have shown no link between vaccines and autism. Social media has shown us that, despite our best efforts to explain genetic findings and what they do or don’t mean, segments of our society will cite genetics to discriminate against others or to deny life insurance coverage. We have so much to help people understand, and cannot be silent.

ASHG: Did you face any challenges in your activities? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

Dr. Gunter: I feel pretty lucky to have had supportive mentors and colleagues in so many positions. Certainly I have been told that I am not a “real scientist” at multiple points, because I wasn’t an academic or a PI. Some frustrated authors told me that when I was rejecting their papers at Nature. Others told me that when looking at my CV, and only seeing one grant from my postdoc. If I had a dime for every scientist who told me, without using it him or herself, that social media was useless and my being on it meant I was not a “real scientist”… Well let’s just say I could afford to take a month off to catch up on email! This is a good reminder for myself to not judge others based on their titles, instead focusing on their actual work as well as their character, and a reminder to try and help as many scientists as I can in their endeavors.

ASHG: Are there any new, exciting news and advances in your field?

Dr. Gunter: Like in many other fields, we are hearing much more from people with autism, through things like the tag #actuallyautistic on Twitter or blog posts about their experience. They want to be part of the research studies and not just subjects. They have given us valuable information on how to involve them with the process, making the studies better as a result. I remain excited to see patient advocates incorporated in many fields.

In the past decade or more, the definition of “autism” has been widened quite a bit, and we’ve seen more and more children receive the diagnosis. But I’m a splitter and not a lumper; I think that there are many different autisms and our genetic studies are starting to tease out subphenotypes that could help us tailor behavioral treatments more effectively.

ASHG: Do you have any advice for trainees?

Dr. Gunter: Network. People I’ve known throughout multiple career stops have been crucial in the next one. I aim to help as many people as I can, too. Everyone tells you to network, but my own gathered data truly support its effectiveness.

If you don’t see the position out there that you want to have, then make it up. I’m now in my fourth job that I suggested to the employer, explaining what I could do for them and writing the job description. You can do it, too! On a related note, pick an advisor who understands that not everyone will be a PI and that scientists are needed in many, many lines of work.

You have to define your own success–you cannot let anyone define it for you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not a “real scientist” if you don’t fit into their boxes of prestige or attainment. You have to balance your career with your life, and do what is right for you.

Use your professional society both for its awesome resources and to be your voice. As the conference program chair, I saw firsthand how much effort ASHG is putting into representing trainees at the meeting each year, and how the Society is continually working to include you in more and more initiatives. They want to hear from you, so talk to them!

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