About Sheeva Azma, M.S.: Sheeva Azma is the Founder of Fancy Comma, LLC, a business that specializes in medical and scientific writing. She has worked with organizations in a variety of sectors, from government and defense to education, non-profits, and technology and entrepreneurship. Sheeva has been working as a medical and science communication expert since 2013. Prior to her work in medical writing and editing, Sheeva applied her research and writing skills in various medical, scientific, and political contexts. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Brain and Cognitive Science from MIT and her Master of Science in Neuroscience from Georgetown University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your professional background and how you became involved in the field of medical communication? Could you elaborate on how your B.S. in Brain and Cognitive Science from MIT, your M.S. in Neuroscience from Georgetown, and your research experience at Harvard Medical School, Georgetown, and MIT all helped to prepare you for the types of writing that you do in your daily work?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] I earned my BS from MIT in the field of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and spent the next three years working as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. I got into the field of scientific and medical communication as a newly minted Master’s student from Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience. As a neuroscientist, I often taught science courses to K-12 students, and college, graduate, and postgraduate students alike. I also served as a teaching assistant for Medical Neuroscience, a course in the Georgetown University Medical School.
My graduate research involved studying the neural underpinnings of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and adolescent brain development. I brought all of this content knowledge to my writing, as well as past research experiences in other fields such as biotechnology, chemical engineering, cancer research, anthropology, biological sciences, and mathematics. Though I am a neuroscientist by training, I didn’t realize that I actually had gained tons of research experience in the sciences which were unrelated to my degrees. So, I have been able to use being both a generalist (as a student of science) and a specialist (as a trained neuroscientist) to my advantage. You can check out some of my writing work here.
In graduate school, I visited Capitol Hill as a member of what is now called the Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Fellows program. I visited lawmakers’ offices and met with Congressional staffers to advocate for biomedical science funding. In 2017, after a little while as a freelancer, I moved from Oklahoma to Washington, DC, to intern in Congress. My writing skills and legislative knowledge (I used to watch C-SPAN for fun in college and grad school) proved useful, as I was expected to attend briefings and write a memo within the following hour.
My content knowledge in science, health/medicine, and policy proved crucial for succeeding in these experiences as a scientist, science writer, and policy wonk. I recommend that medical and science writers have prior academic and/or professional training in the field about which they write. It helps a lot to be familiar with the scientific process. That’s not to say that people that don’t have previous medical and/or scientific training can’t work in the field of science and medical communication. Medical and science writers can also come from outside of these fields. I recommend that anyone who wants to be a medical and/or science writer be familiar with how to read an academic journal article, and what the peer review process is like for publishing academic papers. There’s a great resource from MIT Knight School of Journalism for people who are trying to get into science journalism that talks about all of this.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are the Founder of Fancy Comma, LLC, a medical writing and editing consulting company that works with organizations in government, defense, biomedical, education, non-profit, and the private sector to craft compelling content. May we have more information about the types of writing projects you have worked on as Founder of this company?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] It’s difficult to sum up eight years of experience as a freelance writer, including my time as founder of Fancy Comma, LLC. I’ve worked on all sorts of communications, including whitepapers, political campaigns, press releases, blog posts, science explainer pieces, and more. Writing is a craft, so it can only be improved with experience. I look forward to more opportunities to improve my writing skills.
I definitely recommend the self-employment route. It’s great to be your own boss, but it can be a challenge if you need an external push to get work done. I love helping clients communicate better and that’s motivation enough for me. I’ve also written a short book about how I got started in science writing for people who seek advice on how to succeed in this field.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your freelance work as part of Fancy Comma, LLC, you also write for the Patient Safety Movement Foundation. In your opinion, what is the role of medical communication in patient safety?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] Medical communication is central to patient safety. The core of patient-centered care is health literacy, which means being able to understand one’s medical condition and treatment. Communicating medical information to patients, and giving them the tools to be more empowered to seek more information, is one way to improve the standard of care. To learn more about the importance of health literacy, you can check out this post at the Patient Safety Movement Foundation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What communication principles do you believe underpin all medical communication and public health education campaigns, whether they are about COVID-19, diabetes, or other community health issues? How can medical communication professionals create educational content that is at once easy to understand (yet without sacrificing important medical nuances) and actionable?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] There are three pillars of medical communication I’ve learned in the COVID-19 pandemic: Firstly, fake news spreads a lot faster than the truth, so fighting misinformation remains as relevant as ever in the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, science communication must be more inclusive and accessible to all, even people who do not regularly follow science news and research. Thirdly, it’s important to consider one’s audience when crafting educational content. For example, understanding someone’s vaccine hesitancy is central to writing persuasive text that will convince them that it’s worth it to get vaccinated, despite the risks or drawbacks.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For individuals who would like to work in medical writing, what advice do you have for them in terms of entering and excelling in the field? Are there certain prerequisites that you would urge prospective medical writers to have before applying for medical writing positions?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] There are some resources I recommend for US-based freelance medical and health writers. The American Medical Writers Association or AMWA is a great resource for medical communicators. For science writers, I recommend checking out the National Association of Science Writers.
It’s easy to get into medical communication. Improving health literacy starts with informed patients, so you can create an Instagram account to explain key medical concepts, or start a blog where you can share insights to help people better understand complexities in health and medicine. My colleague Nidhi Parekh posts on Instagram and blogs about health topics.
Beyond that, you can talk to other people in this field about how they got started, and what they learned from their successes and failures. There’s a lot to be said for networking as a freelance writer — I’ve made so many new friendships and learned so much that way.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Who have been your primary professional mentors, and how have they supported your development? How important do you feel mentorship is to career growth? On the flip side, what have been your experiences mentoring other medical communication professionals and researchers, and what key pieces of advice did you give them?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] When I started out as a freelance science writer, I didn’t have any mentors. I was not even sure I was going to do science writing as a career. I did meet some mentors along the way, though, including a freelancer who referred me to clients when she was on maternity leave, and who also sponsored my application to join the National Association of Science Writers. Mentorship is really important, and I recently wrote about mentorship and how to be a good mentor and/or mentee at the Fancy Comma newsletter.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the principal challenges and barriers you have encountered during your career in medical communication, and how have you addressed them? What advice do you have for others facing similar challenges?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] Learning how to run a business was a challenging aspect of becoming a freelance science writer, especially after working in academic science research for 10 years. I had never written a formal invoice before, and was not familiar with stuff like doing business taxes. Luckily, I am entrepreneurial by nature, having run various businesses since I was a kid, so I enjoy the business aspect of freelancing. It definitely takes a lot of work and attention to detail. I recommend seeking out help wherever you can and using software such as QuickBooks to automate business-side work such as accounting and payroll.
[MastersinCommunications.com] During your years in the field of medical writing and medical education, how have you seen these fields evolve? Where do you feel medical writing and communication will go in the coming years (especially in light of the ongoing pandemic), and what role will they play in medical care as well as public health initiatives and policy development?
[Sheeva Azma, M.S.] I’m excited to see science and medical communicators play such a pivotal role in the COVID-19 pandemic. I think that it has renewed people’s trust in science. I look forward to the future of science communication, and especially making science communication more inclusive and accessible to all!
Thank you, Sheeva Azma, for your excellent insight into the field of medical communication, and for your advice to aspiring and practicing medical writers!