Melissa Withers

Communications Director

City of Providence

<p>For former BIF executive director Melissa Withers, few professional memories are as vivid as the day her biology professor quashed her dreams of becoming a scientist. &ldquo;After a semester of destroying lab samples and breaking equipment, I kind of saw it coming,&rdquo; she remembers. &ldquo;I knew that my work in the lecture room wasn&rsquo;t enough to offset my dismal failure in the lab. This guy was kind enough to give me the nudge I needed to consider an alternative career&mdash;one that didn&rsquo;t involve the careful measurement of chemicals.&rdquo;</p>
<p>This memory did not hold special significance for Withers until years later, when she found herself working at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was working in the lab again, but instead of handling cell cultures, she was holding a notepad and pen.</p>
<p>Withers never did get a degree in science, opting instead to focus on writing. &ldquo;I worked in a bookstore after college. The only upside to making seven dollars an hour was that I got to build out the store&rsquo;s inventory of science-related titles. I was a voracious reader, which helped keep my interest in experimentation and discovery sharp.&rdquo;</p>
<p>After a year, she enrolled in a master&rsquo;s program at Northeastern University in scientific and technical writing, where she worked to marry her love of science with an aptitude for writing. Her course work included a visit to Whitehead Institute. &ldquo;It was love at first sight,&rdquo; she recounts. &ldquo;I was writing about a guy who discovered that mosquitoes infected with malaria behave very badly, taking more risks to get blood than mosquitoes who are not infected. The malaria parasite drove the mosquito crazy, as a way to voraciously spread disease. It was an awesome challenge to translate this into something the public could understand and appreciate.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The meet-up at Whitehead turned into an internship, and ultimately a full time job. &ldquo;After having been booted out of science for being really bad at it, it was a sweet irony to find myself working at one of the world&rsquo;s best research institutes, neck deep in really complex science and producing work that I was very proud of,&rdquo; she recalls. &ldquo;The experience helped me realize that contributing to the world isn&rsquo;t just about success or failure, it&rsquo;s about finding the place where your talents make the most sense.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Withers spent almost six years at Whitehead expanding the organization&rsquo;s science communications program and developing activities that helped young scientists become better communicators. Withers and her colleagues won several national awards during this time, including recognition for work on the publication of the human genome sequence.</p>
<p>She looks back on these early experiences as boot camp training for the work she now does at BIF. It&rsquo;s another ironic twist on her failure as a scientist. &ldquo;Working on projects in the BIF Experience Labs is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. Our work is all about understanding and improving the human experience through experimentation, only minus the test tubes. I might not wear a white lab coat, but I still get goose bumps when we discover how to make someone&rsquo;s life a little better.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I was always frustrated by how a lack of communication stymied science. I think the same thing holds true for innovation. &ldquo;[BIF Founder] Saul Kaplan always says that &lsquo;it&rsquo;s not an innovation until it delivers value.&rsquo; I agree, but would add that &lsquo;it&rsquo;s not an innovation until it has a good story to go with it.&rsquo;&rdquo; And, says Withers, &ldquo;to be a part of an organization where storytelling is equally as important as lab protocol is amazing. Given where I started, it was a pretty nice place to land.&rdquo;</p>