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Dr. Flora Teoh

Dr. Flora Teoh is a science editor at Health Feedback, a not-for-profit organization fact-checking health-related content in influential online media. She received her Ph.D. in biology in 2017, with a focus on microbiology and immunology. Dr Lia Paola Zambetti, currently a senior project officer at The University of Sydney, interviewed her and here are the excerpts

1.      Can you quickly introduce yourself and what you do?

I was born and bred in Singapore. I received my Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Nanyang Technological University in 2012 and in the same year I began my doctoral studies at the Singapore Immunology Network studying the opportunistic pathogen Candida albicans. I did a brief postdoctoral stint before transitioning to my current position as a science editor at Health Feedback, a part of Science Feedback.

2.      You are an editor, but not at a ‘standard’ journal – how would you describe your masthead and your role?

As an editor in a science-focused fact-checking organization, my role is to serve the public by providing accurate scientific information about matters of public interest and significant societal impact, as well as to inform media outlets and tech platforms about the accuracy of health media coverage.

3.      How would you say your role differs from that of a ‘standard’ editor in a ‘standard’ scientific journal that peer-reviews its own material?

Editors at scientific journals are the gatekeepers in the scientific publishing process. Their role is to identify and publish scientifically sound research of interest to the journal’s audience - usually the scientific community.

As an editor at a fact-checking organization, I focus on online media content which contains scientifically verifiable claims that are of public interest or that could be potentially harmful if they turn out to be false, rather than scientific literature, although I consult the latter in the course of fact-checking. Our audience is the general public, as well as media outlets and tech platforms. We’re more like sentinels on the lookout for potentially harmful misinformation.

4.      Can you describe a typical day at work?

I check the latest viral news on social media using social media monitoring tools, write and edit drafts of fact-checks, and discuss the scientific merits and weaknesses of viral claims with colleagues. Along the way, I reach out to scientists and scientific institutions to obtain their expert opinion on the claims that we fact-check.(We are always looking to recruit scientists interested in assessing the accuracy of claims and improving the credibility of health news coverage for everyone!)

5.      What are the ups and the downs of your job?

Seeing rampant misinformation, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic, is troubling for me, particularly when people are harmed by it. As a scientist, I want to do my civic duty in correcting the record. Our fact-checking work helps me to do just that by offering people accurate information on which to base their decisions.

However, we also have to cope with negative reactions to fact-checks. For example, from anti-vaccine activists. In such times, it helps to remember that our job is not to convince everyone that we are right and others are wrong. We’re simply here to inform people about what the current scientific evidence supports and what it does not support.

6.      I understand your work has been done 100% remotely even before the pandemic –what would you say are the pros and cons of this approach?

Indeed, I was already working remotely for more than a year before the pandemic hit. On the whole, it’s worked out well for me, as I prefer to work independently. Working remotely also gives me a lot of flexibility in how I plan and do my work.

On the other hand, I really miss the camaraderie that comes with seeing and working with colleagues in person regularly! Another downside is that working from home full-time makes it more challenging to meet people who work in your field. So you need to work harder at building your network.

7.      When did you know in your bones that the bench was not for you and how long (if there was a time delay) before you acted on it?

I had taken up several opportunities to participate in science outreach events during graduate school. I found it very rewarding to interact with the public and help them understand the work we did in the lab. But I had always planned on a research career upon graduation. I hadn’t even considered science communication, much less fact-checking, as a career path until I was a postdoc. The moment of reckoning came during my postdoc, when I found that I enjoyed writing about science more than doing it.

8.      What steps did you take to arrive to your present role and was there a strategy behind it (as opposed to, say, seizing the perfect opportunity that just happened)?

I had written a few science articles starting in graduate school and later as a postdoc. However it was a hobby, rather than a strategic move for a future career switch.

But it turned out to be really helpful for building a portfolio, which is a common prerequisite in job applications for a position in science writing. Getting that headstart also enabled me to connect with and receive feedback from experienced editors, which is invaluable for honing your craft as a writer.

I began to consider science writing seriously after I joined the organizing team for Pint of Science Singapore, a science outreach festival, during my postdoc. I had written a promotional piece for the festival that was published in a science magazine and was later given the opportunity to write a few more pieces for the same masthead. That eventually led to an internship at the magazine after I’d left the lab. The editorial and support staff there taught me a great deal, and I’m grateful for the experience.

After I’d concluded my internship and traveled for a bit to ponder my next steps, Science Feedback was looking for someone to organize a fact-checking project focusing on health-related content. I applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

9.      Contrarily to the experience of many early career researchers worldwide, you have always stayed in your home country. How do you think this influenced your career arc so far?

The main benefit is that I have had strong and stable support from family and friends during my career. Another benefit is that Singapore places a strong emphasis on meritocracy and the science and technology industry. With that comes the will and the resources to nurture the relevant talent pool, like the scholarship I’d received from Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Obtaining my PhD opened the door to opportunities that would otherwise not have been available to me.

On the other hand, I also think I’ve missed out on opportunities for growth that come with being uprooted and placed in a different environment. [UPDATE: during the preparation of this article Flora moved to Paris for an initial period of 1.5 years, for her first work experience overseas].

10.  How do you see your career in 5-10 years and are there other professional areas you would like to explore?

Fact-checking as a field is still relatively young and there are so many new things I would like to explore. I’m certain there will be more developments as time goes by, and I hope I will continue to be a part of it in the coming years!

11.  What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow your career footsteps?

Start building a portfolio early so you can show potential employers samples of your work when you apply. This is easy to do, as science writing has a low entry barrier. For example, publishing your own science blog is a great way to start.

Also, participating in science outreach programs can give you an idea of what approaches are helpful when engaging with the public. Finally, read lots of good writing. Apart from simply enjoying the experience of reading a well-written piece, you learn how good writers write.

Dr. Lia Paola Zambetti is a Senior Project Officer and Science Writer working in New South Wales, Australia