Meet the science writer highlighting research into cigarette replacement products

Industry Matters Newsletter

Jana Olson of Philip Morris International shares her passion for both science communication and Switzerland 

By: 
Nina Notman, special to C&EN

Jana Olson
Jana Olson
Credit: Jana Olson

Jana Olson no longer wears a lab coat. She left research four years ago and moved into science communication. “When I was in graduate school, I realized that I enjoyed all the aspects of communication–making posters, writing papers, giving presentations, teaching–more than I enjoyed getting in the laboratory and doing research,” she explains.

This realization came during the final year of a chemistry PhD at Rice University. While wrapping up her studies, Olson built up her science writing experience penning pieces for an alumni magazine and helping to launch a new magazine that promotes research at Rice’s school of natural sciences.

Olson’s first post-PhD job was as a science writer for Proportional Technologies Inc, a Houston-based company that develops radiation detectors. While there, “I was contacted on LinkedIn by a recruiter for Philip Morris,” Olson explains. “As the discussion went on, I realized that this was an excellent opportunity for me to communicate not about just one specific area of research but to talk about a wide range of things from chemistry and physics, to toxicology, to clinical studies, to surveys. It seemed like a no brainer to take the leap.”

In fall 2017, Olson and her husband moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, home to Philip Morris’ worldwide operations center. “We work in English, which is a good thing because my French skills are coming along a bit slowly!” she jokes.

Olson’s primary role is to help produce the scientific update the company produces about its smoke-free products, which include e-cigarettes and other heated tobacco products. “It’s published a couple of times a year and it's a highlight and overview of the research that we've done on our products,” she says. She also maintains Philip Morris’ science website and “fills an eclectic bunch of other roles.”     

Who has been your favorite interviewee so far?

Bob Curl, Nobel laureate and chemistry professor at Rice University. He was so down to earth and humble.

What's the favorite part of your job?

That I get to interact with a giant range of people from different backgrounds.

Is there any part of your job that isn't how you expected it would be?

I hadn’t realized when working for a large international company how many steps of review is necessary for a scientific communication to go out.

 What’s the best professional advice you've received?

 If there's something that you want to do, just find a way to start doing it.

 What's your morning routine?

 My alarm is set for 7:30. I hit the snooze about four times. Skip breakfast. Get ready for the day. Walk to the train station. Take the train and bus. Then I usually grab a coffee before I find a desk and sit down.

 Is there anything you couldn't get along without at work?

The staff canteen. Food and restaurants in Switzerland are rather expensive. It's nice we have a canteen in our building that isn’t crazy overpriced.

 What keeps you up at night?

 My cats.

How is your life in Lausanne different to it was in Houston?

We can see the countryside and the farmland from our apartment. We don’t own a car. We do a lot more physical activity. It's all been changes for the better for us.

 What do you like to do outside of the office?

We really picked up indoor rock climbing. Climbing outdoors is next on my agenda. I've also recently tried skiing for the first time; I'm not great at it.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

Staying with the company and continuing to shape how we talk about our science and our products and, ultimately, how we talk about the company as well.

Nina Notman is a freelancer, based in the UK, for Chemical & Engineering News, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. This interview was edited for length and clarity.