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My journey to scientific editing

Posted by , on 24 May 2011

Although I’m no longer working at the bench, I still think of myself as a scientist. During grad school and much of my post-doc, I assumed that I would follow the “grad student to post-doc to professor track” so that I could continue to be paid to learn for the rest of my life. I’ve come to find out that many alternatives to the traditional academic path, like my current job as a scientific editor at Cell, enable life-long scientific learning.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved learning about the natural world. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but several summers working in labs and one summer studying animal behaviour changed my mind. I was bitten by the basic science research bug. My PhD thesis work focused on mitochondrial morphology and inheritance, but I also pushed myself beyond my cell biology and genetics comfort zone into areas like biophysics, biochemistry, and computational biology. Six years and three first author papers later, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation awarded me an opportunity of a lifetime. They funded my post-doc fellowship proposal on dissecting the connections between cell proliferation and differentiation in the zebrafish retina.

My post-doc was challenging – it stretched me emotionally, culturally, and intellectually. The transition from yeast cell biology and genetics to zebrafish developmental biology was more difficult than I had anticipated, but my lab mates, husband, and friends provided the support I needed to succeed. Deciding to leave the lab – my projects, my colleagues, and my friends – was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. When I talked with my advisor about the possibility of working as a scientific editor, he tried his best to be supportive but also tried to convince me to stay on in his lab. Unlike other post-docs who had moved onto non-academic positions, he (and many of my peers and colleagues) told me that I “have what it takes to be an academic researcher”.

Were they wrong? No. I actually agree with them. Intellectually and emotionally, I am suited to academic research. I delight in thinking and discussing biological questions; I enjoy working collaboratively as well as individually; and I am keen to share my knowledge with others by teaching and mentoring. I am, however, not well suited to the uncertainty that comes with tight funding and shrinking university budgets.

Near the end of the third year of my post-doc, with fellowship money running out, I began to worry that my research, while important and interesting to me, wasn’t likely to make into the high-profile journals (this is something that I never really thought about before; I always just wanted to do the best research in an area that interested me). I applied for several research/teaching assistant professorships back in the US, and I received very nice rejection letters. Around this time, I also began to notice that many scientists whom I respected were struggling to secure funding and spending much of their time carrying out administrative duties. Together, these events motivated me to think about what I was really doing in academic science. Was there something besides being a professor that would satisfy my desire to learn and share my enthusiasm for scientific discovery?

Throughout grad school and my post-doc, I participated in scientific outreach events – hosting high school students in the lab during the summer, working with non-scientists to explain our work to the public (you can listen to the result of one of my favorite collaborations, “Fish Eye/Fix Me”), visiting local schools and science fairs, and even starting my own blog called post-doc perspective. After participating in the 2010 Santa Fe science writers workshop, where I met fantastic people interested in learning about the best ways to communicate scientific knowledge and scientific discoveries, I thought I might use my talents to become a science editor/writer. When the job offer from Cell came, it was a no-brainer.

Some people were happy when I told them I would be starting a job as a scientific editor of Cell, a few of them even tried to become my new best friend. Others were horrified, asking how I could dream of leaving science. I explained that I didn’t see it as leaving science at all, simply as participating in a different aspect of the scientific process.

I began my scientific editing career with the hope that I would be able to facilitate the communication of scientific breakthroughs with integrity, honesty, and fairness. I’ve been an editor for less than a year, and in that time I’ve come to appreciate that scientific editing is a very challenging job; it comes with great responsibility, but it is also a lot of fun, especially for someone like me who loves to learn. At this stage of my career, I can say with confidence that this is the right place for me. I love the intellectual challenges that come with being an editor at Cell, and my husband is thankful that I’m no longer frustrated by experiments not working. I enjoy working with authors and reviewers to ensure that the scientific studies we publish are accurate and at the forefront of their respective fields, and I am thrilled to be part of a team of scientists, writers, and illustrators who work hard to communicate scientific discoveries in the best way possible. If you enjoy reading and writing and learning about biology from reading papers and attending journal clubs, scientific editing might be a good fit for you.

For those who are interested, my undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry (and summer research experiences) are from at Duke University. I earned my PhD in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins Medical School, and I carried out my post-doctoral research at the University College London.

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8 thoughts on “My journey to scientific editing”

    1. You need to info readers on how remuneration has improved and how this is a skill and not just a job.
      What are carrier prospects here?

  1. Really happy to read your story. I am also very much interested in scientific editing, though I am looking for opportunities. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  2. Hi..
    Nice to see this article of yours because its very much relevant to my future plan. I am currently in my last year of PhD(cell biology/protein trafficking) and further I would be doing post doc too. But when I think about myself down the line, I feel I want to do editing because as you said I love reading, writing also discussing and communicating. I somehow feel I can take up this as my career but I am not sure how good I am at this. could you tell me how do I test myself for the same? I have not done any journalism or related course.
    I would be glad if you could suggest me something.

  3. I’m trying to compile some samples and create a portfolio for job applications. I don’t currently work in science editing/writing but my degree is in biology and chemistry and I am a bit unenthused about continuing lab work. What is the best way to compose some samples? What do people want to see? Should I find some interesting scientific articles and summarize/re-write for a general audience? Should I do multimedia projects? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for this encouraging post. Your experience is very similar to mine, and scientific editing is something I’ve considered before finishing my phd.
    Hopefully sooner rather than later I’ll get a job in this field.

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