Lab Rats

Crossing over to the Dark Side

On the transition from scientist to editor

Charvy Narain 1 May 2006

From pipette to pen: a big leap for some

Who knew that simultaneously worrying about grant money, class schedules and failed experiments was actually a transferable skill?

With the end of my doctorate in sight, I wrote up all of my results into one completely brilliant, stellar paper. I sent it off to a top-notch journal, feared and revered for its terrifying rejection rate (80% – and that’s before even being subjected to peer review), entirely convinced that the revolutionary implications would be perfectly clear to whoever read it – even if they were just editors, not real scientists like me. And it came back within a week, another victim of that terrifying rejection rate. Without being reviewed.

Every scientist has faced this scenario, and wondered about the mysterious person who makes these make-or-break decisions. The Editor. A person with unlimited power who, like a Roman emperor, gives you the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, thus deciding whether you are on your way to that coveted fellowship – or are instead left behind as an eternal post-doc. Who are these people, anyway?

Well, currently one of these people is me. About a year back, I made the decision to cross over to the Dark Side and got a job as an editor for the journal Nature Neuroscience. It turns out that editors are actually quite nice people after all, and the job demands a lot of the same skills that I used as a scientist in the lab.

My doctorate at Oxford involved using a functional brain imaging to look at how people understand language. Practically speaking, this mostly involved chucking people into an MRI scanner and playing strange sounds at them, followed by weeks of analysis (which invariably pointed toward a need to completely redesign the experiment). Though I experienced the occasional frustrations familiar to any scientist (especially when my subjects fell asleep inside the scanner), I thoroughly enjoyed the work that I did for four years. However, I did suffer from the niggling suspicion that I knew more and more about less and less: at the end of my doctorate I knew a hell of a lot about two inches of brain tissue above your left ear, but much less than I would have liked to about the rest of the brain.

This is a dilemma that every working scientist faces: there is so much to keep up with in your own speciality that reading anything outside it becomes almost impossible, and scientists can often end up in their own little ghettoes (or ivory towers if you prefer). Occasionally, at large conferences, I would meet someone who worked on ‘the other side of the brain’, and we would regard each other with mutual astonishment (and incomprehension) at the exoticism of the other’s activities. And this while, technically, all of us worked in the same field: neuroscience, which just so happens to cover everything from molecular biology to brain imaging.

I found that the parts of my doctoral years that I enjoyed the most often involved stepping outside my own little area: teaching, when I never knew what serpentine paths a discussion with my bright young students would take me down; a short stint as a researcher for a BBC science documentary, when I learnt more than I ever wanted to know about the sex lives of prairie voles; and even lab literature meetings, when people would bring in and dissect a paper which had caught their eye.

And so it was around this time that I noticed a job ad for an editor position at Nature Neuroscience, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now I spend most of my time reading about other people’s work, but some things remain the same: my work is still about finding interesting answers to important questions; only this way I get to look at a much wider variety of answers. I also write press releases and short pieces on articles we publish, and it’s great to be involved in a paper from the beginning, from when it comes in, through the complete peer-review process, and finally publication. I now approach scientific conferences with (slightly) less incomprehension, and know much more about the brain beyond those two inches that obsessed me earlier.

Being an editor has also made me realize that working in the lab teaches you a lot of skills besides how to be a scientist: the ability to juggle several projects at once (who knew that simultaneously worrying about grant money, class schedules and failed experiments was actually a transferable skill?); the ability to work independently (like when it’s 10 pm and you’re the only one working in the lab, still trying to figure out exactly why the damn experiment won’t work); and perhaps most importantly, the ability to think through problems.

I do occasionally miss actually doing experiments, but then I remember my subjects falling asleep in the scanner, and realize I’m much better with the theory. And best of all, the other side of the brain isn’t any more a faraway exotic location that I know nothing about.

Other articles by Charvy Narain