When Evelyn Jabri decided to leave an unhappy faculty position to take a job in the publishing industry, she could not have foreseen the turns her career would take. Since making that decision she has launched and edited scientific journals for two publishers. She served for 6 years as the volunteer CEO of the RNA Society, increasing the organization’s membership by 60% and putting it on solid financial ground. She has worked far from her family and lived far from her work. And recently she ventured into new territory, starting a new job at a technology company that develops digital publishing platforms and technologies for scholarly publishers.
"Leaving academia was something I had to do, and I didn’t know until later how right it was." -- Evelyn Jabri
Jabri's transitions were fueled, she says, by an intense appetite for learning. She was able to weather the challenges of these transitions thanks to an overriding sense of pragmatic optimism. “I’ve always tended to do what I think is right at the time,” she says. “Leaving academia was something I had to do, and I didn’t know until later how right it was. At the time, I just knew I wanted to be in a different environment that was a better fit for me and that I wanted to have the opportunity to continue to expand my skills as much as possible. Steep learning curves ensure that I do not get bored. If I get bored, I become dysfunctional."
Jabri fell in love with science in high school while working in the lab of one of her father’s friends, a biologist studying the cell wall of a fungus to learn what made it impervious to anti-fungal agents. By the time she entered the University of Colorado, Boulder, she was hooked on science. She couldn’t make up her mind which field was more interesting, so she majored in chemistry and in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
Jabri’s attraction to lab-based science deepened during graduate school at Cornell University. She relished the challenge of picking apart complex processes that no one had figured out yet. She found the immediate rewards of bench work therapeutic.
She was considering postdoc options when she met Boulder chemist Thomas Cech, who was visiting Cornell. He invited her to join his lab as an x-ray crystallographer. She didn’t have to think hard about the offer. “Here was an opportunity to work for a Nobel laureate, in a big lab full of interesting people asking diverse questions, in Colorado, close to my family,” Jabri says. “That was a big draw.”
While working in Cech’s lab, Jabri met chemist Andrew Feig who was doing a postdoc in the neighboring lab. They entered the academic job market as a dual-career couple -- “something I don’t wish on anybody,” Jabri says. After searching for about 2 years, she and Feig were offered tenure-track positions in the chemistry department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Although the financial packages weren’t ideal, “it was the only place where we both had faculty positions that weren’t hundreds of miles apart,” Jabri says.
Their son, Sam, was born 3 months after the couple's arrival in Bloomington. They settled into parenthood, with all its scheduling complexities, at the same time they dove into their new jobs. Jabri studied RNA binding proteins involved in the early development of Drosophila. Feig studied the thermodynamics of how metals interact with RNA and proteins. They shared equipment to reduce costs and their labs became interdependent. “It was always a question of, ‘Who can buy the centrifuge? How many PCR machines do we really need?’ ” Jabri says.
Jabri enjoyed her lab work and the people in her lab but the fit with her department was poor. “We took these positions because there were two faculty positions together, and we set aside considerations of the atmosphere in the department,” Jabri says. “Many faculty members’ traditional attitudes were really not supportive of doing anything different, whether it was teaching differently -- Andrew and I were both incorporating more interactive exercises and bioinformatics technology in our courses -- or starting a family early in one’s career.”
Faculty in their department had a habit of treating them as one entity -- possibly a holdover from the not-so-distant days when professors' wives were their secretaries, Jabri says. “It made it hard to develop an independent identity.”
Then, after years of treating Jabri and Feig as one, the department decided to pull them apart, announcing plans to move her lab -- but not his -- to a different building to make room for an incoming full professor. The separation "would compromise both of our research programs,” she says.
A long-distance leap of faith
After brief flirtations with the pharmaceutical industry and policy work, she decided to seek a career in publishing. Hiring was brisk and it seemed likely that scientific publishers would value her scientific expertise. In 2003, she interviewed for a job as an assistant editor at the journal Nature Structural Biology (now Nature Structural and Molecular Biology) in New York City. She was offered the position.
It felt like a good match: The work interested her; the pay was good. Jabri and Feig liked the idea of exposing their son to new places and a broader cross-section of people than comparatively homogenous Bloomington could supply.
There was just one problem: Feig intended to go through tenure review in Indiana. “How was I going to live in New York while Andrew was still in Indiana?” Jabri wondered.
Feig and Jabri made a deliberate decision to view the situation as an opportunity -- especially an opportunity for Sam. For the next 2.5 years, Jabri spent 4 days a week in New York, returning to Indiana on Thursday nights for long weekends. Once a month, Feig traveled to New York with Sam, who as a preschooler became a “Silver Preferred” flyer. One thing that made the arrangement work was two “super nannies” -- Jabri's words -- who provided crucial support while she was away.
The separation wasn't easy. She missed the immediate reward of doing bench work, and of course she missed her family. But she found the problem-solving skills she had honed as an academic scientist just as useful in her new career. “It actually became this very pleasant experience, living in New York. And I immediately loved what I was doing.”
Habits of mind
Jabri’s penchant for complicated problems has served her well in publishing, says John Inglis, executive director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. Inglis met Jabri in 2005 when she was appointed CEO (on a volunteer basis) of the RNA Society; Cold Spring Harbor Press publishes the society’s journal, RNA. “If there is a lesson in Evelyn's career for young scientists, I think it's about having the confidence to know that scientific training isn't just about knowing the minutia of whatever it is that you study,” Inglis says. “You have developed habits of mind and a certain critical way of approaching life that can apply to many other types of activities if you are confident enough to confront those possibilities.”
Jabri impressed Inglis with her confidence and competence. “The members of the RNA Society include some extremely strong characters, people who are among the most eminent members of the molecular biology community. This is not an easy crowd,” Inglis says. “Evelyn took on a difficult task, but she did it with diplomacy -- but with no lack of courage when it came to speaking up, making her points about how the society should run, about financial decisions, and about the running of the journal.”
As Jabri advanced in her publishing career, she took on a curious new challenge: working to improve her interviewing skills for non-academic jobs. She set aside time each week to view webinars and take short courses on the topic. She accepted every opportunity to do phone interviews, even for jobs that didn't interest her. Although she did so mostly for the interviewing practice, she says, she acknowledges that she also felt an emotional pull toward home.
Action at a distance
In 2005, Jabri was offered a job at John Wiley & Sons in Hoboken, New Jersey. Telecommuting wasn't possible so she turned it down despite being offered a tempting financial package.
Six months later, she got a phone call from Brian Crawford, one of the people who had been recruiting her at Wiley. Crawford had moved to the American Chemical Society (ACS) to become vice president of publications, and invited Jabri to join him as an executive editor to launch a new journal, ACS Chemical Biology. Crawford proposed that if Jabri would commit to spending 3 months in Washington, D.C., launching the journal, she could work from home from then on.
That was all she needed to hear. She worked for ACS for about 6 years, eventually directing editorial development and supervising a team of 16 from her home in Michigan, where the family moved when Feig took a job at Wayne State University in 2006.
Working from home, Jabri learned, has downsides. For example, it's difficult to communicate well with co-workers. When you’re doing business by phone, it’s easy to miss important undercurrents. She took short courses on managing people from afar.
Despite these challenges, she got the work done. In fact, she got a little bored. The learning curve flattened. New challenges became harder to find.
Then, this year, she was offered a position as product strategist at Silverchair Information Systems, a small company based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She wasn't prepared to move to Virginia so she insisted on telecommuting. They insisted they didn't care. In the new job, Jabri helps the company’s clients -- mostly not-for-profit scientific societies -- migrate their publications to Silverchair’s electronic platform. She travels at least twice a month, sometimes to client sites and sometimes to the company’s Virginia offices.
Jabri relishes the challenge of expanding her knowledge about how publishers can exploit fast-developing digital technologies. Again, communication is key. “I’m used to the lingo in the publishing world, and I’m learning that platform developers speak a different language and have a different approach to solving problems,” she says. Now she needs to bridge those worlds. “I need to learn how the technology works both so I can explain it to my clients and so that in talking with developers, I can understand what can and cannot be implemented,” she says. She also helps clients develop new publishing strategies. “If I don’t understand the strength of the technologies, I’m never going to be able to suggest innovative products to my clients,” she says.
Inglis views Jabri’s decision to leave ACS for Silverchair as another example of her self-awareness and courage. “I applaud her imagination and her boldness in saying that [climbing the ladder at ACS] wasn't what most excited her and that she wanted to learn new skills. It's very easy to stay within one organization and allow yourself to be carried along on the conveyor belt.”
There’s no guarantee that this newest career transition will work out; there were no guarantees that her earlier ones would either. “In hindsight, her trajectory looks pretty prim, and she certainly made good decisions along the way,” Feig says. “But when she left that position in Indiana, I don’t think she envisioned where she would be today and how successful she would be at it. I think one has to go with one’s gut sometimes and trust that things will pan out.”
Siri Carpenter writes from Madison, Wisconsin.