Combining Science, Technology and the Arts: A Career for the Well-rounded or the Confused


If you are like me, you entered university with only a vague idea of what you wanted to do with your degree when you graduated. If you are even more like me, you chose to pursue a degree in science-not because it was your passion, but because you had been convinced by your mentors, or by the media, that the "real jobs" existed only in the science, math, and technology sectors of society. Those who pursued nonscience or applied science degrees ("artsies," as my mechanical engineering father and brother called them) were not up to the challenge to succeed in the real world of numbers and rigorous scientific experimentation.

While this prevailing opinion of nonscience graduates is rarely valid, there is an undeniable advantage to having a science degree. It is a "get-your-foot-in-the-door" ticket to many different career paths. Luckily for me, I discovered early on that my science degree did not necessitate a path of pure research. This epiphany came to me during my short stint as a scientist with Environment Canada in its endangered species division.

During that employment, I began to long for greater creative freedom and more human interaction. I found myself envying the desktop publishers and Web designers we contracted to design our publications and Web sites. I secretly coveted the job of a communications officer who sat in the cubicle next to me and spent her days on the phone organizing new public education projects. How fulfilling it would be to create and communicate! How satisfying it would be to have a product with your name on it at the end of the day!

Shortly after I reached this new state of self-awareness, I took a position as acting managing editor with an online, peer-reviewed scientific journal called Conservation Ecology . At first, I was not fully cognizant of what I was getting into, but I quickly learned that a managing editor is responsible for the smooth and timely publication of each journal issue. I knew the peer review process only from the vantage point of a graduate student desperately trying to get her work published before she completely forgot exactly what it was that she studied.

Soon, I was immersed in the psychology and ethics of peer review from the perspective of the journal. Motivating busy scientists to offer the free service of reviewing and editing manuscripts is a challenging task and requires diplomacy, persistence, and confidence. The production of timely publications demands the tight management of each and every link along the publication chain, from manuscript submission to article publication.

People management fed my hunger for human interaction. Although much of my interaction is in the form of nagging e-mail messages and phone calls to late reviewers and copy editors, most of my communications have been surprisingly positive. Whether that is because most scientific researchers are extremely nice and forgiving people, or the more likely possibility that contributing authors confuse my job as managing editor with that of the editor-in-chief (who has the power to decide what gets published and what does not), I am not entirely sure.

In any event, managing the activities of paid copy editors, and a large network of volunteer editors and reviewers, has helped me improve my communication and organization skills. I have learned that procrastination is not an option in the publishing world. One ignored task, if left long enough, can lead to a series of small disasters that all culminate into a tidal wave of upset authors, frustrated reviewers, and a very sheepish managing editor.

The endless possibilities of online publication also quenched my thirst for creativity. My first couple of months as acting managing editor were focused on learning HTML, Java Script, and Unix as fast as possible, so that I could simply maintain the journal at its most basic, functioning level. Once I had a handle on the hypertext language, the appeal of online publishing mushroomed as I began to discover the underutilized potential of the electronic medium to improve scientific communication and encourage dialogue.

These opportunities ranged from improving the "look and feel" of the journal to providing opportunities for real-time scientific discussions on published articles and strengthening the connections between scientific research and applied work. Web design and desktop publishing skills are some of the obvious tools required to achieve these goals. Others include strong creative-thinking skills to push the envelope with new ideas, and the perseverance to follow through on those ideas.

For me, scientific publishing is a perfect combination of science, technology, and art. It has allowed me to continue working in the scientific field, but in a more communicative and creative capacity. The gap between my ambition to work in a well-respected field and my desire to create has finally been closed. I am an "artsy" and proud of it!

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