Career Transition Profile - Jonathan Wood

Jonathan Wood

Last week, Materials Today editor Jonathan Wood attended "the conference of the decade for me," as he described it. "We held the deadline of Materials Today for a day so that I could write an editorial piece after the first day of the conference," he says. After interviewing two Nobel laureates during the morning break, Wood wrote the piece during the few quiet moments he managed to find during the course of the day and filed the article that evening.

It sounds like a high-pressure day, but that suits Wood just fine, because work as a science editor agrees with him. This is a kind of pressure he can live with because he sees the fruits of his effort. "You know you are producing a publication that is timely. When you get the printed publication back, you know it has been all worthwhile. "Wood's new work suits him in another way, too. When he was a scientist, his broadening interests often threatened to pop the buttons on the usual disciplinary constraints.Wood earned an undergraduate degree in physics, then a Ph.D. in biology. Throughout his education, he found himself studying areas of science well outside his narrow field. Now that he's an editor, he's free to dabble, to play the field, as long as in the end he manages to spot a good story and tell it well.

"I never thought of giving up."

After finishing his undergraduate degree in natural sciences--specialising in physics--at the University of Cambridge, Wood recalls, "I needed a change." "By the end of the course, I realised that a lot of people at Cambridge could do physics better than me." But then those broader interests kicked in: An interest in cell biology--aroused by a module he took during his natural sciences degree--inspired his next career step. "It was an eye-opener how different mechanisms in the cell worked."

He decided to put his physics background to use by studying biology. He applied for a Ph.D. in structural biology working with Nicola Stonehouse at the University of Leeds. It was, Wood says, "a great lab." Stonehouse had just been appointed as a research fellow, which meant she was in the lab a lot. "I got a lot of support," Wood says. Compared to many science trainees, it was plain sailing: "I never went too long without a result." In stark contrast with the great majority of science trainees, Wood says, "I never thought of giving up."

Switching from physics to biology was not without its challenges. The most difficult aspect, says Wood, was that he "had to learn a whole new language"--the language of biology, and molecular biology in particular. But the effort involved actually gave Wood a new inspiration and, indeed, a new lease on life. "It proved to be a brilliant step," he says. "I found it invigorating, exciting, and uplifting." He loved the experimental work of a "wet molecular biology lab," which he says is a lot more “hands-on” than what he had encountered in physics.

But while he was in Stonehouse's group, he also had interests outside the lab. "I enjoyed the day-to-day stuff," he says, "but I also thought I had other talents that I wasn't using in the lab." So he spent part of his time teaching undergraduate practical classes, giving talks to a range of audiences, and writing articles for Science's Next Wave. These extracurricular activities gave him the chance to discover his interests and, importantly, "allowed me to show that I was capable to doing them." One theme that emerged was communicating science to a broad audience.

Stonehouse says that Wood is an excellent scientist and experimentalist "who was very green-fingered in the lab," which, for the nonbiologists out there, is a good thing. But "it was quite clear that he got more of a kick explaining and communicating his science to other people compared to his own bench successes," Stonehouse says.

When he finished his Ph.D. in 2002, Wood thought about staying in research, but he decided to seek work beyond the bench. He applied for positions in science communication, science policy, and medical writing. He was interviewed--and selected--for the position of assistant editor for the journal Materials Today, which had just been launched. The magazine covers research in materials science and nanotechnology. Wood's duties include writing and editing research and policy news for the magazine's readers, as well as commissioning review articles.

Need to spot a good story

So what is the key to his new role? "We need to provide readers with something intelligent, new, original," he says. Science editors, he says, need to be able "to spot a good story and find the right way of getting it across."

"A good science editor needs to have a knowledge of their subject and an enthusiasm for communicating that subject to a broad audience," adds Cordelia Sealy, Wood's manager at Materials Today. What's more, Sealy says, "they need to have a vision for the publication itself--its raison d'être, its audience, its scope and content, and even its overall look and feel." Spotting trends is essential; once they've been spotted, the next step, says Wood, is "deciding what questions to ask and who to ask them of. Recognising what you want to concentrate on and knowing what to drop." Planning, says Sealy, is key: An editor has to "juggle the demands of the current issue, what is coming up in the next issue, and what requires attention on future issues."

Without his scientific training, Wood says, he wouldn't be able to do his job. "Having done research, I know how the research world works, and I know how to judge quality," he says. Wood works hard to get out into the scientific community--as he did at the conference last week--in order "to find and maintain links." His editorial work--and the broad, interdisciplinary nature of materials science--allows him to indulge in a wider range of scientific specialities. Having spent several years now away from the bench, Wood says, "I have a broader perspective; I'm reading more widely."

That breadth is a great advantage in working for Materials Today, particularly in dealing with nanotechnology research. "The biggest problem between disciplines is language, technical language; that's the biggest boundary." Wood works to overcome those communication boundaries by pitching the science directly to particular audiences. This audience does vary; his ongoing audience is the readers of Materials Today, but he does other work, too. Wood recently explained the strength of spider silk to a general public audience--an effort that made him this year's winner of the FameLab science communication competition.

Back in the office--or even out of the office, at conferences--working as an editor requires discipline and excellent time-management skills. One aspect of the job is learning to live--and sleep--with deadlines. Wood has an ambivalent relationship with his deadlines. On one side, he says, "deadlines are great" in that they focus your energy and enforce outstanding time-management skills--which, in his case, have progressed from "zero to very good" since his Ph.D. days. But deadlines, notes Wood, can also be stressful. It’s important to be able to prioritise because "everything seems urgent." "There's always another press release or journal table of contents to read that you don't get to," he says.

Wood has no regrets about making his career transition away from the bench. Sealy, his boss, thinks he's chosen the right profession. Wood, says Sealy, "has enormous passion for science that comes through in every aspect of his work. He can explain complex ideas in a way that is not only clear and interesting, but also enables his audience, whether readers of Materials Today or his colleagues in the office, to understand their importance."

Anne Forde is the European Editor for North and East Europe.

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