Magdalena Skipper is the first female Editor-in-Chief of Nature. We talked to her about her career, her thoughts on open science and the way the current pandemic is changing attitudes to opening up research, as well as representation of women in science and engineering.
Could you tell us a bit about your career path?
I started my career as a laboratory-based geneticist. After a BSc in genetics from the University of Nottingham I started out on a classic academic career:a PhD in developmental genetics at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, followed by a postdoc at what was then Imperial Cancer Research Fund, now Cancer Research UK.
But I then swapped the narrow focus of the early career in research for the broader picture one can have as a scientific editor, and joined Nature Publishing Group as Associate Editor on Nature Reviews Genetics, which at the time was just 6 months old. I became its Chief Editor soon afterwards and only left it several years later to join Nature as its genetics and genomics editor. Later, wanting to broaden my horizons further I became Executive Editor for a portfolio of journals spanning a variety of disciplines, across life and physical sciences. I worked briefly as Director for Science Communications at a biomedical research institute in Seattle but in the end, I could not resist coming back to being an editor – I re-joined Springer Nature as Editor in Chief of Nature Communications and later took on the role of Editor in Chief of Nature and Chief Scientific Advisor for the Nature Research portfolio.
You have worked in academic publishing and also directly for research institutes. What have you learned from your varied career path?
Being an active researcher has been invaluable for learning how science is done. Knowing what questions are likely to give unambiguous and clear-cut answers and which are not is a widely applicable skill, not just in science or science publishing. Working in the lab taught me how to be self-driven, organized, how to plan and of course how to collect and analyze data. All of this became very useful as an editor, not least when it came to evaluating manuscripts or mediating between authors and reviewers. As an editor, I learnt to see the bigger picture, especially drawing upon examples from across different disciplines.
My current role, at the helm of Nature, which combines original research with science reporting, gives me a unique opportunity to see how science can be best communicated with a variety of audiences – the research community itself, the general public and policy makers and politicians, alike.
What advice would you give to researchers who are interested in stepping sideways into research-related careers?
My advice would be not to think of it as a sideways step. The notion of a linear career path can limit opportunities; I rather suggest keeping an open mind and thinking about one’s career as a landscape that is waiting to be explored; there can be many paths to follow and many paths to chart oneself – each of these options can result in an invaluable contribution to science.
As Editor-in-Chief at Nature, you see research ahead of many others. What excites you about the research scene at the moment?
I find questions like this very difficult to answer; there simply are so very many exciting developments in research these days… but perhaps I can choose just a couple: first, is the fact that research is increasingly interdisciplinary. This trend has been gathering momentum for some time, but never before have we seen quite as much merging and mixing - the natural sciences coming together with social sciences, with mathematics and economics… This is very exciting to see, and not just intellectually; if we are to tackle some of the most pressing issues that face our planet today we absolutely need to be looking beyond disciplinary boundaries. My second example of what excites me has to be science becoming more inclusive; simply stated - more inclusive science is better science.
Do you think that open science is important and if so, why?
Of course, I do! Science has always progressed by building upon discoveries of those who came before us; opening science and sharing data and methodology accelerates this process, not to mention that it makes science more reproducible and therefore more credible, and more efficient at self-correcting.
The current pandemic situation is speeding up and opening up science. Do you think that some of these changes will become the norm and if so, which ones?
I certainly hope so. Data sharing and preprint deposition which are much talked about in the context of research during the current pandemic are not new – preprints themselves have been used by the physics community for some two decades now and the concept of open data and data sharing is at least as old as that – naturally for me I am thinking back to the days of the Human Genome Project. But it is the degree to which they are adopted by the research and now also by the clinical community that has changed now. I do hope that the spirit of transparency and early sharing of information is here to stay.
You are the first female Editor-in-Chief of Nature. How do you use your role to inspire young women?
More young women study science and engineering today than ever before. It is something to be proud of and to celebrate. Yet we continue to see disproportionately fewer women in senior STEM-related roles. Many reasons have been proposed for this attrition; whatever they are, we all have a responsibility to support and promote women, and other underrepresented groups, so that they may fulfill their potential and their dreams.
One way to do this is by our own example, and I am one of a growing number: President of the US National Academy of Sciences, the newly appointed CEO of UKRI, Editor in Chief of Scientific American, President of EMBL, to name just a few. At Nature, we take great care to give female researchers an opportunity to use our pages as a platform to discuss not just the obstacles they have faced along the way but also to provide their perspective and to shine a light on their achievements.