Unscrambling the eggs: My life as a science and medical editor and writer

June 3, 2016

Dr. Janice Nigro, Filipodia Editor


I have always loved to travel, and when I am not traveling, I surround myself with people from somewhere else. I love the way they speak English (Who doesn’t love to hear Sophia Loren speak English?), and yes, we make “laugh” of each other as a French friend once said. I have to admit that I have an unfair advantage because most people around the world want to learn to speak my language -not the other way around – and they just do it.


I am not always so responsible as the designated native English speaker, however. Some of my closest friends will attest to that. So it is a bit ironic that I have become an editor for texts authored largely by scientists whose first language is not English. It is now my professional job to make sure that others use the English language correctly.


If anyone is surprised to find me in this position, it is me (I know this is incorrect grammar), as I have always been surrounded by gifted writers and speakers. The problem in graduate school is that no one really teaches us how to write. We figure it out, writing the methods and results as a series of events copied from our lab notebooks. But, is that the way a paper should be written? We suffer through it, until we finally find something we feel passionate about. Then, we write stories.


It never occurred to me that I was any good at this sort of thing until I worked overseas. Colleagues handed me their articles to check the English grammar, but unconsciously I began to rearrange paragraphs, like individual slides in PowerPoint, until the story came out.


Now after two years as an editing professional (and a lot of papers), I am more conscious of my reasons for working as an editor. Some are pretty straightforward. Editing an article is often like solving a serious brain twister, so I should be adding years of life to my brain. It’s a mobile/virtual job! Editing can be performed from anywhere (yes from that exotic island I like to refer to) as long as you have a computer and a way to link up to the Internet. And wherever I might be, I am helping someone achieve a goal.


I have also unexpectedly discovered that like travel, editing takes you on a kind of cultural world tour. The more significant studies might be conducted under similar conditions around the world, but it’s often the studies that don’t make the headlines that provide cultural insight into a country. It can be revealed as a preoccupation with a disease we never see in the USA, or as the sensitivity of surgeons in a developing country to quality of life issues that are specific to their target patient population. Science becomes even more compelling when you are aware of the different challenges we face in doing our work in our respective countries.


The more experience I gain at this work though, the less I know what kind of title to give myself. The word ‘editor’ hardly covers what it is that I do. Adding the adjective ‘science’ does not help; it simply suggests that I can speak in the language of science. What I do is more than editing. It’s more than writing even. It’s a mix of the two, with a high level of scientific education thrown in. At times, it feels as if my job is unscrambling the eggs.


There is also a philosophical side to editing that is difficult to ignore. And, what can we do about it? I see some of the mistakes that we make in publishing in the USA carried over into other countries for example. Numbers (such as impact factor and quantity of papers) and translational aspects of medical research seem to be priorities worldwide. These are not necessarily the principles that make science inspiring for future generations. It is perhaps understanding how Youyou Tu, a woman under Communism, came up with an idea that eventually won her the Nobel Prize. Really, how did she manage this? Or what drove Hamilton Smith to investigate something seemingly as inconsequential as bacteriophage genome editing? His curiosity gave birth to modern day molecular biology and also led him to a Nobel Prize.


So the work can be even more than unscrambling the eggs. I have insight into research strategies outside of the USA (and more generally Western culture) that I did not have before. Editing has become, for me, a different way to travel around the world — that is when I am not actually traveling around the world.