Clare: Elizabeth, you have had an exciting career journey, from lab-based research to founding a popular science publication that's been in print (and online) for more than a decade now. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Elizabeth: I’ve been editor-in-chief now at COSMOS magazine for three years. Until this year I was pretty intimately involved with both producing the online [content] and the magazine but now I just focus on the magazine.
I think of the cycle of the magazine as a bit like a pregnancy and I divide it up into three trimesters. In the first trimester I pick the stories together with my other editors. We look for a balance of stories across the sciences and also think about what the cover story could be and what cover [image] could go with it. I’ll sit down with the art director and we’ll start conceptualising what sort of artwork will go with each of the four features. That’s part of the character of COSMOS, to make the science very graphic and use wonderful images.
The second trimester usually sees me beavering away at the editing, which generally involves quite a bit of to-and-fro with the writers. Third trimester I read the first proofs. I make changes and sharpen things up. I see if I’m happy with the pictures and I put on the captions. (Captions have to be like little Tweets. They have to stand on their own.) Things can get pretty tense in the third trimester because we’re really trying to meet the deadline – often we are behind the deadline – and I lose sleep but in the end we come through!
My immediate staff is relatively small: the art director, the news editor, the deputy news editor, but it is great fun working with them. We’ve also got some wonderful regular contributors who I enjoy immensely.
Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Elizabeth: As it happens, one of our regular feature writers is writing a story for us on cancer immunotherapy. We just had a very good to-and-fro this morning, sharpening the ideas and shaping her story. It’s not an easy process working with me as an editor: I’m a nice person but I’m a tough editor. My ten years of being a scientist has ingrained me with a determination to research things to the nth degree. I also want to tell a story and nothing will twist my guts more than somebody that I meet who hasn’t understood something I’ve written or that they’ve read in COSMOS magazine. I really want people to understand and enjoy what they read in COSMOS, and to be excited and enthralled by it.
Clare: Before this, you were a researcher at the University of Melbourne and a postdoc at the University of California. What was your area of research and are there any stand out highlights from your career as a researcher?
Elizabeth: I did my PhD in the field of bone endocrinology. My thesis was a study of the vitamin D receptor; it was fairly dull but it exposed me to a lot of interesting ideas about how hormones work. That was what most fascinated me: that hormones were signals that were turning genes on and off. My PhD thesis was a springboard to go and do research overseas. [I was] all ready to go to a lab in Texas … and then I met my future husband: Alan. We very quickly decided we were made for each other. Alan wanted to go to America too but he didn’t think Texas would be the right place for [his company]. He asked me if I could get a postdoc on either the east or the west coast, and that’s how we ended up in San Francisco.
I eventually ended up in a lab that was looking at the development of fruit flies. The genes we were identifying at that time were called homeobox genes and they were the genes that lay out a pattern on the mush of an egg, just like a tailor will take a formless piece of cloth and lay down the pattern so they know where to cut and stitch. This is the problem that Aristotle first defined: you take a chicken egg and you crack it open and it’s a mush; three weeks later there’s a chicken. Where did that information come from to specify the development of that chicken? That was the problem called pattern formation and that was the problem we were cracking in fruit fly embryos. It was an extraordinary time to be involved in that research. It was solving a problem that had been left there by Aristotle 2000 years ago so when you ask, was there a highlight – yeah! Finding these homeobox genes in fruit flies was like a code breaker for all of development.
I do feel very formed by [my research career]. It was a long time ago but it was so fascinating and so profound.
Clare: What interested you in a role outside of a traditional academic career?
Elizabeth: You could have asked me at eight years old, what I was going to be, and I could tell you: I was going to be a scientist. I’ve been born with this incredible thirst for scientific knowledge. However, once I got into the lab I realised how stressful life as a researcher would be – publish or perish – and that part of [a research career] I was not temperamentally suited to.
Also, as a research scientist you are like a carrot. You are narrow and deep whereas now [as a writer and editor] I’m a plant sprawling across everything. It’s quite exhilarating – travelling the universe this way. And it’s almost a karmic thing: [popular science writing] is what excited and inspired me growing up, and that’s what I want to give back. At COSMOS we’re writing about revelations from the frontier and that’s something to be shared.
Clare: How did you make the move from the lab to science journalism?
Elizabeth: At the end of my time in San Francisco I had another postdoc lined up in Melbourne. I also had an eight-month-old baby boy. When I came back I had a few months free before I took up the position and I found I was incredibly ambivalent about going back to research. I think if it had been in my own area of fruit fly development where I had started to develop some expertise, I probably would have just kept going. But the new postdoc was in a different system – blood cell development – and I knew it would take me about at least a year until I knew what I was doing technically and could also think of creative questions to ask. I know what sort of stress level builds up in that phase and I thought, “It’s not just me now. It’s a baby as well. How am I going to do that again?” I kept going back and forth, back and forth over those months and I couldn’t make a decision. Then I realised, ambivalence is already a recipe for disaster. You’ve got to go into a postdoc position with all guns firing so I didn’t go back to research. I had always loved writing so I thought I would try my hand at it.
Clare: Did you dabble in freelance writing during those months after you returned to Melbourne?
Elizabeth: Yes. Once I decided that I was not going back to research I looked around for a journalism course and I saw a two-week summer school – it was an excellent course. At the time Graeme O’Neill was also the science editor for The Age. He had a regular one-page section called Future Age so I wrote for that and [my writing] got better and better.
Clare: It is very daunting to make a career change or career sidestep. Do you have any advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in science journalism, particularly those trained as a scientist?
Elizabeth: Definitely do a course in journalism. You also have to start writing anywhere you can. If you’re a scientist working at an institute there’s probably a blog you can start blogging on. So in that sense the barrier to entry to journalism is lower because there were no blogs when I was starting out. I had to try to get into a newspaper like The Age, but I also wrote newsletters. You’ve got to start building a portfolio. You’ve got to have something you can show someone. At COSMOS we certainly consider accepting stories in our daily news from people who are trying to build that portfolio and we take interns as well.
Secondly, start reading great stuff, absorb, drink it in. I love the writing in MIT Review or Wired. That’s the voice I try to emulate at COSMOS. You’ve got to learn that kind of a voice from other people’s writing.
And here’s the key: hold your audience. I learnt that from Alan Alda, who I met at the World Science Festival in Brisbane in March this year. Alan Alda is a consummate actor, stand-up comic and raconteur. He knows how to hold his audience. It’s a crucial skill. You need to figure out how much information you’re going to give people before you choke them and their eyes glaze over. What’s the point in that! The best advice is to find a great story to tell and think of the story all the time. A great narrative will keep your reader hanging on to hear what’s coming next. They will put in that intellectual energy to stay with it if you’ve got a great story to tell them.
Clare: What is the most important skill or attribute from your lab-based training that you call upon in your new career?
Elizabeth: Rigour. That determination to challenge things, to think very critically. Scientists live in a culture where they are constantly being torn to pieces, I don’t think I ever forget that, so whenever I’m writing they are the monkeys that are still on my back – and that’s a good thing. So the more people you can discuss your ideas with when you’re writing a story, the better you’ll be able to see if you can get your idea across or not, and if you can do it in an entertaining and engaging way. I always workshop sketches with people. I often have to defend whatever I’m writing against my husband Alan.
Clare: At Franklin Women, we aim to connect women working in diverse health and medical research careers to promote new professional relationships and opportunities. Who have you met over the course of your career who has been influential in you getting to where you are today?
Elizabeth: Graeme O’Neill. He remains the most generous-hearted mentor I have ever had in journalism, possibly in any profession. I owe him a lot. I sent him a proposition for a story for The Age about fruit flies and he said: go for it. I sent him back 5000 words and he left me a message saying Elizabeth Tolstoy, which sounded nice…and then I realised he meant the length! He invited me round to his place and we sat side-by-side on two computers and he showed me how to write journalistically. Nobody has ever done that for me before or since.
Clare: Amongst it all, you've authored two books (Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science, 2005, and The Genome Generation, 2012). Is writing your own book anything like writing your PhD thesis?
Elizabeth: Yes, absolutely. They were the length of PhD theses and I learnt enormous amounts from each book. The first one took me nearly three years. The second took almost five. It is difficult writing a book: sometimes you feel lost, you don’t know where you’re going, which is like a thesis too, and it seems like trying to climb Mt Everest. You begin with your table of contents and it’s daunting. But you put one foot after the other and you get there!
The great part is the freedom to go down every little rabbit hole – I love to do that. I end up getting lost and buried. I have a very strong impulse to go down every little rabbit hole and I’m not allowed to do that now when I’m editing stories for COSMOS! But in writing books I do allow myself to do that and I think the books are so much better for it.