Scientist of the month: Katharine Wrighton

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an editor at a high impact journal? We asked Katharine Wrighton, Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, about her journey from laboratory to editorial office. 

Brief biography

Katharine Wrighton, PhD.

Katharine Wrighton completed her PhD at King's College London, UK, researching the p53 tumor suppressor protein. She then moved to Houston, Texas, USA, where she was a postdoctoral researcher at Baylor College of Medicine for about five years (during two of these years she was an American Heart Association Postdoctoral Research Fellow). Her postdoctoral research focused on the regulation of TGFβ-SMAD signaling by post-translational modifications, including (de)phosphorylation, sumoylation and ubiquitylation.

Katharine joined Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology (NRMCB) as an Associate Editor in 2009, becoming Senior Editor in 2010 and Chief Editor in 2013.

Q. What made you go into editing?

I'd always been interested in working on a scientific journal, even before I did my PhD, as I believe that journals aid scientific progress by disseminating critical information across research communities, and encouraging open discourse. As I embarked on the road to secure an independent research position I felt that I was being invited for interviews not because my research plan was the most exciting or that I was passionate about carrying it out, but because I was skilled at writing about the science and my research ideas.

I knew that I wanted to stay close to the science, as I still loved it, but I wanted to try another role, so, I thought about the editorial route again. I enjoyed writing and editing and I was keen to be in a role where I could 'finish' something in less time that it takes to publish a primary paper as a scientist; becoming an editor seemed like the perfect fit for me and I haven't looked back.

Q. What's your typical day like?

I usually open my computer to around 30 emails, which include messages from authors or referees, queries from the team, notices about wider reaching events within Nature Publishing Group, or table of contents (ToCs) from other journals (it's very important for editors to keep on top of the current literature so that they can be well versed in the newest advancements in the field). I spend an hour or two reading through these emails and responding to the timely ones.

Next, I set about the major task I've planned for that day, whether it's editing a manuscript, proofreading a laid out article prior to publication or writing a short piece to highlight a recently published research paper. There are also several meetings to attend, including the NRMCB weekly meeting where editors discuss the status of their manuscripts and we plan for future issues. We also have weekly commissioning meetings where we discuss conferences that we have attended and thrash out ideas for possible new articles.

It is very different from the laboratory where you often have downtime between steps in a protocol - every minute of the day as an editor is filled with reading manuscripts, commissioning and researching new ideas, following up with authors, or collaborating with other team members on various projects. And you still end up going home wishing you could have done more! I enjoy the pace and the challenging topics as it is never boring and you get to 'complete' something every month when you send the issue to press.

Q. What do you think makes a good review?

A good review will add to the conversation and understanding of a field and be a useful aid to the research community. It provides valuable background information for graduate students starting in a field or more senior scientists that find their research taking them into a new scientific area. It should also present some new information or analysis (maybe by discussing the controversies or disagreements in the field) for experts in the field, perhaps prompting them to think about their research in a new way.

It should have a strong rationale and structure so that readers know what to expect from the review early on. It should evaluate the facts instead of just listening to them. Strong figures and tables are also invaluable in reaching a wide audience and can serve as useful summaries of the article content at a later date. Finally, it should be current - covering recently published primary papers - so that it is a valued addition to the literature.

Q. What's the best bit about your job?

There are many highlights to being an editor. It's great to still be involved in science - whether it's through browsing the literature, editing reviews, writing highlights or attending four or five conferences each year - while not worrying about running experiments or writing grants.

It's also a privilege to be able to interact with amazing scientists every day - this aspect of the job never fails to excite me. Finally, I love working with the other five editors on the NRMCB team, discussing scientific progress and bringing the journal to life each month.

Q. Is there anything a PhD student or post-doc could do to improve their chance of getting a job in editing?

It's important to read widely - and not just focus on the literature directly related to your research project. Moving from the laboratory to the editorial office involves a transition from having a deep knowledge about a specific area to having a broad knowledge of many fields of interest.

It would also be good to take advantage of any writing opportunities that come your way, such as writing grants and reviews and preparing presentations. I encourage students and post-docs to ask their supervisor if they can 'shadow them' in refereeing manuscripts (to fine-tune critical thinking).

Also consider offering to edit colleagues' manuscripts to get some practice and see how you like it. Lastly, although most editors have done postdoctoral research, some do make it to the editorial office straight from their PhD.

Q. If you hadn't gone into editing what would you be doing now?

I was interviewing for faculty appointments around the time that I was applying for editorial positions, so I might have pursued setting up my own laboratory. My PhD was in p53 biology and during my postdoctoral research I identified phosphatases for SMAD proteins. So, my plan was to combine my PhD and postdoctoral research, to some extent, and try to identify phosphatases for the multiple phosphorylation sites on p53, and determine how they regulate p53 function.

Alternatively, I had my eye out for openings in grant management, so I might have ended up working for one of the research funding agencies.

Nature editors are independent, and do not represent or endorse products or services. These responses are the views of Katharine Wrighton, and not those of Nature Publishing Group.

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