Meet Dr. Maria Maragkou: Senior Editor for Nature Materials
Nanotech NYC and the Nanotech Alliance sit down with professionals from different areas of the scientific and nanotechnology world, to explore topical subjects of interest for the Nanotech NYC community through the lens of an expert. Today we speak with Dr. Maria Maragkou, Senior Editor at Nature Materials, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of a career as a science editor, the transition outside of academic research from a Ph.D. degree, and some of the defining moments of her professional journey.
Dr. Maragkou earned an MEng in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Patras, Greece, and a Ph.D. in physics in 2010 from the University of Southampton, UK. She is currently based in the London office.
Thanks to Francesco Lavini for the help in drawing up the questions and editing the article.
Tell us about your professional journey so far.
I studied electrical and computer engineering in Greece and then moved to the UK to work on the physics of exciton-polaritons in semiconductor quantum wells as a spectroscopist for my Ph.D. I then worked on quantum optics with individual quantum dots as a postdoc - I spent two years in Universidad Autonoma de Madrid and two in the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. In 2014 I moved back to the UK to be a Locum Editor for Nature Photonics - it was a maternity cover position - and then in 2015, I moved to Nature Materials where I took over all the manuscripts related to photonics, plasmonics, phononics. And I am still there!
What does a normal working day look like for you?
My day begins with checking emails whilst drinking my morning coffee; a good day starts with an email saying “Yes, I agree to review this paper”. Then I have a never-ending to-do list, so I take a pick. A large part of our job is assessing manuscripts and deciding whether they fit the scope and standards of Nature Materials. As such, I always have new submissions waiting to be assessed or in need of reviewers. There are revised manuscripts responding to the issues raised by the reviewers, and authors requesting we reconsider a negative decision -either before or after peer-review. As you can see, manuscripts need attention at different moments during their time with us.
Apart from new research articles, we are also commissioning pieces like Reviews, Commentaries, News&Views meant to make our primary research content accessible to non-experts. As a journal, we are looking to represent all the materials community, from chemists to physicists, from biologists to engineers. I spend time looking at the literature and the latest developments, contacting potential authors and reviewers or editing the pieces. At the same time, since we are a monthly journal, we have strict deadlines from Production about submitting our final content, so we always have to respect those, when writing Editorials for example. There was also a time in the not-so-distant past (Ed. before the Covid-19 pandemic), that we were attending - or even organizing - conferences or giving seminars about the Nature family and scientific publishing in general. Or doing lab visits to talk to researchers directly. Being so close to the communities we are looking after is a very important and rewarding part of our job, which is now maybe evolving into something different because of the pandemic - we have to wait and see really.
So, there is no “normal” day, every day I do and learn something different!
What drove you to start as a science editor? What were the key factors that drove your decisions?
It was mostly curiosity I would say; publishing is such an important part of our training in academia and yet to me, it felt like a black box. I hadn’t interacted with any editors in person to get some insight or advice on science publishing, and as is still the case for many I believe, I didn’t really understand the criteria behind the editorial assessments. I admit I was starting to get a bit tired of life in the lab and I was looking for a break. My position at Nature Photonics was meant to be for 6 months so I thought it was a great opportunity to see what happens on the other side and then return to academia with all this inside information! I was for example positively impressed when I realized that our journals have no hidden agenda in terms of the topic selection. But I really enjoyed my time there and I was lucky to be able to find a permanent position in that same environment.
How was the process of becoming an editor? What advice would you give someone who wants to become an editor like yourself, for their job application?
The process is very straightforward. There is an opening for a position related to your expertise, asking for a CV, cover letter and an essay on a particular topic, usually a research area of your choice that you deem exciting - preferably not the area you work in. I think at the time I wrote about 2D materials.
Then, the candidates that are shortlisted receive a few manuscripts to assess at home within a week. The final step is the interview face to face. The first part is pretty much standard for any job: related to your career path, aspirations, interest in scientific publishing and the workings of the journal. The second part is a bit scarier, the in-situ assessment of a couple of manuscripts in a limited amount of time: should it go out to review or not? I remember I had enough time to just read the papers and maybe take some notes. The point is to test the reasoning and argumentation behind the decision, in real life, there are no time constraints in assessing a paper. We take as long as it takes to make an informed and justified decision.
A good editor is a science junkie, they love reading and writing about science in the broader sense, they love learning new things. It is important that this universal interest, beyond the narrow topic of our training as Ph.D. students or even postdocs is being reflected in the application.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges in approaching and pursuing a career as a science editor?
The transition from researcher to an editor at the beginning is rather brutal, we go from knowing a narrow topic relatively well to assessing manuscripts that cover a significantly broader scope. But assessing is a complex process, it includes understanding the paper, understanding the literature, and effectively acting as a proxy for the community. That is no easy feat in general, and it is even harder at the beginning of an editorial career. The learning curve is extremely steep, but luckily there is a team of skilled editors around to help and guide through this transition.
What I personally found difficult was navigating through the negativity that comes with the job. Given the selectivity of Nature Materials and Nature journals in general, editors are in most cases bearers of not good news: we sent out to review about 15% of what we receive and publish about half of those manuscripts after peer-review. That means that at any given moment there are many people that are unhappy with me, and often they let me know. It took me several years to not take such reactions personally. I still remember my first appeal email, a single but very offensive sentence from someone who clearly needed to let some steam out – I completely froze upon reading it! I completely understand however how sentimental authors feel regarding their work - I was one of them some years ago - and their need to fight for it, with us, with the reviewers. The system is organized in such a way that editors are meant to act as the buffer between the two parties, and sometimes it is not pleasant, like being a lawyer mitigating a bad divorce.
What are the aspects you find most rewarding and entertaining?
More experienced editors often describe our career path as going from talking in-depth about one thing to talking superficially about many. Indeed, we are exposed to excellent and interesting work from so many different fields, and it is very exciting navigating different communities and observing how similar or different they are. In fact, I very much enjoy being so close to so many smart researchers and beautiful science without all the difficult aspects of academic life. I also love the diversity and flexibility of our role, we can focus on research papers, we can do more outreach by organizing seminars and workshops, we can explore new topics and new fields by commissioning content for the journal. All this freedom in shaping the role and the journal in some way makes our job the complete opposite of routine.
My favorite activity is of course receiving reviewers’ comments on papers, I am always curious to see how the community feels about them. Receiving positive feedback in line with my initial assessment is very rewarding, almost like a pat on the shoulder, “good work Maria”!
What is something in your career journey that holds a special place in your memory?
That is a tough question. I have a lot of good memories from academia and publishing, and most importantly many good friends all over the world. I also vividly remember many collaborations on papers and editorial projects with other colleagues from the Nature journals.
A recent example would be co-organizing a session on Metamaterials and Grand challenges for the Metamaterials series conference in 2017. Among the many excellent invited speakers, Harry Atwater from Caltech talked about the materials challenges for an ultralight laser-driven spacecraft for interstellar travel (Breakthrough Starshot Initiative), which became the basis for a Perspective published the year after in Nature Materials. I don’t think the journal had ever covered this topic before, it was such a new direction for me as an editor! Tommaso Ghidini, head of the Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division of the European Space Agency (ESA) contributed another fantastic Commentary on the extreme properties that materials used for space missions need to possess and explained how one day we may able to build bases on the Moon for in situ manufacturing. This Space Focus issue is definitely one of my favorites.
I recently realized that companies are looking to work on the issues highlighted by Harry Atwater - in fact, I saw a job opening on this exact topic. And the Science Museum in London is covering the Starshot Initiative in their latest exhibition as well as the work that ESA is doing towards building labs and living spaces on the Moon. It really gives me great pleasure to feel and be part of something bigger, and to see action follow concepts and ideas that I helped showcase in the journal.
You are currently pursuing an Executive MBA degree. What drove you to enter such a program after obtaining your Ph.D., and how do you foresee this advancing your career goals?
I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in 2010 and I really enjoyed the process. It’s been 10 years since then and I am feeling nostalgic about it, so I thought I’d try something a little bit different this time! I’m kidding, it was just curiosity again. An MBA is not essential to my role as an editor or my interactions with the research community. I do however work in a more corporate environment now, and after some years, and especially after the merger of Springer with the Nature Publishing Group, I started realizing that there are many aspects about how to run a business that I don’t know or understand very well, but impact my job. I also wanted to see what happens outside the academic bubble, which surrounds me in a professional and personal context - my husband is an academic as well. And I can tell you, it is very different! The way of thinking, or working, of interacting, is very different from academia.
For most the hardest part of an MBA is essentially going back to school: taking notes, reading, writing assignments. But not for me, I never stopped doing that. What I mostly struggle with are group assignments. Although there is a lot of collaboration in academia, the mindset and way of thinking are more or less universal, so the process is quite smooth. I am also used to working a lot alone, either as a Ph.D. student or even now as an editor. Through the MBA, I am learning from scratch how to communicate with people from all sorts of professional backgrounds that speak a totally different language. It is very challenging and time-consuming, but also very interesting.
What general advice can you give Ph.D. students who would like to pursue a career as an editor? Is there anything they can do while still in graduate school?
Good communication skills are the backbone of what we do and in particular explaining complex ideas to non-experts. This is not always obvious as we mostly interact with people with similar or adjacent backgrounds. So, practice as much as you can, explain your work to your grandmother, explain an interesting paper to a friend with a non-scientific background, participate in outreach activities with children. Attend scientific outreach events to see what it is like to be on the receiving end of such explanations, try to understand which communication ways work and which do not.
And of course, read! Devote some time every week to read the new issue of Nature or Science or any other journal or magazine you like, they offer so much remarkable content beyond your remit. When reading a paper within your discipline, set aside those that are well-written, that manages to tell a beautiful and complete story – and follow the same format when writing your own. And especially if you are a non-native speaker, reading books in English - fiction, non-fiction, history, anything you like - is the best way to improve your vocabulary and editing skills in general.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
In life, it is important to have choices. I was lucky enough to have a relatively comfortable life in Greece and then live in various countries as an academic nomad. But every choice we make puts our life on a certain path, and the lives we could have had if another choice had prevailed are gone. So, make sure you choose as wisely as possible. Ask for advice, gather as much information as possible, take your time if you can and really think about your move. And I would also repeat the wise words of my mum and Baz Luhrmann – wear sunscreen!
Nature Materials: https://www.nature.com/nmat/
Editors: Frederick Pearsall and Francesco Lavini