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Meet Dr. Matteo Rini: Deputy Editor for American Physical Society

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. Matteo Rini, Deputy Editor at the American Physical Society (APS), and former Policy Officer at the European Commission, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of a career as a science editor, the importance of Science Communication, and his involvement in science policies activities.

Dr. Rini holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Pavia and a Ph.D. in physics from the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Thanks to Haripriya Kannan for the help in drawing up the questions and editing the article.

Dr. Matteo Rini, Deputy Editor for American Physical Society.

Tell us about your professional journey so far.

I started out as an academic researcher, working in Italy, Germany, and the US, mostly on the application of lasers to study fast processes in materials and liquids. After my Ph.D. and ~5 years as a postdoc and researcher at Berkeley, I decided to work on a problem that I felt very urgent: communicating science to society and to policymakers. First, I worked in politics with the European Commission, focusing on energy and climate change. Then, my passion for research brought me back to a more scientific setting — now I am a writer and editor for the American Physical Society, in particular for the online magazine I am also keen on teaching and give tens of seminars around the world and regular classes at NYU.

Dr. Rini on one of his teachings on writing to Palestine students.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

No two days are alike! I spend time reading and looking for the most exciting science. And depending on the current articles, I interview scientists, visit labs, prepare visuals, and work with other writers and journalists. There is a lot of exploration and information gathering, and some calmer hours where I focus on writing.

Dr. Rini teaching writing and SciComm in China.

What drove you to start as a science editor? What were the key factors that drove your career pivot?

I think the main factor is that I knew I’d like it. I’d like to mention that I am not a traditional editor in my current role at APS, who accepts submissions and sends out papers for review. I am mostly involved in communicating research, and the “editing” is a support to scientists who want to write more accessibly. What drew me to this career is my curiosity for many topics—beyond my field—and my passion for writing. I also think that it is an important duty—communicating science, which plays a key role in making science matter in our society.

How was the process of becoming an editor? What would the journals or organizations look for in an ideal application?

There aren’t many jobs of this type, so the key thing is to find a way to start. I applied for a number of positions and received several offers and finally chose the APS. What do they look for? 1. A broad mindset, allowing you to explore many fields of science. 2. Great communication skills. 3. Some relevant experience. It doesn’t have to be much. Certainly, it helps to have been a reviewer. There are also a number of journals, like PLOS, that allow a scientist to act as an academic editor. I’d definitely recommend that if you are interested in exploring this career.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges in approaching and pursuing a career SciComm and as a science editor?

There aren’t many positions available, so entering the field is a challenge. But once in, the experience one acquires opens up many paths for further development.

Dr. Rini presenting a writing seminar at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

And the aspects you find more rewarding and entertaining?

Being in touch with some of the smartest people on this planet and learning about the frontiers of knowledge. But ultimately, writing compelling prose is really what matters to me most.

You have an impressive experience in multiple fields as a writer, editor, press-officer. Tell us some episodes that hold a special place in your career’s memory.

In research, I still remember very vividly when my first Science article was published. It was very rewarding to see all that effort in the lab being rewarded—until then, I hadn’t really believed that what I did was impactful. As an editor, I remember getting in touch with Stephen Hawking. It was unbelievable to be in touch with him directly. Also, I remember the day that I first saw a paper - several weeks before it was made public - on the discovery of gravitational waves. I hadn’t expected that that would occur in my lifetime, and it was amazing to help in communicating the result.

Your career is enriched by your interest and involvement in science policy activities. How does your experience in the field relate to your work as an editor? Do you feel that your editorial and writer role can help you in your quest to support the role of science in politics?

I think the two fields have one important thing in common: communication. As scientists, we can’t live in an ivory tower and we have to motivate why what we do is important, beautiful and useful. So, the two paths are related, but the fields are very different. Politics is a very hierarchical environment, and often not a meritocratic one. Academia is much freer, although sometimes it feels less useful. There are beautiful sides to both, but academic freedom is incomparable.

Dr. Rini presented “Memory Bites – Science and Artwork”, an attempt to communicate science at LaGuardia Performing Art Center, New York City.

What would you like to tell the Ph.D. students who want to pursue a career as a science editor? What are the steps that need to be taken to increase their chances of being an editor?

I’d say, first of all, become a reviewer if possible. Second, try to explore options for getting some experience - journals like PLOS may offer that. Finally, keep your eyes open and try to establish connections with people working in different publications.

If you could go back in time, what advice will you give to your younger self?

Just follow your instinct and passions, and don’t let other factors - ambition, money, sense of importance - get in the way of that

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