Surfacing from academic immersion at the end of my PhD, I was sure that I wanted a break from the lab. I had spent 4 years studying the interactions between two proteins involved in the cell cycle and DNA replication and repair. Although my project was intensely interesting, I knew that I really wanted to see a bigger picture. I wanted to find out about cancer--not just as a word in the 'Background' section of grant proposals, but as a disease which could affect as many as one in three of us during our lifetimes--and how scientific research is being applied in the clinic.
I am not a particularly practical person and have always been happier in the library than the lab. As someone who has trouble working a washing machine, I consider it a personal achievement that I am able to use a confocal microscope, run a Western blot, and carry out a DNA replication assay!
I loved writing up my thesis and enjoyed helping friends (including some nonnative English speakers) with articles or talks they had written, so I began to think about scientific publishing and editing as a career. However, career advice in the institute where I worked tended to be directed toward getting that prestigious postdoc position in the States. I sifted through the jobs pages and Web sites of Nature, Science, and New Scientist feeling more than a little gloom.
The advert in Nature seemed too good to be true: "Wanted, a scientific editor for a book comprising an international assessment of cancer." Moreover, the job was based in France, not so far from where I had spent a fantastic year as an Erasmus exchange student. The main requirements were a PhD, preferably related to cancer; editorial experience; and good English. My professional editorial expertise being absolutely zero, in my application letter I focused on experience gained in writing a 200-page thesis. I still think of it as a minor miracle that I was taken on, without interview, on the basis of a CV and references.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) and coordinates and conducts epidemiological and laboratory research into the causes and mechanisms of cancer. The work of the agency is disseminated through meetings, courses, and several publication series-- Monographs, Handbooks, Scientific Publications and Technical Reports. But this book was a new venture.
I imagine that my working day is less stressful, more flexible, and probably requires greater self-motivation than working in a commercial publishing company. For the first year I worked in a team of just two: the Australia-based editor, and me. Most of the manuscripts were solicited by the editor, mainly from within IARC, but also from experts around the world. I assisted in tracking down appropriate authors for some chapters. As manuscripts came in it was my job to review them and note any possible changes or additions before passing them onto the editor for his comments. I was also asked to undertake numerous varied tasks such as writing short overviews, for example, '1000 words about kidney cancer', looking for figures illustrating advances in modern surgical oncology, and finding photographs of a mammogram being performed.
Now, as we approach the final stages and layout starts, we have been joined by a layout specialist, who redraws the tables and diagrams in the determined style and arranges the text and images on the page. We also have a part-time secretary to help with the mountain of copyright requests, which must be completed before publication can take place. I find myself more concerned with aspects such as checking that the same symbols are used consistently throughout the text, or putting arrows on photos of clinical scans to show the nonspecialist which white blob is actually the tumour.
I have certainly learned a lot, scientifically as well as about book production, over the last 2 years, and it is a little surprising how frequently I am asked, "are you sorry to have left science?" My PhD has certainly been put to good use, and not just in editing those biochemistry or genetics-based chapters. I have also used my training when absorbing a lot of new literature before writing short reviews based on it, in questioning, doubting, and resolving problems.
The agency offers a stimulating international environment; a great mix of people from all over the world work here, and there is a constant succession of visitors from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The working languages are English and French and lessons in both are run internally. I actually find it fairly difficult to find someone to speak French to me, as everyone is keen to practise their (generally excellent) English. Outside the agency is a different matter, and the ability to speak French is a real advantage when flat-hunting, dealing with doctors and bills, etc, and of course socialising! Lyon itself is a very cultural city, with an historic old town, and it is situated 2 hours from the Alps, which is good for weekend walking and skiing trips. And with the new TGV, Lyon is less than 2 hours from the Mediterranean!
The agency is very well organised in terms of helping its employees get settled--I didn't have to worry about getting a 'carte de séjour' (residence permit) or opening a bank account myself, which I remember from my previous visit to France can be somewhat complicated. My initial contract was for a year, a so-called 'special training award', which has subsequently been extended by 3- and 6-month periods. The fact that the contract finally ends only when the book is finished, and the publication date is not set in stone, means that it is a little difficult to plan for the future. I am starting to job-hunt again now and hope to be able to continue in editing, and particularly to gain experience in journal publishing, with the dream, in the long-term, of a job in some aspect of cancer control with WHO. I feel that my time at IARC and in France will stand me in good stead for the future. But whatever happens, it has been a great personal experience.