When she got the opportunity to go and live in Italy, Valerie Matarese didn't hesitate. Her grandparents and her husband were Italian, and the then-30-year-old American biochemist was keen to experience firsthand a culture so close to her heart. "One of my first mentors always told me to do career choices without emotions," says Matarese. "I have never been able to do that. My career has always been conditioned by emotions and lifestyle."

Matarese found a research position in Italy with Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), but she decided to quit that job after 5 years because the 4-hour commute proved too taxing. Nine years on, Matarese runs a mature, one-person business that suits her lifestyle, doing information research and writing and editing scientific manuscripts. "I just had to persevere because the choices that I made unfortunately closed doors behind me," she says.

No doubt

Ever since high school, "there was no doubt" that she wanted to pursue a career in research. She earned a B.S. in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology in 1984 from Cornell University . "I chose biology as a general topic because I have always been very interested in nature and the environment," she says. "In biology, biochemistry is the most detailed and precise of the field." Matarese then spent a year in an oral microbiology research lab at the University of California, San Francisco , "just out of curiosity," she says. That experience fuelled her enthusiasm for research.

Matarese got her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota in 1990 for her work on a newly cloned binding protein later shown to play a role in diabetes and obesity. "[Matarese] was a great Ph.D. student, very engaged, committed, and hard working," Ph.D. supervisor David Bernlohr writes in an e-mail. "She ... thought deeply and really drove the project." She secured a fellowship from the Leukaemia Foundation for a 3-year postdoc at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she continued to study binding proteins. "I was very excited to go there; it's a wonderful institute," she says. But "it was a very bad time for postdocs to find jobs," she adds, and most academic positions available were in places where she didn't fancy living. "I thought I would have to stay in a postdoc for a long time with no real chance to get a real job," she says.

Two years into her postdoc, Matarese and her physician husband decided to go to Italy, where he would return to private practice. She sent off application letters and was, she says, "extremely lucky to get a job" in molecular pharmacology at Glaxo Wellcome's Medicines Research Centre in Verona.

Getting up to I.T.

"We were living in the countryside and didn't want to move closer to the company," which was 2 hours away by car. The commute was taking a toll on her lifestyle. She started looking for alternatives.

A native English speaker, Matarese had often been asked by colleagues at Glaxo to look over their manuscripts. She enjoyed the work, so after hours Matarese "began looking for editing opportunities." Informatics was another kind of work she experienced at Glaxo that she "really enjoyed. ... I thought I was working well with databases." That prompted her to add information research to her freelance portfolio.

Matarese quit Glaxo to set up her own company--called Up to Infotechnologies --in 1998. For the first 2 to 3 years, "I didn't make enough money to live on, but I had the support of my husband," she says. "What encouraged me to keep trying is that I had no other options. ... So it had to work." She started out editing peer-reviewed manuscripts for scientific publishers and has worked for six different medical journals so far--"regular work that kept me going," she says. But today, "a lot of editing goes to Asia," she says, so such opportunities have declined. She adapted to the market by expanding her services to "editing directly for authors before they submit, so it is a much more substantial editing." This has become her bread-and-butter work.

Her involvement with these manuscripts may go from scientific editing to "organisational writing on the basis of an outline of the paper in Italian." She may even write the first draft herself and complete the paper together with the author.She interacts a great deal with authors, discussing how to organise the paper and present the data and "making sure that what I write is what they want to be said." She also spends a lot of time reading top journals to "understand what the best publishers are expecting" and so that she can explain it to her clients. She isn't listed as a co-author on these papers, but "I ask my clients to acknowledge my contribution at the end of the paper."

Another role Matarese has taken on lately is what she calls a "team research writer," in which she visits research labs and shepherds manuscripts through from conception to dealing with peer-reviewers' comments. She also has developed courses on manuscript reading and writing for physicians and graduate students. "In Italy, there [are] no scientific writing courses ... within the biological or medical science degree curriculum," says Cristina Battaglia, an assistant professor in biochemistry who engaged Matarese in 2004 to help organise such courses for molecular medicine Ph.D. students at the University of Milan .

Matarese dedicates a remaining 10% to 20% of her time to information research, mainly for foreign clients on nonscientific, Italy-focused topics. Matarese searches databases and puts information into context for her clients. When she started her company, "I thought this would be half or more of my business," she says, but she found only a small market for it in Italy.


Biomedical writers in training. Valerie Matarese (front row, third from left) with graduate students in her Effective Biomedical Writing course at University of Milan.

Skills, trials, and errors

Matarese's editing activities require a deep understanding of research in a wide area of medicine; this requires her to keep up with what's being done in the field, she says, and her biochemistry and biology background is essential. Another essential preparation, she says, was her participation in reading courses and journal clubs during her graduate and undergraduate years. "Writing manuscripts was learned from my mentors; writing and editing our manuscripts was always a shared activity," she says.

"Being a good editor means having confidence in changing a text and explaining why," she says. "I've never considered myself a great writer or a linguist," but, she says, she is able to identify problems with a manuscript. The work also has required her to hone her people skills. "As an editor, you are criticising people with high standards. I had to learn to adapt my way to be able to criticise without intimidating people," she says. Other essential skills: "She is able to meet deadlines, and she does know Italian language quite well, which is important for [the] Italian market," adds Battaglia.

"The marketing was a big challenge at the beginning until I understood it," she says. Direct marketing--press releases and advertising--didn't bring her a single client, she says. She believes that it is a cultural thing. In time, she understood that attracting potential clients through her Web site or word of mouth was a much more effective marketing strategy. "Work well and efficiently, and others will come to you," she says.

The road less travelled

"I was absolutely not expecting to do this as a graduate student," Matarese says. Bernlohr--her Ph.D. adviser--wouldn't have expected it either. "However, in thinking about [Matarese]'s personality and personal goals, I can see the fit easily. ... I fully support her career and often use her as an example in teaching courses at the University of Minnesota on careers and the role(s) scientist[s] can play in affecting public policy and development. Her Web site is often on the screen as an example of creative thinking and energy," says Bernlohr.

"I really enjoy my work--the way that I have been able to balance the different aspects to create an activity and the way I want [it]," she says. "I am living where I want," and she is able to organize her time around other activities such as looking after some chickens and growing a garden. "I am presently happy and satisfied, but I know that I have to be very careful because the market can dry up," she says. "It's just a downside to working for yourself. But there are so many advantages."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700013

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.