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Ada Lovelace Day – Women in Science Special! Interview with Annette Thomas, CEO of Macmillan Science and Education

14th October 2014
By Katy Alexander

Annette T As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day and our Women in Science special interviews, we interviewed Annette Thomas, the CEO of Macmillan Science and Education.

Annette has an impressive scientific background, having received a BS in biochemical and biophysical sciences from Harvard University and a PhD in cell biology from Yale University. She joined Macmillan in 1993 as an editor at Nature magazine and rose through the ranks to become the CEO of Macmillan Science and Education in 2007.

Q: Do you have any advice for women seeking a career in science and technology?

A: I think it’s important to choose places to work and people to work with that stretch your imagination, help you develop your skills, but most importantly that support your endeavours.

The advice I would give to any woman seeking a career in science and technology — or indeed any career — is to pick a good mentor. A mentor is someone who not only has an interest in seeing you do good work, but who also has an interest in helping you to develop professionally and personally.

If I were to offer career advice to my own daughter, it would be that whatever the work environment — whether it’s in a lab or in a company —you need to seek out people who are willing to support and mentor you, who are thinking about how you’re going to develop and who take a personal interest in your career progression.

Q: What myths surround women seeking a career in the tech/digital-science community?

A: The biggest myth is that we can do everything perfectly. We have such high expectations of ourselves, which are often unrealistic. If we don’t feel that we meet each and every one of them to 100% then somehow that’s a failure, but it’s not. If we can be a little bit more realistic with ourselves, a little bit more supportive of others in the same situation, we’ll achieve much more. The biggest hurdles we face can be the constraints we put on ourselves, not always the ones others impose on us.

Q: Have you faced any barriers during your career?

A: Of course there are barriers all over the place, not just for women but for everyone. In my experience, women often tend to be more critical of themselves than men, and that perhaps is the greatest barrier. I believe you have to really have confidence in yourself and in what you can achieve before you can start trying to confront the barriers that others put in front of you.

Q: Can you tell us about Digital Science and why it’s important — why does Macmillan Science and Education even have a tech business?

A: Digital Science was conceived four years ago because we identified an opportunity where technology and software could change the way that research is done. Scientists, although at the centre of creating much of this technology (such as the World Wide Web), weren’t really ready to embrace the technology revolution that was happening. I think this slow adoption is a symptom of the fact that scientists, like all of us, are just very busy. So we wanted to create technologies for scientists that save time, that are incredibly useful, but that are also easy to use.

Learning from some of our experiences at Nature Publishing Group (NPG), as well as identifying an opportunity in the market, we launched Digital Science with the goal of really changing the way scientists work — allowing scientists to work smarter so that they have more time for discovery.

We’re now proud to have so many interesting companies and products as part of Digital Science. We can see very clearly how they are impacting the research landscape, and also how together they are more than the sum of their parts, because they’re all serving researchers in different ways. But at the end of the day, they all have the common goal of trying to serve researchers and push research forward.

Q: Can you describe your professional background? 

A: I joined Nature 21 years ago as an assistant editor. The role entailed reading the most interesting research, making decisions about what gets published, organizing peer review, attending interesting conferences and meeting with scientists who are truly at the cutting edge in changing the way that research is done and how textbooks are written. It’s not purely about publishing in the first instance; it’s very much about communicating the greatest science and research, and about pushing the frontiers ever further.

The publishing aspect really became much more part of my professional career several years later when we were launching many different journals, starting with Nature Cell Biology. What was great about that was creating a product from scratch: having an idea and vision for what it would do, but really having to create it and then convince scientists to publish some of their most important pieces of work in these new titles for the first time! It also meant getting involved in the marketing of the journals, back in the days when it was still important to think about print subscriptions — now, of course, it is almost entirely about digital subscriptions for the Nature research journals. It was a very wide-ranging role and it was very exciting to create those journals.

I could see that there was a career path that might, one day, with incredible success, lead to the post of editor-in-chief of Nature. But there was another path that was much more appealing — on the business-development side that could lead to a more commercially business-orientated role.

It was at this point I realized that I really wanted to focus more on the business side of what we did. I enjoyed thinking about what kind of products we should create, how to position them in the market and how to make sure we could always meet the needs of our customers, the authors and the peer reviewers, and what was really going to be important to them. Marketing the products well and making them sustainable from a business perspective would make them attractive for the company to support.

I worked closely with Stefan Von Holtzbrinck, the then-MD of NPG, to develop a new series of journals, now called Nature Reviews. Under his mentorship, for the first time I had responsibility for the profit and loss of the business. We had a team of about ten people and, with a very clear idea and vision of what we wanted the journals to do, we could see the gap in the market that our competitors had left and I think we were very successful in filling it.

Stefan completely surprised me by offering me the role of MD of NPG, which was a great honour — although back then, NPG was much smaller, I think we had about 250 people and we had just created it out of the scientific parts of Macmillan. So the challenge was to take Nature from being a British magazine, to a global STM powerhouse.

Having been MD of NPG from 2000 to 2007, I then took over from another of my mentors, Richard Charkin, who was CEO of Macmillan, taking on Macmillan Publishers Ltd as it was then, which included not only our science publishing, educational publishing, our English language teaching and our schools businesses around the world, but also our trade book publishing business and Pan Macmillan here in the UK, Australia and South Africa. I managed that business for five years and made a significant number of changes. We had for example already conceived the idea of the London Campus and the opportunities that would bring us. In 2012, our parent company Holtzbrinck restructured along global lines and in so doing, brought together all of its businesses devoted to science and education around the world into one group.. With this, Macmillan Science and Education was born and so was the chance to truly transform learning and discovery. I have the honour of leading this group as CEO and focussing our businesses, which span some 120 countries, behind this goal.

Q: Who is your own female science hero and why?

A: Many of our senior editors at Macmillan Science and Education are women. They are often the unsung heroes of science publishing. They go out every day and interact with the scientists and academics and they bring in the truly ground-breaking research that really makes the difference and the impact. They don’t just do it every now and then — they do it every day; some of them have been doing it for a long time and are hugely successful. I think they’re incredible in the way they handle people in order to help them communicate their life’s work. These women are intelligent, fair, imaginative, proactive and outgoing — they could be successful in any number of areas but they are here at Macmillan Science and Education.

One of the most influential but lesser-known of the female scientists who really made an impression on me is Rosalind Franklin. She was instrumental in determining the molecular structure of DNA as a double helix. By her work, analyzing the X-ray diffraction of images of DNA, she became the first person to photograph and identify the double-helix shape of DNA. She never looked for praise, nor was she in a rush to be the first. She was merely concerned that everything she did was scientifically accurate and correct, rather than trying to win a scientific race.

Tragically, she died of ovarian cancer at the young age of just 37 and, I believe, did not receive the recognition she deserved, when a few years later Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins were jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. This work was based on Franklin’s photographic images and data which determined the presence of the double helix.

That is why we acknowledge and celebrate her achievements at Macmillan Science and Education — we have a Franklin meeting room in our new London campus (along with Lovelace and Curie rooms too, of course!).

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