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Elsa Couderc

From the optics lab at the Cavendish to an editor at Nature: Elsa Couderc tells us her thoughts on publishing, postdoc-ing, and what a normal day as an editor involves.

Originally from Paris, Elsa is now an editor at Nature Communications in London. Previous to starting here in early 2015, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Physics Department at Cambridge University and before that at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She completed her PhD in Grenoble, France in 2011.

Elsa, tell us about your job at Nat. Comm. What does a typical day involve?

A lot of reading about new science ventures! We read new manuscripts and assess them against previous work in the field, we read referees reports and make decisions based on editorial and technical criteria. We interact with editors, on tricky cases and editorial policies, and we are in constant contact with authors and referees.

We have to keep up to date with most recent developments in a variety of fields, by reading some more, attending meetings, either conferences or press meetings. Finally, we participate to larger projects, with editors from other journals for example.

You took a position at Nature Comms after a successful PhD and two postdocs. Why did you make this move from academia to publishing?

There are a number of reasons!

First, I always enjoyed learning about different topics, even more than focusing on specific problems. Since my bachelor, I have been interested in how science fits in modern societies and influences them, and in how science is communicated within scientific communities, but also to a wider audience. And vice versa, in how science communication shapes science in reaction.

We always say ‘academia’ but I think that various roles in academia are very different. I enjoyed being a postdoc for the intellectual freedom and the time I had to tackle technical problems – this doesn’t mean I would have enjoyed being a professor. I was getting tired of constantly having to convince others that my research was better than others’ – I don’t strive in a competitive environment, and research is a lot about competition nowadays, and one has to compete for positions, students, funding. This was taking my energy away from what I like.In other words, I wanted more stability, a better work/life balance, and more time to focus on science and science communication.

In your opinion, what should be the role of major publishing journals? Do they have responsibilities to the scientific community?

Major scientific journals offer visibility, both within the scientific communities and to non-expert audiences. They also guarantee that published papers have gone through a rigorous peer-review process – meaning that independent experts check that the best scientific practices are used. In this respect, journals do have a responsibility to the scientific community and to society at large, and we strive to ensure rigorous peer-review, to eliminate any bias from the peer-review process and to increase transparency of the process. We promote actively scientific values such as reproducibility and transparency.

What skills are most important to have to be a good editor?

Decision-making, the ability to dive into numerous topics in a day and to think on your feet. 

I must ask, should all scientific papers be open access?

To me, the moral principle underlying open access, that publicly funded research should be publicly available, is clear. So yes, I think all scientific papers should be freely accessible, one-way or another (there are different versions of open access). Funding agencies are also pushing towards open access so I hope we are in a transition period.

Back to your time as a researcher: what were your research interests?

I started off with high-energy physics, but I decided I want to try and give back something to the world more actively, so I specialised in the physics of renewable energy. I have been interested in energy conversion, and in particular light-to-electricity energy conversion. I focused on the mechanisms underlying this conversion in nanomaterials: from the absorption of light by the nanocomponents to the extraction of electrical current from the macroscopic device, feeding an external circuit.

You have worked in a number of reputable universities around the world: how important is it to have international experience as a scientist?

International experience is primordial in my opinion. First, while most science is reported in English, we are not all native English-speakers – it helps to have international experience to practice! But more importantly, when confronted to different cultures, one has to think differently, to adapt. Adaptability and the ability to think outside the box, to get out of the box sometimes, are very important in science. International experience does not only make me a better scientist, it makes me a more open-minded person.

I am interested in how you would describe your experiences as a postdoctoral researcher. Do the short-term contracts prepare scientists for their next career move?

My experience as a postdoc was great. I gained independence designing research projects, coordinating collaborative work and supervising students, which I particularly liked. But you named it, postdoc positions are short term, and I grew tired of worrying about the near and distant future.

In my opinion, it does not make sense to have one or two years contracts in science – a newcomer must first adapt to their new scientific environment, and then, research takes time. If you also consider that not everyone has the personality to be a group leader, I really think that more permanent, staff researcher positions would be good.

How difficult is it to be successful in science?

Success is a very relative thing! If by success you mean ‘earn a lot of money’, I’d say it’s very unlikely to be successful in research. If you mean ‘get a permanent position’, I would say it is possible but difficult, it requires hard work, patience and some luck.

To me, being successful professionally is to enjoy one’s job. Then it’s really up to you – to find out what you enjoy, sometimes out of the path that seems the most obvious. All the countries I worked in definitely need to do more to prepare their PhD student to life outside academia.

Why are you a scientist?

I’ve always been very curious about how the natural world works, from the way rainbows appear to the processes underlying cognition. In addition, after high school, natural sciences were comforting to me, because experiments are reproducible in principle and devoid of irrationality, unlike some human interactions! Finally, getting in the habit to think critically and quantitatively gives excellent tools to comprehend natural, social and economical interactions (outside the lab).

Have you ever run up against any discrimination in science as a woman?

I wouldn’t say direct negative discrimination, no. I’ve obtained a grant and an award from two Women in Science organisations, so I’ve definitely felt positive discrimination in these instances.

I think in general being a woman in a world dominated by men means you stand out. People tend to remember you better, but the boys might not treat you as they would each other. This has been a problem for me sometimes, but most of the time it was fine.

In retrospect, I would say that the main issue was I definitely felt a lack of variety in the mentors I could look up to, including a lack of variety in gender. I’m not saying all girls need female mentors, this is really a personal thing. But I think that the largest the variety in mentors, the easier it is for a young scientist to find someone to relate to. 

And, yes, personally, I tend to relate more easily to women and I would have loved to see more potential female mentors around me… In part because research felt like an extremely competitive environment in which I felt more and more uncomfortable, and I think that female mentors might have been able to help me around this issue. That’s why I immediately liked the idea of Cavendish inspiring Women!

In any case, I must say I did find fantastic (male) mentors. And I tried to draw inspiration from scientists I had never met but who write great science books (Lisa Randall and Jenny Nelson to name two women)... And there we get back to science communication.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path though academia who is a high school student or a PhD student?

Work hard but be smart about it. Try things out to find out what you like or dislike. Talk to people, ask questions. Find something you enjoy on a daily basis (doing something you dislike only to achieve a goal isn’t sustainable). Don’t be afraid to change your mind about who you think you are or your plans for the future. Aim high, do not constraint yourself… but progress in small steps to gain self-confidence and the trust of others.

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