We asked Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief of Nature, to share how she got started in her career, her thoughts on leadership, and who is her biggest inspiration. Read the interview below.
There are two, interconnected aspects to my role: I am Editor in Chief of Nature and Chief Editorial Advisor for Nature Research. Nature needs no introduction, of course, and yet sometimes it may be all too easy to forget how complex (and unique) it is among scientific journals. A key point of focus in my role is to make the most of Nature’s magazine, journalistic part AND the original research part, together. The whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts! As Editor in Chief, I represent Nature and Nature Research externally, and in general my time is very much split between externally focused and internally focused activities. In addition, an important aspect of my role involves being the champion and the guardian of the Nature brand.
When I want to describe what I do to those who do not work in publishing, I often say I am a bit like a conductor of an orchestra – without the amazingly talented colleagues around me I could do very little, but our collective output is enhanced and amplified by our coordinated efforts.
When I was little, for a brief while I wanted to be a firefighter, shortly followed by dreams of being a dancer. But really, from a very early age I knew that biology was my passion. I was especially drawn to genetics. So I went to study it at University of Nottingham and then University of Cambridge. I was on course to becoming an academic but then I realized that I wasn’t that good with my hands in the lab. Since my love for science was as strong as ever, I began to look for a career that would keep me immersed in it. This led me to being an editor. Eighteen years on, I have never looked back! Although I do not think of myself as a scientist, I feel very strongly that I am part of the research community; I find this very fulfilling and feel very proud that I can make a contribution there.
In my view there are many great leadership models—some suit one set of circumstances, others are more appropriate for others. All too often, not enough distinction is made between leadership and management. For me, a great leader is a considerate leader who at once knows their mind but at the same time is inclusive of the views and advice of others. A great leader brings out the best in people, helps them realize their potential and harness it for a greater outcome. Perhaps needless to say, a great leader is a great communicator, and to me communicating is a two-way process – it encompasses listening as well as sharing information.
Even though today I view it as one of the best decisions I ever made, it was not easy for me to leave academia. In the institute where I did my PhD, people like me were viewed as failures, and I remember so vividly earlier on how I dreamt of leading a research group and having my own lab. I had to overcome a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that I was quitting in some way, giving up the race, checking out early…. It wasn’t easy, especially in that many of my contemporaries continued in active research for many years. But then I switched to thinking about my choice not so much from my own perspective but from those around me. Once I refocused to asking where and how I can make the greatest contribution or be most useful to others, my issue was solved.
My ‘hero’ may seem a little unusual; nevertheless when I first heard about her I was truly inspired. I’m thinking of Rosita Forbes. She was an explorer and a travel writer. Born in the last decade of the 19th century, she travelled extensively in North Africa and Central Asia. She was truly intrepid, often managing to visit places closed to Western visitors. And at a time when women had very few rights, she did all of this alone! I guess what most inspires me about her was her ‘can do’ attitude. Her books offer a wonderful insight into the past of some truly fascinating places but importantly also into her very modern mind. She died two years before I was born; it would have been a real treat to have met her.