From PhD to self-employed science editor: Isabel Torres

Isabel Torres got her PhD in biology at the University of Cambridge and a postdoc at the MRC Laboratories of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. She has four kids and had her first pregnancy while doing her PhD. After her postdoc, she decided to leave academia to make her own things. Her transition from academia to industry wasn’t easy but she made it a wonderful career anyway. She works as a self-employed science editor and freelance science writer. You can find Isabel on Instagram and Twitter. She just launched her blog prettysmartscience.com to support women and especially mamas in science, make science more accessible and address the problem of fake news.

Isabel Torres #shecanSTEM campaignHow did you get interested in science? I have always been a very curious person, and even as I child, I enjoyed learning how things worked. I was the type of kid who would open toys to see how they were made inside, and I was fascinated with books about science and nature, even though I hardly had any. I would read the same books over and over again… Then in school, I always had a preference for the science subjects (even maths), although I also loved reading and writing, and arts. The only subject I didn’t like was sports! Eventually, in high school, I fell in love with biology when I looked through a microscope for the first time and saw onion root cells with stained chromosomes. I had never seen anything so beautiful… I decided to study biology at university and then pursued a research career in cell biology.

I fell in love with biology when I looked through a microscope for the first time

Tell about your journey in academia and why you decided to leave it. My research career started with a summer internship in a lab at the University of Cambridge (UK) working on embryonic polarity in fruit flies, which then turned into a Master’s degree. My supervisor invited me to do a PhD and while I waited for the start of my scholarship, I spent three months studying cell differentiation in a lab at New York University (US). Towards the end of my PhD, I became unmotivated and started suspecting academia wasn’t for me. I started looking at other career options… But then I got pregnant with twins and I panicked, I thought this wasn’t a good time to change careers so I went on to do a postdoc. I was very happy during my first years of postdoc, but then I started feeling unmotivated again… I was bored. My problem wasn’t so much academia itself. I could cope with the workload, the instability and pressure of academia, but I just didn’t love research enough to want to put myself through that. I was frustrated that doing experiments didn’t leave me time to actually think about science, and I realised I didn’t want to spend my entire life studying one specific question. I love science and I want to learn many different things… And finally, I discovered there was something else I would rather do: science communication.

My problem wasn’t so much academia itself. I could cope with the workload, the instability and pressure of academia.

How did you come up with the idea of being a self-employed academic editor and freelance science writer? It was completely by serendipity. When I moved to France I had a newborn and no job aligned. I had decided to take some time off to spend more time with my children and to find a job in science communication. But after a couple of months at home with the baby I was going crazy, I needed intellectual stimulation. This is when I realised how important work is for my identity, I can’t imagine myself not working. I’m probably going to be one of those people who never retire! So I started a science blog, and I discovered I love writing. I contacted science magazines and published here and there, and currently, I’m working for PLoS as a freelance science writer. But I needed a more stable income, so I started working in academic editing. I had been editing papers and grants for friends for some time and had good feedback, so I thought why not doing it professionally? It’s an ideal job at this stage of my life because it gives me the flexibility I need for family life and for my scicomm side projects, like Pretty Smart Science. This is how my editing company Blue Skies Editing and Consulting started, and slowly I’ve been growing my client base.

But after a couple of months at home with baby I was going crazy, I needed intellectual stimulation.

Isabel Torres officeWhat the biggest challenge you faced during your journey inside and outside academia? There are two things that really affected my career: moving to France and having children. I moved to France to follow my (now former) husband, and I didn’t have time to find a job before moving because I was heavily pregnant and everything happened very fast. I had professional and support networks in the UK (I even had an informal job offer in science communication over there). In France, I had neither. I didn’t know anyone, and it’s nearly impossible to find a job if you are not “in the system”. I was very isolated and didn’t feel supported, and this affected my self-confidence. Then when things started to get back on track, with the editing and writing, I had another baby (with my new partner). I was completely exhausted. Pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding… it’s hard, especially when you already have small children and don’t have support. So naturally, this affected my productivity and ultimately my career.

What your advice to kids who want to approach science and people who like you want to start doing their own things? My advice is: just do it. You have to believe in yourself and somehow filter out the negative influence from people around you. You should only listen to supportive comments and constructive criticism, all the rest, ignore it. Sometimes people can bring you down even when they’re trying to help, so it’s crucial that you always follow your instinct and believe that you can do it because YOU CAN. There’s a quote I love that says: “Just do it and the confidence will follow”. This is so true. When you don’t do anything for fear of failure, you can never discover your own potential. But when you achieve a goal, no matter how unimportant it may seem, you become more confident in yourself. To kids who want to study science I always say: if you’re curious and you love science, do it. There are so many jobs you can do with a science degree, and a PhD opens many doors and gives you amazing skills that will be valued in every type of career. For example, consulting and investment banking companies in the UK actively look for science PhD holders because they have great analytical and problem-solving skills. It’s important to be passionate about science but also to remain open and flexible about your career path.

When you don’t do anything for fear of failure, you can never discover your own potential.

Anything else you want to add? My career transition from academia was long and painful mostly because there is so much pressure to “succeed” in academia (i.e. become a PI), so I felt extremely guilty for considering other career options. I went to the career counselling service in secret because I felt ashamed, and at an event where nobody was talking to each other, it was like everyone was embarrassed and trying to remain incognito! This is ridiculous. So I think graduate programmes should include lectures on science careers, and PhD students should have compulsory meetings with a career counsellor from day one.

And obviously, researchers in academia should stop using unfortunate expressions such as “quitting academia”, “academia dropouts”, “surviving academia” and also stop referring to other careers in science as “alternative careers”.

I suspect this type of language and attitude contributes to the high rates of depression and anxiety amongst graduate students. That’s why it’s so important to develop a “filter” for negative comments and always believe in ourselves.

Previous interviews: Soph CookHeidi Gardner and Daniel DiRocco