How I Fail S0205: Sheba Agarwal-Jans (PhD’06, Genetics)

Dr. Sheba Agarwal-Jans is a Scientific Editor at iScience, published by Elsevier’s Cell Press. Previously, she was a Publisher at Elsevier, managing the Microbiology and Mycology portfolio of journals in the Life Sciences department. Sheba is also the founder of the science communications blog We Talk Science, which brings evidence-based science to the general public. Follow her on twitter @ShebaAJ

Hi Sheba, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself? 

Hi Veronika, I did my PhD in Rotterdam at the Erasmus Medical Center, and then a postdoc at the VU Amsterdam. My area of expertise is molecular biology, cellular biology, biochemistry – everything you can’t see with your bare eyes!. I love science in any shape and form. Science is a way to verify what is real and not, which is so important in this age of information. But science is not always understood esp people not in science, so I am passionate about our responsibility as scientists to bring this information to everybody. This is why I founded WeTalkScience – I feel it is our responsibility as scientists, publishers, and as an editor that I am now – a responsibility to get this information out there in a way that people can understand and trust. 

Currently I am an editor at iScience which is a multidisciplinary journal. I am the life science editor which means I get to read papers from lots of different fields. I’ve been in this role for 1.5 years now, and it’s only now that I’m seeing the first papers on the same topic, which shows how diverse it is. There’s really everything from dinosaurs to coral reefs to body swapping

Next to this I also workout a lot, I have just earned the first dan black belt in TaeKwon-Do (ITF), I go to the gym, I run. I love music and going to concerts, which is hard now with the lockdown. I also love reading and I’m learning how to play the drums 🙂 I have two cats: Sapphire and Emerald

Sapphire and Emerald

Can you say a bit more about your switch from a research career to editing? 

I think it was in the third year of my postdoc that I just started feeling the fatigue of it all, the pressure there is on everyone in academia. I felt like  a mouse in a wheel where I just kept running and not getting anywhere. I pretty much powered through until the end of the contract and had a burnout at the end of it – there was also moving and other life decisions involved, so it was not an easy time. Then I took 6 weeks off between the end of my contract and starting at Elsevier – that was the first time I had done something like this for myself. But it was also scary – being unemployed is scary to me.  

It was not obvious to me that the kind of job I was looking for. I was thinking about how my skills could transfer to real life. So around year three of the postdoc, after my daughter was born, I started networking more and going to career events for PhDs. First I was not too open to receiving this information because I was too focused on my life science skills, and applying to pharma or biotech companies. The way I fell into publishing was an accident, I gave my CV to somebody already in publishing and they soon called me back! I wasn’t sure what kind of level I should be applying for, and they told me I would be a good publisher. So yeah, I learned a lot on the job! 

Actually now that’s another passion of mine – helping people understand what kind of skills they have. In academia, leaving is often made to seem like a failure, because you invested so much time into it and now you are leaving. But it’s not a failure! It’s where life takes you – as long as you are happy, that’s the most important thing.   

What’s a memorable failure for you? 

I had so many it’s difficult to choose! Life is a series of failures and wins. Leaving academia felt like a failure at first because I didn’t get to where planned. But it was not a failure because I was out, I got some peace of mind, and this is when I started being more physically active, because I had more energy left for other things. 

I think the failure that I feel most acutely is when I was 18 and applying to university. I was told I was to go to med school, but I did not make the grades to be able to do so in our final school exams. It was quite clear at the time that I would not be able to make it as there was only one med school in Singapore, and very select few got in. I had to formulate a Plan B rather quickly. That was devastating to me at that age, but in retrospect, I think I dodged a massive bullet. The pressure to do well is high in Singapore, and being in med school I think would have been unbearable for me. 

What is your definition of failure – what things do others consider failures that you don’t, and vice versa? 

Some rejections definitely feel like failures. When I was discussing with my PI what next, and I heard there was no way to give me a permanent job, of course I was disappointed and that felt like rejection – it was a nice lab and I would have wanted to stay. But in retrospect maybe I also felt relief to leave the politics and the culture behind. Publishing was a way for me to still be involved in research. 

I do sometimes wonder that maybe I should have worked harder, but I had given it so much of my energy already, that I just didn’t have anything left to give. Being a new mom at the time also wasn’t very easy. 

When I joined Elsevier I was first a publisher for 8 years, which is like a strategic manager. But I found myself missing the science. I remember sitting in a cafe with my best friend who I’ve had throughout the whole research journey, and she said – how do we get you back into science? I thought about academia again, but I thought I would also be a fool to leave a stable, permanent job. So then I launched WeTalkScience as a way to get more involved with science myself. And then I was offered the editor position, and I’m more involved in science than ever before – especially in this COVID crisis! 

As an editor you now both have experience with rejecting others, as with receiving rejections for your PhD papers – what have you learned from this? 

What I teach people to do (I also give paper writing workshops) is to look at reviewer comments as a way to discuss your paper with the community. And now that I’ve seen both sides, I see both sides working really hard to make sure that something comes out of this process that’s good. There are definitely frustrations out there, we are all human beings so that’s normal! As an editor I have to mediate that. I understand that it is difficult on both sides, but it is my job to ensure that it is as easy as possible. 

I have not censored harsh reviews – there is one instance in which I probably should have though, because the reviewer was not commenting on the science. Moving on I think I would definitely discuss this with the team, because there is no point with aggravating either side. Same goes for the authors as well! I’ve seen rude rebuttals. Then you have to make a call, whether to send it back to the reviewer or not. 

My advice to PhD students would be not to take things personally. It’s easy for me to say as an editor and I’ve seen many reviewer reports. But if a reviewer upsets you – some reviews I’ve seen would have certainly made me cry. As a student I didn’t receive too bad comments, I think  the PI protected me from it or I blocked the memory.

Also take your time – when you receive negative comments, go do something else first, have a drink – then come back later and reply. If you think there is something incorrect or unprofessional, just write to the editor! Put it in the rebuttal and back it up with scientific facts. It could very well be that the editor agrees. Editors are just people – I reply to authors who write to me, for example this week I’m having a call with a PI to see how their team could revise their rejected paper. 

Are there any other lessons about failure you want to share?

During my life transitions, I realized I was asking the wrong questions. My thinking was too old fashioned – you go into one thing, and then you try to climb the ladder. Also in my publisher role I was trying to do that. Not so much of a failure, but a thing I realized, but why I was disappointed, is that I was aimining for the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions.  My advice would be to know what you want, instead of what you think you should want. You don’t have to be just doing 1 thing, and just being good at 1 thing – not in these days especially. Try to see how that works for you. 

I did this Coursera course recently on the science of happiness, by Lori Sanchez. She says it’s important to know what you are passionate about, and try to bring those qualities to the job that you are doing. So introspection is really important. The way I learned this is via Chiat Cheong, a friend used to work for a postdoc development initiative and now has her own consultancy company. She runs these career retreats… they are very different from career events, which tend to be more practical. Chiat does it differently – you have this job and you have you, and you try to fit yourself into the job. But a lot of times the job is square-shaped and you are round, so you are trying to fit in. The other approach is to look at everything that you have, and look for a job that fits that. 

Maybe to summarize, it’s a kind of collective failure that we are still trying to follow career rules that no longer fit the world we live in. Things are changing a lot, and you cannot just do the same job for 30 years, those days are over. But even with switching jobs, you build experience and you can gain certifications, so you can still reinvent yourself and not be penalized for it. Every job you have will give you some skills which will help you later on. 

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Maybe that I’m doing many things, but not well. I grew up in a family where I was told, to get recognition, I had to do one thing and not get distracted, and do it well. So I tried that, but it didn’t work for me. It took me time to realize that it’s important to me to LIKE doing things – I will not paint like Rembrandt for example, but I enjoy it! 

Perhaps the biggest failure is that I’m constantly underestimating what I can do, because I’m afraid of overestimating and then being disappointed. That’s something I’m trying to turn around a little bit now.  But I don’t have regrets, I feel like things are happening the way they should. 

Can you share a success we don’t often see on a CV?  

I think my biggest is my daughter! She is 12 years old now and has school friends the same age. I am blown away by how open minded and informed they are about gender norms, LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion. I only learned about these things a few years ago myself, and she is 12! And she gets it. So that’s the biggest success I can boast of. 

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