Journal Week pt 3: Jamie Vernon and the Pursuit of Public Understanding of Science

ALX_0503We’re excited to welcome our third curator for Journal Week here at Real Scientists: Jamie Vernon (@JLVernonPhD, @SigmaXiCEO) at Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society and publisher of American Scientist magazine. Jamie responded in depth to our curator questions, you can read his own description of his career in science, science policy, and science publishing below.

I can trace my interest in science back to a specific science project in third grade. My teacher brought a skull into the classroom and challenged the students to identify the species of animal it belonged to. It turned out to be the skull of a deer, killed by her husband. My group wrongly identified it as a giraffe skull, but the process of making observations about the bone structure and proposing hypotheses about its origin triggered something in me that led to a sustained interest in science.

Later, one of my college professors who was impressed by the detail that I provided in an exam discussion question wrote a personal note on my paper. He suggested that I should consider pursuing a PhD. Prior to that I hadn’t considered a doctorate to be an option. His note inspired me to apply to graduate school, earn a PhD in cell and molecular biology, and, ultimately, seek a career in science.  In some ways, I feel that my current position found me. After completing graduate school, I started a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, where I was helping to develop an HIV vaccine. To an outside observer, my career, thus far, would have appeared to be a run-of-the-mill research path. I was receiving great training in highly marketable research skills and after a few years I probably would have landed a job in industry. However, for at least 5 years prior, I had been working in parallel to develop as a science communicator by blogging, editing, and doing outreach. I had also taken an interest in science policy and applied for the AAAS science and technology policy fellowship. Upon receiving an offer from AAAS, I faced a major career decision. I had to choose between research and policy/communication. I chose the latter and went to work at the U.S. Department of Energy, where I focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. I asked my supervisor for permission to use ten percent of my time to work on communications at the White House’s U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), where I helped develop strategies for communicating federal climate science. After a year at the USGCRP, I returned to the energy department as a full time policy analyst. Some of Sigma Xi’s board of directors subsequently visited the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They asked for recommendations of people who could advise them on digital communications. Afterward, I was invited by Sigma Xi to participate in a discussion panel on 21st Century science communications, which led to some consulting opportunities with them. Eventually I was invited to apply for a job as director of science communications and publications and editor-in-chief of American Scientist. Again, I had to make a major career decision, but this was an easy one. On paper, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I just had to take it and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

For the past three years, I’ve been the director of science communications and publications and editor-in-chief of American Scientist. My primary goals have been to expand the audience and increase revenue. I chose to achieve these objectives by modernizing the content strategies and enhancing the digital footprint. We have a small team of editors and artists producing this award-winning magazine, so it took tremendous effort from the entire staff to overhaul our operations to accommodate these new priorities. We’ve had to expand the team’s awareness of policy issues, increase our commitment to social media use, and develop a new work flow that incorporated more freelance editorial support. We’ve been successful at raising the awareness of the magazine among younger scientists and expanding our audience via social media. Traffic to the American Scientist website has consistently increased in recent years. In addition to these changes, I thought it was critical for us to redesign the American Scientist website, because we were constrained by cumbersome and outdated technology. Our new website design recently went live and we’re excited for our readers to experience it. This week I transitioned to a new position as executive director, CEO, and publisher at Sigma Xi. In this capacity, I plan to focus on more of the business aspects of the Society’s publications.

The lay public should care about my current work, because Sigma Xi is a leader in fostering integrity in scientific research as well as promoting public understanding of science. For those who are interested in science, we are advocates for good science and we want to make that science more accessible to everyone. During this period when science is being questioned and in some cases dismissed, Sigma Xi is working to regain the trust of the public and to make the case for investing in knowledge building. We also want to see evidence-based decision making in government. Science plays a vital role in policy making. We can use the knowledge we’ve gained through research to solve many of our most pressing challenges. The public should care that Sigma Xi is working hard to ensure these issues are being addressed. My wife might say that I’m a workaholic. I put in long hours at the office and I’m always thinking about science and how to do my job better. I enjoy traveling to give talks on careers outside of academia, science communication, and policy.

The most rewarding extracurricular activity I have is spending time with my family, especially my two daughters. We do a lot of science-related activities, e.g., bug collecting and bird watching. This summer, I plan to teach them how to do one of my favorite hobbies, surfing. My ideal day off would be spent by the sea. Whether I’m on a boat or on the shore, I get more inspiration from the ocean than any other setting. The ocean offers an opportunity to explore all the sciences, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, etc. It’s also a place where you can close your eyes and reconnect with the world.


Please welcome Jamie to Real Scientists!

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