Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter: Can you explain your role as VP of the Chemical and Engineering News Media Group?
Bibiana: So, I am the editor in chief of Chemical Engineering News – C&EN – and what I do there, I run a group of about 50 people. And we do a lot of different things. So, I’m in charge of editorial, so the people who create the content on a weekly/daily basis, mostly in charge of production, so making C&EN and then distributing it through the different channels.
And I have within my team about a half of the audience group and they specifically have the person in charge of audience engagement.
And then I also have the people who are responsible for product. So websites, e-alerts and that kind of thing. And those folks work very closely together with dedicated resources that we have within the I.T. Group.
Peter: So pretty much the whole deal, soup to nuts?
Bibiana: Yes. The only part of the C&EN Media group that I’m not responsible for is the the marketing and sales team, and it is appropriate that I’m not responsible for them. But yes, everybody else reports to me.
The team is distributed across the world, a large proportion are in the US. So, headquarters are in D.C., we have a small office in New York and then we have people in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, for example.
We have people in Oxford in the UK, in Germany and also in China, and that comes with challenges of course in terms of communications.
But I think we’re doing a pretty good job there. We have things like Slack, and tools like that, that allow that kind of constant conversation between members of the team. So, from that perspective I think we have an excellent team spirit and people are working together very nicely, which is great.
Peter: So it’s a member publication, C&EN is a publication for the members of the American Chemical Society?
Bibiana: That’s right. So, they are, I would describe them as our core group of readers. What do we do is we actually…our scope is broader than that. I think that anybody who is interested in chemistry could potentially find something of interest within C&EN, and what we have done in the last few years is in a way, change our focus a little bit because we used to be very concentrated in delivering a good product for our members, almost exclusively.
And what I said when I came in is, ‘Great, we need to continue to do that, but then we need to actually look outwards and think about people who are potential members of ACS and how we help them, in a way become more acquainted with C&EN, of course, but also with the kinds of things that ACS does’.
So we’re a membership organisation of course, but we also have the publications division, which is the division within which I report and CNEN reports, and we have about 62 at the moment scientific journals there. We have a preprint archive, chem archive. We have books and then we have Chemical Abstracts Service, which is a completely different beast and they’re based in Columbus. But I mean this is an organization of about 2,000 people.
I would also say that it is the largest scientific society in the world, which is a little bit strange because chemistry is not that sexy, right! But we have 155,000 members, and specifically we actually print C&EN on a weekly basis, which is something that is quite alien these days, most people don’t do that, they have monthly publications. But we are still doing the weekly print and of course we now create content on a daily basis.
Peter: There can’t be many professional publications that are still printing weekly.
Bibiana: I don’t know of any, really. Unless if you count Triple AS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that of course, science, the Journal is part of their membership package and you get it on a weekly basis. But I would not describe that, I wouldn’t put it in the same league as C&EN because it’s a journal and C&EN is a magazine. But I don’t know of any.
Peter: Amazing. So in the past you wrote for WIRED. You wrote a column for WIRED. And I guess part of what you were just saying a second ago is that idea of science for ordinary people versus science for scientists. Is that part of what you were trying to do, particularly online, I guess?
Bibiana: Yes to some extent. So, our readers, the majority, if you think about members of ACS, they are either students of chemistry or professional chemists. So the language if you like is the language of chemistry, and they understand that, they are very proficient in it, but people outside chemistry probably would struggle with that.
So that’s a constant battle if you like in terms of making our content approachable to other audiences, and in some cases we can do that, and in some cases we cannot. Within that as well, we have mechanisms as well and different distribution mechanisms that perhaps allow us to be a little bit more informal, along the lines of what you could write for WIRED, which I think they have quite a savvy audience.
So for example I’m thinking about what we do with our podcast. We have a podcast that is again is all about chemistry, of course but we try to be more conversational there, and make it more approachable. So we have different mechanisms to perhaps bring chemistry to a broader audience.
But it’s not possible every time. When you’re talking about quantum computing or CRISPR and gene editing techniques and technologies, it gets harder, but it can be done.
Peter: I’m even looking at the current issue where your cover story is this fire in the Cuyahoga river in 1969. I mean that’s a pretty mainstream story. Do you approach that from a chemistry point of view, or do you approach it from a, ‘Oh my God there’s a river on fire’ point of view?
Bibiana: We always try to approach it from the chemistry angle. Very often there is news out there that the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, or the BBC would cover faster and probably better than us. But how is it important to chemists, so that’s what we were trying to do there.
So all those fires that were happening in the 60s, they were the catalysts – and specifically that one actually, because he was quite large – for changes in regulation in the US, the Clean Water Act came out as a consequence of that, and then the Environmental Protection Agency. So it’s a bit of a historical feature, but also looking at it from the point of view of how it changed the way we do chemistry, or we regulate chemistry.
There are other examples I can think of, a couple of years ago we were covering the Flint water crisis, so how lead was getting into the drinking water in Flint, and that was poisoning children and adults, and I mean it was pretty bad what was happening there. And we wrote a very good story that I think most people, the general public, could read and understand and get a feel for the magnitude of what was happening there.
Peter: So in that sense you’re not just writing about about hard core chemistry in the sense of, this is how you do analytical chemistry or biological chemistry, you’re actually talking about the business of chemistry, or education in chemistry, or the environment, it’s applied in that sense?
Bibiana: Absolutely, we cover all of that. So yes, business of chemistry is a huge industry, the chemical industry, and of course pharma as well. We cover education, and one thing that I actually am very proud of, we do a number of features throughout the year about diversity in the chemical sciences, so specifically this month because it is Pride month, we have a story that came out I believe yesterday about lecturers, assistants, and teachers coming out in front of their students, and how that helps their students deal with that.
I think a lot of people have felt isolated in the past, and it may put them off having a career in STEM. So we actually do quite a lot of coverage around that, and we have done a number of events.
For example, actually again, I’m very proud of this, we did a story about sexual harassment in the chemical sciences about three weeks before the #MeToo movement started, with the Weinstein scandal, and all of that.
We had been thinking about this story for about two years, and we changed approach several times because it was quite difficult to get data and information from institutions here.
And then we changed tack a little bit and we were able to publish that story, and then we did an event at the ACS national meeting which we do twice a year. In that event, people were sitting on the floor at the back of the room. It was amazing how many people turned up for that.
So we cover everything that happens in the chemical sciences, and not just the science, but also the people who do the science, and I think that’s important.
Peter: Do you think your role, or the role of science publishers, like the role of many business publishers, has changed, where you’re not just talking about the nuts and bolts of your industry, or your science or whatever, you’re also talking about the social elements of it?
Bibiana: Yes. But the funny thing is that some people don’t like it, because they think that science should be about science. And I think that’s a naive way of looking at things.
So when we cover diversity, I will always get a couple of e-mails saying that we don’t need to be social justice warriors. And I think well, we have people who are committing suicide in graduate school because they can’t cope with the pressure, and they have no support mechanisms. I think that’s pretty serious, and I think it deserves attention, and it needs to be covered.
The same when we cover some things that have to do with regulation enforced by the government, especially in the US, because the environment is so politicized at the moment. We get e-mails from people who are supporting the current president that think that we are somehow talking politics and taking sides in that kind of thing.
And from their perspective, they say that we should stick to the science, and my view again is that politics affects science because it affects education. It affects funding. It affects what is happening in the chemical enterprise, and therefore we need to be telling people what is really happening there, and with that to be unbiased which is our job.
Peter: So as a member publication though, does that put extra pressure on you, because these guys in a sense are your boss?
Bibiana: It is interesting because yes, in a way I am delivering a product that I think ACS needs to be proud of, but also that the members need to be also reading and seeing that it reflects their views, and what is happening there. I would say that it is a minority.
The majority of people, I mean for example I’ll tell you, I was in Spain two weeks ago giving a couple of talks at different research centers within the country, and a member from 1985 said ‘C&EN has always been good. Now it is great.’
And the reason for her to say that, is that we cover all these other things that are happening, that before we wouldn’t have gone there because of the concept, or the notion that maybe was getting into politics or social issues.
I think it is important that we do that, we are people and we are professionals, and where do you draw the line between one and the other, I think it’s not that clear cut. I would say that it’s a very old fashioned view as well.
Peter: You’re not from the U.S. Clearly, you’re from Spain. Do you notice a big difference between working in the U.S. and in Europe?
Bibiana: I think there’s quite a difference. I think there’s a very different culture. I was expecting the culture in the US to be more open, because before I went I worked in the UK, and I always thought that people were very polite, and they said things but in a very, perhaps not in a very direct way.
So I think that’s what it is. I was expecting the people in the US to be more direct, and I think they’re probably known for that. In my environment, I don’t think that that is the case. And it could be because it’s a not-for-profit organisation.
So I miss a little bit of that, perhaps the directness of people in the US, but without using very direct language if you like, because even in England you talk in riddles sometimes! I like that. But I would say that some good things, I think that the work ethics here are unbelievable. People work super hard. My team are amazing.
And then the one thing that could be good and bad is that they’re very process driven. And I say it can be good and bad because, very often people…the fact that they have a process or a workflow, which is a word that I wasn’t familiar with until I came here, they see that as a solution. And it’s not a solution. It answers the what or the how, but not the why.
And in the UK perhaps, because resources are more scarce, people are more thoughtful about the why, and less about the process, but why we’re doing these things and we’re looking to achieve. So I would say that there’s a difference there as well.
Peter: I was told a story about you being accosted by a Nobel laureate in a car park at a science conference. So is this a true story? Tell me what happened.
Bibiana: Yes, I don’t know that accosted is the right word, but I was at a conference in Liverpool, and I had got in touch with a colleague of ours actually, from when we were working together from a few years back and that we were going out for dinner.
So we saw this guy, Nobel Prize winner, and I said to him, ‘You want to come for dinner, we’re just going, by the way this is my friend Rick. He is a salesperson, he works for this organization, and Rick this Ben, he is a chemist and he got the Nobel Prize in 2016’.
And Rick says, ‘No shit!’
And Ben [Bernard Lucas Feringa], the Nobel Prize winner says, ‘Yeah, shit!’
So he didn’t come for for dinner with us, but it was great, the look on Rick’s face was just fantastic.
Peter: So I’ve actually got a serious point in asking about this. So you meet this Nobel Laureate in a car park, and he knows you. Is that because of you, or is that because you’re working for a respected science journal? Is that relationship inherent to the to the publication, or do you just happen to know this guy?
Bibiana: I knew him because he had been the Chair of the editorial board for Chemistry World, which is at the time when I was working for the Royal Society of Chemistry in the U.K. So I’ve known him for years.
But of course the position helps a lot. So I know a number of Nobel Prize winners through my work.
So I can tell you I know Frances Arnold, the woman who won last last year. Fraser Stoddart who’s from Scotland, well I’ve met him several times, and we’ve had conversations about Brexit which both of us think is is outrageous. So yeah, I know a lot of people.
Specifically Ben, so actually I’ve known him for years, so it was about six weeks before he got the Nobel Prize that I actually spent an evening with him at an ACS meeting because I had invited him. There was this big reception and I knew that he was there, and he was giving a presentation, and I sent him an e-mail and I said, do you want to be my plus one? So he said yes, sure! So he comes in, we’re drinking and talking, pretty much undisturbed for a couple of hours, and then six weeks later he gets the Nobel Prize. So my plus one was a Nobel Prize winner!
Peter: I do think it’s amazing that because, well for you it’s science, for other people it’s movie stars, but because we work for magazines, people talk to us. I just think it’s amazing and fantastic that you actually get that access.
Bibiana: Yeah I think that’s probably one of the best parts of the job. Also talking to very famous people – I mean for us Nobel Prize winners, they are celebrities in my world – bu just general members, when I go to the ACS national meeting, people sometimes look at me, and I just I’m looking at them thinking, do I know them? And it could be because they’ve seen my my picture, or because I gave a talk and there were 200 people, it’s impossible to know them all but it comes with the job I think. I mean outside the job I’m pretty ordinary, I would say.
Peter: I remember the time you told me how to say ‘Those men stole my shoes’ in Spanish.
Bibiana: I was thinking about that, I thought it was the most useful thing for you!
Peter: Test me now: ‘Me robaron los zapatos’
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