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Interview with Maureen Rouhi
Interview with Maureen Rouhi, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical & Engineering News
A. Maureen Rouhi is the Editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society (ACS). It reports current events in the chemistry enterprise, including recent advances in research, education, industry, funding, and regulatory policy. C&EN has a weekly circulation of about 110,000. It is produced by staff based in Washington, D.C.; Edison, NJ; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; Oakland, CA; Berlin; Hong Kong; and London. Rouhi is responsible for about 50 full-time staff. Rouhi received B.S. and M.S. degrees in agricultural chemistry from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños, and a Ph.D. from the University of London. Her professional experience includes independent research and teaching in the Philippines and in Iran, scholarly publishing, journalism, and news organization management. She began her scholarly publications career as a copy editor trainee at the American Society for Microbiology. In 1987, she joined the ACS, where she has worked ever since, except for an 11-month detour to the American Pharmaceutical Association (now the American Pharmacists Association), where she served as managing editor of the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
At ACS, she worked in books production, books acquisitions, and production of multimedia continuing-education courses. Her journalism career began when she joined C&EN in 1994. The reporting assignments that she liked most were those about chemical ecology, the chemical senses, natural products, organic chemistry, pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals, and the history of chemistry. From 2004 to 2012, she was deputy editor-in-chief of C&EN. In that capacity, she focused on the daily operations that help make C&EN every chemist’s first choice for news about the chemical enterprise. She took over as editor-in-chief in September 2012. In this capacity, she aims to take C&EN to the next level of excellence and achievement by expanding its influence, extending its global reach, and strengthening its digital presence. Rouhi’s leadership and management skills have been formed by 24 years of service at the ACS. The world’s largest scientific society, ACS is a nonprofit professional organization with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 163,000 chemists and chemical engineers. Its revenues come primarily from sales of more than 40 scientific journals and information services provided by Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), the biggest and most comprehensive collection of chemical information in the world.
Maureen, congratulations on your appointment as Editor-in-Chief of the ACS flagship magazine, Chemical & Engineering News. Your educational and professional backgrounds are impressive, and your life story is unique. What were the most important events and circumstances that have influenced the choices you have made and how have they shaped your career?
Thank you, Svetla, for the invitation to talk to you about C&EN. My personal story affirms how little control we have in shaping the way our lives unfold. As a college student in the Philippines, I planned an uncomplicated trajectory: graduate school and academia. The Philippine government awarded me a full scholarship to study for a Ph.D. in the U.K. In return I would return to the country and serve in the university that nominated me for the scholarship. All was going as planned until I met my future husband, who is not from the Philippines but from Iran. Marriage changed the direction of my life. After living in Iran for four years, we emmigrated to the U.S. Needing to find a job as quickly as possible, I grabbed the chance to start a career in science publishing. That was a lucky choice, because it is what brought me to the ACS and eventually to C&EN.
You are inheriting a magazine that has been in existence for almost 90 years. Your immediate predecessors—Rudy Baum, who recently retired, and Madeline Jacobs, who stepped down as Editor-In-Chief in 2004 and now leads the Society as the Executive Director & CEO, have left a memorable legacy. The way scientists perform research and report their findings is rapidly changing. Science has become very interdisciplinary. How will this impact the directions to which you will be taking the publication? Is there going to be a change in the name of the magazine?
Indeed, we are celebrating C&EN’s 90-year anniversary all year this year. We have a lot to celebrate, thanks to the efforts, leadership, and vision of previous editors-in-chief. Observant readers know that once a month a C&EN editor’s page is devoted to revisiting stories in C&EN Archives. Weekly, our Tumblr blog, The Watch Glass, offers stunning images and excerpts taken at random from C&EN Archives. And we will have celebratory events at the ACS National Meeting in Indianapolis. In the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 10, we are hosting a free webinar titled Food Fraud: How Scientists Detect It & What You Should Know. In the evening of the same day, we are hosting celebrity chef and author Alton Brown in a free live event and a reception for attendees after the show. I’m looking forward to seeing you and your readers at these festivities.
C&EN’s vision is to be the first choice for reliable news and information about the chemical enterprise. We report science as it happens, including the influences that affect its practice, such as globalization, collaboration, technology, R&D support, government policies & regulations, emerging fields of inquiry, education, etc.
Changing the magazine’s name is a topic that comes up periodically. C&EN enjoys great name recognition, and we are not considering a name change at this time.
For many years, you were a “lab-bench” reporter writing about science. I remember, from my days working at the ACS Library & Information Center, how meticulous you were in researching the topics you were writing about. How will your background and work as a PhD chemist and a reporter influence your leadership at C&EN?
One of my biggest tasks as leader of C&EN is being the readers’ advocate. Communicating the stories of scientists who do great work can be a lot of fun when the work is in areas with intrinsic mass appeal. Work related to food and health, for example, is relatively easy to make accessible to a wide audience. The same cannot be said for a lot of other important work. For example, discoveries about new modes of chemical bonding or the physics behind instrumental advances are difficult subjects, yet critical in advancing chemistry. My role is to make sure that even the complex topics are understandable to nonexperts. Having been both a researcher and a reporter, I am all too aware of the gap between the world of scientists and the needs of the general public. Making sure that C&EN stories bridge that gap is part of what I do every day at C&EN.
Scientific publishing has changed significantly, and the Open Access movement has forced commercial and other publishers to change their policies and become more “user-friendly.” How do you see the STEM publishing field changing in the next few years?
Open access has been gaining a lot of momentum recently, especially in Europe. In the U.S., the Obama Administration is pushing for greater access to federally-funded research, and U.S. science publishers are under pressure to adapt to a new scholarly publishing landscape.
How are the issues of C&EN being planned? Is there a general view of what the future issues will be covering—and who is making these decisions? How much independence do the individual reporters and editors have in making their choices?
Planning in C&EN is very much a collaborative process. Daily, C&EN reporters are communicating with editors about potential stories for news sections. Weekly and monthly, C&EN’s senior staff and leadership go over a long list of story ideas to figure out how they would be developed and when they would be ready to go in the magazine or online. Annually, C&EN editorial, advertising, and marketing staff meet to plan the next year’s editorial calendar. C&EN reporters have a lot of flexibility in selecting what stories to pursue, but their story ideas are always rigorously vetted by editors and others—for example, the online editor and the design director—who may have input in how a story is developed.
How do reporters and editors at C&EN gather information? What resources are they using to do that?
A lot has changed in how journalists do research since the birth of the Internet. The Internet is great and convenient, as long as reporters know where to go for reliable information. Reporting through social media, especially Twitter, is a recent phenomenon that some C&EN reporters are using to great advantage. Of course, C&EN reporters still gather information through all the traditional ways: by reading documents, attending events, and talking to people.
How does C&EN preserve its objectivity and neutrality when publishing articles on topics that may be perceived as controversial—from the point of view of ACS or other organizations, or even by the government?
As a news organization, C&EN is committed to the highest principles of excellence in journalism. When covering controversial topics, we go to great lengths in our research to ensure that we probe as many perspectives as possible. We aim to be neutral and objective, but it’s possible that a story could emphasize one perspective more than others. That’s because not all perspectives have equal weight, and part of our role as journalists is to consider the validity of information we gather and to come to conclusions on the basis of facts and arguments that, in our judgment, really matter in clarifying or resolving the controversy.
If you could imagine, for a moment, that you are still a science journalist, what is the topic you would be most interested to write about right now?
I do still consider myself a science journalist, except that I do not have time anymore to develop the story ideas I come across. I was at Case Western Reserve University in early June to participate in the celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the Department of Macromolecular Science & Engineering. I came back from that conference with several story ideas about advanced materials. This field is something I did not write much about when I was a full-time reporter, but I was really excited about what I heard at Case Western Reserve. I’ve given those story ideas to various staff, and sooner or later, the stories will appear in C&EN.
Could you tell us something about yourself? What interests you, beyond your professional life? What books do you like to read? What topics are you following right now? What do you like to do when not working?
I’m a great believer in continuous learning, and for many years now, I’ve tried to learn something new every year. For example, I’ve taken acting classes for business people, offered by the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. I also enrolled in ballroom dancing classes until I had to stop because of problems with my left shoulder and right knee. I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time, for both physical and mental fitness. And with luck, this fall, I hope to enroll in a class on improvisational acting.
By Svetla Baykoucheva
University of Maryland College Park