Marcia McNutt to become first female Editor-In-Chief of Science magazine

May 31, 2013 — Talented, determined, and passionate are three words that describe the reputation that geophysicist Marcia McNutt has built up in her over 30 years of experience as a scientist. Tomorrow, on June 1, McNutt will assume the position as editor-in-chief of Science magazine, making her the first woman to serve in this position since the journal’s inception in 1880. Science is the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed, general science journal in the world, and reaches an estimated 1 million people worldwide each week.

Interested in science at a young age, McNutt graduated from Colorado College in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. At that time, a new hypothesis that explains geologic activity as the result of the horizontal drift of a few thin plates was revolutionizing the Earth sciences. McNutt turned to marine geophysics for graduate school in order to gain access to the deep sea where most of the plate boundaries are located.

After earning her PhD in Earth Sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, McNutt would hold many high positions and earn herself a reputation as one of the leading women scientists in the world. In 2009, McNutt was announced as President’s Obama’s nominee to be the next director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and science advisor to the United States Secretary of the Interior. She would be the first woman director of the USGS since its establishment in 1879 and hold that position for the President’s first term of office.

IWMF freelance writer Kelly Kavanaugh talked with McNutt about her new position as editor-in-chief at Science, plate tectonics and barrel racing.

IWMF: How did you get into geophysics?

McNutt: I was always interested in science as a young child and I don’t think anyone would have been surprised that I would have ended up in an area of science. But the real question is, what direction my science inkling might have taken me. When I was in college I took classes in geology just because it sounded interesting and I was going to college in Colorado. The opportunities to get into the field in Colorado are absolutely spectacular—the scenery is breathtaking and it’s something that you really need to take advantage of while you’re there. But I decided to major in physics because physics seemed to be very vigorous and I loved the way that understanding the laws of physics allowed so much prediction of the natural world.

As I was nearing graduation I read an article by a man named John Dewey that changed my life. It was the first popular article that was written on the new paradigm of plate tectonics, a unified theory that explained past and present geologic activity globally in terms of the relative motion of just a few rigid plates—it had great predictive value.

I decided at that point that I wanted to go to graduate school in marine geophysics because this was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the scientific revolution—the same way that if you had gone into physics right after Einstein published his special theory of relativity, or if you went into genetics right after Watson and Crick published the double helix. I felt like there was this elevator that was on the ground floor and the door had opened, and all I had to do was step onto that elevator and I could go up.

IWMF: How do you think your career path led you to become Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine?

McNutt: I think there are people that sort of design a career path for themselves where they set a goal and they say “This is what I want to do with my life and in order to prepare for it, I need to do this, I then need to do that, and by doing all of these things I will perfectly position myself for my ultimate goal.” Some people are very methodical that way and build a resume that has all the right elements that then present the perfect candidate for that dream position.

IWMF: So you’re not that type of person?

McNutt: No, I’m not that type of person. I always followed my passion. I did whatever at the time I felt was the most important thing I could do that I was qualified to do. So for example, when I left graduate school I went to work at the US Geological Survey to work on earthquake studies because I felt that natural hazards were a very societally relevant use of my training.

At every step in the way, there would be a fork in the road. Someone would come up to me and ask, “Would you be interested in doing this?” and I had to ask myself if this was something I could be more passionate about doing than what I was doing. What I tell young people is that this alternate approach to your career can sometimes be a more successful approach because you’re always 100 percent committed to what you’re doing.

Secondly, sometimes if your eye instead is on another goal people can tell that what you’re doing now is not what you’re really committed to. So I always threw myself 100 percent into the job I had at the time thinking it would be the job I would have for the rest of my life. I thought I would be a professor at MIT for the rest of my life, and then I had the opportunity to go run the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and I thought I would be there for the rest of my life. And then I got the opportunity to be the USGS director. However, I knew I would not do that for the rest of my life because it’s a political appointment, you serve at the pleasure of the President, so there’s no way that that job is for life. But one thing that I did realize I really liked about that job was the opportunity to communicate the importance of the USGS mission across its many diverse fields. It does water, it does climate change, it does ecosystems, it does energy, it does minerals, and it has a very broad portfolio.

And when a member of the search committee contacted me and asked me whether I would be interested in the job as editor-in-chief of Science I said “Absolutely” because communicating science is so important to the science enterprise.

IWMF: When you start your new position as the first female Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, it won’t be the first time that you will be entering a male-dominated field. What is your secret for being so successful as a woman in a men’s world?

McNutt: If you read Science magazine, you’ll see people like Monica Bradford who is the managing editor there, and Barbara Jasny who is deputy editor, and Beth Rosner, the publisher. Most of the top people at Science are and have been for the last decade, women. I am very quick to point out that although the editor-in-chief position may have not been held by a woman, I’m sure even my predecessor as editor-in-chief will say that Science has run as a magazine thanks to the concerted efforts of a number of very talented women for a very long time.

IWMF: As a mother of three who is very successful professionally, what is your take on the work-life-balance debate?

McNutt: I think I was very lucky in a number of regards. First of all, I have three wonderful daughters who just make it very easy because the three of them were really good students that have always been very responsible and never gotten into trouble or things like that. We always did things together as a family and they were never the kind of kids that were rebellious about having to do things with the family. From the day before the twins were born up until the present they have had the same babysitter living with them, and even though my kids are now all out of college, she still lives with us by helping me take care of the dogs and horses when my husband and I are traveling. That kind of dedication is really rare, and if you can find it, it kind of makes your life easy.

IWMF: You have participated in a great number of oceanographic expeditions. Which one was the most memorable, and why?

McNutt: I think one of the ones that was most memorable, though all of them had this to some extent, was one that we left for from Easter Island and traveled to New Zealand. It was a survey of some southern old ancient plate boundaries in the South Pacific and the purpose of it was to understand early plate spreading history there.

Like many expeditions we had a hypothesis that we were testing. I remember how this expedition was so memorable because absolutely nothing that we found during this expedition was in any way confirming our hypothesis. Basically, we went out there and every piece of information that we got was totally unexpected. We had to completely re-adjust our survey strategy on-the-fly and reinterpret the data in real time to understand what the earth was throwing at us. In the end, we came up with this fascinating new interpretation of the South Pacific. It is an important lesson to understand how the Earth doesn’t conform to preconceived notions and you have to go into every scientific experiment with an open mind.

IWMF: I have heard that you trained in underwater demolition and explosives handling with the U.S. Navy and enjoy barrel racing. What adrenaline rushes will you be seeking out when you take your new position in Washington DC?

McNutt: I’m definitely going to bring one of my horses with me so I won’t miss out on riding time for sure. I haven’t yet found a place in Virginia to barrel race but that’s okay, I have lots of friends who like to ride fast. And there is a great place in Virginia out by Manassas called the Battlefields where they have lots of great trails. Every once in a while you’ll be out riding the trails and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a civil war reenactment and you can charge across the battle field like you’re in some sort of a great confederate battle—my horse has never lost a charge!

IWMF: What is your advice to young women starting their careers?

McNutt: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I guess my first advice is to protect your reputation. Your reputation is the most important things that you have. You build it up over a large period of time, but one wrong move can destroy it.

The second thing that I tell young women in particular is that you probably will have many careers in your life. When my kids were really young, I was happy to leave them home with this wonderful babysitter we had because they were mostly babies and playing with each other. But then, when they got to the point when they were doing after-school sports and we moved here to California, I needed a job where I could be with them every weekend. A job where I wasn’t going to see them for months at a time just wasn’t going to work for me. So being director of the oceanographic institution where I could control my schedule was the right job for me at that point in time. By that time, I had several offers to go to Washington at various times but I didn’t say ‘yes’ until my youngest daughter had graduated from college and the kids didn’t need me anymore.

You have to remember there will be many times that you get offers. Jobs are like streetcars—there’s always another one that comes along. And you take the opportunity at the right time in your life depending on your circumstances. So my advice is: Don’t worry, take the job that is right for you and your family at the time, and then make a move at a time when your circumstances change.