Name: Matt Brown
Job: Editor-at-large of Londonist
“Transferable skills.” That phrase has been a cliche of career progression for decades. Scientists accumulate transferable skills like a squirrel acquires Instagrams. Among their special powers are observation, data analysis, technical writing, team work, stain removal, stain acceptance and (in the case of chemists) the ability to withdraw teabags from steaming mugs using nothing more than two asbestos-like fingers.
Chief among a scientist’s transferable skills, I’ve found, is curiosity. Let’s face it, nobody goes into science for the cash. We choose to learn every last sodding decarboxylation of the Krebs Cycle because we are curious. We want to understand how the world works, right down to the most diminutive dominion of phosphorous exchange or quark oscillation.
I moved to London in 1998 as part of a Master’s Degree in Biomolecular Sciences. The first two terms of the course, up at the University of York, had given me experience in a plant laboratory and a 3-D protein modelling lab. I wasn’t very good at either. But the third term offered the prospect of a placement in industry. While my course-mates opted for the likes of Pfizer, Glaxo and the Cambridge biotechs I instead fled the laboratory to work in science publishing.
The work was fairly menial at first — acting as the dogsbody for a crushingly formulaic encyclopaedia of crystal structures. But gradually I was trained up in the art of technical editing and entrusted with more responsibilities. This was an age when nobody questioned the morality of a major international corporate firm taking on unpaid interns. I worked four months for a company whose name sounds a bit like Hell Severe without earning a penny, and yet somehow felt grateful to them.
I was grateful because the opening had brought me to London. I immediately fell in love with the place. I would spend my weekends embarking on stupendously long walks, getting to know the streets and suburbs and museums and pubs. My scientifically trained mind wanted to explore, record, catalogue. London became a kind of science project to me…I wanted to know it all, describe it all.
The months went on, and I was eventually offered a job editing a chemical biology review journal. This was fun — at least for the first couple of years. I’d be handling manuscripts from the world’s top scientists, getting their work into shape and handling peer review. The curiosity bug bit deep here too, and I wanted to learn everything I could about chemical biology.
Around this time, I also started writing little snippets for a few of the more newsy titles in our company. Writing, I found, with its attendant skills of researching and interviewing, was much more rewarding than shuffling around manuscripts. No one seemed to mind that I lacked a journalism qualification or training, so long as I could deliver the goods. My portfolio grew, and I was beginning to think science journalism was The Career For Me.
Then along came Londonist. During an interval at a gig (it was Eels at the Royal Festival Hall, if anyone cares), a friend told me about this great new website he was involved with. Londonist was a ‘blog’ (the term was still relatively unknown), with news and reviews about London. My curiosity for the city had never abated, and I’d accumulated a good stock of knowledge by this point. I asked if I could write, got the green light, and was soon filing stories on graffiti trends, cross-eyed statues, road casualties and skyscraper proposals. It was exhilarating to apply the skills I’d learnt as a science journalist to a field that was endlessly, infinitely diverse: the history and culture of London.
It didn’t pay a penny, though. I muddled on with my science editing and writing, using my breaks and evenings to work on Londonist. Then a dream job — one that seemed created for me — was advertised. Nature Publishing Group was looking for a science writer to launch a website devoted to research in the capital. Comparing my CV to the job description was almost like a game of snap. I got the job.
I spent a wonderful three years at Nature. I was given great flexibility, writing features, hosting events and even initiating the first London science blogging conference. Yet all the time I had this nagging reservation. I always felt that those around me had more passion for science, and a greater understanding of its digital evolution. Meanwhile, through Londonist, I was becoming a minor authority on the workings of London. I had to make the choice: stick with science writing and be a small fish in a big pond, or throw myself into London writing and try to take Londonist to new heights.
I took a gamble, and quit my job. Londonist was still a hobby at that stage, making peanuts through advertising. But I was able to pick up enough freelance work to pay the bills while I devoted more time to the site. It took a couple of years, but with the great team we had (and still have) at Londonist, it eventually became a profitable business able to pay salaries. We’re up to seven members of staff now, with an office and media partnerships with some big organisations.
I’m very happy with the way my career has developed, from a crystallography database assistant to a science journalist, to an expert on London. It might seem like an unusual path, but I feel I’ve simply transferred my curiosity from one discipline to another.
Although I rarely write or talk about science, I still think of myself as a scientist. It’s a mindset, or a set of habits. Above all, it’s about a relentless curiosity to understand the world around oneself. London is my lifelong science project. Such is the city’s magnitude that I’ve barely begun to formulate the Abstract.