Last Thursday, Scientific American appointed Mariette DiChristina to be the first female editor-in-chief of the magazine. A science journalist for over 20 years, she was also the first to launch the acclaimed Scientific American Mind in 2004, and is currently the president of the National Association of Science Writers. Having accomplished such a groundbreaking “first,” She’s the First snagged an interview to find out how she did it.
Why do you think it’s taken this long for a woman to be the editor-in-chief of Scientific American?
I really think it’s just accident, honestly, at this point. Once upon a time—Scientific American being 164 years old—I would never have expected its first editor-in-chief to be a woman, or its second, or maybe even its third. But after a certain point I think its just a matter of somebody rising to that position where they had the right skill set, and then the right opportunity came along, because as you also probably saw, I’m only the eighth editor-in-chief. They haven’t had that many opportunities to have any editor-in-chief of Scientific American.
Have you had a strong female mentor or role model who has motivated you in your career?
Oh yes, one I can think of in particular. At Popular Science, I had about six different titles over 14 years. I started on the copy desk, which is checking grammar and spelling for the magazine, but my dream was to write features. There was one senior editor who was just so nice to me. I remember the key thing she did for me was she taught me how to read a patent. Because I would be trying to cover some technology, some mysterious heating ventilation air conditioning system let’s say, and I didn’t know how to puzzle it out, and she showed me how to go through it and then helped me make it interesting. That was key for me, this wonderful woman. I think none of us really get along in life without having some kind of mentoring, and I enjoy it myself now that I have that privileged position.
How can we encourage more girls to be comfortable pursuing science?
I might be wrong about this, but I have a suspicion that part of it is cultural, and part of it is an artifact of the different generations. Just like how I would have never expected the first editor of Scientific American to be a woman back in 1845, now I think those opportunities are more open, but sometimes there are practical aspects that are difficult. As we as a culture get more conversed about flexible solutions for women who are juggling, lets say small children or other things, it will be easier for them, and it will be easier for girls to see these positions in science or elsewhere as something they can achieve.
For my own part, I have two daughters, and neither one of them think there’s any obstacle in their path for whatever they want to do. There’s a generational shift between people who are our mothers, and people who are our daughters, with what they will think and do. One solution is to keep encouraging them to believe that they can do anything they want, and we can continue to try and remove the obstacles to their success.
What was a key decision you made in life that kept you on this path and led you to be the “first” you are today?
Well, there was a male college professor that I had when I was an undergraduate sophomore, and he called me up after class and said, what are you majoring in? At the time I had no idea. All I knew was that I was taking Journalism 101 and having the best time of my life. I loved finding information, I loved writing it out in a story, and sharing that. I think every good journalist has some piece of a teacher in him or her, and I’m one of those people. When he asked me what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know, he pointed his finger at me like Uncle Sam and said, ‘You are great, and you should be a journalist.’ And at that moment it occurred to me that I could have a lot of fun and do something I felt very passionate about. That if I wanted something, I could do it, and it didn’t have to be somebody else’s idea of what a job would be, but my own.
Are you the first at anything else, on any scale?
Well I’m the oldest child in my family, so I’m the first in that sense (laughs). I’m also the first in my immediate family to get a college degree, since they came to the US. My family all came around the turn of the century from Italy. Some were doctors in Italy, but it took a little while to get back on that same level here. My father never got past his second year of college and my mother didn’t have college at all. But I think everybody should think of herself as a first, because they’re the first in their own life, and they should value themselves for that.