‘For me, the Asian Scientist magazine is a very large business card’ – Wildtype Media’s Juliana Chan

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Wildtype Media CEO Juliana Chan speaks about giving up a career in science for a life in publishing with Asian Scientist, plus how print magazines double up as business cards and whether the future of science content might be 10-second videos on Tik-Tok

How did you move from running your own lab to becoming a publisher?

“Back when I was in the US, doing my PHD at MIT, I had started a blog called Asian Scientist. It began as a hobby. They say write about what you know: I knew science and liked writing. I was also very impressed by the professional science communication industry in the US and the UK. Here on the other hand, you could be a teacher or a scientist who liked to blog but it was not a professional career. 

“My research was on nanomedicines: the use of nanoparticles and nanotechnology to deliver drugs for cancer, heart disease and other conditions. At the NTU in Singapore after I returned, I was jointly appointed at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and the School of Chemical Engineering.

“Along the way, I met a Singapore-based publisher called World Scientific Publishing. They asked me questions like: ‘What is your P&L?’ and ‘Are you incorporated?’ I had no idea about this side of the business and said: ‘If you tell me what that means, I will tell you if I am’. At that stage, it was still a hobby. They invested in me and we worked on building a team. Many academics becomes editors and editors in chief of business journals, but they don’t take business decisions – and that’s how we managed for years.

“And then I stumbled on a new business model that the scientist in me had never thought possible. We had government agencies and publishers holding the magazine up and saying ‘can you do something like this for us?’ Over the years, we got into bespoke publishing and I have 10 magazines at last count. In 2017, four years after the first investment, this had become an all consuming project. Along the way I had a couple of children – they are three and six now. I added eight clients on the bespoke publishing side. Something had to give: I had to let go of my children (which I couldn’t); the lab or my publishing career. I decided to let go of the lab and my tenure-track position. 

“This was a very tough decision, since no matter what you tell the world, you identify as something inside. I had always identified as a scientist and it was what I had trained to become for 15 years. But I closed the lab and found my staff and students new employers and professors. In hindsight, I should have done that sooner. It made me realise that for women, unfortunately we can’t have everything – children, family and a career. Or rather you can have everything, but not all at once. 

“We rebranded the company as Wild Type Media and I became the CEO which was helpful since it is hard to negotiate as editor in chief. We currently work with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), SGInnovate, IPI, Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Singapore Management University (SMU) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).”

Could you give us an idea about how Asian Scientist grew beyond Singapore to Asia?

“One of the first things I started was an annual list of one hundred Asian scientists. I began in 2016 and in 2020 we will have 500 names. Every year, we have a list of 100 scientists from all over Asia including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We pick people across levels who have won a national or an international accolade.  In lieu of a large committee, I decided that I would instead be a compendium or aggregator of all the winners – a rolodex of Asian luminaries.

“I didn’t expect how seriously people would take the list. It has been cited in press releases of universities and has made front page news in national dailies in Vietnam and the Philippines. One year, Bam Aquino who was then a senator in the Philippines and a chairperson of the office of science and technology, passed a resolution to commend the eight Filipino scientists on my list that year. Apart from the thousands of other stories we do, this list is a concrete activity.”

Why did you go in for a physical magazine and what sort of a role does it play?

“For me, the magazine is my brand and a very large business card. Before we had a print magazine, people would consider us ‘bloggers’ and it was hard to get past that. Having a print magazine is a threshold. I had scale with my investors and team, but the belief was anyone can start a blog. The magazine of course, came at a cost. It started as a quarterly and now we are a biannual. You will find it in a bookstore, assuming they have a magazine stand. Many of them seem to be selling rice cookers, now.

“To be honest, the model of magazine subscription is pretty much dead. In my sector, you would rather distribute it for free and have a good database. And then hope the right people subscribe so you can retain the other half of the equation that is the advertiser. With this model, we keep the subscribers and retain the quality of readers. We go to many trade conferences – 30 to 40 a year – and give the magazines out. That’s our distribution model.

“We had always been digital first but I refuse to go gently into the night with my print magazine. If anything, I will print fewer copies. In my sector, the readers tend to skew older and like to hold a physical copy. They are still not on TikTok, thank god. No offence to TikTok, but as of now, I’m not good enough to describe science in a 10 second skit. 

“I just signed up for it, by the way since Gary Vaynerchuck said: ‘Everyone needs a TikTok account’. I posted 10 videos but now don’t know what to do with it.” 

How easy has it been finding staff?

“I have a full time staff of 12 and freelance pool in Singapore and overseas of about 20. When you are writing for scientists, the implication is that the content is written at a higher level of technicality. 

“But if – for instance – I am a physicist writing to a chemist, I have to keep in mind that my knowledge of chemistry and your knowledge of physics are likely to be at the same level. You have to write at the high school level, whoever you write for. 

“Scientists cannot communicate with each other very well, actually. And so, when you are writing for the science community, you need to realise that reading a magazine is optional. You cannot have them bounce off, because it looks like work. I have navigated that at least partially by pitching it at that level.” 

Who do you consider competition? Is it something like Scientific American? 

“My dream is to be more like the MIT Technology Review rather than Scientific American which is more pop science. But today, it is not enough to write well. There’s too much noise out there. The ‘build it and they will come’ approach no longer holds true. Many people have tried the purist approach – hire the best writers and spend a lot on web or print design. But that does not work unless you have a 100 year pre-internet history and you control communication in that sphere – like Vogue does or used to do with fashion.”

How has your approach to the job changed – especially after you became a full-time publisher?

“I had chosen the path of greatest resistance by walking away from a tenured position. I needed other streams of income. It was important to find other ways of promoting the brand. I said yes to the EDB video after turning down many previous publicity options and panels. I realised the time for me in my editorial ivory tower – into which I had moved from the scientific ivory tower – was not viable anymore. 

“I got an incredible response to the EDB video. Clients including biotech companies and startups sought me out. It meant I needed to do a lot more even if it was not necessarily writing more. I started accepting more moderation and master of ceremonies gigs, even if they did not pay. I have also realised that science can no longer be communicated entirely through writing. It’s just one manifestation. If I can do so with TikTok I would. I am not a purist and not married to a particular medium.

“We are trying other verticals like video. The aim is eight to 10 videos a month by next year.The format has to move into social media. These videos are hosted there and I’ve hired a community manager whose job is to interact and make social media-only editorial. Five years ago, I would have been panic stricken, since I didn’t consider that to be editorial. 

“In my mind, print was like haute couture – everything trickled down from there. But now there’s no haute couture. So I have invested in a headcount to do just social media. I also realised that there may not be a need for a messenger any more – for a magazine like ours. Why does a scientist need me to feature them, when they can feature themselves? Today, you can be your own media and magazine. And that realisation was scary. Because all this while, I had been a conduit between scientists and the world. 

“But if you are a savvy scientist, you don’t need a magazine to feature you. Many influencers have never been featured in a proper magazine but are doing very well for themselves. We must lend value in different ways if we are no longer being that link.”

Considering fake science news is almost a genre to itself, do you see yourself getting into the fact checking space? 

“One of my freelance writers is the editor of a science fact checking site. I’m not interested in doing that myself. I’m not comfortable with that since if you are going to say ‘this paper is false’, you will need inside knowledge. You need to have opened the scientific log books or have knowledge of the industry and talk to the scientists. You can’t issue a sentence without that level of investigation or without being so confident of your expertise in that field. 

“Even then, you are never sure if the researchers have done something differently. The beauty of science and science publishing is that it takes time. Science eventually self-corrects because it’s the truth. I don’t need to try superficial fact-checking that does not even skim the surface.”

Incidentally what was the first post you started the blog with?

“It is deleted now. It was a silly post about a YouTube video on a lab that had made a parody of the Lady Gaga song Bad Romance. A few years ago, we were discussing historic articles that we needed to get rid of and the parody was one of them.”

To shift tracks a bit, I notice you called out a headline from India’s The Economic Times for writing about an ‘Indian-American MIT prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife’ winning the Nobel Prize for Economics. What did you make of the argument that as an Indian publication, they were highlighting what was perhaps the most relevant to their readers?

“Strangely enough, when we write about Nobel laureates, my specific experience is about writing one of the three winners who happens to be Asian. We have to because that’s our slant and angle.

“But the key here is, if I say ‘Shinya Yamanaka shared the prize with two others’. That message would have worked fine. The Indianness could have come out any way. The trigger word is ‘wife’. It’s a loaded word. She’s not just a wife – she’s an MIT professor and the youngest to win. And only the second woman to win. Someone should have briefed the editors about the era we are living in.”

Do you see a lot of this happening in your industry as well?

“I also noticed that in our writing. We have 10,000 articles – many originals and some press releases. A while back, I found that when we wrote about women, we tended write things like ‘she hopes’ or ‘she may’ – it had a degree of tentativeness, uncertainty and doubt. But when we wrote about men, it was ‘he confirmed’ or ‘he concluded’. For her, it would be ‘she shared/suggested’ for him ‘he believed/planned’. There was a dichotomy of verbs and vocabulary and it freaked me out. 

“Of course, across the board we have different writing styles and some writers are more tentative than the others, but in this case I said: ‘How can we have women coming across as so weak?’ 

“Which brings me to the manel (an all male panel): if you see five men on stage who are experts in the field, how can you believe that a woman can be good at that, if that’s all you see? Manels are a superficial manifestation of a real problem – the complete imbalance in the workplace. You have to start somewhere. In the media, the only thing I can do is call it out when I see it.”


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