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A well-placed edit: Scientific Editor changed career plans

October 5, 2019

Vani Shanker, PhD, of Scientific Editing, is a native of India.

Vani Shanker, PhD, of Scientific Editing, is a native of India.

Vani Shanker, PhD, routinely drives her children to after-school activities.

"I'm like an Uber driver who doesn't get paid," she said.

But she enjoys sharing her love of music while riding with her 16-year-old daughter, Asavari, a member of the National Honor Choir, and 13-year-old son, Upamanyu, a promising pianist and percussionist.

"We just jam sometimes," Shanker said.

A native of India, Shanker is a senior scientific editor in the Department of Scientific Editing at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She was born in the ancient city of Varanasi in the state of Utter Pradesh; however, she thinks of Delhi, the capital, as home.

"Dilwalon ki Dilli" (translation: Delhi belongs to the big hearted) captures the city's vibe, Shanker said. For 31 years, she resided in Delhi, where "huge technology hubs coexist with 12th-century monuments, such as the Qutub Minar and Red Fort."

She was smitten with music from about age 7. "I used to sit on the windowsill and listen to music for hours," said Shanker, recalling many luminous moonlit nights spent humming the "intricate poetry" in lyrics.

"I was introvertish," she explained. Shanker spent much of her childhood going to the library, reading books and doing homework.

Shanker's father, a self-made top official in the Indian government, and mother, a college-educated homemaker with an "engineering mind," emphasized learning. Shanker, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Delhi University, attended top schools.

However, when wrapping up her PhD dissertation, Shanker realized that she was not cut out for a traditional research career; her passion lay elsewhere.

"I was always interested in the mechanics of writing. I used to edit my seniors' theses and they'd find it helpful," Shanker said.

So, she switched fields and edited journals and books for top-tier publishers outsourcing work to India. Soon, she was committed to the field of scientific editing.

Shanker came to the U.S. with her husband Shree Shanker, PhD, who was moving to the States for a postdoc position. They landed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago one week after 9/11. Shree later completed a postdoctoral fellowship at St. Jude in the Department of Biochemistry and currently works as a physician assistant at a local neurology clinic.

Shanker's first day at St. Jude was more than 12 years ago, which meant ending a productive freelance career. "I love my job," she said. Shanker and four other credentialed scientific editors edit manuscripts, grants, and book chapters, among other documents.

"We make scientific documents accurate, clear, and organized," Shanker said. The department's editors tweak the text to improve overall coherence and readability, check grammar and punctuation, strike unnecessary/misused words and jargon, and format the documents.  

Who might benefit from Scientific Editing's services?

All research staff who want to increase the odds of publication, Shanker said. Non-native English speakers, in particular, sometimes need extra help with language editing.

When Shanker isn't working, she finds refuge in music.

"I listen to music all the time," she said. "Apart from Indian music, I also enjoy Western, Caribbean and Latin-American rhythms."

She sang with a Memphis group to raise funds for cancer centers in India. She was also part of the singing troupe for the famous Bollywood music director Shankar Mahadevan during his U.S. tour. But these days, the working mother of two sings in the car and other less public spaces.

"She's an incredible editor," said Angela McArthur, PhD, director of Scientific Editing, introducing Shanker to research faculty and staff at a recent writing seminar.

At one point, Shanker presented elements of a well-written abstract, the summary of a research article. She used an apt comparison to emphasize its importance: "It's like a movie trailer," she said. "If you like the trailer, you see the movie."

Shanker, the girl who once relished moonlit evenings sitting on her windowsill listening to music, changed the trailer for her own life story. Instead of continuing to be the traditional bench scientist, she introduced a well-placed edit in her career to, in her own small way, make a contribution to the reporting and dissemination of research worldwide.

A few of Shanker's favorite things:

  • Rasam, a sour, spicy soup eaten with rice. "No one can beat the rasam my mother makes."
  • Carrom, a game played on a wooden board with small wooded disks.
  • Crosswords with her dad. "It triggered my love for words."
  • Traveling, hiking, and watching movies with her family.

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