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Editor in a (60-second) spotlight – Barbara Zehnbauer

August 6, 2019 | 5 min read

By Barbara Zehnbauer

two standing lamps with blue green background

"...the journey will teach you more than you expected so stay alert to unexpected findings as well as those that meet your hypothesis"


Name: Barbara Zehnbauer

Institution: Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta, USA

Role at institution: Adjunct Professor

Journal: The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics(opens in new tab/window)

Journal role: Editor-in-Chief

  1. What inspired your career in research? I was always interested in nature as a child, exploring fields and ponds, using a small microscope, collecting rocks with shell impressions. But science classes with laboratory experiments captured my attention like nothing else. Throughout high school and college, the laboratory was the most exciting part of every class. I worked as a student in Drosophila and microbiology labs and served as a teaching assistant setting up lab demonstrations and preparing experiments for students. In graduate school, I supervised the microbiology lab experiments for first year medical students (where I met my future husband). Molecular genetics and clinical genetics soon developed into my passion more than teaching or basic research because the results of those assays are used to guide clinical decisions in patient care. Nothing is more rewarding than the impact you can have to help patients.

  2. How would you describe a typical working day? A typical working day starts with checking calendars and emails. While I am no longer active in the laboratory, my editor responsibilities and consultant duties keep me very involved in molecular pathology. Usually I want to clear any editor tasks first thing in the morning because a timely turn-around is important to keep the work flowing for the managing staff and for authors. There are usually a few conference calls to update the status of ongoing projects, perhaps a webinar to keep abreast of new developments, and keeping up with regulatory issues through professional organizations. Then I settle into my writing assignments for the journal, for project manuscripts, and for guideline development. Planning new directions for the journal and other organizational initiatives are also on my rotating list.

  3. How do you measure success in your work? Most of my work is collaborative with multiple stakeholders so I measure success when we achieve collective understanding and support consensus decisions for action - whether this concerns manuscript decisions, project directions, or data interpretations. These all bring me satisfaction and a sense of professional accomplishment. Sharing insights and impact of study results with colleagues and stakeholders is the ultimate success.

  4. Do you have any particular advice for younger researchers? Work on challenges that excite you. Research requires a lot of focus and continued dedication of time and personal energy so make sure you are working on something that inspires you. It will be easier to engage your imagination to think creatively and boost your spirit through disappointments. There will be peaks and valleys during the process but adapt your approach to achieve the goals. As in many endeavours, the journey will teach you more than you expected so stay alert to unexpected findings as well as those that meet your hypothesis.

  5. What drove you to become an Editor? When the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics started there were few journals to publish clinical molecular genetics studies in cancer, genetics, or infectious disease. It was started as the society journal of the Association for Molecular Pathology, also a relatively new discipline. Now there are other journals in this field but for me the opportunity to support the dissemination of innovative, practical papers describing the work of colleagues in molecular pathology was a privilege to serve both the journal and my professional “home”.

  6. What is the most rewarding aspect of editorial work for you and what do you find difficult about the role? Most rewarding is our publication of laboratory best practice guidelines which provide access to important quality recommendations for many laboratories' processes and procedures. The guidelines are a key resource for quality standards and professional practice.

    Most difficult is seeing manuscript submissions that are outside the scope of JMD. The authors have put in so much work on their science and manuscript preparation but have wasted time by not focusing on the appropriate audience to target for publication.

  7. What is the most important attribute for being an editor? Critical thinking to identify what is innovative and significant about each new submission is essential. I look at the quality of the science that is described and compare it to what may have already been published. I always ask myself "will the methodology or conclusions be valuable to our readers and advance their understanding of similar diagnostic situations?"

  8. Name one item/tool/resource that you cannot do without in your editorial role? The most essential resource is creative, quality manuscripts from practitioners of molecular pathology. Next are the colleagues that contribute their expertise as editors and reviewers to help authors improve their submissions.

  9. What would you be doing now if you were not X? If I were not an Editor-in-Chief, I would still work with my professional societies and projects to support efforts for laboratory quality improvement. Personally, my curiosity would compel me to travel and read more widely. I would also like to better understand architectural design.

  10. What is the most interesting image/photograph you have come across in your journal? No clear favorite comes immediately to mind. My idea of effective images are those which convey the workflow and stepwise processes of assay methods. These convey an immediate sense of the techniques and decision points for optimization. One example is Figure 1, comparing amplicon and capture hybridization workflows for next generation sequencing (NGS) [Jennings et al. Guidelines for Validation of Next-Generation Sequencing–Based Oncology Panels: A Joint Consensus Recommendation of the Association for Molecular Pathology and College of American Pathologists(opens in new tab/window)J Mol Diagn 19: p341-365.]

comparing amplicon and capture hybridization workflows