Debbie McClellan sat down with Alonzo (dat me) and talked about her time at Hopkins, from start to finish, as it were. We did most of this in the quietest place we could find. The mail room in the basement of Welch.  

Debbie McClellan has more than just fond memories of the Welch Library-she has a great deal of respect for the people working here. And that respect seems to have been there from day one.

“When I was a graduate student I was really in awe of the library. I was so impressed with the Welch, and the thought that I would ever be associated with it was a tremendous honor. I consider it a real  privilege to have worked here.”

“From the very beginning, I felt like I belonged because everybody made me feel very welcome. I was able to do things I liked to do: I was able to spend half my time teaching and the other half doing editing for people. So it’s been nice because the one thing feeds the other. I get all my good and bad examples from the editing I do for people, and that helps the teaching.”

When I asked about her future as an officially retired person….

“I’m going to continue to do editing. But what I’m really looking forward to is being able to have the time to travel with my husband. My youngest child is starting college, my daughter just graduated from a college in New Jersey. My husband plans to work another 4 years, till our youngest gets out of college.  Then we’ll really be free to get around.

“When I started doing editing, I felt the work was what I was really meant to do, because there aren’t many scientists who also like to work with words. I wouldn’t say I was literary--I’d say I was someone who cares about communication, and writing, and what I enjoy doing is taking the science and translating it so that the authors end up saying what they really meant to say. A lot of what I do is reading something for the scientific sense, and then trying to figure out what the author really intends. I have to try to get inside the head of the person who’s writing, because I want to make sure that their words convey just what they intended, in a clear way. AND I want to make it sound like they wrote it.  

“When an author says to me, ‘I like the way it reads now,’ I know I’ve begun to do my job; when that person doesn’t need my help any more, I’ve actually done it.

“I’ve always been a person who liked to help people, but I like to stay in the background. I learned very early on that doing science WAS NOT my thing, but helping other people get their science across to the rest of the scientific community WAS. I was telling a student the other day that I’m almost a scientific great-grandmother by now because I’ve worked with two, sometimes three “generations” of students from the same research lab. I’ve found my clients by word of mouth; I’ve never advertised anywhere except the Editing Referral Service here at Welch. I guess I’ve had about 170 clients by now, and I’m currently editing more than 100 documents a year.”  

On her vast network of national and indeed international clientele who utilize her editing service…..

“I have people all over the world that I work with, and everything’s done by e-mail.”. Debbie was very excited by the possibility of actually meeting (face-to-face) the people she’s worked with. “My dream someday is to go around the world and visit my clients and the many countries where  they live.” 

Debbie mentioned the challenges she encounters in managing the accounting aspects of being paid by different universities where different rules for banking apply, especially in Europe. “I get W-2 statements from Sweden, and all I can read on them is my name and ‘kroner’. More and more universities require you to fill out form after form. I’ve been doing work for a research center in D.C., and not only did they send me lots of forms, but I had to sign a 3-page contract, and one of the stipulations was that I had to have a million dollars in liability insurance in case anybody ever sued me if I said something wrong. I guess what they were worried about was  big operations using subcontractors. (Debbie laughs) That’s not me--I don’t ever subcontract stuff.”

When asked what she wouldn’t miss about coming to work, Debbie mentioned, “The thing I can REALLY LIVE WITHOUT is my commute.” Bike-riding Alonzo notes that if he’d gotten to Debbie sooner, she’d be on a bicycle sailing back and forth to work! Ok-OK, so I’m dreaming—it’s a LONG pull uphill on the way back to Catonsville!!

“I always tell people that my first priority is my teaching. I tell my clients, I’ll get your document done as soon as I can, but only after I’ve met my teaching commitments.” However, this seems a tad tricky in the editing business because, as Debbie says, “the key operative phrase is always---I need this tomorrow.”

Debbie observed that “this business of public speaking has always been a very, very difficult thing for me. So I tell myself, “Look, you’re not a performer, but you have something to say that people seem to value. So get up there and say it. And if your delivery’s not perfect, don’t worry about it, because people want to know about the content. I find it very fulfilling when I give a lecture and people are out there nodding in response, and I see the light bulb go on. They get it.

“One of the neat things I’ve discovered about teaching is that things that students were publishing 15-20 years ago as brand-new, experimental procedures in medicine are now practices that, years later, have become  standard of care in the field--they’re something that everybody knows or everybody uses. It’s thrilling to see the progress of science.

“My students have been wonderful. The sense of scientific camaraderie that I’ve seen in my graduate-level classes is terrific. I love to hear them commenting on each others’ writing, making important suggestions about the research or the writing that I could never have made myself. I have learned so much from my students!”

One of good things I came away with after speaking with Debbie is that she respects her craft, and she is proud of what she’s done and how she’s managed to do it. Not everybody gets to go down that road. Whether it’s for a job, or your own personal life---how many of us can hold their head up and breathe in that whiff of internal satisfaction? OK-OK, put your hands down, it’s not a test. Anyway, I’m not going to get sappy about Debbie, she’s already told me what a softie I’ve been. All I’ll say is that--- she’ll be missed.

 

Alonzo LaMont

 


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