Emily Schuster's Dimensions

by Xinyi Zhou '10

Emily Schuster ’94 is the editor of the Association of Science-Technology Centers’ (ASTC) award-winning magazine Dimensions, read by museum and science center professionals in 45 countries worldwide. Before joining ASTC six years ago, Schuster worked as an editor, writer and educator at museums and institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of National History, Folger Shakespeare Library and HIllwood Estate, Museums and Gardens. She received her M.A. in Museum Education from Tufts University and her B.A. in English from Johns Hopkins University. A passionate singer, Schuster was one of the original founders of what is now Montgomery Blair High School’s a cappella group InToneNation. We talk with Emily  about her time in the Blair Magnet, how she got into publications and what it’s like to edit a magazine issue from start to finish. 

Emily Schuster
Tell us a little about your Magnet experience. What classes and teachers do you remember?

My favorite class was Origins of Science with Mr. Donaldson. That was so eye-opening, especially because in our year some students asked him about teaching science from non-Western cultures. He had the students participate in teaching that because it wasn't his area of expertise, but he wanted to learn about it as well. So we were all involved in crafting the class. It was extremely creative and hands-on and I learned so much. In general, I was always most interested in the science parts of the program. So I really enjoyed physics with Mr. Donaldson, chemistry with Mr. Gotwals and then in junior year I got to choose science electives. So I took Origins [of Science, with Mr. Donaldson] and Analytical Chemistry with Mr. Pham, which was really fun because we got to play with all the machines.  You got to pick a real world problem and design your own experiment around it. That really felt like you were doing real science. 
 
For my senior project, I worked at the National Zoo. I studied anti-predator behaviors in golden lion tamarinds, which are monkeys from Brazil. That was a great experience and really solidified my interest in formal science institutions, which now has translated mostly to museums. That also showed me that I didn't really want to do scientific research because I felt I didn't have the patience for it -- although for editing, you have to have a different kind of patience. So that experience pointed me towards the future of what I wanted to do. 

What clubs were you a part of? I saw that Alenda Chang and you were some of the founders of what is now InToneNation? 
 
...It was the four of us, back at the end of freshman year. It was me, Alenda Chang, Renee Olano and Roxanne Hoch, who is now Roxanne McCarley. We were just hanging out one day in the computer lab and talking: we want to sing something for Magnet Arts Night, let's start an a cappella group. We rehearsed that summer, in 1991, and performed at Magnet Arts Night the next year. And we were terrible. Soon after that, we got a couple of guys involved and the group got a bit bigger. I still have all the videos. If you watch them in succession it's very funny and scary, but it does get better as we go along. By the end of our senior year we finally did a full-length concert. When we went to college there were three people left, so they held auditions in fall of 1994 to start InToneNation. Now it's been 20 years and we're all just amazed it's still around and going so well. They're so talented; I was so impressed seeing them at the anniversary concert.

What got you started in publications? Did you work with the newspaper or any other publications at Blair? 
 
I would usually start off the year trying to do Silver Quill, the literary magazine, and then I would get involved in theater, which was practically every day and I didn't have time to continue through the whole process. So my main activities in high school were singing, a cappella in Accidental Harmony and chamber choir, and plays. I did props and I did the musical. I always wanted to be a writer, since I was seven, so I took creative writing at Blair, but in terms of publishing I really got experience in college. I did the college paper, and I did an internship at the Smithsonian press for a couple years. Then I worked at the National Zoo's magazine for a summer after I graduated and I eventually ended up editing full-time.

How did you decide on the type of writing you wanted to do? 
 
Originally my main interest was in writing for children, which I am still interested in but haven't worked in professionally for a while. So my first real job was at a classroom magazine for children. It was a science magazine called Science Weekly, where I would come up with some text about a certain topic and it was written on all different grade levels from Kindergarten to 6th grade. There were a lot of different hands-on activities that we would design. That was fun; that was a great job. After that I started thinking about possibly wanting to move into museums. I had a friend, also at Blair, who had done a museum education graduate program at GWU. I was like, wow you can do that? I never thought about that as a graduate school option. I also thought I might want to work in museums, and I loved working at the zoo, so I saw a job ad for the Natural History Museum and started working there as a writer and editor. From then on I was pretty much hooked on museums. 

You're currently an editor for the magazine of ASTC, Dimensions. What exactly does being an editor involve? 
 
http://astc.org/pubs/dimensions.htm
It depends on where I am in the cycle of the publication. Pretty soon we're going to be planning the next year of issues. We do six issues a year. We make a plan for the year and we brainstorm story ideas together for each issue. Right now I'm working on one on community engagement. I always try to get as good a balance as I can of large and small museums and of different countries. This one is really good in the diversity of countries -- we've got Colombia, Slovenia, Canada, Egypt, the UK, Malaysia, Brazil, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, and the US. So I've got authors from all those countries writing. I'm very excited -- that's what I aim for, I don't always get that many countries. Then they all write drafts -- they're not professional writers and many of them are writing in a second language so it's challenging for them. They send them in to me, and I have a consultant that helps me and we go back and forth with them a couple of times. We might need to ask some questions to clarify things, or get them to provide some practical information that our members can use in their own context. And of course there's just things like editing for style and language if they're not a native English speaker. 
  
The cover is always a big challenge. Sometimes it's this really difficult process of getting a cover and then you end up with something really awesome, like this last issue that I just finished about storytelling in museums. I just wanted a picture of a storyteller telling a story to a group and I could not get anything decent at all. We ended up using a painting of a Navajo story about how Coyote scattered the stars in the sky. That's a story that incorporates traditional knowledge, but also has relationships to modern science and understanding of astronomy. That image turned out so cool and was not at all what I had in mind. So that was a fun way to go through and end up with a cover I was really happy with after a lot of failure. 
 
Each issue has 8 or 9 departments. We'll talk about new exhibits that have opened, we'll put a controversial question out and have people send in answers, we've got interviews, lots of different things. So once all the copy and photos are ready it goes to the designer. My designers are really brilliant so I'm always excited to see what they've done when it comes back. Then it's a matter of me going through and nitpicking, making sure everything is italicized where it's supposed to be, that all the photos are cropped well and everything is working together. We go back and forth a couple of times, it goes to a copy editor, and once we're finished, it goes to the printer. Then the print version gets mailed and the electronic version gets emailed and we start the next one. 

That sounds really fun.
 
It is fun! It's like a puzzle, it's just a continual challenge, it's problem solving. I've always loved that part of it, and getting to meet people all around the world and learning about what they do; it's very intriguing and energizing. I enjoy it a lot. I get to see them about once a year in person because most of them are members of our association and we have an annual conference. So it's always fun when my email inbox comes to life, when I get to meet the people I've been emailing all year. 
 
So what's next for you? 
 
I still really love it [at Dimensions]. I'm very challenged by it and I still really enjoy it after six years. They've been so great to me and my family, giving me flexibility and a part-time schedule. Having young kids, it's really a great situation. And I love the field and all the stories that are still left to tell. Maybe many years in the future I might want to get back into a museum -- right now I'm in an office, so I talk to museums all the time but I'm not actually in one. Sometimes I miss being in a museum, because of that extremely dynamic environment. But for now I expect to be at ASTC for the foreseeable future. It's really a lot of fun.