Pete Thomson: Editor, Outdoorsman, and Athlete
After I asked Pete Thomson about being profiled for Science Editor, I was wary that there might not be enough substance for a feature-length article. Pete told me that he runs “a bit” and “likes the outdoors”. I didn’t know that Pete’s humility belied a wealth of hobbies and activities. Mark Jones—a close friend of Pete’s who backpacks, runs marathons, ice fishes, and mountain bikes with him—says, “Pete’s very humble. He does a lot of these things, but he’ll tell you that he dabbles in them.”
Pete is the editor of The New Physician, a monthly magazine published by the American Medical Student Association and intended as a lifestyle and service magazine for future physicians. He’s also an avid athlete, outdoorsman, world traveler, and photographer. Some of Pete’s mostvalued pastimes are feats of endurance: running marathons and backpacking throughout the northeastern and southern United States. Pete says that endurance activities “are easier for me. I don’t have the greatest physical attributes, but endurance comes down to mental fortitude.”
Running: A Love–Hate Relationship
Pete admits that he’s an unlikely runner. “I infrequently enjoy running for its own sake,” he says. “I like seeing the achievement. I get satisfaction when it’s done, and I see the results.” Recent “results” included running the 2008 Marine Corps Marathon.
Pete ran cross-country when he was in high school. “Looking back, I was pretty lazy,” he recalls. “I would get tired and stop. When you train for a marathon, you can’t do that.”
Pete trains about 18 weeks for each marathon he runs. He says, “The middleof-the-week runs are the hardest to do because you get done with work, and you ask yourself if you really want to run, and the answer is often no.”
Pete has both short- and long-term running goals. In the short term, “I want to focus on a short race, a 5 km, and come down to my high-school time.” Pete’s longterm goal is “to have a base to run a halfmarathon without having to train too much.”
Backpacking: Tales from the Appalachian Trail
For many of us who would probably mistake a tent pole for a giant industrial nail, backpacking is hard to define. Pete defines backpacking as being “on foot, your gear on your back, spending nights in a tent”. Although Pete has backpacked throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Adirondack Mountains (in upstate New York), he says that his most important experiences have been on the Appalachian Trail close to where he grew up on the North Carolina–Tennessee border.
Pete has been backpacking, camping, and hiking since he was a Boy Scout and later an Eagle Scout. He recalls feeling somewhat stifled by his earliest backpacking experiences. “In my area, a lot of scout troops were led by military veterans. They prefer a certain order to things. All the tents were lined up. All the brands were the same.” In high school, however, Pete made friends with “some guys that backpacked a different way”. Pete says that his high-school hiking buddies “spent way more on gear than I had as a scout, packed in more miles per day, and had more advanced experiences”. He reflects on “an attitude of freedom we had, doing serious backpacking without adults”.
As Pete grew up, his appreciation for backpacking evolved: “You learn that there’s something beyond rigidity and order and suffering,” he says. “It can be fun. It can be relaxing and silent at night. It’s not like little kids talking to each other all night long.”
Although Pete has backpacked alone, he prefers to backpack with friends and family. One of his most recent backpacking trips was through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with his wife and another couple. Pete jokes: “My wife was a bit concerned about bears. We were on the trail for about 20 minutes, and my friend and his wife were ahead of us. They saw a bear. We made a pact not to tell my wife.”
One of Pete’s backpacking dreams is “to take a couple of months and backpack throughout the Appalachian Trail”, which runs more than 2000 miles from Maine to Georgia.
Editor at The New Physician
Pete has worked at The New Physician since 2004, but he didn’t always know that he would be a journalist or editor. He remembers that when he first started at Davidson College, “I didn’t have much idea about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be premed, but I think it was consistent with the fact that 90% of the people who go to college want to be physicians.”
Pete ended up majoring in history with a concentration in Near East studies but was still unsure what he wanted to do. While an undergraduate, Pete studied in Egypt. After college, “I retreated to Egypt and went back to Cairo for a year. I went to language school for the first semester. Second semester, I taught language arts at an American high school.”
While in Egypt, Pete recognized that he wanted to be a writer. After returning from Egypt, he moved to Washington, DC, to live with some friends. From 2001 to 2003, he worked as an associate editor, copyediting for a company that put transcripts of news programming on the AP wire. “It was a good job because you never took it home with you.” While he was copyediting, he freelanced for Travel Today: Egypt, an English-language Egyptian travel magazine.
Pete saw that to learn more about journalism and editing, he needed more education. He therefore obtained a master’s degree from the S I Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. After graduation, Pete says, his wife found an ad for an associate-editor job at The New Physician. “It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for. The staff was so small that the job was a little bit of everything.” As associate editor, Pete wrote about seven features a year, managed a few departments, helped proofread the publication, and kept an eye on emerging trends in medical education and health care.
In 2007, Pete was promoted to editor of The New Physician. Aside from overseeing magazine content, he notes that his new job focuses on publishing, marketing, printing, and distribution. He also works with freelance writers and medical-student contributors “to dial their pieces in”. In addition, Pete collaborates with the magazine’s Editorial Board to “plan future issues and the magazine’s general direction”.
Pete says, “I really like this magazine. The readers are smart, so we don’t have to worry about explaining stuff too much. We don’t have to dumb things down.”
Pete observes that at times it’s challenging to work with different types of writers: medical students, resident physicians, and medical-school faculty. Medical-school faculty members “are the easiest to work with. They’ve become accustomed to editing and how that works. Working with any of those people is similar to working with a freelance writer.” In contrast, with first-time writers, such as medical students and residents, he must “work with them to meet our needs. They’ve written something for themselves, and we need something for our readers.”
One of the most difficult aspects of Pete’s job has been the commute. The New Physician is based in Reston, Virginia, and until recently Pete lived with his wife in New York City. He spent about 3 days every 2 weeks in Reston and managed what he could from his home. Pete says of the commute, “It’s never fun, and sometimes it’s been really hard.” Recently, he and his wife moved to Arlington, Virginia.
Mary Jo Lawrence, the editorial assistant at The New Physician for the last 9 years, has been working with Pete since his arrival. “Pete’s amazing. He’s a wonderful writer and manager,” she says. “I see The New Physician going far under his direction.”
Naveed Saleh is a physician–journalist, a freelance editor, and a science-journalism graduate student at Texas A&M University.