ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Robin Ann Smith

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Robin Ann Smith from NESCent to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
Robin Smith pic2.jpgI’ve spent much of my life taking a grand tour of southern cities — born in New Orleans, raised in Atlanta, and schooled in Nashville. My Midwestern mother says that makes me and my sister g.r.i.t.s: Girls Raised in the South. My paternal grandmother grew up in Cajun village in south Louisiana and inspired me to study French, so I lived in France for two years during and after college. I moved to North Carolina in 1999.
Scientific background? I have a PhD in biology from Duke, where I studied plant ecology and evolution. Ask me about the mating habits of morning glories and I’ll give you an earful. Before that I did Master’s work at the University of Montpellier in France, mostly on how different mixes of plants rebound from disturbances like fire and grazing. While there I also learned to love things like tripe, cheek kisses, and strong coffee.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I’m a science writer at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), a nonprofit biology research center based in Durham, NC. NESCent is building their newsroom. That’s where I come in — my job is to help communicate some of research that comes out of the Center.
Before that I taught undergraduate writing for four years at Duke. There are several university writing programs around the country that recruit recently-minted PhDs from across the sciences and humanities to design and teach writing classes in their field. For people who want to learn more about teaching and writing it’s a wonderful opportunity. More science PhDs should apply.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
As a staff writer for a research center I handle a wide range of writing assignments. In a given week I may write a news release, a story for our newsletter or website, a project proposal, or text for a talk or brochure. I also interview researchers, read journal articles, and attend talks and conferences to find out about research in the pipeline.
My goals? I’d like to learn how to tell stories using images and audio. I recently signed up for classes in graphic design and digital photography. I also want to keep flexing my freelance muscles via non-work related stories. In my spare time you can find me hiking, dancing, or experimenting with frozen desserts and home plumbing projects.
How do social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook figure in your work? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
I was skeptical about Twitter until I started using it. It’s a news aggregator, for one. I use it to find the latest stories about a range of topics. Twitter has also been great for tapping into a universe of writers and editors and getting to know their interests. As for the cons? Between Twitter, Facebook, email, and a million other online outlets, some days my laptop feels like my external brain. I need to unplug and get outside. Time management is tricky.
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I first discovered science blogs by following traditional writers and journalists who expanded into blogging. Olivia Judson’s blog The Wild Side (now a subset of Opinionator) and Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom are great examples. I recently discovered and have gotten a huge kick out of CreatureCast, a blog and podcast series jam-packed with playful videos, animation, music and original artwork about animals. Not all of my favorites are bloggers per se, but I’m also a huge fan of Susan Milius at Science News magazine for her coverage of the plant world.
Robin Smith pic1.jpg
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
What stood out for me was the diversity of people there – researchers and writers mingling with artists, editors, librarians and educators. That’s definitely one of the things that distinguishes Science Online from other science or writing conferences I’ve been to. My one suggestion for next year: we need a bigger room for the pitch slam! I love that session.
Thanks, Bora.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I’ll see you around.

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