ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Elia Ben-Ari

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 Elia Ben-Ari of the To Be Determined blog 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?
Elia Ben-Ari pic2.JPGThanks for asking! I was born in Israel, came to the U.S. with my parents when I was two years old, and grew up mainly in suburban Long Island, New York. I went to graduate school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where I learned to say y’all and met my wonderful husband. He and I have lived, worked, and played in the Washington, DC, area for the past 21 years–first in Maryland and now in Virginia.
I’m a science writer and editor, focusing on the life sciences. Throughout my somewhat checkered career, I’ve always worked at communicating science clearly and accurately and, I hope, engagingly. I especially enjoy stories where science and the humanities intersect. I love learning new and cool things about biology and following the ups, downs, ins and outs (and gossip) of the science journalism world. I’m a somewhat shy extrovert and have learned that staying connected with people is crucial for my happiness and well being. As for my scientific background, I have an A.B. in biochemistry from Brown University and a Ph.D. in pharmacology from UVA. Signal transduction–that is, how cells convert signals from the outside to events inside the cell–was probably my first true love in science.
The farther along I got in grad school, the less convinced I was that I wanted to be a scientist. But, being stubborn, I finished my Ph.D. and mostly don’t regret it. Like most people who’ve switched from doing science to writing about it, my interests were way too broad for me to be happy focusing on a tiny little area of research. I also was that annoying person who’d point out spelling errors and typos in other people’s posters when they put them up in the hallway before going to a meeting. Writing my dissertation was a breeze compared to finishing up the lab work.
Somewhere along the way I got the idea that I might like being a science writer and conveying my enthusiasm for science to nonscientists, though I wasn’t sure exactly what that involved. I applied for a science journalism fellowship but wasn’t selected. So I decided to take a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute and see how that went.
Two years into a three-year postdoc, I was miserable. My husband encouraged me (that’s putting it mildly) to quit complaining and find a job that I liked. I was incredibly lucky to land a job through an ad I saw in Science as Meeting Reviews Editor at a start-up cell and molecular biology journal, The New Biologist. I was nervous about leaving the lab, but have never looked back. We had a wonderful managing editor, Ruth Kulstad, who mentored me and taught me to edit less timidly. I invited scientists to write reviews of interesting meetings and worked with them in editing their reviews. I got to travel to a few scientific meetings and write about them, including one in the Swiss Alps, on signal transduction. It was a great first job. A year after I started, the journal went under and the five staffers were handed our severance packages. That was my introduction to the real world.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
Elia Ben-Ari pic1.JPGIt’s been more of a meander than a trajectory. After getting laid off from my first job in publishing and making lots of cold calls to network, I managed to convince some folks at the National Institutes of Health that I could write about science for the general public. As a science writer and public information officer for the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), one of the smallest NIH institutes with one of the longest names, I learned a great deal about science and health communications.
After five or so years at NIAMS and a couple of years as Deputy Director (i.e., low-level manager) of the public information office, I was ready for a change, and wanted to try my hand at science journalism. Energized by attending the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, I started searching for a job and was hired as Features Editor at BioScience, a monthly biology journal that has nothing to do with biomedical science.
I had a lot of latitude at BioScience, and wrote about subjects ranging from elephant communication, to botanical illustration (one of my favorites), to geomicrobiology. (Note: Most of the original articles/PDFs with illustrations are behind a paywall.) Another feature story I particularly enjoyed working on was about one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner, and his role in the conservation movement in the U.S. One of the best parts of the job was talking to scientists about their work, and I always gathered way too much information for my stories. I also enjoyed working with the freelancers who wrote for the journal.
While at BioScience I applied for the Marine Biological Laboratory’s science journalism fellowship in environmental science and was thrilled to be accepted. Thus followed a fun and stimulating week in Woods Hole, doing hands-on science that was very different from the lab work I was used to (I’d never had to don hip waders before), and talking science writing and journalism with other writers.
I left BioScience after some changes at the journal and decided to try my hand at freelancing. That was longer ago than I care to admit. As a freelancer I’ve done a wide range of writing and editing for various audiences (are you sensing a theme here?), including straight journalism and work for nonprofits and several NIH institutes. I wrote a couple of stories for the now-defunct health section of the Washington Post, and still write occasionally for BioScience. I helped the NY-based Alliance for Lupus Research launch a quarterly newsletter for its constituencies, wrote all the content for the newsletter, and did other writing for the organization. I wrote a short piece about microbial biofilms for National Wildlife, and interviewed two malaria researchers visiting from Mali for a story I wrote for an NIH publication. Those are just a few of the highlights that spring to mind.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Meanwhile, my goal in my work remains to communicate clearly and accurately about science, and to do so as engagingly as possible. I also want to keep honing my writing skills, and maybe explore new forms of writing such as the personal essay. I want to continue learning new things and keep up with biology, new technologies, and the ever-changing landscape of science communication and journalism. And stay young forever, of course. But if I can’t do that, I want to age gracefully.
On the work front, at the moment I have a freelance contract to write part-time for the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Communications and Education. I’ve been writing various materials for the public, which go up on the Web at cancer.gov. And I may soon have more work for another NIH institute. I’m hoping I’ll still have time and energy to do some freelance journalism, and perhaps I’ll decide to focus more on that again in the future. I’m open to new and interesting opportunities. I’ve also just become a board member for the DC Science Writers Association.
My work is important, but it’s not my life. I have too many other interests: spending time with my husband, friends, and family (and our cat, Minou), yoga, photography, reading (mainly fiction), theater, travel, cooking, cross-country skiing, getting outdoors and enjoying nature. I could go on. I often describe myself as a dabbler, but someone I know said I was a Renaissance woman, which sounds so much better, don’t you think?
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
As a dabbler–er, I mean Renaissance woman–I’m interested in just about everything related to science communication, including the use of the Web as well as more traditional media. I hope the Web will help in communicating science more effectively and engagingly to a larger public, because I think that’s critical for an enlightened society. So many issues that we face in the world are related to science, and not enough people have the basic knowledge to understand those issues. If I can contribute to that knowledge in some small way, I’ll be pleased.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
I came home from ScienceOnline2010 feeling reenergized and excited about communicating science, and decided to start a blog, which I called To Be Determined. But I’m still figuring out how to keep up with it and what to write about. I don’t see it as a central part of my work right now. It’s more of an opportunity to experiment with my writing, which I mentioned is a goal, and perhaps show off some of my photos, too.
I got hooked on Twitter about a year ago, after attending a panel discussion on social media for science writers at a DC Science Writers Association event. (As you know, I tweet as @smallpkg.) I then wrote a story on scientists and Twitter for BioScience, and that’s what led me to you, Bora, and ultimately to the ScienceOnline2010 meeting. I view Twitter as being more for my professional side, and find it great for keeping up with what other science writers and people in the journalism and writing worlds are doing and saying, getting links to interesting blog posts and articles that I might not find otherwise, and connecting with all sorts of interesting people. I use Facebook mainly for social purposes, though I’ve posted links to some of my blog posts on Facebook as well as Twitter.
For me, all the online activity is a bit of a mixed blessing, though I see it as a net positive that is necessary for keeping up with the times and with my field. I love finding interesting, clever, or thought-provoking blog posts and stories about science and medicine. I enjoy being active on Twitter and Facebook and keeping up with people and events that way, but they can be a time sink and a great way to procrastinate on getting my writing assignments done. I try to contribute to Twitter when I can, rather than just lurking there, and I enjoy having an online persona via Twitter. I just wish I could get by on less sleep so I could spend more time online and get more work done.
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I’m not sure, but I think the first science blogs I read may have been on the NY Times website. I started reading a lot more blogs after I began using Twitter. Many of the blogs I read are written by people who were at the conference, and I tend to dip in and sample sporadically and as time permits. I hate to name favorites, but some that I enjoy and find thoughtful are Ivan Oransky’s Embargo Watch, Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, DeLene Beeland’s Wild Muse, David Kroll’s Terra Sigillata, David Dobbs’s Neuron Culture, and of course your A Blog Around the Clock.
What were the best aspects 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?
The best aspects for me were meeting new and interesting people, the mix of participants from different fields, and the “un-conference,” participatory nature of the sessions. I’ve rarely felt so comfortable chiming in at a meeting. It was also great meeting people whom I’d known only via Twitter until then. And as I mentioned, all the talk about blogging inspired me to start my own blog. The conference also gave me renewed energy for being a science communicator and participating in that community. As for next year, I think it will be a challenge to include as many people as possible while maintaining the relatively intimate nature of the conference. And who knows, I may even come up with an idea for a session for ScienceOnline2011.
It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

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