ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Jelka Crnobrnja

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 Jelka Crnobrnja-Isailovic from the University of Belgrade, Serbia, 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?
Jela pic.jpgI was born and I live in Belgrade, a very unique old city in Southeastern Europe. It is now the capital of the Republic of Serbia. My origins are in the Balkan peninsula (former Yugoslavia), which is one of three important biodiversity refuges of Europe and a famous gene-flow route from east to west, north to south and vice versa. Wonderful diversity of natural and cultural heritage but lot of hard times. So, my professional interest for biodiversity and, unofficially, cultural diversity conservation dates back from my early childhood. I also used to spend a lot of time in virtual space of myths and fairy tales of the world and it turned me into a real, complete cosmopolitan. Now, in many places in the world I really feel at home and do not like borders at all.
My fascination with wilderness, especially snakes, dates back to the time when I was about five years old. Apart from that, I was also very devoted to music and painting, later writing and photography. Thanks to my father, an academic musician, I became familiar with the best of classical music before entering primary school. So, speaking about formal education, it was difficult to choose between journalism, art and science. But, adventurous nature combined with restricted contact with the real wilderness because my parents were very scared of everything (and family opinion was that „girls should play with dolls”), finally directed me to biology. I was formally trained as evolutionary biologist (PhD) with origins in population biology and herpetology (graduate studies). Once I had discovered conservation biology, some 20 years ago, it became my leading star.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
There were almost no chances for young scientists in Serbia to design independent projects before obtaining PhD, what I did in 1997. But, even after that, system was pretty rigid, until beginning of XXI Century. So, I started with first independent project in 2002, focused on evolution of life history traits in some amphibian and reptile species with the idea to apply non-invasive procedures for collecting data and to establish long term monitoring of particular populations for their conservation. Before that, I was mostly oriented toward population genetics and multivariate morphology. In 2003 I won two small grants – that was an amazing feeling after so many years of isolation: Societas Europaea Herpetologica Grant for pilot study on endangered European viper species Vipera ursinii in Montenegro and DAPTF Seed Grant for assessment of Great Crested Newt breeding sites in Serbia. Monitoring of that particular Vipera ursinii population is still in progress and the goal is to establish and maintain good database upon which population status could be regularly checked in the future. I think that I am right when I say that it is the first long term population monitoring of a reptile species in this part of the Balkans, if not in the whole area.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I started with a teaching job some years ago when I realized that it is pretty masochistic trying to stay 100% employed in science in Serbia, especially if you are out of local politics and trying to work honestly in ecology and biodiversity protection. Nowadays, even work with students takes a lot of my time. I am dividing my time between science and teaching at the university. I am teaching Organic Evolution and Conservation Biology at different levels -undergraduate and graduate at Faculty of Sciences and Mathematics at University of Nis, and some aspects of conservation biology on PhD studies at the Biology Faculty at the University of Belgrade. Apart from that, I am devoted to cooperation with IUCN as a member of Amphibian Specialist Group and Red List Assessor Team. Also, I am currently involved in making Strategy of Biodiversity Conservation in Serbia as a member of an UNDP expert team and I would like to take part in changing the system there in a way that young people, trained well during their biology and ecology studies, after reaching graduate level, have real opportunity for jobs in biodiversity conservation. I recognize in my students very strong will to work in biodiversity conservation but most of them, after graduating, must accept completely different jobs for a living or they cannot find job at all, and in the same time there is no continuous biodiversity monitoring in Serbia in local communities at all.
Personally, I would like to complete just one but really good conservation study and think that maybe for that I should move somewhere else where society really appreciates and understands it. And I hope that it will happen. Somewhere in the world, does not matter where, biodiversity is valuable to be protected everywhere in the world.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I was surprised when I realized how much you people in the States are using internet facilities for communication and really want to ask you: do you have time for communication with your family members on the daily basis if, after working hours (and I suppose that your working day lasts at least eight hours), you still have enough energy for blogging? It is really amazing!
For both me and most of my colleagues, simple and fast access to literature is very important. In comparison to the situation some 20 years ago it is better now for sure. Good thing is that Open Access idea is spreading inevitably across the Globe. It is very important to have free access to scientific literature, especially for students and free lancers in science, who have no funds to pay subscriptions to journal editors and libraries.
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?
Science blogs are very interesting but, as I mentioned before, I have no time at the moment to engage myself there as much as I would like to. I am using Facebook for networking with students and colleagues and relatives and friends but have no time to visit it often. Generally, in these days when we face a lot of obstacles such as global economic crisis for example, it is wonderful that there is an alternative for exchange of information; for example, I recently participated in online training organized by IUCN, instead of classical workshop that could cost a lot. Opportunities for cooperation are easier with these new tools and it is good that, using them, you can add some personal dimension to communication, to show to others what are your hobbies, which music do you like, it is important for us as social creatures.
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?
The first science blog I started to read was A Blog Around The Clock. The title was intriguing; it reminded me of famous “Rock around the Clock” so I took a look in order to find there some nostalgic rock stories from the 60ies. But it was a surprise – and nice surprise I can say – the story was about the science. And, I must confess that my consequent diving into the blog world used to begin from the “Blog Around The Clock” platform.
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?
This was my first Science Online conference, but not the last, I hope. Diversity of attendants was amazing, looking at their professional backgrounds. The strongest feelings were provoked by all these brave women and men that continue to fight against mediocrity in science.
The idea about meeting places or science motels where freelance scientists could have opportunity to realize their projects is absolutely fabulous, though its realization couldn’t be easy and we discussed a little bit about that at the end of the session. Anyway, it is clear that new organizational patterns for doing science are inevitable, and some modular way of organization seems very realistic.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

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