ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Tom Linden

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 Tom Linden from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
lindenportrait_mug.jpgMy passion always has revolved around journalism. When as a scrawny 13-year-old, I failed to make the starting nine on my JV high school baseball team, I was devastated. Rather than wait for my body to catch up to my aspirations, I jumped into journalism, eventually becoming my high school newspaper’s sports editor and editor-in-chief. I loved words and stories and so continued on my writing path through college where I was a columnist and editor for the Yale Daily News. As a senior at Yale, I covered for the Los Angeles Times the pretrial hearings of several Black Panthers accused of murder in New Haven, Conn. After graduation I worked on the city desk of the Times.
After taking a year off to do research for a book (that never materialized), I suffered a case of writer’s block and decided to pursue a career that would give me tools to travel around the world and practice a new craft… medicine. Within weeks of registering for med school, I realized that the journalism bug never left me. I completed med school and a residency in adult and child psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation, then in Topeka, Kans., and started a private practice in which I subsidized what I would call my “journalism addiction.” I worked at a small local television station in the northern Sacramento Valley where I became the health reporter and eventually the 5 o’clock news anchor. In 1989 CNBC hired me to join their start-up cable news venture as both a medical and environmental reporter and a financial news anchor. For the next eight years I worked for a variety of television stations and networks, including the Financial News Network, KRON-TV (San Francisco), Fox-11 (Los Angeles) and Lifetime Medical Television. I also started anchoring Journal Watch Audio, produced by the Audio-Digest Foundation and the Massachusetts Medical Society. In 1995 I co-authored one of the first books on the medical Internet, Dr. Tom Linden’s Guide to Online Medicine. In 1997 the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hired me to start a medical journalism program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
As part of our program in medical and science journalism, my students and I have produced a couple documentaries with an environmental focus and more than 25 feature stories for North Carolina Public Television. I also just authored a book, The New York Times Reader: Health and Medicine, published by CQ Press. The book is both a compendium of great stories from The Times and a how-to manual for aspiring medical and health writers.
For the future I’m interested in producing a sequel to our Environmental Heroes documentary and continuing to help educate medical and science journalists.
Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?
I grow most of my own vegetables and fruit from May through November. I’ve just planted seven fig trees that I cloned over the winter and have more starter tomatoes, peppers and eggplants than I know what to do with. I voraciously follow the news and love walking in the forests of North Carolina. My family loves to travel, but travel and maintaining a major garden (small farm) don’t always mesh. I also love to hear good music. In North Carolina there’s lots of it.
Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)?
I was born in California and have lived on both coasts and on the Plains (Kansas) which is very oceanic if you live in the countryside. If I had unlimited resources, I would live by the sea. Philosophically, I am a skeptic and question just about everything.
What is your (scientific) background?
As I said above, I went to medical school and took the usual courses. Science used to intimidate me, but does no longer. I’ve learned more about medicine by reporting on it, than I did in the hours and days that I spent studying it.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days?
Writing The New York Times Reader: Health & Medicine took most of my free time over the last year and a half. Now that the book has been published, I’m looking for a new project. I keep getting drawn to environmental issues since climate change and the destruction of the earth’s natural habitats loom as the biggest issues facing humankind. The challenge is to find stories that inspire action and not just induce fear.
What are your goals?
I’d like to see young people (i.e., everyone under the age of 30) do a better job of taking care of the planet than their parents and grandparents. I’d like to help them do that in any way that I can.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
Clearly the Web is the pipeline through which knowledge will travel over the next couple decades. I’m looking for ways to reach non-scientists with information that will both engage and inform them. As a television journalist, I see video as probably the most powerful tool to reach masses of people. The challenge is to how tell video stories in ways that both entertain and educate.
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 have a blog, “Dr. Tom Linden’s Health Blog“, but am still trying to figure out what my blog voice is. I’ve taken a little hiatus in updating the blog during the course of writing my latest book, but hope to post more often in the days ahead. In tweeting a lot at a recent conference of the <a href="” target=”_blank” title=””>Assn. of Health Care Journalists, I got an appreciation for how much fun tweeting is.
Online activity is both a joy and a burden. I love staying connected with what’s happening around the world, but find it hard to control the beast. If you’re a journalist, you need to be comfortable with the entire toolkit.
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?
David Kroll (Abel Pharmboy) and Anton Zuiker were my first science blogging mentors. I’m a fickle blogging reader and will follow a link at anything that piques my interest.
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?
I love the networking that goes on at ScienceOnline. After each session I pore over the Web reading about the people I’ve just met. I liked Ivan Oransky’s suggestion in a previous Q&A about having full disclosure for all speakers and panel members at future conferences. Also, it would be nice to get back to the un-conference mode of the first few ScienceOnline meetings. Keep up the great work, Bora, David, Anton and everyone else who brings us this ScienceOnline gift every year.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you soon.

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