ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Fenella Saunders

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 Fenella Saunders from The American Scientist 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?
Fenalla Saunders pic.jpgI was born in England, raised in New York City, did my undergraduate at Duke University in North Carolina, went back to New York for 10 years, then came back to NC five years ago. I have a master’s degree in animal behavior from Hunter College of the City University of New York, where I did my thesis on the interactions of proboscis monkeys in captivity. My undergraduate degree is in computer science with a minor in Japanese, although I chose my major with the concept of going into science journalism.
While I was at college I discussed the education I would need with a number of science journalists, all of whom told me that an education in science, with outside projects to get journalism experience, was the best way to go. (I am from the era just before when it became pretty much standard for science writers to go to an MA program for science journalism.) A computer science major allowed me to study a broad range of sciences and technology, and it also gave me a backup plan in case journalism didn’t work out. At school I wrote for any venue I could get into (and I was lucky that in addition to a regular school paper with a health/medicine section, Duke had both a student-run science and a technology magazine), and in my senior year I wrote a couple of small pieces freelance for Popular Mechanics.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
My career started when I landed an internship at Discover Magazine, then got hired on. It was largely a matter of luck and timing: They had a lot of biology people and needed someone with a technology background. I stayed at Discover for about eight years, and ended up also being the online editor toward the end of that time. There were a ton of great moments at that job, but I would have to say my favorite one was when they allowed me to start writing about a different, new robot in each month’s news section. It was a series that lasted 2-3 years, and I never ran out of new robotics research to write about. During that time I freelanced a little, most notably as a co-author for a Time-Life book called “Space 2100.” I left Discover to work on publications for NYU School of Medicine for about two years, which was a very different experience. Probably the best part of that job was learning all about really high-powered MRI machines. For the past five years I’ve been at American Scientist, where I am now a senior editor. It is both fascinating and a challenge working with different scientists each issue, trying to get them to explain their own work for a general audience. I couldn’t even begin to pick a favorite from all of the articles I’ve helped bring to print–it could be anything from Champagne bubbles to snow flakes to honeybee nest relocation.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
American Scientist is published every two months, so we always confront the problem of remaining timely. We want to find more ways to keep in contact with our readers between issues. We recently relaunched our Web site, which allowed us to better keep up with technology in a few ways. We’re now able to embed video with the online versions of articles. We now also post podcasts of our lunch-speaker series. I am excited that I have been chosen as a fellow to attend on of the Knight Digital Media Center’s multimedia workshops, where I’ll learn more about how to edit audio, video and maybe program some Flash animation. I am hoping that after I attend that workshop, I will be better equipped to have us do more multimedia for the magazine online.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
The immediacy of the Web still is its biggest advantage in my mind. Something can be posted for all of the world to see within minutes, and if you are looking for information on a specific topic, a quick search will pull up enough reading to last hours. It’s a very democratic platform, as anyone can post on it, but that makes it all the more important to make sure that sources are reputable and verifiable–I am pretty sure that we all rely too much on the truthfulness of Wikipedia these days. I am also hopeful that the Web can make information, about science or anything, more accessible to people who, say, don’t have the luxury of going to college, or find themselves in a position of having to learn about something new that they never thought about doing.
That being said, I am still unsure of how the print vs. online debate is going to shake out. There is something to be said for picking up a whole magazine, not just a specific article you were looking for. It is broadening to be exposed to topics you might not have even realized existed. People are busy, so in some ways it’s faster just to pick up a print copy rather than have to search and dig online. Perhaps platforms such as the iPad will change all this. But I know that, when I have the time, just browsing through publications in the library is the best way for me to get new ideas.
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?
It’s fairly bizarre for a publication not to use all social-media platforms possible these days. We send out a daily and a weekly conglomeration of science news, and we tweet about these entries daily as well. We also use twitter to talk about what’s in our latest issue, and we tweet about any news that relates to a past story that we have done. We have groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. We don’t have a set blog yet, although we are working on it, but our Computing Science columnist, Brian Hayes, has a regular one at bit-player.org.
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?
Carl Zimmer is a former colleague of mine at Discover magazine, and he was an early entry into the blogosphere, so his was probably the first blog that I followed. I was happy to meet Ed Yong at the conference, and I follow his blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science.” I’ve also been following Rebecca Skloot’s blog about her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
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 really liked the fact that there were kids at the conference. Kids often are not brought into the dialogue when discussing science, particularly science journalism. Sometimes they are the target audience, but they are rarely part of the process. For a few years we did a mentoring program with a local middle school where we’d have kids come in for a week, but they’d rotate, so I’d get each student for only one day. I challenged them that they would write a whole science news story by the end of the day, and they all looked at me like I was crazy, but they all did it. Children can do amazing things if given the opportunity, and can provide unique insight. I found it particularly enlightening that the young students at ScienceOnline 2010 thought that Twitter was an adult thing–they saw no real use for it in their lives, preferring more interactive platforms such as Facebook.
I can’t say my usual “It was so nice to meet you in person” because I see you often, but certainly thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.

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