ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Travis 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 Travis Saunders (Twitter), my SciBling from the Obesity Panacea 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?
I am a PhD student in Exercise Physiology at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. My undergrad was in Kinesiology (aka Physical Education) at the University of Calgary, and my Masters was in Exercise Physiology at Queen’s University.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
Travis Saunders pic.jpgMy research focuses on the inter-relationships between obesity, physical activity, and chronic disease risk. For example, I have been involved with studies examining the relationship between different fat depots and health risk (abdominal fat is very bad, but leg fat can actually be protective in some situations), as well as studies examining the benefits of exercise with or without weight-loss (your lipid profile and insulin sensitivity almost always improve in response to exercise, while inflammatory markers seem to improve only in response to weight loss). I’ve just begun my PhD, which is looking at the relationship between sedentary time (e.g. sitting) and health risk. For example, if you run for an hour every morning but then spend the next 7 hours sitting in front of a computer, is your metabolic health going to be better or worse than someone who spends all day on their feet but rarely performs vigorous exercise? No one knows just yet, but it’s a very interesting area of study with important public health implications.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
Right now most of my time is being spent developing my PhD project, as well as (hopefully) getting a few side projects published. I’m fortunate to really enjoy my area of research, as well as the people I work with, so it’s a pretty fun way to spend my days. My short-term goal is to do research that is both interesting to me personally and that has a positive influence on the health of the population. I don’t have any specific long-term goals aside from finishing my PhD, but I know that I want to be involved with both research and science communication in whatever I do next.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
It is absolutely critical that researchers share their findings with the general public, rather than just other colleagues within their research area. I think it’s especially important for those of us performing tax-payer funded research – if the public is paying for our research it only makes sense that we should do everything we can to keep them informed of our results. If the public is better informed they can make better health decisions, but they are also in a better position to understand the value of our research – a clear win-win! For a young researcher like myself, the Web is by far the easiest way to communicate with the public about my area of research.
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?
Blogging has had a very positive impact on my work to date. Writing a blog is almost like doing 2 or 3 Journal Club presentations every week! It has forced me to stay up-to-date on the latest studies in my field of research, and has also helped me to develop my understanding of a number of issues (it’s one thing to skim through a paper, but it’s another thing entirely to write an intelligible blog post about it!) Blogging has also been tremendously helpful in preparing for conferences – responding to comments and questions online is very similar to responding to questions following a presentation (but in a much less stressful environment). As a result, it has made me a much more confident writer and speaker, which has direct benefits in my day-to-day work. And finally, blogging has been a very effective means of spreading the word about my own area of research, which is the whole reason I got into blogging in the first place!
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 (and ScienceBlogs) in SEED magazine. My girlfriend bought me the magazine on a whim and I absolutely loved it, and when I saw an ad for ScienceBlogs I knew it was something that I had to check out. Around the same time my labmate Peter and I stumbled upon the blogs of Drs Arya Sharma and Yoni Freedhoff, two physicians who specialize in the treatment of obesity. That was when we realized that science blogging was something we wanted to get involved with.
For me personally, the coolest part of ScienceOnline2010 was meeting the bloggers that I have been following for the past few years. This includes people like yourself, Ed Yong, Scicurious, the gang from Science Based Medicine, and Dave Munger to name just a few. It was especially nice to meet Dave as he’s not only a phenomenal writer, but also because he has done such great work promoting peer-reviewed research via ResearchBlogging.org.
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?
The best part for me was meeting all of the other participants. There were some incredibly talented science-communicators in attendance, and it was a lot of fun to be able to learn from them. Rebecca Skloot’s session on pitching story ideas was especially useful, and gave me a much better understanding of how to frame a story in a way that appeals to journalists, which is an extremely important skill as a researcher.
This year’s conference featured some top-notch science-communicators (Michael Specter, Ed Yong, Rebecca Skloot, Carl Zimmer, etc); I’d love to see next year’s conference bring in a few more top-notch researchers – maybe a Nobel Prize winner or prominent researcher like Brian Greene or Freeman Dyson. This year’s conference helped me learn a lot about science communication from the perspective of journalists and bloggers, but I feel it would be extremely useful to hear what these top researchers could add to the discussion.
Thanks again for all the hard work that you and Anton put into the conference, it was an amazing experience!
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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