ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Anne Frances Johnson

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 Anne Frances Johnson to answer a few questions. Anne is a freelancer and grad student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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?

Anne Johnson pic2.jpgWhen I was a kid, I, like all 8-year-old girls, wanted to be a marine biologist and ride around on dolphins. A couple decades later, I’m still into science and nature, but I don’t actually ride wild animals. I’m a freelance science writer and master’s student in the Medical & Science Journalism program at UNC. I like to think it’s as fun as riding dolphins, but probably better for the environment.

I’m originally from Raleigh, NC, and I’ve recently come full circle back to the Triangle after more than ten years away with stops in New Mexico, New England, New Zealand and Washington, DC (I lived there even though it doesn’t have “new” in its name). I have a B.A. in biology from Smith College, where I spent lots of time cutting open fish stomachs for my thesis on lobster predation (What Eats Lobsters besides People?).

I always liked learning about science, but in college I found actually doing it to be rather gooey and tedious, and decided I probably didn’t have the endurance for it as a career. I found myself gravitating instead toward the edges of science, where it interacts with society. I worked at a marine reserve in New Zealand, patrolled Costa Rican beaches for would-be sea-turtle-egg poachers, and tended persimmons, goats and alpacas on various farms here and abroad. But it wasn’t until my first “real” job–at the National Academy of Sciences–that I discovered science writing. Instantly smitten, I’ve been a ravenous science reader and writer ever since.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Anne Johnson pic1.jpgMy first science communications piece was an educational booklet on stem cells. Most of the stem cell information available at the time followed either the science community’s party line (embryonic stem cells are more useful than adult stem cells so we should use them) or the conservative/political party line (scientists want to kill babies and we should stop them). Since I was working for a scientific organization, it would have been simple to take the usual tack, but we decided it was really time to go beyond that. I spent a lot of time talking to people ethically opposed to human embryonic stem cell research and tried to craft the booklet so it could reach those folks on their terms, while still being true to the science. Dealing with both the scientific and ethical issues head-on ultimately made it a more useful product for people, and tens of thousands of the booklets found their way into schools and doctors’ offices. It was very rewarding.

After that, I had the pleasure of developing a whole slew of other booklets (and posters and gadgets and websites) on topics including how to plant a pollinator-friendly garden, why microbes are cool and what the new science of “metagenomics” can tell us, and how climate change might affect ecosystems across the U.S. It’s been a constant learning experience.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Last year I decided to go back to school to pick up some additional communications skills I wasn’t sure I could learn on the job. So now I’m a science journalism grad student. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the curriculum is the multimedia work I’m doing. I know “multimedia” is a silly buzzword, but it really is useful to be able to apply whatever combination of media–text, sound, video, graphics, animations–is right for the topic at hand. I’m enjoying learning to wield all those tools and figuring out how to leverage the strengths of each to communicate in an engaging way.

Although teamwork is incredibly powerful, it’s also useful to be able to function as a “one-woman-band,” with a complete suite of skills to produce everything from documentaries to press releases myself. Wherever I end up after I graduate in 2011, I hope I’ll be able to apply all my fun new skills and continue to learn and adapt to the changing communications landscape.

What’s up with going to journalism school? No offense, but isn’t that a dying industry?

I get that a lot. Journalism school is actually alive and well, even in the current climate. The journalism business model is in a period of adjustment that’s leaving a lot of traditional journalists out of work, and that’s too bad. But I think people are hungrier than ever for information, and for the most part they know the difference between bad information and good information. I think there will always be a role for good journalistic work–especially when it comes to science topics.

Career-wise, I’m more interested in communications than traditional journalism, but I think going through this experience of learning to write more like a journalist makes me a stronger communications person. I also just love being in journalism school because I’m surrounded by really creative thinkers from all different backgrounds, which challenges me to go beyond the obvious and try different approaches.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I love that there’s this vast array of genuinely interesting science content online that teachers can use as part of science education. Science education has had a terrible reputation for a long time. The Web gives teachers and parents opportunities to engage children in ways that have never existed before. Kids can interact with the scientific world on their terms and keep following the leads that interest them most. It sure beats those awful textbooks and cheesy videos I remember from childhood.

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 healthy skepticism about using blogs and social networking in science communications. Organizations pour so much into getting their content out in all these different ways. They’re available and “free,” so why not? And sometimes they’re really effective at amplifying your reach and visibility. But they’re not magical. Sometimes, you’re better off simply producing more or better actual content, and your resources would be better spent focusing on the dissemination avenues that are most effective for your specific target audiences. There’s always a trade-off between quantity and quality, between producing new content and promoting your existing content. You have to hit the right balance, and I think blogs and social networking can be distracting if you don’t keep them in perspective. I try to use ‘em when they’re right for the task, and leave ‘em when they’re not.

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?

One of my favorite experiences was getting to hold these really old dead birds they keep in the bowels of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. There were just racks and racks of them. We got to pass them around, and they were so astoundingly light and beautiful. It was fun to connect with nature in the way that taxonomists have for years and years, where you can take note of the tiniest differences among species. I loved that behind-the-scenes tour, and would be thrilled to be able do more of the tours next year.

On blogging, the conference perhaps counterintuitively convinced me that it’s okay not to blog about science. Seeing all those people blogging and tweeting so passionately, I thought, you know, there’s room for all types here. And if daily blogging isn’t my thing, it’s okay. People are blogging about science, and people are writing involved, long-form articles and books about science, and folks will continue to be engaged with science on whatever basis is useful for them–whether it’s monthly, daily or by the second. There are so many possibilities, so many ways for people to talk about science. With all those opportunities, you can really shop around and focus on what you can do best.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you will come to the meeting again next January.

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