ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Morgan Giddings

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 Morgan Giddings 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 presently situated geographically in the center of North Carolina, specifically the Triangle area. If someone has already done it, then I’m bored with it. If the answers are already known, then I’m looking somewhere else.

My scientific background combines degrees in Physics, Computer Science, and a PhD focused on bioinformatics from UW Madison. After that, I got introduced to proteins and proteomics, and ever since have been tinkering with systems and approaches for combining proteomics, genomics, and computing to do hopefully useful things like helping to annotate the genes on the human genome.

My philosophy is that academic science has boxed itself into a bit of a corner with the direction it’s been headed. The “single pathway or system” focus that worked so well 20 years ago no longer works. We are in the era of “integration” but nobody knows how to do it. I am working on a book that touches on this.

Mid-career I had a realization that we scientists are horrible marketers for our work. I had this realization after co-founding a sustainable lifestyles bike shop, and trying to apply my “academic scientist” mentality to selling bikes. It didn’t work. After re-programming myself to market better, I realized that this also applies to everything I do in running a science lab.

That is the basis of my book “Four Steps To Funding” and another upcoming book, “The Golden Ticket in Science”.

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

I started in computer science and physics, then jumped ship as I started pursuing a PhD in computer science. I realized that pure computer science was a bit too dry for me. I joined a lab developing DNA sequencing technology, fell in love with combining computers and biology, and never looked back. After developing software for interpreting DNA sequencing data, I moved onto the harder problem of interpreting protein data from Mass spectrometers (so called proteomics). That opened up a lot of interesting projects, including:

- Contributing to a deep annotation of the Human Genome using protein/proteomic data

- Modeling bacterial systems with “agent based models” to uncover the basis of behaviors like chemotaxis and competence switching

- Developing methods to find posttranslational modifications on proteins from mass spectrometry data

- Examining the mechanisms that lead to antibiotic resistance in the bacterium P. aeruginosa

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

My time is split between standard academic duties, and my true passion, which is figuring out the “meaning of life” and writing books about it.

After I finish my next book on science careers, I’ll move onto my most ambitious project, which is a book that ties together consciousness, evolution, computing, and creativity. More on that when the time comes.

I also spend some fair bit of time helping scientists advance in their careers through consulting and training on things like how to get more grants and less rejections.

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

I love blogging and writing. I love giving talks, and figuring out how to convey a message to an audience for the maximal effect possible.

This is why I think “marketing” is so powerful. Marketers have studied how to convey effective messages to people for as long as there have been goods to sell. In particular, the last 100 years have seen many studies of human behavior in the context of how we receive (or don’t) messages.

While some might only associate marketing with nefarious purposes, I take the strong view that it is a value neutral activity. You can use it to promote bad things or good things.

Since most science is good to some extent, I believe that applying marketing could more effectively convey the value of science to other scientists, and the rest of the populace.

Considering that science funding is ever more in doubt, this couldn’t come a moment too soon. All of us scientists should be out telling people what benefit science brings to their lives, and doing so in the most effective way possible. I believe that if we don’t get our act in gear on this point, then science funding will continue to dwindle.

Hence, I am well on my way to becoming a definitive go-to resource on how to “market” one’s science, whether it is in writing a grant proposal, or talking to a member of congress.

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 use blogging both to report on some of my science work, as well as to opine about matters related to “science marketing” and science careers. I use social networks to achieve further reach for some of the ideas, but frankly, I don’t have enough time to do that with regularity.

I find that the blogging (both my own and others’) is essential for forward progress, particularly in discussing matters that don’t get published in journal articles – like how to grow and manage a lab, or how to get a grant funded in a competitive environment.

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 discovered them through tweets by Bora Zivkovic, sometime in 2009.

I like A Blog Around The Clock, and a wide variety of other science blogs. I’m more focused on finding blog-posts with relevant content than following specific blogs.

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 realized how far I have to go in conveying the notion to my peers that we, as scientists and science communicators, must up our game on “marketing” our work. For example, I attended a session on how to get published with several authors. While it was clear that the authors were ahead of most of the audience in “figuring out” the marketing game for their books, there is a lot of content elsewhere in the world on how to do this successfully that hasn’t filtered into the science community. It was also clear from the questions that were asked by the audience that everyone is still stuck in thinking of book publishing in the traditional model of: get an agent, have the agent find a publisher, then have the publisher publish, promote, and distribute the book.

But things are rapidly changing. For example, e-books are a great alternative to the above model that provide a lot more flexibility to the author (and potentially profit, too). And there are lots of ways to self-publish a physical book as well, without having to go through a “gatekeeper”.

After having self-published my first book, I’d never do it any other way. I can see going with a publisher only if/when I’ve sold enough copies and had enough feedback that I really have strong evidence that it is a concept worth producing thousands of copies of.

In fact publishers are going towards this model as well. They prefer taking successful self-published titles, because it reduces their risk.

But the key to self-publishing is understanding how to market one’s work. Anyone who tries to self publish without understanding that will fail.

So the options for those who wish to publish their ideas in a book, without having to do any promotion or marketing, are becoming very scarce. This means that everyone needs to better learn to market their ideas. By marketing I mean “making the content and message relevant to the audience.”

I’d like to see more discussion on this point at a future conference.

The other thing I notice is that the people who attended the conference are the leaders in science communication. Many scientists are mostly (or completely) oblivious to the rapidly changing nature of science communication. I believe it will be important to spread the message more widely to working scientists as to why modern science communication is so important. I think that the conference could play a role in that.

It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Thanks for the opportunity!

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