ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Holly Tucker

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Holly Tucker.

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 guess like many of us connected to Science Online, I wear many hats. It depends on what time of the day it is, and what I’m feeling most passionate about. As my day job, I’m on the faculty at Vanderbilt University where I hold appointments in the Center for Medicine, Health and Society and the Department of French & Italian. (How’s that for multiple hats already!) My research and writing focus on the early history of medicine.

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

I started my academic life in French Studies, particularly seventeenth-century French history and culture—most appreciated by science types as the era of “scientific revolution.” I did my grad work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has one of the top programs in the History of Science. This was before interdisciplinary studies were de rigueur (sorry, had to sneak some French in), so my dissertation focused on early literature. But I knew that I would include the History of Science, if not in my dissertation proper, then in my career trajectory. So I also took courses in the History of Science, which were among the highlights of my graduate work.

Once at Vanderbilt, I made a risky move. I chucked the dissertation and more or less reinvented myself—and this, on a tenure track. My first book was on the history of embryology and childbirth before epigenesis…in France. It all worked out apparently; I was tenured about six years ago.

Since then, I’ve been making a series of bold moves–at least for an academic. I decided that I wanted to stop writing for the same ten people–and research and write with an eye to a broader audience. Since then, and in addition to specialist articles in my field, I’ve written freelance for publications such as The New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor. My most recent book, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, is just out with W.W. Norton and getting great reviews (whew!). Now that you know some of the backstory, you can see why reviews like this one in The Economist mean a lot to me.

Actually, I wish more academics would make it part of their scholarly work to reach out effectively to a broader public. Which leads me to the next question…

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

As a humanist and more particularly someone who works in history, I’m indebted to the journalists and researchers who are committed to communicating science in ways that don’t require a hyper-specialized Ph.D. in a given field. I count on the best journalists and researchers–some of whom I have gotten to know thanks to Science Online–to guide me on which “breakthroughs” are really significant and which studies are all about smoke and mirrors. I also depend on them to translate the scientific research in ways that make it accessible without assuming their readers are simple minded.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

“Serious academics” are not supposed to waste their time with such “plebeian” things as social media and blogging. Or so the conventional wisdom dictates (for now). But when I made the decision to explore the larger dimensions of my research, I learned quickly that it would be impossible to do so without integrating online work into the equation.

When I posted my first tweet two and a half years ago, I felt horribly vulnerable and awkward. The same when I started my history blog, Wonders & Marvels. In fact, I did not use my real name for a long time (hence @history_geek) and did everything I could to conceal my identity. I still use @history_geek because it captures my interests perfectly, but my name and affiliations can now be found in a simple mouse click.

As the years have gone by, I have come to see blogging and social media as one big, wonderful classroom. It’s a place where researchers can share the results of their work, along with behind-the-scenes tidbits. This puts a human face to what we do. And it’s exactly what we must do at a time when entire programs in the humanities are being shut down and when funding in the sciences is getting more and more scarce.

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, or to your science reading and writing?

The panel with Tom Levenson and Dr. Isis covered a lot of ground and made some points that I agree absolutely with. First, for those of us working in academe, online engagement will never be a substitute for heavy-hitting research, publication and grants. If you have a strong tenure case going in, your community engagement may be viewed as value-added—at best, it might be counted as part of your service or teaching dossier. At worst and especially if you do not have a strong tenure case, your community engagement will be construed as a distraction and perhaps even as the reason behind lack of success.

The second take-home point of the panel was one that I heard between the lines, actually. There was a justifiable fear among attendees that their senior colleagues don’t “get it.” And the majority of senior colleagues probably don’t (not yet). However, for those of us in the Science Online community who are working from a position of relative security, we have a responsibility to be as open and intentional about our online work as possible—so we can help create a safe space for this type of work for everyone. I’m going up for promotion from Associate to Full as we speak. I wasn’t going to mention my blog and other online work in my materials. Science Online changed that.

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 really am wondering if Richard Grant, Jenny Rohn and I weren’t separated at birth. Their blog Lablit is now part of my required reading. It’s a website for anyone who writes about or is just intrigued by the fiction of science. What is there not to love?

And while it’s not a blog per se, I also learned about Skeptically Speaking at Scio11. Desiree Schell told me that she likes to imagine her show as the science nursery for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. Now that I am a devoted listener, I understand why. And seriously, who can resist an entire show on Semen Science?

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

Change nothing, nada, rien. Ok, one thing: I think there should be a cool science t-shirt beauty pageant. If I were a judge at Scio11, I’d have to say Maryn McKenna gets the crown with the Staphylococcus aureus cartoon guys. The runner up: the guy who was wearing the human-walrus shirt during the history of science panel (remind me who you were!). But walrus man had an unfair advantage; I work on chimeras in history, after all.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again in January.

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