Category Archives: ScienceOnline2011 Interviews

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with John Hawks

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 I chat with John Hawks (Twitter)

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’ve been based in Madison for nine years, at the University of Wisconsin. I was born and raised in Norton, Kansas – a small, rural town halfway between Kansas City and Denver. I loved science when I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I realized that I could be a scientist. I started as an English and French major, but I gradually made my way into anthropology.

I’ve taught evolution in Kansas, Michigan, Utah, and Wisconsin. Kansas gets a bad rap on this. Speaking from experience, the Kansas kids are the best. There’s a real sense in which a practical knowledge of animals and plants helps give a background for understanding evolutionary changes. This is how Darwin came up with the idea in the first place, after all. I really think that people who know animal breeding on an intuitive level are already primed to understand natural selection, and kids in rural Kansas (and rural Wisconsin) have that background.

Teachers need the resources to show these kids the human fossil record, and exercises to pull them into 21st century genetics. Why do we make kids sit four or five times through the same boring stuff about Mendel, when you can run a genome browser on any computer?

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

I began my career working with fossil hominins, and still do a lot of work with skeletal collections. Early on, I realized that genetics really had the potential to become a much more important source of evidence about the past, and I taught myself genetics.

I was telling someone the other day that I’m an anthropologist because it’s those questions about our evolution that always guide what I do. I’ve published on the whole range of our evolutionary history: the earliest hominins and the timing of the human-chimpanzee divergence, the origin of Homo, the Neandertals, late Homo erectus and the origin of modern humans, and the very recent part of our evolution in the last few thousand years.

A few years ago my friend Greg Cochran and I reasoned that natural selection in humans ought to have become much stronger and faster in the recent past, because the human population really grew rapidly in size after we developed agriculture. That realization led us to some really interesting work on the recent evolution of human populations. People have been evolving in all kinds of interesting ways, and understanding that history may help us to identify the genes that make a difference in human variations and diseases.

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

My students and I are working with archaic human genomes from several Neandertals from Europe, and one from a site called Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains. This week I’m flying to Novosibirsk to travel out to the site. Denisova is fascinating because it’s a mystery: a population that we didn’t suspect existed from fossils alone, but for which we now have a complete genome. In some ways the problem of modern human origins has been solved. What’s exciting is that we’re discovering things about ancient humans that are not evident from their bones — things about immunity, muscle, the digestive system, and potentially the brain.

To my mind, the central problem in human evolution right now is the origin of our genus, Homo. I’ve been working on this question from a genetic perspective, and it’s also a very exciting moment in the fossil and archaeological records with new discoveries in South Africa and the Republic of Georgia. Over the next two years I will be directing a lot of effort to this problem and I expect that our view two years from now will be pretty different from today.

Stories about fossil hominins engage me, and I use genetics to add detail to them. We have the power now to find out things that nobody ever knew about our ancestors — and I just love figuring out how.

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

The primary data of human genetics are more than ever available for free to the public. There is no barrier keeping high school students from doing the same kind of work on the Neandertal genome that my graduate students are doing today. I’m running a public forum this summer on personal genomes, and I can give the participants all the websites and software that we use to analyze genomes, because they’re all available for free to anyone. I find that tremendously empowering.

At the same time, I’ve gotten to a point in science where I’m often part of conversations that are more restricted, more closed. And it’s frustrating. I look at the web as a way to broaden our conversations, to bring in people who have knowledge and skills. I’m interested in more open scientific meetings, where being in the room isn’t a prerequisite to effective participation.

Streaming, live-tweeting and live-blogging are very important to me as ways to broaden the audience of scientific meetings. I am excited by ways of digitally archiving conversations and meetings, and sending those out to different levels. Why shouldn’t scientific meetings have a K-12 feed going out from them for students to follow? Why don’t we exploit the opportunity, when we have a thousand scientists together, to create content that can go out to the public in some compelling way?

I’m inspired by people who find ways to share new ideas. Paleoanthropology is a field where top researchers still get away with hiding their data from scrutiny. That culture has to change. Science means that others must be able to confirm observations independently. The web has made it possible to share data on a wide scale — as we see today in genetics, astronomy, and other data-intensive fields. The human fossil record is a drop in the bucket compared to the data that will be collected every night by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. And those astronomical data will all be open. What is stopping us from making the human fossil record available to schoolkids all over the world?

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?

My blog is my scientific memory. I really mean that, and I’ll explain why.

Several years ago I decided to commit to using a content management system, and I started using a series of Perl scripts to translate content from plain text files and present it as XHTML. For five years I ran everything that way off my own server with a simple versioning system: Published and unpublished files differ by a single letter in the file extension, the whole thing was updated across several computers and the server by rsync. It’s a beautiful system (at least, at small scale) and it meant that I could seamlessly present myself with a different blog than the public.

I wanted to structure my own notes, build an argument, maintain references consistently across multiple posts, and reuse material in scientific papers as I needed. I write 1 or two long posts every day, and maybe five or six short ones. I share the things I think are worth sharing, or are ready to share, which is really one or two short posts a day and a long post every 3 or 4 days. My computer is full of stuff I don’t publish. A lot ends up in scientific papers, some of it just serves as background for later work, and all of it makes up my structured, organized databank of knowledge about human evolution. My memory. I search this body of writing when I start thinking about how to address a new topic, and more often than not I’ve already written something relevant, giving me a place to start and build new material.

Twitter is like ham radio. I keep up with my faraway friends and meet new people, and a whole crew of folks around the world may be listening in. Yesterday I was carrying on a conversation about leprosy — you’ll see that on my blog maybe weeks from now.

There are certain people who just make me smile when they update.

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?

When journalists started to realize that science blogs were a phenomenon, in 2005 or so, I’d been going for a while and had pretty good traffic, so I was ranked right up there on the lists of science blogs to read. I’m really gratified that my readership has grown continuously since then.

I have some great favorites that I’ve read from the start, or at least for several years. Razib Khan, Mo Costandi, Sabine Hossenfelder, Michael Eisen, Alex Golub, Daniel MacArthur. Genomes Unzipped is just full of compelling stuff, and they’re sharing data and tools along with writing about genetic testing.

I feel sad when people stop writing. There have been all these genetics grad students and postdocs over the years who wrote pseudonymously, and who mostly stopped when they got tenure-track jobs. Grant applications kill creativity.

In the last couple of years I’ve seen a tremendous growth in biological anthropology and archaeology blogs and social networks. For a long time I felt really lonely, and now I find I’m not so much the hepcat anymore. Right now, it’s Kristina Killgrove, Julienne Rutherford, and Kate Clancy in biological anthropology, Julien Riel-Salvatore and Colleen Morgan in archaeology, who really impress me.

I follow the Scientopia feed and just admire the energy of the bloggers on that network. I feel like many of the young, exciting bloggers are embedded within their school or professional networks more than “science blogging” as a category. I think we need some more ways to draw good people across disciplines. I was telling somebody the other day that the Scientific American guest blog has become the place to be seen.

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

I’m organizing a conference and I want it to be just like ScienceOnline. I’ve never been to an event that made it so natural to establish lasting contacts with people, to talk about common issues across scientific disciplines, to expand the conversation outside the room.

The challenge is to raise the bar. At a given moment, the people in the room may be the most engaged, but they’re only the crest of a much larger wave moving science communication forward. How do we connect the energy with patrons who want this to happen?

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?

Some moments I will never forget.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again here next January!

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Bonnie Swoger

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 I chat with Bonnie Swoger (blog, Twitter)

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 science librarian at a small public liberal arts college in central New York. I started out as a geologist, completing a masters degree without really knowing what I wanted to do with it. I spent a few years teaching introductory geology before realizing that what I was really interested in was how scientists communicate with each other. Through the eyes of my students, I was able to see that this world of scientific communication (which I took for granted) was difficult for some of them to access and understand. I decided that I could help students navigate this world as a librarian.

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

My regular work day consists of answering reference questions (most of the science-related ones come my way), teaching undergraduate students about the nature of the scientific literature (and how to access it) and working with faculty. At the moment, I am exploring ways of convincing faculty who are not immersed in science blogs and other “new” forms of scientific communication to pay attention to these developments. In turn, I work with these faculty to teach their students about how scientists communicate – including traditional methods and new-fangled technologies.

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

I am very interested in the slowly changing nature of peer review (open review, post publication review, etc.). Most researchers still rely (and teach their students to rely) on the traditional system. They are very wary of some of the new experiments. I would like to see faculty be open to these developments so that they can teach their students about them. The peer review system will change – it isn’t set in stone – and it may get more complicated for undergraduate students to recognize “quality” work. At the moment, they typically have one litmus test – peer review. Even though that test isn’t failsafe, it’s easy to apply. As the peer review system changes, professors will have to educate their students on how things work. I think that librarians can be a useful partner in this education.

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 science blogs prior to my career switch, when I was teaching geology. The discussions about “Web 2.0″ and “Science 2.0″ were part of what encouraged me to pursue librarianship – I wanted to help students learn about these new developments. I am especially fond of the thoughtful blogs written by some outstanding science librarians Christina Pikas and John Dupuis, both of whom are ScienceOnline participants.

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?

I started blogging about two years ago, just after I got involved with Twitter. For me, the blog forces me to think through various issues that arise in scholarly communication, publishing and education. I can also reach out to science faculty in my quest to convince them to spend time teaching their students about scientific communication – don’t assume they just pick it up as they go. Twitter has become a very important source of professional development for me, as well as introduced me to some wonderful colleagues. Although there aren’t a lot of faculty at my institution who use it, I can follow practicing scientists and keep up with publishing trends. I learn about a lot of new resources and developing news stories via Twitter, often making me the most informed person in the room regarding scholarly communication.

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

My favorite aspect of this conference is the diverse group of folks who attend. Scientists, teaching faculty, journalists and librarians rarely sit down and talk about how scientists communicate with one another. It allows each group to gain a better understanding of the processes, strengths and limitations of the other groups. Because I concentrate on undergraduate education, I would love to see a conversation with teaching faculty, librarians and students about strategies to teach undergraduates about science communication (new and old).

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?

For me, the most interesting discussions at ScienceOnline2011 centered around alternative metrics for measuring scholarly “impact”. At the conference, scientists and scholars who were engaged in new forms of scholarly communication argued passionately that the Impact Factor was horrible and everyone seemed to be in agreement that new metrics were needed. Back at my institution, the case for new metrics isn’t as clear. There is still a distrust among many rank-and-file researchers about blogs and data sharing and pre-prints as legitimate scientific work. While they don’t love the impact factor, they don’t see the pressing need to develop new metrics because the things they may measure (downloads, bookmarks, etc.) aren’t as tried and true as citations. There seems to be a dichotomy in the science community – those who are actively engaged in newer forms of scholarship and those who just aren’t interested. Before any alternative metrics can gain acceptance, a large portion of the scientific community may still need to be convinced of the importance of what the alt metrics are measuring.

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

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Seth Mnookin

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 I chat with Seth Mnookin (blog, Twitter)

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 grew up in Boston, did my undergraduate studies at Harvard, and have been living in New York for the last dozen years. I majored in History and Science, so I’m coming at my work from a sociological/philosophical perspective.

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

Depending on whether you were being charitable, you could either call my career trajectory peripatetic, eclectic, or schizophrenic. I started out as a rock critic in the mid-1990s. Since then I’ve covered city government and local crime for The Palm Beach Post, Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as mayor for The Forward, and the 2000 presidential campaign for Brill’s Content. Since 2003, I’ve mainly been writing features for Vanity Fair and working on books. My first book, Hard News, was about the plagiarism scandals at The New York Times, and my second one, Feeding the Monster, is about the year I spent living with the Boston Red Sox. I’ve traveled to Iraq and embedded with Stephen Colbert for Vanity Fair.

In 2008, I began working on the what became The Panic Virus, about the vaccine controversies of the past several decades. It’s the first time I’ve focused on science in my professional work, and it reminded me of why I studied it in the first place…and in the fall, I’ll have a chance to dive back into academia when I head over to MIT as a lecturer in their Graduate Program on Science Writing.

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

Since the book came out, I’ve spent much more time than I would have thought deal with the incredible amount of anger and vitriol that surrounds any discussion of this issue. It’s incredibly difficult not to get caught up in it — and in some ways, I think it represents the flip side of the ways in which the Internet has created a more frictionless environment that can be incredibly helpful for science writers and researchers. When someone posts a blog entry about my family, or accuses me of being part of some convoluted conspiracy, it’s hard not to want to throw up an equally vituperative response. Going down that rabbit hole, however, can end up taking over your life.

As for goals, I hope my next project is one that I don’t need to rush to finish in a year or two, either for financial reasons or because of some news-peg or time-related pressure. The Panic Virus was the most rewarding experience of my professional life on almost every level — but I don’t think I could subject myself (or my family) to another year of 14+ hour days.

The other thing I’ve become passionate about is the really crucial importance of reliable, responsible, and compelling science writing — and promoting/nurturing/advancing that type of work is something I hope to be more and more involved with in the years to come.

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

Ask me again after our panel at the World Science Festival next week!

I think one of the most interesting aspects of science communication vis a vis the web will be how notions of accountability evolve. Obviously, social networks have allowed for a sort of hive-factchecking mechanism and in many cases seem to be forcing “mainstream” journalism to be more responsible when covering complex issues involving science — which is a wonderful thing.

I don’t think we’ve fully come to grips with the implications of the different types of “speech” that we use online. Should a scientist’s Twitter feed be held to the same level of accountability as his or her published work? Does a reporter’s personal blog reflect on the institution he or she works for? If not, why not? If I retweet something or post a link to an article/study on Facebook, does that imply that I approve of it? What’s the difference between suggesting something is being worthy of attention and that it’s worthy of respect?

All of those are issues that haven’t really been worked out, and I think that there’ll be some fireworks over the next few years as we seem them come up more and more.

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?

Twitter and Facebook have been the two most instrumental tools in reaching a broader audience — more important than reviews or radio interviews. The vast majority of the events I’ve done related to my book have come about through social network contacts, starting with ScienceOnline and going through talks I’ve given in Las Vegas, Denver, LA, and San Francisco. In a time of declining book sales, it’s hard to overstate how important those interactions have been — both to spark new ways of looking at the issue and to keep people interested in my work.

That said, I need to make sure my hair-trigger, instant-gratification tendency to post every thought on Twitter or comment on every last post doesn’t end up leeching time away from the rest of my work. Time management is not one of my skills, so it’s something I need to constantly be aware of.

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 started reading science blogs in earnest in 2009, and that was related to work on my book. It was a little bit like pulling on a piece of yarn on a sweater: I’d started reading one post by one writer and eight hours later would wonder what had happened to my day. There are so many blogs by SciO11 participants that I read regularly it’d be impossible to list them all. The most direct impact here has been my joining the PLoS blog network, which happened through my contact with SciO11′er Brian Mossop…and one of the thrills of being there has been seeing my writing appear alongside that of Steve Silberman, whom I’ve been reading since the 1990s and has long been a writing hero of mine.

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

Without a doubt the connections I made — socially, intellectually, professionally. I think I’d need to attend for another year before I felt competent to make suggestions about what might be done to improve it.

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?

One of the most remarkable aspects of SciO11 for me was the incredible sense of support and enthusiasm and respect everyone had for each other and each other’s work. I’ve written about the media; I’ve covered politics; I’ve been a crime reporter. Most of the time, my experience has been that reporters view competition for writing jobs as a sum zero game: If someone else is succeeding, that means there’s one less opportunity for them. It’s such an entirely different dynamic when it comes to science writing.

I have various theories as to why this is, but in the end, I don’t think it really matters. There’s an enormous need for good science writing and an enormous amount of topics that need to be covered.

Thank you so much for the interview. See you next week in NYC and hopefully again in Raleigh in January.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Holly Bik

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 I chat with Holly Bik (blog, Twitter):

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?

Geographically I’m based at the University of New Hampshire, but mentally I’m always in the city – I love the urban lifestyle because it makes me happy, and ironically I’m now living in the rural land of North Face clothing and Crocs. I’m one of those scientist bloggers, currently working as a postdoc with sights on academia. My background is nematode taxonomy and molecular phylogenetics, but now I’m turning into a computational biologist because of the way my field is moving. I hear myself talk about servers and CPUs nowadays, and I think “Who IS this person?!”

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

I’m born and bred American, but after graduating high school I moved to London to complete my Bachelor’s degree and then Ph.D. I did my doctoral research at the Natural History Museum, London – the NHM is such a fantastic institution, and it was there that I really got hooked on science communication. I often participated in “Nature Live” meet-a-scientist events run for the general public (inevitably I would be talking about nematode worms and someone would ask me a question about Finding Nemo). One of the highlights of my career so far was participating in a 6-week scientific research cruise to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 2009.

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

Research! I absolutely love the field I’m in – ‘eukaryotic metagenetics’ – we’re using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies (datasets containing millions of sequences) to look at species ‘barcodes’ and study microscopic eukaryote communities in marine sediments. I thought that my schedule would calm down after I finished my Ph.D., but now I’m ten times as busy as a postdoc (they don’t tell you this in grad school). Instead of working on one, focused project with a finite end goal, as a postdoc I am now spread across four or five projects, writing grants, travelling to meet collaborators, and in constant demand from students. And then trying to fit in some science communication on the side. I wish I was a vampire so I didn’t need to sleep.

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

I’m really passionate about dispelling the stereotype of the old and stuffy scientist, and I think that reaching out to a younger, tech-savvy generation is a very powerful approach for mustering up excitement towards science. Our 21st century lives are built on scientific knowledge. Yet technology is now so commonplace that it is easy to forget about the hunter-gatherer human species living on the savannah a few short Millennia ago. Science is testament to the awesomeness of human brainpower – everyone can be a scientist, because everyone has the innate cognitive ability to think logically. Society gives us the perception that science and math are so hard, but they really aren’t – scientists are trained to do their job, just like anyone else. I think practicing law and being a plumber are hard, but that’s because I was never trained to do either.

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?

Blogging is something I do outside the lab, on my own time, because I think it is vitally important to communicate why and how we scientists do research. I could just as easily sit in my Ivory Tower and only talk to other scientists (and on the academic track, focusing only on your research is often necessary and encouraged). As for integrating online activity…I’m still pretty new to this, so sometimes I find that the barrage of information is just too much; you almost get sucked into this desperate urge to keep up – blog more, tweet more, blog first, tweet first. As I’m getting used to the online science community, I’m taking the attitude that more infrequent, but quality, posts leave me the most satisfied and don’t interfere too much with my Postdoc responsibilities. I’ve really enjoyed joining the online science community, and everyone I speak to is always so supportive.

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 a few years ago when I googled “hot scientist shoes” – Dr. Isis’s blog came up as one of the top hits (try it!) and I remember bookmarking the site immediately and being stunned that actual scientists maintain blogs. From then on I only read a couple blogs very intermittently – then I met Dr. M at the Deep-sea Symposium in Iceland last year, was amalgamated into the DSN crew, and the rest became history. I discovered the concept of blog networks at the conference, so I’m having fun exploring them all and learning about the different bloggers.

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

The microbrew beers! (I’m a marine scientist, I had to say that…) The diverse program of topics was really great, and the passionate, interactive discussions in some sessions were fabulous. For me, the best aspect was being immersed in this whole other world–science journalism and media–that I’m keenly interested in yet separated from because of my day job as a researcher.

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?

Oh boy, if I typed down everything here I’d have carpal tunnel by the end. I learned some tricks journalists use to get scientists to loosen up (“ask them about a personal item in their office…”). I guess I never really thought about it before, but science is all about the story; I knew this beforehand, but hearing it repeated over and over at ScienceOnline really brought it to the front of my mind. Now whenever I sit down to write something (whether scientific manuscript or blog post), I always ask myself “What is the plot?” and write a succinct summary sentence to use as a guide. I am also more focused on my own writing process – playing with literary devices to improve my style and really suck in readers.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you I’ll see you again next year.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Pascale Lane

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 I chat with Pascale Lane (blog 1, blog 2, Twitter).

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?

Geographically I am a child of fly-over country. I grew up in Missouri, trained in Chicago and Minnesota, and have held faculty positions in St. Louis and Omaha. My family will be relocating to Oklahoma this fall.

I trained first as a medical doctor, with training as a pediatric nephrologist (kidney specialist). I caught the research bug during fellowship, and I have pursued this direction in my career ever since.

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

My career direction changed in 2008 when the American Society of Nephrology hired me to edit a brand-new magazine, ASN Kidney News. Up to that time, I read an occasional blog post, but never embedded myself in social media. As part of our media endeavor, I knew we needed more online presence, especially interactive Web 2.0 stuff. I started a blog, signed up for Facebook, and began tweeting. Now I have personal accounts, magazine accounts, and a new online media project, AWEnow.org.

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

In addition to my online activities, I am changing my career direction. My “hobby” for the last decade has been faculty development. Both MDs and PhDs become faculty members at medical colleges without strong teaching or administrative skills. Some clinicians lack writing skills. Most medical centers must help faculty become more proficient in these areas, and other skills often need ongoing improvement. For example, I helped develop a writing workshop at Nebraska that has drawn in more than 100 participants for 3 years in a row. My new job in Oklahoma will include 1/3 of my time as Associate Dean for Faculty Development. I plan to organize comprehensive support for all career activities, as well as doing research on what actually works.

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

The web serves up a lot of bad information. I feel we should counter it with the truth, and make real science and medicine available in an accessible manner to anyone who wants to read it. I also love learning about all science. Since I started in social media, I read a wider variety of science and information.

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?

Blogging started as part of a paid job, editing ASN KIdney News, and social media goes along with it. I run TweetDeck on my computer to follow accounts and activity during the day, and my BlackBerry and iPad let me track things on the hoof. I can turn the gizmos off (like during leisure activities or when I’m seeing patients). I am finding that a lot of organizations, including academic health centers, have no idea where to begin with all of these new activities. My social media skills have become a bonus rather than a detriment, as I seek out new opportunities.

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 recently served on the Animal Care and Experimentation Committee for the American Physiological Society. A couple of years back, they sent around a post by Dr. Isis on the importance of the IACUC for the investigator. I browsed through some of her other posts, and discovered another woman out there who loved biomedical science and shoes! As I became involved in that blog, after a very brief period of lurking, I made other connections in this portion of the blogosphere/twitterverse. Now I am part of the Scientopia group. At the conference, I was shocked to discover a like-minded blogger at the Lincoln campus of University of Nebraska, Kiyomi Deards. Less than an hour away, and I had not heard about her!

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

Meeting online friends in the flesh was clearly the best part of ScienceOnline. And the free books. Anyone who sends me a pre-publication book will get a read and review. I read fast, and I have fairly broad interests. In that way, I am the perfect book reviewer!

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?

So much happened at Science Online… In my “real life” almost no one else I know has the passion for writing that I do, along with the science thing. I felt like the mother ship had called me home, with all of these similar-interest alien beings. I do remember a number of speakers suggesting that online activities would get little attention until tenured full professors put them on their CV, so I did. My blogs are now part of my “permanent record.”

I’m still working on making a Prezi of my CV. Getting a house ready to sell has slowed me down a bit. Anyone out there looking for a home in Omaha?

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you can come again next year.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Thomas Peterson

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 I chat with Thomas Peterson, research meteorologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.

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?

After obtaining a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, my wife and I moved to a small town not far from there where I worked in a hospital as a respiratory therapy technician. Ten years later after being laid off from the hospital and working a variety of odd jobs such as picking apples and writing a book published by Prentice Hall, we moved to Fort Collins, CO where I enrolled in Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University obtaining M.S. in cloud microphysics and Ph.D. in satellite climatology. While I thought satellite data were the wave of the future, my career turned out focusing on historical weather station data. Currently I am the Chief Scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.

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

I started out my professional career leading the effort to create NOAA’s century-scale land surface climate data set which is now used by NOAA and NASA to help monitor global temperatures. My early years were spent focusing on science on the data, such as how to detect artificial biases in the data and remove them. Later I moved on to science with the data, such as assessing how the global climate has changed. The expertise I gained during this process got me invited to participate in a variety of fascinating international activities, such as Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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

While I still have some time to conduct original research, I now spend most of my time consulting and coordinating on a wide variety of projects. In February 2010, I was elected President of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Climatology which means I also lead the activities of over 200 volunteers from 54 countries. An example of this work that really excites me is holding regional climate change workshops where we bring in a few world-recognized experts along with scientists from about a dozen neighboring countries, guide the local scientists in applying quality control to the daily data they brought and then teach them how to assess how extremes are changing in their countries. These workshops help us both understand global climate change better and educate scientists around the world.

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

My professional grandfather (my Ph.D. advisor’s Ph.D. advisor) famously said that to make sense out of satellite data was like trying “to get a drink from a fire hydrant.” That same analogy can be applied to making sense out of information that is available on the web. Rather than adding my few few drops to this deluge, I mainly communicate the old fashioned way by giving talks to lay and professional audiences.

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?

I admire those who have time and energy to blog sound scientific information and respond to the comments they get. It seems a lot like teaching. I once considered a career in teaching but determined I had enough patience to be a good teacher or to be a good father, but not both. Now I don’t think I have enough patience for either. But as the head of an organization that depends on the dedication of its hundreds of volunteers, I realize the importance of keeping the volunteers engaged. Towards that end, the Vice President of the Commission for Climatology, Serhat Sensoy from Turkey, has created a Facebook page for us. Under Serhat’s tutelage, I am slowly moving into the use of social media to keep a community informed.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

My earliest memories of blogs were those that attacked me and my work. It is a strange experience to, for example, dedicate years of your life improving the availability of global climate data and then be accused of deleting data. As a counterpoint, though, I do appreciate several humorous science blog posts that both accurately address the science and at times provide insights that resonate with my experiences all too well, such as “1) Any errors, however inconsequential, will be taken Very Seriously and accusations of fraud will be made. 2) If you adjust the raw data we will accuse you of fraudulently fiddling the figures whilst cooking the books. 3) If you don’t adjust the raw data we will accuse you of fraudulently failing to account for station biases and UHI [Urban Heat Island]. 4) . . .”

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

The interactions. While the talks were fascinating, the questions and answers were more so.

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?

During my talk at ScienceOnline2011, I mentioned that after speaking before a subcommittee of Congress, a Congressman took us aside and told us that climate scientists are in a knife fight and we need to fight back. Our response to him was yes but the way scientists fight back is to do more sound peer-reviewed science. One person at the meeting tweeted a brief reference to me saying ”knife fight” and soon a blogger who was not at ScienceOnline2011 was taking me to task for my attitude and for using such harsh rhetoric. As a result of experiences like that, I’ve noticed in myself as well as colleagues an increasing concern for structuring sentence fragments in papers so they would be less susceptible to being taken out of context and misinterpreted. Unfortunately, this hampers effective communication complex concepts.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope you can come again next year.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Robin Lloyd

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 I chat with Robin Lloyd (Twitter), editor of Scientific American Online and thus a colleague I work with closely every day.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I’m a sociologist who left academia and fell into science writing as a second career via a stint as a temporary receptionist at a news wire service in Los Angeles. My boss at that job learned that I had a Ph.D. and figured I might be able to fill-in for the woman who wrote a daily list for clients of the next day’s press conferences. She had carpal tunnel syndrome and never came back. After a couple years of doing her job, answering phones, making coffee and photocopies, and learning how to write simple, useful sentences, I asked for and grudgingly was given a real newsroom job.

My editors sneered at my academic background (probably, rightly so) and figured they could punish me by handing off all science stories to me, ranging from physics to economics findings, daring me to understand them because I had a Ph.D. in something or other. So I started this science writing phase in general assignment journalism (cops, courts, celebrities, city councils, school boards, bird ladies and barbershops) before I got to cover science much of the time.

Then I received a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT and became CNN.com’s science writer in 1999, which I soon ditched to become Employee No. 35 at Lou Dobbs’ Space.com. To survive the dot-com crash, I fled after a couple years to a good media relations job that allowed me to learn and write about paleontology, biodiversity and systematic biology at a world class natural history museum for five years; then I got back into full-time science journalism at an online-only network of science web sites where I’d been moonlighting while at the museum. Now I’m on the news editor on web side of things at Scientific American. I’ve been very fortunate.

My favorite project lately is a feature I wrote for Scientific American on mobile phone-enabled socio-economic programs designed to advance the well-being of women and youths in the developing world. I could write about robotic space probes and fossils all day, but I really enjoy my job–editing daily online science news and features for Scientific American.

My goal is to be helpful, advance science communications and rational thinking, promote peace and harmony, take care of my boyfriend, cats and worms (composting), paint the kitchen and organize the basement.

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

Blogging, clear writing, Twitter.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? Do you find all this online activity to be a necessity in what you do?

I blog occasionally for Scientific American and I think of blogs I’d like to start all the time but I’m consumed these days with editing others’ work. I find Donna Haraway’s, Neal Stephenson’s and John Varley’s concepts of cyborgs helpful in integrating my online activity into a coherent whole. I use Twitter every day, usually for at least an hour total. It’s invaluable. Facebook is becoming a mini-Twitter for me, less of a social network, more informational.

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?

The first science blog I paid much attention to was John Hawks’ blog. My favorite blog is Polite Dissent’s Medical Reviews of “House”.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you?

The best aspect of Scio11 was meeting science bloggers in person who I’d been following on Twitter and learning that not all non-scientist bloggers want to be journalists. I gained a lot of respect for science blogging and its diversity, and I made new friends. I think the conference was very smartly organized — not sure I can think of how to improve it. No plastic bottles?

Thank you so much for the interview. I’ll see you next time I am up in the office!