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.
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.