The mite hunting a dinosaur that could not catch a dog: Interview with Brian Switek

Laelaps was a dog in Greek mythology that always caught its prey and was turned into stone (by Zeus himself!) while hunting the Teumessian fox that could never be caught. Lealaps is also a defunct name for a carnivorous dinosaur. Laelaps is also a mite that parasitizes rats. And Laelaps is the name of a fascinating blog, written by Brian Switek. You can think deep thoughts about the meaning of his blog’s name later. At the Science Blogging Conference three weeks ago, Brian participated on the Student blogging panel–from K to PhD.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background?
It’s a pleasure to be here, Bora. My name is Brian Switek and presently I’m an undergraduate student at Rutgers University. I can’t claim the moniker of “scientist” (being that I haven’t even started graduate studies yet), but in following my interests in natural history I’ve learned quite a bit more than I have in the lecture halls. Most of what I read and write about falls under the general heading of zoology or natural history, but my main interest is in vertebrate paleontology.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
I hope to always be a “student of nature,” and even though I’m not sure what I’ll end up studying as I continue my education, I hope to become something of a naturalist. Even though scientific studies presently require some degree of specialization, I most admire the work of researchers who have tried to make sense of seemingly disparate pieces of information in encompassing theories, and I hope to continue that tradition.
Your blog has really skyrocketed from the very recent beginnings all the way to stardom in a very short time – you have been invited to join, you co-moderated a session at the Conference, you have an essay in the Open Laboratory 2008. What’s your secret formula for success? What do you think makes your blog so interesting? Any tips for people who are just starting their science blogs?
Brian%20Switek%20interview%20pic.jpgI’m still a bit shocked that I’m come as far as I have within the past year, and I don’t think it’s quite caught up with me yet. My perspective on blogging has generally been that I will grasp the topic I want to understand more firmly if I’m able to effectively convey what I’m learning to other people; my blog is as much a road map of my intellectual forays as it is an attempt to communicate science. Although I would be hard-pressed to call Laelaps one of the “great” science blogs out there, I think a personal touch is what makes so many good blogs unique. Anyone can summarize papers or something they’ve read, but blogs are at their best when a writer gets to share their excitement (or even frustration) over what they have learned. Scientists are very passionate people, and I think blogs reflect that aspect of a group of people often seen as boring and dispassionate. If I had any advice for people who are just starting to write, it would be to remember that what you write is intensely personal, and that’s a good thing.
What lies in the future of Brian and Laelaps (as far as you are willing to tell)?
Blogging has become something of a compulsion for me (others might call it an addiction), and I intend to keep writing as long as I am physically able to do so. When and if I get to carry out gradute-level studies I may not be able to be so prolific, but for now I have more time to write than I’m likely to have ever again and I intend to make the most of it. I have a few things in the works that I think I’ll have to keep secret for now, but I can say that Laelaps was originally born as a sort of companion project to a book that I’m still working on. About two years ago I decided that I wanted to start writing a book about evolution, but I knew that if I wanted to write such a book there was a lot I was going to have to learn. Laelaps, then, is almost a behind-the-scenes look at what I’ve been thinking about during the process, although it’s become an even more rewarding writing experiment in and of itself. I hope to have the first draft of the book finished by the time I turn 25 later this month, but whether it will ever see the light of day or not is anyone’s guess.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
The first science blog I had ever encountered was Pharyngula, primarily because I was looking for more information about the Discovery Institute. When I was first trying to verse myself on who creationists were and why they had such a problem with evolution in 2006 I picked up a copy of Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution (one of the worst books I’ve ever had the displeasure to read). The book said that Wells belonged to the “Discovery Institute,” a seemingly innocuous sounding group, but I had a feeling there was something more to the story. I did a google search and Pharyngula (as well as The Panda’s Thumb and others) came up and I was hooked on science blogs. Presently some of my favorites include Tetrapod Zoology, Archy, Greg Laden’s blog, Pondering Pikaia, Catalogue of Organisms, and (of course) A Blog Around the Clock, but there are so many bloggers that I admire there would be scarcely space to list them all here. I didn’t meet very many bloggers whose blogs I hadn’t heard of prior to the Conference, but meeting so many other writers in person definitely gave me a greater appreciation for their writing (i.e. Thus Spake Zuska, Adventures in Ethics and Science, The Other 95%, etc.).
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship – 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?
Janet’s session on science blogging ethics was, for me, the most thought-provoking event at the conference. I left with more questions than answers, but that is definitely a good thing. Even though I generally had considered myself to adhere to the ethics followed by the science blogging community, the session definitely made me step back and ask what those ethics were, why they were in place, and what should I be considering before I hit the “publish” button.
The most influential part of the Conference, though, was the “after-hours” communication where I got to sit down and chat with so many other wonderful writers. Over the course of the year I had spent so much time reading the words of people from all over the world with extremely diverse perspectives, but getting to meet the writers in person certainly changed my perspective on who individual science bloggers are and why they spend so much time at their keyboards.
Likewise, the Conference was permeated with the tension between traditional media outlets and science blogs, the gathering serving as a wonderful forum to discuss the “growing pains” of science blogging. Jennifer Ouelette did a wonderful job addressing this topic at the close of the Conference, and I think that the coming year will reveal a growing integration between science bloggers and mainstream media (or at least, I hope it will). If anything, though, the Conference made me proud to be a science blogger, and I was overjoyed to be among so many people who experienced the same passion for writing about science.
It was so nice meeting you in person and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


5 responses to “The mite hunting a dinosaur that could not catch a dog: Interview with Brian Switek

  1. Thanks for asking me for the interview, Bora. Just one thing; check the spelling of Laelaps in the link in your opening paragraph. Otherwise it looks great!

  2. Fixed! Thanks. I was bound to make a mistake once 😉

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