Ebola, for your kids! Interview with Tara Smith

Dr.Tara C. Smith is one of the original Gang Of Four(teen) here at Scienceblogs.com. She blogs on her Aetiology as well as contributes to Panda’s Thumb and Correlations group blogs. At the 2nd Science Blogging Conference last month Tara moderated the session on Blogging public health and medicine.
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? What is your Real Life job?
Well, let’s see. Working backwards, I’m an assistant professor; my field is infectious disease epidemiology. Specifically, I research bacteria which cross species barriers and are transmitted between humans and other animals. I currently work in Iowa, following post-doctoral training in molecular epidemiology at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in microbiology at the Medical College of Ohio (which now has been swallowed by the University of Toledo). I’ve lived in the midwest almost all my life, aside from my undergrad at Yale.
Outside of work, I have a daughter and a son (ages 8 and 5, respectively) who keep me very busy. I’m also navigating the waters as a divorced single mom, so it’s been a crazy few years between events in my career and personal life.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
Besides out of student loan debt and well-funded? I’m doing exactly what I want right now; I just hope I continue to improve at everything. I love my job, I have great kids, I have a wonderful boyfriend. Life is good.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while following the Conference?
I think Panda’s Thumb was the first science blog I stumbled across, linked from a message board I used to frequent. I became a regular reader there and then started to write for them in early 2005, but didn’t really branch out very much as far as reading other blogs until my friend Evil Monkey encouraged me to start a blog of my own late that year. I don’t have as much time anymore to read as I used to, but I regularly check the last 24 hours page here at Sb, and regularly check out Cosmic Variance, Bad Astronomy, ERV, Christine Gorman’s Global Health report, Cocktail Party Physics. And this has guilted me again because I so badly need to update my blogroll…
At the conference, I spent most of my time meeting people whose blogs I already was familiar with but had never met in “meat space,” but I did run across a few new ones as well, such as Tom Levenson’s Inverse Square blog.
You often write well-researched and well-documented blog-posts about HIV/AIDS, about evolution and about sexually transmitted diseases. Unfortunately, those topics are, for some, not settled yet and you get droves of HIV-denialist, creationist and sexist trolls filling your comment threads. Which ones are the worst is hard to say. Yet you persist. Why? How do you see your blog as a weapon against such quackery, pseudoscience and credulity? Can people’s minds be changed on these emotional topics?
I don’t know about a weapon, but I certainly think accurate, readable information is one way to counter to misinformation. I don’t expect to change the minds of any hard-core creationists or HIV deniers. There’s the old adage that you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into, and much of their denial (from the folks I know, anyway) isn’t due to lack of information; it’s due to emotion or fear. Creationists fear “secular scientists” are going to turn their kids into god-hating materialists; many HIV deniers are themselves HIV+ and unable or unwilling to face the seriousness of what that means, or they have friends, family, or partners who are HIV+. No amount of science is going to change minds if someone’s worldview revolves around denial of evidence–but there are plenty of fence-sitters out there, or people who have only recently stumbled upon HIV denial or evolution denial (just to name 2) who are looking for information and haven’t made their minds up yet. Those are mostly the people I write for.
You have written several highly informative series of posts on topics rarely seen on blogs, for instance, a series on Zoonoses and more recently a series on The Plague. I tried, but could not find any better sources of information online on these topics. Are you aware if your posts are used in educational settings at high-school, college or even medical school level?
Thanks for the compliment. A few people have emailed me to say they’ve used these or other posts for recommended reading in undergraduate or grad school courses. In my referral logs, I occasionally stumble upon links to my blog from other course websites as well. I think it’s great that people are using them as a reference. Obviously microbiology/infectious disease is my passion, so the more people familiar with it, the better from my (clearly biased!) point of view.
Your blog is a huge repository of useful information. Have you ever considered putting some of that out in the form of a book?
I have. Actually, I find there’s a good amount of crossover between what I blog about, the topics I teach, and what I write about for non-blog sources. I’ve already written 3 books for high school-age kids on Ebola, group A strep, and group B strep. The first two are due to be updated in 2009 and 2010, so I’ve blogged about some papers that I’ll also add to the second editions of those books. I also am considering another book aimed more at the general public, but I’ve not put together a proposal (yet) for that one. If only I could squeeze a few more hours out of the day…
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’ve started to think more seriously about science communication in general over the past few years, so hanging out with so many other people who have a passion for this was a great motivator to simply get more done, especially at the local level. I already run our state’s Citizens for Science group but would like to do more with it; perhaps move more toward the SCONC group model. As far as sessions, I really enjoyed Hemai Parthasarathy’s session on open science; I thought I knew a decent amount about open-access publishing, but I learned a lot more. I also was equal parts enjoying myself and seething with frustration at the session on gender and race in science. It’s so hard to know if you’re doing the right thing as a junior scientist, and especially a junior scientist who’s female or a racial minority. It was interesting listening to ScienceWoman and others talk about the difficulties they had with blogging anonymously; they feel confined in what they write about because they don’t want to blow their cover, while as a junior female scientist blogging under my own name, I feel constrained because I feel I’m under a bit of a microscope. Is that just the way things have to be? Anyway, suffice it to say that I left with much to think about.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


3 responses to “Ebola, for your kids! Interview with Tara Smith

  1. Great interview, Bora. Tara — it was fun running a session with you at the conference. Cheers!

  2. Thanks Becky! Good to meet you too.

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