Cutting-edge Communication at Duke: Interview with Karl Leif Bates

Karl Bates is the Manager of Research Communications at Duke University where he is involved in a number of very cool new online projects. He is also a “repeat offender” – his experience at the first Science Blogging Conference did not stop him from attending the second one last month.
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?
My name is Karl Leif Bates (Leif has a long A like “safe”). I’m the science editor in Duke’s news office, where I edit press releases from research communicators across campus, including the medical center, engineering, environment and so on. And I do some reporting and writing and web video myself. I’m looking for the overarching trends and themes that could help distinguish Duke from other schools. I also edit our new on-line research magazine – Duke Research.
I came at this whole thing after 15 years in the rapidly-drying pond of newspaper journalism, where I specialized in science, environment and medicine stuff. Aside from standard college prep and liberal arts fare, I don’t have any formal education in science; just a willingness to admit I don’t understand and to ask questions that might be considered too basic. (I’d rather look stupid in front of one professor than thousands of readers.) I did take a fellowship out of journalism ten years ago to study up on genetics, genomics and such — just to fill in the gaps in my self-education.
What did you do before coming to Duke University?
I was director of life sciences communications at the University of Michigan — again, sort of a keystone predator position where I monitored research findings from many departments. Our coolest thing there was a Flash tutorial on stem cells.
I mentioned a couple of times before – and correct me if I am wrong – that Duke recently made a 180-degrees turn in regards to the Web and blogs. From being one of the most resistant to becoming one of the most cutting-edge schools in terms of the use of the Internet in disseminating information about the research and teaching going on at Duke. How did that change come about?
Errrr, I think there would be a lot of people here who would take umbrage at being characterized as resistant to Internet communications. Compared with a lot of our benchmark schools, we’re pretty far ahead on the technology curve. Our news site was built on a content management system several years ago, making RSS feeds plentiful and diverse. Our multimedia maven, James Todd, regularly gives talks on how to get your university into YouTube, and we were one of the first schools to mount a site on iTunesU.
When I got here in January 2007, I inherited the plans to launch an ambitious online-only research magazine. We jazzed the concept up a bit with some Web 2.0 features and a companion push product, but it was all here when I arrived.
As a university, we’re not where I’d like to be in sharing coursework online or having an enterprise solution to blogging, but those things will come. Our new VP for public affairs and communications, Mike Schoenfeld, totally gets the Internet thing.
The Duke print research magazine stopped its publication a couple of years ago. You just started a Web-based research magazine – Research Duke. Tell us more about it?
We’re having a blast learning how to tell stories with more than text. I shy away from the term ‘magazine,’ because we can do a lot of things a dead-trees magazine can’t, but it is a monthly periodical. We’re putting a human face on research by letting you see and hear the scientists in their own words, in their own environment, talking about what they do and why they love it. You can post questions or engage your fellow readers in discussion. You can embed our videos in your blog. You can play with Duke data and compare it with other data sets through a really cool web 2.0 thing called
I really think the American public needs more exposure like this to understand why science matters, why we need to spend tax dollars on it, and why it’s a great thing for a young person to aspire to. We’re trying to do our small part in all of that.
superfan.jpgYou recently hired a veteran science journalist Tom Burroughs to run the Duke research blog. What is the goal of this blog?
(laughing) I love that moniker I’ve stuck on Tom — Veteran Science Journalist. It means he’s old, okay? Tom’s semi-retired from a distinguished career as a science reporter and editor. Before I got here, he was filling in as Duke’s science editor.
We wanted some authentic voices to be a centerpiece of the Duke Research site. But having failed so far in my attempts to get Duke faculty to spend the time blogging about their work or the wider world, I enticed Tom to try this blogging thing with a very modest retainer, set him up with a Blogger page and let him loose. He engages in the sorts of topics we science writers end up talking about around the office. (“Hey, did you see that thing about the appendix? How cool is that?”) He goes to lectures on campus, digs deeper into a news release, or pulls some Duke commentary into a wider issue, and then he shares his ideas. I’m loving it so far and he seems to be having fun too.
The goal? It’s another flavor of content about the Duke research enterprise; it’s like delicious frosting on our cake. The blog brings out stuff that we haven’t traditionally covered, and I hope it encourages engagement.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
Who said I wanted to grow up?! For now, I’m doing what I love to do, which is following science the way a sports writer follows sports. I can’t play the game, and never could, but I enjoy it immensely — especially since I don’t have to spend an entire year on one question! I can flit around and sample everything. I enjoy sharing what scientists do and what they’ve learned with a broader public. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t learn something myself. In the back of my head, I have a fantasy about spending the last few years of my career teaching junior high science.
Duke University is actively encouraging students to blog about their research and educational experience.
Thanks for the plug, but we’re hardly unique in this regard. Lots of schools are doing the same things.
Last summer, you managed a very interesting experiment with a number of Duke undergraduates blogging their summer research experiences. How did that go? What did you learn from this? Have any of the students continued blogging on their own and may be ready for prime time in the science blogging community?
Aren’t those the coolest? Mary Nijhout, who runs our undergraduate research program said she learned things from the blogs that she had never heard in some 20 years of running these programs. Again, it’s all about authenticity. I thought it would be cool to tap into this “transformative experience,” as the academic types like to call it. What happens the first time you have to snip a mouse tail? How hard is it to set up an assay? Does spending an entire week on one experiment suck or do you want to make it your life’s work? The responses are all over the map, as you’d expect, but they’re all sincere and real. A couple of students blogged one or two more times over the break, and I encouraged them all to get going again this fall, but I don’t think any of them have really gone to town on it. A lot of them are still in the lab, though!
We’ve had a few field blogs from students too – a bunch from the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences just got back from Midway Island and posted some great stuff. And student Sarah Wallace did a fantastic blog of her summer work in Chernobyl
Duke did a similar thing with local high school students blogging their experience at Duke. How did that work out? Will you do it again?
I wasn’t involved in this project, but it turned out pretty well, I thought. (It could have used more pictures.). Again, blogs are a great new tool a lot of schools are using to give readers a sense of what it’s really like at a place.
Coming up, the big blogging enchilada combo plate here will be the Duke Engage program, which sends students all over the country and world. They’ll all be set up to blog, which could be very cool. I imagine connectivity will prevent some of the more exotic sites from participating, however.
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?
Gosh, I’m not sure I remember my first. I had read some blogs and found them a bit bewildering (still do, in fact). The first NC Science Blogging conference was about two weeks after I arrived in N.C. and I thought I’d stepped into the coolest place to communicate science in the world. My counterpart at UNC, Clinton Colmenares, has recently signed up a bunch of us to blog on Science Crossroads as an experiment to share our best stuff.
I enjoy Dave Munger’s Cognitive Daily and Sheril Kirschenbaum’s Intersection; browse a few dozen more. I’ll admit my Google Reader tends to pile pretty high — I’m not on blogs every 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?
Oooh, wow. Any transformative experiences? Um, no, no lightening bolts. But lots of nice conversations and stimulating sessions. It’s always nice to associate the organisms with their avatars, I think.
Duke offered three awesome tours that were well attended, but sparsely blogged … you know who you are!
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.
Well, you didn’t actually *see* me, we just traded emails. …Bora, are you having trouble separating the real and virtual worlds?
Check out all the interviews in this series.


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