ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Christie Wilcox

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Christie Wilcox, my newest SciBling here (three blogs to the left, then around the corner) at Observations of a Nerd to answer a few questions.
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?
Where I’m coming from geographically… That’s a long story. I always love getting asked where I’m from, because it’s such a fun answer to give. Since I always get asked this after the spiel I’m about to give, no, my family wasn’t in the military – they just liked to move a lot. I was born in Boston, but my parents moved to Hawaii when I was too young to remember. Then they divorced a handful of years later, and my mom took me and my brother with her when she moved to Vermont. I spent much of my childhood bouncing back and forth, my winters in New England, and my summers in Hawaii, until my dad moved to California and bounced around there. And then moved to England. And then back to California. I went to a boarding school in Massachusetts for high school, then Florida for my undergrad, and now I’ve managed to wiggle my way back to Hawaii for my PhD. I spent about 5 years in each place so far, with a combined total of 14 different places to live (counting boarding school as only one, although the room and building changed every year, and not counting the 26 or so places my dad has moved to that I would visit). I even sound all over the place – I say “karaoke” with a Japanese accent, “Hawai’i” like a local, and “y’alls” with a Southern twang. To me, “home” is wherever I am at, and wherever the people I love are.
As for philosophically, l am first and foremost a biologist. I like to say that I’ve been a biologist my whole life, although it wasn’t official until I received my undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Eckerd College in 2007. When I was a kid, I loved whatever animals I could find. I can distinctly remember early-morning gecko hunts with my dad, where I would go out in the yard and turn over every object I was capable of to find geckos. I have a report from my school when I was five where the evaluator specifically mentions my affinity for opening geckos’ mouths to look at their tongues. Seriously. I can show it to you. I had hedgehogs for pets as a kid, because, you know, a dog and a cat weren’t odd enough to keep me entertained. Of course, I kinda forgot this along the way, and in high school I didn’t know what the heck I was supposed to do, so I did a little of everything. I directed a play, did an independent study in Hawaiian history, and took AP Physics. I really blame my physics teacher, Brian Giannino-Racine, for most of what I’ve become. He did the most blasphemous thing: he made science – and not just any science, but physics – seem like something fun and interesting to study. I liked his classes so much, I figured I could become a physicist, and, technically, that is what I started with when I got to Eckerd – a double major in Physics and Marine Science. It only took one advanced physics class to change my mind, but the passion for science in general that he brought out in me remained.
Although “biologist” sounds good, the truth is that biology is a huge field filled with a million different lines of work. As my time as an undergrad came to a close, I still hadn’t really found my niche. I felt like I had to pick something – behavioral biologist, molecular biologist, etc, and I had no idea what I wanted to pick. Instead of applying to grad schools right away, and committing myself for five or more years to a project I was unsure of, I took a couple years to think about my options while working as a biochemist in a research lab in Florida. Finally, I came to the conclusion that a five year old me would have found obvious, which is that I should do whatever I like to do most, and so I ended up where I am now, in Hawaii pursuing my PhD (which though on paper is in “Cell and Molecular Biology,” is really in “Playing with Ocean Creatures”). As a career, I am forced to do the kinds of things that most people spend lots of money to be able to do. I have to live in paradise, and must dive all the time as a part of my job. I am forced to travel all over the Pacific to help others in sample collection, to places like the Marquesas, Kiribati and American Samoa. I even might have to go to conferences in places like Thailand and South Africa to present my work to others. Isn’t being a biologist absolutely dreadful?
Christie Wilcox pic.jpg
After biologist in my self-descriptive terms comes writer. I love to write. I’ve always liked writing – I was that weird kid that everyone hated because I actually enjoyed essays in school. I wrote all the time, whether for school or just for myself. I used to think I would publish a book about my life someday. Actually, I still think that, but now for different reasons. Anyhow, I blog because I love to write, and by the time I graduated from Eckerd I had stopped doing a lot of that. I only wrote what I had to, and I had forgotten my love for it. When my friend Allie told me she had to write a blog for a class she was taking, I thought, damn, that’s a good idea. And thus Observations of a Nerd was born. I wanted a place where I could write about what I loved, and maybe some other people would like to hear about it, too. Logically, most of what I write about it biological in nature, but I get sidetracked every once in awhile. My writing career is in its infancy compared to my “real” one, but I love them both. Now, if only I could find the time to do them both as well as live a normal life…
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I think everything I do is interesting, but others might disagree. Along the way I have done a number of internships and volunteering that have given me a unique set of experiences. In retrospect, I remember them by the animals they brought me in contact with. For example, I learned that spotted eagle rays feel like puppies when they gently nibble shrimp off your hands, thanks to volunteer work I did at the Florida Aquarium. Cownose rays, on the other hand, feel like sand-papery vacuum cleaners. I worked an entire summer in Mote Marine Laboratory’s sea turtle program, where I walked up and down the beaches of Sarasota, flagging, protecting, and even moving turtle nests. During that time, I got to hold and care for at least fifty baby sea turtles, who are, officially, the cutest things that nature has ever produced (sorry, baby fennec foxes). Let’s see, what else have I done… Oo! I once helped electrically ejaculate an anesthetized river otter. That’s always the best story. People make the funniest faces when I talk about that.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
Currently, I’m working on my PhD. I want to study lionfish. They’re a nasty invasive species in the Caribbean, yet here in Hawaii, one of the many places in the Indo-Pacific where they are native to, they’re almost impossible to find. No one really knows anything about the entire group of these animals. My goals are to understand a bit about the evolution of the group as a whole and, more specifically, their populations here to determine if their distribution patterns can give us any insights in the Atlantic. Furthermore, I want to study their venom, learn what it contains and how it works, and maybe give people some incentive to fish them in their invasive habitats. Mostly, though, I think I just want to spend a lot of time underwater looking for the buggers.
Ultimately, my goals are to get that PhD, and with it go on to some post-docs, and eventually, settle in somewhere as a researcher or a researcher/professor. The details are still fuzzy, but somewhere along the lines I’ll end up with a family and publishing a book or two. Hey – I’m only 24! I’ve got a lot of time left to figure out the particulars 🙂
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? 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 for fun. I find little tid bits of science interesting, and being the ever-talkative extrovert that I am, I want to tell other people about them. If you have met me in person, my blog makes perfect sense. Reading a blog post if mine is what it is like to spend 15 minutes having a conversation with me about something I’m passionate about (including it being mostly me talking. I talk a lot. And fast.), although the blog post is probably a little more grammatically correct. I love to share what I care about with others. That’s why I worked on the education and public outreach side of many of my science endeavors. Blogging is my way of doing that when I don’t have the time to volunteer for five hours a day in an aquarium or a zoo. I think everyone would find science cool if only more people would explain it better, which is something, I think, that I can do.
As far as other outlets go, I have to confess: I’ve become somewhat of an addict to social networking. They’re great ways to pass information around. I do it all now – Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc. I get a lot of news and ideas for my blogging from the world of social networking I have created around myself. As for whether that’s a good thing… you’ll have to get a trained psychologist to answer that one.
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 back in 2008 when I started blogging. Last time I counted, I follow 80+ science blogs on my Google Reader… so I like a lot of them! Some of my personal favorite writers include Brian Switek, Scicurious, those crazy Deep Sea folks Kevin, Craig and Miriam, the other ocean trio Andrew, Amy and David, and of course, Allie, since she’s the one to blame for getting me into this whole thing. But I have to give special note to Ed Yong and his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. His was one of the first blogs I began reading, and I see NERS as a kind of model to strive for (with my own flare, of course). I was honored to even be considered for two of the Research Blogging Awards that he ended up winning – the idea that he and I might have anything in common is, to me, a huge, probably underserved, compliment.
Oh. And there’s also that silly Bora guy, of course. Though, I think anyone reading this already knows who he is!
I found a number of new blogs to read through the conference – like the kids from the Extreme Biology Blog. They simply blew my mind this year. I wish I’d have been that smart and driven at that age… I can’t even imagine where I’d be now!
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? 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?
The best part, for me, was meeting all the people I only knew by name or pseudonym. There’s something about putting a face or a voice to the words you read that makes them seem even better. Meeting all of the people I admire and read was a treat, and getting to know new people I’d never even heard of was icing on the cake.
I think what I took with me from the conference wasn’t as much a specific quote or idea as it was… dedication. I blog for fun, as anyone who blogs should, but I also blog to say something that I think is important, and the conference really instilled in me a sense of urgency to write these things that I think matter in a way that matters. It’s as if the conference pushed me from being just a blogger to being a writer and a journalist, too. I feel like it’s more than just for me now. It’s for everyone who reads Observations of a Nerd, or follows me on twitter. It’s for a larger community of science writers and educators. And because of that, I am continually trying to improve what I do, whether that means live tweeting a tsunami, explaining something complicated in a better way, or finding a creature that is atypically cute to draw attention to an animal that others might not think to care about. Science Online 2010 revitalized my passion for all of it! I can only hope I can make it out again next year, and every year after that.
As far as suggestions go, make it longer! I want more time with more people! I didn’t even meet half the people that went, and I really would have liked to get to know everyone better and learn more about their projects, ideas and what they do.
It was so nice to finally meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.


5 responses to “ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Christie Wilcox

  1. Wow! Impressive. (And I share your reverence for Ed Yong.)

  2. Great interview, and thanks for the hat-tip. 🙂 It was a pleasure to meet you, too, and hopefully we’ll get to chat a bit more at SciOnline’11!

  3. Pingback: ScienceOnline interviews « A Blog Around The Clock

  4. Pingback: ScienceOnline2011 – introducing the participants | A Blog Around The Clock

  5. Pingback: ScienceOnline2011 – introducing the participants « Science in the Triangle