ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Sabine Vollmer

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 Sabine Vollmer 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?
Sabine Vollmer pic.JPGI’m a journalist by trade and a thrill seeker by nature. There’s nothing more thrilling to me than Eureka! moments, my own and those of others. That’s why I chose to study journalism instead of biochemistry, why I left Germany to come to the U.S., why I enjoy reporting more than writing. Writing keeps me sane, but finding out stuff I didn’t know keeps me going. In the more than 20 years I worked for newspapers, I covered just about everything: Crime (too emotionally draining), politics (too much hot air), business (too much granularity, not enough color) and science. I got stuck on science about 10 years ago after moving
to North Carolina’s Research Triangle and the Eureka! moments keep on coming.
Becoming a science writer was a logical step for me, because I’ve always been interested in science, particularly in biology and chemistry. I took a heavy load of biochemistry classes in high school (German high school is different from American high school), but selected mass communication as my major at the university in Munich. I have never regretted my decision, because it has allowed me to experience scientific breakthroughs without having to toil in the lab doing experiments over and over again.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
Most of my expertise is in the life sciences. My sweet spot is where business and research intersect, mainly because those stories dominate in the RTP area. I moved here to cover biotech, pharma and health care for the Triangle Business Journal and then switched to the News & Observer to essentially write about the same things.
About a year ago, my job at the N&O got cut in a massive, nationwide McClatchy layoff, which so far has been largely a blessing. Now, I get to focus more on the science than the business angles, I get to mingle with scientists and I have more outlets. In the past year, I met three Nobel Prize laureates, including Ada Yonath, a 2009 winner in chemistry. Compare that to a big, fat 0 in the previous eight years while I was a staff writer with a regular paycheck and benefits.
My stories are now published on Science in the Triangle, an online publication that tracks research activities in the RTP area, and in the Science & Technology pages in the N&O and the Charlotte Observer.
Science in the Triangle is a current interesting project. Past interesting projects include a story about AZT, the first HIV/AIDS drug that was developed in RTP, and a couple of investigative stories about laser assisted in-situ keratomileusis, or LASIK. The AZT story was a doorway into HIV/AIDS research, a very active area in RTP, and Harvard Medical School picked it up and posted it on its Web site. The LASIK stories have since garnered the interest of a national magazine.
I’m still waiting for the curse part to hit.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
The RTP area generates a wealth of research in a number of different disciplines. Until four or five years ago, local media did an adequate job chronicling the activities. But when the bottom fell out in the newspaper industry, the local science coverage started to decline in quality and quantity. I just couldn’t bear the thought that all this local knowledge would become largely inaccessible to the general public and that the research silos that exist would become more impenetrable. I couldn’t and I can’t imagine how that would improve an area I came to appreciate for its intellectual vitality and cultural diversity.
I spend a lot of time applying my skills and expertise trying to fill the holes in the local science coverage, generate enough income to help feed and house the family and learn from the mistakes my former employers made and are still making.
My goal is to make a national name for myself writing about research and development in the RTP area.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I’d like to see a business model for online science writing emerge that values quality content and provides broad access to new ideas.
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?
Blogs come in different flavors. I’m trying to find time to start a personal blog and keep it going. For now, most of my blogging is for Science in the Triangle, where I provide information and analysis rather than opinion. I absolutely love Twitter, because it’s fast and insightful if you follow the right people. Basically, I use Twitter like a science wire service, to get ideas and to distribute blog posts. My twitter handle is @SciTri. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but I wouldn’t want to be without any of my social networks.
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’m still discovering them and have yet to form much of an opinion. I do find them very interesting as blueprints of publishing alternatives to the traditional, or “dead-tree” as you call it, media.
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 Eureka! moments, of course. It was my first ScienceOnline conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was great. It brought me up-to-date with a world I realized I knew nothing about as a staff writer for the dead-tree media. The networking was particularly fruitful for me. What I hope next year’s conference will address more and more specifically is a possible business model for online science writing. We need to figure out how to shift from paper to online and still be able to pay the bills.
It is great working with you. I am glad you made it to ScienceOnline2010 and thank you for the interview.