ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Kerstin Hoppenhaus

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 Kerstin Hoppenhaus from Germany 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?
I am a filmmaker and journalist with a focus on science and history documentaries. I have been a first-time participant at Science Online this year and am now a freshly hatched blogger at More than Honey, where I write about my ongoing film-project. I live and work in Berlin.
In my previous life I was a biologist, which makes me something between an insider and an outsider, I guess. I have been inside long enough to understand what makes scientists tick, but I am far enough outside to sense what triggers “geek alert” in other people. Being the only scientist in my current work environment, I am probably quite useful as a mediator (sometimes), but also a source of puzzlement for many of my more artistically inclined colleagues (most of the time).
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I studied biology at the Universities of Tübingen and Jena in Germany and this led me directly to working for television in Japan – a result of niche qualification and total ignorance of the system on my part, I guess. I was on a scholarship in Japan at the time and still a biologist, but I already knew that I wasn’t going to stay in science, but become a journalist or something similar instead. So while in Japan, I applied for an internship with a German television broadcaster, totally unaware that foreign studios are widely considered one of the pinnacles of news reporting and hardly ever accept complete novices. It turned out that the only reason why I got in was that it was the year of the World Climate Summit in Kyoto and they were actually quite pleased to have someone aboard to help them sort their H2O from CO2. A fine piece of luck that was, and a great start. I was thrown headlong into the international media machinery and just to be in that gigantic windowless news center full of matte-gray cubicle walls, flickering screens and world class journalists was a thrill, let alone being a legitimate (if tiny) part of it.
After all this excitement I went back to Germany to properly learn the trade and started working as a freelance reporter for local public television in Dresden – news and short pieces on anything from groundbreaking ceremonies (quite common at the time in eastern Germany) to dice snakes along the River Elbe.
Then I went back to school and got me a degree in “Scientific and Industrial Film” (re-named and re-re-named several times since) at Filmacademy Baden-Württemberg with a very interesting interdisciplinary graduation project (an interactive, non-linear film on animal and robot locomotion) in cooperation with German Research Foundation (DFG).
After that: more freelance work in local news and short pieces for tv-science magazines, then first assistant jobs for larger projects and finally my first own documentary series as author and director.
At present, I am researcher, co-author (with director Markus Imhoof) and blogger for my first cinema project, More than Honey, a feature-length documentary about honeybees.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I went into television and film for the moving pictures and the sound. And I have no regrets. They are very powerful tools for communication and they allow you to reach a very wide audience. But there also are some serious limitations. Speed of production is one (the road to film is long and slow) and, more importantly, there is always trouble with abstract concepts and „things-you-cannot-see” in general. Film doesn’t take too well to explanation and certainly not to explaining complex scientific interrelationships.
Film is better for other things. For engaging people in science „en passant”, for example; for a scientific approach implicitly included in „normal” story lines; for science delivered semi-consciously and in healthy doses. For combining science with entertainment. And then, of course, if it has the pictures, it can simply blow you away.
And now, there also is the internet. Now, you can have both. You can reach the wide audience of whatever form television will take in the future and you can communicate in-depth information alongside with it on almost any level of detail you choose. In other words: you can use television to lure people into science (the “gateway-drug“) and then provide them with all sorts of tools to make the subject their own. Play, study, share. Whatever.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I am very interested in exploring new ways of interacting with the audience, especially during production of a film, not just „after the deed”, when the film is released.
We did a series on genealogy a few years ago where a historian was setting out to answer questions about viewers’ family histories. We had a little website up during research and filming and not only did we get quite a few useful hints for archives and material and lots of moral support when we were stuck once again, but we were also repeatedly offered spare parts for the vintage 1979 Lada limousine our historian was driving! Who could ever again want an audience that is only watching?!
Another ongoing interest is finding ways to make the process of science more transparent. Reporting and explaining scientific results is beautiful and important. But there is so much more to science! And there are so many misconceptions about what science is and how it is done. People tend to be very surprised when they learn how messy science can be, how much of it depends on chance and hunches, and how tedious and boring it can drag along at times. But these are good stories and they should be told. I think, film might actually be a good tool for that. Because film is slow and so is science; and film can listen and observe and follow work in progress. It can show that science not just about results, but also a way of doing things.
In this context, I am also very interested in citizen science projects. There is a lot to learn from them about how to involve people in the process of science and I hope that I will have an opportunity to combine film and citizen science projects in the future.
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?
I am clearly not an early adopter with all this and still not very experienced. At the beginning, I was constantly at the point of near-overwhelmedness and impending shut-down, but I am learning to filter and find Twitter an unexpectedly useful tool for that. Also, the novelty does wear off eventually and I am beginning to integrate things somewhat routinely into my workflow.
The bee-project turns out to be a great testing ground – bee-people are very helpful and willing to share and we have already had a lot of interesting input through the blog and through Twitter.
However, it all is still experimental and I would greatly appreciate your feedback!
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 think I drifted into science blogs from science-fiction, really. I had been reading blogs of science-fiction-writers like Peter Watts and Bruce Sterling for quite a while, and, obviously, they often have a fair amount of science in them.
The two lines met, for me, in Henry Gee’s „Futures”-series at Nature (and hopefully will continue to do so until the universe is swallowed by a giant balrog), which then led me to Nature Networks and on to Scienceblogs and Discover, and eventually to many of the independent science blogs out there.
Did I discover new blogs at scio10? Oh yes! There’s Laelaps and Phylogenomics, The Millikan Daily and The Daily Monthly, CogSciLibrarian, The Flying Trilobite and Deep Sea News – and that’s just a few of them!
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?
There were many, many interesting sessions, but what impressed me most was the un-conferency format of it all. It seemed so naturally engaging and efficient that you wonder how things could ever have been any different. I think the strong sense of community that many people have pointed out is no accident. Of course, much of it came from the enthusiasm and collegiality of the participants, but it also and in no small part resulted from a very careful orchestration by the organizers.
It started with the warm-up at The Monti and beautiful stories about science, journalism, and inspiration. Just listen to Scott Huler’s Monkey Story. It will make Sidney, the Chimp, your friend for life.
The next day brought workshops and lab tours – both excellent opportunities to meet new people and talk about projects without worrying about missing the next session/ the next great speaker/ lunch… I especially enjoyed the trip to the NC Museum of Science and Nature, where blogger and animal keeper Larry Boles took us on a great tour behind the scenes and into the bear cages.
I can only recommend to make room for those extra days in your schedule next year, especially for people who are new to the scene (like I was), but probably for anybody else just as well.
Also: I was among the lucky people who received one of the sponsored flip-cameras and although I was way to distracted to act much like a filmmaker, I do think that the video snippets that I and others uploaded during and shortly after the event help to convey a good sense of the energy and the discussions.
Overall I took from the conference a sense of huge potential and if I finally made that step and became a blogger myself, I have no doubt that it was largely because of YOU! So, thank you all.
It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.


4 responses to “ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Kerstin Hoppenhaus

  1. Watching that video again makes me miss the whole thing! A pleasure to make your acquaintance!

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