ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Anne Jefferson

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 Dr. Anne Jefferson 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’m a hydrologist – meaning I study water – and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. My pursuit of groundwater and rivers has taken me all over the country from my childhood in Minnesota, east to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for my undergraduate degree, back to Minnesota for a MS, out west to Oregon State University for a PhD and post-doc, and now to the south. My interaction with on-line communication has similarly meandered; I learned HTML and created a website as a high school student but only came to science blogging a few years ago.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I’m fascinated by the way that surface water, groundwater and landscapes interact at all timescales, from a single rain storm to millions of years. What controls whether a rain drop ends up running over or through the soil into a stream channel within hours to weeks versus sinking down and becoming groundwater that spends years to centuries underground before maybe emerging in that same stream at a spring? How does that partitioning of water between surface and ground affect the way landscapes erode? And how does that partitioning affect the hydrologic behavior of streams and their sensitivity to floods, droughts, and climate change? Those are the sorts of questions I began exploring in the geologically young volcanic rocks of Oregon and I’m now trying to translate to the old, fractured crystalline rocks of North Carolina. Plus, Iiving in the rapidly growing Southeast, I’ve begun asking how human landscapes overlay on natural hydrologic processes. I’m really excited about a project I’m working on with a stream biogeochemist and ecologist to look at how stormwater management practices affect the hydrology, temperature, and ecology of small urban streams. (Come work with me on the project!)

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

My job consists of a wonderfully stimulating mix of research, advising graduate students, and teaching. I sometimes think that each of those activities is enough for a full-time job – but they are all part of one pre-tenure assistant professor job description! My goals are to do and teach good, interesting science with my students and help them succeed, because I know that in their success lies my own. I’m also the single parent of an energetic three (and a half) year old, so my second shift involves learning dinosaur paleontology and explaining viral versus bacterial illnesses in non-technical terms.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I’m interested in how the Internet can serve as an important community and resource for individuals who might otherwise feel isolated or disconnected from others like themselves. This might be the lone geologist in a physics department at a liberal arts college, it might be a Latina hydrologist in the northwest, or it might be a woman graduate student struggling to figure out how she’s going to combine her plans for an academic career with her desire to have a family. I teamed up with Kim Hannula, Pat Campbell, and Suzanne Franks to look at how women geoscientists use blogs for mentoring and professional development, and we published a paper summarizing our findings and recommendations for the way we could improve the potential for on-line communities to support diverse geoscientists. (You can read more about it – and the open-access paper here).

I’m also interested in how the Internet, and science blogging, can create opportunities for informal, life-long science education and supplement the traditional science classroom. When I write posts for Highly Allochthonous, I’m trying to write for the non-scientist, or at least non-hydrologist, who is interested enough in water or geology to Google the right keywords over her morning cup of coffee.

But the person I picture in my head is the middle or high school science teacher who is looking to go beyond the textbook and bring richer context into her teaching or learn more about earth science to be able to do a better job answering inquisitive students’ questions. Having worked with science teachers in the past, I am acutely aware how few resources are available in many schools, and that’s part of why I’m so thrilled to be helping out with the DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students drive through our Highly Allochthonous Earth Science Challenge.

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, tweeting, and reading blogs and twitter actually helps me stay somewhat up-to-date with the scientific literature in a much broader sense than if I were solely reading journal articles. I’m also increasingly finding that blogging affects the way I teach. For example, this semester I’m teaching a seminar on climate change science that meets a university communication requirement, and I’ve had students do critical analyses of news media reporting on climate change. My choice of that assignment and my approach to doing it has been heavily influenced by discussions I’ve seen and participated in on blogs. I think some on-line presence, even if it is just a well-crafted and up-to-date web page, is a necessity for a young academic, so that people reading your articles and prospective students can find out more about what you do. But beyond that I think there are corners of academia that view online presence as a distraction. I just hope that my tenure committee will see that my online activities are not detrimental to my research productivity and are instead a valuable form of outreach. I’ll let you know in a couple of years.

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 started reading science blogs in about 2006, but didn’t start writing at Highly Allochthonous until 2008 or so. The geoblogosphere is a great, tight-knit community, so it’s hard to pick favorites, but if you forced me to pick one, I’d go with Eruptions by Erik Klemetti. Erik and I actually went to grad school together at Oregon State and it’s been great to reconnect through blogging and to feed my volcano addiction with his frequent updates and always gorgeous photos. At the Saturday night banquet, I had the pleasure of hanging out with the Deep Sea News crew, and making their acquaintance was certainly a highlight of the conference.

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 are two particularly memorable parts of ScienceOnline2010 for me. First was the realization that despite the vastness of the science blogosphere I knew, it was only a small part of online science communication efforts – which range from open-access publishing to podcasting and beyond. The second memorable part of ScienceOnline2010 was the session I moderated on “Casting a wider net: Promoting gender and ethnic diversity in STEM.” We had a great unconference-y discussion with lots of thoughtful contributions from the audience. Among the points that stick out in my brain were discussions of the challenges of continuing mentoring relationships beyond the time a student is in a particular program and of spot-lighting the work of minority scientists without forcing them into being role models or spokespeople if that’s not what they want to do. I find these sorts of discussions from diverse viewpoints incredibly helpful as I continue my on-line and off-line efforts to increase the recruitment and retention of women and minorities in the geosciences.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.