ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Marla Broadfoot

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. As the next one – ScienceOnline2011 – is quickly approaching, I hope you enjoy these Q&As with past participants. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked Marla Broadfoot 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 live in a big old farmhouse in Wendell, a little town east of Raleigh. My husband’s great great great grandfather Dr. Henry Avera built it in 1870-something, so the house has been in the family for nine generations. I’m more of a city girl myself, but it has grown on me, high ceilings, cold winters, busted plumbing, mice, and all. I love doing my interviews from my antique desk, looking out at our resident groundhog as she suns herself in the yard. It’s not such a bad place to muse and write.

I was a research scientist before I was a writer. I had always thought I wanted to be a scientist, until I was one. The way it was laid out in textbooks, science was a beautiful and surprisingly simple thing. But once I delved deeper into the discipline, doing research of my own, I found that nothing was as simple as it seemed. Take that elegant DNA double helix that Watson and Crick first described. It doesn’t always look that way – often it is twisted like a rope, and sometimes it is completely reversed!

Not that I detest complex topics – actually, some of my favorite things to write about are the most basic of basic sciences, which are hardly ever simple. But I did feel like every time I attempted some feat at the bench, the complexities of the science made it take ten times longer than I thought it should. Some people embrace those complications, delving into every detail of the problem they are working on. But I was just too impatient for that. I wanted answers, and I wanted them right away.

I found myself enjoying reading up on the science, presenting the science and writing about the science more than doing the science. I dabbled a bit in science writing, creating a couple of pieces for American Scientist and Endeavors, the research magazine at UNC, where I was in graduate school. I enjoyed the writing immensely, but wasn’t sure I was willing to jump off the track that I had laid out for myself so many years before. So I applied for a very competitive fellowship in clinical molecular genetics at the National Human Genome Research Institute. There was only one spot available, so I figured if I got it that meant I should stick with research; if I didn’t, then clearly writing was my new path. Well, I got it, and once I got over the boost to my ego, I realized I would have to keep doing research. I loved the fellowship, even though there was a huge learning curve as I was one of only a few PhDs in a group of MDs. And then there was that week where I thought I had Marfan syndrome (which Abraham Lincoln may have had) because I could reach around my back with one arm and touch my belly button (I learned in class that was one of the signs of the disease). Turned out it was just part of the hypochondria that sets in after reading up on clinical disorders for hours at a time.

But the research still frustrated me, so I finally admitted to myself (and my mentor) that I was going to take the leap and leave research altogether. I finished my fellowship, passed the boards (a qualification I never used) and let my country mouse of a husband “drag” me down to this quirky old home. I wrote for Duke full-time for a little over a year, most of which it seems I spent pregnant, and then left to pursue freelancing and motherhood. Now I spend my time switching between two completely different worlds: one, where I am often alone on my computer translating scientific jargon and the other, where I am being jumped upon by one little body or another. Both jobs are fun and challenging, though in completely contradictory ways.

I love the concrete nature of writing. I am no longer working with molecules too tiny for the eye to see – I’m manipulating words that I can see transform into something real and telling right there on the page. I love it that I don’t have to hear about the failures or pitfalls of science – no colony contamination or troubleshooting PCR conditions make it into my articles. Because of my stint in research, I have a strong admiration for scientists and the dedication it takes to succeed in the discipline. I also think I can be even more critical of the work I report on because I know how science is done, how it can be manipulated even unintentionally, and how it is ever changing.

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

Over the last year and a half I have been working on a series on Women in Science for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Many women go into science, but just like me, leave around the time of starting their own lab. Russ Campbell at the BWF, God bless him, gave me free reign to completely delve into the problem of why more women don’t make it to the high ranking positions in academia. I pored over the literature and talked with about twenty researchers at all different stages of their careers. The result was a four-part series on a variety of topics from equity issues to mentoring to the biological clock to institutional biases. I found that outright discrimination may be mostly in the past, but subtle biases still exist, and accumulate over time, putting women at a disadvantage for awards, tenure and promotions. And men aren’t solely to blame – women and men alike tend to undervalue the contributions of female scientists. So we may have come a long way, baby, but there is a long way yet to go. Russ and I are putting the four articles and just as much supplemental material into a mini-novella of sorts that we are going to distribute nationally to continue to raise awareness about the issue.

I have also become interested in the idea of translational medicine. According to one statistic, it takes about 17 years to turn a mere 14 percent of research findings into changes in care that benefit patients. To me, that just seems too little too late. When I was in graduate school, I discovered a sort of cure for beta-thalassemia, a Mediterranean blood disorder. Essentially, I obliterated the disease in a Petri dish, published my papers, and then graduated. Patients were contacting me to find out when the treatment would reach them, and all I could see were the nearly insurmountable steps before it would ever get there. I have been writing a number of articles about a large national effort underway to cut down on those steps, and to make those that must remain at least a little less daunting. Right now I think the public is hungry to see some return on their investment. I read somewhere that it is the National Institutes of “Health,” not the National Institutes of “Scientific Publications.” Clearly the bar for success as a scientist has to change.

Another thing I have particularly enjoyed doing is creating an “Ask a scientist” series for the SciTech page of the Charlotte Observer and News & Observer. The series explores relatively basic questions that many of us may have heard about but only have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Topics like “What is ozone?,” “How does chemotherapy work?,” and “Why does Thanksgiving dinner make us sleepy?” The scientists I have talked to really revel in the opportunity to revisit old topics and allay some common misconceptions about science. A lot of the questions are inspired by my kids, who like all kids are innately curious and always want to know more. Plus I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from adult readers, asking for more details and suggesting new topics.

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

Honestly, most of my time is taken up by my two little rugrats, Marilyn age 4 and Viola “Vi” age 2. I remember when Vi was just a baby I flew to Seattle to cover a meeting for aids2031, a group of all these brilliant researchers from around the world who were trying to cure HIV. I was immersed in highly technical discussions and worked 12 hour days practically every day that week. Yet I got more rest than I had in a long, long time. Being a parent is definitely the most exhausting thing I have ever done. Personally, I find writing more exhilarating than exhausting. I know it sounds trite, but sometimes it really feels like a hobby I get paid to do. I frankly don’t have time for any other hobbies – a little yoga, a little reading, but if I have free time, I write, because that is what I love to do. So I guess with regard to my career, my goals are quite simple. To keep getting paid to do what I love to do, for people to read my work, and for it to make them think, perhaps even look at the world a little differently than they did before. But I guess when it comes to what matters most in my life, it is that I raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids. Let them save the world.

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

Practically every major issue facing the world today – global warming, the economic crisis, universal health care – has some aspect of science within it and will likely require the critical thinking and technological advances of science to solve. I personally think that science communication is an excellent vehicle to educate the public, not necessarily so that everyone can name the four bases of DNA, but more so that people can see how science can change their lives. I have always thought science was incredibly cool, and I want to impart that same excitement to those around me. My focus is on biomedical research, so I am constantly trying to explain how even the most basic research can have far-reaching implications (yes, I think fruit fly studies in France are worthwhile). But I also think it is important not to make false promises about the speed with which science is likely to progress or blow the effects of small studies out of proportion, no matter how sexy the question being tackled. That is a risk that has increased as so many dedicated science reporters have been cut from staff rooms, but hopefully the burgeoning number of independents reviewing and writing about science online can pick up the slack.

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 read fellow NASW member Tabitha Powledge’s blog break-down every week. I use Twitter mainly to pick up on interesting topics in science and science journalism that I might have missed through (more) traditional channels. And I use Facebook almost entirely to share the cute or horrifying things my kids did that day. I enjoy having social media in my life, especially considering that on the days when I am working it can be the only social interaction I get. But I don’t dedicate a lot of my time to it – I mostly lurk on the sites and read a little, rarely posting myself.

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?

I didn’t get a chance to attend many of the sessions, so I hope I will have the opportunity to go to more of them this year. I enjoyed hearing Michael Specter talk, particularly the discussion afterwards on how a journalist knows when they have talked to enough experts and done enough research to do a particular story justice. I have grappled with that same question myself, sometimes wondering if I should include the other side in a story even when that other side represents a small minority of scientific opinion. I recall one of the participants saying that scientists do the same thing as journalists, accumulating data until they think a story is complete and then submitting it to a particular academic journal. I guess scientists and journalists aren’t all that different, we just have to use our best judgment in how we present our work and the work of others.

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