ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Kelly Rae Chi

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 Kelly Chi 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 freelance science writer based in Cary, North Carolina, but I spent most of my life thinking that I would one day become a scientist. It turns out that I am terrible at experiments. Although I realized this during my first year of graduate school, I kept going – for three years on the PhD track, stubbornly – with the thought that one day it wouldn’t matter that my hands shake during rat brain surgery. And I could be a professor, think of new experiments, write papers and teach.

During graduate school, I started writing for the college newspaper and realized that I loved writing about science. Short-term deadlines fit me perfectly, I also learned. So I left my PhD, got a master’s and started the science and medical journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2006.

Leaving my PhD was really difficult for me, not only because I hate the idea of quitting but because it seemed risky to pursue an entirely new career path. But since that time, I’ve learned that there are a whole bunch of writers and editors out there who are also just like me.

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

I wish that freelancing offered more of a career trajectory, but in the past several years I have focused on getting (and keeping) clients and trying different sorts of writing and editing.

While pursuing a master’s at UNC, for example, I worked with the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center on an exhibit for kids called Zoom In, which tackled diverse topics like cystic fibrosis and outer space. The best part of this project was working with a team of educators and designers. We got paid to talk about mucus– who wouldn’t love that?

Last year, I got my first long-ish feature, ‘Disappearing before Dawn,’ published in The Scientist magazine. That became one of the most popular articles on the website in 2009, and that’s probably because you linked to it, Bora. In 2009, I also wrote a small book that I refuse to call a booklet for London-based NGO International Institute for Environment and Development that appeared at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

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

Besides the usual freelancing, I’ve been taken a position at Medscape Medical Students as a freelance clinical editor. My goal, for the next six months, will be to help build the website’s blogs, columns and discussions. This content will, I hope, help medical students survive rotations and choose their specialties.

I also manage editorial content for the Amgen Scholars Program website. It’s funded by the Amgen Foundation, and the program gives undergraduates the chance to do scientific research at one of more than 10 host universities across the U.S. and Europe. As part of this work, which is through my client Faculty of 1000, I encourage students to blog about their research experiences in the Program’s private online community. I’ve been able to meet and interact with some really bright and talented undergraduates. These kids are great. They sometimes make me feel old, but that’s okay.

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

Like many of my writer friends and colleagues, I care about making science accessible to people. Most of my work is geared for somewhat specialized audiences, like physicians or scientists or students, but these folks are everyday people in many ways. I try to assume that they won’t have the time or willpower to unpack a mess of jargon. That said, I like knowledge for its own sake, so sometimes jargon will nerdily make its way into my writing. I’m lucky to have patient editors who remind me to fish it out.

Related to the Amgen Scholars and Medscape Medical Students work I’m doing, I am also deeply interested in building online communities and helping make them better somehow. With this goal in mind, I plan to attend ScienceOnline 2011 and absorb as much as I can. Because building communities is not easy, and I need all the help I can get.

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 have to admit that I spend more time finding and encouraging others to blog than I do blogging. Motivated by my own hypocrisy, I started a website and attached a blog to it. Besides posting and linking to my own articles, I hope to find time to write about science and health tidbits that interest me. Luckily, no one reads my blog yet (except for my mother and my friend Penny), so no pressure.

I do use Twitter and Facebook, but I find myself posting for different audiences. On Facebook, it’s my family and friends. On Twitter, it’s my colleagues and people who are too interesting to ignore. Most of this online activity is a net positive, I’d say, because it has given me story ideas and the ability to procrastinate in the most productive way possible.

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’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because it makes me feel technologically challenged, but for me the coolest part about the conference was the undercurrent of chatter on the #scio10 Twitter feed. Attendees used Twitter to sum up the presentations, ask questions, make wisecracks and agree or disagree with the presenters. All in real time. I have to admit that before this conference I avoided Twitter because I thought of it as a giant time suck. Now I think of it as not only not a time suck but, at least in a conference setting, as a way to understand the same presentation through someone else’s more experienced eyes — like internet-o-vision. The experience was kind of a revelation for me. Twitter’s also great for networking: when I started tuning into the conference-related tweets, I got introduced to many attendees in a short amount of time.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. And I’ll see you in January!