ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Jessica McCann

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Jessica McCann from the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke.

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?









My husband and I moved to NC from Hawaii, where I was studying a bacterial symbiosis between the luminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri and its squid host. I ended up there after I met my mentor during an undergrad semester at Woods Hole Marine Lab. When the squid-Vibrio lab moved to Wisconsin, we decided to move to NC instead, for two huge reasons: to be close to my husband’s family, and for me to continue graduate school in one of richest (not talkin’ cash) science environments in the country.

So now we live in Chapel Hill, NC, just a couple miles west of Carrboro and we will probably never move. But I was born in Maine, and grew up right on the border between Maine and NH in a little town called Portsmouth. I still spend lots of time up there and really miss it. I do not, however, have a Maine accent. Somehow my sisters and I avoided it, even though both of my parents have it “wicked bad.” When I hear that New England accent on This Old House, though, it feels like someone wrapped warm blanket around me, it reminds me so much of home.

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

I LOVED my squid-vibrio project in Hawaii, and it got me interested in animal-bacterial relationships. The squid specifically harvests V. fischeri from the million-plus bacteria per milliliter of seawater it sees to make use of the light made by V. fischeri. I like thinking about how we and other animals recognize “good” bacteria from “bad”, and know which ones to harvest and which to repel/destroy.

For my PhD thesis, I studied a very “bad” bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and how it pushes proteins out of itself and into you. One of the highlights of my graduate career, though, was when I was writing for Endeavors, a magazine that describes the research and creative activity at UNC. I had some patient, fabulous and hilarious editors and wrote four articles about UNC science faculty there. It was a wonderful experience, and what spurred me into trying to find a “non-traditional” sci career path that includes science writing – which led me to Scio11 (well, first it led me to Scio10, but I had no chance of getting in last year).

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

Now I study Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that walks the line between good and bad. Most children have H. influenzae living in their nasal passages/upper respiratory system with no related symptoms. But in some circumstances, usually after a viral infection, H. influenzae causes ear infections, the most common reason for antibiotic prescriptions in the US – as any parent knows, I’m sure. In adults, H. influenzae infections cause severe pneumonia in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The thing about H. influenzae, though, is that it doesn’t make any recognizable “virulence factors,” (like the cholera bacteria with it’s toxin for example). It really just gets your immune system to kick up serious inflammation, and its the inflammation that causes all the symptoms we associate with ear infections and pneumonia. I am specifically studying how H. influenzae attaches itself to host cells, both in health and disease. I hope that we might one day block this attachment, and keep noses free from H. influenzae colonization in the first place.

I am also really getting into the ethical questions that arise when scientists set up global biomedical research collaborations. I won’t say too much about it here, as I’m trying to decide on whether to start a blog – there are sooooo many good ones out there already. If I do start one, though, it would be about global science ethics.

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

I use Twitter to keep up on interesting papers and the evaluation of those papers in the blogosphere. I read science blogs like mad. I am a fan of the open access science publishing movement, and am starting a campaign to get more of my senior colleagues to post comments on research online – it would be amazing to read critical discussions of papers RIGHT BELOW THE PAPER, in the comments section. Yet these comments are still pretty rare, at least in my field.

I also love open access data. Being able to mine someone else’s spreadsheets of how human genes change their expression patterns to respond to bacterial infection, for example, really informs my work and how I decide to proceed with experiments. I am still a n00b when it comes to Mendeley and other online science tools, but can see these becoming more and more critical to how science gets done.

One more thing. I turned to scientist-moms on the internet for advice and support after I had my gorgeous daughter. I seriously don’t think I could have made it through those first months back at work after maternity leave, where 60-80 hour work weeks are expected, without knowing about all the successful, lovely sci moms who had come before. I was one of those women in science who, during grad school, never encountered any bias or hardship due to my being female. I had a great female PI who seemed to have it all – family, great grant success, respect in the community, and was a wonderful mentor to boot. I was like, “it used to be harder for women, but it’s better now!”

But then I started my post doc and had a daughter. Everything changed (I wanted to write “Everything came crashing down,” but that’s a little dramatic, no?). While our little family is humming along now, I still feel like some aspect of work-love-motherhood life is always suffering. Not sure what to do to fix it, though, except maybe pay post-docs more so we can hire people to clean every once and a while. Don’t think the culture will change anytime soon.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I am the LEAST organized person I know, so there are no coherent wholes in my life. Just lots of incoherent holes. Heh heh. But I do love Twitter, I love how quickly it moves, and how science discussions get updated over the course of minutes and hours instead of the weeks and months it takes by more traditional routes.

But one of the things I hate about twitter is how quickly it moves. I have about a 20-30 minutes to spend with social media most days in the lab, and there is no way I can click through more than one or two links. When I try to go back and find them at the end of the day, it is impossible and they are lost to me forever (maybe there is an app for storing tweets for later that I don’t know about?).

But blogging and social media aren’t really a part of my work (not yet, anyway). Things are still pretty old-fashioned around here, and we stick to bench work most of the time. The science blogs I read now usually describe work outside of my field – the good ones that condense the latest, coolest research. In my own field, I stick to the primary lit and sometimes seek out opinions on anything controversial from the few experts I know that are online.

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?

We have had a subscription to Wired forever, so I have been a fan of Steve Silberman for some time. But I got into science blogs first through Carl Zimmer’s books. My husband got me “Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea” and “Parasite Rex” for one particularly geeky birthday, and then his blog was my gateway drug to science blogs in general. One of my favorite things about the conference was learning about all of the great writers and creativity I can now use to feed my addiction: Scicurious, Glendon Mellow’s artwork and tweets, and all the articles on Deep Sea News are a few of the many new additions to my daily routine. The best thing: I was so intimated to know that the people behind all this great work were going to be at Scio11 and I might actually talk to one of them. EVERYONE WAS SO VERY NICE, not to mention smart and witty. It was awesome.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I loved the workshop on writing effectively with Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer (“Death to Obfuscation). For a scientist with a very dry writing style and tendency towards passive voice, that workshop was the most helpful. I also loved Robert Krulwhich’s keynote, it was so inspirational. I didn’t get to attend the full Scio10 meeting but was a guest of Burroughs Wellcome for the Monti opening night of story telling, and think that would be an awesome thing to see again next year. I didn’t think the book readings went over all that well, it was too loud and social to really hear the person reading on stage, and that must have been tough for the readers. I do think the readings are a great idea, though, and maybe could be organized around a seated audience?

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, or to your science reading and writing?

One of the things that I was ambivalent about (but mostly against) before Scio11 was opening up the peer review process. My reasoning was that peer review makes a finished paper better and, like making sausage, not a process you want to be in on. The panel on open science really made me think twice. Then a few recent papers published in top tier journals had me wondering about the questions the reviewers might have asked and the speed at which this work got published – and wishing I could see the initial reviews. And, for students especially, seeing the nuts and bolts of the review process might help us design better experiments and better research from the get-go. I still believe that reviewers should be anonymous, however. Science is a very, very small world. You might review an author’s work one day and need reagents from that author the next. Not sure this will ever actually come about, though. A generation or two might have to pass before open peer review gets implemented.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again soon, and at ScienceOnline2012 in January.


5 responses to “ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Jessica McCann

  1. We’re so happy that you came to Scio 11. Hope to see you again in 12. I am local, so if you ever find yourself in a pickle and need a hand with the little one just give me a call (I’m Bora’s partner).

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  3. Jessica McCann

    Thanks so much for the comment and everything else! I just wanted to add one thing. Now I am a postdoc at Duke, the link up at the top of the article is from a few years ago now. Here’s a link to my advisor’s slightly outdated research page:

  4. Thank you. Fixed the link/info in both places.

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