ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Dave Mosher

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 Dave Mosher.

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 journalist who somehow carves out his existence in New York City. My roots are back in Ohio, however, where my first teachers injected me with science as a wee lad. I’ve been foaming at the mouth for it ever since, so much that I thought I wanted to do biological research as a career. Until I actually did some of it in college. The monotony got to me fairly quickly.

Having an unofficial license to ask dumb questions about science all day — and then write about it — seemed like a good career path for me, so I added a journalism degree. The rest is history.

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

Right now, I’m a contributor to Wired.com/Wired Science and an editor (out of love) for The Time Hack — an ambitious exploration of time perception by Matthew Danzico, an amazing/intelligent/talented friend and BBC journalist.

Before all of that, I worked for Discovery.com and Space.com/LiveScience.com. Those jobs combined with a potpourri of internships prior to them took me to some interesting places in space and time. For example: Flying into the shadow of a total solar eclipse near the North Pole, living in a house full of Russian physicists for three months, chasing space shuttles and astronauts across the country, etc.

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

I’ve been working extremely hard for Wired Science since I joined the team in October 2010, but I’m now splitting my time in half between that and freelancing. Needless to say, there are a lot of rabbits out there I now have time to chase! Other than world domination, my goals are pretty simple: Do what I love, do it the best I can, and somehow make a living in the process.

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

Science has the unique ability to provide the most current, thorough and valid conclusions about the universe we live in. No other discipline, belief, philosophy, manner or being — or whatever you want to call it — can claim that. Meanwhile, the Internet is a vast and evolving communications organism.

When you pair science with the web, some truly astonishing shit happens. Notwithstanding the phenomenally improved scientific collaboration, data sharing, publication speed, etc. you have a prime medium to satiate the public’s interest in science. Sharing tales of this knowledge with people, using one of the greatest inventions our species has produced, is something that’s difficult to describe in words. You can tell stories unlike any other medium can, with a barrage of text, video, audio, and — budget permitting — a healthy dose of interactivity.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you integrate 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?

It’s funny to me, as I write for a living, but my personal blog is often the first thing I neglect in pursuit of other passions/hobbies, e.g. photography, reading, movies, travel, tickle fights, etc. Pounding out a news story or blog post for pay is easy enough, but my personal space transforms me into a strange, inefficient and over-thinking writer. I’m not sure why, so someone’s welcome to tell me. Anyway, I’m trying to overcome this hurdle and develop my blog into a place for asides that emerge during my news reporting. You know, the stuff you can’t write or explore in the mainstream (e.g. what do penis spines look like?).

Social networks, especially Twitter, are crucial to my work in so many ways. Once I get over the initial time investment of understanding how they work, I learn to make them work for me . An example with Twitter: Without it, I wouldn’t be as up-to-date on the latest science news, find as many exclusive story ideas, gain familiarity with topics that I can eventually cover, or stay on top of trending/emerging themes in science. There was a post I read about how some people are extraordinary filters of information (I can’t recall where). Well, it’s true. Just look at Steve Silberman, a friend of mine and a fantastic science writer. He’s one of my top sources of information because he’s an extraordinary filter of what’s out there on the web. He almost always shares items that are interesting and relevant to me. Build a diverse network of these people from many disciplines, and you can save yourself oodles of time, not to mention self-loathing for not being an omniscient Internet-scanning robot.

“Integrate … into a coherent whole” isn’t the right phrase for how I treat social networking; it’s more like compartmentalization. I say this because I don’t have the cognitive capacity to handle a firehouse of tweets from hundreds of people everyday, let alone my RSS reader. So I break things up into groups that make sense. On Twitter: writers, scientists, publications, PIOs, etc. On Facebook: friends, family, professional colleagues, etc. In this way, social networking becomes manageable — ignore what you don’t have time for/aren’t interested in at the moment, and focus on what’s important. This style makes my online activity a positive and powerful element in my daily routine.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favorites?

I encountered them in college and started my first (now-defunct) science blog in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I was fully conscious of how many were out there, their depth and their promise. That was thanks to an internship at Discover magazine under Amos Zeeberg, an amazing web editor who’s still kicking butt there today.

A few favorites are Not Exactly Rocket Science, Technology Review’s arXiv blog, and the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. A sort of related and guilty pleasure of mine is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which posts original pee-your-pants-funny comics — many of which are about science.

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

The best part, plain and simple, was meeting people I knew only over the internet. The event allowed me to get a real feel for who these strangers are, and foster some true human-to-human connections with them. It was also fun to see how much people distort their actual physical appearance online (e.g. silly avatars, pics outdated by 10 years, MySpace’d mugshots, etc.).

Suggestions? Sure. Science writer David Harris, on his own accord, hosted a great Twitter-based networking game at NASW in 2010. It forced me to meet new people that I still speak with today, and I think a social networking-powered activity like that would be phenomenally appropriate at ScienceOnline2012. Note that great prizes to motivate people really helps.

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?

All of the sessions stick with me to this day, but I found the most value in those on creating/maintaining online journalism standards and what makes online science writing better/different/worse. These both cemented concerns I’ve encountered during my work, as well as introduced me to new ways of seeing things. I certainly feel more cognizant of problems I could cause (and avoid) as a writer.

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

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