ScienceOnline2011 – interview with John Hawks

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 I chat with John Hawks (Twitter)

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’ve been based in Madison for nine years, at the University of Wisconsin. I was born and raised in Norton, Kansas – a small, rural town halfway between Kansas City and Denver. I loved science when I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I realized that I could be a scientist. I started as an English and French major, but I gradually made my way into anthropology.

I’ve taught evolution in Kansas, Michigan, Utah, and Wisconsin. Kansas gets a bad rap on this. Speaking from experience, the Kansas kids are the best. There’s a real sense in which a practical knowledge of animals and plants helps give a background for understanding evolutionary changes. This is how Darwin came up with the idea in the first place, after all. I really think that people who know animal breeding on an intuitive level are already primed to understand natural selection, and kids in rural Kansas (and rural Wisconsin) have that background.

Teachers need the resources to show these kids the human fossil record, and exercises to pull them into 21st century genetics. Why do we make kids sit four or five times through the same boring stuff about Mendel, when you can run a genome browser on any computer?

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

I began my career working with fossil hominins, and still do a lot of work with skeletal collections. Early on, I realized that genetics really had the potential to become a much more important source of evidence about the past, and I taught myself genetics.

I was telling someone the other day that I’m an anthropologist because it’s those questions about our evolution that always guide what I do. I’ve published on the whole range of our evolutionary history: the earliest hominins and the timing of the human-chimpanzee divergence, the origin of Homo, the Neandertals, late Homo erectus and the origin of modern humans, and the very recent part of our evolution in the last few thousand years.

A few years ago my friend Greg Cochran and I reasoned that natural selection in humans ought to have become much stronger and faster in the recent past, because the human population really grew rapidly in size after we developed agriculture. That realization led us to some really interesting work on the recent evolution of human populations. People have been evolving in all kinds of interesting ways, and understanding that history may help us to identify the genes that make a difference in human variations and diseases.

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

My students and I are working with archaic human genomes from several Neandertals from Europe, and one from a site called Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains. This week I’m flying to Novosibirsk to travel out to the site. Denisova is fascinating because it’s a mystery: a population that we didn’t suspect existed from fossils alone, but for which we now have a complete genome. In some ways the problem of modern human origins has been solved. What’s exciting is that we’re discovering things about ancient humans that are not evident from their bones — things about immunity, muscle, the digestive system, and potentially the brain.

To my mind, the central problem in human evolution right now is the origin of our genus, Homo. I’ve been working on this question from a genetic perspective, and it’s also a very exciting moment in the fossil and archaeological records with new discoveries in South Africa and the Republic of Georgia. Over the next two years I will be directing a lot of effort to this problem and I expect that our view two years from now will be pretty different from today.

Stories about fossil hominins engage me, and I use genetics to add detail to them. We have the power now to find out things that nobody ever knew about our ancestors — and I just love figuring out how.

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

The primary data of human genetics are more than ever available for free to the public. There is no barrier keeping high school students from doing the same kind of work on the Neandertal genome that my graduate students are doing today. I’m running a public forum this summer on personal genomes, and I can give the participants all the websites and software that we use to analyze genomes, because they’re all available for free to anyone. I find that tremendously empowering.

At the same time, I’ve gotten to a point in science where I’m often part of conversations that are more restricted, more closed. And it’s frustrating. I look at the web as a way to broaden our conversations, to bring in people who have knowledge and skills. I’m interested in more open scientific meetings, where being in the room isn’t a prerequisite to effective participation.

Streaming, live-tweeting and live-blogging are very important to me as ways to broaden the audience of scientific meetings. I am excited by ways of digitally archiving conversations and meetings, and sending those out to different levels. Why shouldn’t scientific meetings have a K-12 feed going out from them for students to follow? Why don’t we exploit the opportunity, when we have a thousand scientists together, to create content that can go out to the public in some compelling way?

I’m inspired by people who find ways to share new ideas. Paleoanthropology is a field where top researchers still get away with hiding their data from scrutiny. That culture has to change. Science means that others must be able to confirm observations independently. The web has made it possible to share data on a wide scale — as we see today in genetics, astronomy, and other data-intensive fields. The human fossil record is a drop in the bucket compared to the data that will be collected every night by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. And those astronomical data will all be open. What is stopping us from making the human fossil record available to schoolkids all over the world?

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?

My blog is my scientific memory. I really mean that, and I’ll explain why.

Several years ago I decided to commit to using a content management system, and I started using a series of Perl scripts to translate content from plain text files and present it as XHTML. For five years I ran everything that way off my own server with a simple versioning system: Published and unpublished files differ by a single letter in the file extension, the whole thing was updated across several computers and the server by rsync. It’s a beautiful system (at least, at small scale) and it meant that I could seamlessly present myself with a different blog than the public.

I wanted to structure my own notes, build an argument, maintain references consistently across multiple posts, and reuse material in scientific papers as I needed. I write 1 or two long posts every day, and maybe five or six short ones. I share the things I think are worth sharing, or are ready to share, which is really one or two short posts a day and a long post every 3 or 4 days. My computer is full of stuff I don’t publish. A lot ends up in scientific papers, some of it just serves as background for later work, and all of it makes up my structured, organized databank of knowledge about human evolution. My memory. I search this body of writing when I start thinking about how to address a new topic, and more often than not I’ve already written something relevant, giving me a place to start and build new material.

Twitter is like ham radio. I keep up with my faraway friends and meet new people, and a whole crew of folks around the world may be listening in. Yesterday I was carrying on a conversation about leprosy — you’ll see that on my blog maybe weeks from now.

There are certain people who just make me smile when they update.

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?

When journalists started to realize that science blogs were a phenomenon, in 2005 or so, I’d been going for a while and had pretty good traffic, so I was ranked right up there on the lists of science blogs to read. I’m really gratified that my readership has grown continuously since then.

I have some great favorites that I’ve read from the start, or at least for several years. Razib Khan, Mo Costandi, Sabine Hossenfelder, Michael Eisen, Alex Golub, Daniel MacArthur. Genomes Unzipped is just full of compelling stuff, and they’re sharing data and tools along with writing about genetic testing.

I feel sad when people stop writing. There have been all these genetics grad students and postdocs over the years who wrote pseudonymously, and who mostly stopped when they got tenure-track jobs. Grant applications kill creativity.

In the last couple of years I’ve seen a tremendous growth in biological anthropology and archaeology blogs and social networks. For a long time I felt really lonely, and now I find I’m not so much the hepcat anymore. Right now, it’s Kristina Killgrove, Julienne Rutherford, and Kate Clancy in biological anthropology, Julien Riel-Salvatore and Colleen Morgan in archaeology, who really impress me.

I follow the Scientopia feed and just admire the energy of the bloggers on that network. I feel like many of the young, exciting bloggers are embedded within their school or professional networks more than “science blogging” as a category. I think we need some more ways to draw good people across disciplines. I was telling somebody the other day that the Scientific American guest blog has become the place to be seen.

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

I’m organizing a conference and I want it to be just like ScienceOnline. I’ve never been to an event that made it so natural to establish lasting contacts with people, to talk about common issues across scientific disciplines, to expand the conversation outside the room.

The challenge is to raise the bar. At a given moment, the people in the room may be the most engaged, but they’re only the crest of a much larger wave moving science communication forward. How do we connect the energy with patrons who want this to happen?

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?

Some moments I will never forget.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again here next January!


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