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.
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? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I’m a gypsy, both geographically and scientifically. My father was in the RAF (NCO), and so I’ve always moved around a bit. A lot, really. I read Biochemistry at Oxford and stayed for a DPhil, then a postdoc—both in cell/molecular biology/protein chemistry, looking at the machinery whereby cells stick down to a surface.
After that I had a brief spell in a small company you’ll never have heard of in Cambridge, making DNA extraction technologies. I was good at it, and everything I touched turned to gold—well, it would have if we’d have had a sales team that could actually sell anything. I left under a bit of a cloud, quite disillusioned, but having landed a postdoc at the MRC-LMB (the Nobel Factory) with Murray Stewart.
My plan there was to learn X-ray crystallography, something that had fascinated me since my doctorate. Because the protein I was working on refused to crystallize however, I ended up doing a brute force NMR attack with the incomparable David Neuhaus. Thence I was able to figure out how to get the thing to crystallize, and got a beautiful 1 Å crystal structure of my protein—part of the mRNA nuclear export pathway—combined with its ligand (a fragment of the nuclear pore). In my six years working for Murray, in addition to the nuclear export stuff I also did some work on cell motility, using nematode worm sperm as a model. These little guys crawl rather than swim, and the amazing thing is they have no actin. That was a great deal of fun, leading to me going round saying “I yearn to learn how the worm sperm turns.” You have to get your laughs where you can in this business.
Then I had three years in Sydney, being the only cell biologist in a huge team of NMR types. That was fun in a number of ways, and was where I started writing a ‘proper’ blog. I’d kept a self-propelled online web-log and written various things for other labrats before that, most of which is unpublishable, but this was the first time I’d done it using authoring software and whatnot.
When that grant money wasn’t renewed, I decided that it was time to make a clean break (I never wanted to be a PI…) and left the lab, came back to the UK and took a job with Faculty of 1000. Where I did everything from running a website rebuilding project to writing for The Scientist magazine. Now I’m on the move again, having this week accepted an offer to be a Senior Writer at a medical education & publishing agency in London.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
My creativity has taken a bit of a beating recently, but I’m now coming out of what has been quite a dark patch for me. I’m trying to write again—I have two novels on the go, one lab lit, based on my experiences in Cambridge; the other fantasy—and a few short stories that need looking at. I haven’t written any poetry recently but it’s something I want to revisit.
I help Jenny (Rohn) very closely with Science is Vital, the grassroots campaign group set up to protect science funding in the UK. That trundles along for a few months and then we have a massive effort—recently on science careers for example—when we don’t get any sleep.
And of course, I run Occams Typewriter. I set it up a year ago when I finally got fed up with Nature Network, and the amazing thing is it’s pretty self-propelled these days. It’s a fantastic group of people writing there, and I’m very pleased with how things have turned out.
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?
Hah. Well, while at F1000 I’ve been running the blog as well as doing all the other social media engagement. It’s been quite difficult keeping my own ‘brand’ separate from that, and to be honest, I’ll be quite glad to go back to just being me next month!
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? What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?
Science blogs as a separate entity first came real to me after I started blogging in Sydney. The thing is, the University asked its staff to keep blogs, and they had loads of humanities types doing it, but I was one of maybe two other scientists who showed an interest—and the only blog that anyone read. It was really successful, and I even made it into the national press. Then Nature Network came along, and I got into OpenLab (the only blogger to get the word ‘fuck’ into the anthology that year. I checked), and I realized there were loads of other people doing the same sort of thing.
The best thing about SO2011 was meeting all these people I only knew from their electrons. Some of them turned out to be really nice people—and to be frank that was quite a surprise! Amazing how online personas differ from real life. People are nearly always better in real life, in my experience. My life was enriched.
Thank you! I hope you can make it to ScienceOnline2012 in January.