ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Matthew Hirschey

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Matthew Hirschey, Ph.D (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 background? Any scientific education?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Nutrition and in the Department of Pharmacology & Cancer Biology at Duke University Medical Center, and my lab is in the Sarah W. Stedman Nutrition and Metabolism Center at Duke. I grew up in Minnesota, and like many scientists, I was a curious child but wasn’t overly drawn to science. During my undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont (UVM), my major was pre-med and I planned to go to medical school. To build my resume, I did what every other pre-med student did:  studied, got involved in extra-curriculars, volunteered, and studied more. One of my extracurricular activities brought me to a research lab in the UVM Medical School. I pipetted and entered numbers into spreadsheets, and it was all very romantic, and I felt very important. I mean, I was curing diseases, wasn’t I?

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

Soon after I graduated from UVM, I enrolled in the graduate program in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Barbara. I worked primarily on novel applications for semi-conductors (aka quantum dots), which was a sexy project, as quantum dots were new, exotic materials that people didn’t know much about; it was also a difficult project, because quantum dots were new, exotic materials that people didn’t know much about.

Like many graduate students, I quickly discovered that graduate school was more challenging than I expected. My experiments did not work much of the time and were hard to troubleshoot. When they did actually work, it was difficult to interpret and plan the next experiment – which inevitably would not work. I often questioned whether graduate school was the right choice for me. Did I enjoy science? Who needs a PhD? Did I really want to be a scientist? I toyed with different career ideas, both in and out of science, (N.B. blogs didn’t exist back then, and scientific writing wasn’t even on the map); I sought the advice of colleagues, friends, family, and virtually anyone with something to say. One summer toward the end of graduate school I was talking with my uncle Mark, who is a professor at the University of Kansas. Uncle Mark said to me, “Listen, Matt, stop worrying about what job you’ll have. Instead, figure out what you like to do, and make a career out of it. And if you really love it, you’ll be so good at it and successful, that everything else will fall into place.”

After uncle Mark’s advice, I considered what I liked and did not like about graduate school. I knew I enjoyed chemistry, but felt my studies were lacking a human component. I remembered back to how much I enjoyed my early pre-med studies in biology. With this new understanding in mind, I finished my doctoral studies and began seeking a post-doctoral position where I could apply my technical expertise in chemistry to biological problems and human disease. I found a perfect fit at the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology. While the learning curve was steep for a chemist-turned-biologist, in the end I came up to speed on cloning, cell culture techniques, mouse work and more.

Meanwhile, I placed a lot of pressure on myself to determine my career path, and found myself asking many of the same questions that I did during graduate school. Would I go into academia? Industry? Was another option a better fit for me? These are common questions directed at post-docs that have the unintended consequence of inducing anxiety in those who have not yet decided the answer. Like me. At the Gladstone Institutes, I was surrounded by highly intelligent, driven, and motivated scientists, who all appeared to know their career path as well as the exact steps needed to get there. Unlike me. I spent a lot of time, again, considering my options, toying with different career ideas and seeking advice of colleagues, friends and family. With this on-going internal debate, I quickly realized the career options I would have at the end of my post-doc were dependent upon the success of my work: if I were successful, I would be presented with a set of options different than if I were less successful. Success, of course, can be measured different ways, but I decided at the time I needed to focus on my work.

As I approached the end of my post-doc and finished up remaining projects and papers, I thought back to my Uncle Mark’s advice: to figure out what I’m good at and what I like to do, and find a job where I can do those things. For me, that job is being a scientist. And just last year, I joined the faculty at Duke.

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

In the past year, I have a new job, new state, new house, and new family (Henry is 6 months old now), and so it all is taking up all of my time. Except sleep; sleep takes up a lot less time than it used to. Professionally, my goals are to get my lab up and running, do great science, and mentor young scientists. I had a lot of help along the way (see above), and so feel driven to help others too. Even with all the training required to get to the point of becoming a faculty member, I would argue most scientists are woefully unprepared. In fact, a lot of scientists are trained to do science; and that’s it. While I was taught to design a well-controlled experiment, I wasn’t formally trained to interview and identify rock-star scientists. Or manage a lab budget, or the other things I think about now. But, Duke is a great environment and I’m still getting a lot of help along the way, so things are coming together in the lab.

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

The first time I heard about “science communication” was in graduate school when I was asked to be interviewed for a science writing class. Fast-forward 10 years, and science communication has come a long way. Professionally, three aspects of science communication are important for my work. First, as a scientist, I need to communicate my work. Sounds straight-forward enough, and appropriately named. But many scientists I know don’t think about communication and the best way they can share their studies. Science communication to me is the intersection of writing (papers, grants, blogs), speaking (seminars and presentations), and visualization (infographics and slides). An effective science communicator will create each of these well, and contribute to more effective communication and sharing of ideas.

Secondly, I use science communication less directly related to my science, and more related to mentoring. Part of my lab website (http://lab.hirschey.org) is dedicated to scientific advice and mentoring. Some of the things I have learned throughout my scientific journey might be useful for other scientists-in-training, and so I’ve begun a repository, in the format of a blog, to become a resource that will slowly build over time. Your mileage may vary.

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

The third aspect of science communication in my work is related to the internets, series of tubes, and other social media hotness. While I don’t see the social networks as critical for my work as a scientist (yet), I do find value in them. Here’s my take: the focus of my lab right now is to write papers and get grants — the two metrics most important at this stage of my career. Even if I make an exciting discovery, I don’t imagine it’ll be on the cover of a top journal, and probably won’t be picked up in the mainstream press, so again, the utility of social networks to spread science is limited for me. My work won’t be spread, and I won’t be the one spreading. However, I find all sorts of interesting and useful information come through the social networks; most of it just isn’t science-y. I also see communities connecting or even forming on these networks: the science writing community is an excellent example.

The week after attending #scio12, I attended a scientific conference on diabetes and obesity. The conference organizer suggested a #hashtag for the conference, to my surprise, and I thought to myself that perhaps scientists are finally joining the rest of the world by embracing new types of communication. I was wrong. 3 tweets the entire meeting (2 were mine). So it seems that many scientists have still not joined in to use new types of science communication. When I speak to older, more established scientists, they all lament that they don’t have enough time. When I speak to younger scientists, who embrace these types of media, they lament that they aren’t yet established. So perhaps scientists, young and old, just need more time.

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?

Most of the blogs I’m reading currently are not science blogs, but more related to culture: an important part of the creative scientific process for me. If you’re not reading Maria Popova’s blog entitled Brain Pickings, you’re doing it wrong.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 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 was especially interested by the conversations at the intersection of open science and science communication. How can you encourage open science? How can you put the onus on the scientific researcher to be more open, to share more, to communicate more, to do more science communication? In my mind, there’s an interesting overlap here, and perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. Regardless of the possible answers, I think that more scientists should be involved in the conversation.

Even though this was a science communication conference, I was struck by the lack of scientists. I don’t recall what the numbers were for the breakdown of self-identified profession of the attendees, but either the scientists who attended were painfully quiet (a distinct possibility for scientists) or scientists need to be encourage to attend and participate in sessions or conferences outside respective areas of expertise.

Thank you for the interview – hope to see you back next year!

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