ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Matt Shipman

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 Matt Shipman (blog, 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?

Shipman Bio PhotoI’m a science writer and public information officer (PIO) at North Carolina State University. I grew up in southern Virginia and, after a stint in the DC area, now live in Raleigh.

I set out to be a marine scientist, but hated chemistry so much as an undergraduate that I ended up majoring in English. I made up for it by becoming a science writer – and marrying a marine scientist.

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

After college I went to work for a news company called Inside Washington Publishers that focused on federal policy issues. I specialized in environmental policy, running a publication called Water Policy Report for six years. Later I spent a few years editing a publication that covered risk assessment issues related to federal policy. When you write about environmental and human health issues, you have to write about science: ecology, toxicology, biology, chemistry, you name it. I found that I was really good at explaining scientific issues to a non-expert audience. Over time, I came to enjoy writing about scientific research more than writing about the related federal policy decisions.

I came to work for NC State in 2008, and love the fact that I get to write about everything from forensic anthropology to computer malware. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping to explain diverse research findings to people who would otherwise never hear about it.

Last year I also took on a project in my free time to help promote evolution education. I worked with a great group of people – many of whom were at ScienceOnline2012 – and pulled together a video on the subject that garnered a fair amount of attention. The video was written up, favorably, in outlets ranging from the Guardian to SciAm blogs to Jezebel. Our goal was to take a positive approach to promoting evolution education, while also highlighting female role models in the science community. I think we accomplished those goals, and I’m proud of the work we did.

More recently I’ve been writing a series of posts for Nature’s Soapbox Science blog, focusing on science communication. There has been a lot of discussion about the flawed relationship among scientists, reporters and PIOs. This is nothing new, but much of the debate seems to be circular, with journalists complaining about scientists, scientists complaining about reporters and everyone complaining about PIOs. Rather than placing blame, I’m hoping these posts encourage discussion about what each of these parties can do to improve our odds of getting it right. Science communication is important, and all parties involved want to talk to the public about science, so we should focus on working together. The first two posts in the series are available here and here.

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

I have three daughters, so a lot of my time and energy is devoted to being a dad. Professionally, I spend a lot of my mental energy trying to find new ways to get people interested in research taking place at NC State. I grew up in Petersburg, Va., less than three hours from Raleigh – but I knew almost nothing about the university until I came to work here. When I got here, I discovered that a lot of really exciting research is being done at NC State. Now it’s my job to find ways to tell people about it.

Part of that work focuses on identifying which reporters would be interested in a given piece of research. And part of that work involves identifying opportunities to talk about research through social media. You can’t just tweet about something and expect the universe to notice. People are excited about the potential of social media, but it is not a panacea for science communication. You need good content. And you need to understand the strengths and limitations of the various social media platforms. As a reporter, I had lots of experience developing good content. I’ve spent the past few years focusing on how to utilize social media to distribute that content. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very interesting. I’ve been amazed by how few people really understand the social media tools they’re using – or how they might be able to use them more effectively.

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

I’m interested in how we can use social media to communicate about science. (Obviously – see above.) But I’m also really excited about the potential of citizen science and the Web. Rob Dunn, a biology prof at NC State, has done some really great work in this area – tapping into public interest in ants, the wild life of our homes, etc. I think the science community should take every possible opportunity to engage the public – especially kids – in scientific endeavors. Not only can it give researchers access to a larger data set, but it is a grass roots way of building support for scientific research.

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?

Blogging is a critical component of what I do. If you want to engage an audience – any audience – you need to bring something to the table. Why should anyone listen to you? Blogging gives me, as a science communicator, the opportunity to tell a story and share information in a (hopefully) interesting way. Twitter and Facebook are great, but they’re limiting. If you want to convey a significant amount of information, you need to use social media to drive the audience to a platform where you can really sink your teeth into the subject. For me, that platform is usually a blog. Most often, it’s NC State’s research blog, The Abstract.

When I tell a researcher that I want to write a blog post about his or her work, they’re often offended at first. They translate “I want to write a post for our blog” into “I want to write something and then put it in a place where no one will ever see it.” Then I explain that we also use The Abstract as a pitching tool. I’ll contact a reporter who might be interested, give them a two-sentence pitch and then refer them to the blog post if they want more information. This has led to articles in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The Atlantic, etc. When I tell researchers that, they usually start taking the idea more seriously.

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?

I can’t remember when I first started checking out science blogs. Probably 2002 or 2003. I read them from time to time for years. I didn’t become a daily reader of science blogs until I came to work for NC State in 2008. Most of the blogs I read are written by folks who attended ScienceOnline2012: Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, Jennifer Ouellette’s Cocktail Party Physics and Jen Frazer’s Artful Amoeba spring to mind. Good content, well written and – perhaps most importantly – a lot of fun to read. I also like Ben Chapman and Doug Powell’s BarfBlog, and Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes – which isn’t updated nearly often enough.

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?

ScienceOnline2012 was a great experience. I had the chance to meet quite a few writers whose work I admire, which was great. It was also nice to meet so many of the people I worked with on the evolution video. The entire video project was done via email and social media, so I hadn’t met any of the participants in person (except David Wescott, who I already knew – and who is fantastic). The heated discussions regarding the scientist/journalist relationship also spurred me to write the pieces I’m writing for Soapbox Science. Hopefully that will help at least a few people.

Thank you for the interview!


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