ScienceOnline2012 – interview with David Shiffman

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 David Shiffman (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, scientific education?

I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I learned about the ocean from the Discovery Channel, books, and frequent visits to the Pittsburgh Zoo’s aquarium. After getting SCUBA certified as soon as I was old enough, I started attending SeaCamp, a marine science camp in the Florida Keys. I went there for five consecutive summers as a camper, and eventually worked there as a science instructor. I graduated with distinction in Biology (with a concentration in Marine Science) from Duke University in 2007, after studying abroad on the Great Barrier Reef and spending a semester at Duke’s marine lab in the Outer Banks. I earned my Masters in Marine Biology from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) in 2011, and am currently working on my Ph.D. at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy.

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

shark tagging

David and an RJ Dunlap intern restraining an 8 foot lemon shark so that other interns can take samples. The tube in the shark's mouth is a water pump, allowing it to breathe while out of the water.

I’ve always been passionate about (more than a few have called me obsessed with) sharks. My Masters thesis focused on using state-of-the-art techniques to determine what a local shark species was eating and how it fit into the food chain without sacrificing the animal. We found the same results as a series of previous studies that had resulted in sacrificing over 10,000 sharks, and did it by taking only small muscle samples and releasing the animals unharmed. My Ph.D. dissertation will focus on, surprisingly, why sharks matter – specifically, why coral reef shark species in Florida and the Bahamas are important ecologically and economically.

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

Eventually, I see myself doing university-level teaching and research. These days, my time is divided between classwork (yes, technically I’m in the 20th grade, but I still have classes), using social media to educate people about the oceans, planning my dissertation, and tagging sharks in the Florida Keys. Our field program has taken over a thousand high school students and community members out with us to tag sharks and learn about the oceans, and this strong commitment to citizen science and public education is a big part of what attracted me to this lab.

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

I am fascinated by the use of social media to educate people about science and the environment, and to create real conservation policy changes. I’m working with colleagues in Australia to write the first published case study of using twitter to change a government policy that would have harmed an endangered species of shark.

Additionally, I’ve used our lab twitter account (@RJ_Dunlap) to teach marine biology 101 courses. I write a lesson plan, convert it into 140 character chunks (including links to YouTube videos, news articles, research papers, photos, etc) and tweet for about half an hour. A live Q & A follows. We’ve had participants from all over the world.

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?

Running my lab (The RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program) social media accounts, including a blog, twitter account, and Facebook fan page, is half of my research assistantship for my Ph.D., and social media will actually be a part of my dissertation. I’m going to use advanced twitter analytical tools to track how science and conservation ideas spread across the world via twitter.

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?

Andrew Thaler, the Southern Fried Scientist, was my roommate at Duke and we’ve been close friends since. He attended Science Online 2009 and called me excitedly soon after. I started blogging on Southern Fried Science right after that, and joined twitter a few months later. At this point, I primarily find new science blogs through my twitter feed. There are so many good ones by Science Online participants and others that it’d be hard for me to name favorites, but as a marine scientist, I’m also sure to keep up with Deep Sea News. In addition to throwing legendary Science Online parties, those folks have their finger on the pulse of the marine science and conservation world.

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 always leave Science Online inspired to try new things in the social media world, and this year was no exception. A University of Miami colleague and I are going to try to start a podcast based on Alok’s workshop.

Thank you for the interview. Looking forward to seeing you again next January (if not before – tagging sharks in Florida)!

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