ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Roger Austin

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 Roger Austin (blog, LinkedIn, 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 grew up in a small town in western North Carolina in the foothills. I wasn’t a hillbilly, but I was related to a lot of them. I mean that in a positive way to better define where I was coming from and influences in my life. Western NC people seem to have an independent streak and a number of them are characters rather than caricatures. City people seem to have a lot of distractions. You always knew of people making things or building things. People spent a lot of time outdoors.

I grew up in a furniture family. My father was a partner in a small upholstered furniture factory. I worked during summers pushing around frames or helping out in different jobs from an early age. If a job was too nasty for an employee to agree to do it, I usually got the job. I learned quickly that I didn’t want to spend my life doing manual labor.

Ever since I can remember, I was interested in science. I had a little lab set up in the basement where I could get away from my sisters. I would get bits of stuff for presents and sometimes was able to get my parents to pay for some glassware. Luckily, I did not blow up the house, but ended up learning a good bit. I ended up getting into college at NC State University and majored in chemistry. I thank my family for that opportunity. So, four years later, I had a chemistry degree with a significant biochemistry course load and there was a major recession.

I ended up interviewing at eighteen different companies with a nice stack of rejection letters to show for it. The last place I interviewed was with Ivy Carroll at the Research Triangle Institute for a job as a junior chemist. One of my professors, Bill Tucker, had recommended me as he saw that I was a dexterous lab worker though not the brightest in the class. After a long drawn out stay back at home, I was ready to hit the road as my older sister lived in Tampa at the time. I was going on the road with her to see what I could do down in Florida when I called Ivy on a Friday to see if there was an update to the job. He said they were going to offer me a job and asked when I wanted to start. I told him I would be there Monday morning. I don’t think he was expecting that. I lived in my MGB for a month since you only get paid at the end of the month. I was able to stay with friends many nights, but there is a bit of vagabond feel when you have nothing but a bag of clothes.

I worked under Ivy and Jack Kepler for ten years making high specific activity radiolabeled organic compounds in very small amounts. About seven years into it, I realized that there was only so much upward movement for a BS chemist. I interviewed a few places, but almost always came down to the fact that they wanted a PhD. There were postdocs in my lab that made less money than me and some of them had friends pumping gas. I figured a decade in grad school to make less than I was making with a lower degree didn’t compute.

I had a decision to make about my future. I could go to graduate school or go into another field. I made a list of things I wanted. I wanted to be able to work anywhere. I wanted to go to school at night since I didn’t want to be poor again. I wanted something that I might be able to work for myself eventually. This new thing called computer science was interesting since NCSU had a night program that taught computer programming. I jumped at it. RTI even had a reimbursement program which was sweet. Three years later I had a piece of paper and wind in my sails.

RTI was very good about me transitioning to programming. I was able to join a great project that was just getting started at the time (1983.) Early on, I was the main computer guy and loved it. I programmed on a Heathkit H-8 in FORTRAN. I also did some mainframe COBOL work and then some VAX work for a number of years. When the dual floppy PC first came out, it was happy days. I had a blast developing PC to instrument communications in C so we could replace the teletypes and paper tape outputs. It was like magic that the data would come out of a liquid scintillation spectrometer and directly into the computer! We made our own interface cables. Later, I helped move the department to data processing systems on employee desks. I still remember having to convince people that the computers needed Ethernet cards. Many people didn’t think they needed email and most refused until they needed to communicate with their college kids. Things moved faster then.

I wrote software to automate all sorts of analyses from EIAs and RIAs to data processing of liquid scintillation spectrometers to calculating genetic information on mice. The conversion of old FORTRAN to Pascal and C code was my specialty for a while. Later, I used first generation relational databases to work with larger datasets. I also did a lot of software development for the business side and wrote an elaborate contract and grant costing system for our business unit.

I gained a manager role for a while. You would have to ask my employees if I was a good manager, but things seemed to work out. For the past six years, I have been back at software development full time doing database driven web sites. I have the opportunity now to do some front end work with HTML5 and CSS3 to go along with the backend work with databases and middleware.

I also serve on the RTI IRB and do data security analysis on the submissions on one of our three committees. Serving on the IRB lets me see a wider range of the research we do such as social science and clinical trials. I also meet people I would never have met otherwise across our diverse institute. In a way, I am also giving back to the organization that has allowed me to do things that a lot of developers don’t get to do. I always learn something with every IRB submission. I am very happy to have had the opportunity to be involved in human research subject issues.

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

By far the most interesting past projects I have had were building specialized systems for enzyme and radio immunoassays. These ended up being elaborate multi-calibration curve systems due to the flaky nature of the assays at the time. It allowed us to do much better science since it allowed the lab staff to make quick decisions on time-sensitive techniques. One past and current project is one for a NIH institute which is a very complex task management system with many different inputs from task management, inventory/transactions, accounting, quality assurance inspection scheduling and control, and a number of other inputs. It is very complex, but staff members tell me it is easy to use. I guess the most interesting part of my current work is day to day consulting for a diverse scientific staff who are always coming up with novel ideas. My goal is for the science to drive the software rather than the other way around. Being a scientist/geek hybrid helps me accomplish that.

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

I would say there are two divergent paths these days with professional and personal. Professionally, the life of a software developer is one of constant reinvention. Technology changes so fast that you have to rely on being able to learn quickly and change quickly. My latest goals are improving my skills at basic HTML5 and CSS3 to go along with my skills in building database driven web applications. As a secondary goal, I am trying to learn Clojure which is a Lisp variant that has become popular for concurrent processing. It is very different than the procedure code that most of us use, but it is very powerful, especially in concurrent processing with multiple cores. You never know what interesting problem will pop up in contract research. Some esoteric things I have learned over the years for fun ended up being a great solution to problems years later.

Personally, we are in the process of a home addition. Within the addition will be a new wood studio for me so I can get back to woodworking. I have worked with the wood lathe for decades and served a long period of time as a leader of the local and national woodturning associations. I have taught a number of workshops at the NCSU Crafts Center in woodturning, but I really haven’t had a decent studio space in a decade. I look forward to spending time working with my hands again. My goals for this are to advance my skills and develop some signature pieces in the next few years. Lathe work is my specialty, but I also build furniture and whatever else I dream up. I also hope to enhance the partnership with a special person shares my life.

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

Science without communication is a hobby. We know how to communicate between those of us who are in on the specific scientific nomenclature. We spend an inordinate amount of time to reduce several words to very specific words when we write for each other. It is when we have to write for people who don’t know the secret code words that we can fail. The public can look at a scientific paper and it must be like looking at an alien language. I remember trying to tell my parents what I did for a living when I was a synthetic chemist.

There is a great need to explain science to the general public as well as have resources for those who have more advanced science backgrounds. The different science shows on cable television do a great job of showing interesting scientific topics for consumption by the general public, but I don’t know that they educate the public as much as entertain them. The web has a much better chance of giving more long form communications if we are good at it. It is also there 24/7 for anyone to consume that has a connection.

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?

I have only lately started blogging. My early education had very good writing classes so I had a good background in general writing and literature. Those skills gave me an advantage in many cases in my work career. I push the soft skills as I mentor younger people since those seem to set people back more than the technical skills.

Geeks take to social media immediately. We were all over early BBSs, usenet, and other systems even before the web existed. When the web started up, we jumped and haven’t looked back. I started with gophers and was an early adopter of the web. I created the first woodturning web site for the local RTP AAW chapter. I started using the web at RTI very early making prototypes of sites for use with client projects. Now, development of database driven web applications is pretty much my job.

Today, I use Twitter constantly and Google+ a lot, but Facebook is mostly used for family. I think that Twitter and Google+ offer the most to scientists and geeks. Twitter allows quick and accessible link delivery. Google+ allows for longer conversations simply because it is open ended versus 140 characters.

I also use a good bit to organize my to-read list. I also use my Amazon wish list to quickly record books people note. I can see smaller and more focused social media sites becoming more useful in the same way that apps on mobile phones have become more popular.

I have experimented with live blogging user groups and meetings. I live-blogged the latest North Carolina Analytics Camp in Chapel Hill last month. It helps when the wifi is excellent.

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?

There are so many great science writers and bloggers and I don’t have enough time to get to them all. I read most of the Discover and Wired blogs. I read the ScienceBlogs for a long time. It also helps to follow one person on Twitter who streams out huge numbers of fascinating links on different science blogs and articles.

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?

One thing I love about Science Online is the feeling of community with the attendees. It is the same as at an art school where everyone is so engrossed in art that the outside world seems to fade away. This was my experience at Arrowmont School when I went for workshops. Nothing mattered but the arts and crafts. Science Online has that sort of vibe. I like the unconference format where sessions can be spontaneous to some degree.

The attendees have to suspend their belief for a while and open up to let things soak into their pores. I think this is harder for some people, especially those with specific ideas on what they want out of a conference. The same can be true for creativity workshops where people can’t get much out of a workshop if they don’t give up strong opinions and go with the flow.

Deborah Blum and David Dobbs session hit a strong note for me. I don’t have a lot of writing training so I was fascinated by the discussions in their session on long-form writing. I also enjoyed the shorter sessions on specific topics on the second day. I got something out of all the sessions I attended. I was sorry not to get to the blogging while female session.

It is normal for people to congregate with friends and it is a struggle to be inclusive when discussing things at an unconference. It may be helpful to have some sort of mechanism to get different people to talk to strangers. Some sort of speed dating routine could be used. You may want to crowdsource some ideas on that.

I want to thank all the organizers for a great event. I have wanted to attend for several years and followed the feeds over that time. This year, I think I was the final person who came off the waiting list. Next year, I definitely will have faster fingers to register. I look forward to it. I might also be finished with all the great books I either got in the lottery or ordered later. That was a wonderful idea.

Thank you for the interview!


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