ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Josh Witten

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 Josh Witten (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?

JoshWitten

Photo: Russ Creech

Thanks for the invite, Bora. I currently live in Cambridge, England with my wife and two daughters where I work for the Laboratory of Molecular Biology as a Career Development Fellow (aka, post-doc). I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio and went to college at Duke in Durham, NC. In college, I majored in biology with a minors in history and, accidentally, in chemistry. I started working in a fruit fly research lab during my sophomore year and have been doing biology research ever since. The only other thing I have done so consistently is play rugby.

My research has a theme of understanding variation between individuals, which puts me in the odd philosophical position of generally ignoring the “average” and spending a lot of time thinking about diversity. I try to bring that way of thinking and of love of the scientific process to everything I do.

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

As I mentioned before, I went to college at Duke, where I began working in research labs as an undergraduate. After college, I took a year off to play rugby in England in Bath with Avon Rugby Football Club. While I was in England, I applied to graduate schools and wound up going to Washington University in St. Louis to get my PhD in molecular cell biology. For my PhD, I investigated the applicability of evolutionary experiments on yeast and the genetic basis of cellular variation in humans. I spent most of my free time playing hooker (and flanker, but people seem to only remember the “hooker” bit) for the St. Louis Bombers rugby club in the US Rugby Super League, which was the highest level of club rugby in the US at the time. In 2008, I started blogging at the suggestion of Mike White, a post-doc in my thesis lab, who was looking for a way to get me to stop pestering him with my crazy ideas.

I finished my PhD at the start of 2010 and moved to England to study how a cells decode the complex information encoded in the genome and newly transcribed RNAs to make splicing decisions in a crowded and chaotic environment. My research incorporates elements from the fields of evolution, genetics, genomics, cell biology, biochemistry, and statistics.

At about the same time, Mike White and I created The Finch & Pea, which we bill as an “online science pub”. We started The Finch & Pea for a couple of reasons. As researchers, we felt it was very important that we could really “own” the content with which we were associated. We also wanted a more flexible science communication space. We are passionate about science, but we both have wide ranging and divergent interests. Instead of only focusing on what was in common (i.e., traditional science communication) we wanted to create a space where we could be our whole selves, all the time.

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

Obviously, my research is a major time commitment. Most of my time outside the lab is dedicated to the little experiment in human developmental genetics my wife and I have been running for the past three years. In the little bit of the day (or middle of the night) that is left, I’m very passionate about communicating the joys of the scientific process.

If you visit The Finch & Pea, you will notice that I spend most of my time explicitly not writing about the business of science or translating papers into non-expert language. Instead, I like to take the scientific worldview and apply it to everyday things (and TV/movies), which is pretty much what I do all the time in real life to which my wife will bear exasperated witness. My major goal is to help people learn the methods and pleasures of applying the scientific process, without worrying about whether they learn the jargon or the trivia. A scientific life is a better life, a more fun life.

I’m also a bit of a crusader for a more complete understanding of evolutionary theory. We have a bad habit of equating natural selection with evolution, but natural selection is simply the first of several forces that drive evolution. We only really started to understand some of the other forces, like random drift, once natural selection, genetics, and molecular biology began to be unified. The way we talk about evolution often predates modern evolutionary synthesis. One of the architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis, Theodosius Dobzhansky famously stated, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” He certainly meant all of evolutionary theory. Biology, its beauty, its quirks, all of it, only makes sense with a more complete understanding of evolutionary theory than we are currently offering the public.

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

The non-linearity of the Web is really exciting to me. Traditional science communication in print limited the reader to the experience that the writer thinks will be relevant to them. On the Web, a story can be surrounded in depth and only one click away by links to other detailed analyses, source materials, alternative views, and tangentially related content. This network can be provided by the original author and can be added to by commenter or other authors providing links in their own content.

This means that a reader can plot their own course that suits their own interests (or even mood that day) through the information. The content of this network creates a mutually supportive community experience that invites people in on their own terms.

The traditional audience for science writing is limited, but it is also only a fraction of the audience for online content. As the branches of that network are extended by creative folks finding connections the rest of us miss, we also have the potential to expand the audience for science writing by providing people who do not usually consume online science writing a way in that speaks to their interests.

It is understandable that individuals will worry about whether people accessed their article when picking their way through the network surrounding a topic. That is, however, limiting the thinking to “I’m competing for my slice of the pie” with everyone else in the network. An alternative approach is to cooperate to increase the size of the entire pie by reaching audiences that aren’t inclined read science blogs.

I think we are making a lot of progress on increasing the connectivity and efficiency of these networks, and I cannot wait to see where this goes in the near future.

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 gives me an outlet for ideas that would, otherwise, distract me in the lab. That is as far as the direct relationship goes. My experience within academic research is that blogging and social media are generally considered distractions that are acceptable as long as your productivity is not affected. Technically, I’m not allowed to share details of my work publicly without prior permission as it, theoretically, could affect things like future patent applications.

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?

As an American in England, the time difference and distance isolates me from many of my favorite people. It was great fun getting to be in the same time zone for a weekend. It was also very exciting to discover that the people in the science communication community are the same online and in person, which made both existing and new connections feel more authentic. I think the depth and variety of conversations between individuals in the science communication community doesn’t give us any option other than to be who we really are. And, it is very exciting to be part of a community with that kind of depth and character.

ScienceOnline2012 inspired me to think about creatively representing how science permeates and inspires the lives of people like us. An immediate result was the addition of the new “Song of the Week” feature to The Finch & Pea. You all know Marie-Claire Shanahan as a brilliant science education researcher, teacher, and story-teller, but she is also very knowledgeable independent music fanatic. For her “Song of the Week” pick she blends her loves of music and science to talk about the thoughts a particular song inspires in her. Personally, I have zero musical talent. So, it is really fun to see someone extract so much from songs in a way that would not be accessible to me without Marie-Claire’s writing. It’s also much better writing, at least to a fan of science, than the typical, overwrought reviews that generally pass as music writing.

Probably the most concise way to sum up my experience at ScienceOnline2012 is that I’m planning on coming back for ScienceOnline2013.

Thank you for the interview. Hope to see you next year!

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