ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Jamie DePolo

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 Jamie DePolo (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)?

Though I’ve lived in southern New Jersey for the last 12 years, I was born in Detroit and still feel like a Michigander most of the time, thanks to online newspapers, journals and photos. I also work for Michigan State University by telecommuting, so I talk to people in East Lansing every day.

Philosophically, my goal is to live in the moment as much as I can and make that moment a great one.

What is your background? Any scientific education? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I’ve always loved animals, so from the time I was about 10 or so, I wanted to be a veterinarian. But I also loved to read anything and everything – from trashy novels to literature to essays. When I graphed my interests during a career class in high school, my twin interests of writing and science ended up all alone in the top left quadrant, with no jobs or careers in the space.

I went to Michigan State as a pre-vet major, so I took lots of biology courses, but realized after my freshman year that I didn’t have enough money to get an undergraduate degree and then go to vet school. (I naively thought that I could apply and get in to vet school after my sophomore year; once on campus I learned that no one, not even super geniuses did that.) So while literature was my love, I switched my major to journalism, thinking it would be easier to find a job in three years. I quickly found out that not very many people liked writing about science or math, and since I liked learning new things and talking to the scientists, it kind of became my niche. I don’t think there were many official science writing programs at the time and even if there were, I hadn’t heard of them.

After I graduated, I worked for the Michigan Dental Association for three years, then returned to Michigan State to take a position in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources writing about research and outreach. I stayed there for 13 years until I moved to New Jersey in 2000.

I took a hiatus from science writing for a few years, working for the New Jersey State Bar Association and the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University from 2000 to 2003. I had just decided that I needed to get my resume in order to start looking for another science writing position, when my old department chair at Michigan State called and asked me if I would be interested in doing part of my old job long distance on contract. It was rather serendipitous. Today, I would say I’m technically a free-lancer, but I have a group of long-term clients, including the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State, that take up most of my time. I also write for Breastcancer.org, an education site for people diagnosed with breast cancer, and help out with social media for CORE Health Care, a brain injury rehab facility in Texas.

Looking back, it’s interesting to me that I started out doing mainly writing and print production work. My pica ruler and my Pantone PMS books were always in use. Today, I still do a lot of writing, but it’s all for the web, Facebook, Twitter or blogs. I think I’ve produced only one printed piece in the last three years. I’ve also learned html coding basics and can create and edit websites in several platforms. I’ve learned how to create jazzy Powerpoint slides and fillable Acrobat documents. I think it’s telling that I use my printer/scanner/fax machine mainly for scanning and not for printing. I can’t remember the last time I sent a fax to anyone.

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

Professionally, my goals are to help my clients strategically present their work clearly and concisely through a variety of media to achieve their goals, whether that’s more customers or being seen as the go-to group for sustainability research. I want everyone to see that while science can sometimes be hard, it’s also fun, helpful and enriches all of our lives. I want to keep up with the latest trends in news and media, all the while considering how they can benefit my clients. The aspect of my job that I enjoy the most is learning from the scientists I talk to – I don’t have degrees in medicine or entomology or social science, but I learn something new every day. To me, that’s the essence of living.

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

The idea that scientists can use the web to tell their own stories, in words and images and videos, is fascinating to me. In the past, scientists have felt handcuffed when trying to communicate directly with the public. Today, some of the most popular bloggers are scientists.

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, Twitter, Facebook and other social media all figure into my work. I can’t even imagine how I would keep up with what’s going on in so many fields without them – they are absolutely a necessity.

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 think I discovered science blogs while attending an AAAS annual meeting about six or seven years ago. It was when the first ScienceOnline conference was being organized (which I also attended). Some of my favorite blogs are: The Paleo Solution, The Urban Scientist, Cave Girl Eats, The Paleo Drummer, the Dot Earth blog and the NYT Green blog.

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?

The session on whether PIOs need journalists anymore, led by Haley Bridger and Karl Bates, was the most pertinent to me. The discussion reinforced what I suspected (that in many cases, journalists aren’t needed) and gave me some excellent tips and ideas on how to connect with bloggers and how to tweet news.

Just being around all the people at ScienceOnline was energizing – I still have the hashtag marked in my TweetDeck dashboard.

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

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