ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Rebecca Guenard

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 Rebecca Guenard (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?

Hi, I’m Rebecca Guenard. I currently live outside of Philadelphia, PA with my husband and our two boys.

I have loved math and science for as long as I can remember. I have a B.S. and a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

I spent a year working for the chemical industry where I learned I was better suited for academia.

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

I began my career in academia as an adjunct while we started our family. Then I took a permanent teaching position at Temple University. I worked at Temple for five years, teaching the large freshman lectures, as well as upper division courses for majors. At the same time I conducted research, sort of a nontraditional postdoc. My aim was to seek a tenure track position, but the needs of my family were such that I left Temple to work independently from home. Now I am part-time cruise director and part-time science writer.

The transition from academia was tough, I had been in hallowed halls since I was 17 years old. I had grown attached to the structure of the academic system. So I took a few years to concentrate on kids and figure out life outside that hierarchy. I kept my hand in chemistry while I privately tutored, but I opened myself up to new experiences. I volunteered for an organization that needed help improving communications. The experience taught me a lot and gave me the confidence to combine chemistry and communications, as I had originally intended when I left Temple.

Science writing is another form of teaching. A 50 minute lecture for a freshman class is a kind of performance; there is an entertainment factor associated with it. This is especially true for chemistry because students tend to be intimidated by the subject. A good chemistry professor pulls students in, settles their fears and while their attention is gripped shoves in as much curriculum as they can.

I have the same philosophy when I communicate science with the written word.

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

Currently, most of my time is taken up with telling stories. I developed a blog called atomic-o-licious last summer which I am using to feel my way through science communications.

I am interested in accessibility. If you want to read science content you have hundreds of options. If you seek it out you will find it. But there are so many people who never seek out science. Maybe they are busy or intimidated, for whatever the reason science isn’t a priority. There is an extensive audience that needs to be offered different bait. It is that audience I seek with atomic-o-licious.

I would love for my blog to be like a Dave Barry column which attracts readers because it is entertaining, it makes them laugh. But there is a bonus, science is folded in among the humor.

Every day I can pull a story from my life and relate it to chemistry; I see the world through chemistry-colored glasses. And most days life just cracks me up. What a dream to have an outlet for combining the two!

Chemistry is a tough subject; readers are naturally drawn to life sciences, chemistry tends to drive people away. But I am going to draw them, gosh darnnit.

One of my goals is to expand my readership. It is creeping up slowly. I am grateful for the receptiveness of the science writing community, and I look forward to reaching a broader audience.

I am also continually pitching stories to mainstream publications to get my name in print and out to a non-science audience which might be enticed back to my blog (plus I wouldn’t mind getting paid).

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

The Web is full of amazing science resources. Since I am most interested in creating a narrative, in telling a good story, I am focused on blogs right now. I also like blogs for aggregating information. Social media makes it so easy to share new, interesting research that is written about on blogs.

I also like the idea of having a YouTube channel, a place to create chem videos, but I need time to formulate the goals of such a channel.

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?

Aside from being a form of science communication, I view my blog as a portfolio. If you take the whole body of work hopefully you can see that I am growing and learning in the craft of science writing.

I would have zero readership without social networks. They are vital to expanding science communication. I like that social networks connect me to other science communicators.

I had a narrow view of science prior to social networks. There was the research I was doing and the research papers that I read that were close to what I was doing; who had time for anything else. With social networks I am connected to people with different backgrounds and interests and through our network they bring what they are studying to me. It is a process that still amazes me. I am exposed to so much more than I ever was before social networks.

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?

The Loom is probably the first science blog I discovered, but I can’t remember how I came across it. Prior to that I mostly read science in print and on news sites. But until recently, when I came out from under my chem prof bell jar, I was oblivious to how much was available.

I ricochet throughout the web daily. I mostly visit blogs within science blog networks or stories that are brought to my attention on Twitter.

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?

Every aspect of the conference changed the way I think about science communication. I was trained to hold on tight to information. Some of the research projects I was on were industry collaborations so the research results were proprietary, but also science is a competitive environment in which to be raised. Knowledge is power, you don’t relinquish it, that is the message that gets whispered in your ear.

There is a lesson to be learned from the difficulty the scientific community has had relaying the importance of climate change. We can’t just keep the general public out of scientific research and expect that they will suddenly snap into compliance when we discover something troublesome. Climate scientists have had to spend precious years explaining how they know what they know about climate change instead of taking steps to stop it.

This issue coupled with social media has developed a new breed of scientists who understand the need for the open communication of research. I am having to play catch-up and unlearn my training. This conference was an invaluable aid in taking those steps. All of the openness was weird at first, the twitter followers, the conference wikispace, the open access conference schedule. I felt exposed. But I met people I wouldn’t even have made eye contact with at another conference.

I had many interactions with people at scio12 that have influenced my work. I spoke with journalism veterans who gave me concrete advice on finding narratives, maintaining blogs and refining stories. I also talked to people who have been blogging longer than me and graciously extended their advice, encouragement, and support. It was a wonderful experience. I look forward to scio13!

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

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