ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Tanya Lewis

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 Tanya Lewis (homepage, blog, Twitter), a Graduate Student in Science Communication at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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?

tanyalewisI guess I should start with where I spent ¾ of my life so far: Hawaii. I grew up on the Big Island, in a cowboy town (yes, these exist in paradise). I spent much of my childhood romping, or more often, running, around mountains like lofty Mauna Kea, sun-drenched beaches, and the gravel track at my high school.

But I couldn’t wait to get off the rock and explore “the Mainland” U.S. I attended Brown University, where I studied biomedical engineering. A fascination with the brain led me to work in a lab developing a brain-computer interface known as BrainGate . It’s an implantable chip that records brain signals and decodes them to enable people with paralysis to control prosthetic devices. After graduating, I knew I wanted to spend time abroad, so I applied for a research fellowship to go to Germany. I worked in a lab there studying how primates encode hand movements.

At some point, I realized I enjoyed explaining my work way more than the work itself. A little fairy spoke to me in the night and told me to become a science writer. So I did – I joined the Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I am currently. It’s been a moray ever since.

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

In my brief but thrilling science journalism career, I’ve worked at a news office at Stanford, the local newspaper The Santa Cruz Sentinel, and now at the SETI radio show “Big Picture Science” – each an adventure of its own. This summer I’ll be venturing into the wonderful world of online science journalism, working for Wired.com in San Francisco.

In my classes at UCSC, I’ve done both news writing and long-form writing. Features are probably my favorite at this point, because of the freedom to choose a topic of interest and explore it in depth, creatively. Right now I’m working on a feature about underwater volcanoes, a subject near and dear to me, having grown up near a very active volcano (Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano). It’s fun getting to learn about volcanology, while vicariously experiencing the mysterious volcanic deep-sea landscape.

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

In my graduate program, we just started a unit on investigative reporting and multimedia. So I’m splitting my time between hard-nosed Bob Woodward-esque reporting and peering through a camera lens. It’s a great mix, and looks to be a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I’m getting a taste of radio (to use a little synesthesia), working on the science radio show “Big Picture Science.” I’m kind of a closet filmmaking geek, and I enjoy the creative process of writing/producing/editing a project, so this will be a great adventure. Plus, the show’s hosts, Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak, are a bundle of fun to work with.

My career goal is to work in a collaborative journalism environment (such as at a science magazine or online site/blog), on stories or projects that allow me some creative freedom in the choice and handling of topics. At some point, I could see myself freelancing, for the flexibility of the lifestyle. But right now, the idea of doing it fulltime slightly terrifies me. I want enough job stability so I can realize the instability of my interests.

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

Feature writing (online or in print) and documentary film both appeal to me, but online media is the way of the present (never mind the future). I find blogging a fun form of journalism, and one I’d like to explore more. As e-readers continue to improve, I foresee more interactivity in the act of reading. Remember those “Choose your own adventure” books? Maybe we’ll develop something akin to that, where you can easily navigate science content of your choosing, while retaining something of a narrative structure. Just a thought. I also think we’ll get better at integrating video and audio into written journalism, so it’s less distracting and more illustrative. I don’t think the written word will fall out of style anytime soon, but we will need to work hard to keep people invested in it. Hopefully I’ve kept you invested in reading this far!

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?

Right now, I’m ashamed to say my blogging presence has been somewhat lacking of late, ironically because I’ve been spending all my time studying journalism. But I contribute sporadically to our class blog, “The Crashing Edge: Current Waves of Central Coast Science”. I’ve also done some blogging at conferences, such as this year’s Science Online meeting and at last year’s American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

The social networks I primarily use are Twitter and Facebook. I tend to use Facebook more for personal communication, and Twitter strictly as a professional platform to share ideas in science and science journalism. I have found Twitter a useful place for keeping current with science news and immersing myself in the commentary of the science journalist community.

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?

Blogs are a somewhat recent addition to my consumption of science literature. In high school and college, I tended to read scientific journal articles, popular science magazines (e.g. Scientific American, Popular Science), and The New York Times. The science blogs I read these days vary, though some of my favorites are Ed Yong’s Discover blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science” and the Scientific American Blog Network blogs (and I’m not just saying that for brownie points!). I tend to read individual blog posts (mentioned on Twitter or elsewhere) more than reading specific blogs every day, however. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker is one I try to read more regularly, though.

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?

This being my first ScienceOnline, and having no baseline with which to compare it, I can confidently say it was a fantastic conference. Or unconference. I think the best aspect of it for me was the egalitarian and collaborative atmosphere, where you could sit in a room with a New York Times reporter or all-star blogger and feel free to converse as peers. Some of the sessions which stood out to me were Deborah Blum’s and David Dobbs’s session on shape and music in longform writing (see my Storify post), and the session on Women in Science Blogging (see here). The dinner banquet with storytelling by The Monti was good fun, too. I came away inspired by the many scintillating conversations I had with other journalists and scientists at the various social events, in the coffee room, or even on the bus. I liked the format, the only improvement I can think of is to get the word out to more journalists and scientists about this terrific event. I definitely hope to attend next year, if possible. Aloha, a hui ho!

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

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