ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Kathryn Bowers

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 Kathryn Bowers (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

I’m a writer and editor and have just finished a book, called Zoobiquity. It explores a simple but provocative question: how would our health improve if human doctors talked with animal doctors? After all, animals and humans get many of the same diseases—from cancer, heart disease, and obesity to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and eating issues. Yet physicians and veterinarians almost never consult one another. Exploring comparative medicine quickly brings up issues of shared physiology, shared biology, and shared genetics. And so the book also is informed by a healthy dose of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology.

I co-wrote it with Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, who’s a cardiologist and psychiatrist at the UCLA Medical Center. A few years ago she began volunteering her time at the Los Angeles Zoo. Mornings she can be found performing heart procedures on human patients at UCLA hospital; on some afternoons, she might be examining a chimpanzee, sea lion, condor, or python. She was telling me about the many crossovers she was seeing between human and animal patients, and we were both surprised by how surprised we were. Obviously humans are animals, and intellectually we understand that we share not just many “raw materials”—bones, blood, hearts, nerves—but also environments (and in some cases behaviors that evolved to respond to those environments). The fascinating ubiquity of the overlap between human and animal health spurred us to research and write the book, and also gave us the idea for our title, which combines the Latinate “ubiquity” with the Greek root for animal, “zo.”

Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I grew up in a scientific household. My father, Arthur Sylvester, is a geologist (now emeritus) at UC Santa Barbara. Some of my earliest memories are set against the backdrop of his second floor office on campus: relief maps covered the walls, nearly every available surface held rock samples, fossils, minerals, and stacks of books and papers. Downstairs a special room housed an object of wonder and magnificence: a seismograph. I sometimes accompanied him on weekends to change the long scrolls of paper, and he’d show me the jagged lines indicating all the mini-earthquakes that had happened that week—which I hadn’t felt. I realized that the Earth had secrets. On family vacations along California’s remote back highways, no USGS benchmark went un-hiked-to, no roadcut unphotographed (roadcuts, those vertical slices cut through hills to facilitate new highways, are the joy of every geologist because the strata reveal themselves in naked, unvegetated splendor.) Our house was often filled with geologists, paleobotanists, geochemists, physicists, seismologists, and hydrologists…and of course, trilobites, granite slabs, academic journals and maps.

Most field scientists are—or become—ardent naturalists. My father was always interested in conservation and the interdependence of the plants and animals he encountered. In the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, the Sierra, and many of his overseas field sites, he taught me to peer closely at rock crystals, fossils, and wildlife. But he also made sure I never lost sight of the big picture—entire geologic formations, mountains, continents. It’s impossible to grow up with a geologist and not absorb a deep appreciation for time—and by extension, evolution. There’s a wonderful description of architecture as being like “frozen music.” I’ve always preferred the grander idea that geology is frozen time. Once you know that all of Yellowstone National Park is a giant volcanic crater or that the peaks of the Himalayas used to be at the bottom of a sea, or that the solid granite cliffs of Norway’s fjords are rising at infinitesimally slow speeds we can’t perceive, you develop a profound appreciation for your personal (and our species’) position on Earth. In Zoobiquity, we urge readers to keeping looking “farther left” on the evolutionary timeline – beyond early hominids and even primates —for the shared links that connect human health to everything that came before it.

If my dad was the scientist, my mom was the communicator. She’s a teacher, a writer, and a born investigator. Resourceful, endlessly creative, always up for an adventure, she’s one of the best researchers I know. She was also the true techie of my family, so any interest I have in electronic communication comes straight from her. And she let me do things like join 4-H and raise rabbits in our back yard.

So although my degree is a B.A., not a B.S., and although I’ve worked in journalism and editing rather than as a scientist, I did have an informal training in science that prepared me well to co-author a book that attempts to bring together human medicine, veterinary medicine and evolutionary biology.

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

I graduated from Stanford and went straight to Boston, to intern at the Atlantic Monthly. I became an assistant and worked my way up to staff editor. Under the tutelage of the Atlantic’s brilliant editors, I learned the importance of checking sources, facts, and back-stories.

In Boston, I met my husband, Andy Bowers. When he became the London Bureau Chief for NPR, we moved to London for three years, and after that, to Moscow. In London, I worked as a writer-producer for CNN-International; in Moscow, I served as an assistant press attaché for the American Embassy. Andy is now a senior editor at Slate, where he pioneered and oversees all their podcasts. He’s an amazing writer and editor and plays a huge role in helping me shape and polish my own thinking and writing. After we returned to the United States I spent many years as a freelance book editor before starting work on Zoobiquity. Currently, I’ve been teaching a course on medical narrative at UCLA. I designed it with the specific goal of teaching future physicians how to communicate their science better—through personal non-fiction stories that use the tools of the fiction writer but are scrupulously reported and sourced.

And I’ve recently become the associate editor of the biology section of Evolution: This View of Life.

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

At the moment, launching Zoobiquity takes up most of my time. But here’s something that surprises me: after nearly five years of starting many sentences with “did you know that animals….[fill in the blank here]…get shingles; engage in foreplay; seek out intoxicating substances, die of stress-induced heart attacks…” I’m still fascinated by the subject. You’d think at some point I’d start getting blasé about, if not bored by, our many overlaps with our animal cousins. But our deep connection to all living things—even plants—is endlessly fascinating to me.

If you’re a scientist (or hang out with them all the time) you might not quite realize the extent to which even important news from your field doesn’t trickle into the general consciousness. This is useful for both scientists and science communicators to remember: no one can be an expert on every topic, so a reader’s lack of knowledge about your field doesn’t indicate ignorance or disinterest. And it also doesn’t imply an inability to understand your work. It’s just a matter of choosing your material carefully and presenting it in non-jargony ways.

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

I am by nature a synthesizer. I love working with other people. My idea of a good time is a big brainstorming session, with white boards, lots of colored pens, and smart people who are inclined to say, “yes, and what about…?” The Web’s ability to connect people seems especially suited to science, which thrives on a special combination of personal vision and group collaboration. Journalism shares that. I’d like to inspire more “humanities types” to geek out a little. C’mon, English majors, learn a little bit about genetics, why don’t you? Historians: maybe epigenetics has some role in the rise and fall of human civilizations? Dancers, musicians and art historians: could there possibly be some underlying animal behaviors that make human artistic endeavors less a pure product of culture and more a trait we share with many living beings?

I also love how the Web allows scientists to learn how to communicate with non-scientists. Blogs like this one, which fill an important niche between the peer-reviewed journals and the sometimes-fatuous coverage of science in the mainstream media, are connecting smart readers with researchers and clinicians who want their work to be more widely understood.

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?

Our Zoobiquity website is built on a Tumblr, which I really like. But my favorite social media outlet is Twitter (more on that below). I tweet as @kathrynsbowers and @Zoobiquity.

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?

This will sound like transparent flattery, Bora, but believe me that it’s true: In the early stages of researching Zoobiquity, I came across “A Blog Around the Clock” and it became the first entry on my RSS reader.

Months later, when I finally got on Twitter, I almost entirely stopped reading RSS feeds. The satisfying cacophony of voices and dazzling array of topics that Twitter provided eclipsed the slower scouring of blog posts I used to do. (I grant that I lost some depth in favor of breadth.)

I was somewhat late to Twitter, but I had the good fortune to time my plunge into it very well: my first day on Twitter was literally the Monday after ScienceOnline2011 wrapped up. As the participants traveled home, my shiny, newly hatched Twitter feed crackled with excitement, connection, hilarity, camaraderie. “Who ARE these people?” I thought, frantically adding follow after follow. For weeks I sat quietly listening, working up the nerve to enter the conversation.

I was determined to find a way to join the exchange…and ecstatic when I secured a spot for Scio2012.

More adulation, but again it’s perfectly true: I value Twitter for one simple reason, the ScienceOnline community. I think that people who don’t “get” Twitter simply haven’t found a community like ScienceOnline. (I’m not a leading voice in the community. I just really appreciate the conversations and multiple entry portals it provides.)

As for blogs and tweeters: I love Jason Goldman’s topics and sensibility; I wasn’t able to meet her at Scio2012, but Kate Clancy’s intelligence rings loud and true through her writing; Jennifer Frazer has a gorgeous tone to her writing—delicate and descriptive, also funny and philosophical. I’m half terrified of, half in love with Emily Willingham. They’re usual suspects, but Steve Silberman, Deborah Blum, Christopher Mims, Maryn McKenna, Sci Curious, David Dobbs and Ed Yong are must-follows.

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 whole conference was fulfilling, but a few things stand out:

Creative Buzz: I was driving out to the Duke Lemur Center. I was stuffed in the very back row of the van, in a seat far from the door. I was just about to succumb to a serious case of claustrophobia when the woman sitting next to me pulled out her notebook. It was full of the MOST memorable, witty images. She had just been to Perrin Ireland’s graphic-note taking seminar. I thought, “wow, this is a whole new way of communicating that I’ve never seen before.” It changed the way I thought of how to interact with a lecture-style seminar. And it kept me from having to ask the driver to stop the van.

Openness/Access: It was very exciting to see luminaries just strolling around like normal people. And to a person they were willing to talk. Is it too name-droppy to say that meeting Diane Kelly was a thrill? Ed Yong? Carl Zimmer and Jonathan Eisen? Deborah Blum and Joanne Manaster were unbelievably welcoming. So were Sarah Chow, Holly Bik, and Jeffrey Perkel. And that down-to-earth quality was evident in just about everyone I approached, from seat-mates on the shuttle to fellow caffeine-addicts at breakfast.

Humor: The stories at the banquet—every one of which was publishable or broadcast-able—were striking. They were so funny and honest. On individual levels, I found a similar degree of playfulness among the people I met. I appreciated being with a group of really smart, hard-working people who also love having a good time, unpretentiously.

Thank you, Bora, for the spirit of community you’ve fostered and led. And thanks for the opportunity to appear on your blog!

Thank you! Hope to see you again in January.

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