ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Emily Buehler

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 Emily Buehler (book homepage, LinkedIn, 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?

I’m from Connecticut but came to North Carolina for graduate school at UNC, and have been here ever since. I got my PhD in chemistry, but I did not want to get a job in a lab or as a professor when I finished. I was 27 when I graduated, and had never done anything but be in school! At the time, I just felt a strong desire to “run away.” I wasn’t particularly happy and often got this trapped feeling, where I would daydream about getting in the car and just driving away… although I knew I was too responsible to leave for good, which meant I’d end up returning and the drive would just be a waste of gas. So I never did it. But I didn’t want to continue on the path I seemed to be stuck on.

Also, I had never traveled, and I was not very confident outside of a university setting, and I didn’t know what my spiritual beliefs were, and it now seems like I needed to get away from an all-encompassing job to have some time to work on all that stuff.

Looking back, if I had known that “science writing” existed I might have looked into it; but as far as I knew my options were research and academia. (I did have a great internship with the National Academies of Science, that I mention because it is a great program and really helped me “break free,” although public policy was not right for me).

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

After grad school, I got a job in a bread bakery at a co-op. I knew some people who worked there, and they had 5 people unable to work all at once, which might be the only reason they hired me since I had no experience. I didn’t particularly want to make bread, but the idea of being a bread baker appealed, like it was the most basic thing I could think of to be. I quickly realized how much biology and chemistry is involved, and the learning curve involved constant data taking, so I was hooked.

The local arts center had requests for a bread class, and I ended up teaching it. I made a class manual and included basic chemistry, and the students were enthusiastic about it; but I couldn’t find a detailed explanation of the chemistry in any book. Also, at the time, all the bread cookbooks were recipe books, not basic how-to explanations. Long story short, I wrote a book about bread-making that is both an explanation of all the chemistry, and a how-to book. I wanted to capture all the things I had learned, while I was a recent-beginner, and to make bread-making more approachable. The science part… I included cause it interests people (including me) and I wanted it to be available to people, but I do not think it is necessary for baking. (People ask if I’ve improved bread-making with science, and I have to say, Not at all. I think bakers had bread-making down pretty well before the scientific explanations came along.) You can read about the book and see excerpts here: http://www.twobluebooks.com/book.php

I self-published Bread Science because I could not get a publisher to notice me, but now I am really glad it turned out that way. I was able to keep the wackier bits of the book and the hand-done illustrations, which I thought were important for making the science approachable, but a publisher might have disagreed. I loved the process of laying out the book and preparing it for the printer, and I was able to choose an employee-owned, environmentally-friendly printer in the United States (http://www.thomsonshore.com/). Also I still own the rights to my book and can keep it in print. (I’ve heard some horror stories from people who had publishers buy their book and then do nothing with it.) And also, by selling the books myself (from my website), I interact with a lot of readers, which is very rewarding. We’ve shipped books to the most remote-sounding places (like Tasmania). I think I am lucky that DIY bread-making came into fashion right when I wanted to write a book about it.

Since finishing the bread book, I have been a bit adrift. As the bakery started expanding (and I stopped learning), I transitioned to the co-op’s marketing office. [I still teach bread classes at places like the Asheville Bread Festival and the Campbell Folk School, and now I am a home-baker like my students.] I realized I want to write and also to make more books. I’ve spent the past few years working on a travel memoir about a cross-country bicycle trip I did in 2003, and that project kept me feeling happy. But as I completed the first draft of that in 2011, I started thinking my paying job could be something more fulfilling that used my skills.

But I didn’t know where to begin… the thought of freelance writing was so stressful, and I had never job searched. Then I went to scio12! I met people with the best sounding jobs, working for universities as “the person in the office who understands the science.” They told me to search for “public communications.” The whole experience at scio12 was so stimulating and inspirational that I finally began job searching.

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

My bike trip memoir is at an editor’s right now, but when I get it back I will be re-writing and then getting it ready for publication. One of my goals is to write more books, and I have some vague ideas, but I think it is better to wait until the book is ready to be written, not force it out just to get another book done. So I must wait to see which book comes about next.

I have some ideas for short guides that I’d like to write and post on my website (guide to self publishing, guide to using Drupal); so I hope to do those next. I love learning something and then explaining it to people in an understandable way, and sometimes a brief overview is really what is needed more than a detailed work.

I also need to look into e-book options (which I had a great introduction to at scio12) since I would like my new book to be available electronically. I need to figure out if DIY e-books are possible. It seems like the formats and options are evolving very quickly, and there is a lot to learn.

Finally, I would REALLY like to make a DVD to accompany Bread Science. I learned to use Adobe Premiere Pro this year, and it is so much fun! I inherited a camera that takes video… so I know I could do it, I just have to make it happen. But it is a big project.

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

I don’t know if this is what I should be working on, but what I feel most strongly about is presenting the truth to people. I think it is not just about being honest, but about communicating in a straightforward way (with facts, and without manipulative language or aggressive language) so that opponents cannot argue against it, and might be won over. At first glance, the Web seems like a great platform for reaching people… but then I remember the Web is also used by those who lack a commitment to honesty and who have a personal agenda. So I feel a little hopeless about this, and I resort to daydreams where suddenly no one on Earth is able to lie, and all our problems finally work out.

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?

I have mixed feelings about blogging and social media. I WANT to like it. And I find much of it fascinating. But I can’t make myself follow it. I will discover a blog or a Twitter user that I think it brilliant (Cakewrecks? @Lord_Voldemort7?) but I’ll never remember to go back to it. The only way I can explain this is…

1. I spend a lot of time on a computer at work, so when I get home I want it to be off.

2. I’m kind of old fashioned and slow-paced, so I like reading longer things (a.k.a., books).

3. There is a lot going on in life, and following social media takes time. It is just not a top priority.

4. There is something draining about the fast-paced online world. Maybe it is just my personality type, but it seems to take me away from the present moment, which is exactly the opposite of what I am struggling to achieve each day.

I’m afraid that I should promote myself better using a personal blog and social media, but so far I have not been driven to do it. I know I could get really into a blog, but it would be at the expense of other writing… plus it is so immediate. I always want to fact-check and make sure I get something described exactly right. I need time and resources to gather pictures. It just seems like it would take over my life, and there is so much other stuff to do.

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 knew they were out there, but I had not realized how many there were, or how they are organized under “umbrella” organizations, until I went to scio12. One that I discovered at scio12 and really like is Lee Bishop’s ScienceMinusDetails.com. He only posts about once a month (my speed!) and his posts are educational and funny and filled with pictures. His personality is evident, but he is writing about science, not about himself.

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?

It was inspiring to see that jobs exist doing things I enjoy and think I am good at (writing, editing, organizing information, explaining science), and to meet so many people who felt “like me”. The conference gave me the help and hope I needed to start job searching.

Thank you! Hope to see you again in January.

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