ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Michelle Sipics

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 Michelle Sipics (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 think my journey to science writing actually began in high school, when I was giving my guidance counselor fits as the only student she’d ever had who was trying to decide between engineering and journalism as a college major. I eventually settled on engineering, and ultimately got a Master’s degree in computer engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia, splitting my research interests between fault-tolerant design and engineering education. But while I was doing that, I crammed in as many English and general writing courses as I could find, and worked as the science editor at an online magazine that the university had launched during my time there. Shockingly, this interest in writing was totally confusing to my engineering peers.

I was considering job offers the fall before I completed my graduate degree, not quite sure yet what I wanted to do, and happened upon a poster for the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. It’s pretty weird, I suppose, that the idea of being a science writer never occurred to me before that moment — I’d been devouring science writing as a reader for years — but that’s when it clicked in my brain that maybe this was something I could do myself. I applied to the program and was fortunate enough to get in.

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

I think I’ve benefited from having worked as a science writer for several very different types of organizations with different goals. I worked for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics as a contributing editor for their monthly newsjournal, which was my first real introduction to the non-profit world — and boy was it different than what I was used to, having worked for government contractors and on defense projects. I got a lot out of that experience — not the least of which, of course, was writing about some really interesting mathematics! And while I worked at SIAM, I was also freelancing for broader markets, like writing pieces for the Boston Globe. It ended up being tremendously helpful for me to write for such different types of publications at the same time, to sort of be smacked in the face with the different challenges they offer — what kind of approach do you need to take with a pseudo-longform industry publication versus a newspaper, for example. As someone who was pretty much just getting into the field, it kept me on my toes in a way that I really needed. Still do, actually!

So, naturally, from there I jumped into a completely different kind of project, my favorite to date — the History of Vaccines project at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (home of the Mütter Museum, for those of you familiar with its wonderful collection, which includes slices from Einstein’s brain and Harry Eastlack’s skeleton). I was the content developer on that project for 2+ years, and I did a little bit of everything: archival research in the College’s fantastic historical medical library, interviews with current vaccine researchers and developers, writing copy for the site (of course), editing video, arranging events, fixing parts of the website when the content management system got screwed up, you name it. Of course it helped that for me, the topic was fascinating, but just being involved in practically every aspect of that project was so rewarding. This might be a bit of a soapbox moment here, but I really think that every science writer can benefit from knowing at least a little bit about how the final package containing their work is going to be put together, whether it’s a website, a single post on a blog, an article in a magazine, or whatever. If nothing else, it’s a lot easier to work with all of the other people involved in that process — art directors, web design firms, web developers, photographers — if you have some idea of what it is they actually do. I will get off my soapbox now.

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

Not long after scio12 I took a position at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science as the director for news and strategic initiatives, so technically I’m still in the early stages of adapting to that job, and it by far accounts for the most of my time. It’s been really interesting to look at science writing from the “inside” perspective, so to speak, where one of your main goals is to specifically promote the research that’s going on at your particular institution. It’s yet another challenge that I haven’t dealt with before in this capacity, so of course I’m fascinated and trying to learn as much as I can. It helps, of course, that there’s no shortage of fantastic research going on at Yale Engineering, so I’ve got plenty to write about.

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

I’m really fascinated by the way people choose which sources to trust on the web when it comes to science news. There are no hard and fast rules about which ones are best, so it’s difficult to point people to trustworthy sources with any degree of consistency, especially when you’re talking about some of the more contentious topics. I still hear a lot of noise about how blogs are less trustworthy and accurate than, say, the website of a major news organization, but we all know of plenty of examples of science bloggers who are just downright neurotic in their attention to detail (I absolutely mean that as a compliment) and probably put more research into their posts than some of their counterparts in professional newsrooms. So I suppose it’s the incredibly wide span of potential delivery sources for science communication on the web, and the way people prioritize them, that fascinates me.

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’ve been trying for about the last year to get a history of science blog launched, with a general focus on things that go wrong with the human body — I’m still especially interested in infectious disease — but I’m putting that on hold for a while while I focus on learning the ropes of my current job. You people who have full-time jobs AND manage to publish all these great science blogs just astound me. I am jealous of your energy and dedication!

I’m not much for Facebook, but I love Google+. I find Twitter challenging sometimes, mostly because it can be way too distracting, but I have to say that it’s been a net positive for me. I’ve heard some people say that being on Twitter and Facebook and G+ is a necessity to be a successful science writer these days, and I’m not sure if I agree with that… but I can say that Twitter, at least, has been incredibly helpful for me when it comes to getting to know the larger science writing community, and learning from all of the brilliant people in it. And that was a really pleasant surprise for me, because I basically had to be forced to join it. I was seriously anti-Twitter a few years ago. I still have a love/hate relationship with it, but hey, it did get me to scio12, so that’s worth quite a lot right there!

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 was my first trip to ScienceOnline, so the whole experience of spending a few days among that many brilliant science communicators was just amazing. I don’t know that I could even choose a single best part. It was refreshing change, though, not to have to explain myself further for once after saying “I’m a science writer.” It’s the little things.

Probably the biggest thing that I took away from scio12 was the realization of exactly how supportive the science writing community can be. Fundamentally we’re all doing the same thing, and I suppose in theory you could say we’re competing with each other, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more supportive community than this one. Everyone really just wants to get it right, and we all struggle with the same problems: deadlines, difficult interviews, word counts, journal access, admitting that the super cool factoid you want to include in your story really does have to be cut even though you think everyone should know about it, etc. There really is nothing new under the sun — if you’re struggling with some aspect of whatever it is you’re working on, some other scio person has probably struggled with the same thing before. And the beautiful part is that if you just ask, they’ll almost certainly give you the benefit of their experience.

And, after you do admit to yourself that you have to cut the super cool factoid from your copy, you can at least share it on Twitter with a scio hashtag and know that it will be appreciated by others just like you. Which is possibly the most valuable thing of all.

Thanks to everyone for making my first scio experience such a great one!

Thank you! I hope to see you again in January!

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