ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Bug Girl

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 Bug Girl (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 am a blue “talking head” that pontificates about insects.  I have a PhD in entomology, and I try to translate insect research into regular human speak.  I also provide color commentary, usually with more F-words that the average pundit, but that’s how I roll.

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

So much of science is received knowledge, presented out of context.  Science is a marketing tool now–products are presented with “Science Says” and some claim about efficacy. This undermines public trust in scientific results, since what “Science Says” appears to change constantly, or seems to contradict other information.

People value information gathered from friends over that of strangers–this has been supported again and again by decision-making and risk management research. I can see this in the conversations I have online–I can help people process issues surrounding bees, pesticides, or GM crops, for example.  There is so much misinformation out there–I like to try to set the record straight, especially when it comes to things that are clearly scams that can endanger peoples’ lives. By being a presence online, I can humanize (I recognize the irony here) the process of science communication to make it less “messages from on high” transmitted in an arcane language.

I can see first-hand how evidence is rejected by people because they are emotionally attached to an idea–I can present tons of data, show them how their arguments are flawed, and seems like the information is just bouncing off their foreheads.  Again, from the literature, the suggestion is that people have formed most of their beliefs before they get out of high school. I don’t really know what to do about that.  I wish I did.

The posts that consistently get the most traffic for me are “How-to” posts–how to remove a tick, search your hotel for bed bugs, get rid of mosquitoes, etc. That really shouldn’t be happening, since there is a HUGE body of work created by the US Extension Service, customized to each state.  The problem is that it’s usually all in PDF format, or behind a paywall.   Extension is beginning to figure out SEO, but it really isn’t on the radar screen for a lot of states yet.  (And, to be fair–Extension budgets have been hacked. That’s why my position in Michigan went away and I am now in Connecticut.)  I would love to see USDA or state extension folks at SciOnline.   People don’t value what they don’t know about–and the work that Extension and Ag researchers do is mostly invisible.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?  How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work?

I have a slightly unique career situation, since I use a pseudonym.   I even gave an invited talk at the Entomological Society of America National Meeting last year under the pseudonym of Bug Girl.  Had I used my real name as a blogger, I could have quite a bit to add to my professional resume.   When an academic passes up a chance to pad her resume, you know she’s serious about plausible deniability!

I’ve used the nickname “Bug Girl” since the early 90s–it was my first personal email address in 1993. Back then in the land of listservs and bulletin boards, women were rare.  I also had an….interesting career path, and I left my first tenured position over an academic freedom dispute.  It was useful to have a nickname where I could solicit advice online about the Dean’s instructions to soft-pedal evolution without publicly identifying myself.

Over time, this led to path dependence–rather than making a strategic decision between My RealID and a pseudonym, I drifted into the online identity of Bug Girl because of a bunch of random decisions from 20 years ago. Those decisions were made well before blogging was a “thing.”

It turned out to be a good decision, because as I began to be successful in my real-world career, I discovered that blogging was not only a thing, it was a bad thing as far as most of my bosses were concerned.  There are actually laws on the books on several states banning state employees from lobbying, or using their government positions to influence politics or the media. That is a reasonable restriction–it would not be appropriate for me to use an official .gov or .edu email to lobby for a specific candidate.  If you are high enough on the food chain that you manage large sums of money, lots of people, or set policy, then linking your real identity to a sometimes ribald blog can be a big deal.  Especially if you are in a job where you are not part of a union, not tenured, and basically serve at the pleasure of the provost.

Now that my current job has moved me into the Vice-Provost’s office, Bug Girl is honestly who I really am. Diplomacy and tact are now a major part of my day to-day-work life.  Anyone who knows me realizes this is an inherently unstable situation. To paraphrase one of my favorite blues songs, “It’s in her and its got to come out!”  Most of my friends call me Bug, and certainly my writing online gets several orders of magnitude more exposure than my scientific publications ever did or will.  I AM BUG GIRL.

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

Unfortunately, much of my time these days is spent looking for a new job, which has severely curtailed my blog posting.  I was laid off from my wonderful job in Michigan, and budget cuts are looming again for my new state employer.

It’s been a lot harder than I expected to translate my online success into actual employment. Now that I have passed the big 1/2 century mark in age, I am finding that I don’t have the stamina to be both Bug Girl AND my real world identity.  I have no idea how Spiderman maintains two completely separate identities–it’s exhausting. I had hoped to get out of higher ed administration and into the online world, but looks like that just isn’t going to be possible. I don’t think my use of a pseudonym is the problem–I suspect it has more to do with the way my resume looks. When you have references that are Deans and Vice Presidents, I don’t think people take your application for an entry-level job as a science communicator seriously.

When I started blogging, I just wanted to be better at writing about science for a lay audience, and be a better writer in general. It sort of got out of hand.  I never set any goals, but I think I have accomplished what I needed to–and as one of the first bug bloggers, I helped show other entomologists that there is a fun community out there that they could join.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

I actually started with a personal blog in 2005, and that morphed into a science blog when Rebecca of Skepchick asked me to start posting stories about science on her site.  I realized there was an empty niche online and started writing about insects.  For a while I was the only insect blog out there, but now there is a lively entomology blogging community online. I would estimate there are at least 100 english-language bug blogs, and probably far more. (I’m working on a census of insect-related blogs.)

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 so many, many wonderful friends online as Bug Girl.  I am constantly humbled by how kind and generous people online can be, and the realness of virtual communities.   ScienceOnline is the perfect example of that.  Even though I had never been before, I felt like I was in a giant group of old friends.  I am very isolated in my current job, and having people online to talk to is a life-saver.

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?

Because I am marooned in the Vice-Provost’s office, I don’t have people to share my love of science and insects with.  It was very exciting to be able to sit next to Ed Yong, or to finally meet Kevin Zelnio!  (What?? So I’m a fangirl. Bite me.)   It was exciting to see that people actually knew who I was, and liked some of what I had written.  Also, I think I told a good story 🙂

The main effect of ScienceOnline for me was to go back home re-energized.  It was so wonderful to have 3 days that were just about writing and ideas. I only wish I was able to stay up later and talk more (and that I wasn’t allergic to beer).

I think that SciOnline–and my online career–can best be summed up by from Charles Darwin in this letter:

“I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects:—my only reason for writing, is to remove a heavy weight from my mind, so now you must understand, what you will perceive before you come to the end of this; that I am writing merely for my own pleasure & not yours.”



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