ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Adrian Down

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 Adrian Down.

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

If you asked me five years ago where I’d be today, my predictions would come nowhere close to the truth.  I’m currently a graduate student at Duke University getting a Ph.D. in ecology.  Five years ago, I was farming in the jungles of Hawaii.  I had just spent four years in California getting bachelors degrees in physics and mathematics from UC Berkeley.  All I knew at the time was that my experiences teaching and working with plants provided more fulfillment than a career as a physicist seemed to promise.  It was my passion for plants that led me to Hawaii’s Big Island.

With no electricity to power a computer and the nearest approximation of night life 20 miles of rutted gravel road away, I had a lot of time to read and think once the sun went down in the jungle.  The longer I spent farming, the more I thought about data.  If we knew which plants were performing best in what conditions, we could optimize farm design, create thriving hybrid agricultural and natural ecosystems.  The farm was my lab, and I wanted numbers to crunch.  It was then that I realized I am a terminal scientist.  For some of us, you can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can’t take the scientific method out of the scientist.  When I decided to come back to academia, ecology was an obvious choice, given my fascination with the continuum between natural and agricultural ecosystems in Hawaii.

I went back to school to study sustainable agriculture.  These days, I study methane.  Specifically, I’m developing techniques to “fingerprint” methane sources.  If you’ve got high methane concentrations and you want to know where that methane is coming from, I can help you.  There are a lot of sources of methane to the atmosphere, including wetlands, cows and other ruminants, landfills, and leaks in natural gas infrastructure.  Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, so a comparatively small reduction in methane emissions can have a large climate change benefit.  Understanding where methane is coming from is an important step in reducing emissions.

My transition from agro-eocology to biogeochemistry wasn’t because of cows’ prodigious methane production.  I got involved with methane because my Ph.D. advisor, Rob Jackson, started researching hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a relatively new technique for extracting natural gas from deep in the Earth.  There are a number of things that swayed me to my current course of study.  In the course of my current degree, I’m learning a variety of tools and lab techniques that are broadly applicable to a number of systems.  I think (or maybe I should say, “I hope” ) there are ways to apply some of these same techniques in a more agricultural context in the future.  I also get to do research that can have immediate and positive impact on policy and, ultimately, both climate change and human health.  The United States is experiencing a once-in-a-generation transition in our energy source from coal to natural gas, and it’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of research in that area.

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

Working in the context of a contentious issue like fracking means that communication is an essential part of what we do in my research group.  I’ve been interested in scientific communication ever since I started working with high school students in Oakland and San Francisco while at UC Berkeley.  Teaching has been a passion of mine ever since I got my feet wet in college, and I used to relish the challenge of communicating complex ideas from physics in a clear and engaging way.  Physics needs communicators because its a field many see as intimidatingly complex and frighteningly difficult.  Now, I work on a topic that is socially, rather than mathematically, complex and can be frighteningly contentiousness.  For some, this would be a nightmare, but for me, I take it as part of my training as a scientist.  I don’t know yet what I want to do with my Ph.D., but I hope that my future career is centered around scientific communication in some form or another.

We are in the unique position that we have to do most of our communicating and explaining to the general public, rather than to other scientists.  The web is absolutely essential in this regard.  Almost all of the discussion of fracking, including our science, takes place online.  As with many contentious issues, some people seek out information that supports their point of view and ignore other information.  I have seen research from our group be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways by people with different opinions.

Seeing the varying reactions to our research has left me with some lasting lessons in science communication.  The first is that simply putting science in the public domain is not enough.  Without some knowledgable interpretation, its very easy for scientific conclusions to be misunderstood or taken out of context.  The second is that we as scientists can no longer rely solely upon the news media to convey our findings or their meaning to the public.  We need to engage more directly with new media, such as blogs and social media, if we want to have any hope of staying relevant to the public.  These are the means by which people are increasingly acquiring information and forming opinions.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work?

On a personal level, science blogs are how I keep up with the world of science.  As a confirmed science nerd and inveterate triviaphile, I read widely outside my field.  A good science blog post, at least for my tastes, explains results and conclusions with added context and without the jargon that can make reading outside my field challenging.  I scan a number of science blog feeds and read in the neighborhood of five to ten posts daily.

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?

ScienceOnline 2012 was a valuable experience for me.  I got to meet with some of the people behind the blogs I enjoy and whose writing I admire, like Ed Yong.  Through the workshops, I learned some of their techniques to their success.  It was interesting to me to notice the distinctive culture of science writing, which is different than that of academic science.  As a scientist interested in communication with the public, and with science bloggers as one mediator of that conversation, its helpful for me to understand the differences between the professional cultures of these two professions.  Understanding one’s audience can lead to better communication, even when the audience isn’t the public directly.

The one thing that I would like to see more of at future conferences is interaction between scientists, science writers, and educators who could make use of science blogs as a part of science education curricula.  I think science blogs and social media can bring science to younger students in a way that is more intuitive to how they are used to interacting with news and information.  People who realize they can follow scientific discoveries without an advanced science background are potentially more apt to stay engaged with and value science as a form of inquiry.  Science literacy and the ability to interpret claims based on scientific data are hugely important to an informed public discourse.  Science blogs are one avenue for members of the public to stay informed and thereby be better equipped to evaluate how science is used by non-scientists to promote ideas or make policy decisions.  Getting scientists, science writers, and educators together can help improve the process of getting engaging science to the public, especially students, who need scientific literacy now more than ever.

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

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