ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Helen Chappell

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 Helen Chappell (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 a recovering physicist from North Carolina, and I recently returned to the Old North State after three years’ exile at a Colorado grad school studying nanocrystalline solar materials. Turns out I’m too much of a generalist at heart to be happy doing physics research, so I escaped into science journalism in 2011 via the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship Program (highly recommended for any would-be science journalists out there doing research). I also have a background in informal education — I used to give star talks and develop summer camps, among other things, at a planetarium — so I’ve ended up sort of floating around between research, education, and writing circles. That meant ScienceOnline was right up my alley. I wish I’d heard about it before last year!

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

As of this spring, I’m an exhibit developer at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. My path has been informal education -> astronomy research -> materials science research -> chemical physics research -> science journalism -> informal education. Lots of meandering to end up almost in the same place, I suppose, but exhibit development is an amazing fit for me so far. It has a lot of the variety of journalism with less pressure, and there’s time to really pay attention to your craft. I also get to work closely with scientists, so my research background is a huge help.

I’m also trying to keep my foot wedged in the door of the writing world, by doing a tiny bit of freelance work here and there (I had a recent piece for Discover), blogging for work at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Exhibits Blog, and blogging for play at B-Scides.

I’m really enjoying building the exhibits blog at the museum. I’m always fascinated by “the making of” pretty much anything. Taking folks behind the scenes of the exhibits is my excuse to geek out about what I do — and since I’m new to exhibit development, I’m also learning a lot along the way. If you have a question for us about how exhibits are made, email me or tweet it with the hashtag #AskAnExhibitionist, and I’ll blog the answers.

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

I’m still figuring out long-term goals, though I expect I’ll be happy doing exhibit development for a good long while. I’m investing a lot of energy into figuring out how to get better at what I do, since it’s brand new for me. II’m still enough of a scientist to geek out about literature searches, and the literature about museum visitor behavior and visitor-oriented design strategies is completely new to me, so there’s a lot to geek out about.

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

Something I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about recently is how to use the web and mobile technology to expand the museum experience beyond exhibits and programs (or really any experience). We’ve dabbled with QR codes in a few places, but it’s definitely still an experiment, and we’ve yet to figure out what works best. Using mobile technology in the exhibits can be a sticky issue, though, because not everyone can get — or even wants — a smartphone (like me, for instance). Especially as we’re an accredited state museum, universal accessibility (or the closest we can get) is key. I’d love for us to have a modern-day, mobile-driven version of the audioguide tour with video and interactive content, but it’ll be a huge challenge keeping it accessible.

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?

In the exhibits group at the museum, we use blogging as a way to give folks a behind-the-scenes tour. As a writer, I use blogging mostly as a place to get some practice in, and get my fix for writing about things I think are cool without jumping through all the editorial hoops at a polished publication. Blogging is definitely a net positive for me.

Social networks, though, I’m less active in. I’m on a bunch of them, but I mostly use them as a place for folks to find me if they need to, and as a way to keep my finger on the pulse of the online science world when I’m looking to catch up or get a distraction. They’re probably a slight net positive, or else I wouldn’t be using them, right? I hope that’s true, at least.

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 best aspect of ScienceOnline for me was definitely the social one — it’s not often you get to share space with 450 of the most creative, talented, and wacky folks around, all of whom share interests with you. It was the most freely-mixing conference I’ve ever been to, where established top dogs and newbies mingled easily, unlike at so many stratified science meetings. The social aspect outlasts the actual conference, too, and I’ve kept up with lots of folks I met online and even in person (especially since I’m a local).

Perhaps my strongest takeaway, though, was the #iamscience project. Having left research fairly recently, I was struggling with losing my identity as a scientist. The #iamscience project made me feel like I was in excellent company. I’m still a scientist, just not a research scientist, and that’s awesome.

Thank you! See you soon!

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