ScienceOnline2012 – interview with David Ng

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 David Ng (blog, The Science Creative Quarterly, Twitter).

Hi Dave, and welcome to A Blog Around The Clock!

Hi Bora, thanks for having me. You know, I just read your about section and I totally forgot that you are a chronobiologist. I also just realized that I’ve never actually been interviewed by a chronobiologist before. Which is very cool – being interviewed and also the word “chronobiologist” generally. I wish I could call myself a chronobiologist…

Well thank you… chronobiology is a very interesting field… Anyway, would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

You mean apart from the fact that I wish I was a chronobiologist?

Yes, apart from that. For instance, my readers would like to know where…

…Because having the word “chronobiologist” on my business card would be awesome. In fact, if it were me, I would have it in a huge font size, just over the bit where it says I’m from Vancouver, Canada, University of British Columbia. Is the word “chronobiologist” on your business card?

Well, no…

Oh man! You should totally put it on your business card!

Well… I’ll take that into consideration. But anyway… my readers… my readers would like to know where you are coming from, that is to say your background and how you feel about science generally?

Well, sometimes, how I feel about science is kind of complicated. Although I suppose that is the point. Science – what it is, why it’s important, and how we can share it – is, as you know, a pretty nuanced thing. That’s what makes it great and wonderful, yet challenging and occasionally scary. The problem is that not everyone appreciates this diversity in perspective. In other words, not everyone considers the idea that science is a kind of culture all to itself – they tend to think of science as a collection of facts, homework even, or maybe even something that only works within defined stereotypes. Makes them tune out and… Sorry, what was the question?

I was asking about how you feel about science… which I think you kind of answered…

Oh yeah, right… Did I answer it? Ummm, maybe this picture can clarify things a bit…

I suppose that also works. So then, what about your background? Any scientific education?

Look Bora, we’ve already established the fact that I’m not a chronobiologist – there’s no need to rub it in…

No, no… I didn’t mean to rub anything in. I just mean, er, tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

Oh right… Well, my training was in molecular genetics, and cancer research specifically, but the last decade or so, I’ve been mostly considered an academic in science literacy – working on projects related to science education and science literacy.

You mean projects that use genetics as a subject matter?

Well, yes, there’s a bit of that – but it’s more about my faculty position being administratively (shall we say) “interesting,” meaning that I’m in the fortunate position to be involved in all sorts of different kinds of science communication projects, and all sorts of different types of science education projects, and OMG! WE SHOULD TOTALLY START A PROJECT ON CHRONOBIOLOGY!

Ummm… Sure… But first tell me what do you mean by administratively “interesting?”

Well, in a nutshell, I’m a Faculty member without a faculty. How this came to be, appears to be a bit of a mystery at my institution, but I suspect it had something to do with my old boss being smart enough to realize that a faculty position that deals with science literacy needs to have as much room as possible to explore. Put another way, what this means is that I have the usual academic perks, but without most of the usual academic ties that can often lead to bureaucratic limits. In other words, there’s a lot of freedom to explore different projects. Add to that, the fact that I have a lab that is quite well equipped from an infrastructure point of view, amazing colleagues (Joanne Fox – also not a chronobiologist – in particular), and a pretty decent track record in acquiring funding, culminating in ideal circumstances to try lots of different things.

Such as?

Well, conventional things might be hosting genetics fieldtrips for high school students, or providing professional workshops for working scientists, or simply being involved in our university’s undergraduate/graduate community through an advocacy role or by being directly involved in various courses. But I have to admit – it’s the unconventional stuff that is really fun and interesting.

Like what?

Well, lots of different things actually. Examples might include the launching of an elementary school fieldtrip program that was designed by the collaborative efforts of Science Graduate Students and Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts students. That was pretty interesting, and wonderful too, at least from the feedback from teachers and students involved. Another strange one, which has been getting attention on and off, is this crowdsourcing initiative we have called Phylo or Phylomon. It’s basically a game project that revolved around biodiversity education and Pokemon culture. AND DID YOU NOT HEAR MY SUGGESTION FOR A CHRONOBIOLOGY RELATED PROJECT?

Ahem… Are any of these things taking up the most of your time and passion these days?

Actually, the Phylomon project has taken off in all sorts of interesting directions. Lots of activity there, and there’s movement now for all manner of different decks to be produced in collaboration with specific organizations or groups (like museum decks or we could even have a ScienceOnline deck for example). Because of its fluid crowdsourcing nature, the direction it goes is super open in principle. I’m currently recruiting folks to work on a new game mechanic that could highlight some evolutionary biology concepts for instance.

Anything else?

Yes, I’ve been really thinking a lot these days about grand things like “What exactly is science?” and “What does it mean to be scientifically literate?” In doing so, I’m thinking that it would be fun to focus on a project that tries to address these fundamental questions at a level where younger children can contribute. Maybe produce some well crafted resources for teachers, that could first exist as a “scientific method field trip” or “scientific method camp.” I like the idea of starting off with field trips and camps, because here we could actually see things in action with the kids and assess how effective they are. Basically, something that gets kids to value “questioning everything” but to also do this by using that thing we call the scientific method, the good and the bad. Just banging around some ideas here, but wouldn’t that be lovely?

Yes!

Although, I imagine really really tricky to do well.

Yes…

…But worth a go, I think. This is why I’m hoping to talk to a lot of very clever people over the next couple of months. Actually, I’m going to want to talk to you Bora, maybe even include you in a roster of sorts. Every roster needs a chronobiologist. You probably know this already, but it looks very impressive.

Well, I’m not sure about that, and plus, I’d have to check my schedule…

Yes, of course, of course – but that is why ScienceOnline and social networks and all of this web stuff – well, it’s just so wonderful! Because, now, more than ever, it’s easier to connect with other folks, and there must be other chronobiologists out there!

Oh yes, I’m definitely not the only one… There are many of us out there. Related to that, what type of social networks do you use?

…I mean, how amazing would it be, to have TWO chronobiologists on the project’s committee. Doesn’t that all but practically guarantee any funding requests? I think I saw that written somewhere once.

Well, I don’t know about that. Anyway, what networks do you use? And do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I guess I’m most fond of twitter. I find twitter to be both useful and fun. #Ihuggedachronobiologist

So a net positive?

Yes, although maybe not a necessity, but certainly very very helpful.

And do you blog?

Not as much as I’d like. Years ago, I started a web publication called The Science Creative Quarterly, but that was more about showcasing creative science writing. Then, for a while, I wrote a blog with Ben Cohen called the World’s Fair. We initially came together because we were both interested in science humor (Editor’s Note: Here are links to some humor from Ben and Dave), or at least exploring different ways of science writing. In other words, we didn’t take things seriously all of the time, which made for an interesting experience. We had good time with all sorts of silly things, like hosting puzzles (as a vehicle to look at hypothesis formation, and paradigm shifts) or creating basketball tournaments between different science concepts (as a general run down of some fundamentals of science).

Oh yes, I remember that. The basketball tournament was pretty epic. But what you’re telling me is that you don’t blog anymore?

Well… these days, I sort of blog. I have a site called Popperfont, but that is mainly a repository of funny, pretty, or surreal science things I find daily on the net. You know, the kind of stuff that might be good to include in a slide as a transitional break – in case your science talk gets a little too unwieldy, and here’s an amusing image which gives the audience a teeny tiny lift before you segues to this and that. I also, on occasion, contribute to Boing Boing, which is always fun – usually a humor angle is involved with these posts which sometimes works well and sometimes not so much.

So you sort of blog?

Maybe curate is a better word? In many ways, I’m more of a consumer of the web science writing, usually by checking links via twitter, and perusing the usual excellent suspects of science blogging (although I should note that I consider the writings of Maggie Koerth-Baker, Marie-Claire Shanahan and Alice Bell required reading, especially with the scientific method stuff in mind). Anyway, I don’t write as much as I would like: part of it is a time thing, but another part is that I secretly don’t have the confidence to self identify as a writer – still a muscle that needs some major practicing I think.

Yes, practice does makes perfect as they say. Although, if I may say, that’s probably a good reason to do more.

Yes, too true… And, ironically, I am working on a book right now, so there is that. Maybe you can read it when I’m finished and give me a quote or something.

Well, I can see what I can do.

Yeah, something like, “I enjoyed the book so much, that time just flew by – TIME JUST FLEW BY – get it?” And make sure you sign off with “Bora Zivkovic, Chronobiologist.” My agent would totally dig that.

Er, sure… Now onto the conference. What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you?

(O.K. being serious here) I think for me – and especially because my lab tackles so many divergent ways of science communication – ScienceOnline was just about the perfect place to survey and discover all of the many different ways you can talk about and interact with science culture. It was, frankly, awesome. Add to that, the idea that when all is said and done, everybody at the conference is working towards more or less the same thing – expanding the notions of science literacy, and sharing that knowledge with the world – plus the conference had a truly friendly vibe and a refreshing lack of egos. It is basically one of the best conferences I’ve been to, and the whole package definitely made for a very productive experience overall.

Any suggestions for next year?

YES! I think it would be great to somehow formalize and capture all of the great content that was being discussed. But more in a formal “this works as an excellent resource to be shared” way. And I say this as a potential moderator begrudgingly giving myself more work. Still, I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask moderators to contribute a proper write up after the session when all is said and done. It doesn’t seem like a bad trade for getting a guaranteed spot in the conference, and wouldn’t that collection of resources be something else?

O.K. Well, Dave, I think we’re about done here. Thanks for taking the time to do this, and hopefully, we’ll see you at the next conference. Any last words?

You know, it just occurred to me that I don’t actually know what the heck a chronobiologist is – does it have something to do with time travel?

I’ll explain it to you at the hotel bar in January, but you’ll have to get to that date the usual way, day by day…

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