ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Chris Gunter

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 Chris Gunter.

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?

Thanks for having me visit! I have a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in genetics (so as I tell my Lilkid, I went through like 27th grade). Geographically, I am from Georgia and have lived all over, most recently in Huntsville, Alabama. As of January 2013, I’m back in Atlanta.

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

About halfway through my postdoc, I decided to go into professional science editing, so I worked at the journals Human Molecular Genetics and Science, and then spent almost 7 years as the editor for genetics papers in Nature. As I said in the story I told for The Monti at ScienceOnline2012 [and then wrote up for The Story Collider], that job is like riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, all the time.

For the last four years, I served as the Director of Research Affairs for a new institute called the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. I wore many hats but several involve communicating our science to the public, from colleagues doing hardcore lab work through to politicians and local disease support groups. It was always a challenge to take the same paper we had coming out in Nature, for example, and summarize it for geneticists and for our donors who are not scientists.

On the side, I started a business I called Girlscientist Consulting in 2010, and for that I do science writing and editing for a number of academics and companies. I’ve also created and populated some twitter accounts, and advised on social media strategy.

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

Right now, I am trying to create a new career in scientific outreach and communication. At the end of 2012, I moved to Atlanta to live near family, and am going to take a giant leap into the unknown, career-wise! I aim to pursue a number of projects in science communication and outreach. On my better days, I think of it like declaring free agency; on my worse days, I think of it as a trip to the poorhouse (but a fun trip!). There are some books in my head that want to be written, and a bunch of interesting collaborations in genetics and genomics.

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

There are so many, but I will pick one:  earlier in 2012, a new colleague Anne Osterrieder and I published a commentary in the journal Genome Biology. We proposed that all scientific papers should have an additional, short section in the back called “outreach” or “outreach resources.” The section would list 2-4 links to media that can help the non-scientist or even the non-specialist understand the advances reported in that paper. For example, we created a section for a paper on long noncoding RNAs by linking first to a game at CSHL on understanding transcription, and then to a video explaining transcription and splicing, and then to a blog post on noncoding RNA.

Right now I am talking with a few journals/publishers to get this section actually implemented. The benefits are huge:  scientists simply must do a better job of conveying their work to people outside their micro-field of specialty, and science communicators can be inspired to create even more high-quality resources which will be linked to and used. Winning all around!

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 am lucky enough to be an editor on the Double X Science website, which lets me hang out with some of the coolest kids in science blogging. This came about through me meeting the awesome Emily Willingham and Jeanne Garbarino at Scio12! Blogging does not come naturally yet but they are kind enough to let me keep working on it.

My medium of choice is Twitter, and I’ve tried to get more and more working geneticists/genomicists to use the service. A recent success was the 6000+-person American Society of Human Genetics meeting in November 2012. I was asked by the chair of the program committee to stand up with him at the closing session and summarize the meeting based on what people were tweeting with the hashtag #ASHG2012. Given that I’ve experienced much scorn from hard-core scientists about the usefulness of Twitter in academia, I view this as a victory for social media!

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

Of course, Double X Science is awesome.

This year, I asked to write for Nature’s Soapbox Science section – Laura Wheeler and Lou Woodley, the ladies who run it, are excellent and the site has so many good resource posts.

I greatly admire the crew at Last Word on Nothing, and got to meet some of them at Scio12. And I got to share real North Carolina barbeque with Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, both of which I follow even if they sometimes raise my blood pressure.

In my subject area, the people at Genomes Unzipped are great, even if we don’t agree on everything. If you’re interested in the intersection of genetics/genomics and the law, Genomics Law Report is the place. And the site GenomeWeb has a Daily Scan blog full of insider tidbits as well as snark. The titles make me laugh regularly.

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?

You know, being an editor at Nature means you go to a LOT of meetings. In my field there’s also a hierarchy of who’s publishing at the very top tiers, and who is not at the moment, and yada yada. The spectacularly awesome thing about ScienceOnline2012 was that it was so not like that. I met so many cool people whom I had read on Twitter and in blogs, and they were friendly and approachable. I was Scared. Out. Of. My. Mind. to be trying something new at The Monti’s storytelling night, and people were supportive before, during, and even after. That feeling of community has lasted and helped me make the career decision to move into science communication rather than traditional academia.




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