Category Archives: SO’09

ScienceOnline interviews

I have not “cleaned up” my files here yet, so all the internal links point to the posts over on Scienceblogs.com. So I decided to put together links to all the Q&As I did with the participants of the ScienceOnline conferences so far. Many people who came once try to keep coming back again and again, each year. And next year, I guess I can start doing some “repeats” as people’s lives and careers change quite a lot over a period of 3-4 years. I should have thought of doing this in 2007! And there will be (hopefully) more 2010 interviews posted soon.

2011:

Taylor Dobbs
Holly Tucker
Jason Priem
David Wescott
Jennifer Rohn
Jessica McCann
Dave Mosher
Alice Bell
Robin Lloyd
Thomas Peterson
Pascale Lane
Holy Bik
Seth Mnookin
Bonnie Swoger
John Hawks
Kaitlin Thaney
Kari Wouk
Michael Barton
Richard Grant
Kiyomi Deards

2010:

Ken Liu
Maria Droujkova
Hope Leman
Tara Richerson
Carl Zimmer
Marie-Claire Shanahan
John Timmer
Dorothea Salo
Jeff Ives
Fabiana Kubke
Andrea Novicki
Andrew Thaler
Mark MacAllister
Andrew Farke
Robin Ann Smith
Christine Ottery
DeLene Beeland
Russ Williams
Patty Gainer
John McKay
Mary Jane Gore
Ivan Oransky
Diana Gitig
Dennis Meredith
Ed Yong
Misha Angrist
Jonathan Eisen
Christie Wilcox
Maria-Jose Vinas
Sabine Vollmer
Beth Beck
Ernie Hood
Carmen Drahl
Joanne Manaster
Elia Ben-Ari
Leah D. Gordon
Kerstin Hoppenhaus
Hilary Maybaum
Jelka Crnobrnja
Alex, Staten Island Academy student
Scott Huler
Tyler Dukes
Tom Linden
Jason Hoyt
Amy Freitag
Emily Fisher
Antony Williams
Sonia Stephens
Karyn Hede
Jack, Staten Island Academy student
Jeremy Yoder
Fenella Saunders
Cassie Rodenberg
Travis Saunders
Julie Kelsey
Beatrice Lugger
Eric Roston
Anne Frances Johnson
William Saleu
Stephanie Willen Brown
Helene Andrews-Polymenis
Jennifer Williams
Morgan Giddings
Anne Jefferson
Marla Broadfoot
Kelly Rae Chi
Princess Ojiaku
Steve Koch

2009:

Sol Lederman
Greg Laden
SciCurious
Peter Lipson
Glendon Mellow
Dr.SkySkull
Betul Kacar Arslan
Eva Amsen
GrrrlScientist
Miriam Goldstein
Katherine Haxton
Stephanie Zvan
Stacy Baker
Bob O’Hara
Djordje Jeremic
Erica Tsai
Elissa Hoffman
Henry Gee
Sam Dupuis
Russ Campbell
Danica Radovanovic
John Hogenesch
Bjoern Brembs
Erin Cline Davis
Carlos Hotta
Danielle Lee
Victor Henning
John Wilbanks
Kevin Emamy
Arikia Millikan
Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove
Blake Stacey
Daniel Brown
Christian Casper
Cameron Neylon

2008:

Karen James
James Hrynyshyn
Talia Page
Deepak Singh
Sheril Kirshenbaum
Graham Steel
Jennifer Ouelette
Anna Kushnir
Dave Munger
Vanessa Woods
Moshe Pritsker
Hemai Parthasarathy
Vedran Vucic
Patricia Campbell
Virginia Hughes
Brian Switek
Jennifer Jacquet
Bill Hooker
Gabrielle Lyon
Aaron Rowe
Christina Pikas
Tom Levenson
Liz Allen
Kevin Zelnio
Anne-Marie Hodge
John Dupuis
Ryan Somma
Janet Stemwedel
Shelley Batts
Tara Smith
Karl Leif Bates
Xan Gregg
Suzanne Franks
Rick MacPherson
Karen Ventii
Rose Reis
me
Elisabeth Montegna
Kendall Morgan
David Warlick
Jean-Claude Bradley

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Open Laboratory – old Prefaces and Introductions

One difference between reading Open Laboratory anthologies and reading the original posts included in them is that the printed versions are slightly edited and polished. Another difference is that the Prefaces and Introductions can be found only in the books. They have never been placed online.
But now that four books are out and we are halfway through collecting entries for the fifth one, when only the 2009 book is still selling, I think it is perfectly OK to place Prefaces and Introductions that I wrote myself online. I wrote Prefaces for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 book, as well as the Introduction for the 2006 one. The introductions for the subsequent editions were written by the year’s guest editor, i.e., Reed Cartwright in 2007, Jennifer Rohn in 2008, and SciCurious in 2009.
So, under the fold are my three Prefaces and one Introduction. See how the world (and my understanding of it) of the online science communication has changed over the last few years:

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On organizing and/or participating in a Conference in the age of Twitter

This is the first time ever that I cared about SXSW conference or was jealous for not being there. Watching the blogs and Twitter stream, it appears to have been better and more exciting than ever. I guess I’ll have to figure out a way to finally get myself there next year….
But this post is not really about SXSW. It is about presenting at such conferences. More specifically, how the back-channel (on Twitter and elsewhere) affects the way one needs to approach an invitation to speak at meetings where much of the audience is highly wired online: to say Yes or No to the invitation in the first place, and if Yes how to prepare and how to conduct oneself during the presentation.
A great example of this was the Future of Context panel at SXSW, with Jay Rosen, Matt Thompson and Tristan Harris, moderated by Staci Kramer.
After the meeting ended, Jay Rosen described in great detail all the things they did to prepare for the session and how that all worked – go and read: How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists. I will be sending the link to that post to all the speakers/panelists/presenters/moderators at ScienceOnline2011 once the program is set. That is definitely a post to bookmark and save if you are organizing a conference, or if you are ever invited to speak at one.
This includes people who tend to speak at conferences that are not filled to the brim with the Twitterati. Even at such conferences, a small but loud proportion of your audience WILL tweet. Be prepared! Even if you are speaking at the AAAS meeting.
There are other important things to think about – both for organizers and presenters.
First, public speaking is for some people the most terrifying thing they can ever be asked to do. But even those who are not completely terrified, may need some training in order to do well. Have new people be mentored by experienced speakers (I mentioned how we do that at ScienceOnline at the end of this post) by sharing the panel. As an organizer, work hard to help the new speakers to alleviate their fears, to make crystal-clear what is expected of them, to provide them support before, during and after their sessions.
Many organizers are hoping to increase diversity (of personal experiences and approaches, not just in terms of gender, race, age, ethnicity and such, though the diversity in the latter usually brings along the diversity in the former as well). They need to remember that announcing this intent is not enough. People who were not welcome at the table before have no reason to believe that they will be welcome now – so why bother. You have to do more – actively reach out and engage them. And, as your conference (like ScienceOnline) goes through years, if you are successful at bringing in the diverse groups to the table – they will notice. They will invite others to come next year. The meeting gains reputation, over the years, for being open and inclusive (nobody is a superstar and everybody is a superstar). Instead of being tokens, they become an integral part of the conference and help shape it. This takes work.
Second, the Back-channel should never become the Front-channel!!!! Never display tweets on the screen behind the speaker. Never. On the other hand, please make it easy for the speakers to monitor the Twitterverse on their own computer screens if they want to.
Third, if you are organizing a conference, think hard about the format. At a typical scientific conference, the speaker is a scientist who is presenting new data. The talk is likely to have a level of complexity (as well as an arrow of the narrative) that is not served well by constant interruption. In such cases, a traditional format, with a Q&A period (long enough!) at the end is just fine. TED and TEDx conferences are similar. Quick presentations, like Ignite or storytelling events are similar – the presentations are too short and too well-rehearsed to be able to withstand interruptions. But you have to have a Q&A at the end – it is irresponsible not to have it.
For example, many sessions at the AAAS meeting are three hours long! Including my session. And in each one of those that I attended, the moderator announced at the beginning that the Q&A will be at the end. Hmmm, how many people will still be in the room after 2 hours and 40 minutes? They will be either long gone, or brain-dead and eager to leave. So we tried to do the best we could with the format we had – we had 2-3 people ask questions after each one of our presentations (there were six of us at the panel) as well as at the very end. And you know what – at the end of the third hour, the room was still full and we were still getting more questions. Engaging the audience early on got them excited. They wanted to stay in the room and engage some more, 2-3 of them every 20 minutes or so, and several more at the end.
On the other end of the spectrum to the one-to-many lecture is a fully-fledged Unconference format. It is based on the insight that “The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.“. This, of course, depends on the topic, the speaker, and the audience.
As I explained at length in this post after ScienceOnline’09, and at even more length in this radio interview after ScienceOnline2010, our inaugural meeting in 2007 was a pure Unconference, but that we since decided to move to a hybrid format for a number of reasons I explained in both of these places.
Think, for example, of Workshops. We had a Blogging101 workshop at a different day, time and place in 07 and 08. We expanded the number of workshops in 2009 and had them as a part of the main program (just tagged as workshops), and then in 2010 we again moved them all to a different day, time and space to make it clear that these sessions are different – not Unconference-y in format, and for a good reason (we’ll do the same next year).
A Blogging101 workshop, for example, will have an experience blogger at the front. The audience will be full of people who have never blogged and want to learn how. The moderator is an expert, and acts as a teacher or trainer or ‘fount of wisdom’ to the audience who came to get exactly that – instruction. The audience expects to learn how to start a blog, how to post the first introductory post, how to make a link and insert a picture, how to build a blogroll and change the visual design of the blog from an existing set of choices. They also expect some sage advice on what is regarded as proper blogging behavior so they do not get instantly slammed when they enter the blogosphere for “doing it wrong”. The kinds of questions such an audience asks are going to be calls for help and clarification, perhaps for more information. They are unlikely to insert their own opinions and information, or to challenge the session leader. It is more of a classroom lecture (or lab) than a freewheeling discussion. Yet is has its own usefulness and should not be looked down upon because it is not in an Unconference format.
Actually, a Blogging102 workshop, where the audience already has some experience in blogging and is looking for tips and tricks for making their blogs better, looking better, and promoted better, there will be additional insights from the audience – which we saw at Scio10: that workshop was quite participatory and interactive.
Then, there are demos. A demo is just 12 minutes long with additional 3 minutes reserved for Q&A. The presenter is showing off his/her website or software or what-not to people who have not seen it before and would like to see how it works. Again, interruption of such a short and carefully prepared presentation would not be a good thing. If you have more to discuss – grab the presenter in the hallway afterwards. We are thinking of moving the Demos (both 12-minute presentations and potentially stations or booths) to a different day/time/space next year as well. Nothing wrong with that format, but it is not in an Unconference spirit.
Yet, the bulk of our conference is an Unconference. And we have seen that well-prepared presenters can turn even large 4-5 person panels into lively discussions off the bat. I have described one such 2009 panel in this post and there were several this year (most notably the Rebooting Science Journalism session). What we tell both moderators and participants is that the name of the session is not a title of a lecture but the topic of the conversation for that hour.
People who already have experience with the unconference format lead the way (we try to have such people lead the first morning sessions to set the tone for the rest of the event) and n00bs follow. Once everyone is in the swing of things and participating freely, it is easy to have a session be very informal. For example, last year Pete Binfield and Henry Gee started off their session with the question “Our topic is “A” – what do you want to talk about?”. And that worked brilliantly as people who decided to attend that particular session already had questions and comments prepared in their minds and were ready to start discussing the topic right from the start. Other sessions require more of an intro, and that is OK as well.
So, the bottom line is that there is a spectrum of potential formats and each format has its pros and cons. The duration (from 5 minutes to 3 hours and everything in-between) will dictate how participatory the session can be. The relative difference between the expertise of the people on stage and the people in the audience is also a factor – more even they are, more participatory the session should be. As an organizer, always strive to have the sessions as participatory as the format/topic/people allows it, not less. Having less will diminish the experience – it will be seen as preaching down and trust will be lost.
And keep the Back-channel in mind – people in the room are not the only people participating. Make sure that the people following on Twitter, or Ustream or SecondLife can participate to some extent as well – perhaps let the people/audience in the room (all of them or a few chosen individuals) be moderators of Twitter chatter, and ask the cameraman to introduce questions from the Ustream audience into the room. We did both at ScienceOnline2010 and the feedback from virtual audience was positive. We’ll try to do even better next year.

ScienceOnline09 – an interview with Cameron Neylon

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.
Today, I asked Cameron Neylon from the Science in the open blog to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?
CameronNeylon pic.jpgMy background is in protein chemistry and biochemistry. Broadly speaking what I do is take proteins and use chemical and genetic approaches to change their sequence or modify their characteristics and then use a range of techniques to see what has happened.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
The kid in the toyshop? Rich and famous? Actually no real idea and I’m not sure that it matters that much. The conclusion I’ve come to is that what I want to do is make some sort of difference by applying what I can do well and what I know in whatever the best place is. My background and knowledge is in the biological sciences so that seems a good start but the question is how to make the biggest difference. Over the years this has meant that I have moved from pure science to methods development to working in positions that support other people doing science to thinking about how to make the whole process of science and research work more effectively. To make a big difference doing the straight science you have to do the right thing at the right time – to affect a lot of people it has to be really earth shattering. But as what you do relates to more researchers or more people smaller differences can have bigger effects. If I could do something that improved the efficiency of all research by 0.001% that would be a huge contribution.
So when I grow up I want to be someone who made a difference.
What is your Real Life job?
I’m a senior scientist responsible for biological sciences at the ISIS Neutron Scattering Facility, which is run by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. We provide and large scale facilities for the UK research community. Neutron scattering has traditionally been used mainly in the chemical and physical sciences (particularly in areas of polymer and magnetic structure and magnetic and structural dynamics) but has a lot of potential in solving particular types of structural problems in the biological sciences. My job is an interesting combination of directly supporting users who visit to exploit our facilities, methods development to expand the range of problems we have the expertise to tackle, and public relations and promotion of neutrons to the bioscience community.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
The ability to have an ongoing and distributed conversation with smart people regardless of where they are. I believe strongly that we can use the web to find efficiency gains of much more than 0.001% in how we do research by finding the right people to solve the right problems, by distributing the load across geographically separated groups and working more collaboratively. On top of this I find the potential to explain more effectively what science is and what it can and can’t do to the wider community by directly involving them in the research process really exciting. While 2009 will rank as one of the most depressing years on record for public engagement with and understanding of science the potential to do a lot better – and to expand the kind of science we can do at the same time – is there for the taking.
When I look back at the last couple of years the amount of change in both the consumer web and the tools that are being specifically developed for researchers is massive. We’ve been through a big development of social networking sites for scientists which I personally believe haven’t been very successful, mainly losing out the mainstream equivalents, but we’re now seeing a second round of efforts that are learning from some of those mistakes and will be very interesting to watch. I still think there isn’t enough focus on actually solving problems that the majority of researchers know that they actually have – there is still too much building of things that would be cool if people used them, but not giving those people a reason to use them. But I think 2010 will be a very interesting year with lots of new technologies maturing and coming online.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?
Blogging and Friendfeed in particular are a crucial aspect of the work I do looking at online tools for researchers. That is where the community is and where the most up to the minute conversations are happening with the newest ideas. Twitter is important because so many people are on it, a critical demonstration that its often the community, and not the tool which is important. Tools like Slideshare and Wikis, GoogleDocs and other collaborative services are also important to this work because they really underpin the distributed collaborative approach we are trying to develop and exploit. I think Google Wave will gradually become an important part of this ecosystem over the next 12-18 months as the clients and servers bed down and the hype and backlash cycle dies down enough for people to figure out what tasks it is good for.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I wrote up how I came to get involved with the online blogging community a while back – http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/2008/08/22/how-i-got-into-open-science—a-tale-of-opportunism-and-serendipity/. In terms of the blogs on my blog roll there are many that will be familiar (Deepak Singh’s BBGM, Jean-Claude Bradley’s Usefulchem, John Wilbanks’ Common Knowledge, Neil Saunders’ What you’re doing is rather desperate). I keep an eye on Richard Grant (The Scientist), Jenny Rohn, and Martin Fenner at Nature Network. Some other blogs that may not be as familiar to the regular sciblogger community but are well worth the effort are Greg Wilson’s The Third Bit, Mike Ellis’ Electronic Museum, PT Sefton’s blog and Nico Adams’ Staudinger’s Semantic Molecules.
Blogs that I tracked down and got into my feed reader after last year included Christina’s LIS Rant (now at SciBlogs) and Katherine Haxton’s Endless Possibilities, as well as a wider selection of the more general science blogs, that are you know…actually about science rather than somewhat meta stuff that I do.
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?
What really struck me was both the diversity and the quality of presentations, discussions, and writing. Mostly it pushed me to up my game, which may be one of the reasons I’m posting less…
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.
Absolutely, I will be there…ah that would be like, this January…in about two weeks…woops!
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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

ScienceOnline’09 – interview with Christian Casper

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.
Today, I asked Christian Casper to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?
Christian Casper pic.jpgMy name is Christian Casper, and I recently finished a Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, in their program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, in which I focused on online scientific communication. Before that I did an M.A. in English at Eastern Michigan University, with a thesis on the 1996 Nobel lectures in chemistry (the buckyball folks: Smalley, Kroto, and Curl).
I’m also a “recovering chemist” — I did my undergrad at Iowa State University in chemistry, with a minor in biology, and I went to grad school in chemistry at the University of Michigan. I took my M.S. there when I decided that scientists and scientific communication were more interesting than atoms and molecules are!
I worked for a while as a technical writer at a small scientific-instrument company in Ann Arbor called Kaiser Optical Systems Inc. (KOSI for short) that developed components and eventually entire instruments for Raman spectroscopy. Although my primary duties at KOSI were to develop marketing and operations documentation, I also managed our applications laboratory, and I helped clients develop Raman-based applications for their research or their production facility or whatever they happened to be interested in. I enjoyed being able to still get my hands dirty, but I was really finding myself drawn to the study of language and rhetoric, so that’s when I decided to go back to grad school.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I’m not quite sure! I was on the academic job market this past year, and I got a good tenure-track job offer from the English department at a large research university in the Southeast, but my wife was also on the market and we couldn’t find positions together. She had been focused on post-secondary teaching for much longer than I had, so I yielded to her, and we happily moved back to Michigan, where she is now an assistant professor of biology at Eastern Michigan. I’m currently doing the final revisions on my dissertation (I successfully defended in July) and am looking for a position. If anyone out there needs someone with my skill set and is fine with my being in southeast Michigan, feel free to get in touch! I’m interested in consulting, communication, or development work for R&D organizations or higher education.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
In my doctoral work I was interested in how new forms of online communication might enact new genres and how they might alter the existing genre of the research article. I used my work primarily to answer some basic questions in what’s called rhetorical genre theory, particularly regarding the ways that different genres can work together, but I think that people in the sciences might get something out of it too, although that wasn’t my primary audience.
At the conference you led a session about Rhetoric in science, and this is also the topic of your research. How do you see the Web changing the language of scientific communication in both formal and informal venues?
It’s hard to predict too far in the future, but it does seem like we’re moving away from some of the more rigid, formal “rules” of scientific communication. This was happening before the Web really took off, of course. You see a lot more first-person and the active (as opposed to the passive) voice in the scientific literature even in, say, the 1980s than in the 1950s, and those old preferences for passive voice really seem to be disappearing now, except in some more
conservative quarters. Looking at the level of the entire publication unit, it seems like we’re moving toward publishing shorter reports in higher quantities, but obviously there are a lot of factors involved with that beyond just the publication medium — LPUs and things like that. I don’t think the research paper per se is going to go away anytime soon — there just isn’t any selection pressure in that direction — but there are going to be more ways to communicate informally across geographical separations. How exactly that plays out remains to be seen, especially in terms of professional rewards. That’s more of a sociological issue than a rhetorical one, however, so that’s getting out of my expertise!
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?
I haven’t done much with those, but I do think that if I were to push my dissertation work further I’d want to take those things into account. I think blogs are especially interesting, particularly as a bridge between the professional and public spheres. I’m also interested in seeing how ResearchBlogging.org evolves, because that’s another thing that alters the milieu, if you will, of the research article.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I actually discovered science blogs while trolling for research artifacts for a term paper in one of my doctoral seminars. This would have been in the spring of 2007. I did write a sort of speculative/theoretical paper that provided some of the basis for my later work.
As for favorites, I’m going to say that I enjoy most of the most popular ones, and I’ll name a couple that I think deserve maybe even a bit more attention than they seem to get. I like Tetrapod Zoology, by Darren Naish, very much. In fact, I think that’s the one that really first caught my eye, because it’s really sophisticated on the one hand, but at the same time it’s really accessible. I also really like Built on Facts, with Matt Springer. We need more blogs in the physical sciences, and I like that he doesn’t shy away from equations but that he also does a really nice job of explaining their significance and what they mean. I also like that ScienceBlogs is bringing in some librarians and folks like that as well. We have a really outstanding library staff at NC State, so I’m glad to see that profession get some recognition on ScienceBlogs.
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?
There’s been so much, but I think the session from ScienceOnline09 that has stuck with me is the one on image and sound in scientific publishing. I have some nascent research questions coalescing in that area! I also really enjoyed the one on science blogging and the history of science, but that’s because I personally am very interested in those “x of science” fields — history, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology, and so on.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.
I’m looking forward to making it back down to North Carolina for future conferences! I wish I could do it this year, but with my job situation up in the air I can’t really make the commitment. Hopefully Anne and I can make it back sooner rather than later! Thanks for all you do to make these excellent conferences happen.
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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

ScienceOnline’09 – interview with Daniel Brown

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.
Today, I asked Daniel Brown from the Biochemical Soul blog to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?
Me_lab_small.jpgMy name is Daniel Brown, and I am a biologoholic.
I grew up as a rat-tail-sporting, barefoot redneck running around the pine forests of Northeastern Texas (specifically in a tiny town called Hooks). My daily pre-teen life apart from school pretty much consisted of me looking for critters alone in the woods – often trekking great distances (for a little kid anyway) through forests and over farmlands, skirting diamondback rattlers, copperheads, and other rednecks. Times were different then, eh? One of my most vivid memories from my childhood was when I came upon a flooded area of “my woods” a week or two after a big storm. The entire forest floor was covered in a couple of inches of water, which was itself filled with gloopy, slimy bunches of frog eggs. Each gelatinous mass was about the size of a softball, and I distinctly remember just sitting their feeling the goo between my fingers as tiny tadpole tails swirled within each isolated egg. I was completely mesmerized. I’m almost certain that I was born a biologist – but that moment in the forest of frog embryos in particular pretty much sealed the deal for me.
I grew out of my redneckdom not long after, though I certainly retained my country boy attitude. Since those days in the Texas woods my biological interests have varied widely. I spent time in my undergrad training (at an amazing liberal arts college called “Hendrix College” in Arkansas) working in the field of ecology, radio-tracking timber rattlesnakes in the Ozark Mountains. In a slightly more sophisticated echo of my days playing with frog eggs, I moved to the University of North Carolina where I worked for many years trying to figure out how genes tell a growing frog embryo how to make a heart (my Ph.D. work). After getting my doctorate, I stayed in the field of developmental biology and spent a few years studying brain development in mice.
I have now gone one step deeper into the realm of biology, moving into the field so cool it gets its own nickname: “evodevo.” For the non-scientists out there, that’s “evolutionary developmental biology.” More on this below…
I am also a graphic artist (mostly digital these days) making both 2D still-lifes and 3D animations, and I’m an avid fossil collector.
Full disclosure: I was recently asked this exact same question by another blogger (The Reef Tank – not posted yet), so some of my above answer is a bit of self-plagiarism. Sue me.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I do not ever want to grow up. That is, I hope to remain the 8-year-old boy trapped in a man’s body that I am until the day I die. That being said, in a fantastical world in which I have become that which I’d most like to be, I would become a full-time biologist/geologist/professor/fossilhunter/novelist/artist/animator/photographer/blogger/sculptor/whittler/musician/gamer. The cruel voice of Real Life has informed me, however, that I am not nearly talented enough to pull off this dream profession. Thus, my more realistic aspiration is to continue what I’ve been doing, which is to be a scientist/professor during the day and after I’m done with the day-time money-making, pick a hobby in the evening, go at it full steam for 1 to 6 months until one of the others beckon more loudly, and then switch.
What is your Real Life job?
asterina.jpgTwo months ago, I began a new position as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Veronica Hinman in the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in the Arctic tundra Pittsburgh. In my current work, I study not only how genes control an organism’s development, but also how the genetic programs that control development (Gene Regulatory Networks) evolve at the molecular level (e.g. mutational changes in cis-regulatory elements). And not only do I get to work on such a fascinating subject, but I get to do so using those wacky, brainless creatures called “echinoderms” (e.g. starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers).
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
I am by far most interested in using the web, regardless of the specific medium, to disseminate and educate the general public on the awesomeness of nature and what we can learn about it through science. It sounds cheesy – but it’s something we all know is sorely lacking in America today. It’s sad when “the awesomeness of nature” seems like a laughable phrase. I find myself constantly dismayed by the lack of general fascination with the natural world among children and high school students. From my experience so far, my blogging has attracted a good number of students – but most of them arrive at my site because of some specific research they were doing. I definitely consider it a success if students end up coming to me to learn about specific topics. However, I (like most people/businesses on the web) would most like to discover ways to reach out and pull in people that would otherwise not seek out scientific knowledge. Which ties in with the next question…
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?
I find that blogging (and following blogs) figures prominently in my own thinking about my work. But beyond that I have yet to find (or rather, create) specific ties to my actual research. This is mostly because I only recently began my new research and have yet to blog about it (in fact I’ve been on quite a blogging hiatus since the summer because of the sheer magnitude of new information and techniques to learn).
However, I consider teaching and outreach to be an integral part of who I am and of my actual work. So in that sense, blogging has been the centerpiece of my attempts to reach out to the public and throw a little science at them.
I used Twitter a lot for a good while – both for discovery of interesting things and promotion of my own – but eventually I found the deluge of interesting information too overwhelming and time-consuming. More importantly for me, I found that my own tweets tended to be drowned out as well, with very few people discovering my posts.
I’ve now found that I’ve had by far the most success in reaching the general public through Facebook. My posts would generally be read by a core group of my own friends (most of which are not scientists), some of which would then repost, etc.
Unfortunately, Real Life has pretty much removed my ability to utilize fully any of the social networks for good science fascination dissemination.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?
I went through most of graduate school performing actual science while completely oblivious to the existence of science blogs or the science blogging community. I’m not quite sure how that happened.
Then one day I somehow stumbled across (who do you think?) PZ at Pharyngula. Suddenly I was like, “Oh! This exists! I should do this!” Trust me – the exclamation marks were all there. I started blogging near-instantly. I had been putting together dumb little sites with my own rants and thoughts since about 1998, none of which was ever really seen by anyone. The discovery of science blogging really allowed me to find a central way to focus my thoughts and my intentions. By far my favorite blogs are the one you’re reading, Southern Fried Science, Deep-Sea News, The Oyster’s Garter, Cephalopodcast, Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets, The Echinoblog, Observations of a Nerd, and Oh, For the Love of Science!.
This of course perfectly leads into the next question, because…
Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
…I’ve left a bit of the story out. You see, after I discovered science blogs and started blogging, it was only a few months later that I discovered this thing called ScienceOnline09 – and it was being held only 1 mile from my workplace (the NIEHS). It was there that I met the squid-hatted Andrew, crab-hatted Kevin, and merry-making Miriam (and of course Bora!) of four of the aforementioned blogs. Merely meeting all the science bloggers present made me realize “Wow – there’s even more to this thing than I thought. My blog is crap. I gotta fix that. I need to become more of a part of this community.” Reading their blogs over the coming months also aroused my interest in marine biology and at least set me on the path to my current research in echinoderm evodevo. Thus, the contingent nature of life, much like that of evolutionary history, means that my attendance at ScienceOnline09 had a direct causative influence on me sitting in this lab right now surrounded by tubes of starfish DNA.
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?
I haven’t read everyone else’s interviews, but I can only assume that many have said the same thing – Miss Baker’s biology class and how she used blogging and the internet inside and outside the classroom completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of the Web as a teaching tool. I have no doubt that I will be using some sort of blogging/network medium as a supplement to my future courses.
It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.
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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

ScienceOnline’09 – interview with Blake Stacey

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.
Today, I asked my Scibling, Blake Stacey from the Science After Sunclipse blog to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? For example, what is your Real Life job?
Nominally, I do “complex systems modeling and analysis”, but the projects I work on are hush-hush. It’s all very need-to-know. I could figure out what I’m doing, but then I’d have to kill myself.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
A hammy Shakespearean over-actor. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, and who would have thought the old man to’ve had so much blood in him?
I see from your blog that you wrote a science-fiction novel. What’s that about?
BlakeStacey pic.jpgUntil Earthset is a tale of forbidden love, murder most foul and artificial intelligence, all set in an alternate 1968. Why I wrote it — well, the compulsion to invent imaginary people and make them suffer is probably just one of those delightful spandrels we’ve inherited, a side effect of our brains thinking in narrative terms. After the fact, I was able to invent several justifications for my hobby. For example, we keep having arguments on the Blogohedron about the relationship between science and art, about how scientific accuracy works in fiction and all that, and it’s nice to have a little practical experience in the matter. To a stuffy audience, I could sell my novel as a 130,000-word thesis on The Two Cultures Question (TM), but really, it’s a murder mystery with robots.
Do you think science fiction has an obligation to be scientifically accurate?
Well, let’s break that down a bit. “Science” is (a) a community of people using (b) a set of methods and tools to build (c) a body of knowledge which sometimes (d) gets applied to make technology. If the characters in your story investigate something wholly fictitious, like an alien monolith, using the practices which real scientists would actually employ, are you being “accurate”? Even stories not expressly written to be didactic build up our mental image of the world. Now, you could try to use fiction in an “educational” way to convey the facts of science, to transmit the data about our discoveries, but you can also use it to illuminate the methods of the trade and the social mores of the profession. Think of a novel like Contact — or, to pick an extreme example, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The scientific knowledge base of the story is fanciful, but the travails of the characters do call to mind issues about science as a profession, such as the ways people (and women in particular) have had to balance career and family. Art is generally better at raising questions than providing answers. If you’re looking for hard data in fiction, if you want to find the blueprint for a perfect society in a made-up story, well, peace be with you in your quest. But that’s only half the picture. In the age of Open Access and Google Scholar, we can dig up any particular datum we need, if we know how to look; the challenge is having a clue on how to start, and knowing how to handle what we bring back. The former requires an understanding of the broad strokes of scientific knowledge, and the latter depends on good critical thinking skills. A science education has to teach both, to have any worth at all, and science fiction can help us explore science-as-method even though we’ve yet to dig up that monolith in Tycho crater.
At ScienceOline’09, Henry Gee argued that creating science fiction requires the same kind of imagination as doing science, because both start with inventing hypotheses about the world and then exploring what they would entail.
Yes, I’d say there’s a great deal of truth in that. In science, hypotheses survive when they mesh well with the data, whereas in SF, the conjectures which endure are the ones which make for good stories. (Our understanding of the strong nuclear force has advanced quite a bit since 1972, but Asimov’s The Gods Themselves hardly suffers for having arrived before quantum chromodynamics!) There’s this notion afoot that if a scientist doesn’t like a movie which has some science-talk in it, this has to be because the science was bad! This is rather like saying the only reason a plumber can dislike a movie is because it doesn’t show anybody using the bathroom. Now, I don’t want to make a blanket statement here, but I do know a few science people, and from what I’ve seen, they’re plenty willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a story — except when the story itself isn’t good enough to suspend disbelief for!
With one book down, where will you go next?
I’m taking a stab at mathematics education, partly spurred by my own unhappy memories of high-school mathematics classes, which in retrospect turned out to be four years of almost wholly wasted time. Coming from someone who went on to get a physics degree, that’s pretty harsh! I happily deal with abstruse mathematics every working day, but you couldn’t pay me to sit through Pre-Calculus again, so something must be off here.
And you’ll be speaking on mathematics education at ScienceOnline’10?
With Maria Droujkova, yes. For all I know, we’ll be demonstrating our spiffy computer graphics to an empty room, because we’ll be scheduled at the same time as some “civility in communication” session, to which everybody will go so they can argue at each other about how best to be a nice person.
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?
Finally meeting Brian Switek of Laelaps and Dr. SkySkull of Skulls in the Stars was fun, because we share enthusiasms even though we work in different fields — Brian and I have gotten righteously steamed over “textbook cardboard”, for example, which he finds in palaeontology and I in physics. But you asked if anything changed my views, which isn’t the same as reaffirming them. That’s more difficult to say. I can tell you, though, that meeting Stacy Baker’s high-school students was a blast: I skipped out on the sessions of the last day to chat with them instead. They provided the questions, I tried to bring the answers. If anything at the conference changed the way I think about the biz, it was that conversation. When you meet the people who are poised to benefit the most from good science communication, the quarrels you used to have on the Blogohedron look downright silly.
It was so nice to finally meet you and thank you for the interview. I am looking forward to seeing you again next January.
Likewise. Thank you very much for the opportunity to ramble.
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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.