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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Simon Frantz

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 Simon Frantz.

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 was born and grew up in a part of NW London best known for being the setting in Zadie Smith’s novels. No one in my family did anything in the sciences, but I was fortunate to grow up when series like Life on Earth and Cosmos first appeared on our TV screens. I had no idea that I was part of a privileged first generation that had the whole world and universe as our home, but it had an indelible effect on me.

I earned a degree in biochemistry, then spent around seven years in the lab researching the genetics of cardiovascular diseases. I won’t admit how long ago that was, but let’s just say I know how to do Maxam-Gilbert DNA sequencing.

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

For several reasons, I realised that academia wasn’t the life for me. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, effectively I gave a year’s notice by choosing to work on a one-year grant instead of the three-year one that I was the named researcher on. I pretty much stumbled from there into journalism. I’d be lying if I said I always thought I had a talent for it, or wrote for the university magazine in my spare time, or enjoyed writing papers. A friend of a friend was starting up the UK version of WebMD, and wanted to hire someone with a science background who was willing to start at the bottom. Fortunately for me, this person hired a great team of experienced journalists and he was a great editor and teacher, kind and patient but ruthless with the red pen. I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience.

Sadly, this didn’t last long. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, we all found ourselves out of a job. I ended up at Nature Publishing Group as a sub-editor for Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, and a chance conversation with the editor of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery led to a move to launch their news section, which I ran for over 5 years. After that, I worked as web editor of The Scientist, and then as an editor on the Nobel Prize website, before landing at my current job as deputy editor of BBC Future, the science and technology website on BBC Worldwide that launched last February.

I’d love to say there’s been a master strategy behind my career trajectory, but the truth is that by and large it’s been a series of happy accidents. All I can advise is: make your own luck, work your butt off; work with people you admire and who are better than you; constantly challenge yourself; realise that your last piece is not going to write the next one for you, as John McPhee said, and that no one owes you anything, no matter how long you have been in this game.

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

BBC Future is taking up all of my time at the moment, but thankfully it’s a hugely enjoyable way to spend my time.

We launched the site in response to audience feedback; people said they wanted science and technology content that took a deeper dive at subjects that weren’t in the news, and they wanted it done in a “BBC way”. Almost everything we’ve seen within our first year suggests that there is an active appetite for this type of content. So, our current goals are to create more, and more varied, content that satisfies this appetite – for instance, we’re just launched a video series made by BBC Earth, and we have more video series in the pipeline.

What makes this such a joy is having a roster of great writers, including many past and present Science Onliners like Emily Anthes, Sam Arbesman, Cathy Clabby, Rose Eveleth, Jason Goldman, Maria Konnikova, Christopher Mims, Kelly Oakes, Jennifer Ouellette and Ed Yong. Another goal is to add more Science Onliners to this list.

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

Almost everything that’s going on is interesting – we’re in this amazing, if somewhat unsettling, time in which there’s never been a better moment to experiment. There are two particular areas of interest that relate to what were trying to do at BBC Future. One is explanatory journalism. We have writers like Ed Yong, Claudia Hammond and Tom Stafford writing great articles that explain and add context to scientific and medical topics. The next step for us is to find ways of covering more areas, cover them in different and compelling ways, and get more writers to try their hand at this form of journalism.

The second aspect is the growing popularity of longform content online. I’m not keen on the phrase “longform”, and there’s no general agreement as to its definition, other than “content that isn’t short”. Definition aside, it’s great to see the adage that shorter is better online being confounded. Apps like Instapaper and Pocket have made it easier for people to find and save articles, and websites like Longform.org, Byliner and Electric Typewriter are great repositories for classic and new articles. IMHO, The Atavist stands head and shoulders above the general longform pack in terms of the quality and sheer inventiveness of what they’re producing (if you haven’t read David Dobbs’s and Deborah Blum’s articles, I urge you to do so).

I think that this format is tailor-made for science and tech stories – from an editorial perspective I think there is fertile ground for articles that are longer than Nature/SciAm/etc features but shorter than a popular science book. (I think several popsci books would be better served in a 20-30k-word feature format, but that’s another argument.) I still have some reservations about sustainable business models for longform content in specialised areas, but it’s great to see people behind projects like Matter and Aeon experimenting with this genre and creating fantastic stories in the process – Ross Anderson’s article on bristlecone pines and Cynthia Graber’s profile of a modern-day Frankenstein being just two examples of must-read articles. We’re exploring this area in a somewhat more traditional way; for instance, we’ve just published an account of three science writers who became biohackers. We are keen to do more of this, and if possible help to promote other outlets that want to publish similar content.

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?

I discovered health blogs first, while I was at Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. Derek Lowe’s blog In The Pipeline was the one that first caught my eye, it still remains an exemplar of what a blog can be: insightful, opinionated and witty. Science blogs appeared on my radar later, around the time that Seed launched its blogs. My list of favourites are far too numerous to name, many of which I learned about at Science Online, but that only highlights how much the area has evolved. Five years ago, my RSS feed was filled mainly with news channels. Now it’s filled with blogs.

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?

We don’t publish blogs at the moment, though you could argue that our columns are a form of blog – the writer’s voice is as important to us as what they choose to write about. My opinion on who should write for us is anyone who cares about a subject and wants to tell the story in the most compelling way – be they a BBC stalwart for decades or a person just entering the world of blogging. So awareness of all the great blogs out there is an important part of my job, as are networks like Twitter and Facebook. When you aren’t part of the news cycle, social recommendation becomes important in terms of raising awareness of your content.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for the 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 evening before the conference began summed up everything that I value about the conference. The hotel bar was full of people meeting and laughing: whether it was old friends and colleagues, online friends or people meeting for the first time. There were no name badges and therefore no hierarchies; experienced heads were talking to any newbies who were willing to introduce themselves.

I’ve been to two Science Onlines and the overwhelming feeling I’ve had from both is how much I have to learn. I love the idea that I can sit next to someone on the bus, or stand next to them in the queue, and they can blow my mind about their research, or make me intensely jealous about their site, or even help me control my email inbox better (thank you Walter Jessen!). And I love the spirit in which this is done, we all want to do what we do better, and people discuss this without any airs or graces, irrespective of their level of experience.

The other aspect I appreciated most is the effort that you, Anton, Karyn and everyone else put in to make sure that every detail is covered, from the wi-fi to the quality of the coffee in the mornings. On these details, great conferences and experiences are made.

Thank you so much…and see you tomorrow!

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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Anthony Salvagno

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 Anthony Salvagno.

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?

My name is Anthony Salvagno (@thescienceofant) and I am a biophysics PhD student at the University of New Mexico. I was born and raised in New York and attended SUNY Albany for my undergrad where I received a BS in mathematics and a BS in physics. Originally I intended to do astronomy research, but after an internship at the Arecibo Obsedrvatory, I changed my career path and became deeply interested in biology.

Now I am an open notebook scientist, which means that I publish and share all of my research openly in real-time. I’ve been pursuing open notebook science for the past 4 years and have a wealth of knowledge to share. I’m always looking for others who share their science, and am always willing to talk to peers who want to share but aren’t sure how. If you fall into either category or just want to have a conversation feel free to contact me!

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

My research is comprised of two completely different topics that are enveloped by my open notebook. The first project is called Shotgun DNA Mapping. Essentially, I can unzip DNA using a microscope objective and a high-powered laser (optical tweezers). Our lab has an algorithm that allows us to simulate this mechanism, and we can then compare our actual results to a library of simulated results. We are testing this with the yeast genome, but hope to one day expand it to the human genome.

I also study how heavy water affects living organisms. Back in the early 1930’s Dr. Gilbert Lewis first purified heavy water (D2O) from naturally occurring water. He then tested how tobacco seeds would grow in 99% D2O. This launched a series of experiments by a lot of scientists studying how heavy water affects various organisms. The research trail ends around 1969, with a lot of questions left unanswered. My research picks up where these studies left off and I extend them by using deuterium depleted water. I’m asking if life evolved a use for D2O since it occurs naturally in drinking water at very low concentrations.

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

I have too many passions to deal with! It’s almost spring time so that means it’s time to start my vegetable garden real soon. Food is a passion of mine and my brother and I are hoping to open a food truck in Albuquerque in Fall 2013. There is a lot to learn about the food industry, food trucks, and business management and I’m learning all I can.

I also enjoy graphic design and do random odd jobs every now and then. I specialize in designing creative business cards and invitations. I also have dabbled in logo design and like to think I’m proficient in brand management. I’m working on a couple of graphic novels when I have time (still in the writing phase), and I’m also working on a story-time style book for adults.

As an extension of graphic design, I love

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Sean Ekins

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 Sean Ekins. Sean Ekins is a scientist who works from Collaborations in Chemistry as well as blogs and tweets  as CollabChem. He works collaboratively with other scientists all over the world on drug discovery, computational approaches for toxicology, tools for collaboration, mobile apps for science (Green Solvents, Open Drug Discovery Teams, TB Mobile). He is adjunct faculty at 3 US universities (UNC Chapel Hill, University of Maryland and UMDNJ) and on the board of several companies and organizations such as the Pistoia Alliance. He is currently focused on neglected disease research as well as how we can do drug discovery for rare diseases openly. He is technology focused and spends most of his time writing and occasionally winning SBIR and STTR grants so that groups he works with can develop their ideas further. He appreciates a good beer with his friends and reading to his two young children.

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 was born in Cleethorpes and lived nearby in Grimsby (an industrial area which is like Elizabeth, NJ..but on the east coast of the UK) until I was 18. I got interested in Biology because my uncle had left some of his high school books (when he went off to medical School) at my grandparents and I liked flipping though them. Ultimately I would study from a later edition of the very same book I read as a small child. I always remembered the picture of Crick and Watson for some reason. So I wanted to be a doctor but that was nipped in the bud. I managed to fail most of my exams (except biology) and just scrape into Nottingham Trent Polytechnic.

I then did a HND in Applied Biology and had a year in industry working at Servier (a French Pharmaceutical Company with an R&D site near Windsor) that really put me back on track. After this I went to the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) to do a masters in Clinical Pharmacology then stayed there to do a PhD. So I became a different kind of doctor. By this point I was interested in Drug Metabolism and different models for understanding how drugs behaved or interacted with each other and I was aiming for a career in the Pharmaceutical industry. In the early 90s the industry started to decline and constricted dramatically in the UK so I thought I better go to the US and do a postdoc. I landed in Indianapolis in 1996 to work at Eli Lilly and that really started me off again, kind of rebirth.

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

So once in the USA I started doing similar work at Lilly as I had in Aberdeen, but focused on one enzyme (CYP2B6) involved in drug metabolism. This was the runt of the litter basically that no one was interested in much. Well that gave me a bit of flexibility and I started to dabble in computational software for understanding which molecules might bind to my enzyme. I basically started a new career doing computational drug metabolism or chemistry. I was having fun and realized I could do the same work with every enzyme my colleagues were working on. It was a kind of crazy time, by day I was at the bench and by night working on the computer. So in the days before a centralized database, I pulled the data they produced off the pinboard (it was all on a single sheet of paper), and used it to model every enzyme the group worked on.

I then left to work at Pfizer with my own group working on drug-drug interaction prediction while also keeping up on the computational side. Lilly then quickly hired me back to head a new group on computational ADME/Tox. Basically doing what I did as a postdoc but now the datasets were getting bigger as they started high throughput screening for lots of toxicology and metabolism related properties. I was now 100% an in silico scientist (using a computer for doing all my science) by 1999. I also started some collaborations with academics at this time which enabled me to publish research outside of the proprietary work at Lilly, this has been a continual thread to the present, each year adding more collaborators.

My next step was to join a start up in late 2001 that was using primarily computational tools to do drug discovery. I stayed with them until 2004 then joined a software company (eventually sold to Thomson Reuters in 2010) developing tools for systems biology (essentially connecting the dots between all the biology data being collected and superimposing all the genomics and proteomics data). I now focused more on integrating my models for drug-drug interactions into these tools and working on grants.

This was when I started to work from a home office which I have been doing ever since. By 2004 I had built up a nice range of publications on predicting drug interactions so I was able to obtain my DSc (science) from the University of Aberdeen in 2005. My next change of focus was getting the chance to edit a book for Wiley on Computational Applications for Pharmaceutical research and development at around the same time. This opened the door to edit a series (10 books to date) for them and coauthor 3 more books on computational aspects of toxicology, emerging technologies and collaborations.

From 2006-2008 I worked for small companies and startups getting grants and contracts working on drug discovery and pharmacoeconomics. Then my old computational chemistry mentor from Lilly recommended me to a software company in San Francisco developing a collaborative database for scientists. I have worked for them on neglected disease (Tuberculosis and malaria) work since then 3 days a week, leaving some time to carry on my academic collaborations and other consulting.

I am fortunate in that my work week rarely gets stale. I get to work on an amazing range of projects like understanding the evolution of nuclear receptors across different species from looking at the profile of bile salts that bind to them and modeling it in silico. Another day I might be building a model for a human drug transporter and predicting which other drugs may be substrates or inhibitors. I might be predicting which molecules from a drug company might interact with an ion channel called hERG, to help predict likely cardiotoxicity (something that goes back to my work at Lilly).  I might also be searching through FDA approved drugs to see if I can find new uses for them against a rare disease, or thinking of a dataset we could use as the basis of a new scientific mobile app. And that is just the 2 days of the week I set aside!

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

Most of my time has been focused on demonstrating we can use the masses of data accumulated on compounds screened against Mycobacterium tuberculosis to build models that in turn can be used to suggest molecules to test. In this way we can dramatically focus on testing fewer compounds. All of this data is publically accessible. I would also argue that this approach can be extrapolated to other research areas. We are accumulating data but not learning from it fast enough to design the next experiment. When I am not doing this I am increasingly concerned about data quality and some of the things we take for granted like – why would the NIH release a database with significant errors, or a list of potential drugs without structures ? I spend about 50% or more of my time either writing papers to get my observations out there or writing grants for companies or with academics. I rarely write anything on my own so it is all collaborative.

It is difficult to predict exactly what I will work on from one year to the next – I try to move out of areas and jump into new ones because I find a project or collaborator doing something interesting which I think I can contribute too. What I find is this comes at the cost of starting from scratch, establishing your credibility with a whole new set of reviewers etc. It does not matter how many papers you have, how many citations or whatever your h-index is, because as soon as you work on something you have never published on before (e.g. green chemistry or whatever) or try to submit to a new journal I have found I spend a lot of time on these kind of transitional papers. Once you get accepted it’s a lot easier.

I like getting into new areas because you see things that are not obvious to those that focus on it for years. E.g. the green solvents app came out of me going by chance to a green chemistry conference and randomly picking a talk to listen to on green solvents. A group had worked on collating data for 2 years across pharma and then just hid it in a PDF. Being totally naïve to the topic I asked if there was an app with all the data and tweeted the idea. Alex Clark in Montreal responded and then had the app built in a few days and on the app store. It took nearly  a year though, to get a paper written and accepted on the topic because we faced an uphill battle with established scientists not understanding the value.

So I would say that is my passion going into new areas, establishing myself and publishing and learning a lot in a short time. I am in a race against time and I feel that even more acutely in the work on rare diseases because there are ~7000 of them and few have treatments, let alone cures. I know about so few and 7000 represents a Mount Everest of sorts. I met a parent of a child with a rapidly progressive neurological disease and that really gave me pause to think how we could help using all the tools I had worked on over the years, how could we speed up and disrupt pharmaceutical R&D – really that means just accelerate it beyond the way it has progressed for the past 50 years. Again it’s another case of adapting to change and some squeaky upstart saying lets try it this way. The great thing about each rare disease is the parents of children or the patients likely vastly outnumber the researchers so the balance of power is in their hands, they raise money and fund researchers to do what they need etc.

So my goal is to do science to help these people as much as I can while at the same time putting as much of what I do back into circulation through free apps or open papers etc..my goal for 2013 is put every paper I author primarily into open journals.

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

I like the speed of putting ideas out there immediately on the web compared with the process of write a paper, get it reviewed and maybe many months later see it in print. I also like the ability to give a talk or poster and put my slides on slideshare, figshare etc so anyone can find them.

I am fascinated by the creative part of science. I have rarely had the vision (or aha moment) of the final paper idea before doing the research that led to it. But I can see how using the web and other tools may speed up the science to the point where the write up has to be automated or sped up too.  What tools could help with ideation? I do all my science on a computer,  all my papers are written on a computer..why not have all my ideas provided by it too.  Writing on a beermat or back of a napkin is one thing but is the iPad a good substitute? I have blogged by phone (painful), by iPad in a moving car (very slow) so I cannot see it as actually being ‘science communication anytime by any device’. A stationary position helps and some paper to draft ideas is handy. I say that as I stand typing this on a laptop surrounded by piles of papers and notes.

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 blog frequently about anything I see scientifically, perhaps the science I or others publish. I have an interest in collaborative elements and that may be what sets my topics apart, the collaborative angle.

I have found that I do get a sense of instant gratification from blogging by putting what I am thinking (for good or bad) out there on the web. My blogs have started collaborations, they have led to numerous papers. I even had a person quite high up at the NIH, send a rant by email to me and about 70 other scientists after one of my blogs caught their attention. It would have been better if they had posted it on my blog because the whole world could see what they were thinking too rather than just a select audience.  I have also had other experienced scientists support my views on my blog.

I tweet (I was slow to come to it) more at conferences which I in turn use for ideation and as a persistent memory device. For me it is just an extension of technology development and the marketing ideas as I tweet a link to blogs, slides, posters, papers etc… I have websites, linkedin etc which help bring in business but my science collaborations happen primarily through who I know, their connections and personal interactions. I have found that email blasts and blogs and tweets occasionally bring in collaborations too. The web represents another tool for reaching people as far as I see it. I do not live in it. I live with it.

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?

I had been reading my friend Antony Williams blog as ‘ChemConnector’ for a long time.  A few years ago my wife pointed me to ‘In the Pipeline’ and I like that a lot because of the topics relevant to pharma, the comments are usually funny too. Since ScienceOnline I have been following lots of attendees and they point to good blogs so my eyes have been opened. I have to ration my time using Twitter and Flipboard, but I would point to David Kroll who writes very clearly.

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 sessions on ‘information overload’ and ‘open science’ were highlights for me. The former made me think up an app that would bring all the information from the web and Twitter together. I got chance to work with Alex Clark again on this and we launched it early in 2012 called Open Drug Discovery Teams (a flipboard for science). We focused it on rare disease topics so we could help people share ideas, molecules and data and it inspired an IndieGoGo fundraising effort, numerous posters, a paper, a Youtube video etc..I think it’s still taking off and has potential to be developed for other uses. Over the year I have tweeted molecules and data into it so I can see the potential. If I had not attended the conference I doubt the app would have been developed. I would be keen to see what ideas people come up with that relate directly to the conference – perhaps it could expand my theory that conferences now are useful idea generators as much as for social networking.

The standard of the other blogs from the community have made me step up the quality of what I put out, I still have a way to go but if what I write gets someone in the mood to try some computational tools or connect to collaborate, I will have achieved something. So if there are folks at the next meeting who need a guest blogger or someone to throw their data at to model, then please get in touch. If you have ideas to improve what I put out I want to hear that too.

Antony Williams made me realize that blogging and everything we put on the web is as important as all the papers and patents because this can be used for altmetrics too. Being at ScienceOnline2012 made me realize that there were hundreds of other scientists on the same wavelength. Science communication is important and there are many ways to do it, even Twitter is useful as a tool for science.

 

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with William Gunn

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 William Gunn.

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 William Gunn, better known as @mrgunn around these parts. I should probably change that to @drgunn at some point as I did complete my PhD in Biomedical Science some time ago. Right now, I live in Menlo Park, right in the middle of Silicon Valley, and it’s great being surrounded by nerds and geeks of all types. It’s quite a change from the small town in Mississippi where I grew up!

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

Your readers may be interested in hearing why and how I decided to leave academia. When I was in grad school, I didn’t get career advice so much as I got advice on how to be a successful researcher – diversify your projects, how to write papers and grants, etc. It took me a little while to realize that my best prospects lay elsewhere, and my early exposure to the web and science blogging was the main thing that helped me broaden my horizons. I was drawn to the sense of innovation and excitement of the startup world, so after completing my PhD, I worked for a small diagnostics startup in San Diego. They’re using some neat technology and have the potential to do for all clinical assays what 23andMe has done for genomics. I established the biology program these and then as the technology matured, the skills they needed changed, and the work became less interesting to me, so I moved from the biotech to a tech company, although one still very much involved in research. I’m now working at Mendeley in a role that has a great deal to do with science communication.

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

One of my main interests these days is altmetrics. I’m really fascinated with how the web is enabling new ways of publishing, and altmetrics is the study of how these new forms are impacting science. These are things like datasets, code, blog posts, and other scholarly outputs in addition to traditional papers and the metrics that describe their use, attention, and reuse. I’m working on finding some case studies that illustrate the different kinds of influences scientists receive and the broadening influence they have in society and on the web.

Another big passion of mine is research reproducibility. I’m working on an initiative with Science Exchange, a scientific services marketplace, to study the reproducibility of published biomedical research. We’ve joined with PLOS on this initiative to understand reproducibility and to promote good practices. I’m also an organizer of a few local events such as Science Online Bay Area, which is our little monthly discussion salon satellite of the yearly Science Online meeting, and Open Data Bay Area, where the open data community gets together to talk about data sharing, analysis, and reuse. Of course, I’m a big advocate for public access to federally-funded research and I spend some time writing and speaking on that topic as well.

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

I’ve always been interested in the way the web makes it easy for people to get together around a topic with relatively little of the posturing and hierarchical organization that characterizes our offline interactions. Being able to geek out about an interest, no matter how obscure, with a group of people who are as into it as you are is really what drew me in, even in the days of USENET, back before we had the web as we know it today. So just being able to write about personal genomics or text-mining Pubmed or whatever and have it read by thousands of people all over the world is really what I think is so amazing about the web as a communication medium.

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?

Blogging figures heavily in my work and always has. When I was in grad school, I maintained a research blog and now I write the blog for Mendeley. I use Twitter and Google+ extensively as well, but don’t have much use for Facebook. Someone recently said, “Twitter is about who/what you want to know now, Facebook is about who you knew in high school and college.” When I talk to grad students and postdocs about making the transition from academia, I always tell them they should have a blog. In fact, it was my blog that got me my current job, and I couldn’t do my job without the help and inspiration of my online colleagues.

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?

The first blog about science, besides my own, that I discovered was Gene Expression, by Razib, who later joined the Discover Blog network. I have been following scienceblogs.com and the various other networks that have arisen since their conception, but there’s always new people starting up, like Karthik Ram and Carl Boettiger, two ecologists with a open science flair.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for the 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?

Well, I guess you can say what I took with me was the inspiration to start Science Online Bay Area 😉

Thank you! And see you in January!

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Mindy Weisberger

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 Mindy Weisberger (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?

Hello, and thanks for having me here! To be perfectly honest, I still feel like a bit of an oddball in the science community, even though I’ve been producing science videos for over a decade. Before that, I had no science foundation whatsoever; unless you count a long-standing obsession with science fiction. Science filmmaking was something I fell into unexpectedly, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay awhile.

I went to film school in New York City and started out shooting super-8 films and directing and editing punk rock music videos for local bands (which I sometimes still do). For years, my production experience was all over the map. I shot musicians and performance artists, directed documentaries and experimental short films, edited everything from celebrity wedding videos to pro wrestling promos, and had a brief stint writing and producing fashion news. Eventually I found my way to the American Museum of Natural History as a media writer and producer; first in the Exhibitions department and then for Science Bulletins, a video production division covering the latest developments in astrophysics, Earth science, biodiversity, and human biology and evolution. AMNH is where I discovered that science could be just as dynamic, ‘in-your-face’, exciting, and messy as a punk rock show—the transition was more natural than I expected.

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

Whatever the media project, I’m always trying to tell a story—as much with images as with words. Working on so many different types of films and videos turned out to be a great foundation for meeting the varied goals of museum exhibit media, because it left me comfortable working with different story formats and visual techniques. Most of the exhibit videos I produced had a linear story to tell or science to explain: the final days of doomed South Pole explorers, traditional silk-making still in practice today, diversity in bats, research into the biomechanics of T. rex, or the future of space exploration. Meeting with and interviewing the scientists was always the highlight of every production; taking their innate enthusiasm and finding the best way to communicate it to viewers, whether the scientists appeared on-camera or not. But I’ve found that when they did appear in the videos, viewers responded very positively. Putting a human face to scientific research is an incredibly effective method for helping museum visitors to forge a connection to the science—no matter what the story is about.

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

Since late 2011 I’ve been with Science Bulletins, part of AMNH’s National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology. I write and produce the News—short, monthly videos that display at museums (including AMNH), science centers, and on the Web, highlighting current scientific research. One month’s-worth of production could cover diversity in our early ancestors, the discovery of a new galaxy cluster, and the mating habits of urban coyotes. Running time for these videos is under two minutes, so language and images have to be as spare and efficient as possible—a great exercise for any writer or filmmaker. The visual needs can change from story to story, depending on what works best to get the science across. A video about brown widow spiders in southern California was edited almost entirely with photos, while one about Twitter tracking a cholera epidemic combined photos with animated maps and motion graphics, and a story about Sally Ride Science’s MoonKAM project included video. Though sometimes the biggest challenge is just making the story selects for the month when there is so much incredible research going on.

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

As a kid I used to spend hours at the library immersed in the card catalog—remember those? Sometimes I had a destination in mind and sometimes I didn’t, and would happily open drawers randomly and flip through the entries until I stumbled across something interesting. The Internet is like that. It can lead you to exactly what you’re looking for, but its greater value is that it can put you in touch with things you never suspected you were looking for. For me, the biggest payoff from using the Web for science-related research is the way that a single starting point can link me to writers, images, papers, and videos that I probably never would have known about in the first place, let alone been able to track down. Blogs, Twitter and other social networks work that way too (sometimes with the added bonus of actual conversation with the writers.) They guide you across the threshold, but—I’ll paraphrase from “The Matrix”—it’s up to the reader to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? 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?

Are people usually this happy to be at a conference? It was my first, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. But happy people are more approachable, which certainly helped me jump in. I’m glad that my first session was Perrin Ireland’s excellent Science Scribe 2.0—I ended up sketching my notes for every event that followed. Turns out that doodling with intent meant that I remembered more of what I heard, and helped me connect ideas from session to session. I could go on and on about how awesome everyone was in general (because they really, really were), but I hope to tell them face-to-face this year, now that I’m somewhat over the ‘new kid’ butterflies.

And was it inspiring? More than I ever expected, as projects and collaborations started cropping up in the months after. The dust from ScienceOnline12 had barely settled when Kevin Zelnio penned his I Am Science post, triggering a flood of personal recollections from other scientists on Twitter. I edited a sampling of tweets into a short video (which he ended up using as part of the project’s Kickstarter.) When The Story Collider launched an evening of I Am Science stories, I worked with Ben Lillie and Erin Barker to produce a video for the show. Some of us at Science Bulletins will be leading a session for the first Science Online Teen conference on science storytelling using video and animation. I’m also thrilled to be co-moderating sessions for ScienceOnline2013 with Rose Eveleth (Animating Science), and Psi Wavefunction (Summing it Up: The Data on the Cutting Room Floor.) Being a part of any community means more than having resources you can draw upon—it means you become one of those resources yourself. And this particular oddball hopes to continue doing both—at ScienceOnline2013 and beyond.

Thank you! See you in January!

ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Maryn McKenna

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 Maryn McKenna (blog, 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 journalist working in several different channels: I blog (for Wired), write medium-length pieces (as a columnist for Scientific American), write long-form pieces (for a variety of magazines) and write books: so far, Superbug, about antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the CDC’s disease detectives.

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

I fell into science-writing sideways — in my case, through studying theatre, becoming a dramaturg, realizing I was about to starve, going to journalism school and coming out as a finance reporter. My first newspaper job involved doing analyses of sleazy savings and loan deals. That made me into an investigative reporter, and my next two newspaper jobs involved investigations into public health issues: in Cincinnati, cancer clusters near a closed nuclear-weapons plant, and in Boston, the earliest cases of Gulf War Syndrome. On the basis of those I ended up working in Atlanta as the only reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC, which basically meant wheedling my way into (many) outbreak investigations.

This is a good place to answer the education question. I didn’t study science as an undergraduate; I studied science writing for my masters’. But once it was clear I was going to be a public health reporter, I used journalism fellowships to do post-graduate work, including a year at University of Michigan studying the social history of epidemics and a year with the Kaiser Family Foundation studying emergency rooms.

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

I am in the proposal stage for a book that will look at the intertwined histories of antibiotic development and modern agriculture. My goal is to figure out how to free up enough time from the rest of my life to work on it!

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

I’m fascinated by how communities self-assemble on Twitter, and I’m increasingly interested in how social media can be used to support public health, for instance through crowd-sourced surveillance.

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?

Blogging (first at Blogger starting in 2007, then Scienceblogs, then Wired) has been essential to my re-invention: from a newspaper reporter to a freelance journalist, and from writing only about public and global health to venturing into food policy as well. Blogging gave me a publication space, gave me an identity, gave me an audience and community. My professional life now could not exist without it. In addition, I’m on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest and some semi-closed networks such as GoodReads, and I feel as though all of those support and extend what I (try to) do. Twitter in particular is essential to me — not just for community but also for identifying and researching stories.

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?

I think I “discovered” science blogs around the time I stumbled into blogging myself, and I don’t think I could say at this point who first caught my eye. “Favorites” is a very hard question to answer, both because I read so many — my RSS reader has, literally, hundreds of subscriptions in it — and also because I fear to accidentally leave out people whose work I really do like. But if I only have time to read a few, I will always go first to my Wired colleagues and friends Deborah Blum and David Dobbs; to Ed Yong, of course; to Tara Smith for her insights and Mike the Mad Biologist for his outrage; and to Maggie Koerth-Baker not just for her choices but for her pitch-perfect voice. For deep dives in diseases I love Contagions, Body Horrors and the mysterious Puff the Mutant Dragon. And for knowing what’s up on the food-policy side of my life I rely on Mark Bittman at the New York Times, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones and Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News.

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?

For me it’s the face-to-face meetings above all. Writing is a lonely business, especially for freelancers, and most especially for people like me who live in parts of the country where there are not dense artistic cultures. (I live mostly in Atlanta: great for public health, not great for random creative interaction.) To have so many people rejoicing in each others’ obsessions is fantastic. Even more, though, I love ScienceOnline because it brings me gently face-to-face with my unknown unknowns; that is, the conference and community introduce me every year to so many people who know more about my subjects than I do. I always come away not only with fresh ideas but also with the knowledge that I have met people whom I can trust to educate me, with enthusiasm and without judgment, when I need them.

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…