Tag Archives: scio12interviews

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 Sarah Webb

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 Sarah Webb.

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 science journalist, but I came to science writing and journalism about 10 years ago while I was a chemistry Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Though I finished, I went straight into journalism internships after I defended my Ph.D.– at Discover magazine and as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WNBC-TV. I stayed in the New York City area for 8 years until my husband and I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee last August.

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

My brain has always been split between science and the humanities. In college, I double-majored in German and chemistry. I did a Fulbright fellowship in an organic chemistry lab in Giessen, Germany before I started my Ph.D. work.

When I decided to move away from research, I first explored science writing through a master’s level journalism course taught by Holly Stocking in the Indiana University School of Journalism. She pretty much hooked me on science journalism from day one. At the same time I was volunteering at a local hands-on science museum, WonderLab, so I’ve had my hands in informal science education, too.

After my Ph.D. defense and internships in New York, I took on various types of freelance work. One of my favorite projects was working with a team at the graphic design firm C&G Partners in Manhattan on the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I worked as a content developer, gathering images, objects and research information for the exhibit writer. All my skills– my science background, my research skills and the ability to call scientists up on the phone to ask about their work– played into that project.

Since that work wrapped up in 2006, I’ve worked as a freelance science journalist, writer and editor.

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

My big project lately has been a book and website with more than 30 close friends and colleagues. The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age will be published by Da Capo Press in April 2013. I contributed one chapter on “The Diversity of Science Writing,” how to build a balanced mix of work both inside and outside of traditional science journalism. I am also the editor in chief of our book’s newly launched blog and website. (Emily Gertz and I will be giving a BlitzTalk about the site at ScienceOnline 2013).

Like many freelance journalists, I keep my hands in many different projects. I spend the bulk of my time writing news and feature articles for journals and trade publications. But I have written about science for a variety of kids’ publications, and I have written for many general interest science magazines including Discover, Science News, and ScientificAmerican.com

In terms of goals, I really want to spread my wings into more narrative writing– longer magazine pieces or even, potentially, a book of my own.

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 started my own blog 4 years ago. It’s an independent blog, Webb of Science, that has become my primary digital calling card and a way for me to introduce myself to readers, sources and the world at large. In setting up the website for The Science Writers’ Handbook, I’m more of a project manager and editor, but I’m posting there, too.

Twitter is my primary social network for work. Facebook, for me, tends to be more about connecting with friends from all parts of my life. One of my goals this year is to build an active Google+ presence. I think social networks are increasingly important (if not essential!). Time management is always tricky, but it’s worth the investment.

Thank you. See you next week!

ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

I have been conducting these ScienceOnline interviews for years now, and somehow I never got to interviewing you – one of the founders! It’s high time, don’t you think? So, without further ado, 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? How did you get into medical journalism?

Thank you, Bora. Like you, my last name starts with a Z, so I’m used to waiting for everyone to be called to the front of the classroom to speak. I think that that was one of the early experiences that taught me to pay attention to others. So, it’s been a pleasure to read your interviews through the years and to admire all the unique individuals who have been drawn to ScienceOnline. You’ve done an amazing thing in asking them to share a bit about their lives. The Web — the world — is a better place when we can stop to listen to each person’s story.

I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. I came here 12 years ago, and before that the longest I’d lived in one place was five years as a boy in Idaho. I’ve also lived in Ohio, the South Pacific, Hawaii, Illinois, U.S. Virgin Islands, Arizona, Minnesota and California. I’m the oldest of five sons. My father was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1965-67, Dominican Republic) and coordinator for the VISTA program, then became an attorney. My mother was a parochial-school teacher and principal. In 1981, my parents were watching the nightly news when the television sparked and died. They put it in the closet and never got another, probably the most important parenting decision in my life. I’m a voracious reader because of them. On St. Croix, the house we rented had stacks and stacks of National Geographic, and I set my mind to becoming editor of that journal. Inspired by the photos, I joined the eighth-grade photography club to learn to develop my own pictures.

My high school years were spent in DeKalb, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. I played varsity soccer, was elected student body president, edited an award-winning literary journal, worked summers detasseling hybrid seed corn and walking soybean fields, and with a couple of friends formed a juggling troupe named for the 18th-century Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (our terrific physics teacher suggested that). My dad regularly took me and my brothers into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and to see the Blackhawks and White Sox and Cubs (he taught me how to keep the box score, and always have hope), and his stories about being a hard-working vendor — ‘Beer, here!’ — were often more interesting than the games we’d come to see. Dad also taught me to think about the consequences of my actions, and to keep a record of my activities. My mother encouraged me to make new friends and to persevere when my math homework brought me to tears.

When I entered college at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and to live a life of service, including following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Peace Corps. I also thought long and hard about becoming a Franciscan friar, but decided to become a different kind of father. I fell in love, but moved to Hawaii, where I got to interview astronomer Jerry Nelson in the Keck Observatory. Eventually, I returned to Cleveland, married Erin, and worked as an arts magazine editor. Together we joined the Peace Corps and went to the Republic of Vanuatu, later returning to the U.S. via Australia, Asia and Europe.

So, geographically, I’ve been around. Around the world, quite literally. And philosophically, I’ve learned to be open to that world and its possibilities. My parents taught me to make the best of each and every situation, and how to talk with people to find our similarities and marvel in our differences.

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

You’re probably still wondering how I got into medical journalism. That came out of my time in Vanuatu. Erin and I both got giardiasis and dengue, and she also got vivax malaria. We saw Hansen’s disease and filariasis and malnutrition and ciguatera poisoning. In the heat of the tropical days, I swayed in the hammock reading the Control of Communicable Diseases manual. When later we moved to North Carolina for Erin to get her masters of public health, I learned about the science and medical journalism program at the UNC j-school, and studied under Tom Linden. I was taking Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases when SARS broke out, and one of the class instructors happened to be Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert. By now, I knew I was never going to be editor of National Geographic, so instead I was aiming for the New Yorker: my masters thesis project was a 12,000-word narrative feature about acute HIV among college students.

An important thrust to my career trajectory, though, also came from my time in the Peace Corps. That was in the late 90s, and I recognized that when I was done on my island with no running water and no electricity, my childhood dream of being in print would have to change with the World Wide Web. I got a job at an Internet startup company in January 2000, just in time to watch the tech bubble burst from the inside. But I created my first website, became a blogger, and never looked back.

Over the last decade, you and so many other friends and colleagues have helped me combine my passions for journalism, community development and connecting on the Web. We call this the BlogTogether spirit — supporting individuals as they connect through social networks, and then creating ways for them to come together for face-to-face conversations. Those conversations, we’ve seen, promote the golden rule: blog about others as you’d have others blog about you. (I didn’t become a priest, but I’ve found my mission, you could say — or sing, as David Kroll did in Minister of Ether.)

I’m not going to be editor of National Geographic. I may never get into the pages of the New Yorker. But I do hope my career keeps me involved in supporting thoughtful observations about our world.

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

I have a great job, as communications director for the Duke University Department of Medicine. It’s in a vibrant academic medical center, and we use a blog to reflect the activities of our faculty and trainees, such as Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz. I was in his office a while back, and loved hearing him talk about how science and humor are alike in helping us see connections.

I recently figured out an important connection in my own life. My paternal grandfather, Louis Sisco, organized the annual Sisco Picnic, and I often helped him set up for that. His devotion to gathering the extended family, and his attention to the details in planning the event, rubbed off on me. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 10 years organizing events and meetups, from the Narratives of HIV series to BlogTogether Backyard Barbecues to our shared ScienceOnline conferences. This year, though, I’m taking a break from organizing events. ScienceOnline has become an official organization, and Karyn Traphagen is charging ahead with great momentum and ideas – hers is a detail-oriented mind that my grandfather would admire. I now serve ScienceOnline, Karyn and the rest of our community as chairman of the board, and I will focus on that role. I’m excited to see where this all goes.

Not having to sweat the details of the conference means I have more time to write, and so I’m more actively writing on my blog. I’ve learned that the more I write on my blog and in my personal journal, the more balanced I am. That’s helping me to spend more time with my daughters, who need me to encourage them through their math homework, and two-year-old Oliver, who needs me to explore in the woods with him just like my dad did when I was young.

I’m in my forties now, and spending this decade learning to be a better storyteller. I love to hear great stories at the Monti, and Jeff Polish inspired me to convene the Talk Story narrative variety show. Karyn showed us postcards she wrote to her mother, and my friend Carter Kersh has gone on to tell two stories at The Monti, for which he’s been nominated for the Hippo Awards. I’ve stumbled through a few of my own stories. I may never be a great storyteller, but I do know that I’m becoming an even better listener. If my gift in life is to facilitate conversations and help other people share their stories, then I’ll continue to do that as humbly as I can.

Through my writing, my listening, my living, I’m trying to be ever more thoughtful, kind, patient and passionate.

You once described your life philosophy as crossing-a-river. What does that mean and how does it work?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the edge of the water – watching contemplatively as mountain rivers cascade, or expectantly as ponds begin to freeze over, or contentedly as the sun sets over oceans and seas in which I’ve just surfed or snorkeled or paddled. As my family moved around, and my parents taught me to find opportunity in each new place, I came to see my life as a journey across a wide river strewn with stepping stones, each stone offering new possibilities for forward or lateral movement toward that other river bank. Some steps are shorter and seemingly less memorable, others further and riskier. I’m certain I’ve fallen in a few times – the story I’ve told my daughters the most is the one about rafting on the New River, tumbling over and losing my favorite Greek fisherman’s cap – but I’m also sure that each moment has strengthened and deepened.

(As I’m writing this, sitting in 3CUPS sipping keemun hao ya, there’s a young guy at the next table over, strumming an ukulele. That makes me remember meeting the gentle giant Israel Kamakawiwoole and Big Island lutier David Gomes. Part of the allure of my crossing-a-river metaphor is the joy in looking back at the steps I’ve taken and the people I’ve met along the way.)

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Hawaii — away from the woman I dearly loved — a mentor told me something simple and profound. “Anton, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” I took it to mean that I need never feel trapped, or choiceless. After two great years in Honolulu, I did return to Cleveland as Erin was finishing college. Ever since, she’s been my companion on that river crossing.

You have been blogging for a very long time, you are one of the pioneers of the form, and you have helped many other people start their own blogs. How do you see the evolution of the blogging form in the near future, both regarding your own blog, science blogs, and blogging in general?

As I used to explain in our Bloggging 101 tutorials, blogging developed in some of the same ways as the early Internet, from What’s New pages to filtering lists to personal-perspective journals. After all these years, blogs can be any or all of these types of online writing.

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Instagram have given us tools to share short messages and photos and videos. It feels to me that blogs posts have lengthened (you’re the outlier, of course!), and are more essay like. Last fall, we held the Back to the Blog meeting at Duke University to discuss some of the trends in blogging, including minimal styling, responsive design and using social media to alert your networks to your new posts.

I’m still gung-ho about blogs. I still know more people who don’t have blogs than I know people who do blog. That’s a lot of people to recruit to the blogging life.

That includes scientists, of course. One of the early foundations of the ScienceOnline community was the colorful tapestry of science blog networks, and now in ScienceSeeker we have a fantastic tool for mining the rich daily output from science blogs. But even in my own institution, Duke University, there aren’t that many scientists actively blogging. You remember the keynote speaker at our first ScienceOnline conference back in 2007: Dr. Hunt Willard suggested it would have to be the postdocs and fellows who would need to be trained to use online tools. At Duke, Dr. Zubin Eapen and the cardiology fellows are a shining example of that; Dr. Matt Sparks is another. It’s going to be fun to see others take up online science just as avidly and successfully.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own blog recently, both in terms of the design and my writing style. I started my blog in 2000 to honor my grandfathers and relatives, and to share my own life and work and travels. I think of my style as storyblogging, in which I start with a current happening, relate it to a story in my or my family’s past, and make an observation. After 13 years of writing, I’d begun to doubt whether I had anything else to record. And, yet, when I search my archives for an anecdote or reference I’m sure I’ve blogged before, I don’t find it. I’m only halfway across my river, so I guess I’ve got a lot more to share. But I also know that Narcissus sat along the water and reflected on himself to unhappy consequence, so I want to challenge myself to add other layers to my blogging, such as deeper exploration of one of my areas of interest. You’ve written much about niche blogging, so maybe I’ll finally develop a niche other than myself.

You have been involved, for a long time, in different nodes of the blogosphere: science blogs, medical blogs, technology blogs, food blogs, local North Carolina blogs — what have you learned from these different communities? What’s on your blogroll of blogs to read daily?

I’ve learned that no matter the subject or node, when interesting people are given the tools — pencil, press, microphone or weblog — to delve deeply into their interests and reflect their areas of specialty, we end up with an awesome deluge of information, insight and inquiry. Niche blogs are great for the ways they focus on a topic or industry, and I understand your argument for writing only about one’s area of expertise. But I’m also convinced that when a writer steps out of his or her niche to provide glimpses of other interests or fragments of experience, we learn more about the person. And knowing more about each other helps us relate to each other better. I believed that at the beginning of the BlogTogether experiment, and over the last seven years, the ScienceOnline community has simply astounded me with its respect and friendship and inclusiveness and camaraderie.

I’ve been reading Dave Winer for a decade, learning from him and using his new World Outline tools, and I cherished the chance to go for a bike ride with him last summer. Michael Ruhlman and Ilina Ewen and Dean McCord are my food and beverage inspirations. 33 Charts, by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, is quite relevant to my medical communications job. I read design blogs, web technology blogs, blogs by business leaders and venture capitalists, and personal organization blogs. I use Reeder to scan RSS feeds, and I’m rebuilding my river here. On Sunday evenings, I iron my shirts for the week, listening to podcasts by The Monti, Story Collider, StoryCorps and Joel Dueck.

Family looms large in your life and in your writing. Your personal blog is essentially a chronicle of several generations of your family, with you as an acute observer and eloquent archivist. Tell me what family means to you. Are you hoping that your children will continue preserving the family’s stories?

When I was in the fifth grade in Idaho, my mother was my teacher. One day, her assignment to the class was to write a story about the first snowflake to fall in winter. Around that same time, my father would gather me and my brothers in the kitchen, where he used the bare white wall to show his Peace Corps slides. In the mailbox each week, we’d get typewritten letters from my grandfathers: Zuiker Chronicles, from Frank the Beachcomber, were travelogues and camporee reports, while the two-page ‘peek into grandpa’s diary’ detailed the daily routines of Grandpa Sisco. The narrative lives of my ancestors were a daily presence in my youth. I’m a writer because of them.

In middle school, one of my favorite authors was James Michener. I read Caravans and Space, and when I read The Source, I became enamored with archaeology. Years later, on a holiday break during college, I visited my father on the island of St. Thomas. He hooked me up with a friend working on a dig in the hills where construction for a mall had uncovered a pre-Columbian Arawak village. I spent just a day there as a volunteer, carefully brushing dirt and picking out charcoal from a fire pit. Even the tiniest of details of the past, I learned, are important for understanding human history.

The Zuiker Chronicles Online and The Coconut Wireless weblog at mistersugar.com – in many ways, these are my ways of sifting through the little details in the lives of me and my family, and trying to find meaning in the connections.

Erin, my wife, has taught me so much about communication, about being honest and open and always aware of circumstances and contributing factors. While she can gab on the phone for hours, I get twitchy after 60 seconds on the phone, so we make time each week to just sit and talk, and we make sure to listen to the other, looking for the small details about each other that we didn’t know or recall. When we started our family, Erin helped me understand the importance of communicating with our children, reviewing the days activities and reciting bedtime routines. That’s a concept — the small just, just ahead — that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I try to incorporate a river of news into my work and blogging.

My children lovingly joke about my blogging, and they know I’m trying to be a better storyteller. But what I hope they take with them into their adulthood is the appreciation that I was present in their lives, much as my father was present in mine, and his father and grandfather before. I hope they feel the connections to those who have come before. I hope they extend those connections into the future.

Even more than medicine and science, your writing revolves around community, storytelling and food. You have been a force in gathering and growing the local online (and offline) community around stories and food. Tell me more about some of the projects and events you organized over time, and what looms in the future?

My mother has no sense of smell or sense of taste. She made a delicious Crock-pot Swiss steak, and tasty chocolate chip cookies, but I didn’t really know what garlic was until I got to college. Our dinners weren’t gourmet, but I do remember them as family meals, all of us sitting down together (no books allowed).

Erin’s mother happens to be an amazing cook, and I quickly figured out that my culinary ignorance offered me a perfect way to hang out in the kitchen, learn how to cook, help out with the dishes, and generally show Erin’s parents that I was going to be a good companion for their daughter. It worked. Now, I love to cook for Erin and our children, and of course I chronicle our meals at home and out on my blog. Most Sundays, I roast a chicken according to the instructions of Michael Ruhlman, whom I’ve hosted three times for food blogging events. I enjoy the process of reading recipes, gathering ingredients and putting them together for something tasty, such as the slivovitz that we enjoyed last week. One lesson I learned: don’t make kimchee, with its fermented shrimp paste, when your wife is six months pregnant.

Good food, good wine, good friends, good conversation — I crave these, and The Long Table has been one way I try bring them all together. Our first dinner was quite fun, with a bunch of people standing up to tell their own food-related stories. With ScienceOnline in good hands, I hope to do more of these dinners in the next few years. I still want to organize a food blogging conference, and maybe someday we can do a conference on food-science blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? What platforms and what types of online activity have you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

Well, the intersection of story and science is what got me into medical journalism, and it’s what still drives me today. The ScienceOnline community is filled with great examples of science stories told well. I’m watching #scio13 and ScienceSeeker daily to keep up. And the blitz demonstration sessions at ScienceOnline2013 will surely introduce me to new platforms and approaches.

I mentioned my high school physics teacher above. He assigned our class to work in teams on an experiment. My buddies and I wanted to study the Doppler effect, so I borrowed a tape recorder from my Grandpa Sisco, and met Kevin and Craig on a quiet country road late one night. We drove our cars past each other at different speeds, Craig in his Camaro with horn blaring, me in my Catalina with the tape recorder on. Just now I had to look up Doppler on Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge, but that experience of learning together with friends never dissipated.

Collaboration, clearly, is key these days in science. At Duke, a lot of my communications plan aims to help our investigators connect with their faculty colleagues to explore new multidisciplinary and team-science collaborations. On the Web, I’m interested in exploring how we can build personal network publications, something beyond multi-author blogs and something that can feature contributions from those who aren’t already writing on the Web. Many of my friends and relatives still do not have blogs of their own, and I’m interested creating some sort of online publication with them. Marco Arment’s new app/pub, The Magazine, and the writing platform Medium are helping me think about the possibilities.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference, of course. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Actually, ScienceOnline2013 is going to be my first. Learn why in my blog post on The Coconut Wireless.

What I’ve most enjoyed about ScienceOnline is watching the interactions, seeing the passions, witnessing the partnerships. You and I started with a conversation in a cafe, and we’ve gained a friendship and a community. I sincerely hope that all who attend ScienceOnline2013 and the many other events to follow will similarly be better persons because they openly engaged in the conversation.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.

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 Chris Gunter

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Chris Gunter.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

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

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

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

Of course, Double X Science is awesome.

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

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

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

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

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

 

 

Why horses and slivovitz are essential for writing science online

After years of me interviewing attendees of ScienceOnline conferences, yesterday Anton Zuiker turned the tables on me. We talked about my past, present and future, my professional and personal life, about horses, slivovitz, family, science, ScienceOnline community, support for new generations of science writers, and lots more. Go read it here:

An interview with Bora Zivkovic