Sunday, October 6, 2013

It's been fun Blogspot, but I'm moving on

I've finally taken the career step of having a website that I can be proud of, that will have all of my information, links, and blog in one place. The new www.erinpodolak.com was designed by Color and Code, and you can check out my first post about why I stopped blogging for a while, and why I'm back with a renewed purpose. 

I won't be getting rid of this site, but I won't be updating it anymore. All new material will be over on the other site, so update your feeds accordingly. Thank you and I'm looking forward to continuing conversations!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sciobeantown at Midsummer Nights' Science

On July 17, Sciobeantown headed over to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA to join in on their four week lecture series: Midsummer Nights' Science. Members of Sciobeantown took to Twitter with the hashtags #broadtalks and #sciobeantown to livetweet the event, which featured a talk from cancer genomics researcher Levi Garraway.*

If you missed the event, a video of the talk called, "Exploring the genome's dark matter** what frontiers of genomic research are revealing about cancer" is now online. You can also check out Sciobeantown's contribution to the Twitter discussion with this Storify of the event by Amanda Dykstra. Thank you to the Broad Institute for setting aside space at this event (which filled the room to capacity) so that Sciobeantown could participate!

*Dr. Garraway is a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in addition to his work at the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School. I do cover his melanoma work as part of my job at Dana-Farber. 
**Using dark matter as a metaphor for the non-protein coding portion of the genome has been the subject of some science writer snark (possibly from me...okay, from me) but the title of the talk is the title of the talk, folks. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

World Conference of Science Journalists: Helsinki Recap

Well, it finally happened. After nearly a year of planning, conversations, blog posts, and twitter exchanges the #sci4hels – Rose Eveleth, Kathleen Raven, Lena Groeger and myself organized by Bora Zivkovic gave our presentation to the World Conference of Science Journalists. WCSJ2013 was held in Helsinki, Finland June 24-27 and included more than 800 journalists from 77 different countries.
For me, the highlight of the conference was certainly the opportunity to meet, listen to, and learn from so many different journalists with such different interests and areas of concern.

Sunset over Helsinki, photo by me
I kicked off the conference with a workshop from the European School of Oncology, in which there were very few Americans but several reporters from African countries. It was interesting to hear about the most prominent issues for them regarding cancer coverage, particularly access to information and the shift from covering infectious disease to covering a disease that is not transmissible.

Once the full conference program kicked off, it was a blur of ideas and activity moving from session to session and bouncing between ideas. I livetweeted every session I attended, which for me is a great way to synthesize information and take notes but it did leave me buzzing at times like all of the information I absorbed was rattling around in my brain. Most of my tweets were under the hashtag #wcsj2013 but there were also session specific hashtags and of course we tweeted with #sci4hels.

One of the most interesting sessions for me was on the topic of blurred lines between PR/communication and journalism. The speakers for the session were Anne Sasso and Kai Kupferschmidt who each took a hard line in favor of or against journalists doing work that isn’t journalistic in nature ie: getting paid for writing that represents an organization. After they each spoke their peace (and both have written great wrap-up posts here and here) everyone in the room was asked questions, what would you do type scenarios. Everyone was asked to move around the room based on whether they would or would not take the assignments in question.

To me, it seemed that everyone in the room highly valued journalistic ethics, but when it got down to the nitty gritty the lines were in fact much more blurred than people might have wanted to admit between what they would and would not do when the money is right. While most of us are not in the position to be worrying about accepting champagne and free trips in a private jet, it is still highly likely that we’ll all have to decide in the course of our career where we draw the ethical line. What about writing for a university? Other non-profits? Is it okay if you never cover them in a journalistic fashion? What if a major story breaks at the organization, can you use your connections to cover it better than other reporters? Is it right to do so?

It was a very spirited session and as someone who works for a non-profit I found it interesting to hear how a job like mine is viewed by other journalists. It really ran the gamut from people thinking I’ve already wrecked my career and compromised my ethics and impartiality, to people supporting the path I’ve taken and encouraging me to continue to do what I’m doing with all the transparency and honestly that is already a part of the writing I do here on the blog and elsewhere.

Prepping for our panel, photo by Bora Zivkovic
Our #sci4hels panel was on Wednesday of the conference and pulled in a fairly good crowd (at least, we weren’t talking to ourselves which was my great fear.) After introductions from Rose, I kicked things off talking about the sense of community that has taken root with the newest generation of science writers. I don’t think you could talk about community and not bring up the fantastic Robert Krulwich graduation speech to UC Berkley in 2011 where he introduced the concept of horizontal loyalty.

To me, a major difference in being a new journalist trying to break into the field today compared to the past is that you have to have so many different skills, or at least be able to pull off projects in many different mediums. One way to do this is to be able to partner and collaborate with other people who have a passion for things like video, audio, or graphics (to name a few of the things that are not my cup of tea.) This collaboration, the idea of making things together rather than trying to stand alone works well with the rise of journalist “tribes” or “packs” groups of journalists who meet regularly to swap stories, share ideas and support one another.

As more and more people go the freelance route and don’t have regular contact with their colleagues the tribe seems to be growing in prevalence and importance. I also spoke about the work that has gone into getting Sciobeantown up and running and what it means to be a part of the ScienceOnline community, which is an incredible network of people interested in science communication, not just journalism, which is something I love about the group.

After I gave my brief introduction to these topics, Lena spoke about code and using data and graphics to help tell stories. Kathleen presented on social media, particularly Twitter. After that, we opened things up to questions. I thought it was a fairly productive question and answer session, so thank you to everyone who came and participated (you can catch up with the types of questions we were asked at the hashtag #sci4hels.) I did not tweet at all during our panel, and believe me, it was a challenge for me to unplug, but it was also fun to check in after it was all over and see the stream of tweets coming in. It was great to see so many people interested in what we had to say.

Upon returning from Finland post-conference we found ourselves and our panel to be the topic of a column by Nicolas Luco in El Mercurio, a publication in Chile. This column focused on Kathleen and I having blonde hair, and how young the four of us are more than on the content of what we said about journalism and our careers. Even the take-away point Luco gathered from what I'd said, that good journalism is good journalism regardless of what multimedia you augment it with, was spoken by a "blonde no more than 25." I don’t have to tell you that this was disappointing and frustrating. But I’m not going to dedicate any more space to the issue, I have no need when Janet Stemwedel did such a fantastic job of describing our communication with Luco and why it was problematic in a post on her Scientific American blog Doing Good Science.

Sci4hels post-panel, photo by Arjan Raven
Overall, my experience at the World Conference of Science Journalists was a largely positive one. I enjoyed meeting different people, and had a blast with the #sci4hels and other science writing friends (and new friends!) I learned quite a bit, both about the profession and about myself and my career as we handled both praise and criticism. It is hard for me to believe that it really is over after such a build up and great experience, but it is. So thank you again to everyone who supported our panel, to the great friends new and old who made Helsinki such a fun trip, and of course to Rose, Lena, Kathleen and Bora for being great colleagues. Here’s to WCSJ2015!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wake Up Sweetheart, You're A Feminist (Book Review: The Good Girls Revolt)

I hope you read that title with the sarcasm with which it was meant, and that you never try to call me sweetheart. It won't go well. It's been a while since I did a book review here at Science Decoded (mostly because I don't have the time to read that I used to) but I just finished Lynn Povich's The Good Girls Revolt and it spurred me to want to write this post which has been kicking around in my brain for months now. The Good Girls Revolt is the story of the first all female class action lawsuit filed by the women who worked for Newsweek.

Even just two years ago, if you had asked me if I was a feminist I would have told you no. Back then the idea that women needed to form a movement to be treated equal seemed extreme. Equality isn't hard, it's a pretty simple concept really. So who wants to be all extreme and label themselves and fight for...what...what are we fighting for? I didn't know. I had plenty of opportunities, I interacted with professional women a lot. It didn't feel necessary. Besides, I like shaving my legs (though you should read this post about choosing not to). I have a closet full of dresses and high heels. You're unlikely to catch me outside the house without makeup. I was vice president of my sorority for crying out loud. Feminist? Psh. But you know what feminism isn't about? Those things. Any of it.

Coming from a relatively well-off, educated background where I was always expected to go to college and then work, I never thought of myself as a feminist. My Dad's attitude toward my career as a science writer has always simply been, go get 'em. I have surrounded myself in life by people, men and women, who value my intelligence and drive to succeed. Growing up I never felt like I was being compared to my brother or any other guy. I never felt like I was less or that less was expected of me. Feminists were an other, and if anything made me feel intimidated. The judgement of other women is scary, sometimes it feels scarier than the idea of walking into a room full of men to tell them what's what. But, spending a little time in the world, talking to people, and reading things like Povich's book or Dr. Isis' Feminist Awakening has a wonderfully eye opening effect.

I think most women in the workplace have a so-and-so said this absolutely jack ass comment to me about xyz story, at least I do, and I've heard many stories in a similar vein. The types of things that make people look at you like you've got six heads because surely someone didn't actually SAY that. You might not even have realized it, because at the time I didn't really see it as sexism. I knew I was upset that good ideas were being shot down. The thought that anyone would take the way I look and my gender and use that to gauge my ability as a writer before actually reading anything I wrote was so completely absurd to me, that I didn't even realize at first that it was happening.

In hindsight, this made me blame myself - maybe it really isn't that good an idea, maybe I'm not working hard enough, maybe if I'm here later and put in more hours, maybe if I prove myself...no. I want to grab unpaid intern Erin and shake her and say don't you dare write that crappy story that you know is bullshit while the paid male intern gets the better story. Walk out. Leave. You're better than that. I've heard it said before that my generation is lazy and entitled. Well in my not so humble opinion, myself and my friends and other young people like us more often assume deeply personal responsibility for failure. If I don't get that story it's because I did something wrong. Me. I'm not good enough. How could it ever be that there is a system ingrained in society that is going to hold us back? This is 2013. It can't possibly be true that we're still dealing with this.

Povich's book chronicles events from the 60's and 70's, we can't still be having this same problem? No, no we're not. The problem back then was flagrant, out in the open, so egregious that it couldn't be ignored. That is still happening, oh, does it happen. But there is also a subtle sexism - a mild slight, a passing comment, a raise that's just a little less, a promotion that takes a little longer to get. These are the things that are harder to pinpoint, harder to blame on sexism, but are ultimately what made me wake up to the fact that I'm a feminist. Part of Povich's book focuses on today, on three women from my generation working for Newsweek: Jessica Bennet, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball and the story they wrote in 2010 "Are We There Yet?" questioning if the battle of the sexes is really over. Their experiences resonated with me a lot.

Since I entered college and started writing and trying to get my work published, I've been lucky in that the sexism I've faced has been mild. Sad state of affairs that it makes me feel lucky, but it does. Right now where I work my superiors are all women - my boss, her boss, her boss' boss, her boss' boss' boss...but my awesome situation isn't common (and believe me, I don't take it for granted.) But that doesn't mean that sexism isn't still here, and that other people aren't dealing with much worse on a regular basis. I'm a feminist for myself because yes, I want a fair shake, I want to be recognized for the value of my work and not whether or not my hair looks shiny that day. But, adding my voice to the other feminist voices out there is about more than just me. I've got it pretty good. I'm not trying to argue that I don't. But I can support the women out there who are dealing with overt sexism, who are being attacked. I can try to be an ally. That to me is the real value of feminism, of standing together.

It's my opinion that a lot of the yelling that happens on the internet (if you could only hear how loudly I am typing!!) happens because we've gotten so wrapped up in judging the world based on our personal perspective that we can't see the things that happen outside ourselves. I've never encountered sexism therefore sexism doesn't exist. We have GOT to shake off this way of invalidating the experiences of others. Once you start listening, I think you'll find like I did that the need for feminism is impossible to ignore. Participating in #sci4hels, and working with Rose, Lena, and Kathleen (follow us in Helsinki next week!) is another thing that has driven home for me the need for women to support each other. We've already used our platform to have a conversation about being female science writers, and I hope that discussion is one that will continue in the future.

Feminism, for me, is a way to recognize that we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go. We still need to get out there, and support each other, and continue having these conversations because equality might be a simple concept, but that doesn't make it any less evasive. I've had these conversations a lot lately, and have been asked, "do you think people don't take you seriously because...you know...you're good looking?" Typically, I answer something along the lines of making smart decisions is optional, and if anyone doesn't take me seriously for any reason that's their mistake to make. I don't think it's a bad answer, but until that answer is a resounding "no" we're just not done yet.

So, if you've been in the journalism business for less than 20 years, The Good Girls Revolt is a must-read. Hell, if you've been in the business for more than 20 years, it's still a good read. Recommended.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Overheard at Sciobeantown with NESW

On June 6th, Sciobeantown and the New England Science Writers teamed up for a joint mixer at Boston's Beehive. If you couldn't join us, here are a few snippets (taken 100% out of context) to show you what you missed. If you have any questions about Sciobeantown, feel free to contact me, or any of the other organizers: Haley Bridger, Biochembelle, or Alberta Chu. You can also check out the website, twitter, and googlegroup.
Let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic...
So, the Mighty Ducks is actually all about class warfare.
Wait, since when am I the youngest?!?
There’s so much scicomm, we’re going to need to coordinate these dates.
You’re tweeting this aren’t you?
I went right home after you mentioned it and convinced my boss I had to go to ScioOceans.
You lied, we could totally still register!
Biochem AND a Belle... wow, that’s intimidating.
You weren't at the Storycollider? It was so good!
Just cover one story, really, really well, that’s how you get a Pulitzer.
I came to Boston for all of the astronomy, there is an amazing amount here.
You just have to look at the statistics!
Just assume the doctor stance.
Wait, there are liberal antivaxers?
You might want to look at that study again, it might not be total bullshit
Are the science writers about to throw down?
Look, I flail when I talk.
Of course, everyone knows Bora.
Well now you're just making stuff up.
Tweet from @sciobeantown in Finland, we’ll cheer you on!
What exactly makes you a killer?
Mermaids? I mean how was that even a thing?
Try to describe something without using any adjectives! At all!
Your career is your oyster...or something like that.
Ooh, is there going to be music?
We’ll see you in July!
Thank you to NESW for sponosring this event, and to everyone who came out to share ideas and build our Sciobeantown community!

Monday, June 3, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I've loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, BeckyMichael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school's out for the year - I'm happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.


Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.

When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.

I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.

Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.

At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.

Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true. 

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?

Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.

What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Now that we've come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids' questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I've decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

#Sci4hels Question Time #5 - What is the obligation of a science journalist when it comes to education?

I’m manning the sci4hels ship this week for question time. For question #5, we’ve decided to talk about whether science journalists have an extra obligation to educate compared to journalists who focus on other areas. We’ll be entertaining this topic on twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST. I hope you’ll be able to join us, so, you know, I don’t end up talking to myself.
This question has me particularly excited, because for me it ties back to the larger questions of “why am I doing what I’m doing?” and even more importantly “what do I want to be doing?” Since I turned 25 two months ago I’ve been joking a lot about having a quarter-life crisis, but several things have gone on in my life recently that spurred me to take stock of just about everything, including my career.

via Wikimedia Commons
I often grapple with questions about whether I can consider what I do journalism, whether I’m okay with not doing journalism, if what I even want is to be a journalist, and where those boundaries are – but those are questions for another discussion (and in fact are being tackled in some capacity by another panel at WCSJ13.) Still, it relates to whether or not education is or should be a part of science journalism.
If I do want to help educate the public about science, and if that is an important part of what I want to accomplish in my career does that mean I should be a science journalist? Why not be a teacher? (Oh, so many reasons.) I could work at a museum and educate the public. I could be a public information officer and help educate. I could be an outreach officer for any number of scientific organizations. If you want to educate, why do it through journalism?
There are a lot of questions related to this including: are there other aspects of being a journalist, specifically a science journalist that compliment being an educator? Does being an educator play a role in science journalism that it doesn’t for business or political writers? Writing scientific explainers is definitely journalism – but is it just one kind of journalism or is it something that pervades all science journalism? One of my favorite take-aways from Scio13 came out of the session on explanatory journalism where Carl Zimmer made the comment (which I'm paraphrasing) that good science journalism should never read like you are dropping a textbook on someone. I think that ties in well with this topic, because if you want to be an educator and you want to do it through journalism - well then how do you do that effectively?

While you could approach this question in a lot of different ways, I would really like to hear from people about whether being an educator was part of what made you want to become a science journalist, and what role you think education plays in your work. Bora has tackled this question before in the blog post/on Twitter with Is Education What Journalists Do? Again, I'll be posting this question to Twitter on Thursday 5/9 at 1pm EST at the #sci4hels hashtag - I hope you'll join in.

Update 5/9: 
So what happened? Here's the storify recap - it was apparently both useful and not useful, but a lot of people had a lot to say, so thank you for participating everyone!

Monday, May 6, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month David Tarpey

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. Happy May, I'm excited for spring and warm weather, aren't you? This month I'm pleased to introduce you to David Tarpey, PhD. David is an entomologist (he studies bugs!) at North Carolina State University. Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, Becky, Michael, and Jenny I asked him questions about his job as a scientist to learn more about what he really does. I hope you enjoy learning about his work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

David: I'm an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. There are lots of types of bugs though, so most entomologists specialize in different areas. My speciality is honey bees, so my area of expertise is named apiculture. 

Erin Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

Courtesy of David Tarpey
David: I got my undergraduate degree at Hobart College, my Master of Science at Bucknell University and my PhD at the University of California, Davis. While an undergrad I actually got my first experience in research while on my junior year abroad at Oxford University in England studying the learning behavior of birds (starlings to be precise). I took that experience back to Hobart and did a different project for my senior thesis on the mating behaviors of Hawaiian drosophila, the picture-winged fruit flies, which was my first introduction to insect science. I then started my masters project on honey bees, and ever since then I've been hooked! My MS project investigated the fascinating process by which a new queen takes over the colony from the old mother queen, which involves rival sister queens fighting each other to the death until only one remains. My PhD project also involved research on queens, studying why they mate with an unusually high number of males, or drones. I've continued research on that same question ever since. 

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

David: I'm in the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, one of the largest and arguably the best entomology department in the country. My typical work day is anything but typical, as I do many things in my position. Some days I teach a large class of non-science majors about how cool bees are, using them to learn about biology in order to appreciate the process of science. Other days I work with beekeepers, teaching them how to best manage their beehives to keep their colonies healthy and productive so the bees can pollinate all the crops that we eat every day. Still other days, I work with other members of our lab to do research on why honey bees do what they do, and how they go about doing it. We use lots of different ways to address these questions, including genetics and glass-walled observation hives so we can watch what's going on inside.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

David: I've always known I've wanted to be a scientist. It may be in part because my father was a research psychologist so I've always been in academia, or it may be because I've loved exploring and tinkering in the outdoors since as early as I can remember. But what really got me excited about science was the first time I opened up a beehive containing ~50,000 bees and a single queen. Realizing how surprisingly peaceful they were and how they worked together for the greater good was so fascinating to me, I just had to understand more!

Courtesy of David Tarpey
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

David: I really enjoy all the different aspects of my job. Teaching students the fascinating biology of bees constantly renews my love and admiration for them, as does my working with beekeepers to help perfect their management of their beehives. Researching how colonies function is also very rewarding, as I feel like a detective trying to figure out an infinitely complex and interesting puzzle.

Erin: What is something about your  job that would surprise us?

David: Being the honey bee expert in North Carolina, one of the more surprising things that I do every year is help the NC State Fair judge all of the entries for honey, wax, and hive products. Beekeepers have many rewards, and they love to compete with each other to see who can bottle the best honey and make the best candles. We therefore help decide who wins the blue ribbon every year!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun? 

David: I love sports, so I play a lot of racquetball and basketball, and I also help coach my son's soccer team. I'm also an avid hiker and enjoy camping in the outdoors. I also wish I could be as hands-on with beekeeping as I used to be, since I enjoy playing with the bees as much as I can.
***
What do you think first graders? Do any of you ever see bees in your backyard or at the park? What are some of the things you know about bees? Do you have any questions for Dr. David? Be sure to leave him a comment!  I think he has a pretty cool job, don't you?

Thank you, David for being our May Scientist of the Month!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Mastermind (In Defense of Dr. Watson)

One of the biggest perks about attending Science Online in person this year was that all attendees received complimentary books. I got my first choice in the book lottery – Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind How to Think like Sherlock Holmes – and I thought it was great. However, if anything, reading up on how to think like the famous detective caused me to react in a way that is the complete opposite of Holmes, full of sentiment, attachment and personal bias. I failed miserably in this first test of Holmesian thinking.

The reason I say I failed is because I spent Konnikova’s entire book wanting to leap to the defense of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ companion throughout his many adventures. Holmes is admirable, entertaining, and his mental process is fascinating. Of course it is interesting to try to dissect the way that he looks at the world and deduces so much information from such seemingly obscure details. The fact that he uses his ability for good is particularly impressive, but Holmes is also kind of a jerk. Endearing, but still obnoxious.

Holmes is arrogant and closed off. He keeps other people in the dark because it amuses him to see them struggle for the clarity he so quickly attains, all so he can have his dramatic unveiling at the end of every case. He takes extreme satisfaction in the dramatic unveiling of the solution to each puzzle. He lets the police take credit, yes, but not until he has fully satisfied his desire to see Lestrade or Gregson squirm. His disdain for the average person seeps through the stories. There is also that minor issue of the heroin addiction.  

Watson doesn’t operate with the same mental dexterity as Holmes, but he is the character that I actually like. Holmes is the one I would hire to solve my next personal crisis, but Watson is the one I’d want to take out for a beer. It might be fun to imagine being Holmes, but I can actually relate to the human folly of Watson. He thinks like the rest of us do, and on top of that he’s a loyal friend and always bravely standing by at Holmes’ request with his pistol at the ready. He’s a soldier and a doctor – occupations I’ve always admired and respected.

Yet in spite of all of Watson’s good qualities, Konnikova throws him right under the proverbial bus. She makes no bones about her lack of admiration for the good doctor, even describing the “system Watson” way of thinking as: “Think of the Watson system as our naive selves, operating by the lazy thought habits” (Konnikova, 18.) I understand what Konnikova is getting at, Watson is the perfect example of the average person, but I bristled at the word lazy. Not because it isn’t correct – she fully backs up her reasoning with examples of Watson’s behavior in the various Holmes stories – but because I’ve attached myself to Watson the way you would a friend. How dare you call my friend lazy (even if he is!)

I found myself battling my sentimental attachment to Watson for most of Mastermind. One of the parts that riled me the most was Konnikova’s take on how Watson makes assumptions about Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four. When I read the story, I thought Watson and Mary’s attachment to each other was romantic, especially the scene where the lights cut out and they instinctively reach for each other’s hand in the darkness even though they’ve only just met. Then Konnikova has to go and totally burst my bubble by dissecting Watson’s initial impressions of Mary, which I hadn’t realized were totally superficial (at best):

“Right away the good doctor has jumped from a color of hair and complexion and a style of dress to a far more reaching character judgment. Mary’s appearance suggests simplicity; perhaps so. But sweetness? Amiability? Spirituality? Refinement and sensitivity? Watson has no basis whatsoever for any of these judgments. Mary has yet to say a single word in his presence. All she has done is enter the room. But already a host of biases are at play, vying with one another to create a complete picture of this stranger” (Konnikova, 41.)
Well okay then, so much for romantic. It only gets worse. As Mastermind progresses Konnikova lays out an entire array of examples of Watson being confused, getting defeated, and settling for less than the most rigorous truth. In the shadow of Holmes, Watson is far from deserving of our praise, and certainly not one to be emulated. I see that the overall message of Mastermind is that all of us have an inner Holmes we can train, and if we work hard we too can possess those same mental abilities. Still, I walked away feeling a little slighted, much like the good doctor. I didn’t really want to see the character in that light. It is naive I suppose, but I could have done without Watson going under the microscope. Alas, once one's eyes are open, they are open. 

If we take my sentimental attachment to Watson out of the equation, Konnikova’s book is an incredibly fun read that adds a wonderfully colorful context to Holmes’ thought process. I enjoyed it immensely and it really did open my eyes to the many ways we box in our own thinking. Recommended, although maybe not if like me, you find some solace in the sentimental way we react to our favorite characters.

Monday, April 8, 2013

#Sci4hels: The Killer (Female) Science Journalists of the Future

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13
Photo by Russ Creech
Confession time, folks: all of the sci4hels members are women. Young women, at the start of their careers in science journalism. To date, nothing RoseLena, Kathleen and I have done in the lead up to our panel discussion at the World Conference of Science Journalists has addressed this fact, including our website, blog posts or question time. Why should it? The topic of the panel has nothing to do with gender. In case you've missed me talking nonstop about sci4hels in the last six months here is the panel description:

The 'Killer' Science Journalists of the Future: "The science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year- and they are good! Many of them have science backgrounds. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today's online world and using all the tools available to them. But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem - they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats to tell stories online, and if the appropriate tool is missing - they build it themselves. Not only can they write well, they can also code (well, some of us), design for the web, produce all types of multimedia, and do all of this with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors. I'd like to see the best of them tell us what they do, how they do it and what they envision for the media ecosystem they are currently building." - Bora Zivkovic (panel organizer)

Being female isn't a part of that description. Yet, the panel is all female. Bora chose us by sifting through the work of dozens of new science journalists, by narrowing down his list slowly to make sure that he chose three panelists and a moderator whose experience and interests would make the best lineup. He ended up with four women. As four women who now have an international platform to discuss our profession, should we address our gender or not? Is it the proverbial gorilla in the room? Do we have some kind of duty to use our powers for good to try to tackle feminism and journalism just because we can? Are we putting some kind of target on our backs for criticism by calling attention to our gender?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, with a mixture of excitement and dread because we've made the decision to go there - to talk about being female science journalists. For me, even though I have my concerns about incorporating our gender into the official sci4hels discussion I don't see how we can avoid talking about it. It comes up all the time behind closed doors, and if we're going to commiserate and try to help each other tackle it, why shouldn't we open it up to our larger community? So, the next sci4hels question time (what, you missed question #1 and question #2?) is going to set out to constructively answer: how do we get more women to the top of the masthead?

In the words of conversation moderator Rose Eveleth: "There are tons of women in science journalism, but very few at the very top. This isn't a journalism specific problem, obviously, but in a field where the early and mid-career ranks are full of women, what can we do to even the numbers at the top? And, pertaining to our panel, what can the younger generations of science journalists do about it?"

We're going to be discussing this on Thursday 4/11 at 10 am EST on Twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels. I'm excited for what I hope will be a value filled conversation about how women can rise to the top of the journalism hierarchy. I'm more excited to see what advice there is for young women particularly because trying to establish credibility is hard for everyone, but being new and being a woman is like a double whammy when it comes to trying to convince someone you know what you're doing. If you don't have your PhD or a Pulitzer to wave around to tell people you know your stuff, it is that much harder. We tackled how to break into the business with question #2, so I think this is a logical progression: once you're in, then what? How do you continue to push your career forward and not plateau at deputy associate editor for XYZ?

With the first two questions I at least had some kind of an answer or advice to offer to the conversation. I don't have as much to give about this topic. Aside from the painfully obvious, yet still painfully necessary advice to be professional - which includes writing polite and appropriate emails, meeting deadlines, and communicating with your editors should problems arise - I'm not really sure how you go about positioning yourself to rise through the ranks. All the more reason why I think this question is a  necessary one. So here's hoping we can accomplish more than just feeding the trolls, I'll let you know how it goes.

Update 4/16 - So how did it go? Well, Rose Eveleth has your recap here, with a lot of interesting points. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Jennifer Laaser

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders, another month, another scientist! I want to introduce you to our April scientist of the month: Jennifer Laaser. Jenny is a physical chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we actually took a class together about communicating science when I was in grad school! Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, Becky, and Michael I asked her some questions to find out more about what she does as a scientist. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Jenny: I'm a physical chemist. Now, I don't know what you think of when you think of a chemist - I picture someone who works in a lab and wears a white lab coat and mixes colorful chemicals together. But that's not what I actually do! I actually only do chemical reactions once in a while. Instead, as a physical chemist, I mostly study why reactions happen, the way they happen and why atoms and molecules behave the way they do. I do this using lasers. 

The reason I use lasers to study chemical reactions is that chemical reactions happen incredibly, incredibly fast - way faster than you can watch with a video camera. Individual chemical reactions also involve atoms and molecules that are so tiny you can't see them, even with a powerful microscope. So the laser acts sort of like a super fast camera that asks the molecules, "what are you doing? what are you doing now? and what are you doing now?"over and over and over. Then we can use this information to figure out how the reaction works. 

I'm currently using our lasers to study how different types of solar cells work, and how we might make them better. Other scientists in my lab also use the lasers to study things like how proteins in certain cells clump together and cause diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's disease - they hope that if they understand how this stuff happens, they might help other scientists figure out how to stop it from happening and cure these diseases. So, I think we do a lot of really cool stuff!

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?
Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser

Jenny: I studied chemistry in college, though I took classes in a lot of other interesting things too. I grew up in California, then I went to college at Yale University, and now I'm a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Jenny: I work in the chemistry department at UW-Madison. My "typical" day at work depends a lot on what I'm trying to get done that day - some days, I spend almost the whole day in the lab, working on the laser and setting up experiments. Other days, I spend most of the day sitting at my desk, doing calculations, analyzing my data, and writing papers about what I've learned. I think one of the reasons I enjoy my job so much is that it really never gets boring. I do something different everyday!

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Jenny: Oh, good question! I've always wanted to know how things work, and I've always loved doing experiments even just silly experiments in the kitchen or in my parents' backyard. So, I don't think I ever decided to become a scientist; I've just always been one. (If you like asking why things work and testing your ideas out, you might already be a scientist too!)

I chose to study science in school because I thought it was fun and interesting. But, I liked so many different types of science that it was kind of hard to pick just one. when I was six or seven years old I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought it would be super cool to go to outer space. When I got a little older, I discovered I was really good at math, and so I thought I might be a mathematician. When I went to college, I was pretty sure I was going to be a physicist. But then I took a chemistry class, and I decided I really liked it and I've been doing chemistry ever since. 

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Jenny: Well, playing with lasers is pretty cool. But really, my favorite thing about my job is that I get to work with a ton of really smart, fun people. We work together and help each other out a lot - for example, we help each other figure out how to fix experiments that aren't working, we talk about how to interpret the results from our experiments, and we design completely new experiments. So, I learn a lot from them and that makes doing science more fun. 

Another really cool thing about my job is that I get to travel to a lot of interesting places to meet with other scientists and talk about our work. Scientists have lots of meetings and conferences so that they can get together and discuss their experiments and it is fun to learn from these other scientists. It is also fun to get to travel to new places for these meetings - I've gotten to visit cities all across the United States (from Seattle to Boston) and even a few places outside the US. Last year, I even went to Switzerland for a conference. Can you find Switzerland on a map, it is really far from Wisconsin and where you are in New Jersey too!


Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Jenny: Well, I already told you that I don't actually do much with chemicals, even though I'm a chemist. But another thing that might surprise you is that the lasers in my lab don't look like lasers in the movies. The lasers I use are big and boxy and bolted to large tables in order to prevent them from moving. If they move even the tiniest bit, our experiments won't work at all. 

The picture above is me standing next to one of our lasers. Normally, this laser has a cover on it, but sometimes we have to take the cover off to fix parts inside that are broken. In this photo you can actually see some of the mirrors and lenses that make the laser work!

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Jenny: There are a lot of things I like to do for fun! I love to cook and bake, knit, and take photos. But I think my favorite things to do is dance. I started taking ballet classes when I was four years old, and I've been dancing ever since. This year, I even performed in the Nutcracker with my local ballet company. Have any of your ever seen the Nutcracker? Any guesses which role I danced this year?
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What do you think first graders? I think Jenny's work seems really fun and interesting. Did you expect a chemist to work with lasers? Do you have any questions for Jenny? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are There Any Sci Comm Superheroes Among Us?

You cannot do everything. Neither can I, none of us can. A few weeks ago I attended both the Science Online and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conferences. An issue that kept coming up in discussion is how to be better at science outreach and communication. For scientists and communicators (and the many people who are both) it was clear to see that everyone wanted to be better. But, I noticed people getting frustrated, and sometimes even a little heated when it came down to the nitty gritty of HOW to be better.

No one person or group is, or can be, solely responsible for science communication. Science communication is an ecosystem that includes journalists, writers, bloggers, comedians, cartoonists, artists, video and audio producers, storytellers, social media enthusiasts, and scientists. What unites us is our end goal, we all want to share a love for science that explains, while also exciting people about science. How we go about achieving that end goal is different for all of us - and it needs to be. I would argue that the reason the science communication ecosystem has evolved to include so many different types of communicators is because we have a need for different voices communicating about science in different ways. The more quality communication out there, the better.

That doesn't mean any one person can be a regular sci comm superhero and do it all. I can't be a journalist, writer, blogger, artist, comedian, cartoonist, video and audio rockstar, etc. I don't know about you, but I don't have time for that. I don't know anyone who does, and communication is my main focus. I think it's a little bit crazy to expect scientists to be scientists and also communicators, but on top of that layer on every type of communication. You alone can't reach everyone, that is why we need all of us out there communicating in different ways. It is the only way we can reasonably expect to reach a wide audience.

Who are you, mystery sci comm superhero?
Credit: Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons
I've seen a lot of conversation lately about the idea of scientists writing lay friendly abstracts for their scientific papers. I'll be the first to admit lay abstracts are helpful. I recently sat with a researcher who made a graphical abstract to represent the research in pictures, it was awesome. But, I've seen the lay abstract idea get pushed even further into scientists writing full articles for the public. Where do we draw the line? If all the scientists get out there and start writing lay-friendly whole articles for publication in the mainstream...well then what the heck am I supposed to do all day? This isn't about jargon (please, please, let's not have the jargon fight again) I certainly don't think that all scientists are bad at communicating. Some are very good at it, and some aren't so great. But you know, I would be a lousy scientist. I'm not trained to be a scientist, those aren't the skills that I have. What I am trained to be, is a writer.

Writing well is something that requires certain skills and know how, in addition to a little bit of talent. It is something that develops over time, the more you write, often the better you'll get at it. All of the other modes of communication, audio, video, etc. include their own skill set. Sometimes I feel like people take for granted that everyone should be able to write and communicate well. There is a distinct lack of appreciation for the level of skill and dedication it can take to communicate well. That's not to say people can't learn how (or that for some, it will come much easier than it does for others) - but the same way I can't just snap my fingers and be a great scientist, I don't think you can just wish to be a good communicator and make it so. It takes time, which is the one thing that is in short supply for all of us.

I don't want or expect scientists to do my job for me. I want to write, I just need the help of scientists so that I can. One thing, in my opinion the most important thing, that scientists can do to be more involved in outreach is to make themselves available to science communicators so we can ask our questions and then synthesize the material for a public audience. It takes time to sit with a writer, I know, but it is time well spent. It is also time that doesn't require developing an entirely new skill set.

If scientists have the time to learn how to communicate well and then get out there and do it, that's great. Direct from the scientist themselves communication is awesome. I value it highly. But I also don't think it's fair to expect scientists to do their job and then also do my job. Not when being a scientist is itself basically two jobs because in addition to being a scientist, most are also professors and teaching itself is it's own career. I'm all for stepping down from "the ivory tower" but that doesn't have to mean becoming a master communicator yourself. Outreach, like communication, comes in many shades.

If you don't think you have the skills to write well, and you think your time could be better spent elsewhere, then fine. If you'd rather give a talk for an audience or demographic that you normally wouldn't reach because that's what you feel comfortable doing, then do it. If you'd rather sit with a journalist for an hour and just talk about your research so that they can go get the article in the media, then great. If the best way you think you can reach the public is by joining twitter and then adding value to conversations about your field of expertise, then do that. If you want to sit in front of your computer and film a short video of you summarizing your work, do it. I'm all for doing something, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything.

I've said before in blog posts about learning to code, that I don't think journalists should be required to excel at every different type of communication. Try, sure. Try out new things. Try new ways of communicating and reaching people. Be open. But there is a difference between trying new things to see if you enjoy or are good at them, and a blanket expectation that you have to use every single means of communicating out there. Similarly, I don't think you can expect scientists to do every different type of outreach. Some outreach, sure. Scientists can be open to new things too, and try them out to see how they fit. But just like I don't enjoy code, some scientists might not like Twitter. It's okay to not like Twitter. I choose to communicate in ways that I am good at and enjoy. I love Twitter, that's why I use it. I don't see why scientists shouldn't have the same rule of thumb when it comes to outreach. There are so many different ways to get a message to someone. We need all of the ways, and we need different people to try them.

I'm not a sci comm superhero. I don't do it all. Mostly because I like to sleep, and I like my sanity but also because I'm not very good at certain things. I can't draw to save my life. You're never going to catch me trying to be a sci scribe. I'm okay with that, because drawing isn't how I communicate. It's not what I do, and it doesn't have to be. Scientists don't all have to be writers. There are other ways to get your message across without having to be a sci comm superhero. I'm not saying don't try, but let's just be realistic here. Yes, scientists need to communicate about their work, but I'm not going to expect scientists to communicate in every way when I don't even do it myself.

You don't have to do it all just to do something. Even if that something is just talking to someone who does want to write, that itself is a positive step. So maybe, rather than trying to do all the things all the time by ourselves, we could just try to do a few things, and rely on each other to fill in the gaps. That way we as the science communication ecosystem can reach the most people in the best ways. Is that too idealistic? Maybe. But I can hope can't I?