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ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Kathleen Raven

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Kathleen Raven (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I live in a place that struggles with frequent droughts, nutrient-starved soil and really hot summers. Does that narrow it down enough? I like to think that no matter where we call home, we live closer together than we realize and have more in common than we think. Anyway, I’m from Athens, Georgia.

Philosophically, I’m liberal-minded, outrageously optimistic, and a fan of rigorous science. Especially the scientists who stray way off path and risk ridicule to push the field forward. My scientific background includes a currently in-progress master’s of science degree in conservation ecology. For three years, I’ve studied sustainable agriculture in Georgia’s Piedmont region. This past year I wrapped up a video project that features conservation tillage practices on a small farm during the four seasons. Video brings a thrilling edge to science communication. So I’m trying to learn as much as possible about filming and editing. My next project is to explore how videos might help small farmers learn and share information.

Through May 2012, I’ll continue to my current assistantship as science writer for the University of Georgia’s News Service. This has absolutely been one of my career highlights so far. Each interview with a scientist or researcher is like translating hieroglyphs into English. I love it—especially when the scientist comes back and says, “Hey, you got the science part right.” At the moment I’m looking forward spending a week in Germany. Along with 14 other U.S. journalists, I’m participating in this year’s Berlin Capital Program sponsored by the Fulbright Commission.

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

As a graduate student, classwork takes up much of my time (surprise) and passion, too. Nerds rule. While I’ll be done with my M.S. program in the spring, I still have another semester or so to go for my master’s of art degree in health and medical journalism. I began that program this past August. Mind and body health fascinate me. All of us are conceived exactly the same way, well, sort of, and then – bam! – the tiniest details create a sketch of the rest of our lives. Did the mother eat a balanced diet during pregnancy? What is a balanced diet? Which genes were inherited? Which socioeconomic class was the child born into? Even before we are out of the gate, we struggle and strive. That and about a million other things make me want to learn more about human and global health. The world needs more investigative science and health writers to weigh, balance, question and attempt to make some sense of a topic for the general public.

My goal is to be a writer who does these things. I’m terrible at specializing. I’m interested in local food networks, genetics and psychology, nanotechnology, climate change, international diseases, wildlife health, online communication, evolution, how statistics can be skewed any way you want… The list morphs every minute. Another great passion of mine is the Great Outdoors. I get outside as much as possible. Nature keeps us honest to the big questions no matter our specialty in science.

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

We’re living in the heyday of science communication!! We can check any study, news article, politician’s comment or blog post we want from wherever WiFi is available. Huge datasets are available to download and to discover previously unknown correlations! We are explorers of vast swathes of information masses. The power that online science writers have comes with a price: the ease of lazy reporting. Who is checking all of these “facts” anyway? I’m watching the field of scientific citing and general attribution intently. Are we still generally making progress in our scientific knowledge, or are we spinning our wheels? Are important voices getting drowned out in the online chatter? I’m intensely curious to see how we, as online communicators, will keep pushing the limits of getting accurate information into public domain, and also how to track and monitor information in its many forms.

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

My dream would be to write a blog post every day—every morning before breakfast. And I plan to increase my blog writing time in the coming year. All of us write our posts in stolen snatches of time; but even those have been so scarce lately. I rely heavily on hashtags to stay current on issues of interest (#scio12, #climatechange, #science, and whatever the latest topic I’m writing about). Lately I’ve spent more time monitoring Twitter than contributing to it.

My social media networks are purposefully in silos. I use Twitter for information gathering and sharing—and not really to talk to friends. My Facebook account has some bits of professional stuff here and there. Mostly I use it to vent frustrations, stay in touch with folks, share an interesting article. I’ve ventured into FriendFeed, Google+ and Academia, but my accounts there are sorely neglected. I’m trying to figure out how to make use of these networks in the most time efficient way. Maybe I’ll learn more about this at ScienceOnline2012! Overall, I try to keep a hyper-focused attitude when I’m working with social media. Usually I will literally set a timer: 30 minutes on Twitter and then close it down. I’m so curious—it’s easy for me to fall down a rabbit hole.

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

Bora, I met YOU at the National Association of Science Writers in 2011. That was really my first introduction to the rich ecosystem of online science blogs. I have many favorites—some of which I have mentioned on my own blog. From last year’s conference, I discovered extremely specialized blogs and others that covered all topics in a fresh voice. So an example of specialization is Ivan Oransky’s Retraction Watch. Love his eagle eye! As an example of a blogger who doesn’t limit herself to any topic, I check in frequently with Stephanie Zvan’s Almost Diamonds.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

The best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 was, hands down, meeting the people. Even as holographic technology advances, there will never be a substitute for the human interaction. All of the amazing creativity and intellectual energy spurred me to work harder toward my goals and think beyond now to the future and how to make it better.

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, or to your science reading and writing?

I will always remember the session titled “Science journalism online: better, or merely different?” with Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, John Rennie and Steve Silberman. You couldn’t see the floor in that room by the time the session started and I think we went beyond our official time slot. As someone who has been working in newspapers since I was 16 (back then we put the newspaper together with a wax machine and blueprint), I am extremely sympathetic to the old school. However, the possibilities discussed that day made me extremely excited about how journalism can only get better as we consume more of our news online. And, as always, the basic rules—accuracy, thoroughness, colorful writing—never change.

Thank you so much for the interview. See you again in January!






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