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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Michele Arduengo

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


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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 Michele Arduengo, Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation (blog, Twitter).

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

I guess you can say that these days I eat my grits with lots of cheese. I was born and raised near Atlanta, GA, but now call southern Wisconsin home. I hold a PhD earned through the Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology Program at Emory University in Atlanta, where I studied cell differentiation in C. elegans.

I had difficulty staying focused while I was a graduate student and was constantly doing things like taking adjunct teaching positions at local colleges, enrolling graduate level theology courses, trekking off on  watercolor painting workshops, and even participating in a lay chaplaincy program at Emory University Hospital. The chaplaincy program was an incredibly valuable experience, and it was in this program that for me science, medicine and ethics collided head first, and I began to get a broader view of what it means to be a scientist in the “real world”. These experiences led me to participate in a high school ethics teaching program and eventually to team teach a seminar in science and religion for college students.

After finishing my PhD I took a tenure-track teaching position at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. (I bucked the system and didn’t do a postdoc.) I loved teaching, and at Morningside I was able to broaden my knowledge of biology as the only molecular geneticist in a biology department that included a parasitologist, zoologist, paleobiologist, and an ecologist. The experience teaching in Sioux City was great; it was the perfect antidote to narrow PhD training, and I loved learning about prairie ecology, participating in frog and toad calling surveys and teaching introductory biology. However, I missed city life (particularly the food scene), so when the opportunity arose to move to Madison, WI, and work for Promega, I seized it.

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

Most of my time and passion centers on being a mom. There are days when my goal is simply to get out the door in the morning and not forget to take my daughter to school. There are other days when my goals are loftier. At work I think about writing and the best way to communicate new science technologies to researchers. As a writer, I am always searching for ways to improve. I confess that I still do not know what I am going to be when I grow up, but someday I hope to craft the perfect sentence.

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

I’m curious to see how the web can facilitate the development of communities across communities, particularly to see if science communities can interact meaningfully with non-science communities.

I am concerned that the ability to personalize news pages, subscribe to particular news feeds or blogs, actually makes it easier for people to become more isolated. People connect with others across the world, but the only those who share the same interests or views. Back when folks only had access to one or two newspapers and three network TV channels, they had to listen to what was offered. People had to interact with the people around or not interact at all. So, is all this social media fostering the formation of lots of little islands of like-minded people, or can social media and the web really be used to cross-fertilize, to form vibrant diverse communities that drive innovation and a better world?

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?

Promega Corporation went “paperless” in 2009, discontinuing all of our print technical magazines (one of which I edited). We converted our print magazines into two online technical publications and began a corporate blog, Promega Connections. As one of the charter bloggers, I have been involved in the development of the philosophy that guides our blogging activities. We see Promega Connections as a place for scientists to come to read things that are interesting to them, whether it’s technical tips, summaries of peer-reviewed literature, career discussions or just fun stuff. We are not looking to measure return-on-investment; we are looking to build relationships with our readers. The writing I do for the blog is the favorite part of my job. Actually, I like it so much that I always feel a little guilty—like I’m not really doing work—when I’m researching and writing Promega Connections pieces.

To learn a little more about blogging and gain some experience that I could translate to my work at Promega, I started my own personal blog, Grits and Purls. Occasionally I write a little science there, but mostly I write about being a mom. These posts are usually recycled into columns for my hometown newspaper. So, when I do write about science, I’m bringing science to a new audience.

To understand something, I have to do it. So to get a feel for social media, I am also on Twitter, Facebook and was on Google+. Twitter is a great tool for following other bloggers and discovering new ones. It’s really how I keep up with other science writers. I use Twitter more than aggregators, RSS feeds or anything else. Facebook seems still to remain in the personal realm for me as a user, although our Promega Facebook page routinely gets technical and customer service questions posted to it. I was on Google+ for a while. Lots of people were there, but nobody was there who wasn’t also on Twitter, so I dropped it. Pinterest is intriguing; I’m interested to see what happens with it.

I am connecting with science writers I would have never met otherwise through social media. I like that, but I also think face-to-face contact is important. And, frankly nothing gets my attention these days like a hand-written note arriving via snail mail.

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 started poking around the science blogosphere just as Promega Connections was becoming reality. I found ScienceBlogs.com (where I discovered Janet Stemwedel, Ed Yong, Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski) and ResearchBlogging.org; I followed the “Pepsigate” controversy and then found other science blogging networks. I joined Twitter, and that is where I really began to engage with other science writers and bloggers, and it’s where I learned about science online.

This year, after registering for #scio12, I shamelessly copied Science Goddess’ idea of blog visits based on the scio12 attendees list (I wasn’t as thorough as she was; I took the random visit approach). I discovered many wonderful writers this way. I particularly love the writings and musings of @leafwarbler on his Posterous blog and Meera Lee Sethi on The Science Essayist. The “I am Science” and “This is what a scientist looks like” tweets and photo essays that have grown out of #scio12 have been absolutely fascinating.

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?

I am having a blast with the Science Scribing that Perrin Ireland shared with the #scio12 this year. Not only did I use it for sessions at #scio12, but I have also used it in some literature reviews that I have posted on the Promega Connections blog. My advice—have even more Science Scribing next year.

I loved the scio12 conference and learned a lot. I found it easiest to talk to people and connect in the small group for the tour of the arboretum that I attended. I’m just not a person who will start a conversation with someone during a coffee break and feel at all “normal” about it. It would be nice to be able to work a few more small-group activities/field trips into the meeting, where conversation might come more easily for those of us who will gladly speak in a formal setting, shout into cyberspace, but quickly duck and run for cover at an informal gathering.

Thank you for the interview. Hope to see you next year!






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