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.
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?
Geographically: Minneapolis -> New York City (College, MD, PhD at Columbia) -> St. Louis (Residency at Wash U) -> Palo Alto (co-founder at Quartzy)
Philosophically: After working for many years in biomedical research labs, I became resolved to make science move faster. I believe one of the big problems in science, in both academia and industry, is a lack of a standardized lab infrastructure. We use the scientific method to think about how to test our observations, but there is no “laboratory method” for actually doing science.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I have taken a somewhat circuitous route to my current life. I started my foray into Science as a 9th grader when I told my dad “I want to work with white blood cells this summer”. He was a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He asked one of his colleagues if I could work in her lab. She said yes, and I began my first research project – examining the protease activity of of bronchial washings from patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). I found that better nourished CF patients had less proteolytic activity in their lungs than those with poorer nutrition. I was hooked, and, I spent the remainder of my high-school summers in the lab.
After high school, I attended Columbia University in New York and continued this summer tradition, working first for a chemistry professor, and then for a microbiologist. I published my first first-author paper with the microbiologist (biochemical analysis of a divalent cation sensor protein in E. coli and Salmonella), which was a wonderful feeling. I went on to complete an MD/PhD at Columbia, and during my research years I became increasingly aware and increasingly frustrated by the inefficiencies that plague scientific research.
I couldn’t believe that it was the 21st century and one of the best institutions in the country still used excel, whiteboards, paper and fax machines to coordinate daily activities in the lab. I started working on a project to help my lab, and when other labs became interested I realized that there was an immense need here. The big idea of coordinating all aspects of scientific research through a standardized online platform thrilled me, so my programmer-friend and I launched the system, called Quartzy with the aim of advancing research by making labs more efficient.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
Quartzy is a 24/7 job. Just ask my wife. I imagine a world where the pace of science is no longer dragged down by the inability to find the resources to do experiments. I would like for Quartzy to serve that purpose, which is why it’s free for scientists. I strongly believe that keeping Quartzy free is the only way for it to become the standard method for lab management. I would like scientists to be able to spend every dollar they have on actual experiments, not on lab management software.
Quartzy makes money from vendors. They can either have Quartzy host their catalogs, or participate in our marketplace, so users can buy directly from them through Quartzy. We also do some contract customization work. Over 12,000 scientists are on Quartzy. The cool thing is that as this number grows, the efficiency increases exponentially. For example, when a grad student leaves one lab and joins another, if both labs are on Quartzy the time it takes for her to start her new project is significantly lower since she’ll know where everything is.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
The development of web-based tools to enhance communication in the sciences is probably the most profound advance in the last decade. It has always been odd to me that the internet started as an instrument to allow scientists to efficiently communicate, but all the cool developments sprung up in the consumer sector, leaving the sciences in the dust. Although these new science-focused tools are all still in their youth, they have the power to completely disrupt every aspect of the scientific process from actually doing experiments to publishing results to peer review. The noise to signal ratio is a little high right now, since we’re in the “Wild-west” days of this movement, but that’s also why it’s an extremely exciting time.
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?
Absolutely positive. These networks are vital to communicating with our users, but also vital to communication in general at this point in time. Science has never been done in a vacuum, and these networks allow people to rapidly discover information that could have taken months to learn about otherwise. At first, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of using these tools in science, but if used correctly they can be a huge asset. Twitter and Facebook are especially powerful because of the size of their respective networks. If you’re a scientist right now and you’re not using at least one of these tools, you are at a significant disadvantage.
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’m not sure when I discovered them. It was probably when doing research for my PhD. Two specific blogs that I was made aware of at Scio12 are The Artful Amoeba and The Mother Geek. Also, it was super cool to meet Jonathan Eisen at the conference, whose blog I’ve followed for a while.
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?
Because of ScienceOnline2012, I will probably become more active on google+. A lot of people were talking it up there. As far as the conference itself goes: much of the conference focused on navigating the intersection of science and writing, or how to improve your writing, which was great, but I was thinking it might be cool to invite some scientists to actually present some of their new data and see how all the science writers in the room cover the same presentations.
Thank you! Hope to see you again in January.