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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Maryn McKenna

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 Maryn McKenna (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?

I’m a journalist working in several different channels: I blog (for Wired), write medium-length pieces (as a columnist for Scientific American), write long-form pieces (for a variety of magazines) and write books: so far, Superbug, about antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the CDC’s disease detectives.

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

I fell into science-writing sideways — in my case, through studying theatre, becoming a dramaturg, realizing I was about to starve, going to journalism school and coming out as a finance reporter. My first newspaper job involved doing analyses of sleazy savings and loan deals. That made me into an investigative reporter, and my next two newspaper jobs involved investigations into public health issues: in Cincinnati, cancer clusters near a closed nuclear-weapons plant, and in Boston, the earliest cases of Gulf War Syndrome. On the basis of those I ended up working in Atlanta as the only reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC, which basically meant wheedling my way into (many) outbreak investigations.

This is a good place to answer the education question. I didn’t study science as an undergraduate; I studied science writing for my masters’. But once it was clear I was going to be a public health reporter, I used journalism fellowships to do post-graduate work, including a year at University of Michigan studying the social history of epidemics and a year with the Kaiser Family Foundation studying emergency rooms.

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

I am in the proposal stage for a book that will look at the intertwined histories of antibiotic development and modern agriculture. My goal is to figure out how to free up enough time from the rest of my life to work on it!

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

I’m fascinated by how communities self-assemble on Twitter, and I’m increasingly interested in how social media can be used to support public health, for instance through crowd-sourced surveillance.

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?

Blogging (first at Blogger starting in 2007, then Scienceblogs, then Wired) has been essential to my re-invention: from a newspaper reporter to a freelance journalist, and from writing only about public and global health to venturing into food policy as well. Blogging gave me a publication space, gave me an identity, gave me an audience and community. My professional life now could not exist without it. In addition, I’m on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Pinterest and some semi-closed networks such as GoodReads, and I feel as though all of those support and extend what I (try to) do. Twitter in particular is essential to me — not just for community but also for identifying and researching stories.

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 think I “discovered” science blogs around the time I stumbled into blogging myself, and I don’t think I could say at this point who first caught my eye. “Favorites” is a very hard question to answer, both because I read so many — my RSS reader has, literally, hundreds of subscriptions in it — and also because I fear to accidentally leave out people whose work I really do like. But if I only have time to read a few, I will always go first to my Wired colleagues and friends Deborah Blum and David Dobbs; to Ed Yong, of course; to Tara Smith for her insights and Mike the Mad Biologist for his outrage; and to Maggie Koerth-Baker not just for her choices but for her pitch-perfect voice. For deep dives in diseases I love Contagions, Body Horrors and the mysterious Puff the Mutant Dragon. And for knowing what’s up on the food-policy side of my life I rely on Mark Bittman at the New York Times, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones and Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News.

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?

For me it’s the face-to-face meetings above all. Writing is a lonely business, especially for freelancers, and most especially for people like me who live in parts of the country where there are not dense artistic cultures. (I live mostly in Atlanta: great for public health, not great for random creative interaction.) To have so many people rejoicing in each others’ obsessions is fantastic. Even more, though, I love ScienceOnline because it brings me gently face-to-face with my unknown unknowns; that is, the conference and community introduce me every year to so many people who know more about my subjects than I do. I always come away not only with fresh ideas but also with the knowledge that I have met people whom I can trust to educate me, with enthusiasm and without judgment, when I need them.






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