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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with William Gunn

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 William Gunn.

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 William Gunn, better known as @mrgunn around these parts. I should probably change that to @drgunn at some point as I did complete my PhD in Biomedical Science some time ago. Right now, I live in Menlo Park, right in the middle of Silicon Valley, and it’s great being surrounded by nerds and geeks of all types. It’s quite a change from the small town in Mississippi where I grew up!

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

Your readers may be interested in hearing why and how I decided to leave academia. When I was in grad school, I didn’t get career advice so much as I got advice on how to be a successful researcher – diversify your projects, how to write papers and grants, etc. It took me a little while to realize that my best prospects lay elsewhere, and my early exposure to the web and science blogging was the main thing that helped me broaden my horizons. I was drawn to the sense of innovation and excitement of the startup world, so after completing my PhD, I worked for a small diagnostics startup in San Diego. They’re using some neat technology and have the potential to do for all clinical assays what 23andMe has done for genomics. I established the biology program these and then as the technology matured, the skills they needed changed, and the work became less interesting to me, so I moved from the biotech to a tech company, although one still very much involved in research. I’m now working at Mendeley in a role that has a great deal to do with science communication.

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

One of my main interests these days is altmetrics. I’m really fascinated with how the web is enabling new ways of publishing, and altmetrics is the study of how these new forms are impacting science. These are things like datasets, code, blog posts, and other scholarly outputs in addition to traditional papers and the metrics that describe their use, attention, and reuse. I’m working on finding some case studies that illustrate the different kinds of influences scientists receive and the broadening influence they have in society and on the web.

Another big passion of mine is research reproducibility. I’m working on an initiative with Science Exchange, a scientific services marketplace, to study the reproducibility of published biomedical research. We’ve joined with PLOS on this initiative to understand reproducibility and to promote good practices. I’m also an organizer of a few local events such as Science Online Bay Area, which is our little monthly discussion salon satellite of the yearly Science Online meeting, and Open Data Bay Area, where the open data community gets together to talk about data sharing, analysis, and reuse. Of course, I’m a big advocate for public access to federally-funded research and I spend some time writing and speaking on that topic as well.

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

I’ve always been interested in the way the web makes it easy for people to get together around a topic with relatively little of the posturing and hierarchical organization that characterizes our offline interactions. Being able to geek out about an interest, no matter how obscure, with a group of people who are as into it as you are is really what drew me in, even in the days of USENET, back before we had the web as we know it today. So just being able to write about personal genomics or text-mining Pubmed or whatever and have it read by thousands of people all over the world is really what I think is so amazing about the web as a communication medium.

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 figures heavily in my work and always has. When I was in grad school, I maintained a research blog and now I write the blog for Mendeley. I use Twitter and Google+ extensively as well, but don’t have much use for Facebook. Someone recently said, “Twitter is about who/what you want to know now, Facebook is about who you knew in high school and college.” When I talk to grad students and postdocs about making the transition from academia, I always tell them they should have a blog. In fact, it was my blog that got me my current job, and I couldn’t do my job without the help and inspiration of my online colleagues.

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?

The first blog about science, besides my own, that I discovered was Gene Expression, by Razib, who later joined the Discover Blog network. I have been following scienceblogs.com and the various other networks that have arisen since their conception, but there’s always new people starting up, like Karthik Ram and Carl Boettiger, two ecologists with a open science flair.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for the 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?

Well, I guess you can say what I took with me was the inspiration to start Science Online Bay Area ;-)

Thank you! And see you in January!



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  1. 1. bodyhorrors 12:37 pm 12/7/2012

    Really enjoyed this interview! And I was struck by this line, “When I was in grad school, I didn’t get career advice so much as I got advice on how to be a successful researcher”. I think this is one of my biggest disappointments in how graduate school operates though I’m thankful how much it has helped develop my research skills and abilities.

    Dr. Gunn, you have some cool interests – altmetrics & research reprodubility! – and I’m really looking forward to taking your R workshop at Scio13 this January!

    Link to this

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