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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Cathy Clabby

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 Cathy Clabby (Twitter), a former longtime newspaper reporter, contributing editor to American Scientist magazine and onetime MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow. In 2012 she jumped with both feet into digital publishing. She is senior editor of Life on Earth, the innovative biology textbook under development by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation for the iPad only.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

After so many years in print media and collaborating with digital storytellers, I’ve become a digital storyteller myself working on Dr. E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I am very grateful to have been invited to join the small team creating it. One day the book will be 41 chapters that deliver a standards-based curriculum and gives high school students good tutoring on all the central topics of biology. Sounds familiar, yes? But it’s also intended to be something entirely new. With multimedia muscle we hope to show students biology like it’s never been displayed before, whether that be tours of DNA replication machinery inside (lots of) cells or helicopter tours of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where a grand experiment in restoration ecology is underway.

I very much believe in this “book” and want to contribute as well as I can. I’ve become obsessed with taking the intelligence of high school readers seriously and figuring out ways to use storytelling to excite them about science. The longer I’m involved, the more ways I also see that I need to retool.

No longer can I be merely be a (decent, I hope!) word person waiting on artists and multimedia peeps to do their thing. I need to be able to size up the resolution of images; work the tools of iBooks Author, including the powers of Keynote; work up storyboards and narrations for videos; and try to absorb the fierce opportunities of multimedia. It’s an exciting new way of thinking but not always easy to learn on the job. All I can say is that I am on a steep side of multiple learning curves.

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

Like so many of us, I fell for the Web the moment I laid eyes on it. I’m an avid consumer and my life is richer for it. As a former newspaper science reporter, I’m particularly intrigued by how this democratization of publishing has invited so many experts into public discussions about scientific findings and the rest that were once dominated by journalists. You know what I mean. Scientists are writing in engaging and informed ways about topics they understand deeply that science journalists frequently were learning on the fly. More times than man of us may like to admit, the content is simply better.

But I also worry about the loss of some of the roles that traditional media played in science coverage. For one, newspapers reached a really broad audience. I always relished the fact that I wrote for everyone, from the cafeteria staff at North Carolina legislature to the governor of the state when covering science for The News & Observer in Raleigh. That paper is lucky; it has advertiser support to run science features once weekly composed by a very able crew of freelancers.

But no one there is working the beat as news beat, on the prowl for deeper stories on ethical breakdowns, political interference with science, and the rest. The New York Times does that beautifully on the national level obviously but I don’t see their reporters too often developing confidential sources at major research universities such as Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill or NC State. Will the web ever deliver that sort of news on the regional level? If so, who will pay for it? Those questions remain important to me.

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 attended the first ScienceOnline back in 2007, I’m happy to say. That was the first place I ever saw someone sitting at an event, pop out of a chair, turn and take a picture of those around him and sit in his seat to post that picture on a blog. I was intrigued. But last year was so different. What struck me most was the variation and caliber of digital publishing that I learned about. Two people stick in my mind. One was Olivia Koski of Atavist. I was fascinated to learn about the ways her Brooklyn-based outfit was merging so many multimedia tools to give authors an independent way to share their work. I’m all for that sort of democratization. The second was Scott Rosenberg, the executive editor of Grist, which is tackling something I really believe in: covering environmental issues in informed and understandable ways. If there is a more important story than ecology and the environmental at the dawn of the 21t century, I’m not seeing it. So many smart people there were trying to do something new really well.

Thank you for the interview!






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  1. 1. dkenney 10:58 pm 01/8/2013

    Well, hi, Cathy Clabby! Nice to catch up with you here. Life on Earth sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to read it! — Diana Kenney, MBL

    Link to this

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