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ScienceOnline – crossing a river with Anton Zuiker

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


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I have been conducting these ScienceOnline interviews for years now, and somehow I never got to interviewing you – one of the founders! It’s high time, don’t you think? So, without further ado, 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? How did you get into medical journalism?

Thank you, Bora. Like you, my last name starts with a Z, so I’m used to waiting for everyone to be called to the front of the classroom to speak. I think that that was one of the early experiences that taught me to pay attention to others. So, it’s been a pleasure to read your interviews through the years and to admire all the unique individuals who have been drawn to ScienceOnline. You’ve done an amazing thing in asking them to share a bit about their lives. The Web — the world — is a better place when we can stop to listen to each person’s story.

I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. I came here 12 years ago, and before that the longest I’d lived in one place was five years as a boy in Idaho. I’ve also lived in Ohio, the South Pacific, Hawaii, Illinois, U.S. Virgin Islands, Arizona, Minnesota and California. I’m the oldest of five sons. My father was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1965-67, Dominican Republic) and coordinator for the VISTA program, then became an attorney. My mother was a parochial-school teacher and principal. In 1981, my parents were watching the nightly news when the television sparked and died. They put it in the closet and never got another, probably the most important parenting decision in my life. I’m a voracious reader because of them. On St. Croix, the house we rented had stacks and stacks of National Geographic, and I set my mind to becoming editor of that journal. Inspired by the photos, I joined the eighth-grade photography club to learn to develop my own pictures.

My high school years were spent in DeKalb, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. I played varsity soccer, was elected student body president, edited an award-winning literary journal, worked summers detasseling hybrid seed corn and walking soybean fields, and with a couple of friends formed a juggling troupe named for the 18th-century Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (our terrific physics teacher suggested that). My dad regularly took me and my brothers into Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and to see the Blackhawks and White Sox and Cubs (he taught me how to keep the box score, and always have hope), and his stories about being a hard-working vendor — ‘Beer, here!’ — were often more interesting than the games we’d come to see. Dad also taught me to think about the consequences of my actions, and to keep a record of my activities. My mother encouraged me to make new friends and to persevere when my math homework brought me to tears.

When I entered college at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and to live a life of service, including following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Peace Corps. I also thought long and hard about becoming a Franciscan friar, but decided to become a different kind of father. I fell in love, but moved to Hawaii, where I got to interview astronomer Jerry Nelson in the Keck Observatory. Eventually, I returned to Cleveland, married Erin, and worked as an arts magazine editor. Together we joined the Peace Corps and went to the Republic of Vanuatu, later returning to the U.S. via Australia, Asia and Europe.

So, geographically, I’ve been around. Around the world, quite literally. And philosophically, I’ve learned to be open to that world and its possibilities. My parents taught me to make the best of each and every situation, and how to talk with people to find our similarities and marvel in our differences.

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

You’re probably still wondering how I got into medical journalism. That came out of my time in Vanuatu. Erin and I both got giardiasis and dengue, and she also got vivax malaria. We saw Hansen’s disease and filariasis and malnutrition and ciguatera poisoning. In the heat of the tropical days, I swayed in the hammock reading the Control of Communicable Diseases manual. When later we moved to North Carolina for Erin to get her masters of public health, I learned about the science and medical journalism program at the UNC j-school, and studied under Tom Linden. I was taking Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases when SARS broke out, and one of the class instructors happened to be Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert. By now, I knew I was never going to be editor of National Geographic, so instead I was aiming for the New Yorker: my masters thesis project was a 12,000-word narrative feature about acute HIV among college students.

An important thrust to my career trajectory, though, also came from my time in the Peace Corps. That was in the late 90s, and I recognized that when I was done on my island with no running water and no electricity, my childhood dream of being in print would have to change with the World Wide Web. I got a job at an Internet startup company in January 2000, just in time to watch the tech bubble burst from the inside. But I created my first website, became a blogger, and never looked back.

Over the last decade, you and so many other friends and colleagues have helped me combine my passions for journalism, community development and connecting on the Web. We call this the BlogTogether spirit — supporting individuals as they connect through social networks, and then creating ways for them to come together for face-to-face conversations. Those conversations, we’ve seen, promote the golden rule: blog about others as you’d have others blog about you. (I didn’t become a priest, but I’ve found my mission, you could say — or sing, as David Kroll did in Minister of Ether.)

I’m not going to be editor of National Geographic. I may never get into the pages of the New Yorker. But I do hope my career keeps me involved in supporting thoughtful observations about our world.

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

I have a great job, as communications director for the Duke University Department of Medicine. It’s in a vibrant academic medical center, and we use a blog to reflect the activities of our faculty and trainees, such as Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz. I was in his office a while back, and loved hearing him talk about how science and humor are alike in helping us see connections.

I recently figured out an important connection in my own life. My paternal grandfather, Louis Sisco, organized the annual Sisco Picnic, and I often helped him set up for that. His devotion to gathering the extended family, and his attention to the details in planning the event, rubbed off on me. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent the last 10 years organizing events and meetups, from the Narratives of HIV series to BlogTogether Backyard Barbecues to our shared ScienceOnline conferences. This year, though, I’m taking a break from organizing events. ScienceOnline has become an official organization, and Karyn Traphagen is charging ahead with great momentum and ideas – hers is a detail-oriented mind that my grandfather would admire. I now serve ScienceOnline, Karyn and the rest of our community as chairman of the board, and I will focus on that role. I’m excited to see where this all goes.

Not having to sweat the details of the conference means I have more time to write, and so I’m more actively writing on my blog. I’ve learned that the more I write on my blog and in my personal journal, the more balanced I am. That’s helping me to spend more time with my daughters, who need me to encourage them through their math homework, and two-year-old Oliver, who needs me to explore in the woods with him just like my dad did when I was young.

I’m in my forties now, and spending this decade learning to be a better storyteller. I love to hear great stories at the Monti, and Jeff Polish inspired me to convene the Talk Story narrative variety show. Karyn showed us postcards she wrote to her mother, and my friend Carter Kersh has gone on to tell two stories at The Monti, for which he’s been nominated for the Hippo Awards. I’ve stumbled through a few of my own stories. I may never be a great storyteller, but I do know that I’m becoming an even better listener. If my gift in life is to facilitate conversations and help other people share their stories, then I’ll continue to do that as humbly as I can.

Through my writing, my listening, my living, I’m trying to be ever more thoughtful, kind, patient and passionate.

You once described your life philosophy as crossing-a-river. What does that mean and how does it work?

I’ve spent a lot of time at the edge of the water – watching contemplatively as mountain rivers cascade, or expectantly as ponds begin to freeze over, or contentedly as the sun sets over oceans and seas in which I’ve just surfed or snorkeled or paddled. As my family moved around, and my parents taught me to find opportunity in each new place, I came to see my life as a journey across a wide river strewn with stepping stones, each stone offering new possibilities for forward or lateral movement toward that other river bank. Some steps are shorter and seemingly less memorable, others further and riskier. I’m certain I’ve fallen in a few times – the story I’ve told my daughters the most is the one about rafting on the New River, tumbling over and losing my favorite Greek fisherman’s cap – but I’m also sure that each moment has strengthened and deepened.

(As I’m writing this, sitting in 3CUPS sipping keemun hao ya, there’s a young guy at the next table over, strumming an ukulele. That makes me remember meeting the gentle giant Israel Kamakawiwoole and Big Island lutier David Gomes. Part of the allure of my crossing-a-river metaphor is the joy in looking back at the steps I’ve taken and the people I’ve met along the way.)

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Hawaii — away from the woman I dearly loved — a mentor told me something simple and profound. “Anton, if it doesn’t work out, you can always come back.” I took it to mean that I need never feel trapped, or choiceless. After two great years in Honolulu, I did return to Cleveland as Erin was finishing college. Ever since, she’s been my companion on that river crossing.

You have been blogging for a very long time, you are one of the pioneers of the form, and you have helped many other people start their own blogs. How do you see the evolution of the blogging form in the near future, both regarding your own blog, science blogs, and blogging in general?

As I used to explain in our Bloggging 101 tutorials, blogging developed in some of the same ways as the early Internet, from What’s New pages to filtering lists to personal-perspective journals. After all these years, blogs can be any or all of these types of online writing.

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Flickr and Instagram have given us tools to share short messages and photos and videos. It feels to me that blogs posts have lengthened (you’re the outlier, of course!), and are more essay like. Last fall, we held the Back to the Blog meeting at Duke University to discuss some of the trends in blogging, including minimal styling, responsive design and using social media to alert your networks to your new posts.

I’m still gung-ho about blogs. I still know more people who don’t have blogs than I know people who do blog. That’s a lot of people to recruit to the blogging life.

That includes scientists, of course. One of the early foundations of the ScienceOnline community was the colorful tapestry of science blog networks, and now in ScienceSeeker we have a fantastic tool for mining the rich daily output from science blogs. But even in my own institution, Duke University, there aren’t that many scientists actively blogging. You remember the keynote speaker at our first ScienceOnline conference back in 2007: Dr. Hunt Willard suggested it would have to be the postdocs and fellows who would need to be trained to use online tools. At Duke, Dr. Zubin Eapen and the cardiology fellows are a shining example of that; Dr. Matt Sparks is another. It’s going to be fun to see others take up online science just as avidly and successfully.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own blog recently, both in terms of the design and my writing style. I started my blog in 2000 to honor my grandfathers and relatives, and to share my own life and work and travels. I think of my style as storyblogging, in which I start with a current happening, relate it to a story in my or my family’s past, and make an observation. After 13 years of writing, I’d begun to doubt whether I had anything else to record. And, yet, when I search my archives for an anecdote or reference I’m sure I’ve blogged before, I don’t find it. I’m only halfway across my river, so I guess I’ve got a lot more to share. But I also know that Narcissus sat along the water and reflected on himself to unhappy consequence, so I want to challenge myself to add other layers to my blogging, such as deeper exploration of one of my areas of interest. You’ve written much about niche blogging, so maybe I’ll finally develop a niche other than myself.

You have been involved, for a long time, in different nodes of the blogosphere: science blogs, medical blogs, technology blogs, food blogs, local North Carolina blogs — what have you learned from these different communities? What’s on your blogroll of blogs to read daily?

I’ve learned that no matter the subject or node, when interesting people are given the tools — pencil, press, microphone or weblog — to delve deeply into their interests and reflect their areas of specialty, we end up with an awesome deluge of information, insight and inquiry. Niche blogs are great for the ways they focus on a topic or industry, and I understand your argument for writing only about one’s area of expertise. But I’m also convinced that when a writer steps out of his or her niche to provide glimpses of other interests or fragments of experience, we learn more about the person. And knowing more about each other helps us relate to each other better. I believed that at the beginning of the BlogTogether experiment, and over the last seven years, the ScienceOnline community has simply astounded me with its respect and friendship and inclusiveness and camaraderie.

I’ve been reading Dave Winer for a decade, learning from him and using his new World Outline tools, and I cherished the chance to go for a bike ride with him last summer. Michael Ruhlman and Ilina Ewen and Dean McCord are my food and beverage inspirations. 33 Charts, by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, is quite relevant to my medical communications job. I read design blogs, web technology blogs, blogs by business leaders and venture capitalists, and personal organization blogs. I use Reeder to scan RSS feeds, and I’m rebuilding my river here. On Sunday evenings, I iron my shirts for the week, listening to podcasts by The Monti, Story Collider, StoryCorps and Joel Dueck.

Family looms large in your life and in your writing. Your personal blog is essentially a chronicle of several generations of your family, with you as an acute observer and eloquent archivist. Tell me what family means to you. Are you hoping that your children will continue preserving the family’s stories?

When I was in the fifth grade in Idaho, my mother was my teacher. One day, her assignment to the class was to write a story about the first snowflake to fall in winter. Around that same time, my father would gather me and my brothers in the kitchen, where he used the bare white wall to show his Peace Corps slides. In the mailbox each week, we’d get typewritten letters from my grandfathers: Zuiker Chronicles, from Frank the Beachcomber, were travelogues and camporee reports, while the two-page ‘peek into grandpa’s diary’ detailed the daily routines of Grandpa Sisco. The narrative lives of my ancestors were a daily presence in my youth. I’m a writer because of them.

In middle school, one of my favorite authors was James Michener. I read Caravans and Space, and when I read The Source, I became enamored with archaeology. Years later, on a holiday break during college, I visited my father on the island of St. Thomas. He hooked me up with a friend working on a dig in the hills where construction for a mall had uncovered a pre-Columbian Arawak village. I spent just a day there as a volunteer, carefully brushing dirt and picking out charcoal from a fire pit. Even the tiniest of details of the past, I learned, are important for understanding human history.

The Zuiker Chronicles Online and The Coconut Wireless weblog at mistersugar.com – in many ways, these are my ways of sifting through the little details in the lives of me and my family, and trying to find meaning in the connections.

Erin, my wife, has taught me so much about communication, about being honest and open and always aware of circumstances and contributing factors. While she can gab on the phone for hours, I get twitchy after 60 seconds on the phone, so we make time each week to just sit and talk, and we make sure to listen to the other, looking for the small details about each other that we didn’t know or recall. When we started our family, Erin helped me understand the importance of communicating with our children, reviewing the days activities and reciting bedtime routines. That’s a concept — the small just, just ahead — that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I try to incorporate a river of news into my work and blogging.

My children lovingly joke about my blogging, and they know I’m trying to be a better storyteller. But what I hope they take with them into their adulthood is the appreciation that I was present in their lives, much as my father was present in mine, and his father and grandfather before. I hope they feel the connections to those who have come before. I hope they extend those connections into the future.

Even more than medicine and science, your writing revolves around community, storytelling and food. You have been a force in gathering and growing the local online (and offline) community around stories and food. Tell me more about some of the projects and events you organized over time, and what looms in the future?

My mother has no sense of smell or sense of taste. She made a delicious Crock-pot Swiss steak, and tasty chocolate chip cookies, but I didn’t really know what garlic was until I got to college. Our dinners weren’t gourmet, but I do remember them as family meals, all of us sitting down together (no books allowed).

Erin’s mother happens to be an amazing cook, and I quickly figured out that my culinary ignorance offered me a perfect way to hang out in the kitchen, learn how to cook, help out with the dishes, and generally show Erin’s parents that I was going to be a good companion for their daughter. It worked. Now, I love to cook for Erin and our children, and of course I chronicle our meals at home and out on my blog. Most Sundays, I roast a chicken according to the instructions of Michael Ruhlman, whom I’ve hosted three times for food blogging events. I enjoy the process of reading recipes, gathering ingredients and putting them together for something tasty, such as the slivovitz that we enjoyed last week. One lesson I learned: don’t make kimchee, with its fermented shrimp paste, when your wife is six months pregnant.

Good food, good wine, good friends, good conversation — I crave these, and The Long Table has been one way I try bring them all together. Our first dinner was quite fun, with a bunch of people standing up to tell their own food-related stories. With ScienceOnline in good hands, I hope to do more of these dinners in the next few years. I still want to organize a food blogging conference, and maybe someday we can do a conference on food-science blogging.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? What platforms and what types of online activity have you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

Well, the intersection of story and science is what got me into medical journalism, and it’s what still drives me today. The ScienceOnline community is filled with great examples of science stories told well. I’m watching #scio13 and ScienceSeeker daily to keep up. And the blitz demonstration sessions at ScienceOnline2013 will surely introduce me to new platforms and approaches.

I mentioned my high school physics teacher above. He assigned our class to work in teams on an experiment. My buddies and I wanted to study the Doppler effect, so I borrowed a tape recorder from my Grandpa Sisco, and met Kevin and Craig on a quiet country road late one night. We drove our cars past each other at different speeds, Craig in his Camaro with horn blaring, me in my Catalina with the tape recorder on. Just now I had to look up Doppler on Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge, but that experience of learning together with friends never dissipated.

Collaboration, clearly, is key these days in science. At Duke, a lot of my communications plan aims to help our investigators connect with their faculty colleagues to explore new multidisciplinary and team-science collaborations. On the Web, I’m interested in exploring how we can build personal network publications, something beyond multi-author blogs and something that can feature contributions from those who aren’t already writing on the Web. Many of my friends and relatives still do not have blogs of their own, and I’m interested creating some sort of online publication with them. Marco Arment’s new app/pub, The Magazine, and the writing platform Medium are helping me think about the possibilities.

You’ve been at every ScienceOnline conference, of course. What’s most memorable of any or all of them? How do you hope ScienceOnline2013 is similar or different?

Actually, ScienceOnline2013 is going to be my first. Learn why in my blog post on The Coconut Wireless.

What I’ve most enjoyed about ScienceOnline is watching the interactions, seeing the passions, witnessing the partnerships. You and I started with a conversation in a cafe, and we’ve gained a friendship and a community. I sincerely hope that all who attend ScienceOnline2013 and the many other events to follow will similarly be better persons because they openly engaged in the conversation.

Please share three descriptive words you hope people would use when talking about you.

Passionate. Pleasant. Present.






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