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ScienceOnline2013 – interview with Karyn Traphagen

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 ScienceOnline2013. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Karyn Traphagen, the Executive Director of ScienceOnline (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 (scientific and other) background?

I was born in New Jersey (please don’t hold that against me).

I suppose, in retrospect, I was one of the Apollo generation kids and that has affected me more than I realized. I clearly remember being a very young child and standing by some adults who were debating whether or not we would really get to the moon and back. I grew up with the Gemini missions and Apollo missions. My entire elementary school would gather in the gymnasium around one television to watch launches and splashdowns.

After I started kindergarten we stayed in the same house until I graduated from high school (remarkable when you learn that I have moved 26 times since then). I was the oldest of four girls. My father was part of my life until I was in middle school (and then he entered my life again after I had my own children), but it was my mother who really instilled in me the interest and discipline and confidence that make me so curious and adventurous.

One of my favorite memories is constructing furniture with my mom. In those days there were no IKEA designers with clear instructions. We had all those foreign diagrams and crazy languages to guide us. I learned at an early age how to persevere, tinker, and make it work. I guess you could say we had a Maker culture and DIY house before the terms were popularized.

I also had an amazing chemistry set (which no doubt is illegal these days).  Of course, all the illustrations were of boys, but that didn’t bother me one bit. I had a picture of my mom before she was married and she was working in a lab with all manner of science glassware. I thought that was the best picture ever of my mom. Even though she stopped working in the lab to get married and have us kids, I thought it was perfectly normal to want to do science. It didn’t even occur to me that I couldn’t figure these things out. I also had a small mirror microscope that was nearly impossible to get to work. But I still had slides and slides of samples I collected. Even today my office is full of geologic and botanical specimens I’ve collected.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized we were really poor growing up because I always thought we had the most amazing house. It was a tiny rental duplex. But we had file cabinets full of paper, pens, glue, tape, crayons, cardboard, glitter, and all sorts of creative stuff. What I didn’t realize was that it was all cast-offs from mailing rooms and offices (the paper was discarded stationary and onion skin paper for carbon copies). So, again, my mom was ahead of the times with re-purposing and recycling even before the first Earth Day had been organized.

Speaking of Earth Day, I can remember as a young girl how much I loved that first festival. My best friend and I were so impressed that we started our own Anti-Pollution Club. I doubt we really did very much to affect the trash and pollution in our town, but I know it did change us.

Another thing that changed me was the monthly arrival of the National Geographic magazine. Someone must have given us a subscription, because I’m sure we couldn’t have afforded it. But I (absolutely) loved reading about Jane Goodall. I wanted to go sit in the jungle and be like her. I would lose myself in the photos of space and dive in the ocean with Jacques Cousteau. I would crawl down into the earth with the stories about insects and their habits. And volcanoes! Who knew, at that time, that I would live in Hawai’i for a while and get to walk on newly cooled lava and then watch red hot lava flow into the ocean? My love of science owes a debt of gratitude to NatGeo for the visual imagery and stories they brought to me.

In high school, I was part of the “advanced track.” This meant that I had double periods of math and double periods of science every year. Double periods of math! I was invited to be part of the school’s Math League team. I hardly noticed that there were only two girls on the team. Double periods of science meant lots and lots of labs. Let’s just say that having a lab partner who sutured our fetal pig back together each night should give you a glimpse of the kind of classmates I had. But I also played violin, taught myself guitar, and sang in the choir. I became a thespian and loved drama (apparently, both on stage and off). You see, it was just the beginning of my interest in everything. I owe it to my mom that I always thought that if I was interested in something I could just go out and learn it and do it. So, I just kept doing that.

I graduated from high school early. In part, because of a dare/challenge. There were three of us who thought it would be great to graduate early (no idea why we thought that at first). The school told us “No, you can’t do that. It isn’t allowed, it’s never been done.” Hmmpff. That’s one of the surest ways to get me to try to make something happen. So, we looked at the specific policies and rules in place, and found a loophole that would allow us to graduate in three years (by doubling up on some coursework). We appealed to the school board, and they agreed. We were the first to do that. It also meant that I was in the graduating class of female students who were first invited to apply to West Point. I didn’t go to West Point, or any of the other amazing opportunities I was offered. Instead, my education and career “trajectory” began to look more like I was tacking in a sailboat.

The short story is Life and Family (capital L and F) became priorities for various reasons. The result is that along the way I got married, had 2 daughters (both awesome), had my 2 youngest sisters come into our house under our guardianship, had my other sister live with us for a time while she finished her undergrad degree, ran several entrepreneurial endeavors, learned a lot of new things, and moved a lot.

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

Trajectory assumes a smooth path that obeys the law of gravity and as I’ve already noted, my journey has taken a rather torturous, meandering route. But (and please forgive me for this), as Tolkien’s oft-quoted poem says: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

While meandering, I hiked and backpacked all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks (becoming an ADK46er along with my husband and our 2 daughters). I have taught physics to high school students, undergrads, & grad students. I did research with cadavers to help develop a tibia index to make more biofidelic crash test dummies. I coded. I studied (and taught) ancient languages and their writing systems, like Ugaritic, Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew, and Babylonian. I studied Tolkien linguistics (and created a Tengwar Primer). I created miniature medieval calligraphy pieces (with period techniques for pigments and gilding). Less academic, I taught myself how to make molds of my own ears so I could design elf ear prosthetics. Yes, really.

I coached a cross country team. I bicycled a few century rides. I went to South Sudan to help train teachers whose lives had been disrupted by decades of war. I studied in Stellenbosch, South Africa. I taught English during some summers in Hungary. I took students on week-long sailing trips in the Bahamas. I worked at the Museum of Life and Science (Durham, NC) with the Animal Department—lemurs and snakes and bears, oh my!

And, then my life also took a turn back to Space. I’ve been to several NASATweetups (now called NASAsocials) where I was able to meet people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson (& amazing NASA people) while we watched rockets launch missions to the moon and Mars. My name is on a chip on the Mars Curiosity rover! I absolutely love how NASA has re-invented itself in the public eye.

Eventually, all the experiences and education came together in a kind of perfect storm that led me to Bora and Anton and ScienceOnline.

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

ScienceOnline! It’s an amazing privilege to represent the ScienceOnline community and work to build the projects, tools, and resources that create the opportunities for conversation, community, and collaborations. I’m so grateful for my friendship with Bora and Anton and for their trust in me and their encouragement to take the momentum from the last 7 years of conferences and move forward, as an organization, in new and exciting directions.

We have topical events (ScienceOnline: Oceans; ScienceOnline: Climate and more) being developed. Regional events around the world are springing up. Tools and resources (such as ScienceSeeker are being developed. And then, of course there are the logistics of a new organization to work on.

I think the distinctives that characterize our events are our focus on conversation and relationships. There are many valuable science conferences and associations that are more presentation focused, but we prioritize face-to-face meetings between people who have met or work together online so that they can build relationships which will lead to new collaborations and better science communication.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most? You are obviously a veteran blogger. And you’ve been using Twitter for at least two years longer than I have. What platforms and what types of online activity you found most useful, or most gratifying to use? How 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? What new platforms or method of online communication, if any, are you excited about?

I don’t blog as much as used to, or as much as I would like. My current personal blog is stay-curious.com and I still have all these ideas, but a lack of time. I’ve been writing for ScienceOnline (organization documents, grants, policy, copy for projects, etc) but it’s not the same! I miss having time to introduce people to aspects of the world they live in that they may not have noticed.

Twitter has been a wonderful way to stay involved online with content creation when I don’t have the time to do long blog posts. I think the various social media platforms are invaluable for data acquisition, data sharing, data analysis, science outreach, professional development, community, and communication. I like to explore ways to exploit the tools in ways their creators never imagined. A good example of this is how Fraser Cain (of Universe Today) took the Google+ hangouts to a completely new level with virtual star parties. I don’t think the Google developers ever dreamed that telescopes would stream live images of distant worlds into our homes via G+ hangouts. This excites me for the future because there are tools we haven’t even created yet and new ways of sharing information and community still to discover.

I’m most excited about the platforms we have yet to create.

I can’t imagine not being online. But I do sometimes need to unplug (albeit briefly). I love to get out in nature to hike, explore, collect small things. I like to be alone. I like to think. I’m training for the Rocketman Triathlon which will have the bicycle portion go through the launchpads at Kennedy Space Center! Oh, and I’ll be doing the triathlon with Camilla Corona, the NASA mascot for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). She’s a rubber chicken. After that, I’m looking forward to exploring Alaska in May.

What is the best aspect of ScienceOnline for you, now that you are the Executive Director? How is it different from when you were just an attending participant?

Well, I’m an introvert (amazing how many of the attendees seem to claim this trait). It has become much easier to talk to people because they all know who I am now. It is harder for me to remember all the new people though! I have some ideas for next year to help with this (but I’m not telling yet!)

I love the creative details that I’ve been able to bring to life at the conferences, but I’m so excited to be thinking big picture, to draw in all my previous experiences/skills and work to enable others to bring out their own potential and skill.

I’ve been most surprised by the opportunities to mentor. I guess I keep thinking “Who am I to give counsel or advice? I’m still growing up!” But apparently, I guess I have lived a fair bit and done a few things and it may be helpful to a handful. So, yes, I do enjoy encouraging and listening to some of the members of our community who have come to me in that way.

I know you always have surprises for all of us – including some that even Anton and I don’t know about until the conference starts! Is there one of those little surprises that you are willing to reveal in advance, right now?

I do love to surprise and delight people. At tweetups I often bring toys (as you know!) to give people something fun to try out and play with. For the conference(s), I try to think of ideas to keep it fresh, to make it fun, to make people more likely to think creatively. I work hard at cultivating an atmosphere that allows conversation. Sometimes breaking down the “professional” barriers by playing with some origami or LEGO blocks at a table helps people to interact in a more casual and engaging way.

What does the future hold?

If I knew that, do you think I would tell you? All I can say is that I’m always ready for an adventure.

Thank you so much! It is exciting to see ScienceOnline move into the new future under your leadership.

 







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