This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Suzi Gage is doing her PhD research in the fields of epidemiology and addiction. She also blogs at SciLogs.com on her blog Sifting the Evidence, which recently won the 2012 UK Science Blog Prize. But Suzi isn’t just interested in public health. She co-hosted a panel about scientific fraud at this year’s SpotOn London conference and has a keen interest in science communication.
I’m pleased that Suzi has agreed to answer a few questions today about being a scientist who blogs about her research. (Full disclosure: I am the community manager of SciLogs.com.)
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s’ start from the very beginning: why did you decide to blog about science?
Hi there, delighted to be here! I started writing a blog for a few reasons, but mainly because I wanted to improve my science writing. The other major factor was a worry that while focussing on the intricacies of my PhD, I might lose sight of what was happening outside of my research. A blog is a great way to remind yourself of the real world out there.
You mostly blog about fields that span your PhD such as epidemiology and addiction. Why did you opt to do a PhD in epidemiology and look at addiction?
I did my Undergraduate degree in Psychology, then a Masters in Cognitive Neuropsychology, at University College London(UCL). When I moved to Bristol I worked in the Psychology department there for a few years, and it was while there that I realised I wanted to do a PhD. A few failed applications for funding followed, and as my funding for my initial job ran out, I managed to remain in the department, working in different areas as short term contracts were advertised. This meant I got to work in a lot of different fields of Psychology. I eventually found myself working for Marcus Munafò, in the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group. I immediately took to that area of Psychology; it was fascinating. When a PhD looking at cannabis and tobacco use in local teenagers was advertised, working in Epidemiology, I leapt at the chance, and the rest (as they say) is history! I had never done Epidemiology before, but (thankfully) I really took to the methods and techniques.
How important do you think it is for scientists, such as yourself, to communicate their research, and science in general, to the general public?
I really believe this is vitally important. Not only is most of the research undertaken in this country (UK) funded by the public, but science does not exist in a bubble. If we conduct this work, we have an obligation to explain it properly. It’s something I feel very strongly about. As I have been blogging, a number of colleagues both in and out of academia have asked whether I plan to stop research to focus on writing. NO! I see the writing as a part of my academic work. I would love to see academic journals introduce a ‘lay summary’ as part of the publication process.
Your blog, Sifting the Evidence, won the 2012 UK Science Blog Prize. Congratulations! Having a prize dedicated to science blogs would’ve been unthinkable a few years back. But now, science blogs are attracting the limelights more and more. What role do you think science bloggers should play in science communication?
I agree that the day of the blogger is nigh! But I’m not entirely sure we’re there yet. If it wasn’t for Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh having the idea for the award, and working with Skeptics in the Pub and the Good Thinking Society to make it happen, this prize wouldn’t exist. Blogs are still not recognised by a more official organisation. Singh and Goldacre felt bloggers have been overlooked in terms of recognition (in comparison to, for example, the authors of science books), and are actively trying to change this. Which is awesome. I think science bloggers play a huge role in communication. Quite often when science is written about in newspapers or presented on TV, there isn’t room for all the information, and a curious public want to know more, and quickly (rather than waiting for a book to be written, or a Horizon style documentary to be commissioned). Bloggers can fill this gap, as well as advising about the accuracy of either academic or journalistic reporting of findings. There are so many roles blogs can fill.
After winning such a prestigious prize, I suppose all eyes are now on you. How do you intend to take it from there, blogging-wise, then?
Oh goodness, not more pressure!! I had terrible writer’s block after I found out I had made the shortlist. The rest of that list are my blogging heroes. I wrote about three posts then deleted them! As for how I plan to carry on, since what I’ve been doing up to now has won me this prize, I’m going to try and change as little as possible and carry on as before - writing about what interests, excites, or incenses me!
Which posts of yours do you like the most?
Ooh, I’m not sure. I like my post about Tetris and flashbacks, partly because it was my attempt to use science to deal with a really unusual event that happened to me. I am proud of my post about plain packaging of tobacco, and my post about the recently published cannabis and IQ paper.
And finally, how do you see science blogging and the science blogosphere in five years’ time? In terms of their development and roles.
Hmm, this is an interesting one, and something I’ve not really thought about before. I think it’s another case of the PhD blinkers, I can’t really see beyond the next couple of years until I finish the thing! I can’t imagine life beyond it just yet! But I hope there’ll be more recognition for excellent online writing. Networks of bloggers are great for fostering debate and vibrancy in a blogging community, and that can only be a good thing. An army of robot monkeys to bring me tea while I write my posts would be nice too.
Previously in this series: