Every week I post a quick Q&A with one of our bloggers on the network, so you can get to know them better. This week, I chat with Christina Agapakis of Oscillator blog.
Hello! Let's start with first things first. What is the name of your blog and why did you choose that name - what does it mean?
Oscillators are a hot topic in synthetic biology because they make cells a little bit more like computers, blinking on and off at regular rhythms. There are natural oscillators, like those that control circadian rhythm, and there are synthetic oscillators built with networks of genes. I didn't really like the trendiness, but I liked the word, and I liked that it also gave me a bit of license to go back and forth within and between different topics while still mostly being about synthetic biology.
Where does the artwork for your banner come from, and what are you trying to convey with it?
It's the corner of a photo of me straightening a grid of petri dishes with fungus collected from a bunch of different cheeses, part of my Synthetic Aesthetics project. Here's the full photo, taken by Daisy Ginsberg:
I like the picture a lot because there's this chaotic mess of cheese fungus growing in the very organized petri dishes, which is a good metaphor for the messy work of designing biology.
Tell us more about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into science?
I've always loved science and my nerd-path to where I am today is probably pretty similar to many scientists my age thanks to various pop culture influences. First I wanted to be a inventor/ballerina (because my dad is an engineer who brought me to see the robots at his office and the science museum/I was a five year old girl), then I wanted to be a paleontologist (because of Jurassic Park), then I wanted to be an astrophysicist (because Star Trek was on TV every day). By this time I was in sixth grade and was too old to use my calculator as a tricorder during recess but too young to realize that that I was being "uncool" so I joined my middle school's Science Olympiad team. I ended up in the Science of Fitness event and learned about the human body from a local doctor who had volunteered to teach us once a week after school. The day we learned about the Krebs cycle was the day I decided I was going to be a biochemist. I was totally blown away by how the big stuff that I knew about--hearts beating, lungs breathing oxygen--was connected to the tiny stuff inside of cells. Sixteen years later, a big part of what I work on is trying to go the other direction: understanding the tiny stuff and engineering it to make an impact on the really big stuff, by producing useful things like fuels and medicines.
How did you get into science blogging and science writing? What were the early influences on you regarding your blogging style and topics?
I started blogging during my third year of grad school, which is probably every grad student's point of maximal complaining. I missed the excitement I felt during my first year when I was just starting to figure out my new field and my project, reading broadly and learning new things every day instead of re-doing the same experiment every day. Blogging gave me the chance to read about new and old topics that I was excited about and to learn about the world outside of my thesis. Eventually, with the support of my amazing advisor, I realized that grad school isn't actually supposed to be about "I'm working harder than you" posturing or the parade of miseries popularized by PhD Comics or about being a very well trained lab robot. Grad school is about learning, about becoming an independent researcher, and about creating something new. Blogging became a huge part of my learning and creating experience of grad school, and soon my "outside" reading and writing found its way into new projects, helping inspire and flesh out the ideas that ended up being the bulk of my dissertation.
I also work in a field that benefits/suffers from a lot of media hype. Synthetic biology will either single-handedly save the world or destroy the world depending on who you ask (sometimes the same person). Blogging made me acutely aware of this hype, because by writing about synthetic biology on the internet I was suddenly part of it. Reading and writing online helped me to better understand where this hype comes from and what kinds of effects it has on how science and technology develop, how scientists and engineers influence and are influenced by policy and public opinion.
This realization is part of the reason why I started writing under my full name, connecting my work in the lab to my work online. Putting my name and photo on my blog was something that I was uncomfortable with at first, and something that has obviously been on a lot of people's minds lately. There are lots of very good reasons why pseudonymity is necessary, online and off, and everyone who is reading Bora's blog should already know them. However, for me, the reasons why I was uncomfortable using my name at first became a part of the reason why I wanted to use it later: as a young woman and as a student who was still far from being an expert, I was worried about not being taken seriously online, and as a "blogger" I was worried about not being taken seriously as a scientist. These assumptions, that women and bloggers can't be serious scientists, are of course ridiculous and need to be challenged. Science isn't just one thing and a scientist isn't just one kind of person, and new tools and new people make science better, another thing you should know from reading Bora!
What is your blog about? Who is your target audience, and why do you think people should read your blog?
My blog is about synthetic biology, which means it's also about biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, technology, art, design, history, philosophy, economics, politics, culture, energy, the environment, evolution, ecology, and probably a lot of other things I failed to mention and other things that I'm interested in at different times. I hope that it's for everyone, offering something to people who just learned that there is something called "synthetic biology" to people working in the field.
Anything else interesting about you, perhaps cool hobbies?
I like making youtube videos, fiber arts, and that Star Trek is streaming on Netflix.
Previously in this series: