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 Jennifer Frazer of The Artful Amoeba 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?
My blog is called The Artful Amoeba. I chose it because I wanted something that expressed how complex, beautiful and surprising life on Earth can be. In particular, the title refers to organisms called slime molds that are essentially intelligent giant amoebae. Artful is meant to convey that they are both beautiful and clever -- which they are.
Where does the artwork for your banner come from, and what are you trying to convey with it?
The art was my idea, although the legwork (er. . . mousework?) was done by my friend and graphic artist Brannan McGill, owner of the coincidentally-named Protist Design. I was searching Wikipedia one day looking for images of amoebae for my very first blog post and stumbled on an old educational diagram of an amoeba where it looked like the labels had actually been pasted on now-yellowed paper. I loved the vintage look, and it occurred to me it would be fun to spice it up a bit. There's been a joke around for a long time that slime molds are trying to take over the world. David St. Hubbins goes on a huge rant about this in one of the deleted scenes from "This is Spinal Tap". And then one day when I was in the forest with a college friend and we stumbled on a slime mold that had crawled up a sapling, and after I explained how slime molds worked, he quipped, "Today this Leaf, tomorrow the world!" which I loved. So I thought it would be fun to show the amoeba had some plans for world domination a proxy for the fact that obscure, small organisms like slime molds can be astoundingly complex and intelligent for their apparent station in life. It was also a way of letting readers know my blog approaches its subject with a definite sense of humor.
Tell us more about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into science?
I've lived in pretty much in every region of the United States except the West Coast, though I completed all of my middle and high schoool education in a suburb of Kansas City called Shawnee. I thought about a lot of careers growing up -- astronaut and singer were the first two -- before cycling through law and engineering and finally hitting on biology late in high school. That stuck. The more I learn, the more I love it, even 15 years later. I think it's the intersection of beauty, form, and function that I find so compelling. Living creatures are amazing little machines with fascinating stories I love to tell, but they're also beautiful. That is why my blog is also a very visual blog, with big, high-quality art.
How did you get into science blogging and science writing? What were the early influences on you regarding your blogging style and topics
I studied biology in college, and had a bit of a crisis when I realized that I did not want to be a scientist. On the other hand, I didn't want to be a doctor, dentist, high school teacher, or pharmaceutical salesperson either. Now what? I still loved biology, and I knew there were so many fascinating and beautiful organisms I had discovered in school that I wanted to share with the world. I liked making things, and I had a short attention span that did not suit itself well to three-year research projects. So I needed something that would provide constant variety and learning, let me share what I had learned with others, and create useful things on a relatively-short time scale. Science writing seemed to fit the bill, though I knew it would be hard to break in and make a living off of it.
The blogging thing actually grew out of a long-time dream to write a book. After I won an AAAS Science Journalism Award in 2007, I was in Boston visiting my old science writing program at MIT. I mentioned the book and my frustration at not being able to start it due to having a day job, and our director suggested starting a blog as a way of getting started. The bite-sized aspect of blogging was appealing to me, as well as the complete control over content and the chance to show and tell the world about all the things I'd always wanted to. Especially alluring was the ability to start doing it right away -- no finding an agent; no writing a proposal. The technical side of getting started scared me, as did being able to find photos to use since I knew from the beginning that would be important. But if having everything figured out in advance was a prerequisite to getting started, nothing important would ever get done.
When I started blogging, I read a book at the recommendation of someone in my local blogger meet-up called "Problogger". That taught me the basics of how to write for a blog. My style was just my personal style -- when you read a post, you're hearing my voice. It's fairly opinionated, and that probably comes across. : ) My style is also heavily influenced by my many years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- and later Rifftrax -- viewing. "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" has been influencing me lately too. I just love that stuff, and I have kind of applied that riffing style to my writing. My hope is that humor helps make the science more approachable and enjoyable for everyone.
The topics I chose were the things I was passionate about but that I thought were not getting covered enough or at all in the press or in the blogosphere. These were often "charasmatic microfauna", as I like to put it (as opposed to charasmatic megafauna, which you can read about here), although I still blog about big stuff like pine trees or larches (plants in general get no respect but conifers really have it bad) and backboned stuff like chimeras or thread snakes too. I see my niche as neglected organisms. As much as I love David Attenborough (and i love him a lot), his "Life" series should really be called "Vertebrates, insects, a smattering of higher plants, and a few sexy sea creatures". What about lichens? Protists? Algae? Bacteria? Archaea? Fungi? And the millions of invertebrates besides insects?
What is your blog about? Who is your target audience, and why do you think people should read your blog?
My blog is about making biodiversity and natural history fun. It's about telling the story of life on Earth over time, and, as just mentioned, of creatures whose stories never get told, or never get told in compelling ways: interesting, odd, extinct, and small stuff, but also occasionally some big and overlooked stuff. So by biodiversity I mean the organisms themselves, not the vague concept of species richness. My target audience is the general public, but also middle and high school students, and hopefully even a few bright younger kids. I'm shooting for the crowd that enjoyed Gary Larson's "There's a Hair in My Dirt", which entertained and delighted both kids and guys with Ph.D.s in biology alike. At the same time, I inject as much actual science as possible. I want content, not fluff, in my posts. But entertaining, clear content. I want you to learn something while having fun.
Anything else interesting about you, perhaps cool hobbies?
I'm tremendously interested in history -- especially ancient history and mythology -- and that occasionally shows up in posts. I am also a mushroom hunter, a caver, and a certified diver. The diving thing got started -- even though I live in Colorado -- when I realized that what was hiking was to land life, diving was to aquatic life. The proximal reason was so I could do a tremendously terrifying dive in Hawaii where I planned to jump into a section of 5,000-feet deep Pacific Ocean at night of my own free will.The dive was called "Pelagic Magic" and the idea was to see the interesting deep-sea animals that makes a nightly trip to the surface to feed: delightfully odd things like box jellyfish, salps and heteropods. As soon as I read about it, I knew it was meant for me and I HAD to do it, but it's hard for me to describe the sheer terror I experienced in the preparation for the dive. I would have trouble falling asleep at night thinking about it.
It wasn't the diving that scared me -- I love that and technically speaking it was easy. It was the ambient conditions. I was to be tethered by a 40-foot line to the boat, but the knowledge that the bottom would be nearly a mile away could be, shall we say, distressing. In addition, a curious marlin (fish with a dagger welded to its face) or testy blue shark could have shown up at any moment. Recently, there had also been the first-ever documented cookie-cutter shark attack on a swimmer between Hawaii and Maui -- in the waters exactly where I would be. Cookiecutters specialize in sneaking up on prey at night and taking biscuit-shaped chunks out of their flesh. I also could have been whacked, and subsequently inked, by a speeding squid. Basically, we would be jumping in and ringing the dinner bell by turning on lights that would attract krill at the base of the food chain, and it would only be a matter of time before the rest of the food chain showed up if it happened to be in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, there were no dangerous encounters that night, and the closest I came was seeing the herd of squid flash by in the distance and swimming out of the way of what I recognized to be a box jelly. I ended up having one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. I wrote about -- and posted some photos -- of the whole experience here and here.
On a not-unrelated-note, one of my biggest dreams is to visit the deep sea in a submersible. If anyone knows how to make that happen (or your name is Sir Richard Branson), please do get in touch.
Previously in this series: