National Geographic

ScienceOnline 2010 redux – in which I’m interviewed by Bora

Ed_parkIf anyone wants to find out a bit more about me, my background, my goals and my thoughts on online science communication, this is probably a good place to start.

Some background: following every ScienceOnline conference, Bora likes to pretend that he doesn’t already know everything about everyone by watching their internet habits on a gigantic bank of monitors, while cackling and stroking a cat. To that end, he does a series of interviews, where the conference participants say a bit about themselves. It’s now my turn, and we’re both posting this up at the same time. Given that I wrote this for Bora, it seems fitting that I was a bit more verbose than usual.

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) background?

I’m Ed, I talk to people about science and I do it in three main ways. I write a science blog called Not Exactly Rocket Science, I do a fair bit of freelance journalism for British press, and I work in a science communications role for a big UK cancer charity. Round about the time that swine flu was saturating the headlines, I started calling myself a triple-reassortant science writer, which is a seriously geeky affectation but worth it for the occasional person who gets it and sniggers.

In terms of my background, I did a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, covering all sorts of fields from animal behaviour to experimental psychology. I assumed that research was going to be my calling and I spent a year or so as a PhD student before realising that I was apocalyptically bad at it. Mythically bad. People composed ballads about how much I sucked. If I didn’t destroy the world during my time in the lab, it’s only because that would probably have counted as a publishable result.

Thankfully, the insight that I sucked at doing science coincided nicely with the revelation that I wasn’t too bad at talking about it. Essentially, I can’t narrow my attentional spotlight on a single subject; I need broad vistas. I can’t derive motivation from rare but transcendental moments of success amid a long drought of failure; I need a more regular fix. And my hands are clumsy and inept when handling a Gilson; they’re much better at dancing on a keyboard. And thus concludes my origin story. Maybe I should have just lied and said something about being bitten by a radioactive David Attenborough.

Moving on to here and now, I’m constantly excited by the new discoveries that I read about and I’m keen to infect other people with the same enthusiasm. I just think that people will be better off if they have a deeper understanding of the world around them and if they’re motivated to sceptically seek out that knowledge in the first place. Telling awe-inspiring stories about science is one way of achieving both those ends. My own love for science was fuelled by masterful communicators and I want to carry on that tradition.

Oh, and I live in London, a great, beautiful, cosmopolitan, culturally vibrant city that has the god-awful problem of being full of Londoners.

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

At the moment, I’m essentially juggling two careers, one during the day and one at night. Like Batman but with more repetitive strain injury. During the day, I work at Cancer Research UK and carry the marvellously high-falutin’ job title of Head of Health Evidence and Information. My job is to ensure that our information on cancer prevention and early detection is evidence-based and to use that evidence to guide the rest of the charity. It’s a great mix of leading a small team, media interviews, reviewing literature, acting as a sort of consultant to other teams, and a fair bit of writing.

At night, I put on my journalist and blogger hats (they’re figurative hats, although if they were real, the journalist one would be one of those old fedoras with a Press pass sticking out of it, and the blogger one would be something silly but combative, like a conquistador helmet). I started blogging because I wanted to flex my writing muscles on different topics and in a style that’s more naturally mine. I also had visions of being a ‘proper’ science writer but wasn’t getting any traction sending pitches into mainstream media. So, I started doing it myself. I started on WordPress and was recruited to ScienceBlogs just over two years ago. The blog has gone from strength to strength and the last couple of months have been record-breakers in terms of traffic. This week has been the most rewarding yet. I won the top prize at the Research Blogging Awards as well as prizes for best post and best lay-level blog. And I’ve just begun Phase Three of the NERS life cycle by jumping into a new host body at Discover Blogs, where I’m tremendously excited to be joining a small but elite group of bloggers.

I also do a fair bit of freelancing – some news pieces in the past but mostly features at the moment. I’ve written for New Scientist, the Times, the Guardian, Nature and a number of other publications. And I’ve won a couple of writing awards too, including the Daily Telegraph Science Writer Award that really kick-started all of this off, and the Association of British Science Writers’ Best Newcomer award last year. Actually, the certificate for that says Ed Young, but I distinctly remember collecting it and shaking someone’s hand.

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

The big goals are these: constantly learn new things and better myself. Be good at what I choose to do but never become arrogant. Be an excellent husband, a good writer and not an idiot, in that order.

To elaborate, the lofty goal is to get as many people interested in science as possible. Make the complicated seem simple, the obscure seem fun and the unknown seem tangible. My writing career is still in its infancy and I have no illusions about how far I have to learn. NERS is still the single piece of work that I am proudest of and I want to build it into a widely respected source of science news. It’s starting to get some mainstream recognition. That’s obviously personally fulfilling but I think that as part of a general trend, it would be prudent for both blogs and mainstream media to starting collaborating more. I want to continue to work for a good cause during my day job, keep on doing longer features for mainstream media and speak at more events. And at some point in the next 5 years, I would love to start writing popular science books. The problem is that I can’t think of a plan that involves me achieving all of these things without violating at least a few laws of physics. For the moment, I appear to have achieved time saturation.

I’m also keen to carry on absorbing ideas. The worlds of journalism, the Internet and, indeed, science itself are changing at a dizzying pace and it can feel like a massive treadmill, where we’re all running faster to stay in the same place like Caroll’s Red Queen. In the last year alone, my thoughts on journalism have changed significantly just through thinking about the field, reading commentaries from others and chatting to my peers. And all the while, I see people who have dug their heels in, stagnated in their opinions, and are slowly drifting back down the treadmill towards some extinction horizon. I would very much like to not be those people. The minute I think I’ve got this all figured out is the minute I really haven’t. So… more reading, mulling and discussing.

Other than that, I don’t really believe in detailed life plans. The most exciting things I’ve done over the past few years have come about through unpredictable openings and I think that successful people are the ones with the nous to capitalise on the right opportunities as they come along. With the gift of hindsight, even chaotic bumbling can look like some sort of structured plan.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

As far as science communication goes, there are two things that I love above all else. The first is finding a way of successfully explaining something complicated. Getting the right angle, metaphor or play on words is just magical. It’s like scoring a winning goal or finally getting an experiment to work or reaching the peak of a mountain, except I get to do it… every… single… day. The second is related – finding a narrative that links an entire field, or several different fields. This is why I write features. It’s an entirely different skill to writing posts based on single papers. It often involves drawing out massive spider diagrams and finding an easy route between all the nodes. And again, that moment when everything clicks into place, when you know how every paragraph will flow into every other, and when you can see the story beats… it’s just transcendental.

As far as the internet goes, I’ve written about this extensively on my own blog. I’m fascinated by the way that the internet is changing the face of science journalism, how it’s altering the very definition of a science journalist, how it can be used to reach mass audiences while simultaneously failing to do so, and the massive, incalculable implications of opening the tools of production to everyone. Simply put, I would not have this career without the Internet. I absolutely love the fact that a complete nobody like me can waltz in and start writing, and a couple of years later, I’ve spoken at an international conference, I’ve been published in most of the British press that I love and I’ve interviewed David Attenborough, my childhood hero, in his living room. I could kiss the Internet, but I know where it’s been.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I’ve already spoken about the blogging. My Twitter experience is about a year old and it has been an unexpected joy. There are obvious benefits – it’s great for publicity, getting more traffic, building a brand, chatting to like-minded people and so on. It also allows me to do things that I try to limit on my blog, like promoting other people’s stuff, linking heavily, being a bit sillier, chatting to friends, pointing out stupid stuff in the popular press, linking to geekery, and so on. I want to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high on the blog but it’s a different sort of signal on Twitter. For better or worse, my Twitter stream is probably closer to my actual personality than my blog is.

Twitter is also an absolutely amazing source of information. Tweetdeck is essentially my own personal newspaper that’s edited by the people I follow – a cadre of excellent journalists, scientists and friends who I trust to feed me interesting content. The thing that critics of the internet don’t get is that you can filter your way out of the noise with relative ease. It’s much like flesh-and-blood life – you get the most out of your conversations if you choose interesting people to hang around.

As a science writer, it’s invaluable too. I’ve used Twitter to source contacts for articles, clarify complex terms, get papers I don’t have access to and even commission a guest post on my blog. One of my followers even helped me to kill a pesky virus on my computer! I even think that Twitter makes quite good practice for a writer. People slate the 140-character format but I think it’s actually fairly demanding as a discipline. You have to work harder to be understood in a limited space, especially if you’re debating with someone. On the downside, there are the obvious negatives – it’s a massive time-suck and I personally find it very addictive. But there’s no question in my mind that it’s a net-positive thing.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I probably started writing a science blog before I started reading them. I devote most of my free time to writing and I get far too little time to read what everyone else is doing than I would like. I use Twitter to find stuff that interests me and there are only a few blogs that I follow religiously. To be honest, I’m far more interested in individuals as writers rather than in blogs as entities. Given that there’s so much cross-pollination between blogs, mainstream media and other formats, it makes little sense to me to focus on blogs just because I write one. I love good science writing, regardless of the format. And one of the interesting things about social media is that a person’s entire (I shudder to say it) brand affects how I view them – it’s about writing skill, but also whether they’re fun to chat to, whether they voice interesting opinions and whether they point towards interesting stuff.

In terms of people I rate, a list of science writojournobloggocommunicators would have to include Carl Zimmer, Vaughan Bell, Brian Switek, SciCurious, Jonah Lehrer, Brandon Keim, Alexis Madrigal, Matthew Herper, Mark Henderson, Ivan Oransky, Rebecca Skloot, David Dobbs, John Timmer, Adam Rutherford, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Brendan Maher, Christie Wilcox, Daniel Cressey, Jennifer Ouellette, Frank Swain, Simon Frantz, Martin Robbins, PalMD, Daniel Macarthur, etc. I’m also loving the opportunity to chat to loads of great up-and-coming science journalists on Twitter, like Ferris Jabr, Christine Ottery, Colin Schultz, Mike Orcutt, you obviously,… Look, I’m just scratching the surface here and I’m sure I’ve missed out people who I’ll feel awful about later. Have a look at my blogroll or the people I follow on Twitter. I do those for a reason.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The social side of the conference was unquestionably the best aspect for me. There is something fascinating and unique about meeting old friends for the first time. I’ve known people like SciCurious, Brian Switek and others for years. They’ve done favours for me and I for them and after all this history builds up, you finally get to see someone’s face and give them a hug – it’s bizarre, but a little part of me wonders how people ever met other people in a different way. It’s a dream scenario for an introvert. There is also something quite remarkable about seeing all these people, who know each other through online social networks, cementing their relationships in flesh and blood. It simultaneously shows that social media can be a glorious conduit for meeting people, but it can’t substitute for a good, old-fashioned handshake.

As to the conference itself, without being too self-promotional, I was very pleased with the session that I ran with Carl, David and John. I absolutely loved the entertainment session with Tamara Krinsky and Jennifer Ouellette and the pitching session with Rebecca Skloot, Clifton Wiens, David Dobbs and Ivan Oransky, a session I wish I’d come to several years ago. In general, I was inspired by how humble and down-to-earth everyone I met was. To some extent, this was probably confirmation bias but none of the journalists or scientists I spoke to had any airs, regardless of their experience or existing kudos. From experience, this is an outlier as far as such meetings go, but one I’m grateful for.

The thing that inspired me most in terms of my career was seeing how many people are immersed in a multitude of different roles and activities. They blog, write for mainstream media, make podcasts, shoot videos, teach… the list goes on. It’s an intriguing model and one that I will be paying close attention to. And the conference was largely about the opportunity for inspiring myself too. Agreeing to chair a panel gave me a chance to think hard about science journalism, its future and my place in it. It led to a couple of op/eds on my blog and a chance to test and develop my views on the field. More practically, it made me start thinking more carefully about interviewing other sources for the posts I write, and it led to the new Not Exactly Pocket Science feature on the blog. It has galvanised me into trying to make NERS the best possible home of science journalism that it can be.

As to next year, I think everyone should agree beforehand that if anyone gets ill, they immediately give their snotty tissues to Jonathan Eisen for phylogenetic comparison. That way, we can easily establish who Patient Zero was and we can dispel the scandalous rumours that it was me. Also given the number of sessions she ran this year, you might consider renaming the conference to SklootOnline 2011.

And thus concludes the interview. For more from other conference participants, have a look at Bora’s blog.

There are 3 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Ferris Jabr
    March 29, 2010

    Thanks so much for the shout out, Ed! I loved this interview. Learning about writers I admire is always a joy. I am confident you will find a way to circumvent those pesky laws of physics that might otherwise prevent you from producing even more fantastic science writing. I look forward to your first book (perhaps for the iPad?) and, one day, your (auto?)biography ;)

  2. Radek
    March 29, 2010

    Hi Ed!
    I have a very similar destiny. I spend three semesters as a PhD. student, but I wasn’t doing anything. In that time I became a freelance science writer. I started to write about psychology and human behavior although I`m ecologist by training. I`m studying psychology now and write for one Czech paper magazine and one website. You probably don`t remember me, but you send me some paper about a year ago.

  3. Brian Switek
    March 29, 2010

    Great interview, and thanks for the shout-outs, Ed. It was wonderful to have met you in person, and I hope to see you again at next year’s ScienceOnline (if I don’t make it over to the UK before then)!

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