Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


ScienceOnline09 – Warm, Fuzzy Feelings

Well, it’s official: Science Online ’09 is sadly over.

I don’t even know where to begin in summarizing this truly wonderful, enlightening, and inspiring experience. For those of you who are unaware of Science Online ’09 (at Sigma Xi in Research Triangle Park, NC), it is an annual conference (an “unconference”) devoted to the world of science blogging, writing, education, outreach, and general science enthusiasm.

Many rundowns of the conference’s events, including live-blogging of the conference, have already been written. And of course, Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock is collecting a compendium of conference related posts. Here, I thought I would just give some reflections of a few things that I personally got out of the conference.



First and foremost, let me just say what an amazing job Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, David Kroll, and all the other organizers have done in making this conference feel like a reunion of friends and family. I had never met any of the other participants in person, though I had chatted with several of them online. However, from day one it felt almost as if I were coming home. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but one thing I’ve found in living the lab rat’s life in rural North Carolina is that it can be quite hard to find people simultaneously interested in basic science research AND in the passionate outreach and education performed by science bloggers (though I now know that you’re out there). Yet at Science Online ’09, what I saw was a community of people like me: people that love science in all it’s forms and fields, people who spend their free time outside of their day jobs talking and thinking about the most fascinating aspects of reality as seen through the empirical lens, people who LOVE their internets, their gadgets, their widgets, their feeds and aggregators, and most of all their ART (and not just the “fine” kind like that of Glendon Mellow of The Flying Trilobite).

Needless to say, it was one of the most reinvigorating and motivating conferences I’ve been to. Hopefully this newfound motivation will be apparent in the coming weeks here on this blog.

I love dinos

I love dinos

On day 1, I was privileged enough (largely due to the fact that I am local and was willing to be chauffeur) to experience a behind the scenes tour of the entire NC Museum of Natural Sciences, led by the intelligent and humorous Exhibit Director, Roy Campbell. Having lived in the Triangle area for eight years, I’ve visited the museum many times. It’s easily one of my favorite places in North Carolina. Never, however, had I been allowed to see the basements and backrooms, including the paleontology lab and collections. Ever since I was about 6 years old, I have been a fossil collector and paleontology enthusiast, which made the paleo lab all the more exciting for me. Two guys were inside meticulously scraping red rock away from various fossils. The picture below shows a rock 2-3 feet long encasing a creature that my brain had never before even imagined might exist: a bipedal crocodile. That’s right – as if modern crocs weren’t cool enough – there used to be little crocs walking around on two legs. I’m not even sure how to picture it – the best I can do is imagine a therapod (like a velociraptor) with a croc head. The craziest thing was that this guy had spent a year to isolate the bones in the image, and he guessed that it would take another year to finish. Talk about devotion and patience!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

As for the conference itself, what I took most from all of the discussions was simple inspiration to devote more time to maintaining this blog (and to reinvigorating the Carnival of Evolution). It was just so amazing to feel like a part of a true community trying to make a difference by educating and exciting the world.

As someone trying hard to break into becoming a full-time lecturer/professor at the college level, I found myself constantly hearing the discussions through the ears of a teacher. There are so many ways now to use the internet and blogging as a tool inside and outside the classroom. Of course, there was no more readily apparent example of this than the discussion moderated/hosted by the show-stoppers of the conference: MissBaker’s class, a group of “Extreme Biology” high school students. These kids were not just smart biology students. They were brilliant! And I will most certainly be studying MissBaker’s use of blogs to facilitate learning.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Much of what I personally gained from the conference came from discussions during lunch / dinner / drinking at the bar. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Kevin Zelnio (Deep Sea News), Andrew Thaler (Southern Fried Scientist), Karen James (Data Not Shown and The Beagle Project), Miriam Goldstein (The Oyster's Garter), Mark Powell (Blogfish, Carnival of the Blue), Jason Robertshaw (Cephalopodcast) and Mike (10,000 Birds, I and the Bird). Mike mentioned a story of a recent project he and others had undertaken to fund a man in Africa to document a specific bird. After they successfully raised money for a laptop and other equipment, the man was apparently made tribal elder of his village (note I am pulling this from memory – I plan to get full details soon). So why do I find this story so interesting and useful? I recently taught “Topics in General Biology” for freshman non-majors. In this class we spend some time talking about various conservation efforts and the fact that many of the problems with conservation involve issues with providing poor local people in areas of high biodiversity with incentives to preserve their own wildlife and habitats. In areas such as Africa and South America, there is often no incentive to preserving habitat when this land can be used (for a short while) for agriculture and the like. Thus, an immediate goal for conservationists should be to find positive reinforcements and incentives for local peoples to conserve their own natural habitats.

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler in between singing sea shanties

Thanks to Mike, I now have an excellent real-world story involving a) people like you and me contributing small sums of money using b) the internet and science blogging to provide at least one man with an increased ability to c) document and spread awareness of his local wildlife and, perhaps through his new found elevated position in his community, d) spread the word about the potential positive outcomes of protecting the tribe’s environment.

Like I said, I am not personally familiar with the details of this story but I plan to put this together into a usable case study (hopefully including images if possible), since Mike has promised to provide the info. I know that there are similar projects occurring, but this one seems particularly poignant and relevant to the specific ways in which I taught my class.

As an aside, I am always looking out for interesting little biological trivia that might benefit particular subjects in the classroom. An always entertaining discussion regards that of sexual selection, which of course is filled with a myriad wacky examples throughout the animal kingdom. Thanks to Miriam, Andrew, and beer, I now have a new example that was heretofore unknown to me: a shrimp flatworm in which the females use dueling penises to get the mate. Again, this info is pulled from my then Newcastle-laden memory, so I might have the details wrong, but I fully expect Miriam to provide me with the full scoop (or anyone else who wishes to enlighten me below). There is nothing that piques the interest of non-major biology students like an entertaining story involving animal sex and strange genitalia.

In essence, it’s the new and hopefully long-lasting relationships and connections garnered from the conference for which I’m most grateful. I find it difficult to find people who share so many of my passions (that’s what I get for living in the woods), and I can’t express enough how reinforcing to my energy it’s been to hang out with so many like-minded individuals.

Thank you all (and feel free to leave a “hi” below – I’m terrible with names).

For more images from the conference: mine are HERE and others' are HERE.

Comments (21) Trackbacks (1)
  1. OMG I am so jealous! I really wish I could have made it up there. Oh well, I guess there’s always next year. It seems like a really, really good conference to go to. Not to mention full of nutty people that I’d like :).

    “there’s nothing that piques the interest of non-major biology students like an entertaining story involving animals sex and strange genetalia”
    Um… not to mention regular bio students…lol. Have you included the platypus? Something about a 4-tipped penis always seems to get students interested.

    • Yeah – I was half expecting (hoping) you and Allie would just show up and crash it.

      It was alot of fun! The ocean folks were as cool as I had expected. Where else but a conference such as this could one expect to hear a hotel bar drowned in the sounds of marine biologists singing drunken sea shanties (other than a marine conference – or apparently Andrew’s boat where singing sea shanties is the equivalent of looking at one’s watch or humming)?

      • *Sigh* I knew I should have come! I am definitely coming next year!! I missed out on so many fun people. And more importantly, I missed out on drunken shanties. That’s something I’ll always regret…

      • I’ll say the same thing as Christie and say how jealous I am! If only I knew crashing was an option. Next year Christie and I will have to make sure to sign up extra early. We would definitely enjoy all the wonderfully nutty science people, and especially the sea-shanty singing :)

        Looking at the pictures, I am now thinking of the same song as when I went to watch the PBR a few weeks ago. “These are my people….”

  2. NOTE: I am embarrassed to say that I initially forgot Jason Robertshaw of cephalopodcast in my post above. Sorry man. Don’t know how that happened – I wrote this exhausted.

    I particularly enjoyed our discussion (with Mike, Miriam, and Karen) of the awesomeness of Buffy and Joss Whedon.

  3. …shrimp in which the females use dueling penises to get the mate.

    My memory is blurred with copious Blue Moon, but I think we were talking about penis fencing in flatworms, which are simultaneous hermaphrodites. Or maybe hyenas, in which females give birth through their pseudopenises? Oh, so many silly converstions stuffed into such a short time. It was really nice to meet you – let me know if you end up in San Diego!

    • Ahh – I have found the problem – it seems that my spam filter believes that you are attempting to sell me pharmaceuticals to enhance my penis fencing abilities.

      You’re not are you?

      And it was great meeting you as well. If we end up in SannyD (I just made that up but it sounds like a great nickname), we will likely force you to be our friends.

      Failing that, arch-nemeses would be a satisfactory alternative.

  4. Thanks for giving a broad scope of science museum activities – I’ve enjoyed the event and people.I hope that next year it will last a day longer. Btw, Miriam was my roommate and ex-neighbor from San Diego, so sea shanting was fun with the other folks:)

    I’ve added your blog to my feedreader as I can say congrads on great content!


  5. I had a blast talking with you at the conference and promise I’ll send you the details on the Sharpe’s Longclaw campaign! Let’s also get the nature bloggers on to Carnival of Evolution.

  6. I can has squid hat? Here’s the video of flatworm penis fencing:

    sorry it’s from spike, for some reason all the old youtube clips aren’t there anymore.

    you might also like to take bets on who’s going to win in this fight:

    vertebrate vs. invertebrate! It was great meeting you this weekend.

  7. It was great to meet you! What a weekend. I learned so much.

    (Your blog banner rocks.)

  8. O NOES! My first comment seems to have never made it and now the Southern Fried Scientist has beaten me to the hypodermic impreganation punch. Ah, well, I don’t begrudge him.

    It was great to meet you – let me know if you end up in San Diego!

  9. Great to meet you! It always good to meet other regional bloggers. And yeah, the conference was TOTALLY AWESOME.

    And if that’s what you can make with a napkin, wanna put in an entry for my new banner? I can’t draw at all, but I really want to clean up my place and make it look at a little better.

    • It was great to meet you (briefly) as well. Perhaps we’ll run into each other at some NC function (sad I missed the zoo trip).

      It just so happens that I have some pretty amazing fluorescent glial images that could be incorporated into a logo. If you really want me to see what ideas I can come up with I’d be happy to give it a shot (no strings/obligations attached).

      Let me know if yes – and also any specific ideas/thoughts you’d like incorporated.

      If you decide on something/someone else, no big deal whatsoever – I have plenty of things to fill my time.

  10. looks like everyone involved had a blast and learned a bit. Maybe next year.