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

19Jan/09Off

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.

BORA!!

BORA!!

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.