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

17Mar/09Off

Science Blogging: The Future of Science Communication & Why You Should be a Part of it

sciencebloggingOver the past few years, a new development has arisen in the world of science amongst those who wish to purvey the wonders of reality to the general public.

I'm speaking of course about the ascension of the Science Blog.

Many articles have been written on the burgeoning importance of science blogs for the processing and dissemination of scientific knowledge (see references at the bottom of this post). Conferences have been held, letters in scientific journals have been published, and a myriad online conversations have occurred through social media outlets such as twitter and friendfeed.

Despite all that, there still exists an incredibly large and significant portion of the science population that remains unaware of the existence of science blogs, of the vast amounts of knowledge to be gained from following them, and of the potential career advantages obtained from writing a science blog.

It is for this reason that I was recently asked by Dr. Paul Medina, Science Education and Outreach Coordinator of the University of North Carolina's Training Initiative in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (TIBBS), to write an article on the subject for the TIBBS Newsletter. As such, the primary target audience of this article are the biology graduate students who have yet to learn of the power of the science blog, though it is equally applicable to any and all with an interest in science. If you are arriving at this post by way of the newsletter, I welcome you and encourage you to look around this blog as well as the many other excellent blogs in my blogroll.

What is a Science Blog?

A science blog is just that: a personal web log containing posts written by the author (or sometimes multiple authors) on whatever happens to catch their fancy - usually with a high percentage of posts on scientific topics. Many science blogs are focused on very specific aspects of science - often on the field of the author's expertise. Others are more general, consisting of a wide range of scientific news items, issues, or topics. Some are written with the lay public in mind, while others are written for other scientists, detailing the esoteric minutia of a particular subject.

Science blogs in general have the following qualities:

  • Written by people passionate about science and their topic of choice
  • Written by people very knowledgeable in science
  • Often written by people intimately involved in scientific research

Science bloggers run the gamut of career levels, from lay people with a strong interest in science to teachers, graduate students, postdocs, and an increasing number of principal investigators.

Why you should follow science blogs

1. To keep up to date on fascinating research

Every single day, the world of science is filled with new findings. The scientific journals overflow with exciting new facets into the nature of existence. How is one to wade through it all to remain up to date on the most pertinent or meaningful studies? Obviously, reading the primary literature in your field is of prime importance. But it's quite easy to miss important or interesting work by relying on journals alone. This is particularly true if your interests drive you to cast a wider net. Of course, the mainstream media and sites like LiveScience and ScienceDaily will give you a lot of the headline-making stories - usually those of the highest emotional impact to the public at large.

However, much gets left out of the media - leaving an ocean of wonder beneath the waves of data. Science blogs serve as a great filter - often the best distillation medium around - to sift through it all and pull out the most intriguing and highest impact research of the day.

One of the best ways to sift through the massive amounts of daily research is to follow ResearchBlogging.org, which collates only those blog posts that deal directly with the primary literature. It is conveniently categorized so that you can follow whatever field you wish. I have little doubt that this site will represent a huge part of the science blogging, journalism, and communication future.

2. Join in the great discussion

One of the biggest advantages of the science blog as a medium of information dissemination is its focus on reader interaction and discussion. This is usually done through the "comments" section of a particular blog post. However, the conversation often evolves into multiple posts across the blogosphere - all cross-referencing and interacting with each other, generating multiple discussions in the process. Instead of being a passive receiver of scientific knowledge, commenters become an integral part of society's processing of said information, discussing and debating its implications and relevance.

3. Science blogs allow you to talk about science in an informal setting

Most science bloggers would probably tell you that the online science community has become much like a never ending 24/7 hop down to the pub (sometimes minus the ethanolic beverages - but not always). The vast majority of science blog posts aren't academic treatises. Certainly, many of them are - when that is the author's intent. However, many of the most entertaining science blogs often begin with the kind of statements you might hear among a group of scientists huddled around a pitcher of drought beer in your local dive bar. Though usually done with a little bit more literary style, they often start with something in the way of "So today I read one of most freaking cool things I've ever read..." Alternatively, science blog posts often begin with the theme "You know what I learned today that really sucks?..." This is particularly true of the blogs that deal with conservation issues or the status of evolutionary understanding in the U.S. (a daily subject of biology blogger consternation).

No community exists without its share of large egos. But by and large, I've found that in the science blogging community, pretense is often dropped in lieu of thoughtful and meaningful conversation (though I'm sure many would argue with this). Most of us science bloggers are in this for one reason: we love science and we love talking about it even more.

4. Gain emotional and social support from like-minded people

Whether you're a student, a post-doc, or a principal investigator, you've most assuredly learned that science is hard. One of greatest thing about science blogs is that they are the personal expressions and opinions of the blogger. As such, you will often read posts dealing with current issues and hardships of existing in the academic world. Trials, tribulations, frustrations - they are all on display in the blogosphere. It's much easier to keep yourself sane when reading of your favorite author's own similar experiences. I personally know of several P.I.s who follow blogs for the specific purpose of commiserating on the difficulties of being a scientist/academic in today's world.

The science blogosphere is a true community.  In many respects, being a part of this community has become one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in science. I'll speak more on this in the next section on why you should be a science blogger.

Why you should start a science blog

1. Share your passion for science

Chances are, if you are involved in the daily duties of discovering the mechanisms of nature, you're probably in it because you love it. There's nothing quite like publishing one's own research in peer-reviewed journals. However, unless you're a powerhouse you probably spend many months or years between those publications grinding away at the bench or in the field, with few other chances to share your love with the world at large. Blogs are an excellent way to continuously maintain a presence within the science community and to contribute to scientific thought, whether you write on interesting facts you've learned or dive deep into distilling the current primary literature.

2. Be a part of the community

I've found few communities quite like that of the science bloggers. We are nerds and proud of it. We care deeply about all aspects of science, with particular interest in bringing it to the people. From the first day of becoming a part of this community, you can rest easy knowing that have just entered a virtual world full of people that are like you in many respects. And of course, to make your blog succeed you must find readers. The main method of finding people who care about what you have to say is to become an active member of the community. This means that you visit your friends' online homes often and join in their conversations. Before long, they will begin to come to your virtual house to palaver. The science blogging community is a multi-threaded, never-ending science party.

When not interacting through blogs, you can always find conversations occurring on Friendfeed. If you are a biologist, the first place to start is to join the Life Scientists room (which currently has 667 members). Also, a daily-growing number of science researchers, teachers, bloggers, and journalists use twitter (start by "following" the science enthusiasts on this list maintained by David Bradley - @sciencebase).

By now you might have gotten the impression that the online science blogging community is relegated to the virtual realm alone. In reality, I owe most of my readership and my connections within the community to a real world event: the wonderful ScienceOnline09 conference. That's right - there's an entire conference dedicated to science blogging, writing, journalism, and education through online media. And the kicker for you folks from UNC is that it is held annually right here in Research Triangle Park. I know for a fact that the organizers Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around the Clock), Anton Zuiker (mistersugar), and David Kroll (BRITE) have already begun the orchestration for ScienceOnline10. So be sure to sign up once registration opens. Not only will you learn of a slew of new developments in the world of online science, you may just get to join the rowdy ocean bloggers in another round of sea shantying.

Ocean Bloggers at ScienceOnline09

Ocean Bloggers at ScienceOnline09

3. Make connections

You've hopefully learned by now that science, like every other aspect of life, is much more rewarding when you've formed a good network. Just over the past few months, I've met more scientists in a wider variety of fields through my blogging than through an equal amount of time in the science community of the "real world." Again, the point must be hammered that these connections are very real connections, and often become much more personal through the informal nature of interacting in a blog setting. There exists the real possibility, as I have learned, that these connections may just aid you in your future career endeavors, despite what some skeptics may say.

4. Be a part of "the good fight"

I took the above reason from fellow science blogger, GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life and member of one of the most popular blogging communities, ScienceBlogs.

It's no secret that the science community is in a seemingly never-ending battle with those who wish to push ignorance upon this and future generations. Within the science blogging community runs a thick vein of pro-science activism. That is why we do this after all - to share our passion and knowledge with the rest of the world.

When you become a member of the community, you can be sure that should some insane legislation enter the pipelines or an inane campaign begin, you will hear about it through the blogs. It's all the more reassuring to know that when your blood begins to boil, a cadre of people spread around the globe are sharing in your frustration. And often times, this can lead to organized action.

5. Become a better writer

We all know the importance of having excellent writing skills. Writing is how we obtain funding and how we display our research findings to the world - and it largely represents our main metric of success. Writing a science blog is one sure way to keep those typing fingers sharp and your mind nimble, and vice versa.

6. Hone your ability to distill complex research into understandable terms

The vast majority of science blogs cater to a wider audience than just those individuals directly involved in similar research. As such, it's critical to explain yourself well without filling your articles with needless jargon. Not only will this make you a better writer, but it will make you better able at explaining exactly why you deserve the taxpayers' hard-earned money, and why your research might make a difference to this world. It will also vastly increase your ability to teach these same concepts.

7. Showcase your dedication to science and your interest in outreach

Though some science bloggers have managed to find a way to do this for a living, most of us do this as a hobby in our spare time. Blogging can take as much or as little time that you desire, but regardless of the amount of effort you put into your science blog, it can always serve as a tangible (virtual) accomplishment you can point to and say "see this? These are the things I am interested in as a person. This is how much I love science." Make no mistake, science blogging is real outreach. I can't count the number of hits I've recieved on this site that were obviously children doing a little bit of research. Not to mention the fact that I somehow managed to reach you.

8. Get feedback on your own thoughts and/or research

Do you ever have a science-related question and wish that you could just shout out for someone to answer it? Google works - sometimes - but it's nothing compared to the value of information you get directly from someone with relevant experience. Just a few days ago I needed information on a Green Fluorescent Protein variant antibody. I shouted the question to my blogger buddies through twitter and 2 minutes later I had my answer.

Again, a science blog is a collection of conversations - conversations that often lead to insightful changes in your own opinions and thoughts.

9. Blogs are great teaching tools both inside and outside the classroom

If you are a teacher, you might be interested to know that there is a growing trend among some of the best teachers to use blogs and similar social media-like online sites as tools to supplement the classroom (see Nings in Education). One of the pioneers in using blogs as an instructional tool is the excellent MissBaker. I had the honor of meeting MissBaker and some of her students at the ScienceOnline09 conference, and I can tell you that she is always willing to give advice to fellow teachers on using these tools.

10. Increase the visibility of yourself, your lab, your department, and your University

There is a growing push to get institutions, departments, and individual labs more involved in the online science communication. Let's face it - the world is online. Our kids learn, chat, and meet online. They practically run their lives through the internet. Science blogs are an excellent way to keep the world informed of your own research interests and to showcase what you've accomplished. We academics are often criticized for living in our ivory towers. Through science blogs you can reach out directly to the public, without having to worry about unreliable media intermediaries. If you are a principal investigator, I highly recommend that you read University professors turn to the blogosphere, for classes and recognition

11. Have fun

Oh yes, writing a science blog and following your favorite blogger colleagues is loads of fun. It was through this blog that I met Kevin Zelnio (Deep-Sea News), Andrew the Southern Fried Scientist, and David "WhySharksMatter" (both of Southern Fried Science). Beginning on February 12th - Darwin's 200th birthday - we began a competition - The Great Darwin Beard Challenge. The competition will end on October 1st - the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species - at which time we will see who has grown the most darwinesque beard (check back for weekly updates and photos).

If that's not fun, I don't know what is!

It's okay - you can say I don't know what fun is.

Why science blogs will be a major component of the future of science communication

The science blogging community is far from free of heated debates. One such debate that extends to the larger world of journalism in general is exactly what place blogs should have in disseminating knowledge to the public.

I know I'm not alone in my own thoughts, though there are many that would disagree with what I'm about to say.

I believe that by-and-large, science bloggers are in the process of making many science journalists, at least as we know them now, obsolete. That is not to say that blogging can or should replace journalism (a hot debate these days), but good science journalism will need to evolve as it becomes complemented by the growing community of science blogs.

Let me first say that there will always be a strong demand for and great value in excellent science journalists and writers. I'm talking about the Olivia Judsons and Carl Zimmers of the world. Let me also state that I am not an expert on journalism or the media. These are my own opinions, though reasonably well-informed they are.

By "science journalists," I'm only talking about those people who are primarily journalists - writers - that do not necessarily have a strong background in science, and that certainly don't have in-depth training on the topics they report on.

So why do I think this specific breed of journalist is being made obsolete? The main role of the science journalist, as I see it, is to serve as an intermediary between the stereotypical "socially inept, egghead" scientist and the public. They package the scientists' findings into neat little stories that everyone can understand, using a few quotes from the scientist to humanize the data. Many of them are quite good at what they do - and adeptly able to grasp complex concepts and boil them down for the layperson.

However, with the rise of the science blogger, intermediaries are becoming largely unnecessary.

One of the critiques often made by traditional journalists of bloggers in general is that bloggers "don't have the training to research a subject." You can clearly see that this critique doesn't fit the science blogger. In fact, there is no one better able to do the appropriate research on a science topic than those intimately involved in similar research.

A second common claim is that "scientists and bloggers aren't good writers. They don't understand the concept of a 'story'." There are certainly scientists who can't write for a general audience. And there are plenty of bad bloggers. However, there are also plenty of really bad journalists. There is now a huge and growing number of science bloggers who are truly superb writers (Note: I don't consider myself one of these. I am still very much in the learning phase). Check out Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science for one great example. Saying that scientists are bad writers is a bit like saying that journalists are terrible drivers.  Most scientists owe their very existence (i.e. funding) to their ability to write well and convincingly and many of them are quite good at turning their research into a story.

Chances are good that some of you will end up taking up science blogging. As the number of science bloggers grows, so too does the cache of potentially excellent writers who also have the expertise to break down the scientific data itself. The more of us there are, the better we all get at our craft, feeding off the successes of each other.

The cream will always float to the top. Again, I know little to nothing of the economics of science journalism, but it is quite clear that the science blogging community will at minimum raise the bar for journalists covering scientific research. Thus, I see no end in the growth of the science blog as a meaningful and personal medium for the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the public who funds it.

Will you be a part the revolution?

So you've decided to start a science blog...where do you start?

Blog Networks

More reading

To those of you already blogging science

Please feel free to add your own comments below. I will likely update this post. I seriously doubt that I managed to catch all the great reasons to blog. Also feel free to point out any errors or omissions.

6Feb/09Off

Science in Danger!

Because it needs to be shouted out to the world, I am reposting this from The Panda's Thumb. I find this utterly baffling. How can any American not see the vast impact of science on our lifestyles, our economy, our health, our environment, and our existence?!

Science Getting the Shaft

US Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are proposing to cut the stimulus/spending package by roughly 10%. Their staff have identified several “useless” programs included in the bill, and it appears that they consider science funding to be one of those useless pursuits.

Over the last 50 years, much of our economic development has been driven by science, and at a time when the US is faced with losing its scientific dominance to China and the EU, the US needs increased science funding. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. Fund fishing research, and your children all eat for a lifetime.

From the list of stimulus projects that are on the cutting block:

  • NSF 100% cut ($1,402,000,000)
  • NASA exploration 50% cut ($750,000,000)
  • NOAA 34.94% cut ($427,000,000)
  • NIST 37.91% cut ($218,000,000)
  • DOE energy efficiency & renewable energy 38% cut ($1,000,000,000)
  • DOE office of science 100% cut ($100,000,000)

If you have an opinion about these cuts, you should make it known to your Senators because they will soon be voting on this proposal.

List of Senators and Contact Information

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.

2Nov/08Off

Carnival of Evolution #5 – The Other 95%

Tiktaalik the Fishapod

Tiktaalik the "Fishapod"

Kevin Zelnio over at The Other 95% (and the Discovery Channel's Deep Sea News) has put together another excellent edition of the Carnival of Evolution. This edition contains much deep delving into the science, both current and past, within the field of evolutionary biology, and it makes for a truly edifying read.

Next up for the Carnival of Evolution #6 in two weeks is Felicia Gilljam over at Life Before Death. Submit your posts using this form.

26Oct/08Off

Evolution in Action: Fruit Flies Evolve Low Oxygen Tolerance in the Lab

Summary of alterations in signal transduction pathways.

Summary of alterations in signal transduction pathways.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a cool new study in PLoS Genetics, through artificial selection researchers have allowed fruit flies (Drosophila) to evolve tolerance to normally lethal low levels of Oxygen.

To many scientists, this type of research will not be seen as that impressive, as a general finding. Artificial selection has been occurring for millennia, and it is the method through which we have created every domesticated animal and crop on the planet. Scientists will however find the specific genetic changes and biological pathway changes involved in this microevolution fascinating indeed. But it serves one more example (among mountains of others) of evolution being witnessed and directed under laboratory conditions.

Personally, I think one of the most amazing aspects of this study was just how quickly these flies evolved to survive and develop perpetually in severely low oxygen conditions. In only 32 generations the flies were able to live in oxygen conditions completely lethal to normal flies.

After they generated the flies, they did whole genome analyses to figure out exactly which DNA sequences and enzymatic pathways had changed in sequence or expression to result in this tolerance, including (not surprisingly) cellular respiration enzymes, citric acid cycle enzymes, and major signaling pathways, such as EGF, Insulin, Notch and Toll/Imd pathways.

Their goal is to eventually apply this information to mammalian systems to understand our own reactions to low oxygen states such as the “reduction in oxygen delivery at high altitude or during certain disease states, such as myocardial infarction and stroke.”

So yes, Sarah Palin, fruit fly research is good for something.

Dan Zhou, Jin Xue, James C. K. Lai, Nicholas J. Schork, Kevin P. White, Gabriel G. Haddad, Eric Rulifson (2008). Mechanisms Underlying Hypoxia Tolerance in Drosophila melanogaster: hairy as a Metabolic Switch PLoS Genetics, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000221