Science Communication Without Borders: reflections on ScienceOnline 2012

 I’m hardly a newbie to science communication. But last week was my first trip to ScienceOnline. The energy buzzing around that conference for 72 hours made me flash back a decade to when I was still in a chemistry Ph.D. program but desperate to reboot my career without leaving science behind.

At that point, I knew I wanted to think about broader science questions and communicate science to more audiences. So I spent time working in a hands-on science museum, took a science journalism course, and eventually launched my science writing career. But even though science writing has fewer defined boundaries than the research world does, I still run into cultural norms that don’t always fit with how I view myself. For example, many journalists will tell you that their core responsibility is to inform, but not to educate, the public. I can see where the idea comes from, but I firmly believe that education is an important part of what I do. As a result, I’ve continued to keep my hand in museum or exhibit work, or I try to keep writing for children in my mix of projects. I’m not a professional educator, but if I’m doing my job well, I’m a stealth educator.

ScienceOnline 2012 provided a Science-Communication-Without-Borders experience: scientists, journalists, bloggers, educators, and many people who hyphenate those categories, all coming together to discuss issues questions and how we think about all the issues of taking the ideas we’re passionate about and bringing them to broader audiences. It’s not just that people are friendly, but by virtue of being at an Unconference and knowing the diversity of perspectives, people are set up to look at their work and assumptions from a new perspective. I’m still a journalist, but I’ve always benefited from my past and seeing the scientist side of the equation. Because I’m still an educator at heart, Science Online brings me into a fold of people who make that their life’s work.

So other than coming back to my home office with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, what did I take away from Science Online?

Nuggets of writing craft:

  • In a session about assembling book research, David Dobbs (Twitter: @David_Dobbs) offered an incredibly low-tech tip for a high-tech meeting: keep a journal. At the end of each day, sum up what you’ve learned and what you found intriguing in that day’s work. Trust nothing to memory, he says, and those summaries will help you find key thematic connections.
  • He and Deborah Blum (Twitter: @deborahblum) also led an amazing session about writing structure with both visual and audio analogies for crafting stories. Structure is visual, musical, and a bit like a chess game. That mix of beauty and strategy keeps me coming back every day. (If I find a link to audio or video from that session, I’ll follow up and post it).

Nuggets of Tech and Traffic:

  • For techie tips from the book research session: check out Maryn McKenna‘s tumblr post here. (Twitter: @marynmck)
  • Explainers, articles that offer background, are great tools for providing more context on your site. Not surprising. They’re also great tools for driving traffic. If you point out an explainer, those links get more hits. If you point out an explainer and directly encourage your reader to click on it, even better. I believe that nugget emerged from a back and forth between Maggie Koerth-Baker (Twitter: @maggiekb1) and Bora Zivkovic (also known as the Blogfather, Twitter: @BoraZ).
  • The e-book world is exploding, and I love reading on my Kindle (I don’t mean that as a product endorsement. I had fun playing with my dad’s iPad over the holidays, too.). The ways for writers to publish their own work for these devices are expanding. There’s Apple’s iBooks Author, but read the fine print about being locked into their store. The Atavist, publisher of long form e-journalism, is also beta-testing software that would allow people to publish their work in any of the current e-formats. See more on that here, and learn more from this blog post by Christopher Mims over at Technology Review. (Christopher is on Twitter at @mims). The conference wiki also has an incredible list of links and information on e-book publishing.

My post conference thoughts are still simmering, but I’ll continue to use those 3 days as motivation NOT  to box myself in. And I also just solidified my connections with people I can call on when I want to think outside my comfort zone.


In search of manatees

Though my current home is in the Big Apple, I was born and raised in the Sunshine State and return on occasion to visit my family. This time our trip south also included an animal-based day trip to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park in search of manatees.

manatee closeup


In the area around Crystal River, particularly this time of year, manatees huddle in the warm springs and near power plants and even around the docks and waterways. We picked a bad year to make this trip– the temperatures hovered in the 70s, balmy for December, and the manatees didn’t need to come in to shore to stay warm. We could have headed out on the water to snorkel near them, but we didn’t have time or the right gear (Next time!).

Lucifer, the hippopotamus So we did the next best thing and headed a few miles south to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park. On the boat ride from the park entrance, our guide (whose accent indicated pointed to origins farther north, say Long Island) gave us the twisting Floridian history of this park, originally set up as an exotic animal park that including monkeys and a hippo (Lucifer, who is still in residence).

When the State of Florida took over the park, they turned it into a showcase of native animals. So in addition to the half dozen manatees, some of whom were injured and others of whom are permanent residents, we saw Florida panthers, river otters, and a whole host of cranes, flamingos and raptors.

As a Florida kid, I’d heard a lot of the manatee basics before. They’re marine mammals, slow moving, and herbivores, and they’re often injured in boating accidents. But my image of those boating accidents had always been run-ins with slashing speed boat propellers. That’s one possible injury, but the big danger is that collisions will watercraft can lead to broken ribs and punctured lungs. Unable to float (and breathe), they’ll drown. Because of their migratory patterns from the warm Florida waters in winter before ambling north, sometimes as far as New York, they aren’t bred in captivity. To maintain these patterns, captive breeding programs can’t help support the wild populations, they need to learn them in the wild.

active river otters
River otter
Sandhill crane
Florida sandhill crane



Photos by Preston Foerder