A Blog Around The Clock

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.

Today, I asked Daniel Brown from the Biochemical Soul blog to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

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My name is Daniel Brown, and I am a biologoholic.

I grew up as a rat-tail-sporting, barefoot redneck running around the pine forests of Northeastern Texas (specifically in a tiny town called Hooks). My daily pre-teen life apart from school pretty much consisted of me looking for critters alone in the woods – often trekking great distances (for a little kid anyway) through forests and over farmlands, skirting diamondback rattlers, copperheads, and other rednecks. Times were different then, eh? One of my most vivid memories from my childhood was when I came upon a flooded area of “my woods” a week or two after a big storm. The entire forest floor was covered in a couple of inches of water, which was itself filled with gloopy, slimy bunches of frog eggs. Each gelatinous mass was about the size of a softball, and I distinctly remember just sitting their feeling the goo between my fingers as tiny tadpole tails swirled within each isolated egg. I was completely mesmerized. I’m almost certain that I was born a biologist – but that moment in the forest of frog embryos in particular pretty much sealed the deal for me.

I grew out of my redneckdom not long after, though I certainly retained my country boy attitude. Since those days in the Texas woods my biological interests have varied widely. I spent time in my undergrad training (at an amazing liberal arts college called “Hendrix College” in Arkansas) working in the field of ecology, radio-tracking timber rattlesnakes in the Ozark Mountains. In a slightly more sophisticated echo of my days playing with frog eggs, I moved to the University of North Carolina where I worked for many years trying to figure out how genes tell a growing frog embryo how to make a heart (my Ph.D. work). After getting my doctorate, I stayed in the field of developmental biology and spent a few years studying brain development in mice.

I have now gone one step deeper into the realm of biology, moving into the field so cool it gets its own nickname: “evodevo.” For the non-scientists out there, that’s “evolutionary developmental biology.” More on this below…

I am also a graphic artist (mostly digital these days) making both 2D still-lifes and 3D animations, and I’m an avid fossil collector.

Full disclosure: I was recently asked this exact same question by another blogger (The Reef Tank – not posted yet), so some of my above answer is a bit of self-plagiarism. Sue me.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

I do not ever want to grow up. That is, I hope to remain the 8-year-old boy trapped in a man’s body that I am until the day I die. That being said, in a fantastical world in which I have become that which I’d most like to be, I would become a full-time biologist/geologist/professor/fossilhunter/novelist/artist/animator/photographer/blogger/sculptor/whittler/musician/gamer. The cruel voice of Real Life has informed me, however, that I am not nearly talented enough to pull off this dream profession. Thus, my more realistic aspiration is to continue what I’ve been doing, which is to be a scientist/professor during the day and after I’m done with the day-time money-making, pick a hobby in the evening, go at it full steam for 1 to 6 months until one of the others beckon more loudly, and then switch.

What is your Real Life job?

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Two months ago, I began a new position as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Veronica Hinman in the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in the Arctic tundra Pittsburgh. In my current work, I study not only how genes control an organism’s development, but also how the genetic programs that control development (Gene Regulatory Networks) evolve at the molecular level (e.g. mutational changes in cis-regulatory elements). And not only do I get to work on such a fascinating subject, but I get to do so using those wacky, brainless creatures called “echinoderms” (e.g. starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers).

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

I am by far most interested in using the web, regardless of the specific medium, to disseminate and educate the general public on the awesomeness of nature and what we can learn about it through science. It sounds cheesy – but it’s something we all know is sorely lacking in America today. It’s sad when “the awesomeness of nature” seems like a laughable phrase. I find myself constantly dismayed by the lack of general fascination with the natural world among children and high school students. From my experience so far, my blogging has attracted a good number of students – but most of them arrive at my site because of some specific research they were doing. I definitely consider it a success if students end up coming to me to learn about specific topics. However, I (like most people/businesses on the web) would most like to discover ways to reach out and pull in people that would otherwise not seek out scientific knowledge. Which ties in with the next question…

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

I find that blogging (and following blogs) figures prominently in my own thinking about my work. But beyond that I have yet to find (or rather, create) specific ties to my actual research. This is mostly because I only recently began my new research and have yet to blog about it (in fact I’ve been on quite a blogging hiatus since the summer because of the sheer magnitude of new information and techniques to learn).

However, I consider teaching and outreach to be an integral part of who I am and of my actual work. So in that sense, blogging has been the centerpiece of my attempts to reach out to the public and throw a little science at them.

I used Twitter a lot for a good while – both for discovery of interesting things and promotion of my own – but eventually I found the deluge of interesting information too overwhelming and time-consuming. More importantly for me, I found that my own tweets tended to be drowned out as well, with very few people discovering my posts.

I’ve now found that I’ve had by far the most success in reaching the general public through Facebook. My posts would generally be read by a core group of my own friends (most of which are not scientists), some of which would then repost, etc.

Unfortunately, Real Life has pretty much removed my ability to utilize fully any of the social networks for good science fascination dissemination.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

I went through most of graduate school performing actual science while completely oblivious to the existence of science blogs or the science blogging community. I’m not quite sure how that happened.

Then one day I somehow stumbled across (who do you think?) PZ at Pharyngula. Suddenly I was like, “Oh! This exists! I should do this!” Trust me – the exclamation marks were all there. I started blogging near-instantly. I had been putting together dumb little sites with my own rants and thoughts since about 1998, none of which was ever really seen by anyone. The discovery of science blogging really allowed me to find a central way to focus my thoughts and my intentions. By far my favorite blogs are the one you’re reading, Southern Fried Science, Deep-Sea News, The Oyster’s Garter, Cephalopodcast, Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets, The Echinoblog, Observations of a Nerd, and Oh, For the Love of Science!.

This of course perfectly leads into the next question, because…

Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

…I’ve left a bit of the story out. You see, after I discovered science blogs and started blogging, it was only a few months later that I discovered this thing called ScienceOnline09 – and it was being held only 1 mile from my workplace (the NIEHS). It was there that I met the squid-hatted Andrew, crab-hatted Kevin, and merry-making Miriam (and of course Bora!) of four of the aforementioned blogs. Merely meeting all the science bloggers present made me realize “Wow – there’s even more to this thing than I thought. My blog is crap. I gotta fix that. I need to become more of a part of this community.” Reading their blogs over the coming months also aroused my interest in marine biology and at least set me on the path to my current research in echinoderm evodevo. Thus, the contingent nature of life, much like that of evolutionary history, means that my attendance at ScienceOnline09 had a direct causative influence on me sitting in this lab right now surrounded by tubes of starfish DNA.

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?

I haven’t read everyone else’s interviews, but I can only assume that many have said the same thing – Miss Baker’s biology class and how she used blogging and the internet inside and outside the classroom completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of the Web as a teaching tool. I have no doubt that I will be using some sort of blogging/network medium as a supplement to my future courses.

It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.

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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.