Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
I grew up in Argentina, where I did a Biology degree at the University of Buenos Aires and started working on developmental neurobiology. I then got the chance to do a PhD at the University of Connecticut (also in developmental neurobiology) after which I went to the University of Maryland to do a post-doc in neuroethology (barn owls sound localisation). There in Maryland I met Martin Wild who was doing a sabbatical, and asked me if I would consider moving to New Zealand to work with him. Next think I knew, all of my stuff was on a ship headed to the South Pacific and I had a one way ticket to New Zealand. Martin gave me the physical and intellectual space to become independent PI, and after many (emphasis on many) years of being on soft money I am now a Senior Lecturer (like an Assistant Prof) at Auckland. I love the research as much as I love the teaching and student supervision. I learn a lot from my students, they always manage to keep me on my toes and challenge my way of thinking.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
The main intellectual driving force for me has been to understand how brain circuits change during evolution to give rise to different behaviours. So I have always been jumping around different aspects of the problem (comparative embryology, anatomy, physiology), which means working with lots of collaborators. I mainly focus on the auditory system of birds because since vocal communication is so crucial in reproduction then vocal signals need to be well represented in the brain. The other advantage with working with birds is that many behaviours that are thought to be ‘of the human domain’ (like mirror recognition, episodic memory, tool manufacture) are also expressed in birds (just not all in a single species). This means comparative anatomy can provide nice cues as to what a circuit needs to have to get those behaviours expressed.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
Oh, heaps of stuff. After attending Kiwi Foo Camp in 2009, I got engaged with a great local community that wants to make things happen. It blew my mind. I found myself thinking a lot more about primary and secondary science education, Open Data, Open Science, etc. Not that it wasn’t in my mind before, but now it was around navigating how to make things happen. I became more actively involved in the discussions and that started challenging the way I do things. And I became less shy about seeking advise and doing stuff that are not the typical thing for an academic (like SciBarCamp, Science Online 2010, a Science Communication conference, the OLPC programme, etc). I am still mainly doing research, teaching and training, but I am spending heaps more time thinking about the ‘how’ and ‘why’. I would love a few years from now to look back and see that I have changed my ways to contribute to a better scientific environment. The main challenge for now is to keep an eye so that I can maintain a good bite:chew ratio.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
A friend of mine from Uni in Argentina (Diego Golombek) does a lot of popular science stuff back home, and I always quietly envied him. I looked into starting a local series of popular science books in New Zealand similar to his, but kept hitting walls and never got the project off. Then I met Peter Griffin from the Science Media Centre, and next thing I knew I was writing a blog. It changed the way I read science altogether, and the way I think about it. Then soon after, the opportunity to start a Citizen Science project came up and we set it up online. The web provides a great platform to build bridges between scientists, between scientists and the community and to demystify science (and scientists!). And I hope I can be a part of that process.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
When I was a Uni student in Argentina, the country was transitioning between the dictatorship and the new democracy. There was a lot of soul searching on what was the role of a free (as in no student fees) and autonomous university in society, and what was our responsibilities as scientists. My generation started their scientific careers with these issues in mind. I see some of the same issues being raised in social networks, this time around the issues of Open Science and Open Access. Most of these discussions I follow on FriendFeed. I leave Facebook for family and friends. On Twitter, I tend to follow a more diverse group, and a lot of people interested in OSS, open government, education. Social networks have become sort of a lifeline to me, and people’s generosity with their ideas and support never ceases to amaze me. I am lucky enough to find people to follow that are motivated, energetic and courageous about building a better system, even if it is by making small changes in their specific area. The discussions are always stimulating, and I am always learning and discovering something new.
When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?
I don’t really know; in my mind it is as if they have always been there. I guess I first came across them through topical google searches, and slowly built a list of blogs to follow. I am actually surprised when I find one I haven’t seen before, but every now and then it happens (as when going through the scio10 list). I have to say that my favourite blog is Ed Yong’s (the boy can write!). But my favourites tend to shift depending on what is occupying my mind at a given time. The great thing about scienceblogs is that I am always able to find a blog to help me think through any issue. New Zealand is a small country, and as a result the scientific community is small. It is hard to travel to meetings or invite speakers from abroad, so blogs (well, the bloggers really) take on a crucial role in providing me with a lot of food for thought.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? 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 think it was great to share the room with a lot of the people I follow online, and to have awesome chats with some of them. (Of course I felt it was too short to talk to everyone I wanted to talk to!). I would love to see more round table discussions rather than presentations. I still got heaps of feedback on ideas I have been toying around with, enjoyed hearing more about other Citizen Science projects, and left with a much better understanding of the science communication community. One specific thing, is that after chatting with Steve Koch, he got me to be invited to be an academic editor for PLoS One (for which I am very grateful). Cameron Neylon alerted me to the fact that UK universities are considered ‘commercial’ (so I changed my blog license). Overall, the big take home message for me was that even the great writers in the room started by learning how to communicate. And that means read/study/read/study/write. So I am doing a lot more studying these days, and hoping to use a lot of what I learn in also becoming a better lecturer.
It was so nice to see you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.