A Blog Around The Clock

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.

Today, I asked T. DeLene Beeland to answer a few questions.

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?

Geography: I live in North Carolina, but my heart is still in Florida, where I spent my whole life prior to 2009. Perspective: I love nature and learning about the natural world. I am a freelance writer with graduate training in ecology, natural resources management and journalism.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

It’s been more of a higgledy-piggledy switch-back path than a trajectory. Let’s see…I’m 33 and have been freelancing for a little more than one year. This is actually my second career – my first was as a commercial interior designer (not a decorator, an interior architectural space planner – very different). While working in design, I was bored down to my bones. I’d also had a health crisis that forced the soul-searching question: if I can do anything in the world, what would it be? My inner voice kept answering, “Be a writer, study ecology.” So I did.

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While in grad school (Univ. of Florida) I worked for two years as a staff science writer at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The science divisions in this museum are vast, there are 20-plus scientific departments. I wrote about goings-on in ichthyology, herpetology, four different archaeology departments, a Lepidoptera center and of course, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology – oh, and ornithology, palynology and paleobotany too! It was a cool gig, except for the money. Shortly after graduating I took a similar position with the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF, except they were a start-up so I built their science communications from scratch.

Today, I’m building a freelance writing business and working on a natural history book. I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve struggled to the bottom-rung of the freelancing career and I’ve got a toehold but still have a marathon climbing trek ahead of me.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days?

Trying to afford health insurance. (Kidding! Sort of.) Seriously, trying to carve time to research and write my book; stay afloat with freelance work and expanding my professional network. Yep, that pretty much consumes most of my time. And watching the birds at my seed feeder – that soaks up a lot of time too. I like watching them over time and learning their seasonal behaviors.

What aspect of science communication interests you the most?

i-e943ec2c00a5effd3b9ba55ab3304055-Delene pic2.JPGFinding an interesting story, pitching, finding the lede to a story… Figuring out how to break complex things down into interesting reads; making science relatable to everyday people who may not be into it – these are communication elements I’m interested in. I see my science writing as in its infancy. I’m still really focused on explanatory approaches (here is what they found, this is what the results mean, etc.) Which is fine for being a science evangelist and getting people interested, but in the future I hope to be doing more critical pieces and analysis; especially concerning conservation biology and species conservation and extinction, topics that I always feel drawn to. I am interested in learning to do profile pieces better too – getting at the personalities who do science. I’ve also been sinking time into reading about narrative writing craft and how to bring story-telling elements into science writing: using dialogue (well), orchestrating plot and conflict, stuff like that.

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?

It is a small part of my professional life. I write blogs for one client (Science in the Triangle), and I write a personal blog, Wild Muse. But blogging is not my primary writing outlet and is a small fraction of my income; and because of that, the majority of my time and effort goes into other types of print communication work. I started blogging as an experiment, mostly because all the freelance business articles I was reading said “You Must Blog. Period.”

I use my personal blog to explore things I’m interested in: wolf studies, birds, ecology the environment… It’s really more of an online journaling exercise. I’m a highly kinetic reader. I have to underline and scrawl copious notes in the margins in order to process ideas… and blogging, for me, is kind of the online analog to that learning process. The happy accidental side effect of it is that I’ve met many people through the process of blogging – like you – and now have a wider and richer online social network because of it.

Facebook I reserve for my personal life. Twitter, I treat a little more professionally. I’ve made a point to use it more tied to my online presence as a science and nature writer.

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

Ah, British spelling?

Shortly after moving to N.C., and hooking up with the SCONC group. As for favorite blogs… I graze a lot. Since I’m new to the blogosphere – Wild Muse is only seven or eight months old – I flit around a lot and skim many people’s blogs just to see what is out there. Some faves in my Google Reader are: CreatureCast, Round Robin, Wolves of the High Arctic and Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News… but if you notice, these are not blogs you go to for interesting writing or science news, my preferences are more clustered around content I find intriguing. Deep Sea News is great too because it has a unique tone. Scads of people have great blogs, but I can’t say I’m a very loyal daily reader of any single person’s blog. I get impatient, bored and turned off by blogs that are self-promotional or bloggers who take themselves too seriously, and usually won’t go back if I get that vibe from someone’s site. But if they have good content and package it well, I’ll flit back to it.

Is there anything that happened at ScienceOnline2010 – 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?

Hands-down, the fact-checking session won my interest. There are cases where you can’t just take your source’s word for it. Just because someone says something, does not make it true. Writers are not transcriptionists. You have to check with a second or third source to verify what the first said if something does not feel right or sounds off or contradicts what you know. This happened to me recently on an assignment… a project manager told me they had discovered one species trend, then a person collecting data on the project told me the exact opposite. So I had to run it by others to find out the reality. Sometimes people think they are telling you the “truth” but really they are only telling you their perspective of what they experienced – and it’s your job as the writer to sift through and drill down to the un-colored reality. So yeah, I’d say that was the best lesson and what I took home with me. You really get into the danger zone when you think you know something, but don’t check it to verify that what you think you know is in fact true.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I’ll see you around.