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 Mary Gore from The Duke Medicine Office of News and Communications 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?

I’m a science writer at Duke University Medical Center, which is a great vantage point over many fields of learning. I was a science major, biology at University of Virginia, who always wanted a career as a writer. So going to journalism grad school at the University of Missouri provided the professional direction I needed. Between colleges, I worked three years at National Geographic writing for their image collection and working for their children’s magazine, then called World. Since the journalism degree, I’ve had editorial jobs, and I also freelanced 11 years, before moving into academia.

Oooh! I loved ‘NG World’ when I was a kid – a family friend in the USA bought me a subscription and I read every issue many times through.

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

I’m so fortunate to have landed at a Top 10 medical school where the scientists within the various schools are so collaborative and supportive of each other’s work, by and large. That makes for interesting work of all sorts. What become the biggest stories, for me as a science writer, aren’t always the most predictable topics: diet and sex, for instance. In the two years I have been at Duke, the biggest story (and one I still get emails about) was Bryan Cullen’s RNA findings involving the virus that causes cold sores. The popularity of that story – a very basic science finding – was because of the sheer numbers: nearly 90 percent of people get the darn things, and any hope for a cure – even in the future – is news.

i-6b7c188d6404e48d7e297c9a76ef77e2-Mary Gore pic.jpg

I have worked as a medical writer most of my professional career, but as an 11-year freelancer I took on a lot of assignments. I even had scripts produced for a TV show (Divorce Court). Writing about divorce was a fictional activity back then – and now you can’t make this stuff up. It’s what we have to compete with.

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

My time is mainly spent in publicizing basic or translational biomedical science. My passion is to do my part to make the world understand that science is more important than celebrity. I am not so starry-eyed as to think that science will catch celebrity in the headline-making arena – but I do hope to see more medical and biomedical science in more places where people get their news. I sincerely believe that informing the public as much as I – and as we – can about early and late-stage research is going to help save the planet. I have two kids, so it’s important to me to discuss the issues. Not that he went out of his way to be my Facebook friend, but there I can see he has a bit of the awareness I was hoping for.

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

I am always trying to learn better ways to reach the broadest audience with one story. It’s interesting to try different tactics with different stories. One week it may be science websites and blogs that pick up the story – in fact, that happens most weeks. In other conditions, it may be the mainstream media, but there nearly always has to be either a translational component or a dangerous disease/condition for which there may be a promising, though early, finding. Even great science stories disappear when there are predominant stories, like the Haiti Earthquake, health care reform near-passage, the presidential election. The growing number of outlets online is pleasing. But my question is: who can synthesize all of these stories and make sense of it? Which sites are really the best go-to sites? For example, where are we, really, in the fight against cancer? There are thousands of bits of information. It feels hard to keep up, to know the best places to go for each subject.

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?

So far, I am not a blogger at all. I do read them – yours comes to my inbox, but it is one of the few I subscribe to, because of time constraints I feel. Now that so many MSM science writers are gone from their posts, I think blogs will be further enriched. Maybe I’ll subscribe to more. I think we all have inbox fatigue. I have helped Duke scientists write about their findings for Huffington Post, and that is something I am proud of, given the potential readership by influential readers of those blogs who may be looking for sound information. I think blogging science news is a net positive. People need to learn about scientific findings – reported with accuracy – in any way they can.

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 wasn’t much of a blog reader until I came to Duke two years ago, and, in a nicely old-fashioned way, was introduced to you at Anton Zuiker’s home. That is really old-school – getting a personal introduction to the blogger – and in fact, that is what happens at Science Online ’10 – isn’t it? We all can meet in person and share. I like Ed Yong’s approach, and Ars Technica, and I like Neurophilosophy. I have been reading Carl Zimmer, and not just for the animal sex posts — I read him before that. I like Rebecca Skloot, too, and XX Factor on Slate. Oh, and Sandra Tsing Loh, the Loh Down on Science (a radio show, not a blog).

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?

It’s a very democratic meeting; the accessibility to all others, including the gracious speakers, is good.

The Journalism session was the standout for me – it hurt to realize that the information we give as PIOs is considered so specious to some other writers. Thank you for your recent defense of PIOs as a source of science writing. We each have a communication job to do. Mine is to publicize the works, large and small of the scientists at Duke in biomedical fields. But as a trained journalist and one who freelanced as a writer for 11 years before going into full-time work in academia, I do strive to provide accurate science stories, double-check statistics and other data, and include thoughtful quotes from the scientists. Maybe part of my personal mission is to get young people interested in science, too, with bright, encouraging, affirming quotes from those who are practicing.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope you come again next January.