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 Carmen Drahl, Associate Editor for Science/Technology/Education at Chemical & Engineering News (find her as @carmendrahl on Twitter) 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-b183f89fe33d3d9f0b308a6cb30d9b5b-Carmen Drahl pic1.JPGIt’s a pleasure and a privilege to be interviewed, Bora.

Good conversations make me happy. School was fun for me (well, maybe not grad school) and that’s evolved into a desire to always be learning something new. I enjoy doing nothing as much as I enjoy doing things. On Mondays, if I’m not too busy, I take hip-hop dance classes.

My hometown is Hackettstown, New Jersey. M&M’s are made there. I got a bachelor’s in chemistry from Drew University and a Ph.D. in chemistry at Princeton. Scientifically my expertise hovers somewhere around the interface between organic chemistry and biochemistry. A short while after defending my dissertation, I moved to Washington DC to write for Chemical & Engineering News, and that’s where I’ve been for almost three years now.

When and how did you first discover science blogs?

Scandal led me to science blogs. Seriously. In March 2006 I was still an organic chemistry grad student. Everyone in my lab was buzzing about a set of retractions in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (disclosure: today I work for the American Chemical Society, which publishes JACS). A rising young organic chemistry star retracted the papers because work by one of his graduate students couldn’t be reproduced. It was a big deal and became an even bigger deal as the inevitable rumors (salacious and otherwise) surfaced. The blogosphere had the details first. So that’s where Google pointed me and the other members of my lab when we searched for more information. I learned about the awesome (but sadly now defunct) blogs Tenderbutton and The Endless Frontier, by Dylan Stiles and Paul Bracher, both chemistry grad students like me. I also discovered the solid mix of chemistry and pharma at Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline, which is still the first blog I visit every day.

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

i-b7bd4d4568d9689c2daf400303c886c3-Carmen Drahl pic2.JPGBy the time I discovered science blogs I knew my career goals were changing. I’d already been lucky enough to audit a science writing course at Princeton taught by Mike Lemonick from TIME, and thought that maybe science writing was a good choice for me. After reading chemistry blogs for a while I realized “Hey, I can do this!” and started my own blog, She Blinded Me with Science, in July 2006. It was the typical grad student blog, a mix of posts about papers I liked and life in the lab.

At C&E News I’ve contributed to its C&ENtral Science blog, which premiered in spring 2008. I’ve experimented with a few different kinds of posts- observations and on-the-street interviews when I run into something chemistry-related in DC, in-depth posts from meetings, and video demos of iPod apps. One of my favorite things to do is toy with new audio/video/etc technology for the blog.

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

In March I just started a new era in my web existence- I’m becoming a pharma blogger. I’m the science voice at The Haystack, C&E News’s new pharma blog and one of seven new blogs the magazine launched last month. My co-blogger is the talented Lisa Jarvis, who’s written about the business side of pharma for ten years and who brings a solid science background to the table as well. I kicked us off by liveblogging/livetweeting a popular session at the American Chemical Society’s meeting in San Francisco where drug companies reveal for the first time the chemical structures of potential new drugs being tested in clinical trials. The whole thing synced to FriendFeed as well. Folks followed the talks from all three venues, which was great. I hope I can continue doing that sort of thing in the future.

For this August, I’m co-organizing a mini-symposium at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston about the chem/pharma blogosphere and its impact on research and communication. I’m in the process of inviting speakers right now. It’s my first time doing anything like this and part of me is petrified that no one will show up. Tips on organizing a conference session and how not to stress when doing so are welcome!

More broadly, I’d love to get more chemistry bloggers to connect with the community that attends ScienceOnline. I don’t ever want to become that old (or not-so-old) person who is clueless about them-thar newfangled whosiwhatsits that the kids are using nowadays.

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

A few things come to mind, actually. I’d like to think that the web has made grad school a helluva lot less isolating for science grad students. You have the virtual journal clubs like Totally Synthetic, posts like SciCurious’s letter to a grad student, etc.

As a journalist the web’s capacity to equalize fascinates me. I’m extremely lucky to have a staff gig as a science writer without having gone to journalism school or landed a media fellowhip and it’s weird to think that my old blog might’ve helped my visibility. I didn’t know Ed Yong’s story until Scio10 but I think he’s a highly talented example of how the web can open doors.

The web’s equalizing power goes to readers of science content as well as writers, of course. In the ideal situation a reader can give a writer instant feedback and you can get a real conversation going, something that was much harder with the snail-paced system of letters to the editor and reader surveys. Not that the conversation is always civil. Most of C&EN’s readers have a decent amount of scientific training, but the debate that rages whenever we run an editorial about climate change is as intense as any I’ve seen.

In cases like that I don’t know that the web gives people a good representation of what the consensus is. For folks who don’t have scientific training, how do you ensure that people don’t just go to the content that already confirms their pre-existing beliefs about autism or global warming? John Timmer touched on this more eloquently in his interview with you, and I agree with him that I don’t think we have an answer yet. Though on a slightly different note, I will mention that I’ve been enjoying the New York Times’s recent attempts to recapture the spontaneity of flipping through the newspaper in online browsing, like the Times Skimmer for Google Chrome.

What are some of your favourite science blogs? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

In addition to the blogs I’ve already mentioned I enjoy Carbon-Based Curiosities, Wired Science, Chemistry Blog, and Terra Sigillata, to name a few of the 50 or so blogs on my feed reader.

I discovered scads of new blogs at Scio10 but I’ll focus on the one that’s become required reading for me these days: Obesity Panacea. I’d covered obesity drug development for C&EN but I’d never met Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski or heard of their blog until the conference.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? 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?

Dave Mungeris my hero – his blogging 102 session was packed with practical tips that I brought back to C&EN for incorporating into our blogs, such as the use of the Disqus plugin for catching conversations on social networks, getting smart about using stats and surveys, etc. Some of that’s already happened, and some of the ideas are still in the works.

I came for the nuts-and-bolts blogging tips but I stayed for the conversations, especially the ones at the bar after the official program was done for the night. And the icing on the cake was seeing folks I’d worked with but never met, like Cameron Neylon and you, Bora, and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in months, like Jean-Claude Bradley, Aaron Rowe, Jennifer Ouellette and Nancy Shute.

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