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 Jeremy Yoder from University of Idaho and the Denim and Tweed blog to answer a few questions. Jeremy came to ScienceOnline2010 as one of the two winners of the NESCent blogging contest.

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-9d9a843ab45dc28eb1bcc511d06225a4-Jeremy Yoder pic.jpgHello, and many thanks for having me! I’m not sure how best to start this, so I’ll just go from the beginning:

I grew up very Mennonite in rural Pennsylvania (no, there were no buggies involved). I’m more-or-less an agnostic now, but my thinking is still strongly influenced by Mennonite values of peacemaking, simplicity, and independent inquiry.

I had my first taste of field biology in my senior year of high school, when one of my science teachers led the class through a forest survey in a woodlot adjacent to the campus. By cataloguing the trees according to their age class and species, we were able to deduce how mature the woodland was, and what it might look like in another hundred years. It opened up this vision of species jostling against each other, accommodating as well as competing to shape the landscape right outside my front door, and it seemed like a pretty cool thing to do for a living.

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

From high school on I did my best to arrange to spend time outdoors. I majored in environmental science as an undergraduate, and then spent a year interning with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, working on plant community ecology among other projects. When I started to think about graduate school, I knew I wanted to study coevolution — the ways in which interacting species shape each other’s evolutionary history — and I was lucky enough to connect with Olle Pellmyr, who was looking for a new graduate student to work on his current study of Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them.

Joshua tree populations are exclusively pollinated by one or the other of two different species of yucca moths. It turns out that trees from populations with different pollinators look pretty different themselves, and we now have good reason to think that the moths’ preferences for their “native” type of Joshua tree determines how often the two tree types can interbreed. A big part of my dissertation work is to use DNA sampling from Joshua trees across the whole Mojave desert to estimate how completely the two types of Joshua tree are isolated, and how much coevolution with the moths is responsible for the differences we see in the two types of tree. Before I started grad school, I’d never seen a North American desert — now I’ve been to just about every place Joshua trees grow, from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the outer suburbs of Los Angeles and (I kid you not) just outside of Area 51.

i-45e6cb8ad50927cd2ee3ae03229d20ad-Joshua Trees pic.jpg

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

My dissertation is far and away my biggest preoccupation, you won’t be surprised to hear. I’ve just had a couple of projects accepted for publication — a literature review and an analysis that reconstructs some characteristics of the ancestors of yucca moths. I’m (hopefully) nearly done with a mathematical model that compares how different kinds of coevolutionary interactions affect the species involved, and I’m heavily occupied with the Joshua tree DNA analysis right now. My plan is to complete my doctorate by about this time next year, and I’m starting to think about possible postdoctoral work (hint, hint!).

I’m also keeping up with writing on Denim and Tweed for the time being, and I’m thinking about running what will be my second marathon sometime this fall. Hopefully, I’ll find some time to get out and enjoy the wilderness out here in the Pacific Northwest this summer, too, since this might be the last year I spend within a day’s drive of both Olympic and Glacier National Parks.

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

Most academic biologists spend time teaching in addition to their research, and I really believe that telling the general public about my work is a logical extension of that principle — that being a scientist means communicating what you learn to others, not just accumulating knowledge to satisfy your own curiosity. The Web is a great venue for that, thanks to user-friendly blog hosting services and networks like Research Blogging and the Nature Blog Network that connect interested readers to my site. I now list D&T as a “broader impact” on all my grant applications.

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?

I try to treat Denim and Tweed as an exercise in writing about science for a general audience — so it has that value for me even if no one reads it. In that sense, it’s a little like a one-man journal club, in which I sit down every week and read one paper carefully enough to explain it to someone else in about 700 words.

The blog is pretty heavily linked into my online social network as well — I have a public account on Twitter that I use regularly, and a FriendFeed profile that ties together the blog, my Flickr account, and my Facebook profile. And I interact with family, personal acquaintances, colleagues, and readers of D&T across all those platforms — over my last field trip, I’d post photos from Flickr to the blog, and have folks comment about them on my Facebook wall. It’s not very tidy, but every one of those networks seems to reach a slightly different set of people, so I guess I’m thoroughly enmeshed.

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’ve been reading science blogs since long before it occurred to me to start writing on my own — I don’t remember exactly how I got started, but my first contact was probably when someone sent me a snarky link from Pharyngula. I think I probably didn’t have a sense of the full scope of the science blogosphere before I found Research Blogging, though.

Through RB, I’ve found great sites like The EEB & flow, Conservation Maven, and Open Source Paleontologist, and even occasionally exchanged thoughts in the comments or via back-and-forth posts. Research Blogging is really a fantastic way to get started in writing about science on your own blog, both because it’s easy to add your posts to a feed lots of other science bloggers read and because it helps you find other people writing about the sort of science that interests you.

And then, after I’d been involved in RB for more than a year, I was lucky enough to be able to attend ScienceOnline 2010, and meet in person a number of folks I really only knew as text on the screen — and, yes, add a number of links to my RSS list, including Observations of a Nerd. I think I picked up far more Twitter feeds than blogs at ScienceOnline, though — so much of the conference conversation occurred on Twitter that it was basically unavoidable. And now I probably get more of my online science news via folks I’m following on Twitter than even through the RSS feeds I have bookmarked in Firefox.

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 the biggest benefit I took from ScienceOnline2010 was a better sense of where I fit in the world of online science communication, in my role as a scientist with a blog. I saw some great models of how to draw the public into ongoing scientific work using online tools, and even how to engage the public in the actual science. I also saw some great sessions that addressed interactions among different groups of people involved in science communication — working scientists, educators, and science journalists. It was a really fun weekend all around, and it gave me a lot to think about as I work towards the (still pretty distant!) day when I’m ready to set up my own lab and research program.

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