Trying to describe the experience of Science Online to someone who has never been is like trying to explain the taste of a pineapple. You can get vague details across – tangy, sweet, juicy – but the full experience can never be imparted verbally. I’m not even going to try to explain what it was like to be at this year’s conference, but I do have some thoughts that have arisen out of four days of fantastic dialogue with new and old friends and, of course, excessive sleep deprivation.
I found there was a fascinating negative correlation between the amount of time the moderators spent talking and the quality of the session. It seemed to me that the best sessions I attended were those where the moderators let everyone else say their thoughts or answer questions. The further from traditional conference format the sessions were, the more I gained from them. Even better, it appeared that most of the moderators have realized this, too, and have become less and less involved in their sessions. I hope this trend continues.
What did I get out of the conference? First and foremost, I feel recharged and remotivated (yes, I can make up words now!) as a writer. This past year has been a whirlwind of changes for me on the blogging front. I moved from blogspot to ScienceBlogs, gained over 1,000 twitter followers, and won $10,000. All of a sudden I went from that girl that some people might have heard of to someone most people at the conference knew and had read. But what my readers haven’t seen is that the tornado didn’t just hit my writing career. I went through three different labs with three different PIs through my first year of rotations before finally ending up in the lab I’ll be in for the rest of my PhD. I published two papers, with two more likely on the horizon. I had to pass qualifying exams, write an obscene number of grant applications, and start actually doing my own project. I spent 30 days on a boat, and over 36 hours underwater, despite getting my scuba certification only last March. And in my personal life, I’ve been homeless twice (for short durations), moved three times, ended a four year relationship and started a new one. The past 12 months have been insane for me, and as a result I’ve generally put writing on the back burner, perhaps legitimately so. But after the feedback from so many at Science Online, I feel a strong impetus to write more. Which is good, in a sense, since I have so many new ideas for what to write and how to improve thanks to the sessions and conversations I was a part of.
Along with writing more, I have suddenly developed the itch to read more. Maybe it was talking to the amazing authors at the conference like Brian Switek and Carl Zimmer. Or, maybe it was the recurring theme of reading good writers as a means of improving your own writing quality. Or maybe I just feel obligated to read the seven new books I walked away with, since I had to carry their immense weight while running top speed to catch a connection in Atlanta, and damnit, I better have lugged them around for a good reason! But either way, I intend to read a lot more in the next year than I did last year, including rereading my favorite books like Last Chance to See (which, by the way, is the best book ever written, and the best example I’ve ever seen as to how to share science, conservation and a passion for life with a general audience. Just saying.)
I also have come to realize, more specifically, that I need to read new science bloggers. In the session chaired mostly by newbies, the question arose as to how someone just starting out can get noticed and begin to climb the popularity ladder. While some of the burden is on them to perform, I feel it is my job as a now-fairly-established writer to do what Ed Yong and so many others did for me and find, read, and promote great posts written by people no one else has ever heard of. With that in mind, if you’re a relative newbie: send me your best, and I’ll read them. If they’re great, I’ll make others read them. And so on.
Of course, how to balance my revitalized urges with my life as a graduate student and overall member of the human population is a question I don’t have an answer for. I have yet to master Ed Yong-like powers of typing amazing blog posts while sleeping, though I’m working on it. In general, I’m reminded of the words of my undergraduate professor when I asked her how to balance getting a PhD and having a family like she did: “Balance? There’s no such thing as balance. But you make it through anyway.”
As the posts come in, I’ll be linking to videos or summaries of the sessions I attended with some commentary on what I gained from them. In the meantime, I seem to have come down with the Science Online 2011 plague, so I’m going to get some rest.