The Scientific Activist

This week, Seed asks its ScienceBloggers:

How is it that all the PIs (Tara, PZ, Orac et al.), various grad students, post-docs, etc. find time to fulfill their primary objectives (day jobs) and blog so prolifically?…

As you probably know, I find myself in the grad student demographic, and as such I have a very busy but flexible schedule. When I first started blogging in January, I had only recently started by Ph.D. in biochemistry, and it seemed like I was going to have quite a bit of free time on my hands. It was kind of like working a nine-to-five job, but with more flexible hours, and unlike when I was an undergrad I didn’t have any homework or other assignments to deal with at nights. In fact, I felt like I had to actually search out something useful to do with my time–hence the blogging. Besides, it seemed like I had this whole grad school thing figured out pretty well.

Now, fast-forward ahead five months, and things have changed quite a bit. I’m constantly in the lab on nights and weekends, generally working ten to twelve hours a day. When I’m not setting up and running experiments, I’m analyzing data and trying to catch up on the literature in my field. It’s tough! In fact, I just remarked to a friend the other day that now I feel like a real graduate student.

So, where does the blogging fit into everything? Most of the time, it’s a nightly routine. Although I originally thought I would do most of my blogging between experiments in the lab, I soon found out that there was always something related to my work to do during that down time. Since I’m in the UK, at least five hours ahead of everyone back in the US (where most of my readers are), nightly blogging actually works out quite well. I usually spend a couple of hours on my blog every night, although that can vary. If something big comes up during the day, though, I’ll stop what I’m doing if the timing is important. When I broke the NASA story back in February, for example, I basically had to put the lab on hold for three days, as I was swamped with emails and phone calls from supporters and reporters.

How long it takes to write a post varies considerably, although I pride myself on at least attempting to write quality in-depth posts, rather than just publishing a lot of filler. Although some posts take less than an hour, especially if I’m just linking to someone else or giving a quick update, even these take time when you factor in formatting the entry with html tags, especially the links. And, if there are any photos or images involved, it suddenly becomes quite an effort. Most entries take 1-2 hours, not including research, although some, such as my in-depth reporting of the Pro-Test marches, take a full day, including a few hours at the event and an afternoon of writing, editing, formatting, adding photos, and posting.

Although it’s part of my daily routine, blogging is hardly a chore, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t really enjoy it. The occasional thrill of breaking a big story and the more common, but highly-coveted, ability to speak your mind–and actually have an audience–make up for the investment in time. If I didn’t enjoy it, it would be pretty difficult to keep it up, since it doesn’t pay anything and it’s not really doing much for my science career.

I originally got into blogging because I wanted to be a rational and informative, but still outspoken, voice in the ongoing debate on the proper role of science in society. To that end, I think I’ve largely succeeded. Before I started, the blogosphere and its unique culture were untreaded territory for me, and I’ll admit that I was fairly skeptical of the whole phenomenon. Since then, I’ve witnessed its power firsthand and come to see more clearly how it fits into this enormous amorphous beast we call the media. Blogging truly has a bright future that it’s now just beginning to realize, and I’m excited to play a part in it at such a pivotal time.