Terra Sigillata

How blogging has augmented my career


i-10fb86f6a3cb672b7c7c56543a0ed265-UNC Med Journalism.jpg

This morning, I once again get to join in with a group of noted journalists, authors, educators, and all-around people-who-do-things-I-can’t for the annual advisory board meeting of the M.S. in Medical and Science Journalism Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Program founder and current director, Tom Linden, MD, is a Yale- and UCSF-trained physician-journalist with extensive broadcast experience across a series of California television stations. Dr Linden also recognized very early the potential value and pitfalls of the web for communicating health information and published in 1995, with Michelle Kienholz, one of the first consumer guides to medical information on the internet. I also featured Tom here in December 2007 when he launched his own blog.

Beyond meeting today with the amazingly talented members of the board, my favorite part of the day is to see and hear from current students as they present their broadcast, and online thesis projects and program activities. Bios and representative works of the current students and graduates of the program can be found here. Regular readers of Terra Sig will be most likely to recognize names such as Kelly Rae Chi (The Scientist), Anton Zuiker (ScienceOnline co-founder), Yasmeen Khan (WUNC Public Radio), and Dan Childs (ABC News Medical Unit), among others.

A new twist today, however, is for the students and other board members to hear briefly from a few of us. About our takes on various aspects of medical and science journalism. Of course, I am not a “real” journalist and somehow remain the only “practicing” non-MD scientist who keeps getting invited back – in class, I began teaching on how to review a press release vs. an actual original medical publication, have served as a sample interview subject who then critiqued the proposed broadcast copy, and for some reason have been invited to speak about this thing they call science blogging.

So today, Dr Linden has asked me to speak to about science and medical blogging but with respect to how it has augmented my own professional career.

Becoming a better writer and teacher
While I’m not a terribly prolific blogger with only about 1,000 posts since starting this hobby in December 2005, the most tangible benefit has been to practice writing for the general public and provide objective information on complex or controversial scientific and medical topics. In fact, a August 2007 article (PDF) in Chemical & Engineering News notes that writing for lay audiences is one excellent strategy for improving one’s writing of journal articles for professional audiences.

These exercises also improve my teaching by requiring that I keep abreast of developments both inside and outside of my field and contribute to the breadth of my expertise as a teacher of undergraduate and graduate students. (I hope that our readers would agree that my writing has gotten somewhat better over the last four years.) In fact, I’ve even used blogging elsewhere as a collaborative student assignment:

I also believe that I have been of value to my academic institution in contributing to our outreach programs as well as bringing to the university speakers and other colleagues I would not have met if not for blogging.

Blogging about peer-reviewed papers is another useful aspect of blogging that has come back to serve me and my students in the classroom and journal clubs. The lovely aggregator established by Dave Munger, ResearchBlogging.org, gives me a nice place to crosspost my takes on the peer-reviewed literature and provides a convenient record for me to pull up what I’ve written about specific topics. I’ve definitely used this more than once

Improving basic daily laboratory and teaching tasks
Anytime I’ve needed help I can’t get locally, I just put it up on the blog and appeal for advise from colleagues around the world. That’s pretty cool if you don’t mind admitting you need a refresher on ELISAs or are bewildered by the choices of pH meters out there:

Building professional stature
Most science bloggers will tell you that they blog in spite of the fact that colleagues and academic evaluators often view this as a waste of time or, worse, that it detracts from their scholarly work. Unfortunately, this is all too true in the majority of academic medical institutions with a few exceptions and, IMHO, reflects a generational gap whereby the older, entrenched generation fears things they do not understand. Of course, some of my contemporaries and younger colleagues view this as a waste of time as well.

There is a balance whereby online science communication can be used as a tool to augment one’s professional portfolio. For me, the primary metric in my field is grant dollars. As a result, I’ve started participating in and leading research proposals that include science and medical blogging as a focus or a critical component for both public education and outreach and for improving written communication skills among underrepresented minority science students.

Let me be clear to all of my scientific colleagues, though: we can talk until we are blue in the face about how this medium benefits us and our institutions but the day we get professional credit for it will be the day we bring in grant dollars for it.

A chance to provide high-profile expert commentary on events and issues
Simply put, I get far more attention from the mainstream media as a blogger than I ever have as a molecular cancer pharmacologist.

Finding my own voice as a non-scientific writer on topics with scientific relevance
In all of my years of schooling, never once did I want to be a journalist or professional writer of any sort – although growing up outside New York City did make me want to be a rock radio DJ. However, as I began writing about cancer, substance abuse, death and loss, and medical events in my family, I found that these personal stories about topics of health relevance generated my greatest traffic and numbers of commenters.

I know that I can add much more to this list and probably will over the weekend. After all, I have only 5 min to talk today.

But how about you, Dear Reader/Fellow Blogger? How has this communication medium helped you professionally, either as a reader or writer?

Comments

  1. #1 Lab Rat
    September 26, 2009

    To start off by putting in context, I’m an undergraduate student, and I’ve been science blogging now for about a year. Even though I’d never mention my blog on my CV, and very few of the people I work with professionally actually know about it, I think its had a huge impact on my scientific education.

    Blogging encourages me to read papers, understand the papers, and practise writing science in a way for the public to understand. It gets me following up references, reading around more broadly, and paying a lot more attention to scientific talks (there might be something interesting in here I can blog about…). If I blog about a journal before going to a journal club, I get a lot more out of it in terms of understanding and general discussion.

    What it has NOT done is distract my attention away from my studies. If anything, it’s provided a more constructive way of ‘wasting time on the internet’. It motivates me a little more, knowing the science I study I can write about and share with other people, some of whom may not have a particularly scientific background.

    Case in point: I’ve spent the last three hours writing about a science-paper, during the weekend whilst on holiday. I never did that before I had blog posts to write.

  2. #2 Lou FCD
    September 26, 2009

    FWIW, I’m a second year undergrad. In my first semester I began blogging my Bio 111 class notes, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much that helped me in class. Just the act of going over and recopying the notes may have been the reason, but that bit of blogging helped me numerous times to “connect the dots” that I missed during the actual lectures. There were as many “aha!” moments during the blogging process as there were in the lecture room.

    The downside, and what eventually brought that series to a stand-still (though I intend to go back and carry it forward at some point), was the amount of time it took to carefully arrange the notes, create and add my own illustrations, and post the notes in a blog-friendly format.

    At this year’s Science Online conference in Durham, we discussed ways in which such a technique might be integrated into the classroom itself. My own experience suggests to me that creating a private space for students to blog their notes like this could be extremely beneficial, so one thing that could facilitate that would be a pool of relevant images for them to integrate into their posts. Keeping the space open to just the students seems like it would address any privacy concerns, and encouraging the students to read and comment on each other’s posts would probably be helpful as well.

    Besides just the personal benefit to each student’s grade, it seems like it would give the students some practice and valuable peer review of their science writing skills. Ungraded critique from the instructor would probably be yet more helpful. Alternately, it might be an interesting experiment to use these blogs as homework assignments.

    So, sort of tangential, but still relevant to the topic, I think.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    September 29, 2009

    Case in point: I’ve spent the last three hours writing about a science-paper, during the weekend whilst on holiday. I never did that before I had blog posts to write.

    Perfect example, Lab Rat.

    Lou FCD, not tangential at all. I’m working out how best to incorporate blogging and Twitter into my classes to improve student learning and retention. Just as profs say they never truly learn a topic until they have to teach it, the blogging you describe strongly reinforces what you learn because you are in essence teaching others (and yourself). The opportunity for ungraded critique is also excellent in improving writing skills.

    Thanks for commenting. Others?

  4. #4 Stella
    September 30, 2009

    Blogging has allowed me to create collaborations with investigators I may not have met through the “usual” channels and to do more student outreach than I would have been able to do in my regular job.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.