Let The Beagle sail: Interview with Karen James

i-d65eabf547f4674748e8437d1bd9d260-SBC Saturday 018.jpgKaren James, better known online as 'nunatak', is part of the team that is trying to build a replica of H.M.S. Beagle in time for next year's bicenntenial celebration of Charles Darwin's life and work. Karen is the director of science at The Beagle Project and one of the two Beagle Bloggers. She came to the Science Blogging Conference last weekend and co-moderated the delightful session on Real-time blogging in the marine sciences. I thought it would be cool to do a little friendly, chatty interview with Karen, so I sent her a few questions and here is what she said:

Hi, Karen. Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real Life job?

Thanks, Bora, I'm a big fan of A Blog Around the Clock so I'm really "chuffed" (as they say here in the UK) to be interviewed.

I hail from Colorado Springs, Colorado, known to some as the "evangelical vatican" for its unusually high density of evangelical churches. I moved away (in more ways than one) when I went to study biology at Colorado State University, and even further away to do my PhD in genetics in the Genome Sciences Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. My dissertation was about how genes influence the development and evolution of fruit fly eggs.

I came to London in 2002 and spent six fretful months job-hunting before I got an interview at the Botany Department of the Natural History Museum, where I've been working on a variety of projects around the genetic and morphological diversity of plants for five years now.

My main research focus of late is DNA barcoding, which is, simply put, an effort to build a standardised database of DNA sequences for all species against which unknown specimens can eventually be identified. Plants turn out to be particularly tricky, so we botanical barcoders are still in the R&D phase. Right now I'm working on a botanical survey (including DNA barcoding) of a meadow at Down House where Darwin carried out one of the first biodiversity surveys in 1855. I'm also the science coordinator for the museum's campaign of events to mark Darwin's 200th birthday (12 Feb 2009).

What do you want to do when you grow up?

Did: A veterinarian. I love animals. It turns out I love them too much, though, because when I worked for a summer as a vet's assistant at age 18 I found it difficult to detach myself emotionally. I also found out that I'm not good in operating rooms. Now that I think about it, that's something I have in common with Charles Darwin!

Do: A scientist aboard the new Beagle!

Where does the pseudonym 'nunatak' come from?

A nunatak is a stubborn bit of rocky land poking up through the surface of a glacier or ice sheet. They're like islands in a sea of ice: they can be a haven for biodiversity during glaciation and unique species are sometimes found there. In addition to wanting to honour my lifelong love affair with the alpine world, I chose "nunatak" because I like the way they stand strong against the gradual downward flow of ice ...or society. Only later did I find out, much to my delight, that there's also a band called Nunatak made up of Antarctic scientists who played a live concert for 2007's Live Earth! I am not part of the band, but would welcome the opportunity to sing back-up if they had a local concert in Cambridge.

Could you give us a little more information on The Beagle Project?

The HMS Beagle Project consists of a small but diverse team of individuals motivated by the common goal of building and sailing an externally precise, internally modern replica of the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Darwin around the world from 1831-1836 (an experience that he later said was "by far the most important event" in his life).

She will be a real-life vehicle for engaging a new generation in the adventure of science. Scientists aboard will be paired with students and teachers on continuing professional development to carry out contemporary research in biodiversity and climate change. As fellow Beagle blogger and Beagle Project co-founder (with David-Lort Phillips) Peter McGrath is always on about, there is nothing like a square-rigger to make teenagers go all googly-eyed.

We need £3.5 million ($7 million US) to build the ship, which will take ~14 months to build, and we would like to launch the Beagle in 2009 to take part in the Darwin bicentenary celebrations, so we are fundraising our proverbials off right now.

My specific role in the project is to build a science programme (with strong links to education and outreach) for the new Beagle as she repeats the 1831-6 circumnavigation. That might seem a little premature given that we don't have a ship yet, but it's an absolutely essential aspect of our fundraising efforts, and I for one am willing to take the risk.

One of the most exciting recent developments in the project is the collaboration we are building with NASA. The idea is that the Beagle, through her taxonomic and genetic surveys, will ground-truth time-stamped images of the Beagle's position taken from space, collected by our astronaut collaborators using their discretionary time aboard the International Space Station. We'll also be able to speak directly with the astronauts, not only to discuss the project but also to compare life aboard the Beagle with life aboard the ISS. Hopefully we'll have a press release out about it soon, once things are formalised with signatures on pieces of letterhead.

Once the new Beagle sails, will you be on board the whole time?

As much of it as I can manage without alienating my friends and family. I don't know, maybe I'll try to do a rotation like 2 months on, 1 month off.

And if so, will you liveblog the entire Voyage?

Yes, definitely. Even when I'm not aboard we'll make sure someone is always blogging from the ship. I'm sure Peter McGrath will pitch in, too, whether from the ship or from mission control back home in England. We'll also have live web-cams and a television crew aboard.

What will happen once the maiden voyage is over?

That's one of the great things about the new Beagle. She'll have a lot of life left in her after she returns to Woolwich in 2012 at the end of the circumnavigation. We plan for her to be in constant use by teams of researchers, students and teachers, sailing to new parts of the world to both do and promote excellent science. In waters closer to home(s), she'll host sailing and science days for school-kids. She's also likely to become a television and film star, as she will be an irresistible backdrop for any number of documentaries and dramas.

When and how did you discover science blogs?

Peter McGrath had already been blogging for the Beagle Project for a while (the man is prolific: he blogs not only on the Beagle Project blog but also (lunartalks, swordplay and A Natural History of Runswick Bay. When he became aware of my interest in writing, he invited me to join him on the Beagle Project blog. Before that, I only had a vague idea of what a blog was (though I occasionally read folks like PZ Myers without knowing that their sites were called blogs!) so it was definitely a steep learning curve, but I love it.

What are some of your favourites?

Sorry, you've caught me away from my home computer where all my RSS feeds are located, so this list is going to be short, spotty and not at all representative, but here goes:

Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

Actually, I became a much more regular reader of the blogs of my fellow moderators of the Real Time Blogging session, that is, The Other 95%, Malaria, Bedbugs, Sealice and Sunsets, Deep Sea News and Cephalopodcast.

Is there anything that happened at the Conference - a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship - 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?

Beyond meeting the umpteen interesting people who I now consider my new blog friends, there is one thing that sticks in my mind: Jennifer Ouellette said that she considers her blog her "writing lab". That rang so true for me. I've since started working that phrase into just about every conversation I have about blogging. I am also inspired to write a lot more about peer reviewed research, and to do some reviews of science topics of direct relevance to the Beagle Project. I'm halfway through a post right now in which I will announce my intention to "Blog about peer reviewed research" at least weekly.

It was so nice meeting you in person and thank you for the interview. We'll keep monitoring the Beagle Project Blog and we'll try yo help you raise the funds to turn this magnificient idea into reality.

Thanks, Bora, and thanks to everyone who kept reading all the way to the end!


Pics and vids from the SciBlogCon
Help Fund The Beagle Project - and have fun doing it!
Beagle Project Update
As promised, I'll bug you about this for ten days!
Beagle Project, Day 4
Do it for Science!
Save The World From Bad Poetry...
Will 'Beagle' sail for the Darwin BiCentennial?
Voyage of the (Birds on the) Beagle
Darwin Day - Essay Contest and Beagle Rebuilding
Beagle - Day 10
Beagle Project update
Beagle Project has Swag!
Science Blogging Conference - who is coming? (The Beagle Project)

Check out all the interviews in this series.


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