ScienceOnline'09: Interview with Katherine Haxton

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Katherine Haxton of the Endless Possibilities blog (see the archives of her Nature Network blog here), to answer a few questions.

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?

Hello! I'm Katherine and I'm a chemist. Don't worry, I'm not just going to talk about molecules and things that might explode. I've been a chemist since I figured out that I was a poor excuse for a physics undergrad and have never looked back.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

I'm currently quite happy with the job I have, but don't rule out the prospect of doing something else in the future. I don't intend to grow up, I just plan on growing old.

What is your Real Life job?

In real life I am a lecturer in chemistry in Britain. It's a bit of a strange job really because it includes all the research stuff that you'd expect of an academic, a large whack of teaching and a whole load of other stuff that I never expected to be doing. At the moment, I wouldn't want to do anything else, well, except spend a little more time in the lab perhaps.

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

Good question! I think the web offers us an amazing opportunity to connect with people, information and ideas. It gives us the chance to communicate directly with all aspects of society (who use the web), and explain who we are and what we do. We also have the opportunity to work more effectively as scientists, sharing data and information, making things more freely available. The web hosts a wonderful array of collaborative tools for scientists, I'd like to see more tools being developed for scientists and 'the public' to engage with the issues and ideas that come up again and again.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

I'm a bad blogger at the moment, struggling to find my writing voice now that I've gone to the trouble of setting up my own blog website. I'm having better luck with Twitter which was unexpected - I agreed to try Twitter for 30 days and see if I 'got it'. Now I find it very useful for information gathering and satisfying my need for gossip! I see blogging and Twitter as forms of outreach - between chemists, scientists and just generally reaching out in general.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

I stumbled on science blogs by accident a few years ago. I remember quite clearly reading the early NatureNetwork blogs like Anna Kushnir's Blog, LabLife. My favourites include Highly Allochthonous and ScienceWomen, and it was a real privilege to get to meet the authors of those blogs back in January. I'm particularly enjoying this summer's crop of conference blogging/twittering from various chemistry conferences and the Lindau meeting.

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

Since the conference I've started reading WhiteCoatUnderground, Skull in the Stars and Almost Diamonds. I've implemented a 'one in one out' Google reader policy - for every new blog I want to read,Ihave to remove a blog that isn't updated often or that I no longer feel a connection with.

In many online discussions, especially on sensitive topics like politics, religion and feminism, the "tone argument" raises its head, where one side, usually representing traditional power, tries to silence the other by insisting on politeness, while the other side tries to undermine the traditional power structure by shocking with impoliteness. The former sees the latter as rude, the latter perceives the former as dishonest. Do you think there is also a geographical or cultural difference in where exactly the line lies between civil and uncivil discourse? Is there, for example, a set of words, phrases or "tones" that may be considered perfectly civil by (some of) the Americans, but horribly impolite by (some of) the Brits? And if so, is there a way to point out to cultural differences in order to resolve a debate?

This is a very complicated issue and really the tone argument just gets in the way. My personal opinion is that we could all do to be more tolerant of those who disagree with us, and more conscious of how our words and statements can be misinterpreted. There has been quite a bit of discussion about rules and protocols surrounding blogging, and that's been quite fascinating. I believe that the blogger sets the tone for the comments thread, through moderation, counter-comment and other indicators of acceptable behaviour. And those standards of acceptable behaviour vary widely between blogs, as they should. I think some bloggers forget that the diversity of experience their readership brings to any issue is the most important aspect of using this medium to communicate, mainly through their desire to be agreed with. I dislike intensely those bloggers who inspire persecution against opinions different to their own, and those who incessantly use impolite shock tactics - like anything, impoliteness looses its impact when continually overused (no, it doesn't become an iconic trademark of a particular blogger, it just gets old). Many bloggers (yourself included) have implied that their blog is like their living room, that to read a blog post and comment is to come into the living room and join the conversation. That implies a certain standard of behavior and politeness. The converse of the politeness argument is the need for rudeness. There are times and places where the most effective way to make a point is to be rude, to issue a short, sharp shock to the audience.

I don't think that all debates need resolving - the beauty of having cultural differences is that there is frequently no right and no wrong, just varying degrees of interpretation. I think that's seen quite plainly in arguments about feminism (I have no time for those about religion or politics). There seems to be a growing trend in labeling people as feminist or not, supportive or not, with no acknowledgement that everyone's perspective is, and should be, different. Some of those differences are because of cultural issues between the US and the Brits, but we're not the sole users of the internet, something we'd all do well to remember from time to time. We should welcome open and frank discussion of the origins of those differences rather than the creation of rules and codified behaviours to moderate, and ultimately suppress, those who disagree with us or express their viewpoint in a manner we would not have chosen ourselves.

I'd like to see a little more tolerance in these debates and a little more curiosity as to the origins of opinions, and acknowledgment that there may be cultural differences or misinterpretation. Words are, unfortunately, an imprecise method of communication and open to many interpretations. I don't understand the need of a minority to take everything in the worse possible light. In an ideal world it should be possible to point out that a cultural difference or genuine misunderstanding has had an effect, but reality is usually somewhat less than ideal!

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 was overwhelmed by how friendly and open bloggers were in 'real life'. I was amazed by the open and frank discussion in many of the sessions and felt reassured that such communities exist. It was a very good reminder that everyone does have different points of view, but that everyone can still come together and be welcoming and friendly. The conference inspired me to blog more (which I'm struggling to do), and work out new ways to include blogging in my job.

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

Thank you Bora. It was lovely to meet you in January and I'm looking forward to next year!


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


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