ScienceOnline'09 - interview with Christian Casper

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 Christian Casper 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?

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My name is Christian Casper, and I recently finished a Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, in their program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, in which I focused on online scientific communication. Before that I did an M.A. in English at Eastern Michigan University, with a thesis on the 1996 Nobel lectures in chemistry (the buckyball folks: Smalley, Kroto, and Curl).

I'm also a "recovering chemist" -- I did my undergrad at Iowa State University in chemistry, with a minor in biology, and I went to grad school in chemistry at the University of Michigan. I took my M.S. there when I decided that scientists and scientific communication were more interesting than atoms and molecules are!

I worked for a while as a technical writer at a small scientific-instrument company in Ann Arbor called Kaiser Optical Systems Inc. (KOSI for short) that developed components and eventually entire instruments for Raman spectroscopy. Although my primary duties at KOSI were to develop marketing and operations documentation, I also managed our applications laboratory, and I helped clients develop Raman-based applications for their research or their production facility or whatever they happened to be interested in. I enjoyed being able to still get my hands dirty, but I was really finding myself drawn to the study of language and rhetoric, so that's when I decided to go back to grad school.

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

I'm not quite sure! I was on the academic job market this past year, and I got a good tenure-track job offer from the English department at a large research university in the Southeast, but my wife was also on the market and we couldn't find positions together. She had been focused on post-secondary teaching for much longer than I had, so I yielded to her, and we happily moved back to Michigan, where she is now an assistant professor of biology at Eastern Michigan. I'm currently doing the final revisions on my dissertation (I successfully defended in July) and am looking for a position. If anyone out there needs someone with my skill set and is fine with my being in southeast Michigan, feel free to get in touch! I'm interested in consulting, communication, or development work for R&D organizations or higher education.

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

In my doctoral work I was interested in how new forms of online communication might enact new genres and how they might alter the existing genre of the research article. I used my work primarily to answer some basic questions in what's called rhetorical genre theory, particularly regarding the ways that different genres can work together, but I think that people in the sciences might get something out of it too, although that wasn't my primary audience.

At the conference you led a session about Rhetoric in science, and this is also the topic of your research. How do you see the Web changing the language of scientific communication in both formal and informal venues?

It's hard to predict too far in the future, but it does seem like we're moving away from some of the more rigid, formal "rules" of scientific communication. This was happening before the Web really took off, of course. You see a lot more first-person and the active (as opposed to the passive) voice in the scientific literature even in, say, the 1980s than in the 1950s, and those old preferences for passive voice really seem to be disappearing now, except in some more
conservative quarters. Looking at the level of the entire publication unit, it seems like we're moving toward publishing shorter reports in higher quantities, but obviously there are a lot of factors involved with that beyond just the publication medium -- LPUs and things like that. I don't think the research paper per se is going to go away anytime soon -- there just isn't any selection pressure in that direction -- but there are going to be more ways to communicate informally across geographical separations. How exactly that plays out remains to be seen, especially in terms of professional rewards. That's more of a sociological issue than a rhetorical one, however, so that's getting out of my expertise!

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

I haven't done much with those, but I do think that if I were to push my dissertation work further I'd want to take those things into account. I think blogs are especially interesting, particularly as a bridge between the professional and public spheres. I'm also interested in seeing how evolves, because that's another thing that alters the milieu, if you will, of the research article.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

I actually discovered science blogs while trolling for research artifacts for a term paper in one of my doctoral seminars. This would have been in the spring of 2007. I did write a sort of speculative/theoretical paper that provided some of the basis for my later work.

As for favorites, I'm going to say that I enjoy most of the most popular ones, and I'll name a couple that I think deserve maybe even a bit more attention than they seem to get. I like Tetrapod Zoology, by Darren Naish, very much. In fact, I think that's the one that really first caught my eye, because it's really sophisticated on the one hand, but at the same time it's really accessible. I also really like Built on Facts, with Matt Springer. We need more blogs in the physical sciences, and I like that he doesn't shy away from equations but that he also does a really nice job of explaining their significance and what they mean. I also like that ScienceBlogs is bringing in some librarians and folks like that as well. We have a really outstanding library staff at NC State, so I'm glad to see that profession get some recognition on ScienceBlogs.

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?

There's been so much, but I think the session from ScienceOnline09 that has stuck with me is the one on image and sound in scientific publishing. I have some nascent research questions coalescing in that area! I also really enjoyed the one on science blogging and the history of science, but that's because I personally am very interested in those "x of science" fields -- history, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology, and so on.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again soon.

I'm looking forward to making it back down to North Carolina for future conferences! I wish I could do it this year, but with my job situation up in the air I can't really make the commitment. Hopefully Anne and I can make it back sooner rather than later! Thanks for all you do to make these excellent conferences happen.


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.


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Darren -- You're welcome! My own background is more on the level of molecules than of organisms, but your blog reminds me of why I enjoyed my senior-level zoology course in high school so much. Keep up the good work.