ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Misha Angrist

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years' interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.

Today, I asked Misha Angrist from Duke (and the blog GenomeBoy), the fourth person in the Personal Genome Project whose entire genome was sequenced (thus one of the first 20 humans with a sequenced genome), to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

i-6d5c3f2aaf64c51cadb8bd7e4ede17da-Misha Angrist pic.jpgI was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. I bleed black and gold (though I wish the Steelers' current quarterback weren't such an asshat).

At some point after undergrad in the 1980s I decided I should be a genetic counselor. By the time I had the master's degree and was getting ready to take my boards I realized I was not the guy who should be telling distraught people that their babies had serious problems.

The fortuitous thing was that my master's thesis research took me to Duke and I had a wonderful few months working in a lab doing human genetics. In fact, I had so much fun I decided to get a PhD, which I finished in 1996. I hung around for a postdoc and overstayed my welcome. I realized that to succeed as a human geneticist (or genomicist) I would have to become a computational biologist, a statistical geneticist or a biochemist. I was not up to any of those tasks. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

I wandered in the desert for a while. I dabbled in market research and biotech finance, where I succeeded in losing a small fortune in a short period of time. While I was bouncing from one epic fail to another, I managed to get an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, which was wonderful on many levels.

This led me back to Duke where I took a job as a science editor. Eventually, when it became clear I was doing the work of a faculty member, I became an Assistant Professor. I can say without a single iota of snarkiness or insincerity that I feel extremely blessed to be where I am today.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

My book, Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, will be published in November by Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins. I am in the middle of editing it and trying to figure out how I can help make it successful.

Meanwhile, I am teaching science writing, genome policy stuff, and developing and writing grants and papers related to personal genomics, i.e., living the life of an academic.

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

I don't know that I can offer a single answer. Certainly, at or near the top of the list is the kind of health-related stuff Thomas Goetz discusses in his terrific book, The Decision Tree. But what we're living through is much bigger than science. I think the fact that citizens are now able to cut out the middleman, for better or worse (I tend to think it's more often for the better), is really what fascinates me the most. This applies to all kinds of things. So, for example, I can buy a car on eBay and have it delivered to my house. I can text money to Haiti instantaneously. I can listen to On The Media while I walk my dog, I can send my parents pictures of their grandkids during their piano recital. I can order a genome scan online and see what it might mean for free at SNPedia. If I get really bummed out, I can watch Keyboard Cat for a few minutes. And thanks to people like you, I can read PLoS One and other journals for free and see what folks are saying about the latest and greatest (or not) in science.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I wish I knew. I think I can safely say that I will never be among the hallowed SEED science bloggers. The only way that would happen would be if they started handing out awards for infrequent and irrelevant posts. Sometimes I feel guilty about my desultory approach.

That said, Lizzie Skurnick, a fantastic writer who introduced me to blogging lo these many years ago, gave me simple advice that has served me well: blog about what interests you, about whatever your passions. For me, an ADHD kinda guy, this might mean discussing whether pharmacogenetic testing for anticoagulant response is ready for primetime, or posting a YouTube of Prince playing the bejeezus out of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

As for frequency, it's kind of a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do thing. I am a beneficiary of people like you, who compulsively update their blogs. My life would be poorer if not for regular updates from Genetic Future, Genomics Law Report, and a dozen others. But will never compete with those folks. For me, blogging often feels like a luxury I can't afford or homework I can't finish.

I've only been tweeting for a month and I have to say, it makes me crazy sometimes and I'm already crazy. I expect to be on Facebook soon, though I'm kind of dreading it. FriendFeed? I don't even know what that is.

When and how did you first discover science blogs?

I can't remember how I discovered them - it might have been via Jason Bobe and The Personal Genome (which he rarely updates anymore, sadly). It didn't happen overnight, but at some point it became clear to me that whatever one was interested in, there were blogs out there catering to those interests. I've spent much of my adult life doing and thinking about genetics and genomics and their implications, so I gravitate toward blogs that engage with those subjects: Genetic Future, Genomics Law Report, Gene Sherpas, Eye on DNA, The Genetic Genealogist, The Spittoon, DNA Direct Talk etc. But of course there are other great ones: Culture Dish, Terra Sigillata, John Hawks. I'm forgetting a bunch.

Two blogs I discovered specifically via ScienceOnline were Adventures in Ethics and Science and Neuron Culture. Janet Stemwedel and David Dobbs are two of the more thoughtful and compelling writers in the blogosphere.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? 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 thought 2010 was the best year yet! I think part of it is the natural evolution of the medium. Only a few years ago, to say you were a blogger, let alone that you were going to hang out with 150 other bloggers for the weekend, was to invite a blank stare, suspicion or ridicule. And I admit that I was skeptical about that first conference. I didn't realize that so many people cared so much.

This year was extraordinary. The sessions on blog-to-book, fact-checking and rebooting science journalism were outstanding. Partly because they were applicable to my professional life, partly because they transcended blogging and got to the heart of perennial issues in science communication, and partly because the people involved - David Dobbs, Rebecca Skloot, Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, Tom Levenson, Brian Switek, Sheril Kirshenbaum - were so bright, charming and wise. I wish every meeting I went to was so fulfilling and I only spent two abbreviated days there.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Henry Gee, Senior Editor at Nature, whose book, Jacob's Ladder, is that rare combination of history, science and culture, and was ahead of its time.

My only suggestion: is there any way the conference could be pushed back to February? I always want my Duke students to attend, but this year ScienceOnline took place before the end of drop and add, so logistically it was a bit more difficult.

It was great to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope you will be able to attend again next January.

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Kendall Morgan is the new Communications Director for the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. We first met at the second Science Blogging Conference back in January, but, being neighbors, hope to continue communication and collaboration in the future. Welcome to A Blog Around The…
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I enjoyed reading your interview with Professor Angrist, and it was great meeting you during my class with him last week! Good luck with your future posts.

By Rachel Sussman (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

It was great to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope you will be able to attend again next January.

So I take it the answer was no.

By Bill James (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

Ha! Good catch! Chances are pretty small (though not zero) we'll move it out of January.