ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Maria-Jose Vinas

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 Maria-Jose Vinas 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?

Glad to be here! I come from Barcelona, Spain, and my relationship with science has been complicated in the past, although we're in good terms now. See, in the Spanish educational system there isn't anything similar to American colleges - after high school, you go straight into a professional school. At 18, I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to be in life. My mom did: she wanted her daughter to be a medical doctor. But in a rebellious outburst I decided to go to veterinary school instead (it was a pretty tame rebellion, I admit). In summary, I found out quite soon that veterinary medicine wasn't the right thing for me, but I still went ahead and graduated, and even worked as a vet for two years (in a pig farm in France, and in the lab at the Universitat AutÃnoma de Barcelona). By the time I decided to go back to school to study journalism, I had promised myself I would never, ever have anything else to do with science.

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What made you change your mind?

I was already working as a reporter (in a pretty dull job) when I got a call from one of my teachers from journalism school. He was the editor-in-chief of a Sunday magazine, and he wanted to run a story on the boom of biomedical research in Barcelona during the previous 5-10 years. He remembered I was a vet, so he asked if I could write that article. I had so much fun reporting for that story! I got to talk to some of the top-notch scientists in Spain; they were bright, they were passionate about what they did, they didn't mind sitting down with me for hours to talk about their science. I then realized that although I was not meant to be a scientist (or not a vet, at least), I would never get tired of writing about science. It's the perfect subject for people with short attention spans, like me; science is always evolving, there's always something new to learn and write about. So I applied for a fellowship for graduate studies in the United States, got it, and moved to California to get a science-writing graduate degree at UC Santa Cruz.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I had a two-year fellowship, so I spread one year of classes over two years and doubled the internships. I did six half-time internships (at the SETI podcast, "Are we alone?" -- I loved the experience so much!--, two at local newspapers, two at press offices, and one in a film-production company) and a final, full-time summer internship at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I needed a lot of practice, since I wasn't only changing reporting fields, I was also switching to a foreign language. In October 2008, I got my first job as a science writer/press officer for the American Geophysical Union, the largest association of Earth and space scientists. It's been a blast: working for AGU, I get to write about a very wide array of sciences, and organize press conferences at big meetings. Plus, our scientists are some of the coolest around (may I say geoscientists rock?)

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

Right now, I have three fledgling projects. One is managing and expanding AGU's social media presence. Another is creating a collection of blogs for AGU. And finally, I started teaching science communication workshops at scientific meetings some months ago and loved the experience, so now I would like to expand my reach with online training materials, and a blog dedicated to science communication.

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'm glad you ask! I created a Facebook page for AGU about a year ago that now has over 2,800 fans. I also manage the AGU Twitter account, though I must admit that I didn't create one for myself until I attended ScienceOnline2010. What do I get from social media? You see, I'm in a curious situation as a press officer at AGU; my scientists are based in hundreds of research institutions in many countries. The only chance I get to see them is at meetings, and everybody's super busy at conferences. So the AGU social networks allow me to interact a bit more with the scientists, even if it's only with a very small fraction of them (AGU has around 58,000 members). Social networks also allow me to find researchers who're interested in science outreach, and to learn about and then share interesting news on Earth and space science. In addition to that, I network and chat with other science writers through my personal Twitter account.

And about the blogs: we currently have three blogs up and running, one on the science presented at AGU meetings, another one on geohazards, and finally, my pet project: The Plainspoken Scientist, a blog on science communication for scientists. This topic fascinates me, and I'll use the blog to make a case for science outreach, to showcase researchers who are already doing a great job in communicating their science to the public, and to provide tips and a discussion forum on how make science more appealing to everybody. In the near (I hope) future, we will be taking guest contributions from veteran geobloggers, and also using the blogs as a training ground for researchers who would like to communicate their science to the public, but don't have much experience yet.

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

I discovered science blogs about four years ago, and now I have dozens of blog feeds in my Google Reader, including quite a few geoblogs. Two of my favorites are Dot Earth and CJR's The Observatory. I'm also addicted to reading posts about science communication and climate change communication, no matter the blog they come from.

More than helping me discover cool new blogs, ScienceOnline2010 helped me discover cool new tweeters that I now follow, such as you (@BoraZ), @j_timmer, @cliftonwiens, @oystersgarter, and many more. When you guys tweet about good blog posts, I go read them. It's a fantastic referral service.

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?

The best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 was how energizing it was to be surrounded by such smart, motivated science communicators. I went back to work all fired up and determined to expand the scope of the AGU blogs project (until then we had only blogged during one scientific meeting) and specifically, to launch my new blog on science communication. I'm already counting the days until ScienceOnline2011!

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

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