ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Jason Hoyt

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 Jason Hoyt from Mendeley 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)?

I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, but split my time between San Francisco and London for work. Such a commute obviously has advantages and disadvantages. Sticking with the positives, I love how this provides two wonderfully contrasting perspectives on science and technology when I speak to people on either side of the pond. You also quickly see what people have in common, regardless of location, with where they want to see science to go.

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

I did my doctoral research in genetics, and more specifically, gene and stem cell therapy using non-viral vectors. This was done in what might be considered the best department in the world for doing such research, the Stanford University Genetics Department...though I might be a little bias. Despite loving the bench, even before I entered graduate school I knew that I wanted to be more on the entrepreneurial side of science. I think I am accomplishing that with what I am doing now, building software for researchers at Mendeley.

Sure, telling people I work on adult stem cells to cure genetics diseases of the blood sounds a whole lot sexier than software guy, but I think the impact I am making is bigger than I could be achieving at this point in my career if I had stuck to the bench. If I can create a tool that 10 scientists use to advance their research, then that is 10x the impact I would make as a pure scientist. That is obviously a simplistic view, but that attitude is essential to have if you decide upon a non-traditional science career.

And for those exploring alternative careers, my advice would be to let it find you. I started building software tools as a graduate student in my "spare time" to help my research. I was amazed to find how passionate I was about it and that other people were interested in using those tools. I would have failed if I had taken the other approach of asking, "what tool could I build to launch a career?" Instead, look for what is missing in your life that you would like to have. That passion will lead you.

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What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

We recently announced an Open API platform on Mendeley. Beyond the personal excitement about it, this is huge for science and more generally, academia. We definitely are not the first to have an API about academic literature or the metadata surrounding it, but I think we are the first to make that data easily accessible to everyone.

The Internet came about through a need for academics to remotely collaborate. Yet, somehow Silicon Valley technologists are the ones who really took advantage of it. Academia left it behind once out of the R&D stage. Why not use the creativity and development power of Silicon Valley to improve science and get academia back into the game? That's what these new APIs do; they finally link the backbone originally built for academics to people who can really sex it up.

As we move forward, I want to make academic data more open, more translatable, so that either academics or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs can build and create. Everyone will benefit from that.

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 have TweetDeck open all of the time, so that I can keep on top of science and tech news, as well as opinions. I have a million RSS feeds that I follow in Google Reader. Staying on top of the news and opinions of the crowd is essential for what I am doing for work and personally. I'll be honest though, it is often information overload, even when it is a high signal to noise ratio. That said, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to look beyond just the on goings of science. Looking cross-sector into the tech industry is really inspiring when you are thinking about how to improve science.

As for blogging, it isn't essential to my work, but it is both gratifying and almost feels like a moral obligation as a trained scientist to be a communicator for science. I realize how that sounds a little too much like "mad man claiming to receive revelation."

Going off on an alternative science career means I have a perspective that some people may want or even need to hear about, whether they agree or disagree with my opinions. For example, there was tremendous feedback both on the blog and around the social networks over an article I wrote asking if there are too many PhDs.

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

Really disappointing that when I was in grad school, science blogs were never a part of the curriculum. It was an outsider activity back then and there were very few regular bloggers. That's all changing. It's exciting to see professors really getting into things. One of my recent favorites is Vincent Racaniello out of Columbia. He does "This week in virology" podcasting and blogging, and also makes his blog a part of the courses that he teaches.

Another great one is Academic Productivity blog. How awesome that would have been to read while I was a student. It's still a fantastic read as a graduate.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

ScienceOnline2010 had a great blend of conference with "unconference" or the so-called barcamp style. There was enough structure so that open discussions didn't end up a giant tangent that wasted your time, but also informal enough to prevent a repeat of topics you've heard a million times. For instance, every science conference these days has some section on social networking. Great! You're telling me what I've known for years. ScienceOnline, since it's all about, well science online, goes deeper. I hope to see more technologists invited out to future events. The style and content suits them well and would really complement the current audience.

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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