ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Amy Freitag

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 Amy Freitag from Southern Fried Science 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?

Well, first, the basics: I'm a PhD student at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC. My research looks at different types of knowledge relating to water quality out here on the coast and how they do and don't mesh to form a cohesive, scientifically-based policy to protect our estuarine resources for future generations. My scientific philosophy is a bit different than your standard empiricist, a discussion I and my co-bloggers have had in great detail and in print on the blog. Since humans and their behavior and decisions are a large part of my research, I tend to have a difficult time separating research from activism and have to pay constant attention to my role in my research community, as it extends far beyond just observation. This creates both opportunities and responsibilities.

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

I'm interdisciplinary at heart. I never could decide if I'd rather be out talking to people or in the field counting critters. But really, the unifying factor is the observational, exploratory nature of the research, something I'd like to continue. Whether doing interviews or planting data loggers in the intertidal, it's a field experience - a type of lifestyle where surprises are the norm. You set out with a mission to study one thing and your dissertation ends up being on something completely different that emerged from experiences during the research process. That's what keeps me ticking - those surprises keep life interesting.

One of my favorite research projects arose from a "study abroad" experience in Alaska Native territory. The motivation initially was to get to Alaska and pay for my adventures by doing fieldwork. A forestry professor hired me to help with a prescribed burn about 45 minutes outside of Fairbanks that he and "the hotshots" from the forest service were planning. My role was to hike out every day for a few weeks and basically map out what the forest looked like pre-burn - size and types of trees, animal paths, type of understory, topography, etc. Fairly basic forestry science, which had been part of my academic history as I had spent a summer as an intern in a sugar maple plantation. However, the summer was a wet one and after I was done with all those measurements, the burn was declared postponed until the following summer. I was offered the opportunity to be a roving field hand and help with any of the projects going on at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) that needed help.

After project-hopping for a few weeks, I was invited to come along to Venetie, a small village of roughly 200 people at the foothills of the Brooks Range in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge that was concerned about their subsistence resources and had asked for research help from an anthropologist at UAF. I flew into town and got the tour, through a dusty general store and around the village, where there were no cars and the town activity for the day was to build a house for a recently married couple who had decided to move back to their hometown to raise their coming child.

The next day we met with the council of elders to discuss research needs and clarify the arrangement of intellectual property between UAF and the tribe. That evening, we went with one of the elders on a moose hunt, modern style - on the back of an ATV with a large rifle that could both spot and shoot across Big Lake. We didn't see any moose that night, but did take home a duck for dinner. From a couple days' experience, I became aware of the need for socially relevant research and collaboration with the residents in the area so carefully studied for the ecological literature. The project that resulted for me was a GIS analysis of changing subsistence resources (moose, caribou, berries, waterfowl, timber for wood stoves) under various models of increased fire due to climate change. From that, the tribe could predict which villages were the most vulnerable to resource shortages and plan for either moving them or subsidizing their needs from other villages.

i-002595512f905f8e6c6b74b468c402cb-Amy Freitag pic.jpg

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

As for a lot of PhD students, most of my time goes towards my research, which is luckily also a passion of mine. I'm very much in planning stages for my life for the next three years, which is both exciting and a little bit nerve-wrecking as well. Part of that is making the friends and contacts I will need in order to get good interviews over the next few years, gaining rapport within the community. That's often just a fun social science excuse to get out and do fun things :-) And hopefully, after my time here is done, I will have "an ethnography of water quality".

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

Science communication is crucial to both my research and commitment to broader impacts. It's critical for transfer of knowledge and the collaboration that is necessary for effective policy. Beyond my particular interests, though, I'm often baffled by how many scientific articles are difficult to penetrate even for people who know the lingo. My undergrad advisor once said that if you can't explain what you do to a fourth grader, taking into account their attention span, you aren't doing good science. I've taken that as a mission in my life and the use of the Web is a great way to reach all the fourth graders out there.

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 find blogging a good way for me to practice and refine my writing and keep my brain grounded in the real world in terms of the jargon I use. It's a great way to extricate myself from the ivory tower. In addition, I find it super useful to have a blog up and running and respected when the time comes to write broader impacts statements. Through the summer, I will be blogging about my first time on a research cruise on the open ocean and potentially a trip to the Gulf of Mexico. In these cases, it's both positive and necessary to blog and get immediate feedback. I credit our commenters and my Twitter friends for making me a better scientist.

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 first discovered science blogs through friends, first the Cornell Mushroom Blog and then the one I now write for, Southern Fried Science. To be honest, I was more familiar with the political blogs, especially of the DC area where I grew up. It was a welcome find to discover science blogs and I am still surprised how welcoming the community has been. Like many before me have said, ScienceOnline is a great forum to put a face to a name on a blog and a personality behind the writing. It's critical to keeping the community going and creating traditions and camaraderie between blogs (from singing sea shanties with the other ocean bloggers to planning Carnival of the Blue and swapping blog stories). I've met a number of awesome people just from one year attending ScienceOnline that are all easy to keep in touch with because we're active over Twitter (like Jeff Ives of the New England Aquarium and Miriam Goldstein of Deep Sea News). These connections will definitely help me both professionally and personally in the future.

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 tweeting of all five parallel sessions by practically everyone in them was a change of conference culture for me, but one I would like to see occur elsewhere. It brought unity to the conference and made one fluid conversation happen as people drifted from session to session. I can't wait to go back next year!

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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