ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Sonia Stephens

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 Sonia Stephens 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)?

Sure. I'm originally from Minnesota, but moved to Hawaii when I was young. Now I'm living in Florida. So geographically, I've been all over the place, but I probably consider Hawaii "home". I was always interested in science and nature while growing up - while I was in Hawaii, that interest focused a bit on evolution and extinction. Hawaii is one of the evolution hotspots of the world, and now it's unfortunately one of the extinction hotspots as well. There are many, many biological, political, social, and economic factors that have combined to create this situation in the Hawaiian Islands. Invasive species, climate change, and dwindling supplies of fossil fuels are some specific problems that make it really obvious that "culture" and "nature" are not, and can never be, separate. This idea made a big impression on me in college, so my interest in ecology now is in this interface of the human and natural worlds.

What is your (scientific) background? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

i-fbc12334df8fe0affdb95e2dbebac69d-Sonia Stephens pic.jpgAt the University of Hawaii, I studied the ecology of stream algae for my Master's. After graduating, I worked for the National Park Service on a program to inventory and set up a long-term monitoring plan for Pacific Island park natural resources. I started out working on streams and other freshwater ecosystems, some of which are pretty funky, like anchialine pools. These are brackish systems found in rocky coastal areas in Hawaii, connected to both fresh and salty groundwater through crevices in the basalt substrate. They harbor a unique flora and fauna that can cope with tidal changes in salinity. They're also culturally hugely important, as the only surface-level freshwater on these incredibly hot, dry coastal lava plains. Unfortunately, they're also hugely threatened by groundwater pollution, coastal development, and invasive species. So these were some of the key resources that the NPS wanted to protect.

The point at which I started to get interested in science communication was when I began working more in-depth on the actual writing of the monitoring plan, as well as coming up with conceptual models and diagrams to illustrate ecosystems and processes (like anchialine pools). I found it really interesting and challenging to translate some of the complicated ideas into pictures as tools to communicate with the public. A whole different question, though, is how to actually get those explanations and illustrations out to people. Traditionally, the NPS creates park displays, which can only be visited in person, and reports and newsletters, which are now downloadable. But these aren't necessarily the most far-reaching communication methods.

What I'm interested in doing is exploring how scientific organizations can use online tools to communicate with the public. Right now, I'm a PhD student at the University of Central Florida, in the Texts & Technology program. This is a humanities-based program that emphasizes study of digital media, so it's pretty interdisciplinary in both methodology and subject matter. What I'd like to do is shed some light on what online tools work best for what purposes, and why some tools work better for some types of communication than others.

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

Well, as a grad student, classes and teaching are definitely taking up most of my time. Since my program is based in an English department, I'm teaching college composition this academic year as part of my financial support, which has been quite a learning experience for me. This summer and next semester, I'll be going into taking my candidacy exams and planning research (assuming the exams go well), so that will take up the majority of my time. In my research, I'm planning to use both visual and science communication theories to look at online science communication. I'm definitely interested in doing some empirical research, but those ideas are still taking shape.

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 don't have a blog, but I've been slowly dipping my toes into the social network aspect of the Internet. Facebook is a great way to keep track of what people are doing, but it does add to the occasional multitasking frenzy, so I'm not sure whether it's a net positive yet... My main interest in these tools is more along the lines of asking what they're good for, in terms of working on public understanding of science. I know a lot of writers like to use blogging as sort of a journaling tool, or a place to play with ideas. I've never really enjoyed journaling, but I'm starting to see how it might be useful in preparing for my exams (an idea I got from reading Christina Pikas's blog), so that might be a good way to get started blogging. Right now, I have a fairly basic website online but I'm hoping to upgrade that soon...

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 do read several of the blogs on the Science Blogs site, but honestly I usually just go to the 24-hour feed and look at what posts seem interesting. I do read a couple of nature blogs pretty regularly- one is by Julie Zickefoose, a nature writer & illustrator. and the other is by a birder, Sharon Stiteler. The rest of the blogs I read are generally politically oriented.

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?

Well, one of the questions that seemed to keep coming up at the meeting was: we have all these online tools to communicate with the public, but what tools work best in what situations? There's a need for research on how well efforts at online science communication work in what situations. Which, obviously, is where I'm trying to go with my studies. I won't promise to give a complete answer :-) but maybe I'll be able to shed some light on this question.

I also saw a huge diversity of opinion about what science communication is, what blogging is for, whether we should be striving for science literacy vs. public understanding of science, etc. For these more philosophical questions, the answers really depend on the person doing the communicating. I think listening to the talks at the meeting and participating in some conversations helped me clarify some of those answers for myself and think about where I'd like to focus in my work. Personally, I'm involved in environmental activism, and I think that simply educating people about the science behind environmental issues is a huge step in creating sustainable social change. So my focus is on the public understanding of science, with the underlying goal of making the connections between "culture" and "nature" more obvious. Maybe in a few years, if I keep banging my head on a wall of public miseducation about statistics, for example, I'll shift my focus to science literacy. But for now, I'll try to start at least a little smaller!

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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