ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Cassie Rodenberg

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 Cassie Rodenberg 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-be3994d3c3f28820702d8a1cd09020ef-Cassie Rodenberg pic2.jpgI'm a Charleston, SC native that now resides in NYC -- a complete Northern convert that carries an appreciation for Southern plantations and shrimp 'n grits. As a kid I slogged through marshes to erect an osprey perch, played slippery 'jelly ball' (jellyfish) hockey on a shrimp boat and floated an ATV across a river, only now realizing how much science I was experiencing. The physics of ATV floating? The surprising number of jelly balls hoisted aboard a boat when hunting for shrimp? The torturous plotting of perch placement in attracting birds of prey? Science is everywhere, why hadn't I noticed?

I'm shamelessly effervescent about science now, dying to share a cool science factoid or an interesting study, which somehow bubble out despite my best efforts to stem them! I think people care about science more than we think they do; science communicators just need to find out what intrigues them-- like ATVs or jellyfish hockey games. Enthusiasm and passion are contagious, too. If we're truly excited, others will be as well. We all need to find the inner kid that's fascinated by the world around us, the one that shouts, "oo, cool!" before trying to reach the public.

I studied chemistry during college, finding it the most beautifully simple and elegant of all the sciences. Under an NIH grant, I conducted inorganic chemistry research -- single molecule spectroscopy -- on the Amyloid-Beta peptide associated with Alzheimer's, looking at different conditions that stimulate growth of the earliest cytotoxic stages of peptide and thus spur the disease's formation. And my 11-year-old brother would be horrified if I didn't mention the coolest part: I worked with a laser in the dark.

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

Gosh, it certainly is an interesting trajectory...after my lab days I wanted to investigate the public's perception of science, how people thought about science on a daily basis. Actually, I was so intrigued, I later published psychology research on the subject. If we're making careers out of reaching people and teaching, we better understand where these people come from and how they think.

And so, I worked at a local science museum, teaching science in big public programs -- chemistry demonstrations, reptile shows (yes, I held everything from boas to Madagascar hissing roaches to tarantulas)... even walked around in a toga as the Lady of Pompeii to guide in ancient medicinal practices. Besides learning fascinating things myself (iguanas have a third light-sensing eye on the tops of their heads, my long curly hair could stand on end with enough static electricity power..), I learned quickly how to speak across age barriers, from the three-year-old to her great-grandmother to her bored aunt with a Blackberry.

After, I moved to NYC and took science journalism graduate courses at NYU before becoming an in-house contributor at Popular Mechanics and a writer for the weekly science section of the Charlotte Observer.

Now I'm starting at Discovery as an associate web producer, working mainly with, a environmental and futuristic tech initiative.

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

i-d6ba96b09d061e2217f195a0bb678908-Cassie pic.jpgThe geek side of me loves production and organization. Though I like writing, I don't feel married to my byline -- the important thing to me is contributing to something meaningful. I hope to do more entrepreneurial work with both science- and non-science-based efforts, hopefully working with idea geniuses to launch new projects. Of course, I'd expect that whatever I delve in will have some scientific element to it, but hybridizing science with other subjects makes it more tangible to readers. We should always be reaching and trying new things... I could never imagine myself without a side project bubbling in the recesses of my mind.

You used to be involved with Scienceline until recently. Can you tell us a little bit more about the project, what was your role there, and what were your experiences while working there? Was it a useful jumping board for your career?

Scienceline is a project of NYU's graduate science journalism program -- all students contributed to running the website and producing content, a mini-newsroom of sorts. It's a bit like training wheels on a bike: it's important to get newsroom experience, even working with fellow students as editors, before getting started in the real world of journalism. Though I think it is useful to an extent, especially for giving prospective employers links to clips, I encourage all students to go for internships first and foremost. I've always learned most by jumping headlong into a field.

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

The web provides science communicators a wonderful opportunity for collaboration. Once upon a time, in a small town in South Carolina, I didn't know any science writers, didn't know who to go to for advice and inspiration. The web has transformed this, and that struggle isn't true anymore, as we have genius at our fingertips at just a tweet away. We can craft ideas, bounce them off one another and form relationships. Even further, we can debunk bad science, pass along source recommendations and generate excitement on an issue.

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 started out blogging but lost steam fairly quickly, realizing that Twitter was a much better outlet for my exuberance that a blog post because, honestly, I want to talk about science news constantly... but don't usually have time to blog about it. On Twitter, I can post the gist of my opinion and ask others for theirs in return -- much more effective and efficient than waiting around for comments on WordPress. I can feel the hum of my network around my tweets, much more vibrant than a blog. Twitter is inordinately positive in what I do -- knowing what the public thinks should be as, if not more so, important to a journalist as writing a piece, and Twitter magnifies the vitality of readers.

Just after ScienceOnline2010, I highlighted an online event in which you played a central role, that hints at how some aspects of the new journalistic ecosystem - scientist-journalist collaboration - may work. What are your thoughts, in light of this event, on the ways the science journalistic ecosystem is changing?

I think scientists and journalists are finally understanding how much they need one another to effectively change the way science news is disseminated. Science journalism should never have been a fragmented system, it should be a constant conversation and relationship between two different sorts of people united by a single goal. Honest and important news comes from general concern and idea generation -- the best ideas come from different vantage points. In the future, I imagine scientists and journalists brainstorming and mingling over drinks, public interest forefront. I've already mingled on Twitter -- the web only enhances the science/journalist cocktail hour.

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?

It staggered me to think beyond web and print communication and on towards TV, entertainment and citizen journalism projects. It's invigorating to realize what an effort there is to mesh good science with the public realm and gives me hope that scientific accuracy may not be so far away, that scientists won't always be portrayed in movies as 'mad' and that everyone can do small science projects at home for the benefit of a larger goal.

It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. Looking forward to meeting you again soon in NYC and I hope to see you here again next January.


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