ScienceOnline2010 - interview with Julie Kelsey

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 Julie Kelsey to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

i-1dc279b80cb880c320bbb7cc0ddc3fc1-Julie Kelsey pic.jpgMy name is Julie Bloss Kelsey. I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time freelance writer with a background in biology and the environmental sciences. While attending a playgroup when my oldest was a baby, another mom confided to me that she didn't discuss science with her child because "dads do the science." I must have looked startled, because she quickly qualified her comment. But that was when it hit me: some people have completed opted out of science. I started my family-friendly science blog, Mama Joules, with the goal of finding ways to demystify the scientific process for non-scientists. I write about things like cricket ears, flying cars, and bowling balls.

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

I spent eight years working at a state agency evaluating potential hazardous waste sites under the federal Superfund program. I investigated everything from groundwater contamination to lead tailings. One day I took a call that forever changed the way I look at environmental regulation.

A tar-like substance was oozing from the ground at a school for the severely developmentally disabled. After interviewing the neighbors, my co-workers and I learned that the entire area had previously been a dump. I took photographs and carefully documented the condition of the affected playground. I spoke with the health department and compiled information about the potential health risks posed by the contamination. The school subsequently closed - mid-year - and the students were crowded into another school in a different part of the city. One parent told me that her little boy didn't eat for two weeks after the move. The elderly neighbors living near the school weren't happy either; several said they were heartsick over losing their "adopted" grandchildren. Here were two disenfranchised groups that had managed to forge an unlikely - and loving - friendship. Did the potential health risks posed by keeping the school open really outweigh the emotional damage caused by closing it? I still wonder.

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

As the primary caregiver for my three children - including a newly minted toddler - most of my days are spent yelling, "No, no!" and running through my home at breakneck speed. To keep myself sane, I write when I can. Before my youngest came along, I tried to update my blog three times a week. Now that she's hit the toddler years, I'm lucky to post once a week. When all of my kids are in school, I'd like to resume working full-time, either as a freelance writer or in the environmental field.

Recently, I discovered the joy of writing poetry on Twitter. I like the bite-sized nature of the writing; it fits my hectic lifestyle. I've had limited success publishing my poems online at nifty places like Outshine, Nanoism, microcosms, and 7x20. Eventually, I'd love to publish a book of poetry.

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

I feel there is a distinct and alarming lack of communication between scientists and the general public. There's great deal of scientific research out there, but dissemination is a problem. I think of it as a language barrier: scientists tend to use terminology unfamiliar to a casual reader. We need more scientific communicators - bloggers, journalists, media specialists, teachers - to bridge this gap. Too many people are simply opting out of scientific discussions. I think the Web provides a unique opportunity to reach people at whatever level of scientific understanding they possess and help them to re-enter the road to scientific literacy. At some level, we are all scientists.

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?

When I started Mama Joules, I held the naïve assumption that editors would bang down my door with job offers. Instead, I've found that blogging keeps my mind fresh and hones my writing skills so that I can write more effective query letters.

I am astonished at the utility of Twitter. When I first started blogging, I had no idea where I fit in. I'm not a traditional Mommy blogger; my posts aren't hard-hitting scientific research either. Twitter put me in touch with like-minded folks like Larry Bock of USA Science Fest, Kirk Robbins of Science for All, Alice Enevoldsen of Alice's Astro Info, Krista Habermehl of Let's Talk Science, and so many others.

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?

The first science blog that I remember stumbling across was fellow ScienceOnline2010 blogger Allie Wilkinson's Oh, for the Love of Science. Allie was writing about fun things, like glow in the dark animals and proof that bees can count. Her blog was the first glimpse I had into the wonderfully rich and diverse world of science blogging.

I am partial to blogs with accessible, fun, family-friendly science posts. In addition to Oh, for the Love of Science, I like Danielle Lee's Urban Science Adventures©, Messy Fingers, and Growing With Science, among many others.

Darlene Cavalier's Science Cheerleader and inspire me to work harder at outreach. I enjoyed attending her presentations at ScienceOnline2010. And it was fun to meet Mary Ann Spiro, the Baltimore Science News Examiner.

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?

During a lull in my second session at ScienceOnline2010, I peeked at Twitter. New comments with the #scio10 hashtag were popping up each minute. I eagerly read about a concurrent session which was apparently more exciting and controversial than the one I was attending. I soon realized that every session was under intense dissection in real-time.

Twitter has changed the power structure of today's conferences. Before, speakers were in charge of their message; they controlled the pace and delivery of their content. Now, a speaker's message might be broadcast far and wide by the audience before they've even finished speaking. Anyone with a Twitter hashtag can participate in a conference and influence its outcome.

Thank you so much for having me, Bora!

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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