ScienceOnline'09 - interview with Erica Tsai

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline'09 back in January.

Today, I asked Erica Tsai, the co-organizer of the Friday evening events at ScienceOnline'09, to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

I'm a graduate student in the Department of Biology at Duke University. I'm in the field of comparative phylogeography which means I look at how the geographic ranges of related species change as their shared environment changes. In particular, I study how a parasitic plant (yes, plants can be parasites too!) and its host tree shifted their distributions due to climate changes following the last ice age.

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How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work?

One thing I've done in relation to blogging is to help run a high school student science blog. For a few summers (though not currently), I worked with the Howard Hughes Precollege Program at Duke University. This program is targeted at local high schoolers (especially minorities and women) interested in exploring basic science. The students work in research labs and blog about their experiences.

Was it easy to get the students interested in blogging?

In some sense, yes. These students are generally high achieving and good at academics, so they are very amenable to doing whatever is asked of them, which is great! I would guess that they looked at it as yet another "homework assignment". I regret that we weren't able to better integrate them into online science communities or to introduce them to online resources.

What do you wish you had taught them?

The blogs were seen as an online diary for each person, and that's where the interaction ended. There wasn't a question of reading another person's diary! That's missing a major point of online science. There's the community aspect, even if you are just a lurker. I would have liked to better equip them with online science tools: set them up with an rss reader, point them to Science Blogs, discuss a new article on ScienceDaily, how to set up google alerts/article alerts, etc. I'd be interested in what your readers would put on a list of "Tips and tricks to being part of the online science community". That's not to say that some students didn't figure this out. It just wasn't due to any training from us! For instance, Trisha Saha, a student in the undergraduate Howard Hughes program, was so savvy she's now blogging for Nature Network.

What blogging guidelines did you give the students?

I was surprised at the number of restrictions that came up during this process. First were the many privacy issues of the laboratories involved. For instance, I think a student blogged about some protein she was working on as her research project. But, oops, the PI didn't want it out that they were even working on that protein! Also, there were some safety guidelines (not necessarily pertaining to the students, but rather to protect the labs). For example, students were asked not to post photos of animals, cages, or anything that might inflame anti-animal testing activists. There was some disagreement about how appropriate that rule was, but a conservative approach was taken.

What was the disagreement about?

It was fundamentally about what is the point of the student blogs. The students were asked to do two main things, one stated and the other unstated. Stated: Report honestly and openly about your experiences. Unstated: These experiences should be positive, professional, and noncontroversial. The first of the unstated rules, while off-putting to us rebellious types, wasn't actually much of an issue. I think this is partly due to the high quality of the program (so there weren't that many problems to report on), and the natural reticence against airing your dirty laundry in public. This reticence, of course, runs counter to the desire for frankness in a blog, so sometimes their posts took on a glossy sheen. I mean, did you really happily and eagerly redo that failed PCR for a tenth time?

The professional and noncontroversial rules were more challenging for me. For instance, a student posted about where the whole lab went out for lunch; another student wrote about how all the students met to play frisbee. Some administrators were aghast, how unprofessional! What will a college admissions officer think of that? I was thinking, do you know how many food blogs I read? I can't help feeling like this is where a blogger becomes human. It lends credibility to the realness of their writing and makes them more likable. What's bad about that? This relates to the broader question of what your online presence should be. Just professional? Some personal? My friends and I have argued about having a 'personal' or 'about me' tab on our websites. Some are solidly in the "not one iota of personal information", "it should all be about my research" camp. My counter is, what do you look at when you go to someone's website? I always go for the 'personal' tab. I'm just curious! Maybe I'm searching for a human connection. And that connection makes it more likely I'll remember you, want to read your papers, and work with you in the future.

The noncontroversial rule is the one, I think, that runs most counter to being a successful and popular blog. Uncontroversial can mean boring. Especially if we scare the kids into writing only positive and professional posts. Uncontroversial can also mean discouraging deep thinking and discussion about an issue. I have one example in mind:

A student was working in a lab that performed animal experiments, where different treatments were given and in the end the animals were euthanized. He described some of the procedures in a post, and did so in a very flippant and callous way. The way it was described was horrible! I imagined PETA or some other activist group swarming down -- and with good reason! Obviously, the PI would have used very different language in describing this experiment, as I'm sure he did to an animal ethics board to gain clearance for it. So the short end of the story is that we asked the student to change the language. But the broader point was lost, and I've found myself puzzling over how better to handle these situations in the future. His original crude language was essentially truthful, but highly controversial and embarrassing. An activist would argue that if an experiment shorn of scientific jargon is repellent, we shouldn't be doing it. I'm sensitive to that, but at the same time I wouldn't want to make any lab a target for bio-terrorism. I wish we had encouraged deeper thinking on the matter and had him write a more thoughtful, measured, analysis of the matter.

What was the point of the student's blog?

At worst, it's a way of generating PR for the program, and it gives students practice at writing about science. At best, it gets students to be thoughtful about their experiences, which hopefully expands and deepens the experience. Also, it'd be ideal if it got students to explore topics they wouldn't normally, and if it challenged them to think really hard about something!

It was so nice to meet you and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Bora! And I enjoyed working with you on the conference very much.


See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

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