What’s your general background?
I came to LSU way back in 2004 as a student athlete on the swimming and diving team. Four years later I was LSU’s SEC Platform Diving champion, and it has been impossible for me to leave ever since! I eventually left to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, but I always knew I wanted to be back at LSU. I ended up staying at WashU for only a year before I decided to do a 180 degree career change… into science communication!
You received a M.S. in biological and agricultural engineering. What led you to becoming a mass communication Ph.D. student?
In 2011, I was working in a lab at WashU radio-labeling nanoparticles (tiny, tiny metallic particles) for cancer detection and imaging. I’ve always loved science and the one step forward, one step backward process of scientific discovery. But over time, I realized that I wasn’t happy only seeing a very small slice of any given scientific project (which is often the definition of a PhD project in the sciences). I liked learning about, and writing about, the whole picture.
Long story short, I started a blog. I was already doing more of the manuscript writing in our lab than most of the other graduate students, and I loved it. But I wanted to write so that my friends and family could understand what I was working on all day and the significance of it. But as I started blogging for Nature Network (now SciLogs.com), I quickly realized that THIS was my passion. I started to wonder – could I actually make a career out of writing about science?
How has your science background helped you in the field of mass communication?
My science background has been the driving force behind my approach to the field of mass communication. When I decided to pursue a graduate education at the Manship School, I knew before I even started that I wanted to focus every project, every writing assignment and every required blog post on science. My first class at the Manship School was Andrea Miller’s crisis communications class. For one of our first interview projects, I interviewed Calais Weber, who was badly burned in a high school science lab fire that should never have happened. I used the interview as an opportunity to discuss the issues of safety and protocol in science laboratories, which I’ve often explored on my blog. My background in science gave my graduate research in mass communication a focus that defines my professional self today.
Tell us about your work with different science blogs and also how you came about creating your own science blog, From the Lab Bench?
As I said, my blog started as a “pet project” during my first (and only) year as a biomedical engineering PhD student. I think I started it partly out of procrastination, partly out of frustration with my role in my graduate school lab (where I was only working on a tiny piece of the puzzle, so to speak), and partly out of a sheer love for writing and storytelling. And I just stuck with it. I kept writing… and writing… and writing. And slowly, I started to sound like less of a scientist and more of a science communicator. And I stuck with it, so much so that I essentially inherited the role of community manager for SciLogs.com, my science blogging network.
Prior to working for LSU, you were a science writer for LSU’s College of Engineering and an intern at LSU’s Office of Research Communications. What kind of work did you do within these two position?
I essentially wrote about scientific research, and the people who did it! These positions provided vital experience for me. I learned how to interview, how to talk to scientists and how to write engagingly about scientific research. I wrote press releases, feature stories, blog posts and tweets. I shadowed LSU’s amazing photographers and videographers as they documented the work of LSU scientists. I tried to be a sponge for anything and everything related to how to communicate science beyond dry peer-reviewed journals.
What drew you to become a post-doc at the Manship School of Mass Communication?
You’ll remember that part where I said, I can’t seem to leave LSU even if I tried! I have a very special bond with this school, its state and its people. I’ve been inside every LSU building now, I believe, and I’ve interviewed SO many of the amazing researchers working here. So there’s that. But I was also attracted to the post-doc position at the Manship School because of the flexibility of the position. This position has allowed me to continue my line of research in science communication and to teach courses I’m passionate about.
What do you do in your role as Lamar Family Visiting Scholar?
At the basic level, I teach a course a semester and the rest of the time – research! This year I tried to hit the ground running, building off of my dissertation to find out more about the audiences of science blogs. In collaboration with Dr. Lance Porter, I surveyed the readers of 40 randomly selected science blogs, including blogs you might have heard of including Inkfish at Discover Magazine and Vintage Space at Popular Science. We got 3,000 responses (who knew that many people read these science blogs!), and now we are working on analyzing rich data about who reads science blogs and why.
What do you most enjoy about teaching and working at the Manship School?
The students of course! I love that I’ve been able to create, from scratch, the syllabus of every course I’ve taught at LSU. I’ve tried to innovate the material and teaching methods for a course in strategic social media while I was a PhD student. This year, I taught a course in science communication for the very first time at the Manship School, and we had science students from all over campus join it to learn more about how to communicate their research. It was practical and hands-on, which I love.
What classes are you teaching this semester?
This next semester I will be teaching Digital Storytelling. We will be learning all kinds of cool stuff and students will get practical experience creating stories for a vast array of digital mediums.
You recently led a successful campaign to understand who reads science blogs and why. What have you learned from the project thus far?
Yes, I crowd-funded over $6,000 to conduct a large scale survey of science blog readers. We are just now analyzing the data, but there are already some interesting trends. People who read science blogs tend to be very active science content users who also follow science closely in the news media. In a pilot test of this survey project, I surveyed the readers of STARtorialist, a blog that mixes fashion and astronomy. The authors of the blog, Emily Rice and Summer Ash, will be presenting a poster with some of the preliminary survey results at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The survey revealed some interesting reader patterns. For example, most readers say they read the blog primarily for entertainment. However, readers with lower levels of education tend to indicate more than other readers that they read the blog as an educational tool. It could be that readers who are out of school but still interested in astronomy are reading the blog for educational purposes, while more educated readers may not find the blog as educational as entertaining – a source of science-y fashion inspiration.
You recently were selected as a main plenary session speaker and panelist at SciCom15, how was that experience?
It was an amazing experience. Ireland has a rich community of science communicators, and I found the conference to be very insightful. It did a great job of mixing insights from science communication research (yes, there is a growing body of research on what works and what doesn’t work when one is communicating about science) with insights from practical science communication projects. Sometimes I think these two worlds, that of scicomm research and scicomm practice – don’t speak to each other enough. At SciCom15 I spoke in two panels, one from a research perspective and one from a practical science blogging perspective. I blogged about my main plenary session talk here.
You have had a great career thus far. What advice do you have for students who are hoping to make their mark in science, research or visual communications?
My advice is, CREATE CONTENT. For graduate students doing research in these fields, I think they gain valuable insight when they actually create some of the content they are studying. If you are studying mass communications or science from the research-heavy side, take some time to write feature articles, maintain a blog or get creative with content. Make some of your course projects professional projects, even if your professors advise you to choose to do a research project instead. If you are studying in a science field, blog, tweet or create a Facebook page to tell your mom, dad, sister or brother what you are doing on a day-to-day basis in the lab and why it matters. But above all, take some time every day to do something, read something or write something that you normally wouldn’t do, read or write. And then keep doing it.