This post is the ninth in an ongoing guest series on my blog featuring science bloggers who recently got their start in the science blogosphere. This series of posts I've been inviting from new science bloggers, or anyone who started blogging about science in the last year or so, is helping to paint a picture of how science bloggers get their start today.
Ninth up in the "New to Science Blogging" series is Heather Soulen. Heather is a research technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). While at SERC, she has worked in the Fish and Invertebrate Lab, Marine Invasions Lab, and Marine and Estuarine Ecology Lab. She currently works in the Plant Ecology Lab documenting the flora of SERC and continues to write about science and the life of a scientist. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or at her blog, The Science Gumbo Blog."
Me: What motivated you to start blogging about science? Why did you start a blog, vs. using only other newer forms of social media like Twitter?
Heather: A career change motivated me. I have been working as an academic research technician (in ecology) for the last 20 years. In that time I’ve seen all kinds of highs and lows in the academic research ecosystem. However, over the last 5 years I’ve seen unprecedented lows (scarce funding, few employment options, skewed academic structure, etc.), and it became abundantly clear a career change needed to happen. But to what? After reflecting upon my career interests, one thing stood out – I routinely seek opportunities to communicate my science and research experiences to lay audiences. Everything – the good, the bad and the ugly. So from the primordial ooze, The Science Gumbo Blog creeped out of the dark and murky waters, grew a pair of legs and walked the walk. I mean, how best to test drive a new career than to jump right in and do it?
Regarding other forms of social media, I use those as well. I have an active Facebook page and I’m dipping my big toe into the Twitter pool. Initially, Facebook and Twitter were strictly meant to be a support mechanism for my blog. However, that changed after I looked more closely at my blog “business plan,” my time and goals. I simply couldn’t produce the quality of content at the rate I originally wanted. It was much more time efficient to post an interesting link on Facebook and write a couple of thoughts on the topic, or directly quote the text and write a couple of thoughts, or ask my followers for their thoughts. This worked better for me. I now post three to five interesting science stories on Facebook every day, which keeps me and my followers current on relevant interests, and makes room for the kind of blogging I want to do elsewhere.
Me: How did you navigate deciding where to blog and how to blog about science? Did you have an idea of what the blog would be before you started? Can you describe that and perhaps where it came from?
Heather: I wrote my first blog post in December of 2013 for my research institution, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). I enjoyed the experience enough to start my own blog site a couple months later. I have a strong entrepreneurial spirit (co-own a science/“green” inspired jewelry business which also allows me to communicate science to a non-science audience) and I approached my own blogging adventure like someone starting a business. What do new businesses have – a business plan. My rather naive blog business plan entailed:
- Creating a brand and aesthetic reflecting my various science interests
- Writing amazing, thought-provoking and humorous blog posts about said interests
- Using other social media platforms to broadcast the awesomeness, build engagement, etc.
- Rinse and repeat once a week
I quickly realized how ridiculous this was given my time constraints and the demands of my day job. I also learned that I needed to read a lot of other blogs (science and non-science) and follow the work of other science writers to get a feel for what others blogged about (and what they didn't write about) in order to find my voice and place in the blogosphere. I sought out and attended a few science writing and communication workshops to help with science reporting to lay audiences, beating 20 years’ worth of passive voice out of my scientist soul learning to craft clear, interesting blog pieces.
Having a plan was great, but you know what they say about “best-laid plans.” It was early in my personal blogging adventure that I decided to shift gears and focus on producing content for SERC’s Blog Shorelines. I realized I would have much more visibility there than in my own little blog world. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Smithsonian Institution have a much larger blog and social media neural network than I have. I also have unlimited access to content opportunities beyond my own personal science experiences and direct access to our science writer for advice and editing.
Walking through a tidal marsh can figuratively and literally be like dragging a tortilla chip through a 7-layer dip. Unlike the dip, destroying the layers or landscape of a marsh can cause serious problems for scientists studying the ecology and biogeochemistry of marsh systems. When doing research, scientists must consider how their presence might affect their study. Even the simple and necessary task of walking in a marsh study site could affect the study and paint an inaccurate picture of what’s going on. Feet are kind of like the tortilla chips of the marsh world: They can crush marsh vegetation, change the physical landscape and destroy the different layers (i.e. different chemical environments with unique biological communities) in marshes. Even big hobbit feet, like those of Frodo and Samwise, easily fall through the surface of the Dead Marshes as seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. - Heather Soulen, Clever Steps Are What You Take – Walking on the Marsh, Shorelines blog
Naturally, I have other science writing/communication interests that don’t overlap with SERC, and my personal blog and other blogging opportunities satisfy those interests.
My own blog name (The Science Gumbo Blog) and brand came out of my affinity for New Orleans and southern cooking. I have lived half of my adult life in the south, a portion of that in New Orleans, and had relatives living in New Orleans after immigrating in the early 1900’s. Gumbo is such a wonderful dish, and a great metaphor for my science and science writing interests. It’s an intersection of many cultures and while the backbone of the recipe is the same, it allows for expansion and adaptation. C’est si bon!
Me: How do you feel your blog is evolving now, if at all?
Heather: Right now it’s in a bit of stasis out of necessity and sanity. I’ll continue to create the majority of my blog pieces for SERC and my personal blog format will remain as is for the next three to six months. In the near term (<1-year), I hope to implement some new sections to my personal blog and continue to nurture the existing ones.
Me: How you are finding your niche in the science blogosphere? Have other science bloggers influenced you or your blog direction, and if so how?
Heather: I’m still exploring where/what my niche is, but if I had to define it, I’d say that it would be the more human, everyday reality of science. My passion lies in telling stories about the sexy and not-so-sexy parts of science, and all the ridiculous and humorous experiences that happen while doing science. I have been sprinkling these experiences into my SERC blog pieces and the “Science Limericks” section of my personal blog. For example, how and why ecologists "MacGyver" ways to get their science done, and how they use common, everyday items in non-traditional or unintended ways to make their science magic happen, is simply delicious. Using things like Elmer’s glue and food coloring painted on wooden dowels to measure tidal height in marshes, pantyhose to measure plant-available nitrogen and nail polish to measure stomatal (plant pores) density, is so creative and unexpected. Who would have thought that scientists use these kinds of items to do research?
For my personal blog, the “Science Limericks” section is where I write about the wacky and absurd aspects of doing science, such as gazing at ten thousand oyster anuses through a microscope, realizing those bomb explosions are getting closer than they should, and cleaning up the putrefying remains of a sample freezer that had no power over a long hot holiday weekend. Some of these limericks have an accompanying backstory so that readers can get the full essence of the ridiculousness.
Not a niche per se, but another communication passion of mine is sharing information about the current academic research climate to those who are in the process of pursuing, or plan to pursue, an academic research career. This is something that I channel more through my blog’s Facebook page and the “Lagniappe” section of my personal blog. It’s a totally different ball game from what it once was, and I don’t think enough early career scientists know this.
Me: Please describe any other experiences you have had in starting a science blog, or being a new science blogger online and finding your "place," that you feel have been relevant to the direction or content of your blog now.
Heather: Hands down, the decision to focus most of my blogging efforts towards SERC’s blog has had the largest impact on the direction and content of my blog pieces.
Me: Are there any struggles to being a "new" science blogger?
Heather: The struggle is REAL! Totally kidding and couldn’t help myself. I’d have to say time, perfectionism, fear of failure and editing are some of my biggest struggles. The work/life/blogging balance of time will continue to elude me. Perfectionism is limiting and can lead to missed opportunities. I have to constantly remind myself to stop this need to “get it perfect” because waiting until it's perfect often means that it doesn’t happen, which is exactly the opposite of what I want. The fear of getting it wrong or #SciCommFail is something that I struggle with since I hear about some of the really terrible experiences scientists have had when working with journalists. Getting the science wrong and over-exaggerating results does a huge disservice to the scientific community and the lay audience.
However, we all make mistakes and how we handle it and what we learn from it are the important things to remember. I try not to let fear cripple me. Lastly, finding a few well-chosen individuals to look at your work critically is so important for editing (I have a few and pay them in chocolate). If the content isn’t clear, concise or interesting, no one is going to read it. We’re humans with egos, and taking critique of our creation is tough, but if we all stood around patting each other on the back, saying how awesome we all are, we’d never grow or evolve.
The ability to "test drive" one's interest in science writing appears to be a major strength of the blog format and freedom. From this "New to Science Blogging" series, I think we've seen that more other forms of social media content production (e.g. tweeting or sharing content on Facebook) blogging allows scientists to establish themselves as experts/intellectuals/storytellers beyond their research or academic communities.
The ecosystem approach to science blogging (blogging as if one's blog is part of a larger content ecosystem, and developing unique content vs. duplicating efforts) also appears to be something that many science bloggers discover early on.
"[I] learned that I needed to read a lot of other blogs (science and non-science) and follow the work of other science writers to get a feel for what others blogged about (and what they didn't write about) in order to find my voice and place in the blogosphere."
More posts in the "New to Science Blogging" series: