This post is the sixth in a recent guest blog series on my blog featuring science bloggers who recently got their start in the science blogosphere. This series of posts I'll be inviting from new science bloggers, or anyone who started blogging about science in the last year or so, will help paint a picture of how science bloggers get their start today.
*If you want to contribute to this series, and you recently (within the last year or so) started any form of science blogging, e-mail me at pbrow11[at]tigers.lsu.edu. You can either write a free-form post, or I'll send you a list of Q&A questions to guide you. Thanks!
Sixth up in the "New to Science Blogging" series is the group blogging site pH7, run by Joey Relton and Ashley Carley. pH7, a student-run science blog from the University of Sheffield, began in November 2014 as "an idea flung around by four friends in a pub." Today, it has over 150 registered contributors. The site posts articles daily and reaches over 2,000 people every week.
Joey and Ashley, President and Vice-President of pH7 respectively, are students at the University of Sheffield. There, the blog is a registered society, meaning it is funded by the Students’ Union. Joey is currently in his third year studying Microbiology, and Ashley is a second year Genetics student. Both intend to go on to study an MSc in Science Communication after their degrees.
The one animal that is especially famous for extravagant colour changing is the chameleon. There has been new research completed on this topic in the University of Geneva, by a group of biologists and physicists. It was proven that the chameleon has a layer of skin cells containing tiny crystals that are evenly spaced out. I’m not talking Swarovski crystals or those you’d find in H. Samuels, but little things called nanocrystals. - How do Animals Change Colour? by Ellen-Marie Smith, pH7 contributor
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?
We both have a passion for science communication, and we thought that out of 26,000 students at the University of Sheffield, other people would too. We wanted to create a unique opportunity for those looking to get into science communication careers to gain fun, flexible work experience, meet like-minded people, and have their work published online.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are great for publicizing our articles and bringing in views and followers, but they aren’t where we want to actually publish our writing.
We chose a blog medium because we wanted it to be professional and searchable. Many similar projects go to print but we decided very early on that it wouldn’t work for us – at least at this stage – as we didn’t want to restrict our bloggers to a tight deadline. It also wouldn’t have been financially viable without charging people for it – another thing we didn’t want to do, as we wanted to maintain accessibility.
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?
We wanted to tell interesting stories about science. Whether this was breaking science news, interesting trivia or stories about University researchers – we wanted our blog to be a hub for all things science. We had an idea that we’d post every couple of days, mainly trivia-style articles like “Which alcohol will give you the worst hangover?” and other things aimed predominantly at students.
Although we compile a list of article ideas to give out at fortnightly meetings, we encourage our writers to submit their own ideas for us to publish. The blog is as much theirs as it is ours, and without them it wouldn’t be successful, so we want them to be able to write about what they want to talk about.
As for where to blog, we chose Wix as there were a lot of free customization options. We have both hosted personal blogs on Wordpress before and it worked well for us, but for pH7 we couldn’t find anything quite right that came for free.
Me: How do you feel your blog is evolving now, if at all?
We have definitely evolved since our humble beginnings.
When we started the pH7 Society at University (a community for contributors to the blog), we had four people involved: ourselves as President and Vice-President, and our friends Harry Colman and Charlotte Perry, who acted as Secretary and Treasurer.
We applied for a stall at the ‘Ultimate Fair’ (a one-day event at the University of Sheffield held in January, where students can sign up for volunteering, part-time work and societies), and 50 people signed up to our mailing list. The following week, we created a Facebook group for our contributors and sent out emails to all of the Science and Engineering department secretaries to pass on to students. Through advertising and often word-of-mouth, we reached 150 contributors.
This is more than we ever thought we’d get in our first year – in fact I remember having the “what if we don’t get enough sign ups to start the blog?” conversation before the Fair!
We started the blog posting an article every couple of days, but soon figured that there was demand from our contributors for more articles. We began posting every day and haven’t looked back. We are now beginning to look forward on the calendar, posting mini-series such as our General Election articles and “special occasion” articles like an Easter post.
This week we held an election to recruit more people onto the pH7 committee, as the workload began to surpass that suitable for four people!
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?)
A mixture of sources has influenced us. We really love the way Buzzfeed manages to attract large audiences, and we’ve tried to take from that in phrasing some of our article titles. However, we also wanted to be respected as a news source – we follow sites like IFLS and ASAP Science and I suppose we’ve taken tips from them. Elise Andrew from IFLS is actually a University of Sheffield alumnus so we’re hoping some of our bloggers follow in her footsteps!
Our niche is currently catering to University students, particularly those from our own University, although we know our bloggers have been sharing it with their friends elsewhere. We think that all of our articles are suitable for a wider audience - it's just about reaching them.
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.
The main reaction we get when talking to people about pH7 is, “Why hasn’t someone done this before?” We think people tend to be scared to start things, but our story shows what can be done with only four friends and a passion for science!
We definitely recommend other students at colleges and universities do what we’ve done. It brings people together, it provides opportunities and it’s generally a lot of fun. If you think people might be interested in it, take a leap and don’t be shy.
Me: Are there any struggles to being a "new" science blogger / science blogging site?
The thing we’ve most struggled with has been pleasing everyone – our contributors and our readers. To be honest, the longer we’re involved with pH7 the more we’re realising we can’t please everyone and that’s ok. We just have to try to be as accessible as possible.
Something Ashley really struggled with was thinking up article titles. Obviously we want people to click on what our bloggers have written, and that means a certain amount of “hyping.” But we also wanted to keep it really factual. For example, Ashley was uncomfortable writing “could cause cancer” in the title if chances were increased by a minimal amount, but we have to get a balance between interesting and responsible reporting. I think we’re finding our way with that.
If our story hasn’t convinced you to start your own blog at your college/university, then here are some of our contributors to tell you why they blog for us. It is as much their blog as it is ours, and we couldn’t do it without them:
Lauren Nuttall studies Biomedical Sciences, and has written several articles for pH7, including one on Lazarus syndrome (people who really have been “resurrected"). She was recently elected as one of our Assistant Editors and says, “I thought that pH7 was the perfect place to start getting back into writing, as I love science and want the rest of the world to know how awesome it is.”
Aerospace Engineering student and resident Space Expert Adam Harris has written many astronomy-themed articles for pH7. He had never considered science communication before, but he “dived in headfirst without an ounce of hesitation” in order to “give something back” to those science journalists who had been writing for him all these years. He says pH7 is “a welcome break from the day-to-day of my degree” where he is a self-confessed “robot maths machine.”
Finally, pH7’s Social Secretary, Ellen Smith, has also written several articles for pH7, including “Why you should get more sleep.” She told me that since starting University, "I have tried a few new things but I have been waiting for that thing that really makes me tick - I have definitely found it now."
Photos by Piotr Janas
The struggle between capturing audience attention (the way IFLScience does) and not hyping scientific findings is real for many science bloggers. Other science bloggers out there - how do you navigate this balance?
More posts in the "New to Science Blogging" series: