This post is the seventh in a recent guest 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!
Seventh up in the "New to Science Blogging" series is Alex Hammons, author of the new science blog Real Labwives of Princeton. Alex is a third year graduate student in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. She work in the Murthy Lab studying acoustic communication in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster (does that not SOUND awesome?!)
"Believe it or not, flies do sing to one another as they hang out around your fruit bowl," Alex says. "During courtship a male fly produces a courtship song via wing vibration. My project focuses on the sensory processing of this species-specific signal in the female."
Alex says she wants to incorporate science education into her future career, and science blogging was a way to get started. Her blog, The Real Labwives of Princeton, merges her love of pop culture and science looking at science through the lens of reality TV. Alex posted her first article on her blog in February this year.
There are not just benefits of looking at cat pictures while you work; there is also evidence that the presence of live animals can affect your learning behavior. A 2007 study reported that developmentally delayed children performed faster on a motor skill test and with the same accuracy when they completed the task in the presence of a dog compared to performing the task with no dog present. The group suggested that the presence of a dog was an effective motivator and reduced the stress the task involved. - Smarty Cats: How Kittens Increase Productivity
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?
I have been interested in science writing, outreach and communication since undergrad. I’ve always said that my dream job would be a position as a research scientist with a side gig as some kind of science reporter. Now that I’m more settled in grad school (if that’s even possible?) I’ve finally decided do something about this dream and start a blog. I also saw other friends in graduate school doing some science writing, tweeting, and making podcasts; their example served as motivation to get started myself.
When I started the blog I did create a Twitter account, @reallabwives, associated with the blog. There I post links to interesting articles around the web or updates about my own work. I prefer the blog as my main form of media, though. I had never used Twitter until I started the Real Labwives account. I’m just not as familiar with how best to get my thoughts out there and how to write something informative within the character limit, so a website felt more natural to me. Since I also want my writing to be an educational tool, with a micro-lesson on some science topic in each post, the blog style is just more conducive to that goal.
The idea behind the blog comes from my belief that science is everywhere and scientific principles underlie the world around us, you just have to know to look for them. I look at these scientific ideas through the lens of reality TV, hence the blog's name is a play on the Real Housewives shows. With the Real Labwives, I really want to make science accessible by writing about things people are familiar with, hence the pop culture/TV element, and I think that these topics are also a good way to catch people's attention.
I have a mixture of short ('shorts' on homepage, about a paragraph on some science related current event) and longer articles. The longer articles give me the opportunity to give mini science lessons and tie them into larger ideas. I would say Real Labwives is targeted more at people with little to no science background, to get people interested in science and thinking in terms of the scientific method, rather than a forum or resource for researchers.
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?
I minored in a program called Science, Culture, & Society, where the goal was to increase science literacy through an interdisciplinary program that examined science in the context of the humanities and vice versa. The idea for the blog arose from the mindset of the minor, merging science with pop culture or things you may encounter in everyday life. Though I’m ashamed to admit it here, I do tend to watch a lot of reality TV with my roommate. I began to see events or ideas from the shows that I could turn into a presentation of scientific ideas and principles. I started keeping track of these ideas and went from there.
Me: How do you feel your blog is evolving now, if if all?
It’s hard to say that my blog is evolving, as I haven’t been at it for very long. Along with the main articles that I write, I started writing ‘shorts.’ They are exactly what they sound like, short articles, about one paragraph, on a science-related news topic or current event. I thought adding these would be a great way to keep posting new content if I get busier at work and am not able to post a longer piece. It also seems like a way to elaborate on something I may post on Twitter or share content from other sites. I think what may be evolving more is my thoughts on the hosting site that I want to use. When I started I got some host recommendations and in the end settled on Weebly. It has a drag and drop format that is easy to use and manipulate. However, I’m starting to realize that I want to change some of the formatting. I have some new ideas about how I want to customize the blog and another host might be better. I’m currently working on how to make an effective switch. In the future something I’ll be thinking about is adding a comments section, to make the site more of a forum.
In the future I’m also interested in having guest writers or scientists share some of their own work. I just need to recruit people and finalize the format. Ultimately, I want the public to see scientists as ‘real people’ and not some crazy person who never goes more than 20 feet from their pipette. For example, as a teaching assistant, many students are surprised by how much I have in common with them, that I have the same interests or ideas. Therefore, I’ve thought about having a section of bios on other graduate students or post docs in which they would describe their research, its importance and why they got into science. I think that as researchers we can do a better job of communicating our results and explaining our research processes. I would hope that these bios would be a small way to get people thinking about how to share their work and their passion as well as make scientists more accessible.
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?
I think other bloggers have influenced my content by telling me what else to write about. I see so much great blogging that I don’t want to compete with it. I’d rather try to encourage people to read their content and instead write about something different, find my own niche. Reading the work of others does help me develop my own writing style. Since starting the blog I find myself looking at pop culture, celebrity and lifestyle blogs to get ideas for new articles, something I really never used to do. Now I check out E! Network or TMZ to see if some of their stories spark an article idea. Given the theme of my blog I also tend to count TV watching, from the Morning ‘News’ Shows to every Bravo show imaginable, as ‘research’ for my writing. So in this case, binge watching TV early Sunday morning is actually work-related.
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.
I had a phone conversation a few months ago with Dr. Bob Arnot, the former chief medical correspondent for CBS and NBC, the author of 12 books on nutrition and health as well as host of the TV series Dr Danger. A colleague of my mother’s introduced us. Not only was I eternally grateful that he agreed to speak with me, the nobody of a graduate student, but he essentially has my dream job, so I was stoked to talk to him. Though I’d report on science instead of medicine, he is an example of someone who translated his degree into a career in communication. One of his recommendations was to check out books or sites online that talk about writing. He emphasized that writing is a skill and you must continue to practice and hone it throughout your career. Another big suggestion of his was to think about what motivates you or what scientific idea you find most important and exciting. Use this to find your niche in blogging and develop knowledge around this to make it your area of expertise. The ideas and advice he gave were helpful in shaping my blog. I find that it’s the science education I feel most passionate about, so in my blog posts I want to use them as a teaching tool explaining concepts and ideas.
Me: Are there any struggles to being a "new" science blogger?
The biggest struggle has been trying to write to my audience. Since I want to educate through the blog, I’m not necessarily targeting people with a lot of scientific background. I’ve been working on how to write to and reach people who may not know or think about science a lot. I need to make the writing easy to digest while still providing the right amount of detail. I’m hoping that over time this will become easier as I get more readers, more practice, and publicize the blog.
Alex's blog is an embodiment of the "outreach and education" approach that was so prominent among the science bloggers I interviewed for my dissertation. Her blog certainly caters to a non-specialist audience, in both language and style. Love the gifs!
"I see so much great blogging that I don’t want to compete with it. I’d rather try to encourage people to read their content and instead write about something different, find my own niche."
The ecosystem blogging theme yet again! I've written about the "Ecosystem Approach" to science blogging before (another theme from my dissertation), but the idea is that science bloggers pay close attention to the content of other science writers and lean toward telling unique stories vs. competing or duplicating efforts.
More posts in the "New to Science Blogging" series: