In this post, I interview Sarah Keenihan, a freelance science writer based in Adelaide, South Australia. I interview Sarah as a follow-up to my interview with Signe Cane, another blogger who recently started ‘A Common Year – a Daily blog of 365 science stories’ after being inspired by Sarah's blog 'Science For Life. 365.' Since I’ve been interested, through my Ph.D. research, in understanding how and why science bloggers do what they do, I decided to ask Sarah about her 365 blogging project and her motivations to do it.
"As National Science Week approached in 2012, I began wondering whether it would be possible to formalise [sic] how science informs daily life in ways which don’t necessarily have a focus on equipment, displays, lectures and laboratories. Is it possible to insert a little more celebration of science into every day of the year?" - Science For Life. 365
Me: You are going into your third year of ‘Science for Life. 365’, a project that involves blogging about science every day for a year. Can you tell me a little bit more what motivated you originally to start this project, and why you decided to post every day
Sarah: After working as a research scientist (immunology), I started doing volunteer work in science communication, and then worked for a consulting company in science/technology/futures writing and communication services (Bridge8). I decided that I wanted to focus solely on science writing, and so quit my job. I had some small paid projects in the early days, but also started to look for ways to increase my writing volume. I began an ad-hoc blog on my website, and attended science events and wrote them up as best I could. But it wasn't enough. I simply wasn't writing enough. One day it dawned on me that if I committed to writing a post every day for a year, I'd be on the way. I'd have to do it. I chose a subject I was passionate about - that there is science in everyday life, and that science adds value to many aspects of everyday life - and started blogging during National Science Week in 2012 (an Australian annual event).
This post also addresses this question: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/day-246-a-refresher/
I've also summarized similar thoughts here: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/day-361-whats-next/
I decided to run the blog on two venues - WordPress and Facebook. Initially I thought Facebook would be best in order to maximize reach - I wanted people in my social and family circles to be reading the blog and spreading it through their networks. But some trusted advisors convinced me to post identical content to WordPress as well; this was in order to maintain control over the content and not be 100% subject to the whims of Facebook algorithms and risk possible loss of content should it 'go under' (a bit more on all that here.)
As well as being a writer, I have three primary-school aged children, and I am their primary care-giver.
Me: What is it like to blog about science on a daily basis? Have some days been difficult? What have you learned along the way? I see now that you have brought on other blog contributors. What has that been like?
Sarah: I can honestly say that there were very few days during that first year that I struggled for something to write. The subject matter came quite easily to me; I guess this was a reflection of my belief in my over-arching theme.
Normally my process involved starting the day very early - often before anyone else in the house had risen - and getting ideas down, perhaps even writing a few hundred words. Then I'd revise and edit a couple of times during the day and post it live. Some days were tough when I was sick, or we were on holidays, but usually I managed to do it on time. Some days I'd put up my own nature photographs (for example, items found whilst beachcombing) and just a few words.
As time went by, I became better and better at creating good structure in my posts right from the very first words I'd put down. Often I'd half write them in my head as I was doing boring tasks around the house. I could feel my own writing style coming into its own over the course of the year. A colleague said to me, "I can see you've found your voice."
Something very exciting happened as I headed towards the end of Year 1 of the blog. A very enthusiastic email came from a scientist whom I had never met before - it was Kirsti Abbott. She was so delightful and complementary about the blog, and asked about my plans once the first year was over. We ended up chatting on Skype and now she is a weekly contributor. We met for the first time IRL at a science communication conference in February of 2014, and have caught up several times since. She brings different expertise (she also works as an ant ecologist and a teacher) and her own experiences of science and life.
Several other people have also contributed guest posts. These mostly occur on an ad hoc basis, and most of the writers have approached me when they think of an idea that fits under the 'Science for Life' theme. Social media has been great in chatting to scientists and communications people about science and life.
Me: Have you noticed your blog evolving as you blog day-to-day? How did the blog evolve over the course of the first year, and how is it changing today from what you started out doing, writing about, etc?
Sarah: When I first started, I was not doing a lot of paid science writing work. Most of my posts in the early days had quite a domestic focus, drawing mostly on my experiences as a parent and other aspects of life. Over the course of the year my freelance career began to properly develop. As that happened I started finding myself writing more about the professional world of writing and career development than I was at the start of the year. But still I did keep strictly to the 'science for life' theme for the whole year.
Now I'm in my third year (and working much more) and I do find it more difficult to find time to post. I also spend much longer choosing what I write about - I'm not sure if that's because I'm now more particular about what constitutes a good post. I think I am a better writer now, and less prepared to slap something up very quickly. I'm more fussy! Which is probably a good thing for quality, but not so much for quantity. Most of my writing energies are now directed towards clients.
Me: How do you choose what to blog about? What inspires your blog post ideas? What do you consider "blogworthy" - or what is interesting "enough" to make it into your blog post of the day? Has this changed over time?
Sarah: There are many science blogs out there. When I started, I knew this; I knew there were already many excellent scientists writing about their science in an accessible way. But I didn't see much content around that focused on the everyday value of science. Yes, it's clear that science is important for technology and innovation. Yes, it is clear that science is important for us to understand and manage the earth and natural resources. But science is more than that. The processes and outcomes of science are relevant to everyone and can contribute to daily life. Choosing how you run your house - solar panels, low every appliances, minimizing external heat and maximizing light. Cooking and managing nutrition, working out which contraceptive to use, deciding how much you should exercise, knowing when to see a doctor and when to self-manage a health condition. I think all people as individuals and societies benefit from knowing science.
I chose posts to show how I applied science in my every day. Examples include:
- Managing my son's excema: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/day-69-histamines/
- Cooking: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/day-230-expecting-pectin/
- Beachcombing on Easter holidays: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/a-beachy-boney-fishy-easter-mystery/
- Thinking about fertility: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/once-pregnant-always-a-mother/ and http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/day-351-damn-you-science/
- Managing exercise: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/body-crisis/
- The importance of friendships in science: Part 1 http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/friendships-in-science-part-1/ and Part 2 (by Kirsti) http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/friendships-in-science-part-2/
Me: Can you tell me a bit more about yourself, and your background? How has this blogging project benefited you?
Sarah: I can tell you lots about myself! Here's some modified text from a blog post I wrote when working for Bridge8 in the past:
After a childhood filled with turning over stones to find the critters underneath, examining rock formations on camping trips and holed up doing homework in the study with Mum as she completed her 3rd degree, I finished school way back in 1989. Following a year of earning money and traveling, I ended up studying medicine. Just because I kind of liked science and I kind of thought I’d like to help people. In the 1990s, studying medicine didn’t require achieving near 100% in the final year of school, and neither did it require a grueling entry exam and interview. Which is a shame in a way, because I actually didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for.
This point was finally hammered home in 3rd year, when we spent 1 day a week in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The dismal, grey, feudal RAH. Full of sick, old, dying people. That’s full on when you’re 20 with no emotional resilience.
Crisis! Another year off.
Eventually I came back, and stepped nervously sideways into a Bachelor of Medical Science, which involves completing the equivalent of an honours science year and adding it to the 3 years of the medical program to complete the bachelors degree. Making this change was aided in no small part by some fantastic advice from an experienced doctor and mentor in Professor Jane Vernon-Roberts. And guidance from my parents, who maintained a relaxed attitude and knew I’d find my niche in the end.
It turns out switching to the B Med Sci was a really good decision. By some sort of weird luck, I ended up in the laboratory of Professor Sarah Robertson, then a relatively new PhD awardee in the cross-over field of reproductive biology and immunology. Sarah would become the central figure in my life as a researcher, guiding me through both my honours year and a PhD. Sarah also was instrumental in setting me on my way as a communicator. Being immunologists in an obstetric and gynecology department was a blessing in disguise. Whenever we presented our work to members of our own department, we had to clearly explain all the immunology ‘stuff’ so they could follow the story. Likewise, whilst describing our projects at immunology conferences, we needed to provide clear and simple information on the reproductive system, assuming that most of the audience would have no background in this area. Good communication was critical.
Sarah also ensured I was an active member of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR), where I performed several roles (including a year as media officer) and came into contact with additional mentors in researcher and manager Dr. Moira Clay and local media identity Keith Conlon. With their advice in my ears, and keen to develop my communication skills more formally, I decided to take on a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (by correspondence) at Central Queensland University, which I juggled part-time with other commitments ever since. I finally finished in 2011.
So, at that stage I had lots of mentors, a PhD and had commenced studies in science communication. Good. I was on track for a great research career in Adelaide, with some communication and PR on the side. What happened next? Well, I got married and moved to Jakarta. Naturally.
In Jakarta I quickly tired of cheap foot massages, playing tennis and sleeping in (no hate mail please!). Before the brain rot set in permanently, I sent a desperate email to the Australian Embassy doctor begging him, ‘please, don’t you know anyone who would employ a researcher?’. He suggested I try Navy Medical Research Center #2 (NAMRU-2). I did, and by some weird tropical chance, they needed an immunologist. Thus by pure serendipity I entered the fascinating world of malaria biology and assisted in studies addressing how the human immune system attempts to counter this amazing parasite. In doing do, I found another great mentor in Dr. J. Kevin Baird, a highly experienced epidemiologist and stickler for the scientific process. NAMRU-2 employed me for nearly 3 years, during which time I also did some writing for Trends in Immunology and Trends in Parasitology to keep my communication skills ticking over.
Babies were on the agenda when we returned to Adelaide, and I’ve been lucky enough to have 3 gorgeous kids, for whom we do our best to expose to critter-hunting, rock formations and mutual homework sessions in amongst studying marine life at Yorke Peninsula and discussions about whether God (or indeed anyone) made the dinosaurs. I worked with Dr. Kristin Alford at Bridge8 from 2007-2011, where I have been lucky enough to work on many diverse and interesting science and technology-related projects.
I launched my freelance career in early 2012, and launched the blog in August of that year. Now I have a good mix of writing clients, and continue to blog (see http://sciencesarah.wordpress.com/).
The project has benefitted me in so many ways! I've actually written this up as a post, see here: http://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/a-case-study/