Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ScienceOnline in Three Words

Performance, feedback, revision. Those three words will be immediately familiar to fans of Baba Brinkman, including people who attended his talk and performance at the ScienceOnline2013 meeting held recently. Not only was Brinkman brilliant, but I think his words capture the spirit and motivation behind the best conference I've ever attended. (The words will also be familiar to people who read Kelly Oakes' excellent blog post about the same meeting and words. Most of my post was already written before I saw Kelly's post and we have different viewpoints, so I decided to finish this post.)

Science-lovers online and offline at the ScienceOnline meeting at North Carolina State University. Conference maestro Karyn Traphagen can be seen chatting in the background on the left. Credit: Russ Creech.

There were many outstanding aspects to the ScienceOnline meeting, the 7th one held. The organization was superb, with close attention given to minimizing typical conference distractions, like "where shall we eat", and maximizing chances for interactions between people. The "converge" sessions, similar to key-note talks, were stimulating and entertaining, and the smaller discussion sessions covered a lot of interesting material. To accommodate the many people unable to attend the meeting, the converge sessions and some of the discussion sessions were streamed live, and watch parties were organized around the world.

The food was excellent and the coffee was apparently very good. There was a quiet room where people could gather their thoughts by escaping the intense post-session discussions. New science books were curated and there were skills workshops. There were field trips before the meeting started, so the newcomers could get to know each other, and people were kept informed about late-breaking news on Twitter. For example, that's how I discovered that a spot opened up on the tour of the Duke Lemur Center, a few days before the meeting. I could go on.

Surely an important reason for this excellence is that the organizers, Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker have listened carefully to feedback given at previous conferences and revised the details many times. It's the process that Baba Brinkman uses in improving his rap performances, as explained in this video, and highlighted by blogger Joe Hanson.

Baba Brinkman performing at the converge session at ScienceOnline. Credit: Russ Creech.

I was skeptical when I first heard about an evolution rapper performing at the conference party on Thursday night, but Brinkman quickly won me over during his talk and performance at the Converge session the next morning. One highlight was "I'm a African", a rapping guide to evolution where he explains that we all came from Africa originally. He also enjoyed mocking our natural inclination to say "I'm an African" as he coached us to sing the title words properly. I won't give any more details, but I strongly encourage you to watch the video from the converge session if you weren't there, or to watch it again if you were. You can also watch him on YouTube:

The first step, of performing rap or science communication - or both, in the case of Brinkman - is important. However, I would argue that the second step, of listening to feedback and criticism, is even more important. Even though it can be difficult to hear critical comments, for science communicators and science writers it's a key part of their job.

The session Nadia Drake and I led at the meeting was driven by the desire for feedback. It was titled: "Working towards better press releases: What do writers want?" and was aimed at seeking advice from science writers. Thanks to some popular competing sessions - see below - and useful information from the meeting app, we knew that few writers were likely to attend our session, so I sent questions to science writers by email and received some excellent, detailed responses. These will be included in a future blog post. We also wrote two blog posts before the session, an introduction by me and an entertaining reply by Nadia. So, this was a more personal case of feedback and revision.

My two major concerns about the session were that I would mumble incoherently, without the crutch of powerpoint slides, and that this would result in a lack of discussion. So, I was happy and relieved that the discussion ended up being energetic and stimulating. It was mostly attended by PIOs and people who produce, rather than consume, press releases, but there were some very useful comments from writers Peter Aldhous, David Harris, and, of course, Nadia. Thanks to everyone who came and joined in.

Nadia Drake at the end of our session on press releases.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this meeting was the friendly and unpretentious attitude of the people who attended. There were many talented writers, scientists, educators and communicators at the meeting, some with substantial fan-bases, yet everybody was very welcoming to me, as a newcomer. This attitude was openly encouraged by the organisers and reinforced by details such as the lack of institutions or titles on the name badges.

At the reception to open the meeting, I met the well-known author and science writer Maryn McKenna and I mentioned that a session she was co-moderating was going to occur at the same time as my session on press releases with Nadia. I then mentioned that I hadn't met her co-moderator David Dobbs.
So, she ran off looking for him so she could introduce us. How welcoming is that? She was unable to find him, and I didn't get a chance to meet Dobbs later, but I appreciated her effort.

Readers may have seen an excellent interview that Matt Shipman did with Dobbs recently, where they discussed a number of topics about writing, including Dobb's reaction to feedback:
"CB [Shipman]: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the science community about your work? 
DD [Dobbs]: Mostly good, but I’m well aware that may be because most people like to be nice, or at least to avoid conflict, and so are more likely to say nice things than ugly things. I’m pleased, though, truly, when a scientist presses me a bit or lodges an objection or correction or difference of view or opinion. I know I’m not getting everything (anything?) as right as I’d like to, so appreciate all the critical feedback I can get. 
I’m writing about behavioral genetics right now, so count myself lucky that geneticists tend to be especially frank about their field. Alas, it’s a field that’s ludicrously complicated and in extreme turmoil, so that makes it almost impossible anyway. That’s why the book is taking a bit longer than I’d hoped."
This attitude is extremely refreshing. If people are openly receptive to feedback then they're much more likely to receive it, and then improve. For example, I feel sheepish about complaining when I see press stories that contain errors because I wonder whether writers - whom I mostly don't know very well - might be turned off by receiving criticism. We like writers to write about our stories with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, not avoid them because they don't want to hear complaints.

At ScienceOnline2013 I enjoyed meeting people who I'd interacted with on Twitter throughout the last year, including my talented co-moderator Nadia Drake, and others like Matthew FrancisEmily WillinghamMatt Shipman, and Ivan Oransky. All of these writers and scientists have different backgrounds and interests, but they share a devotion to receiving and responding to feedback. It's a lesson that many people at ScienceOnline, especially the organizers and Baba Brinkman, are great at passing onto others. I was excited and proud to be a small part of it.


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