Science online, living in the future edition

Monarch (Butterfly), Virginia Will the future have monarch butterflies? Photo by Minette Layne.

On blogging under my Real Name

2013.12.09 - at the growth chamber Hi, yes, this is me. Photo by jby.

The following is my contribution to Hope Jahren’s roundup of commentaries from scientists who use their “real” names in online settings. I solemnly swear that we started working on this before it turned out to be so very, very timely. You should go read all the contributions!

I can’t recall exactly why, when I decided to start a blog over the holiday break in December 2006, I put my real name on it. I think I had some vague, naïve sense that attaching my own name to my online writing would hold me accountable to some degree of professionalism and quality. I do know that I was operating under the assumption that no one would ever read the damn thing, anyway. (Even though—let’s be honest—I was also hoping that someone, lots of someones, would!)

Eventually I started writing about evolutionary biology, which is what I actually do for a living. My dissertation advisor somehow found the blog, and decided that it meant I should take charge of building a website for my University’s hosting of the Evolution Meetings—and this is probably the point at which Shit Got Real.

I devoted a page on the site to aggregating blog posts about the conference, including several of my own. I set up a Twitter feed for the conference, and started a personal account for good measure. This was the equivalent, in HTML and RSS feeds, of jumping up and down in front of the entire international body of my colleagues and saying “hey, look! I have a blog!”

Hello My Name is Opportunity Photo by One Way Stock.

And this turned out better than I had any right to expect. The same year as the Evolution meetings, one of my posts won me a trip to ScienceOnline 2010, where I made some of my first contacts in the broader community of popular science writers. I’ve landed a couple guest posts at the Scientific American website, and gotten pieces included in print collections of online science writing. As I was wrapping up my Ph.D., I talked some grad school buddies into joining me at a new group blog, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, and on the strength of that site’s success, I was offered the job of managing The Molecular Ecologist, the blog for the journal Molecular Ecology. Just in this past year, my online contacts among gay, lesbian, trans* and queer scientists came together to help with a study of sexual identity in scientific careers—I’m currently writing up the first results for publication.

Writing, outreach, and interacting with my colleagues online have been major parts of my professional development as a scientist. Blogging is all over my CV, in a dedicated section of my teaching statement, and in every “broader impacts” section of every grant proposal I’ve written in the last three years. At this point, I genuinely cannot imagine how I would do some of the most basic functions of science—finding interesting new papers, reading what other people think of research results, learning new analyses and programming tricks, communicating my own thoughts and results—without online media.

When I was a graduate student, my blog was a way to try my hand at science outreach with a low bar to entry—did I have time to write a few paragraphs about an interesting new journal article this week? Now it’s a (still, I think) relatively novel, demonstrable strength I have to offer in my hunt for funding and faculty positions. But most of this would be inaccessible if I wrote under a pseudonym.

What’s more, even if I toyed with the idea of restarting under an assumed name, I can’t think of much that I’d do differently—more cussing, maybe? (I do about as much as I want to already.) More sniping at bad science? (Really, where would I find the time?) I suspect that my profile—youngish gay biologist with a thing for species interactions, a distaste for sloppy evolutionary storytelling, and a stylistic crush on David Foster Wallace—would, in a word, out me.

I’m keenly aware that there are risks in putting my real name and face all over the Web, attached to a years-long blog archive and thousands of offhand, 140-character remarks—including not infrequent mention of the fact that (surprise!) I’m gay. Some of the risks, I’m privileged to evade. As gender-conforming white dude, I generally don’t have to worry about attracting stalkers, or field the relentless harassment that women often deal with in online settings, and (I think) I’m allowed some social space to “raise hell.” Some of the risks I minimize to the degree that common sense and my own technical chops let me. I think I mostly keep things professional on Twitter—as professional as I keep things in the lab, anyway—and my Facebook profile is (I think) pretty well locked down.

And finally, I’ve decided that some of the risks aren’t really risks: If a faculty search committee looks at my online record and says, “there’s no way we can hire this guy,” then I think I probably don’t want that job anyway.◼

Science online, every major’s terrible edition

k7964-1 Much data. Photo by Minette Layne.

And, because I’ve just wrapped up another round of Citizen Science (well, except for the grading), a little advice for some of my “undeclared” students, via io9:

Science online, keep on growin’ edition

Sunlit tree Photo by jby.
  • Ugh, ick, and blargh. Charter schools are turning out to be a great way to get taxpayers to fund your Creationist pseudoscience classes.
  • Silly old bear! Winnie the Pooh, diagnosed.
  • They help … if you tell patients they help. On the medical uses—or lack thereof—for the placebo effect.
  • On what counts in doing science. That is, experience, rather than genius.
  • Eek. Why are academics so vulnerable to online outrage?
  • Onward and upward! Even as they get bigger, trees just keep growing.
  • “I try hard to avoid having principles because they inevitably lead me to hypocrisy, and aside from that, very little else is accomplished.” Why Hope Jahren won’t be interviewed in Nature.

And, this week, a video (via Kyle Hill): how to get leaf-cutter ants to carry a sign. No, you don’t need to unionize them first.

Science online, standing (heh) out edition

Blue and Lilac Wave Petunias Photo by Doug McAbee.
  • This week, at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Cave fish in an evolutionary canal?
  • Queer in STEM: Covered in a very nice article in this week’s issue of Nature.
  • Yum? Pikas are dealing with a warming climate by eating more moss.
  • I’m getting a tickle in the back of my throat just reading this. Growing up without vaccines.
  • With the second-best headline of the week. The cellular basis of blue petunias.
  • This week in evolving E. coli. The surprisingly simple genetics of an experimental evolutionary change.
  • Personal, maddening. What happened when a Hawaiian city councilman decided to learn the facts on genetically modified crops.
  • Also, why I don’t think I want to ever go to south Florida. How biologists decide which introduced species are the scariest.

Science online, ringing in the New Year edition

Tobacco Hornworm “No, I don’t want a breath mint.” Photo by TexasEagle.