Category: Blogging

Filling the Empty Page: Reading To Write

You’ve started a blog. Congratulations. Now what?

Of the many things I learned while in Journalism school, perhaps the bit of advice that I echo the most is that if you want to write well, you must read good writing. I’ve found this to be particularly true when blogging. If you want to blog about a topic it is extemely adventageous for you to be aware of what others have already said on the subject. It doesn’t do you or anyone else any good for you to produce content that is already out there (especially if your audience is smaller, and definitely if you don’t cover the topic as well as your peers.)

It has been my experience as a science blogger for three years that what you write doesn’t have to be the most timely, exciting thing on the Internet. Sure, those studies and stories that are making waves are great to write about, and when I blog about things like dinosaurs farting themselves to death I get a decent amount of traffic. But why would anyone care what I think of a study on dinosaurs when they could head over to Laelaps and read what Brian Switek has to say about it? Why would anyone care what I think about an infectous disease story when the world has Maryn McKenna’s Superbug? Or any chemical story when Deborah Blum has that beat superbly locked down?

I don’t think there is much value to writing about things that others have already covered, and covered well, unless there is some angle or something I feel like I can bring to the conversation. For the record, “I agree” doesn’t add much to the conversation – unless a topic is controversial and someone is getting attacked by the trolls and you want to show solidarity. If I do have something to say, in most of those cases it would probably be more beneficial as a blogger (especially a new bloger) to add a comment to those existing posts and jump into the conversation than sounding off in my own diatribe. There are, of course, exceptions when I do think it is worthwhile to toss in your two cents about a topic. But, in general if you aren’t going to blog about the latest splashy story, then what ARE you going to blog about?

What has made the traffic on my blog spike, and has increased my profile as a blogger more than anything else that I’ve done is to write about what interests me the most. Simple, I know, but I think when you are just starting out as a blogger it can be easy to feel like you need to be talking about what everyone else is talking about. The way to get noticed isn’t to join the herd, the way to get noticed is to do something that no one else is doing. Writing about what you feel most passionate about, regardless of everyone else, will make you stand out. Writing about something that matters to you, and gets you fired up, is in my humble opinion the key to writing an exciting post. If you’re excited, it will bleed through your writing.

Offer readers something they can’t get elsewhere – whether that is a manifestation of your childhood obsession with Amelia Earhart, a series of interviews with people you find interesting, or ramblings on your love/hate relationship with learning to code. Find answers to the questions that are bugging you, like when I decided to find out why the Scientific American blog network is so supportive of fledgling science writers. Your blog is your corner of the Internet, so carve it out for yourself. Make yourself at home. You wouldn’t decorate your home in a style that everyone else likes just because they like it, so don’t do it to your blog.

bestsciencewritingonlineAll this isn’t to say that the ideas are just going to start pouring onto the page. Just about every week I spend too much time staring at the empty screen trying to figure out what it is I want to say, and what matters enough to warrant a post, and throwing out all my bad ideas before I hit on something with a spark. Which brings me back to the advice I started with: read good writing. The idea for this post came from reading a collection of blog posts called The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (fomerly known as the Open Laboratory) the brainchild of series editor Bora Zivkovic and 2012 edition guest editor Jennifer Ouellette. The collection gets my sincere recommendation – if you have any interest in being a science blogger, you should check it out. Reading the posts in the collection inspired me, and reminded me how important it is to worry less about what you think everyone wants to read, and more about what you want to say.

The sheer diversity of topics, of styles, and of voices in this book is pretty astounding, and drives home the point that writing about what excites you is so important to having a successful blog. Reading all of those posts didn’t make me want to blog about any of the topics, but it did make me want to emulate every one of those writers’ ability to draw on what interests them and write about it in a way that is beautifully their own. Whether than means giving a voice to a fungus fairtale, telling us a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet, or getting pissed off about the way the media ran with a story – all of the writers in The Best Science Writing Online 2012 gave me a piece of themselves in their posts. They are all great writers to be sure, but what makes the posts effective, makes them resonate, is the excitement and interest that they have in their subject whether they are writing about sperm, gin or pirates (really, you should read this collection.)

If you want to write a blog, find the time to read. I get ideas from other writers and other blogs all of the time. It’s never about copying the subject matter, the inspiration comes from putting my own twist on trends and ideas and figuring out what I want to say. I want to talk about what I read, so I write book reviews (even grossly out of date ones) and have started collecting weekly links of my Media Consumption. I want to share my passion for science so I interview researchers for Science For Six Year Olds. When I wanted to talk about grad school, and the job market, I did. When I wanted to write about pengiun sex (and then mention it in a job interview) I did. You don’t have to write about current science news to have ideas that are relevant and worth talking about. Reading other science blogs is the best way I’ve found to figure out what kind of science blogger you want to be and to figure out what fits for you. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is a great place to start.

If you were to go back in the archives of my blog and see what I wrote about when I first started, it is really nothing like the Science Decoded that I have today. I started out writing a daily post about a science story plucked from the media. I almost never do that anymore. These days I blog more about issues related to being a blogger and a writer than I do about actual topics in science. I think this shift happened because right now I feel more passionate about sharing my experience as a writer than I do about actually doing more science writing (I am priviledged enough that science writing is my day job, afterall.) That’s not to say that I won’t shift back to writing more about scientific research, or to writing about current science news. There is absolutely a need for that type of analysis and for having those conversations online, but I’m not going to force myself to have an opinion about something when there are so many other topics that I actually do have an opinion on. As The Best Science Writing Online 2012 reminded me, your blog should never be a chore. If you always write about what interests you, it won’t be.

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Anne-Marike Schiffer

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I’m so excited to introduce you to our December scientist of the month. Remember our November scientist, Philipp? Well he enjoyed telling you about what he does so much, that his sister Anne-Marike decided to join us this month to tell you all about being a neuroscientist. Like I did with Penny and Philipp I asked Anne-Marike some questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her. Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Ann-Marike: I’m a neuroscientist. This means I look at how our brains work. I’m interested in how the things we see and hear make the brain learn to expect what to see and hear. For example, when you listen to a song you know, you will know what sounds and words come next. I study what the brain does if we see something that surprises us: when does the brain change it’s expectations? For example, if your friend always sings a wrong line in a song, does your brain expect his errors?

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you attend?

579091_128244343990493_1774487170_nAnne-Marike: I studied Psychology in Bochum in Germany and Neuropsychology in Masstricht in the Netherlands. I also did some work in a lab in Dunedin in New Zealand. After that I did my PhD in Neuroscience in Cologne in Germany. Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Anne-Marike: I work in the Psychology department at Oxford University in England. I spend most of my time either at my desk or in a laboratory running experiments with my students. The experiments I do to study how the brain learns are very much like computer games. So when I’m at my desk I write these computer games or read about what other scientists who study similar things have done. Sometimes, I spend my time in a center where they have a scanner that I can use to see what the brain does during these computer games. 

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Anne-Marike: I think I loved biology at school and then decided to become a scientist early on, in my first year in college. Some of my friends think it’s the thing I’m cut out for and predicted that I would become a scientist when we were at school. They say I wouldn’t be as good at anything else, maybe they are right. 

Erin: What is you favorite thing about your job?

Anne-Marike: I very much enjoy coming up with new theories that I can put to the test. I love deciding on questions and on how the questions could be answered. I find it very exciting to look at the results of my experiments, like the images of brain activity. 

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Anne-Marike: When you find something interesting and can try it out, then thinking about it is actually a lot of fun. I thought even writing my PhD thesis was a really cool thing to do. 

Erin: What are some of your favorite things to do for fun?

Anne-Marike: I go horse-riding and sometimes play touch rugby. I try to spend a lot of time with my family and I meet my friends as often as I can. We often get into great discussions, that I enjoy. When I was still living in Cologne, I’d also spend a lot of time at the zoo.
***What do you think about Anne-Marike’s work as a neuroscientist? What do you think about the fact that she studies how the brain works using tests that are like computer games? I think she has a pretty great job, and has a good time being a scientist too! If there is anything you’d like to ask her about being a neuroscientist be sure to leave your questions in the comments!

For any of my adult readers, if you enjoy these posts and would like to be the scientist of the month yourself, send me an email or DM me on Twitter, I’d love another volunteer!

Guest Post: Anna Tomasulo On HealthMap

This week I am happy to be hosting a post on Science Decoded by guest blogger Anna Tomasulo, project coordinator for Healthmap and Editor-in-Chief of The Disease Daily. Please note that I am not personally promoting Healthmap as a service, I just think it is an interesting case-study of the way the internet can be harnessed to gather data in real-time so I asked Anna to give us some background.

I never focused too long on the myriad of ways that the Internet has changed our lives, until recently. This past February, The Atlantic published excerptsof Polish pundit Piotr Czerski’s “manifesto” titled, “We, the Web Kids.” The essay put my relationship to the Internet into a new light- particularly when compared to how my parents, for example, interact with the Web. “The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it,” writes Czerski. The Web kids rely on this shared memory drive; we extract information, contribute to it, and re-post it at our leisure. We learn about new scientific research at home and participate virtually in uprisings across the ocean. Geographic barriers dissolve. And we expect to do this all instantaneously; we want it “here and now, without waiting for the file to download.”
This essay also put my first post-graduate school job into a new light. Admittedly, I am not very tech savvy; I’ve always thought of myself more as a qualitative, literature-oriented person. But my international experience, French language skills, and recently acquired MPH landed me at HealthMap, a research group, co-founded by a software developer and an epidemiologist, that uses online media to track infectious diseases worldwide. And it does this in real time, in an almost completely automated manner.
HealthMap Homepage

HealthMap Homepage

HealthMap was founded in 2006 by John Brownstein, PhD and Clark Freifeld, MS. Back then, Brownstein and Freifeld understood that there was a large gap between the beginning of an infectious disease outbreak and the public becoming aware of and responding to that outbreak. They attributed this lag to traditional public health reporting, which is often troubled by structural hierarchies and geographic and political barriers. For example, a typical public health worker in a small, remote village may take note of a strange syndrome that is surfacing in a handful of young kids. He or she might provide that information to medical professionals who will want to take samples for analysis. Well, the samples will need to be sent to laboratories miles away and it’s rainy season so the roads are washed out. Let’s say the samples did get to the lab. Once an infectious disease agent is confirmed, the report will then move on to district, national and then international officials. This whole process could take weeks. And during those weeks, infectious diseases can spread.
Brownstein and Freifeld recognized that there was a wealth of information available through the Internet that would fundamentally change the picture of global health. So, they created a freely available online platform that gave people access to this information.
Essentially, the system mines the Web for formal and informal sources of infectious disease news. Data is collected by carefully developed language specific search strings (HealthMap has news feeds in over a dozen languages) that sift through various news aggregators (Google News, Baidu, allAfrica), RSS feeds, mailing lists and chat rooms. The collected data is then automatically assigned a pathogen and location of the outbreak, based on information in the article (or chat room, mailing list, etc.). Then, the system determines the relevancy of each alert and filters it into one of six categories: Breaking, Context, Warning, Old News, Non-Disease Related, or International Significance. Any duplicate data is clustered together. The end product,, is a highly organized data set that allows public health officials, international travelers, government agencies and interested community members to access a real-time view of infectious disease outbreaks around the globe.
The HealthMap platform has been used to track public health threats in many contexts. Every year before the Hajj, we begin heightened disease surveillance on the countries that send the most pilgrims, and post all infectious disease news from these countries to a map created especially for Hajj. Similarly, we mine formal and informal sources for information regarding the wildlife trade because of its role in spreading zoonotic diseases.
The Internet has radically changed our way of life. It is no longer a tool that we use to perform a specific task or a tool that requires special training to use; it is an interactive system where people can deposit and build upon collected intelligence- an idea that Czerski hints at and with which Mike Kuniavsky, an entrepeneur who studies people’s relationships to digital technology, agrees. In 2008, Kuniavsky explained that all real world objects have “information shadows,” or digital representations, that exist on the Internet. These information shadows can be built upon and interacted with by other users. As a result, the Internet grows exponentially.
Arguably, HealthMap takes information shadows of disease outbreaks (local news reports, tweets, chat room questions, status updates, etc.) and augments official public health reports with real time information. But what makes HealthMap truly unique, is that it takes the informal information, or information shadows, and automatically makes it immediately useful to those who can act upon it.
Czerski differentiated our generation from others by pointing out that we are the first generation that exists not on paper, but on and through the Web. HealthMap is exemplary of the Web kid generation, as it has transported information disease tracking to the Web, and made it an immediate and global process. Not only is outbreak information available online and in real time, but it is also freelyavailable. Czerski finishes the manifesto with: “What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is.” As a freely available site, HealthMap provides international users with knowledge to make informed health-related decisions. A true product of the Web kids, HealthMap has leveraged the power of the Web, and our existence on it, to improve disease surveillance and timely responses.

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Introducing The Scientist of the Month Segment

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do. 

Hello first graders, welcome to Science Decoded! I am so excited to be writing posts just for you this school year. We are going to have a lot of fun blogging together, because we are going to have a special year-long spotlight on who scientists are and what they do. We’ll have our first Scientist of the Month in October, but before we do I first want to find out what you know about scientists. 

What do you think a scientist looks like? Are they all wrapped up in a laboratory like this person on the right? How would you describe a scientist? Are they smart, funny, kind, brave, patient, or happy? Do scientists get to have fun? What do you think scientists do all day? How old do you have to be to be a scientist? Are scientists boys or girls or both? Do any of you know anybody who is a scientist? What are they like?

The reason I wanted to do this segment for you is because scientists aren’t any one thing. Yes, they are all bound together by the fact that they very systematically analyze information to learn new things. But scientists are a very diverse group – they are lots of different people, with many different interests and backgrounds. Scientists also study all kinds of different things. A scientist can study plants, animals, cells, chemicals, energy, the way things move, medicine, space and how to build or put things together in addition to a lot of other stuff! 

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are important to all of us, because they work hard to try to figure out things about the world that we don’t know. There used to be a time when people didn’t know that all living things are made of cells, but today we know so much more about them and have learned that understanding what goes on in cells is critically important. What are some of the things that you know about that scientists have discovered? Do you know the names of any scientists? 

I hope you have had a good time talking about who scientists are and what they do. I’m really looking forward to introducing you to some great scientists and helping you learn more about what it means to be a scientist. Our first scientist is a paleontologist and geochemist (don’t worry, we’ll learn what that means) but in the meantime if you have any questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments. 

I’m not a scientist, I’m a science writer. I went to school to learn how to research, report on, and write stories about scientists and what they discover. But, even though I’m not a scientist, helping share scientists’ ideas is my specialty. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that with these posts!

The Final Countdown: Closing Time

Tonight is my last night in Madison. I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in the last week, but none that felt particularly adequate. Most people just got a half hearted wave before I ran away, if you were very lucky you got a hug before I ran away. I’m not very good at goodbye indefinitely. It might actually be worse than goodbye forever. So, I’ve decided to take to the blog once more to try to say goodbye.

I vividly remember walking through the security line at Newark airport sobbing because I didn’t want to leave New Jersey. My friends were there. My family was there. All I knew was life on the East Coast. That first time that I had to get on the plane alone and fly to Wisconsin was the hardest. Every flight after got a little bit easier, to the point where I was happy to head back to Wisconsin. That change happened due to the people I now count among my friends. It happened because of the places here that I came to love. That change happened because I changed.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Sometimes it is hard to explain what I gained in Wisconsin without making my life in New Jersey seem lacking. That certainly isn’t the case. The bulk of my support system is in New Jersey, my family and the good friends who came along on this ride with daily gchats, emails, texts, and phone calls. They are the people who matter most to me, and I couldn’t have done any of this without their support, advice, and encouragement. But that being said, my time in Wisconsin was truly everything I never knew I needed.

I didn’t realize how close I was to giving up on journalism and science writing. It has been my dream to write about science since I was a kid, but in 2010 I was ready to give up. After the graduate school rejections, a full year of fruitless job searching, and working my ass off for free I came to Wisconsin on my last legs hoping dearly that journalism school would save the dream I saw imploding. It didn’t, particularly. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot. But classes themselves are not the stuff that dreams are made of. People make dreams. What saved mine was the professors who told me that my voice matters and is strong, the classmates who pushed me forward sharing my frustrations and successes, the wonderful journalists and speakers who gave me their attention and shared advice, and all the other people who remind me everyday on Twitter and on this blog and theirs why I love doing what I do. All of you contributed to bringing my dream back from the brink.

When people ask what comes next for me and I tell them I’m job hunting the answer I almost always get is “good luck, it’s tough out there.” Yes, it is. But I’m tough too. I’m more determined than ever to break into this field. Sometimes there are no open doors or windows, sometimes you have to burrow under a wall or scale the roof to get in. Sometimes you have to wait, or go back and draw up a new plan. I will not stop writing. I will not stop meeting people, or chasing the stories that interest me. I hope someone will pay me to do so, but if that doesn’t happen for a while I’ll just keep doing it on the side. I’ll keep trying. That is what I promise all of the people who have supported me and who believe that I can do this. I’ll keep trying. Wisconsin, the people I met, and the experiences I had living out here gave me the strength to try and to keep trying. I feel like I’ve gotten a part of myself, the feisty determined and confident part, back.

It is easier to leave a place, a time, a chapter in your life that you love and want to hold onto, when you know what comes next. I have no idea what comes next. Immediately I know that I’m moving back to New Jersey to stay with my parents until I find the kind of employment that comes with health benefits. But what that job will be, where it will be, and what I’m heading into, I don’t have a clue. That sort of seems fitting though. I had no clue what I was getting into when I decided to move to Madison, picked an apartment site unseen and agreed to live with a total stranger. That stranger ended up being the single most encouraging and sympathetic person in my life here and I will miss my roommate immensely. She made me laugh more than any other person whether it was at her, with her or at myself.

There is something I love about the unknown. If life was always tied up nicely in little packages, all planned out according to what everyone expects you to do it would be insufferably boring. The unknown holds the promise of an adventure the details of which you can’t see or understand. It is hard to say goodbye when you don’t know what comes next, but not knowing is life’s way of keeping things entertaining. You know I like to be entertained. So, it makes sense to me that I don’t have it all planned and figured out. I think that the most interesting lives are the ones that meander, the ones that don’t take a linear path. I want tremendously to succeed, but if I end up taking the long way to get there it will be okay. It might even be better than okay.

So tonight, as I look around my empty apartment, I propose a toast to dreams rekindled. To irreplaceable friendships forged over coffee and those Wisconsin beers. To going home again, better than when you left. To people who never let you forget that you matter. To getting what you need instead of what you want. To making your own opportunities. To the unknown. Cheers.

I’m so fortunate to have spent this part of my life in this place with these people. I wouldn’t trade the depression and tears or the joy and laughter for anything. As much as we might want to slow time down and hold onto a moment, we have to let moments pass. My moment in Wisconsin has passed, and it’s time to move on. On to the next adventure. There is a lot about Wisconsin that I’m going to miss dearly, but I’m ready to meet whatever comes next. So goodbye, and thank you.