Category: Guest Lecture

Lessons From Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the day I attended the last college class of my higher education experience, I also attended a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For me, it was my commencement. I’ve made the decision not to walk at graduation for a number of reasons chief among them that none of my colleagues are walking and it didn’t make sense to me to do it alone. So I won’t be getting the cap, gown, prominent speaker send off typical for most people who complete a Master’s degree. Still, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave me a great parting gift. The opportunity to sit at my favorite place on campus surrounded by other students on a gorgeous day and listen to a person whom I have admired for years talk about the future is the best goodbye I could have asked for.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist (please don’t ask me to explain astrophysics further than saying it is physics in space) at the American Museum of Natural History but he is also an author, speaker, host, and even a meme. You might have seen him on the Colbert Report or the Daily Show throwing down some truth and clarity. He is eloquent, funny and honestly one of the people I admire most in the field of science communication. He pulls no punches, while still being extremely passionate about space and all the other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

The talk, which took place 5/10/12 on the Terrace here at UW-Madison, started with Tyson talking about the role science plays (or lack thereof) in our culture. He used the example of money, by asking us which scientists appear on U.S. currency. The answer is none. You can make the argument that Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, but his experiments are not what is highlighted on the $100 bill. He is there for his political achievements. This is just an example of the way as a culture we have not placed a strong emphasis on science.

Tyson then went into talking about the history of the U.S. interest in space exploration. He said that historically there are three reasons why people invest a lot of money in a risky exploration: fear of death, promise of economic return, and praise for royalty and deities. If you look at the U.S. push to get to the moon we were acting under #1 fear of death. Our investment in NASA and the space program had everything to do with the Russians and the Cold War. When the communist threat was gone, the space program started to decline. I think Tyson really drove home this point when he said that if the Chinese decided to declare that they were building military bases on Mars the U.S. would get ourselves on Mars within 10 months. We could if we wanted to, we just don’t invest in the necessary programs. We need to feel threatened before we actually do anything, how very American of us.

Photo by Erin Podolak

Photo by Erin Podolak

After going through the history of the space program, Tyson started talking about the economy and why investment in space and science overall can help. People in general seem to have this impression that NASA gets a big chunk of the federal budget, but Tyson pointed out that if NASA actually got what people think it gets NASA would be rolling in it. The perception of the budget is pretty skewed. What I love most about Tyson is that he says things that just make sense. When talking about innovation he said that the way you keep jobs in the U.S. is by making things that no one else can. Well, duh. But then where is the big push to invest in innovation? We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not trying to invent. Perhaps my favorite line from his talk (which was full of quotable one-liners) was “If the dinosaurs had had a space program, you can bet they would have used it” basically about how to save us from ourselves.

Seeing a speaker like Neil deGrasse Tyson meant a lot to me. He lived up to the hype. I was impressed with the caliber of his ideas in addition to his stage presence and the great dynamic he developed with the audience. All of us sitting there, the sea of students strewn on the concrete in front of the stage, get to walk away from this year at UW-Madison having heard from a man who is without a doubt one of the biggest bad asses in science communication. I mean he paused at one point to tweet his own talk (@neiltyson) that takes some cojones and an awesome sense of humor. It was a great experience, and I can’t wait to read Tyson’s new book!

The Final Countdown (Part II) The Speakers

This semester I decided to run a segment called The Final Countdown (I mean, really) to force me to take the time every month to reflect on my graduate experience and think about my time here in Madison. This month I want to talk about the different people I’ve gotten to meet through my grad program here. There are a lot of awesome people that I got to either hear lecture, grab coffee with, or ask questions about how avoid being awful at what I do. I’m very grateful for these experiences. Honestly, exposure to people of this caliber is one of the things I think I got the most out of in my time here.

My first semester at UW the science writer in residence was Jennifer Oulette, whose blog Cocktail Party Physics is a part of the Scientific American blog network. I got to hear her speak about becoming known as a physics writer, without any formal educational background in physics. I’ve always steered away from physics and math as a writer, but she was encouraging that if you put in the time to educate yourself you can write about complex topics in a meaningful way.

Washington Post features writer Manuel Roig-Franzia spoke in several of my classes when he visited UW about what makes a good feature, and how he goes about getting the story. What I took away from listening to him, was that you have to put in the time. If you want to write a good feature, you have to invest yourself in it, otherwise you won’t get everything out of the story that you could have.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I highly recommend) came to UW to speak because her book was chosen as the Go Big Read selection for the campus for the 2010-2011 school year. She gave a special talk in the Journalism school, and I found her process for staying organized and keeping all her information straight as she was working on a book of this magnitude really interesting.

While I try hard not to delve into politics, I found a lot of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing in a talk by Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico. I went to this talk at a time when I was feeling totally inept as a writer and having serious doubts if I could cut it in this program. VandeHei gave me a big boost when he spoke about the future of journalism, and all the opportunities that lay ahead.

I got the opportunity to have lunch with Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of misconduct in hospitals in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I was inspired by the strength journalists must have to chase a story no one wants to be real, to be committed to the facts, to the truth.

One of my favorite experiences in the program thus far was having coffee with Bill Blakemore of ABC News. I didn’t blog about talking to Bill, but I was so impressed not just by his long, prestigious career but also by how open and honest he was in talking with us. He was taking notes during the conversation, and writing down little tidbits of what we were saying for future reference, he made me feel like even me with all my stumbles along the way had a valuable opinion.

Last semester the science writer in residence was John Rennie, former editor and chief of Scientific American, a blogger for the PLoS Network, and a professor at NYU. Like Bill he also took the time to sit and get coffee with a group of students. It feels as though every time I start to get discouraged about the program and my abilities, a great writer appears to convince me that journalism isn’t dead and I’m not out here chasing a dead end future.

This semester I got to talk to Mark Schaefer, author of the Tao of Twitter and pick his brain about how to market yourself online. So far my life sciences communication class on social media has exposed me to some seriously skilled people when it comes to making the most of social media. Last week we also got to talk with John Morgan, author of Brand Against the Machine, and get his opinions on branding and marketing online. I was again amazed that people who are so busy, would take the time to talk to a class of students. Did I mention that Mark and John both spoke to us for free? Classy. Seriously.

Let’s not forget that I also got to hear (though not see, unfortunately) the President of the United States Barack Obama give a speech on the library mall here at UW. The President. Even with no view, it was still a great experience.

There have also been great people here in Madison who have taken time to work with students, and I’ve greatly enjoyed meeting them. This includes Brennan Nardi, Editor of Madison Magazine (and alum from my program), and Bill Lueders, formerly of the Isthmus and now with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Hopefully I didn’t forget anyone. Members of my cohort, please remind me if I did! It is quite a diverse, and amazing list of individuals. I’ve gotten so much out of getting to meet each of them, and I feel very lucky that UW-Madison afforded me the opportunity to do so. One of my biggest regrets in my undergrad was not taking advantage of all the opportunities to be exposed to different types of thinkers. I vowed not to do the same in my graduate experience. With this bunch, I think I succeeded.

On Being A Social Media Ninja: Tips From Mark Schaefer

We live in the future. While I’m still waiting for my hover car, there are many other examples I could give you about the amazing technical advances that make me feel like we have tremendous opportunities at our finger tips, if we just know how to harness their power. One of the ways I think we are already living in the future is with the power of social media, particularly Twitter and blogging. While I’m relatively active on Twitter and try to keep this blog up to date and interesting, my skills in this arena are far from the super stealth ninja moves of many of the people who have seized the opportunities to network and build an audience through social media.

taotwitterThis semester I am taking a life sciences communication class on social media. I recently had an opportunity to learn from one such social media ninja, when my class interviewed Mark Schaefer (@markwshaefer) over Skype. Schaefer, who was recently named by Forbes to a list of the top 50 social media influencers and named by Tweetsmarter as Twitter user of the year for 2011, is a successful marketing consultant, professor and author. For my class we read his book, the Tao of Twitter, and then got to ask him questions about how to make the most of the Internet, and get our foot in the door in social media.

The main thing I took away from talking with Schaefer is the importance of having substantial content that supports the online persona you build for yourself. It is one thing to just be active on Twitter and networking, but if you don’t have content to support what you claim to stand for, you aren’t going to reach a significant level of interaction. He said people that really have the power on the Internet are the ones that have content that they are creating and moving through the system, which I feel like I’ve definitely witnessed in the science writing community on Twitter. The core of my Twitter experience thus far has been reading blogs, and sharing links to interesting blog posts written by others.

Another thing Schaefer shared that I found interesting was that there is value in blogging even if you don’t have a high number of followers (that you know about at least, because as I’ve said over and over again I don’t know where the hits on this blog come from). I am winding down my time here at UW, and am starting to look for a job. I thought he really made a great point when he said that a good blog can be a great selling point in an interview, and can make an interview last much longer so a potential employer gets a better sense of your skills and ability. He said that even if you don’t have many people reading your blog, you can still show a potential employer or colleagues what you can do, what you can write, how you think, and what you are passionate about. I knew that employers would see my blog, but I hadn’t really considered what a great opportunity (or shortcoming, depending on how you see it) the blog could be.

A few other tips I took away from Shaefer include:

  • You have to figure out what you offer, then you can figure out how best to try to communicate and network online.
  • Show your whole social media footprint in one place, link to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn so employers can easily see what you do.
  • Twitter is a global experience so you should be culturally sensitive, and remember that even on an individual level customers may consume social media in different ways.
  • Find your own originality and your own voice, don’t try to just mimic what you see other people doing online.
  • Show critical interest in things that are important to you, be a part of something you actually care about.
  • Commenting on other people’s blogs is one of the best ways to get involved in a community online.
  • The best Twitter profiles will tell what a person wants to gain. You have to put up what you are after so that people can offer genuine helpfulness (I already made this change!)
  • Personal connections turn into business connections, so including some personal tweets can be seriously useful.

I started this post by talking about how we are already living in the future. I can’t think of a better example of that then the fact that I got to discuss how to improve my involvement in social media by Skyping with one of the most effective Twitter users out there right now. This is the way of the future, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to someone like Schaefer. My goal for this semester (aside from being a ninja) is to comment on other blogs which is something I never do, and really know that I should in an attempt to improve commenting and interaction here on Science Decoded and on Twitter. I need to start talking to people, rather than just talking AT the Internet. It would also be nice to, you know, find a job. Think I can do it?

Synchrotron: The End of an Era?

I’ve said before that being back on a college campus offers so many unique opportunities. This week was no exception with the visit of Bill Blakemore, ABC News climate change correspondent, AND a trip to UW’s Synchrotron Radiation Center. I got several opportunities to talk to Blakemore, and I highly suggest checking out his show Nature’s Edge – but rather than delve into climate communication (a topic on which I could spew my opinions for hours) I want to focus on the SRC.

Today, my internal dialogue was triggered by the trip I took with my colleagues from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, through the cows and the nothing, to tour the SRC. Located about 30 minutes from campus, the SRC is a particle accelerator that is used by hundreds of researchers each year. Now, I make no bones about the fact that I am scared of physics – but even I was able to understand and enjoy learning about what the SRC does.Whenever I leave downtown Madison, I go through the same internal dialogue: “There are cows. Where am I? I don’t belong here. There are cows. And nothing. As far as I can see. Cows and nothing. What am I doing in Wisconsin?” I hate to admit it, but I do still suffer from re-locaters remorse. I don’t dislike Madison, but seeing prairie or open fields for miles so close to town still shocks me every time.

The “radiation’ part of the name Synchrotron Radiation Center has nothing to do with nuclear radiation, what we have all been worrying about with the Japanese earthquake. Rather, radiation refers simply to the center’s main purpose – to create light for scientific experiments. If you think back to what you know about the electromagnetic spectrum, you’ll remember that there are different forms of light – visible light, microwaves, radiowaves, uv rays, x-rays, etc.

The SRC conducts a variety of experiments using the different forms of light (infrared to x-ray range) that are generated by accelerating electrons around the Aladdin storage ring. I am not going to do a better job of explaining how the ring works than the SRC does on their website, but I will say that the wave of light created by winging the electrons around needs to be contained/controlled and that is essentially what Aladdin does. It is the mechanism that harnesses the light so it can be used in experiments.

The center was opened in 1981, and has a special role as far as SRC’s go because the UW center gives visiting researchers 2-3 weeks to work on their projects, unlike the 3-4 days they might get to conduct research at another facility. Because the SRC is funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers don’t have to pay to use it – it is free. Free resources, that invest significant time in research projects, are rare these days.

They are about to become even rarer. The SRC at UW has not made it into the NSF’s new budget, which means that funding (the approximately $5 million it takes to run the center) will be cut off in August 2011. I appreciate that the SRC isn’t cutting edge. It isn’t shiny and flashy, but it still has scientific merit. The idea of the resource going dark seems like such an utter waste.

My colleague Eric, who works in outreach at the SRC and organized the JSchool’s visit, has a terrific post on his blog about the closing of the SRC and the closing of Chicago’s Fermilab – which will leave a hole in the scientific research community in the Midwest. I encourage those of you in Madison to take the time to check out the SRC before the last electron goes shooting through the Aladdin ring, and for those of you not in Madison take a look at the federal science foundation budgets – is there a resource near you that will be lost in 2011?

The reason I chose to focus this post on the SRC rather than Blakemore’s visit, is because the SRC is such a uniquely Madison, WI experience. It reminds me of why, in spite of the cows and the nothing, I came to Madison. This is the site of some extraordinary scientific research – discoveries that I find fascinating, that ignite the sense of awe and wonder about the world that I have tried so hard to cling to as I have transitioned into adulthood. Seeing the SRC’s inquiries end, while sad, makes me appreciate that I was in Madison in time to experience it for myself.

Advice from Sheri Fink

While this semester of grad school has been somewhat challenging, today I got the opportunity to enjoy one of grad school’s biggest perks: access to amazing writers and resources. Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spoke at UW today, and while I wasn’t able to attend her talk because I was in class, I was still able to meet her this morning and discuss my work and career thus far. 

Sheri Fink’s article The Deadly Choices at Memorial is a great piece of investigative journalism that takes an in-depth look at how a lack of emergency preparedness led to unnecessary death at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The article won the Pulitzer Prize and had an impact on the establishment of new guidelines for how emergencies should be handled. 
At 13,000 words the article is very long, but very compelling. It raises important questions about what should be done in an emergency, but also makes you question what you would do if you were in the situation the Doctor’s and Nurses at Memorial Medical Center found themselves in. The answers aren’t as clear cut as you might think, even when you are sure of what is right and what is wrong.
The opportunity to meet and talk to a writer of her caliber is something I’m sure I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t back in school. She was wonderful to talk to because she really seemed interested in where I am in my career and what I hope to accomplish. As I was explaining myself she stopped me and told me that I was being too humble. She told me that I was an expert in science communication and I should own it.
I tend not to think of myself as an expert in anything, but with a Bachelor’s in science writing, one year of professional experience, and now half of my Master’s program under my belt I can say that I’m an expert in science communication. I hesitate to make a statement like that because it makes it seem as though I have nothing else to learn. I always feel like there is more that I can learn and ways that I can improve. Working with the sciences, I’ve found a willingness to learn to be a critical component to writing good articles.
Right now I’m more comfortable with “expert in training,” but maybe once I finish grad school I’ll be more comfortable owning the title of expert outright. Regardless I appreciated her encouragement, it was a good pick me up.