Category: Videos

Blogging 101 Here’s What I Know

Not that I expect anyone to want to take the 20 minutes to watch a video that is essentially just me talking, but I recorded this interview about tips for bloggers who are just starting out so I thought I’d share it here. This was done as a prelude to a guest lecture that I gave in a Life Science Communication class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students asked some great questions, that I figured were also worth answering here on the blog. If you have questions about getting started as a blogger or want to add some wisdom (please, do!) definitely let me know in the comments.

Questions from the class:

Has your strategy for promoting and writing the blog changed since getting a full-time job?
Absolutely, I have less time to maintain the blog than I did when I was in school, so I have to be more strategic about what I do. I’m down to writing one post a week and I spend a lot more time on Twitter. 
How do you find and pick which topics to write about?
For a more detailed answer about this one, you can check out Filling the Empty Page: Reading to Write where I talk more about how I get story ideas from the things that I read, and how important it is to write about what genuinely interests you. 
If there is one thing you could have done differently what would it be?
I would have (and still should) comment more on other blog posts. This is a case of not practicing what I preach, I’m well aware of the benefits of commenting and getting involved in other forums, I just don’t do it nearly as often as I should. 
Is there a certain way you suggest commenting? As in: ask questions, critique, converse, praise, etc.
Comment however you want to, just make sure you are saying something that contributes to the conversation in some way.
How do you make yourself seem credible when writing about a serious matter?
If you check your facts, use the right sources, and are thoughtful and dedicated to getting the post correct then you are credible. People will see that. 
Are you using other social media sites besides Twitter to grow your blogging audience?
I just started using Google+ more, I’m intrigued to see what comes of it. 
Any advice in finding your blogging voice?
Blog a lot. When I first started Science Decoded, I wrote a lot more than I do now. You need to try it out, try different kinds of posts, explore different topics and eventually you’ll figure out what feels right to you. Give yourself time to develop your voice, you aren’t going to have everything exactly how you want it right out of the gate. 
Any tips for reaching out to influential stakeholders, it seems intimidating.
If tweeting or commenting to someone well established in your field, I think the best advice I can give is to just go for it – but have something of substance to say. If it really makes you uncomfortable, practice interacting with people you consider your peers first to get a better sense for how it all works. 
After you established a professional blog did you ever find yourself posting off topic of your specific aim because it was just so interesting you had to share it?
Absolutely. I kept Science Decoded fairly open ended in the first place because I knew I wanted the ability to write blog posts about a variety of topics. Even so, I’ve written posts that haven’t been related to science like when I went on a rant about supporting philanthropic causes or explained my fascination with Amelia Earhart. In my opinion, you can go off topic once in a while and you shouldn’t have a problem.
How do you keep your ideas confined to a tweet?
Tweeting short hand is tricky, it takes practice to instinctively distill ideas into a tweet but you’ll get the hang of it. 
What aspect of your writing has improved most over the years? (being concise, structure, etc.)
I would say the thing about my writing that has improved most since I started blogging is the ease with which I write in my own style. Like I said in answer to another question, your voice develops and becoming comfortable with my own voice is I think the best take-away from blogging. 
If you have any tips of your own, or if you have any other questions you’d like me to try to answer leave it in the comments! 

Jorge Cham: The Science Gap

I recently watched this TED talk given by Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper) and I wanted to make sure I shared it here because he makes some great points about science communcation. I don’t think anything he brings up would really come as a shock to someone who pays attention to science and the media, but I do think that his use of humor and cartoons is very effective.

The traditional way that scientists get their research in the form of an academically published article out to the public is “sub-optimal?” Not exactly a shocker, but an important point nonetheless. Sometimes I think we (and by that I mean me) have a tendency to get so wrapped up in the science communication world that you can almost forget that so many people are really far removed from the issues and research that we tackle on a daily basis. As a science writer it is my job to be a bridge between scientists and the public, so it is always a good reminder to think about the level of understanding and interest of your audience.

There are a lot more points to make about this one, but I’m short on time for blogging this week, so I’m just going to take my own advice from last week’s post and not push myself to think things when my brain is tired. (Better to put my brain cells toward thinking about #scio13!) But, if you have thoughts, by all means I’d love to know what you think!

Before I just leave this here, Cham mentions the cartoon he made at the request of Daniel Whiteson to explain what the Higgs Boson is in the TED talk so I thought I would also post that for those who are interested. It really is a great explanation of the Higgs… something I know a lot of science writers including myself have struggled with!

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!

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Hurricanes

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 in first grade we’ve also done an experiment with butter, talked about sugar maple trees, and learned a song about the states of matter
Hello first graders! Mrs. Podolak tells me you are studying weather in science, so I wanted to share with you some information about an extreme weather event, called a hurricane. Who remembers when hurricane Irene hit New Jersey on August 28, 2011? What happened? Did any of you have to leave vacations at the beach? Did the power go out? Did your basement flood? At my house (Mrs. Podolak’s house too!) our basement flooded, and we spent a lot of time pumping all the water back out. My flight to Wisconsin to go back to school was cancelled, and I was stuck in New Jersey for a few extra days.

Hurricane Irene over the Bahamas August 24, 2011 via: Wikimedia Commons.

Hurricane Irene over the Bahamas August 24, 2011 via: Wikimedia Commons.

A hurricane is a big storm that forms in the ocean and brings high winds and a lot of rain to the coast when it makes land. According to the National Hurricane Center, a hurricane needs specific things to happen in order to form including, a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture, and winds. If these conditions all happen at the right time, they can combine to make a hurricane. Hurricanes occur in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico and can move in different directions, heading west toward Texas, or north toward where you are in New Jersey. Many of these storms don’t hit land, but some (like Irene) do.

Storms that form over the ocean can vary in strength. A tropical depression is a system of clouds and thunderstorms with maximum winds of 38 miles per hour (mph). Stronger than that is a tropical storm, a system of thunderstorms with maximum winds of 39-73 mph. The strongest storm is a hurricane, an extreme tropical weather system with strong thunderstorms and winds of 74 mph or higher. There are different categories of hurricane with a category one having the lowest winds, and a category five having the highest. Hurricane Irene got up to a category three, but when it hit New Jersey it had lessened to a category one. But, a category one hurricane can still do a lot of damage, especially when rivers get too full, and flood over their banks. Did any of you see the footage of flooding with Hurricane Irene on the news? This is what it looked like:

While hurricanes can do a lot of damage, there are things that you and your family can do to make sure that everyone stays safe. The National Hurricane Center recommends that at the beginning of hurricane season (June 1 – November 30) make sure you have fresh batteries and a supply of food and water for emergencies on hand. You can tune into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) weather radio to check for updates on weather conditions. The most important thing is to listen to local officials, and if you find yourself in an evacuation zone (area that you have to leave) that you follow instructions. Do you remember New Jersey Governor Chris Christie closing the beaches and asking people to evacuate?

During extreme weather conditions like hurricanes you are going to want to make sure you have the right kind of clothing. During a snowstorm like a blizzard, you would want to have warm clothes like sweaters or lined pants, a jacket, snowpants, gloves, a hat, a scarf and boots. What kind of clothes do you think you would want during a hurricane? Remember, hurricanes are wet and windy and generally happen during the summer months.

For more information about what to do during extreme weather conditions, you can check out the National Weather Service. If you have any questions about hurricanes let me know! I hope you all enjoy learning about weather.

Siku the Polar Bear and the Power of Biophilia

Since my last polar bear post, about intraspecies cannibalism, was a little graphic I wanted to share a cute polar bear video that has recently been tearing up the internet. Siku is a polar bear cub who was abandoned by his mother. The cub was born on November 22, 2011 and is currently being cared for at Denmark’s Scandinavian Wildlife Park. I just want to rub his belly. I justify putting up a cute polar bear video with the fact that biophilia, Edward O. Wilson’s idea that human love of animals is rooted in our biology, explains why the cuteness so easily creates an internet sensation.

Biophilia is an interesting concept that I first learned about when reading Hal Herzog’s book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat for Patricia McConnell’s human and animal behavior class in Spring 2010. Biophilia can be applied to animals, but goes further into human attachment to all things natural, including whole environments. For more information you can check out Wilson’s original 1984 book. Or, just enjoy the polar bear video, which I think will pretty much explain how biophilia works.