Big news! Blog is moving + Day’s Edge site is live!

Nathan Dappen and I are proud to announce the launch of the Day’s Edge Productions website: www.daysedgeproductions.com! Day’s Edge Productions is our new multimedia production company, creating science and nature media for every audience. Please take a few minutes to browse the site — check out our videos and photos (more coming soon) and tell us what you think! We look forward to hearing from you! You can also follow Day’s Edge on Facebook and Twitter.

Along with the new site’s launch, Nate and I are merging our separate blogs into a single Day’s Edge Productions blog. We’re still going to be writing about the same stuff — science, photography, video, and related topics — but now you’ll have twice as much to read! Our blogs have been on a bit of a hiatus recently because we’ve been working on the new site. But we should be back, blogging at full tilt, now that the site is launched. Make sure to update your RSS reader if you’ve been following our feeds.

Photography for Ecologists workshops in 2011!

We have just received official word from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) that our two 2011 “Photography for Ecologists” workshops have been approved. Our team (myself, Molly Mehling, Nathan Dappen, and Neil Ever Osborne) will be leading the two workshops at the 96th annual ESA meeting in Austin, TX in August. The first workshop, which will run from 8am-5pm on Sunday, August 7th, will be a field-based workshop on how to capture intentional, effective images. The second workshop, which will run from 8-10pm on Monday, August 8th, will focus on using visual media effectively in outreach. We’re really excited to bring these workshops to the ESA audience! Stay tuned for more details; I will share the official workshop URL (and instructions on how to sign up) as soon as that information is available.

What am I doing here?

Albert Einstein will be remembered for many contributions before this one, but this quote has been resonating with me recently:

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

Einstein was probably being more self-deprecating than necessary – he knew what he was doing to a greater extent than most scientists of his era, and likely of any era. Perhaps he was just making a joke. Honestly, I haven’t been able to find out much about the origin of this quote – if anyone has more insight, do let me know.

In the absence of additional context, however, I’m going to take Einstein’s words at face value. The obvious interpretation is: we do science because we’re not sure. This is an important thing for science communicators to remember. Scientists may have predictions about how an experiment will turn out, and we think about how various outcomes will support or cast doubt on the hypotheses we’re testing. But we never know for sure what’s going to happen – that’s why we do the experiment!

This uncertainty is part of what makes science exciting, and the thrill of discovery is not an experience that goes unappreciated outside of academia. The best science media give viewers or readers an opportunity to experience that thrill themselves. Robert Krulwich of NPR’s Radio Lab gave the keynote address at last month’s ScienceOnline2011 meeting in Research Triangle Park, NC. On Radio Lab, Krulwich says, he tries to pace the hour-long program so that his audience experiences their own “eureka” moment before he gives them the answer. It’s that moment – and the eager tension listeners feel, waiting to learn whether they’ve arrived at the right conclusion – that Krulwich is after. And he is very skilled at giving his listeners that experience.

I think Einstein’s quote says something else about science, however. It says, more or less implicitly, “we don’t know what we’re doing.” As scary as it is to admit that to a non-scientist – perhaps we fear that our voices will carry diminished authority? – few scientists have trouble commiserating with peers about the uncertainty, false starts, and screw-ups that characterize our day-to-day research.

But should we be afraid to announce to the rest of world that “we’re people, too?” Maybe this fear is misplaced. More scientists are beginning to recognize that they need to take an active role in engaging with non-scientists, and I’d like to propose that these bumps in the road that we experience while doing science might not be just embarrassing faults, best left on the editing-room floor.

Instead, these mistakes are the stuff of stories. No quest is complete without a few wrong turns… and as any TV executive will tell you, audiences love a good quest. Look at Mythbusters, one of the most successful shows on the Discovery Channel. Like it or not, Mythbusters brings more science to more people – including non-traditional science audiences – than just about any other show on television. The producers of Mythbusters never just cut to the chase and tell viewers whether an urban legend is busted or not. Instead, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman take the viewers on a journey, complete with screw-ups, and the journey itself is the reward.

There’s a fine line to be walked here: on the one hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re just bumbling through our work, aimlessly joyriding through what is by many standards a pretty cushy job (doing so, very likely, at the expense of the taxpayers). On the other hand, if we succumb to the prevailing stereotype and portray ourselves as the unfeeling, objective, infallible scientists, we have succeeded only in thoroughly alienating ourselves from the very people with whom we need to engage if we want our work to matter – the public!

Despite the decline of many printed media and the widespread disappearance of regular science columns in newspapers, a legion of online reporters – professional writers and professional scientists alike – are blogging science back to widespread attention. Many of these writers provide timely summaries of important new work, and even better, thoughtful analyses and synthesis of existing research.

But I also think there is a niche that still needs filling, and it’s one that we scientists need to fill ourselves. We need to show people why we do science – it’s not just for the big “aha!” intellectual payoff at the end, or for the fame and fortune (ha ha!) that come with publishing your work in a peer-reviewed journal. We do it because we love the whole process. Science is competitive, and people who don’t love doing it get weeded out pretty quickly.

Because we do it every day, it’s tempting to think that our day-to-day work won’t be interesting to anyone. But let’s turn to another perennially successful show on the Discovery Channel: Dirty Jobs. None of the jobs portrayed on Dirty Jobs is particularly fascinating to the workers who perform that job, day in and day out. But with a fresh perspective (and the wry commentary of Mike Rowe), you have a formula that reliably attracts hundreds of thousands of viewers a week.

We aren’t all going to be great at this kind of public engagement. But I think we should give it a try. Maybe we’ll figure out who among us can be the “Mike Rowe” of science. With any luck, there will be several of Mike Rowes, Adam Savages, and Jamie Hynemans in our midst. Because knowing science is one thing. Knowing scientists is another. And if science is going to matter in people’s lives, I think both are important!

P.S. If you know scientists who are already doing this kind of outreach, I’d love to hear about them!

Patience makes perfect

I have a confession to make. It’s been a WHILE since I’ve gone out with any serious intention of taking pictures. Until last weekend, in fact, the last time I took nature photos – literally – was a four-day trip through southwestern Australia with Nate Dappen, appended to the end of a professional meeting I attended in Perth. In place of photography, I’ve been working on SustainbleFocus.org, video projects, and grants to support my dissertation research.

A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) in flight with a meal

I finally got the chance to do some photography last weekend at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County, CA. Birds are the most obvious subjects at Bolsa Chica, and I love taking pictures of birds. And to my genuine (but pleasant) surprise, I still felt comfortable with the controls of my camera. Even better, I was still pretty decent at stalking wild birds and getting close enough for photos.

But something was wrong. I just couldn’t focus – and I don’t mean camera focus, I mean mental focus. It had been so long, I just wanted to shoot EVERYTHING. When a bird wasn’t cooperating, I quickly gave up and looked for a different quarry. I didn’t have the will to stick it out in one spot while nothing good was happening, even though I know that’s how I’ve gotten nearly all of my best images over the years.

I was impatient… If I didn’t capture something great on this trip, I might not have time to shoot again for weeks!

A Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) in wetland vegetation

What I ended up with was a smattering of shots, including, I’ll admit, a few that I’m happy with. But I didn’t feel great about the whole session. At the end of the afternoon’s shoot, I didn’t get that “job-well-done” feeling I sometimes get when I’ve really connected with a subject and captured great images. Instead, I felt flustered, and my mind was scattered. I had to think hard even to remember the first few subjects I’d shot after arriving.

Patience takes practice (and not having photographed for 3 months doesn’t help!), but it’s usually worth the investment. None of the images I captured last weekend feels particularly intimate, which is what I really strive for in my wildlife photos. If I had stuck it out in one spot – if I had been patient – I might have captured something special. But the self-imposed pressure to produce something of quality, the looming prospect of more desk work and less shooting in my future, made that impossible. I lost sight of the long goal – and why I love taking pictures – for the short one.

Next time, I think I’ll just go someplace where the light is nice and sit. I think wildlife photography is a little like Whac-a-Mole. Sure, you can chase every mole, and you’ll probably even hit a bunch, but you might not hit any of them squarely. Wait and watch one hole, though… and that mole is YOURS.

(No moles were harmed in the writing of this post.)

An unhealthy glow: Parasites may equip hosts with warning colors

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier this month at ScienceOnline2011 (a professional meeting of science bloggers and others using the web to communicate about science), Brian Malow – aka. the Science Comedian – gave a wonderful impromptu performance. On the topic of viruses, Brian described a viral infection as “Your cells: Under new management.” It’s a clever but quite apt description – viruses co-opt the genetic machinery of host cells, forcing those cells to produce the DNA, RNA, and proteins required to make more viruses.

But viruses just manipulate single cells. Some parasites play puppet-master with their entire multicellular host, bending its behavior to suit their needs. Consider the parasitoid wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga. Many wasp species lay their eggs on spiders, the wasp larva slowly consuming (and ultimately killing) its host as it develops – gruesome, yes, but not particularly inventive. This is exactly how a larval H. argyraphaga begins its life, feeding on the hemolymph (essentially, the “blood”) of its host spider. And for a couple of weeks, the spider continues to go about its business quite normally.

But then something changes, and the spider begins to spin a web unlike anything it has ever built before; this custom-built structure will support the parasitic wasp as it pupates and transforms into an adult. Once the web is complete, the wasp has no further use for its host, and it kills and consumes the spider before beginning its metamorphosis. The exact biochemical mechanism enabling this manipulation still isn’t known, but somehow the wasp manages to override the spider’s natural behavior patterns, compelling it to build a safe resting place for its own future killer.

Heterorhabditis nematodes emerge en masse from a dead waxworm. Photo by Peggy Greb, USDA.

In a paper published in Animal Behavior this month, researchers investigate another fascinating parasite, one that might enhance its own survival and transmissions by altering its host’s color.

Nematodes in the genus Heterorhabditis are tiny worms that parasitize insect larvae. The young worms live in the soil, and when they find a potential host they invade its body through the mouth, anus, or spiracles (the holes through which insects breathe). But the worms don’t just eat the host – thing get much more bizarre than that. Within the worms live symbiotic bacteria (Photorhabdus luminescens). Once the worms enter their insect host, they release these bacteria, which quickly begin to dissolve the host’s tissues. The worms slurp up the resulting goo, grow, and reproduce. The flesh of a single host insect may support the worms for several generations, long after the host is dead. After a couple of weeks, the host insect splits open, releasing enormous numbers of worm larvae back into the soil and beginning the cycle anew.

In addition to killing their hosts in a sublimely cruel way, the parasites induce a striking change in their dead host’s appearance. A few days after the infection begins, the host actually begins to glow, and it remains an intense pink or red color even after the glow subsides.

A dramatic color change occurs in host insects following infection. (a) Before infection, all waxworm larvae have similar reflectance. (b) Seven days after infection, infected waxworms (plotted in red) have high reflectance in wavelengths 600-700nm – i.e., they are red!

Why would the parasites do such a thing? Well, luciferase, an enzyme involved in the bacterial bioluminescence, may also help eliminate “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) – oxygen-containing compounds that might otherwise build up in the insect carcass as it is digested, causing damage to the bacteria or worms. This idea remains to be tested, but seems promising.

A live (left) and infected dead waxworm (center). Note the substantial difference in color. Photo by Peggy Greb, USDA.

Biologist Andy Fenton and colleagues set out to test a different hypothesis about this parasite-induced color change. If a bird eats an infected insect, plump with a nematode-bacteria broth, it’s “game over” for the parasites within. They can’t survive a trip through a bird’s digestive tract. Perhaps the bright pink color of the infected host is analogous to the conspicuous warning coloration of many toxic animal species – a message to potential predators: “Don’t eat me, I’m unpalatable.”

If this were true, then birds should avoid infected larvae. And if they do, the infected larvae must be distasteful, or else this avoidance behavior would not persist.

The authors presented infected and uninfected waxworms to wild European Robins (Erithacus rubecula) to test whether the birds avoided infected prey. Each robin was given an array of 20 waxworms (10 infected, 10 uninfected) and allowed to choose prey freely for 30 minutes. Then, the authors noted which waxworms were consumed, and analyzed the fraction that belonged to the infected group. The robins avoided infected waxworms, even when the alternative was an uninfected waxworm that had been dead equally long. Moreover, this avoidance seemed to become more pronounced as the infection progressed.

Robins consume more uninfected waxworms (gray bars) than infected waxworms (white bars), and this effect increases as the infection progresses.

The authors also claim that robins were less likely to consume another infected waxworm after they had encountered their first infected prey item. If true, this would be evidence in favor of the infected insects’ noxiousness. This claim is based on the behavior of only six robins, however, and the authors are vague about the statistical methods that led them to this conclusion; I think it is wise to take this result with a grain of salt.

The authors present convincing evidence that wild predators avoid insects infected with the Heterorhabditis nematode. This may represent a new form of host manipulation by parasites – a parasite-induced color change to reduce the risk of predation. If the authors can demonstrate more convincingly that the infected prey are actually distasteful, their hypothesis will be even more convincing. At the very least, there is some fascinating natural history at work in these parasitic worms, and this study provides some cautious support of a novel mechanism of host manipulation.

Note: I am a photographer as well as a biologist, and I have to conclude by saying that I was flabbergasted that the authors did not include one photograph in their paper! With such a visually compelling study system, I consider this a huge wasted opportunity to make the study accessible to an audience much broader than other behavioral biologists. Lucky for me, the USDA had some nice images I could use to illustrate this post.

References:

Fenton, A., Magoolagan, L., Kennedy, Z., & Spencer, K. (2011). Parasite-induced warning coloration: a novel form of host manipulation Animal Behaviour, 81 (2), 417-422 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.11.010

Turning scientists into (visual) storytellers

I just read an interesting blog post by Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker and author of the book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Olson teaches three-day filmmaking workshops for science students, and he just finished his most recent one in Norway… Read the blog post and you can see the resulting short films (there are 5 of them from a group of 25 students, and each film is just 1 minute long) here.

Some of the products are pretty impressive given the length of the workshop and the students’ lack of prior training. The whole workshop is just 3 days — that means the students are learning about filmmaking and creating their film in <72 hours. Pretty wild! Olson also provides the “blueprint” for his workshops, so anyone can adapt his methods for themselves. This is worth a read, too.

On a related note, Colin Bates and Jeff Morales have just updated the website for their excellent “Scientific Filmmaking” workshop series (I participated in the October 2010 workshop at Bodega Marine Lab, and it was really excellent!). See the new website and find out about upcoming workshops here.

And finally, as I mentioned last week, there were several video-related events at the ScienceOnline2011 meeting in North Carolina. Carin Bondar and Joanne Manaster led a workshop about how to create your own high-quality science videos. Then, Clifton Wiens of National Geographic Television led a session about what television producers want to see in science programming (and how to pitch to television executives). And finally, Carin and Joanne presented a mini film festival, where the audience got to watch a smattering of recent short videos sampled from throughout the science blogosphere.

I learned about Colin and Jeff’s course a couple of months before it happened, I found out about the ScienceOnline2011 events shortly thereafter, and I just discovered Randy Olson’s workshops a few days ago. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to see that there now exist several programs for teaching scientists how to communicate through video. The demand for such workshops indicates to me that scientists – at least the younger generation of current graduate students and post-docs – are feeling the need for better communication with the public. And I think that’s a good thing!

Bloodsuckers or tick-pluckers? The case of the oxpecker

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
Birds have some awesomely descriptive names. Like the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), a North American woodpecker that specializes in drilling “sap wells” in trees to feed on their sugary phloem sap. Or the Brown Trembler (Cinclocerthia ruficauda), a Caribbean relative of the mockingbird that shakes its wings violently to communicate with other members of its species. But when it comes to quirky but descriptive names, the African oxpeckers are hard to beat.

A Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) foraging on the back of a large mammal. Photo by Steve Garvie.

You may not realize it, but you’ve probably seen oxpeckers in nature documentaries: small brown birds with festive red-and-yellow bills, traveling about the African savannah perched on the backs of large grazing mammals. As their name suggests, oxpeckers peck the animals on which they perch, harvesting ticks and other ectoparasites from the skin of their hoofed hosts. Their relationship is a classic example of a mutualism: an interaction in which each species benefits from the presence of the other. The hosts get rid of pesky ticks, while the oxpeckers get a protein-rich meal.

But the oxpeckers’ Latin name, Buphagus (literally “cow eater”), suggests a more sinister motive. Yes, oxpeckers eat ticks, but they have also been observed feeding directly on the blood of their hosts, opening new wounds or re-opening old ones. This behavior suggests that the relationship may be more asymmetric in its benefits: the birds might, in fact, be parasites.

Imagine being the biologist who first noticed this blood-feeding behavior. It would be like watching the guy washing windows on the apartment building next door as he suddenly stopped cleaning, looked around furtively, and took a bite out of the wall.

But is there any way to test whether the oxpeckers-ungulate relationship is fundamentally mutualistic or parasitic? In a paper published in Evolution last month, Charles Nunn and colleagues took a comparative approach to answering this question. They began with two alternative hypotheses, both consistent with existing observations:

Hypothesis 1: The relationship is essentially mutualistic – ticks are the primary food source – but the birds sometimes feed directly on blood if it is accessible
Hypothesis 2: The relationship is essentially parasitic – blood is the primary food source – but the birds also feed on ticks when they are readily available

Another possible mutualism. Unfortunately, pirates are not indexed in the Global Mammal Parasite Database.

If the relationship is a mutualism, the authors predicted, oxpeckers should prefer host species that tend to harbor more ticks; more ticks means more food for the birds. If the relationship is a parasitic one, however, the birds should prefer host species that have thinner hides, which would allow easier access to the host’s blood.

Luckily, most of the “grunt work” of counting ticks on African mammals had already been done; the authors simply consulted the Global Mammal Parasite Database (yes, there is such a thing) to gather data on tick abundance on each host species. They also searched the literature to determine oxpeckers’ host species preferences and the hide thickness of each potential host.

Next, they needed to test whether oxpecker preferences were related to tick abundance or host hide thickness. As it turns out, this step is not as simple as it might seem. To understand why, try this thought experiment: Suppose that oxpeckers preferred several species of antelope over other possible hosts. These preferred antelope hosts had thinner hides than many other possible hosts (zebra, water buffalo, rhinoceros, etc.). Would these data be evidence enough that oxpeckers prefer host species with thin hides?

No, they wouldn’t, because although the antelope hosts all have thin hides, they also share lots of other characteristics due to their common evolutionary history – i.e., simply because they’re all antelope. So you couldn’t be sure if it was the thin hides that attracted the oxpeckers to these species, or some other trait shared within the group. To account for this possibility, the authors needed to construct a phylogeny – an evolutionary family tree – that included all of the oxpecker’s possible host species. Nunn and colleagues obtained DNA sequences from GenBank (an online DNA sequence data repository) and used these data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the African mammals in question.

With this phylogeny, the authors were able to use a statistical model that infers ancestral characteristics based on the branching pattern – or topology – of the tree, then asks whether evolutionary changes in one variable (e.g. hide thickness) are accompanied by changes in another (e.g. oxpecker preferences).

An aside: Remarkably, all the data required for this study were already available in other published sources. I used to work for Walter Koenig, one of the authors of this study (not this one)… In addition to his empirical research, which includes some really seminal work on the social behavior Acorn Woodpeckers, Walt has a special talent for breathing new life into old data. This paper is a great example of the latter!

So, what’s the upshot? The authors found a positive relationship between tick abundance and oxpecker preference: on average, the more ticks were found on each host species, the more oxpeckers liked that species. Oxpeckers also preferred larger hosts – which tended to harbor more ticks – but even among host species of similar size, oxpeckers preferred the species with the most ticks. On the other hand, oxpeckers didn’t seem to care much about the thickness of the host’s hide.

These patterns were identical between the two species of oxpecker, the Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) and Red-billed Oxpecker (B. erythrorhynchus). Taken together, these results favor the mutualism hypothesis over the parasitism hypothesis.

One way or another, oxpeckers are bloodthirsty. But this analysis shows that they tend to look for blood in convenient snack-sized packets – helping their hosts rid themselves of parasites – rather than collecting the blood for themselves. Personally, as much as I like a good paradigm shift, I find it reassuring to see a textbook “just so” story borne out with actual data. That said, it might not take much to change the nature of the relationship; if a host has readily accessible wounds, or if ticks are scarce (as in a captive situation) the birds can easily switch their tactics!

ResearchBlogging.org
Nunn, C., Ezenwa, V., Arnold, C., & Koenig, W. (2011). MUTUALISM OR PARASITISM? USING A PHYLOGENETIC APPROACH TO CHARACTERIZE THE OXPECKER-UNGULATE RELATIONSHIP Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01212.x

ScienceOnline2011: Wrap-up

The conference is over and I’m en route to LA again. Turns out that I’m on the same plane as the guy who played Mini Me in the Austin Powers movies, and yeah, he’s pretty darn small in person. Anyway, the last two days of the conference were even better than the first two. On Saturday and Sunday, the true meaning of the “unconference” style became clear — in most sessions, leaders introduced themselves and simply posed some questions to start a discussion, then acted as facilitators more than presenters. It was a really egalitarian way of doing things, almost unnecessarily fair given how much more experienced many of the leaders were than the other participants. But, unwarranted fairness aside, some excellent discussions resulted!

On Saturday, I went to a session on using blogs as a tool to develop your writing (and, potentially, to begin writing a book), which was led by many of the authors from Friday’s “Books and Beer” happy hour. My favorite idea from this session was that a blog can be a sort of “writing laboratory” for trying new content, styles, formats, etc. Then, in another session, we had a great discussion about technology and the wilderness — e.g., how much technology is appropriate to introduce into the “wilderness” experience? Can technology enhance our connection with nature rather than diminish it? Some good arguments and examples were given on both sides. Then, Joanne Manaster and “science comedian” Brian Malow led a session on communicating science using humor. I think this was one of the best sessions of the weekend; humor is so seldom used in science communication, and a sense of humor is an attribute that I think the public often believes that we scientists lack.

Later in the day, Melody Dye and Allie Wilkinson led a cool session on using photography to communicate about science and the environment. Obviously, I had some ideas to contribute to this one :) People were very keen to learn how to create better pictures of their work and how to collaborate with photographers who already have the skills to do so. Then, a very well-structured session on how to write science blog posts, from choosing content to writing style, to marketing your posts, etc. And finally, Carin Bondar and Joanne Manaster ran the first ScienceOnline film festival, with 10 entries (including my final “video blog” assignment from Jeff Morales and Colin Bates’s Science Filmmaking workshop in October).

Saturday’s banquet was a lot of fun, with an inspiring keynote presentation by Meg Lowman, a rainforest canopy biologist and champion for public outreach in science. Meg (aka. “Canopy Meg”) is currently serving as the Director of the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (opening in early 2012) and a professor at NC State University. Brian Malow followed with a great performance that had us in stitches. This bit really killed :) I was honored that the “video blog” that I created with Kelvin Gorospe and Annie Schmidt in Bodega Bay was voted the runner-up in the film festival! I got an inflatable Brotosaurus, which honestly looked a lot more like Brachiosaurus than anything else. The winning video really deserved it: a funny, fascinating short about how a photocopier works (see it here). And the 2nd runner-up was the great “Large Hadron Rap” by alpinekat.

Sunday’s sessions were good, too… although most of the conference-goers seemed a bit groggier than they had before the previous night’s festivities. There was a very interesting session on alternative careers in science (i.e., those off the tenure track). One of the upshots: You still need a Ph.D., even for the so-called “alternative,” non-academic careers in science. In a session about engaging undergraduates in science communication, we heard about some interesting models for getting students involved Then, in the last session before lunch, we heard a very interesting discussion of e-books and how they’re likely to change the way we present science in books (in a good way, I think!). We saw some really cool examples of e-books and “app books” that integrated prose, animations, and active links to additional web media. Finally, after lunch I attended a discussion on marketing yourself in science, and how to create and maintain your “brand.” This is something I know I need to do better, especially given my only partially-overlapping photography, video, and science endeavors!

For what it’s worth: there were FIVE sessions in five different meeting rooms going at any one time, so what I described above is a mere 20% of the total content of the meeting! There really was a tremendous amount of quality discussion happening, on a huge range of topics. If you’re following this blog because you’re interested in communicating science (especially on the web), I highly recommend attending a future meeting!

ScienceOnline2011: Friday, January 14

Wow, I’ve already met a ton of interesting folks here, doing a lot of great stuff, and the meeting technically begins this morning (Saturday, January 15). I began the day yesterday by finishing and submitting a fellowship application from my hotel room (whee!), and then — entirely separate from the conference — I met up with Rob Nelson of Untamed Science, a production company that I blogged about last fall. Turns out, Rob is a great dude and we had some fun conversations about science, filmmaking, and the stuff that his crew is currently working on.

Then I got to have lunch with NESCent’s Robin Smith, Craig McClain, and Jory Weintraub, as well as fellow NESCent evolution blog contest winner Danielle Lee (you can read her winning post and the rest of her cool blog here). In the afternoon, the startlingly energetic Carin Bondar (I’m just jealous :) ) co-led a workshop with Joanne Manaster on producing high-quality science videos. It was a great introduction to the medium, for a crowd mostly comprising science bloggers. I was intrigued to hear that on blogs that have both video and text content, video-based posts and text-based posts attract almost completely non-overlapping audiences… Later in the afternoon, Clifton Wiens of National Geographic Television gave a candid presentation on pitching science programs for television. The take-home message? It’s hard! Connecting with an audience requires a great story, and just because something’s exciting to fellow scientists doesn’t mean it will sell.

Finally, happy hour and dinner with the the authors of 30-odd books penned by conference attendees. I’m exhausted already, and things are just getting started!

ScienceOnline2011: Thursday, January 13

I arrived in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park yesterday afternoon, just in time for the opening keynote address at the ScienceOnline2011 conference. Robert Krulwich gave a wonderful presentation on how he and Jad Abumrad make science accessible to everyone – really, EVERYONE – on their NPR program Radiolab. If you aren’t familiar with the program already, you really owe it to yourself to check it out.

I finally met Carin Bondar (who will be leading a session on producing science videos today!), and I also had a fascinating discussion with a guy who has patented a skin treatment (“Nitrocell”) that ostensibly replenishes your body’s natural biofilm of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, helping your body maintain proper levels of nitrous oxide (NO). This biofilm, he claimed, gets washed away when you bathe. Anyway, this fellow claimed not to have taken a shower or bath in… wait for it… over 8 years. But because he had a healthy biofilm goin’ on, all was well :) I’ll give this to him: he didn’t smell like a guy who hasn’t washed himself in nearly a decade. So maybe there is something to these ammonia oxidizing bacteria? Anyway, his biofilm-restoring treatment is for those of us not adventurous enough to embark on a multi-year non-bathing experiment.