An off-line event about online science literacy

Aug 1, 2007

This essay was first published in The Newsletter of The National Association of ScienceWriters Summer 2007 issue (Volume 56, Number 3).

As a Peace Corps volunteer on an Internet-free South Pacific island in the late 1990s, I spent countless hours swinging in a hammock reading the fine print of the Control of Communicable Diseases Manual. With every mosquito I slapped away, I pondered the possibilities for getting sick and whether I’d ever get back to my job as a magazine editor in Cleveland.

By the time I left Vanuatu, I had contracted dengue and nursed my wife through malaria. But I had also been bitten by the health reporting bug, and so when we found our way to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was delighted to discover Dr. Tom Linden’s graduate program in medical journalism. Through that program, I earned a master’s degree writing a 12,000-word narrative article about acute HIV and an increase in HIV among college students in the state.

In between Peace Corps and grad school, though, I started blogging. And that’s how I met Bora Zivkovic.
Bora was a doctoral student at N.C. State University, where he studied Circadian rhythms in Japanese quail. But his dissertation was lagging, because he spent seemingly every waking moment writing his various blogs about politics, science and education. When I started reading his science blog, he was beginning to earn international attention for the connections he made among the current research in chronobiology.

Two of Bora’s blog entries caught my attention. The first was a long but fascinating post about malaria and jet lag. From my Peace Corps experience, I knew that mosquitoes came at me in the mornings and at night. But from Bora I was about to learn that the malaria parasite, too, had it’s timing, and that Plasmodium’s cycle could be thrown off by jet lag.

“[J]et-lagged individuals may be warmer than the surrounding locals at midnight and thus more attractive to mosquitoes at that time,” he wrote, summarizing recent journal articles. He went on to list his hypotheses about why this might be, and he explored each hypothesis in turn. His entry included pictures and diagrams and even footnotes. This was not the blogging I was used to.

This was science blogging.

Through Bora – he joined the Science Blogs network, and renamed his blog A Blog Around the Clock – I discovered other scientists using blogs to explore science, discuss their research into the full spectrum of topics, and refute public misconceptions about evolution and other hot-button topics. These science bloggers, through their linking and commenting, have created a vibrant online community.

That second post of Bora’s was a call for someone to organize a conference for those science bloggers: “[I]t would be so cool to meet each other face-to-face and share a beer and stories.”

We met for coffee one day. “Let’s just do it here in Chapel Hill,” I suggested. Six months later, in January 2007, we were hosting the inaugural North Carolina Science Blogging Conference at UNC, welcoming more than 140 scientists, journalists, teachers, bloggers and others.

Our invitation had been simple and straightforward: join us for a day of discussions about how we can use blogs to promote the public understanding of science.

To start that conversation, Dr. Hunt Willard, director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, talked about how the 1960s race to the moon riveted the nation. “The science of the space race was on the television all the time,” he said, and yet most listeners and viewers didn’t understand the science. “I still can’t explain how a rocket works.” Still, the nation was engaged then.

But in an age of multimedia overload, how to engage the public now about complex areas of science such as Willard’s exploration into genomics?

The science bloggers in the audience felt strongly that the academic publish-or-perish tenure model needs to be shaken up to encourage younger scientists to share their research findings and observations online before formal publication of results. (In conjunction with the conference, Bora edited a peer-reviewed anthology of the best science blogging from 2006.)

In a breakout session on open source science, Drexel University chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley facilitated a discussion about how primary scientific information can be disseminated via blogs, wikis and other non-traditional vehicles. Bradley does that with the collaborative Useful Chemistry blog at Another breakout session, led by American Scientist editor Rosalind Reid, explored ways to illustrate blog posts so that visual learners could understand the science. (That’s what Bora did with his malaria entry.)

Meanwhile, the high school teachers who’d driven in from rural parts of North Carolina were eager to learn how blogs could help them engage their students in out-of-classroom science learning, and an editor from a major New York media company was pondering how to incorporate blogs into a new medical news section of the paper’s site.

The science blogging conference didn’t cause a sea change – a blog about celebrity gossip is the most popular blog in 2007, after all. But every day there are more and more blogs about global climate change, advances in medicine, marine science and other science topics, written by expert scientists or even well-versed non-scientists.

And that’s why we’re having another NC Science Blogging Conference, on Saturday, January 19, 2008. Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, will host this time around, and a generous grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is helping to improve the conference program. Conference details and registration information are online at

This Spring, his dissertation still not finished, Bora landed a job with Public Library of Science as their new online community manager, proof that blogging about science – or any topic – cogently and consistently, can pay.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC