The four Cs of inspiration: Overlapping networks of ScienceOnline

May 1, 2012

Today over at the Of Schemes and Memes blog, Rockefeller University scientist Jeanne Garbarino recalls the beginnings of Science Online NYC, a monthly meetup in New York that started in April 2011.

It’s always interesting to see what inspires people to come together. Jeanne explains how she got connected to the online community of scientists. Bora gets a nice reference — “…or getting a twitter follow by this guy who goes by BoraZ, I somehow found myself quickly immersed in the science online community” — and Jeanne’s use of the ScienceOnline2011 livestreams (thanks NASW and AAAS/Science/EurekAlert! for underwriting that!) whetted her appetite for face-to-face conversations with other science lovers.

The ScienceOnline meeting in North Carolina, however, was different. EVERYONE who wanted to be heard was heard. There was no hierarchy and information flowed freely. Even though I was tuning in from afar, I could tell that this meeting was different, for it was not a “meeting” at all. To me, it seemed more like a gathering of friends who are all passionate about communicating science and, miraculously, the lines between being professional and being social became blurry.

Jeanne connected with John Timmer, Lou Woodley and Joe Bonner, and together they planned the inaugural Science Online NYC, or SoNYC, with a kick-off in April 2011.

[Note the spaces in the name; while the ScienceOnline conference and community helped inspire SoNYC, (and Science Online London before that), a question about a trademark and how a formal organization might later be named led to the shared-but-different name. More about that below.]

Connections, conversations, collaborations, community: these are the values that have instilled our BlogTogether and ScienceOnline activities for more than 10 years now. In this journey, I’ve been inspired by others — I last wrote about some of the people and experiences that helped form me in my post Triptych: Three reasons for me being me — and I’ve been quietly happy when I see that my late-night, chocolate-and-slivo-fueled efforts have been some small inspiration for others.

Last month, when I was in Palm Springs, Ivan Oransky told me over lunch that his experience at ScienceOnline helped give him energy to build on his idea for Embargo Watch. Jai Ranganathan and others have similarly taken inspiration from the ScienceOnline community, and their #SciFund Challenge is an exciting experiment in crowdsourcing science. There’s a host of our ScienceOnline friends involved in Download the Universe, which grew out of that group’s learned discussions at past conferences about new science publishing opportunities. Last week saw the grand opening of the Nature Research Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, and I was delighted to watch David Kroll, Brian Malow, Holly Menninger and others in action during the 24-hour opening. (Brian mentions his introduction to ScienceOnline in this great interview on WUNC’s The State of Things.) And now there are ScienceOnline meetups and activities starting in Seattle, Vancouver, the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and other cities.

I don’t take credit for any of these — without exception, the individuals who are starting these initiatives and meetups are smarter than me, closer to the science, dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the world around and our bodies within. But at night, when I wake up and my subconscious tells me I’m doing too much and I should be overwhelmed and wouldn’t it be nice to chill out for a year or two, I smile and think, somehow, I’ve plugged into a community of amazing people, and if organizing a conference and building a community gets me opportunity to converse with them, I’m not stopping. In my waking hours, I talk at every opportunity about the 4 Cs (refer 2 graphs above) and the power of overlapping networks and how my life has changed because of all that.

And it’s with that enthusiasm for the greater ScienceOnline community that last April I proposed to my daughter, Anna, that she accompany me to New York City to celebrate her 10th birthday and to attend the first SoNYC meeting; I was particularly excited about being on hand to congratulate the organizers and support the endeavor. Anna agreed to go, albeit reluctantly, and the breakneck pace I put her through over our 36-hour trip confirmed all her suspicions. In her own words and from an essay she wrote to my wife, Erin, to explain her lingering feelings for the big city:

The New York trip was pretty fun but not the best. Well, the fun part is that we went to the bookstore, we saw my mom’s friend from work [her office up high over Times Square], we saw a movie and did a lot of other things. It was overwhelming because we kept going places and going places and we never got to stop at the M&M shop or another shop. But the best part about the trip was that I got to spend time with my dad and saw a movie and a museum. My dad had a meeting we went to and I slept for most of the time but I was tired. I just fell asleep on the table while my dad talked…When I got home I was so happy because my house is a gentle, kind-hearted place where I play and get along with my siblings, and of course our parents.

Over time, Anna’s talked more and more about our trip to New York City, and told me she loved our lunch at a Japanese restaurant, reiterated her appreciation for the mid-day movie break, and asked again why that naked cowboy guy with the guitar was standing in the cold.

In the year since that trip, and SoNYC’s start, the monthly meetup in New York City has proved quite successful — congrats Jeanne, John, Joe and Lou! — mirroring the amazing momentum of the greater ScienceOnline community and our flagship annual conference. The connections, conversations and collaborations are inspiring individuals and groups left and right, and as Bora and Karyn and I build out a new nonprofit organization to support this community, we’re listening for the right ways to reflect the overlapping networks, shared models, innovative tools and future opportunities that will promote science and the 4 Cs.

Which brings me back to the ScienceOnline moniker, spaces between words, and where we go from here.

Later this week over at, we’ll be posting updates on the organization and drafts of community guidelines to help us chart the waters of brand building and network promotion and such. As is our constant aim, we thrive on feedback and ideas for crafting the best guidelines to grow and nurture the community. We’ll also have updates on plans for ScienceOnline2013, ScienceOnlineTEEN and more reflections on the smart and cool people stepping up to form local ScienceOnline groups and similar activities.

With luck, we’ll all think of the ScienceOnline community as a gentle, kind-hearted place were we get along, collaborate and love our parents. Long live Science, and may we share our inspirations through ScienceOnline.

Anton Zuiker

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