To celebrate SoNYC’s first birthday, we have been reminiscing on past events by highlighting some of the key take home messages, linking out to pictures and hearing from the co-organisers. (We recently summarised all of the past SoNYC events; you can read the recap of the events from the science communication and outreach strand here, online tools for scientists and digital publishing here and the implicational issues – legal, policy and community here.) It has been a great year and we hope you have enjoyed the conversations, whether it has been in person, online, or via our write-ups and Storifys.
To finish out warm-up to the party, we’re hearing from each of the SoNYC co-organisers. First up was SoNYC co-organiser Jeanne Garbarino from Rockefeller University. In her retrospective she details the birth of SoNYC and how the internet has enabled her to tap into a community she never knew existed. Next up is co-organiser John Timmer, Science Editor at Ars Technica.
If it were 2005, you would undoubtedly find me avoiding the question “What do you do?” At that point in time, I was trying to wrap my head around my PhD thesis and accompanying qualifying exams, leading me to completely dissociate from realities pertaining to the big picture. I didn’t really understand the importance of science communication. Hell, to be honest, I didn’t even know that the communication of science actually existed outside of academic instutions. So when people asked me about my line of work, I skirted the issue, mostly because I just didn’t know what to say. Or rather, I didn’t know how to say it. In my mind, there was no way to make non-scientists understand, and trying to do so would only be frustrating for all parties involved.
Having been at the bench for more than a third of my life, I literally had no idea how technical my science English had become. Traditionally, my science had always been communicated to other scientists. Even worse was the fact that these scientists were usually in my field. This undoubtedly led me to adopt a vernacular that was so completely inbred that it became its own dialect.
Then I found the internet.
Whether you want to call it serendipity, a product of the highly intricate algorithms inherent to social media networks, or getting a twitter follow by this guy who goes by BoraZ, I somehow found myself quickly immersed in the science online community. I was devouring the information that was only a click away and suddenly, my favorite scientists were being replaced with my favorite science writers. In one fell swoop, I could read on point science articles by John Rennie and David Dobbs, as well as share common experiences with other scientist women and mothers like Dr. O and Emily Willingham. What was this cyberutopia and why did it take me so long to find it??
It started to come together a little more for me as I shared in the ScienceOnline2011 experience. With an infant on the boob and toddler still in diapers, it was difficult for me to travel to North Carolina for that meeting, but I was lucky enough to follow through twitter and catch a few of the live video streams. Now, I’ve been to plenty of meetings before, which are quite useful for making professional connections, but often, early career scientists (like myself) feel intimidated. 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.
I really wished that I could be there in person. And naturally, I found myself thinking about getting my act together so I could attend ScienceOnline2012. But then I started to ask myself, why wait a whole year? My home base is NYC and I am a postdoc at The Rockefeller University, which is, in my opinion, is one of the most forward thinking and accommodating research institutions around. Surely there is a community who would be interested in a regular science online discussion series.
Only days after my ScienceOnline2011 virtual experience and resulting epiphany, I met the ever-fantastic Shelley Cohen, who just happened to be a part of NPG. We got to chatting and I told her about my desire have regular discussions surrounding the communication of science. She told me how there were others interested in doing such a thing and recommended that I look into joining forces. And with that, she introduced me to Lou Woodley.
I quickly came to learn that Lou would be the heartbeat of this movement. She had a clear vision that was creative, organized, and exciting (just to name a few). And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who approached her. John Timmer, chief science wrangler at Ars Technica (chief wrangler because he is probably one of the smartest guys out there), had also hopped on board. And to complete our super-sonyc team, I asked Joe Bonner to join in as well. As Director of Communications at RU and head honcho of Science Writers in NY (SWINY), I knew that his local expertise would be an incredible asset.
Photo Credit: Copyright (c) 2011 Sourabh Banerjee Photography. Any Use
We went from concept to the first SoNYC in only a matter of weeks. The planning was streamlined and everything just seemed to fall into place. But, that didn’t stop my nerves as the 7pm starting time drew near on that warm April evening. We had a packed house and a great panel to discuss the communication of controversial topics in science, including vaccination, climate change, and the psychology of risk.
Photo Credit: Copyright (c) 2011 Sourabh Banerjee Photography. Any Use
We all had taken on a specific job. Lou was assigned with introducing SoNYC, coining our catchphrase “have a super-sonyc evening” while doing so. John introduced our panel and I followed with the moderation. After two truly captivating hours, it was over. And with that, we all funneled into the RU bar and toasted to a great evening (and I finally exhaled!).
From that event, SoNYC became a mainstay on the calendars of many locals. Month after month, people like Sean Cusack, Maki Naro, Ben Lillie, David Levine, and Nancy Parmalee never disappoint with their insightful and sometimes provocative comments (I’m looking at you, Nancy!). I have come to associate SoNYC with seeing and interacting with some of the best minds NYC has to offer. And with each event, I am afforded the incredible opportunity to interact with our guest panel, giving me a glimpse of all the amazing science communications initiatives happening around us.
But let’s not forget some of the more humble aspects of SoNYC. We are, for the most part, working on a next to nothing budget. We dine on cold pizza and drink lemon soda. We use a cup turned upside down as our microphone stand. We record our events with my macbook. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be able to upgrade some of our technologies, but there is something special about putting things together as best you can and having people think that what you’re doing is tops!
So how did a scientist who didn’t even take the time to explain her science to her own parents become so involved in science communication? I don’t really have an aswer for this, but I do know its been a great ride so far!
I am honored to be a part of this super-SoNYC crew and am over the moon to see that SoNYC has inspired other local science communities, like Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco, to establish their version of the regular science online discussion.
Now if we could just convince the higher-ups at NPG to transfer Lou to NYC! Then things would really be perfect super-sonyc!!!