An Interview with Bora Zivkovic, Organizer of Science Online ’09

By Student


by Brandon

Bora Zivkovic is a remarkable, technologically-savvy scientist.  He is the Online Community Manager of the Public Library of Science, an internationally famous organization among scientists for exclusive scientific information and literature.

Mr. Zivkovic is also Director of Science Online ‘09. I had an opportunity to interview Bora Zivkovic and here are the questions I asked him:

What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in Science? Why?

This is a very good question because it addresses the difference between two uses of the word ’science’.  ??A common use of the word is its narrower sense – the sense of actively participating in scientific research. In that narrower sense, I am not a scientist any more – I spent 10 years in graduate school, got my Masters halfway through that time, did my PhD work which I never published and almost written a Dissertation which I never defended.  Then I left graduate school.  I published five scientific papers that were very well received by the peers in my discipline (chronobiology – study of biological time), and have four unfinished, unpublished manuscripts that I still intend to publish soon, one of which I think of as particularly creative, insightful and useful for other people in my field.

But there is another, broader sense of the word ’science’. It denotes a scientific mindset that one acquires through the study, training and practice in science. In this sense: once a scientist – always a scientist. And in this broader sense I think that my research and publication contributions are dwarfed by the influence I have had as a biology teacher for 16 years, as a science blogger for the past four or so years, as the organizer of three science blogging conferences and editor of two (and the third is coming out soon) science blogging anthologies, as a community manager for PLoS ONE, and as a vocal proponent of the Open Access model of publishing.  With those activities, I think I have reached more people in a positive way than with my scientific papers, I have changed more minds, made more people think, spread more good information around, and did more good for the entire enterprise of science than with my research, as much as I like to think that my experiments were creative and cool (and perhaps even useful in some distant sense).

Who is your favorite scientist? What makes this specific scientist so favorable?

Spending some time blogging can be helpful in more ways than one – for instance, there are many questions I have already thought about before and may have ready answers today.  So, I searched my blog for a way I answered this question before, and came upon this passage (which I completely forgot I have written):

This reminds me of my oral prelims a couple of years ago. Knowing I was one of those rare grad students who actually reads a lot about history and philosophy of science, the committee members were eager to get the science portion of the exam done quickly and to start asking me fun questions. I was asked the names of people who received the last three Nobel prizes for physiology/medicine and for what discoveries. I actually knew it. We discussed post-modernism/relativism in academia (remember: this is an exam in Zoology!). Then, one of the members asked me to name three scientists who I admire the most, and why. I think he expected me to take some time thinking about it, so he was surprised with my machine-gun rapid-fire response:

Charles Darwin, Niko Tinbergen and Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Although they were officially working in three different fields – evolution, behavior and physiology – they have something in common. All three went out in nature and noticed things that nobody ever did. All three went out in the nature and noticed stuff that everyone knew and took for granted, yet they found astoundingly interesting. All three displayed huge childlike curiosity. All three were very capable of putting disparate facts together that nobody before thought to put together. All three were very creative – they were well known for designing extremely simple and cheap, yet effective tests of their hypotheses: play flute to earthworms, move some pine-cones around, overheat some camels – all those things could have been done by Ancient Greeks, not to mentioned by their peers, yet nobody thought of it. All three used their results to build large theories that stood the test of time. Were they geniuses? Well, they were sure thinking differently from their colleagues and contemporaries, people who had the same social environment and same scientific education.

In short, I like scientists who design clever and creative experiments to ask questions about oddities of nature, knowing that the study of oddities will illuminate the most basic understanding of the living world. Oftentimes, it is easy to concoct a hypothesis by observing a common phenomenon, or an “average” animal.  But the hypothesis survives and becomes a theory if it is shown to be generalizable to even the strangest creatures living in the strangest environments. Just because humans, dogs, rats and fruitflies “do something” a certain way, does not make this a rule for everything.  But if organisms living in the depths of the oceans, on mountaintops, in deserts, on small islands, in the Antarctica, and deep underground, all also do that thing the same way, then the rule can be taken to be something more general of life on Earth – a hypothesis becomes a theory.

What do you enjoy most about science?

Life in science is full of surprises!  Every day I learn something new about the way the world works.  Every time when a new study comes out that forcefully and with persuasive evidence points out that some old textbook wisdom is wrong, that I have been teaching it wrong, that we all had it wrong, this is a moment of challenge and a moment when one has the opportunity to grow and mature a little bit as a person.  It is not easy changing one’s mind on long-held beliefs.  It is exciting to do so when faced with overwhelming evidence.

Another joy of science is being a member of the scientific community.  Constant communication with some of the brightest, most creative minds in the world is exciting.  Daily e-mails, blog-posts (and comments), new scientific papers…all those means of communication foster a feeling of belonging to the scientific community. The best of all is meeting them in person at conferences.  Unlike the stereotypes, scientists tend to be a jovial bunch, laid-back, relaxed, funny and fun to be around.  They tend to be curious, open-minded, very supportive of students just coming into science while challenging to their top-rated peers, and nothing makes them happier than when they can get a lay person excited about some aspect of the natural world.  All the talk about ‘elitist academics’ who ‘look down their noses at the uninitiated’ is easily disproved – go to a scientific meeting or give a scientist a call: nothing makes a scientist happier than an interested audience to share their excitement and curiosity with.

What have you found most rewarding in your scientific career?

Back when I was doing research, the most exhilarating moments were those when, after many days, weeks and months of experimental work and data analysis, usually at some odd time of night like 4am, I would finally have the answer to My Question.  At that moment, the excitement of cracking one more mystery of the Universe is overwhelming.  Being the first and only person to know a particular fact about the way the world works, then eagerly awaiting the next morning to tell everyone – that is worth all the days of hard work, sleepless nights and frustrations with malfunctioning equipment.

Another rewarding moment is every time when I teach a complex idea and finally see the glimmer of understanding in my students’ eyes – the eureka moment when I realize they they “got it” and are excited about their newly discovered understanding.  This empowers them in many ways and gives them confidence in their own abilities and the drive to search for more complex ideas to learn about.

What inspired you to start the Science Online Conference???

Frankly, I wanted to meet and have a beer with other science bloggers I have met online before.  They always seemed to be cool people and I wanted to get to know them better.  But, as they are scattered all around the world, getting everyone in one place would be a difficult and expensive proposition – unless we do more than just chat, perhaps something useful that one can use as an excuse with one’s employer to find time and funds to travel.  So, I thought about having a conference.

I did not think it was practically possible and, while I thought that would be a cool idea, I did not pursue it immediately.  Then, one day I had coffee with Anton Zuiker and he persuaded me that this could be done – and that we should team up and do it! The rest, as they say, was history.

Initially, we wanted to play it safe so we targeted mainly the locals – the Triangle area of North Carolina is full of scientists as well as full of bloggers.  But it immediately outgrew our plans – people from all over the country, as well as several people from abroad heard about this and registered to come to the meeting. Instead of a small local meeting, we ended up with an international, highly profiled conference (several newspapers, as well as the ‘Nature’ magazine wrote about it, I was interviewed for NPR, and many bloggers wrote about it as well). And then the magic happened at the conference itself.  Scientists, bloggers, Web developers, middle/high school science teachers, students…people who inhabit different worlds and would be unlikely to meet each other otherwise, met and talked and everyone learned something new, everyone taught others something new, the usual hierarchies in the world were broken as everyone’s insight was equally valued by others.  Academic scientists and bloggers learned quite valuable lessons from science teachers and journalists, and vice versa.  Many minds were changed, some new ideas hatched, and the energy spread across the science blogosphere and the conversation continued for months afterwards.  The universal feeling was that the meeting was so productive, it just had to become an annual event.  We gladly obliged – the second conference was an even greater success, so this year we are getting bolder – expanding the conference from one to 2.5 days, doubling the number of sessions, and attracting people from places as far away as Australia, Brazil, Serbia, Italy, Finland, England, Germany and Canada.

What advice and/or suggestion would you have for the attendees of this conference?

Wear comfortable shoes.  Seriously.  You will not notice how exhausted you are until you hit the bed at the end of the day – too excited to notice while talking to all those other interesting people, going in and out of sessions, participating energetically, and being constantly intellectually challenged.

Remember that at the meeting the usual hierarchies remain outside the walls of the Sigma Xi Center.  It does not matter who has a PhD and who does not, whose blog traffic counts in millions and whose in dozens, who has been in science (or blogging, or teaching) for decades and who is just coming in.  Everyone can and should contribute actively – do not be shy to say what you think in a session, or to approach someone you admire and start a conversation in the hallway.  The underlying principle of ScienceOnline09 is that the collective wisdom of the audience is greater than the expertise of the person standing at the front of the room.  Everyone is coming in order to learn from everyone else, and everyone should offer their own perspectives and be treated and treat others with respect.

What do you look forward to most about this year’s conference?

First, I am hoping everything goes well, without any major organizational glitches.  But if it does, then I’ll be excited about meeting all the people who will be there – seeing some of the old friends, meeting some new people, learning new stuff, and having fun!

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