CTBTO Conference Travis’ Note: Today’s guest post is from the epic pseudonymous blogger Scicurious.  She is one of the founding members of the Scientopia network of science bloggers, where you can find her extremely interesting and popular blog Neurotic Physiology.  She has written previous Science of Blogging guest posts on how to start a science blog, and issues to consider when deciding whether to blog under a pseudonym.

A few weeks ago, Sci had an opportunity to blog the Experimental Biology 2011 Conference (my posts on it are here).  I’ll admit, I volunteered, but the organizers were wonderfully welcoming of a young blogger, and very pleased to have me on board.  And then Travis and Peter let me know that they were going to blog an upcoming conference, and asked for tips.  And TIPS.  Boy, do I have TIPS!  And they asked me to post them.  So below you will find the stuff that I did, along with various tips on how to keep up your energy, and how to make the scientists LOVE your blog.  But keep in mind.  These tips apply best to scientists who are blogging conferences in their field.  To journalists, not so much.

Before and during the conference, I did the following:

1) Went through the abstracts and found stuff I liked.  I narrowed it down by cool titles and then looked for abstracts that were good.  I made a real effort to get far outside my field, but stick to within your field if that’s what you prefer.

2) Emailed the contact people for each abstract (4 days before the meeting), asking them if they’d like their work at the conference to be blogged.  In the initial email I made a point to include my academic position and university, as well as links to my blog.  Each email was specific for their abstract, making it clear that I had read their abstract and was interested on a more than cursory level. Technically, this isn’t required, if something is presented at a conference, it’s public, but I know that many scientists don’t really feel that way, and I would much rather make friends than enemies.

3) When they got back to me (and they ALL did, no one said no, but everyone also said they’d scoped me out on my blog and on Google beforehand), I set up a time to meet with the presenter  Often the PI was present,especially if the student was younger.

4) I met with each group for 30 minutes.  During that time I asked about their work, took copious notes, and also had them run through the presentation.  I also took care to ask if there was anything in particular they wanted to emphasize.  A couple of times I had to get an interpreter (wonderful presenter from Brazil, she spoke no English, and I no Portuguese.  But we got through it!  And her science is awesome.).

5) I then went back, sat my butt down, ate many cookies, and wrote it up.  Before I posted it I sent it off to the authors of the study for approval, with a stated deadline of 12 hours (I told them during the interview when they would receive the post, and when I would need their edits back).  Don’t worry, they’ll get back to you.

6) When the post went live (with their edits, everyone sent at least minor edits), I sent them a link to it with a thank you note.  I have since ended up in several school and department newsletters and on some laboratory websites!

Tips for getting PIs and shy scientists to warm to you.

It’s sad, but scientists are not used to trusting journalists.  They REALLY aren’t used to trusting bloggers.  But if you make it clear that you care about the science, they will come around sooner rather than later.  Because in the end, don’t we all want to see our work in the public eye?

Tips on talking to scared scientists:

1) DO NOT be afraid to NAME DROP!  I name dropped my PI, my uni, my grad work, etc.  Make it clear that you are a scientist as well as a writer.  It’s really kind of sad to me, but this was what helped me the most, I saw people visibly relax when I said “my poster is on Tuesday”.  Many PIs actually dropped by the poster to see if I was legit (was very glad I had some good work to show!).

2) Read up ahead of time.  I usually had their abstract in front of me, and looked up some terms beforehand (esp for things like when I blogged about the cornea, I mean, wtf…).  They will be SO happy that you have read up on them and know basically what they were going for.

3) Ask LOADS of questions. Make sure they clarify everything you don’t understand (and even some things you do).  This makes the PIs especially feel like you really understand them, and will make your subsequent blogging work MUCH easier.  I also asked for a copy of the post (hard or digital) or the presentation, so I could see the figures.

4) THIS IS THE BIG ONE: Ask if they want to see the post before it goes up.  I had people literally take me by the hand and thank me profusely for that.  Give them the chance to offer changes or clarifications.  The vast majority of the time, I had only minor changes, and a couple said it was perfect as is.

5) BUT: make sure you let them know you’re on a deadline.  I told them I’d get them a post around midnight, and gave them until noon the next day.  Everyone got back to me in time, they were just grateful I gave them the chance.6) Send them a final link to the story and make sure to ask for feedback.

7) Let them include personal things!  One girl painted her toenails for me and another brought her stuffed osteoblast. :)   It added a wonderful personal touch and I think really made the audience identify with the scientists.

8) You may have to stress that you will NOT post any of their figures, etc.  I mean, we all obviously know you won’t, but people like the reassurance.

Other tips:

1) Take many, many notes.  When I met with them, I was constantly typing.  This meant I shortened my usual posting time from about 90 min to under 40, I had all my notes in front of me already and clear idea of what to say.

2) Drink a lot of coffee.  I was writing up to 4 posts a night after conferencing all day and drinking all evening and I was BEAT.  At one point I actually blogging while soaking in the bathtub.

3) Don’t write four posts a night. :)   Srsly.  Two is fine.  ONE is fine!  Sci did some crazy blogging, but there is such a thing as overdoing it.  DON’T overdo it.  Often, if you’re a scientist blogging the conference, you’ve got your own professional reasons to be there.  Those need to come first.

Emails:

Original: “Dear Dr. X,

I am the blogger “Scicurious”, and I am the official Experimental Biology meeting blogger for this year’s meeting.  In addition to blogging at the blog Neurotic Physiology, where I cover topics related to Neuroscience and Pharmacology, I am practicing scientist and a post-doc at Soopr Famous Uni.  I happened upon your abstract on cardiac remodeling during pregnancy for the upcoming meeting, and I am interested in featuring your poster on my blog as part of this year’s meeting coverage, so I am writing to inquire whether you would like to have your poster blogged for the public.  If so, please contact me, and I would be glad to stop by your poster and ask you some questions.  In addition, I would like to be able to interview you briefly about your current work in a broader context, and if you have the time for such an interview, please let me know.  Thanks very much for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

XX, aka “Scicurious”

—–

Email with the article for corrections: “Hi X,

Thanks so much for chatting with me today and for passing along a copy of the poster!  I really enjoyed hearing about your research.  My piece on your work is attached.  Please let me know what you think and if you have any corrections or clarifications.  When I get the ok from you I will put it up on the blog and send you a link.

Also, if you have a university website you would like me to link to, please let me know.

Thanks again!

Scicurious

—–

Final: “Hi X,

Thanks so much for the corrections.  The post is up and can be found here: http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2011/04/11/experimental-biology-blogging-to-a-bigger-heart-and-back-again-characterization-of-cardiac-remodeling-in-pregnancy/

Please let me know if I missed any changes, and I will be glad to edit them in.  Thanks again and I hope you are pleased with the coverage of your work.

Sci”

—–

Obviously, you don’t have to do exactly what I did.  There are lots of ways to blog conferences.  This just happened to be the one I worked out that works for me.  While I admit that it is a LOT of work, I also think that there are positives to it, particularly as a scientist who blogs on the side.  Because I was probably TOO careful with making sure everyone was ok with my work, I had the opportunity to really relax around some of these scientists, and several have become potential colleagues and friends (not to mention possibly becoming readers!).  I also hope that, since this became a positive experience for many of them, they will look more positively on science bloggers in general, now that they know that we exist and know what we can do.  And maybe someday we’ll have people coming to US, asking to have their work blogged.  Hey, a blogger can dream. :)

About the author: Scicurious has a PhD in Physiology from a Southern US institution. She is currently a post-doctoral researcher at a celebrated institution that is very fancy and somewhere else. Her professional interests are in neurophysiology, specifically the interactions of neurotransmitter systems. She blogs at Neurotic Physiology and can be found on Twitter.