by Leslie Irwin, NOAA Research Communications Fellow (@leirwin129)
I look around at the sea of shark-inspired Hawaiian shirts, octopus necklaces, squid hats and fish-print dresses and immediately feel at home. But then I see the smartphones. Watching people glued to their screens and social networks has become the norm these days, but considering this was a professional conference, I was a little unnerved at first. On second thought, I really shouldn’t have expected anything less from a conference with the word “Online” in the title. Once in the first session, no one hesitated to open up their laptops and tablets and get their TweetDeck or HootSuite running (amazing tools).
This was the first ever ScienceOnline Oceans Conference, developed and carried out by the mindboggling efforts of Karyn Traphagen (ScienceOnline Executive Director) and David Schiffman (PhD candidate at the University of Miami and blogger for Southern Fried Science). After expressing my growing interest in science communications and writing, I was encouraged to attend and promised to learn awesome techniques and add amazing people to my network (if the Knauss fellowship has taught us anything, it’s that we need to use our network).
Holy cowfish were those promises delivered.
A list of participants was available beforehand, so I was aware of a number of prominent attendees from the science blogging and ocean research realms. Upon arrival that no longer mattered. Everyone’s names were printed on nametags, followed not by our affiliations, but our twitter handles. This immediately placed everyone on the same level, and I was no longer intimidated by going up to someone and starting a conversation. We were all peers.
This didn’t stop me from feeling ridiculous for not recognizing Karyn Traphagen the night before. But, water under the bridge, she placed SciOctopus (our mascot) on my head and snapped a polaroid that I will treasure forever.
Yes, I took a picture of the polaroid.
Twitter was to play a major role in each session discussion. There were five rotation time slots, with five sessions each. Each of the 25 sessions had its own hashtag. This way, with my newly downloaded TweetDeck opened, I could follow the discussion from other sessions online, while simultaneously participating in person at the session I attended. I was also able to tweet key learning points from my session for others to follow. The real beauty of this method meant that those not physically in Miami could follow and join our discussions. We were live-tweeting the entire conference for the world to see. Less than 200 participants got #ScioOceans trending in one day.
Kate Wing (@kwing) and Brian Switek (@laelaps) discussing how to handle conflict online #scioconflict
If I had to pick a favorite part of the conference, I would choose the Story Collider presentations from the opening reception. It was standup comedy for ocean science nerds. I can’t think of any other crowd who would have cheered so enthusiastically after hearing “So guys… I hate dolphins.” Storytelling is a great way to bring the human experience to science, and raise awareness with your audience. I was jealously in awe. Public speaking was never my forte, so I stick to writing blogs for a reason.
And if there can only be one lesson learned (here are five more) from ScienceOnline Oceans, it’s that storytelling–through presentations, tweets, photos, blogs, articles–is the key to effective science outreach.
I am beyond grateful for this experience. In only two days I’ve made friendships and connections of a quality beyond my expectations. I’ve struggled with networking in DC, a mandatory skill for success in most careers. It feels like a card collecting competition and you try to sell yourself. I felt none of that here. I was having honest conversations. I was socializing. This wasn’t work. Instead of cards, I gained twitter followers. I received positive feedback on a blog idea and some influential science bloggers have offered to help. There was a natural flow of ideas between scientists, journalists, NGO communicators, and students who all recognized that science has value beyond its presence in an academic journal.
Bobtopus, one of my new friends…
I am inspired. I am excited. I am ready to bring my creativity back into my love of science and marine conservation. I’m so impressed by everyone I met. Everyone brought something valuable to the conversation. This was the most unique conference I’ve ever attended, and easily my favorite.
My only complaint? ScienceOnline Oceans was too short.
But the beauty of the internet is that these conversations are far from over, as long as I remember to just keep tweeting…
Keep following #ScioOnline for the ongoing discussions!
View from the conference hotel in Miami