Origins – a history from Jennifer Biddle

As we hit the mid-point in the 2014 summer series, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on where this project came from, and where it may go.

Late this spring, Brandon Briggs had posted a note on facebook saying that he’d go on the job market soon and he was looking for opportunities to do full length seminars. Since I organize our school’s seminar series, I pondered it. But our series is usually set up a good deal in advance, and I realized Brandon couldn’t wait until spring 2015 to get a seminar. So it was in my head to think about giving people access to seminars. I work with the NAI, who runs their director’s seminar and workshops without walls, and CDEBI, who runs a distributed series. Then I gave a seminar through CATP, where I sat at my desk during lunch and talked to bright minds all through Canada. When I finished – I realized I had only spent 1 hour doing a seminar. From 2013-2014 I was a distinguished lecturer for IODP, and while it was an excellent experience, I flew 60,000+ miles and was away from home for nearly 2 months doing it. The CATP experience, nestled right before another week long trip for seminars, gave me the idea to start an online microbial-focused seminar series.

To do this, I turned to twitter, and to Cameron Thrash, who is a tweeting machine. I sent out a few tester tweets. Would anyone want to come? Who would be interested? Meanwhile, Cameron and I started hashing out some ideas based on the PhyloSeminar model. Within a few hours we’d set up Google+, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress accounts. All of these are free, and all were done with seminar-specific log ins so that multiple people could hold the passwords and edit things. Then Cameron and I looked at our schedules – which nicely dovetailed so that one of us was available to run things this first summer. We almost had a plan in action.

But next we had to gather speakers. Brandon was the obvious first email, and soon others got word and jumped on board. It was particularly exciting to have friends email other friends and the ball start rolling. We paid particular attention to making sure there was a gender balance, and this has been a struggle but we desire to maintain it as close to 50/50 as we can!

So is this the death of the scientific conference as Ben Temperton suggested? I hardly think so. Based on my experience of attending 5 scientific conferences and delivering something like 14 departmental seminars last year alone, I know how valuable face to face discussion is. It simply cannot be replaced. However, I also know that it takes lots of fossil fuels, money and time to make that happen. As a mother to a 3 day old son in my first year of tenure track, I adopted twitter to follow science. Since then I’ve seen how powerful the internet can be for science communication, and the beauty is – it’s free and immediate. I have friends on maternity leave – why not facilitate them doing a departmental seminar during naptime? I have colleagues at small schools that don’t have a seminar budget to fly people in – why not facilitate them accessing great research seminars for free? I’m at a marine department but still desire to do classic microbiology – why not facilitate me talking to more microbiologists?  A postdoc or graduate student may not get invited talks that last 45 minutes – let’s give them the podium! I even have friends suffering from health issues that prevent them from travel – let’s bring science to them.

When we first drafted the website, I called it the renegade seminar series, because right now, we are operating on free software and goodwill. We have no official sponsor. It was a whim of an idea, now with over 500 YouTube views*. Consider this: the average audience I spoke with in the past year had about 40 people in a departmental seminar. At a scientific conference you may be lucky to get 100 in the audience if it’s not a plenary. We haven’t even TRIED to advertise beyond shooting off tweets, and we got this far. Where will we go next? We don’t know! But know we have a google document full of interested speakers, a full schedule and talks of going international. Why not!?! Thanks to everyone who has participated so far. Please contact us if you are interested in hosting or speaking and let’s see where this goes!

*Brandon, we know about 20 are your mom. The other 480 could possibly be Mike Wilkins’s mom.




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