15 June 2010

Why I Blog: Jessica Ball (Magma Cum Laude)

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Guest post by Jessica Ball, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geology of SUNY University at Buffalo.

Jessica Ball standing on a cinder cone of Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy (Photo courtesy of Jessica Ball).

I love writing. I also love geology – volcanoes, especially. But writing research papers is an activity for a limited audience, and there’s only so long my friends and family will listen to me ramble on about volcanology. So what’s a girl to do? Start a blog, naturally!

My first experience with science blogs was an opportune one; two and a half years ago, I had just finished applying to graduate schools, and I was nervous about the whole prospect. I wanted advice on how to survive in the next level of higher education. While I did have some friends who’d gone on to grad school, I also found myself turning to the Internet to see what practical-advice resources existed for incoming grads in geology. What I ended up digging up were a few science blogs written by professors and graduate students in other disciplines. I liked the style and ease of the writing, and the way the bloggers shared their experiences and gave advice.

But the blogs I found were on computer science and biochemistry, not about geology – so I decided to fill the gap and start my own blog, Magma Cum Laude, about what it was like to be a grad student in geology. (More specifically, volcanology – hence the terrible pun I chose as a title*.) The scope of the blog has expanded somewhat; I write about my grad school experiences, geology topics that interest me, and occasionally current events (though mostly ones pertaining to volcanoes). I also post photos and descriptions of the places I’ve visited, which involves less writing but is just as fun.

Blogging has opened up an entire support network. The ‘geoblogosphere’ has grown immensely since I began writing Magma Cum Laude, and it’s full of Earth scientists who study a huge variety of subjects and are at all points in their careers. I never would have come into contact with them had I not started blogging. If I need help with a topic or an opinion, they’re always there to contribute, and often they have suggestions that I never would have thought of. Since many of the other geobloggers are further along in their careers than I am, they’ve also been very helpful when I come up against problems that they’ve already gone through. (Helping me decide which graduate school was a better fit was the first and most important one – I picked a program and colleagues that felt right over a more attractive geographical setting, and I haven’t regretted it yet.)

Posting to a blog is an excellent way for me to hone my writing skills, which I think are among the most important tools a scientist can have. After all, science is great for its own sake, but it should also be meaningful to non-scientists – and if you can’t tell people why your work is important, they’re not going to be very supportive of it. Blogging is a way to communicate that’s accessible, understandable, and attention-getting. It’s exciting for me as well, because I can talk as much as I want about volcanology. (Have I mentioned that I think I’m starting one of the coolest careers out there?)

I’ve had some great opportunities come up since I started blogging. I’ve written articles on volcanology for Geology.com and Earth Magazine, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak with K-12 students about Earth science. Doing presentations for kids is one of my favorite outreach activities related to blogging, because the more of them I can get excited about geology, the better! My professors and peers have been very supportive as well; I even had one compliment me on the Geology.com articles, since her introductory geology class was able to use them as primary sources for a research assignment.

I’d definitely recommend blogging to any scientist – Earth science or otherwise – who’s interested in improving their communication skills and reaching out to an audience beyond the lab or the classroom. The point of geoblogging is to get people excited about geology – all aspects of it, from lab to field, scientific to aesthetic, and especially the fun parts. It’s a chance for us to show why we love what we do, and to dispel the stereotypes that people have about scientists. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world that I get to both study volcanoes and write about them, and I know there are other geologists out there who feel the same way about their field.

*If you’ve ever wondered about the title of my blog, it comes from an old geology pun: Does an excellent student of volcanology graduate magma cum laude?

–  Jessica Ball, PhD candidate, Department of Geology, SUNY University at Buffalo