23 June 2010

Why I Blog: Brian Romans (Clastic Detritus)

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Guest post by Brian Romans, a research geologist in the energy industry

Brian Romans doing geological field work in the Patagonian Andes, Chile (photo courtesy of Brian Romans)

I started my blog Clastic Detritus while working on a Ph.D. in sedimentary geology at Stanford University in 2006. I launched it because I enjoy writing and sharing things I think are interesting, especially within the geosciences. In the beginning, the blog format seemed like the online equivalent of putting magazine articles on a bulletin board outside your office. Someone walking by can decide if they want to stop and read more – but what’s great is that anyone in the world with an internet connection can “walk” by my blog. Blogging was also a way to take a break from writing my dissertation (or procrastinate). The casual and conversational style of writing felt effortless compared to the rigor of technical writing.

Only a couple months into starting the blog I quickly came to appreciate one of the most valuable aspects – interacting with other geoscientists in a whole new way. As I commented on and linked to other people’s blogs, a social network began to develop. That was nearly four years ago and the web of people I interact with online now is significant. Besides a love for geology, the only thing the people in this network have in common is communicating that passion online. The result is an extremely rich diversity of disciplines, scientific interests, stages in careers, experience, locations, ages, backgrounds, lifestyles, political views, and so on.

When I started Clastic Detritus I was a graduate student. I’ve since completed that stage of my career and currently work as a research geologist in the private sector. I am quite careful to keep my blogging separate from my job: I never blog about what I do on a daily basis and certainly never discuss or show any of the technical work I do. I know there are others who work for governmental entities that also face this issue. But I hope this doesn’t turn people off from starting their own blog. A blog need not be a diary chronicling every personal detail of your day.

So, what do I blog about? As an active researcher in my field I spend a lot of my time writing, reviewing, and reading journal articles. I write posts about papers I’ve authored, brief reviews of classic influential papers, and include a monthly list of papers I’m reading. Every once in a while some great discussions get going in the comment thread. In this example, the author of the paper I highlight in the post provided further explanation of their work and he and another commenter “met” and made plans for future collaboration. This type of interaction has been incredibly beneficial for building my own network of peers and potential collaborators. One example is being invited to guest lecture and help run a field course in sedimentary geology at the University Centre in Svalbard last year. While interacting online should never replace conferences and other scientific gatherings, it can be a great addition to traditional methods of networking.

In my current job I also have the opportunity to teach workshops and training courses, but not as often as I would like. I enjoy teaching, and feel that with the appropriate effort, a blog post can be an effective medium for educating. I’ve received feedback via e-mail from professors and grad students telling me they enjoyed a certain post and it made them think about a geologic problem a little differently. One example of an exchange where students have thanked me for taking the time to explain something is this post discussing specific criteria for interpreting ancient sedimentary deposits. I’ve also received feedback from interested non-scientists telling me they have learned something valuable from my blog. For example, when a reader asked me to help identify and interpret an interesting rock I posted it as a “geopuzzle” and the community helped answer the question. Afterwards, the reader e-mailed me thanking me for the learning experience. If I get only one e-mail like this every several months, it makes the effort worthwhile.

I know there are probably many people in the AGU community who may not get the whole blogging thing and are already stretched very thin in terms of the amount of time to devote to reading and writing blog posts. The geoscience blogosphere’s greatest qualities are its diversity and broad scope, which also means that, depending on one’s interests and background, the signal-to-noise ratio might seem low at first glance. I’ve recently started a weekly review of a handful of notable posts from the previous week in the geoscience blogosphere, which might be a good place to start. The unfiltered web can be daunting but there is a community as dynamic and active as any and there are opportunities waiting for those who put in a bit of effort.

Blogging makes me think about my science, it has improved both my technical writing and teaching skills, and has led to meeting a lot of great people. And most of all, it’s fun.

— Brian Romans is a research geologist in the energy industry, author of the blog Clastic Detritus, and a member of AGU since 2004