Dan Barkin

Bloggers to talk science

Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2007 

The Web 1.0 didn't work out so well for Anton Zuiker. No surprise there. The crash of the dot-coms at the end of the past decade took down a lot of companies, including the startup where Zuiker was working.

Web 2.0 has been a different experience for him. Zuiker hasn't become a bazillionaire and has a rather traditional day job -- manager of internal communications at Duke's medical complex. But if that's all he did, you wouldn't be reading about him here.

The Web has evolved into a tribal Internet of passionate bloggers like Zuiker, and he has become a sort-of local brand. He's a quiet visionary. He's a low-key doer. He's a let's-get-together-and-see-where-this-goes guy. It's the Zuikers of this new, interwoven world who may play a significant role in determining how far Web 2.0 goes from being a sociable network to a social force.

What made me think about this is the science blogging conference that Zuiker has co-organized with Bora Zivkovic, a blogger and Ph.D. candidate. (Zuiker credits Zivkovic with the idea for the event.)

This will be the second annual North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, and it's scheduled for Jan. 19 in Research Triangle Park. You can find a link to the conference Web page by going to http://blogtogether.org. You can also go to http://wiki.scienceblogging.com/scienceblogging, where you'll find a link to a sensational list of science blogs.

If I'm a high school or college science instructor, I am hauling myself and my smartest students to this conference. This is one fascinating dimension of the Web, making it possible for communities of scientists and those with an interest in science to easily connect, share ideas, argue over theories and data.

Some background about the 37-year-old Zuiker: He and his wife worked in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific in the late '90s. The URL of one of his blogs, mistersugar.com, came from the name he asked his students to call him, because they struggled with Zuiker (pronounced Zie-ker). Zuiker, he told them, came from the Dutch word for sugar.

After the Peace Corps and the dot-com bust and a magazine job in Ohio, he came to the Triangle with his wife, Erin, who was getting a master's at UNC-CH's School of Public Health. Zuiker became a graduate student himself, getting a master's in medical journalism at UNC.

A couple of years ago, Zuiker and several other Triangle bloggers began to reach out to other bloggers in the region to talk about everything from the techie part of creating a blog to content, style and their wide-ranging interests.

The group became BlogTogether.org and would have periodic gatherings, barbecues and even a bowling meet-up. For the past three years, the group has had annual conferences. The first year, it was a general conference of Triangle bloggers. The second year, a podcaster-themed, daylong session. The third year, science blogging.

Here's what's happened: 60 percent of the people who have signed up so far for the 2008 conference are from out of state, including participants from California, Canada and Sweden.

Institutions are paying attention to what Zuiker calls a "new way of talking about science." The conference is getting support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which gave what Zuiker said was a "very large grant." Sigma Xi, the prestigious scientific research society with Nobel laureates on its rolls, will open its RTP building for the event. Pretty impressive, from what started as a friendly blogger meet-up.

dan.barkin@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4562

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