Open source science with social software

Jean-Claude Bradley talks to Jon Udell about his use of social software in research and teaching in chemistry. Bradley’s lab at Drexel uses wikis as their lab notebooks (the norm in the field is still paper). Then, they use blogs and friendfeed to share links. By sharing their work in progress, they have found people to collaborate in related disciplines. He’s working on synthesizing malaria drugs, and has found bioinformatics specialists to predict compounds to test, and specialists who do clinical trials to test the compounds they synthesize. Scientists have traditionally found collaborators at conferences; the magic of google and friendfeed expands the circle of potential connections.
The patterns of social software use were familiar to the ones used in technology and business. It’s delightful to hear about the patterns proving valuable in the practice of science. The discovery of collaboration partners is especially useful where there is the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration among people who wouldn’t necessarily find each other, because of organization structure or discipline boundaries or geography.
As a professor, Bradley uses podcasts to completely replace lectures. He uses the saved time to spend time with students in small groups and 1:1, coaching students in areas where they need help. Lectures remain a required part of the program – students need to listen to learn the material. But there’s no need to attend lecture hall.
The most unusual aspect of Bradley’s use of social software in science is his use of second life. He holds seminars and poster conferences in second life. It’s not required for students, but is a vibrant part of his teaching. Part of the value is the 3d nature of the subject – Bradley uses a special 3d modeling tool to explain chemical structures in second life. Bradley found that the avatars and social body language added valuable dimensions unavailable to text chat — avatars reveal more about people’s personality, and the virtual presense seems to make it easier to join conversations.
I was pretty surprised — and Jon Udell was also — that second life was being woven into something useful. Uses of Second Life to complement the real world had seemed more like stunts than natural augmentation of existing communication. Apparently Second Life has a strong presence in the chemistry field, with active presence by professional associations, making second life a useful way for undergrads to network with potential employers and grad school programs.
Other than the 3d modeling tool used in Second Life, Bradley doesn’t put much time into the tools. He’s happiest that social software evolution has made simple tools available to him and his students for free (they use wikispaces and google blogspot), so they can devote their technical attention to the practice of chemistry.
p.s. it’s fun to listen to podcasts during weekend housecleaning. This podcast complemented the cleaning of three bicycles. Thanks, Jon Udell and Simple Green.

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