It is an early Sunday morning in mid-January, and I have been at Science Online for three days. I haven’t slept more than four hours a night since I got here. I have had 17 units of alcohol. I’ve met roughly 200 new people. I have never talked so much in my life. Last night, I did something expensive, painful, and permanent. My right hand is shaking just a bit, and I want to kill that god-damned rooster outside the hotel.

But, to understand how I got here – how I wound up an over-stimulated, under-rested, hot mess – we’ve got to go back about one week…

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I’m making lists while packing for my conference trip. I love lists. There’s a list for the suitcase and another for my purse. I’ll leave my husband with a list, but that’s just to manage my neuroses. He’s an eminently capable father and the kids will be just fine. I lay out my clothes for each day. I wonder about the weather. I check Twitter to see what the other girls are saying about their banquet outfits. It will turn out later that I needn’t have worried. There will be everything from jeans to cocktail dresses, but today I’ll try on a half dozen things and change my mind at the last minute anyway. I’m traveling with technology, too. This is Science Online, after all. Tablet, Kindle, iPhone, chargers – they all go in the bag. Ironically, in all the time I will spend in North Carolina, I will use my computer only to check on my flight.

As I dither over whether to risk metal knitting needles through airport security, I wonder about the people I am going to meet. Some, like the Deep Sea News bloggers and the inexhaustible Stacy Baker, I have been following online for over a year. They’re the ones that turned me on to Science Online with their post SciO11 reports and tweets. Others, I became aware of after registration, and the Look Who’s Coming list was published. Registration should have been my first clue that this conference was something completely different.

By luck, I happened to have a free moment at work when the first registration window opened. I refreshed the page, entered my info, and paid in less than two minutes. By the time I printed my receipt, the first wave of registration was sold out. I felt elated, and I had no idea why. This Science Online was to be my first and I had no concrete expectations. But, an awful lot of people wanted to go. Badly.

Three days out from the event, I confirm my flight and my hotel. I look up cabs and local food. I cruise the blog pages and watch the clock. The next few days go by slowly and with mounting excitement as registrants post their memories of SciO11. Inside jokes abound. The #DSN crew has quite a rep.

On the morning of my flight, I am tense. I hate flying, and I don’t care that it is safe. I don’t care how many millions of people do it each day. I don’t care how many planes take off and land in the US in an hour. I hate it. But, in order to get to Science Online, I have to get on the plane. So far I have managed to get my work to pay for this trip, schedule the time off to go, and arrange to have my parents help out at home. If I have to drown my phobia the instant I get to the airport, I will.

The workday crawls along at a glacial pace. I’ve been obsessively reading Bora’s post on the Unconference Community, trying to get my head around what Science Online is like. When I first heard about it a year ago, it sounded like a great opportunity to get caught up on current events in science research, in a way that ed conferences typically don’t address. Education conferences are generally about ‘best practices’ and take-away sessions that can add to the curriculum. They mention advances in research as curious add-ons – something to discuss if time in the classroom permits. Time never does. Science Online also seemed like a good way to explore blogs as a resource for my students. Well written blogs can highlight information in an accessible way for a general audience. Peer reviewed journals and research reviews are typically a bit out of reach for the average high schooler. Now, days away from my first SciO experience, I am having doubts. It is obvious that Science Online is not a spectator sport. It relies heavily on the input and participation of its attendees. And, who am I? I’m not a blogger, I’m not a journalist, and I’m not a researcher. I’m a science teacher. When I finally board the plane, I am feeling like a kid going to her first summer of sleep-away camp where all the other kids have known each other for years.

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… So here I am, on Sunday morning, a bit wrung out as I pack my bags to go. College was a long time ago, and I’m not in strong fighting form anymore for this kind of thing. Not the late nights, not the schedule, not the deluge of information. But, next year I’ll be ready. From the moment I touched down at RDU, I’ve been mistaken about every aspect of this event.

To say that Science Online is a conference about communication is accurate, but inadequate. In the last three days, I’ve learned to make doodles into dynamic narratives. I’ve discussed blogging as a genre. I’ve talked about how students at every level are unprepared to manage the scholarly landscape. I’ve heard from adolescent bloggers looking to recreate Science Online for their peers. And, I have cartooned a session on Mel Brooks as a philosophy of writing. My conversations with fellow attendees were by turns passionate, dense, funny, vehement, enthusiastic, excoriating, commiserative and supportive. Science Online is a science-punk Wonderland of drink-me-knowledge that makes me small, and eat-me-understanding that makes me giant.

In my room, each night – exhausted but too ramped up to sleep – I try to sift through the slurry of information and ideas. I know that I’m going to lose most of it, but what I’ll take back with me is the urgency that online communication is critical for science at every level. There’s a lot of work to be done in defining what role online communication should play. Open Science takes on echoes of Napster when researchers and students have to navigate pay-walls for articles. The sometimes contentious relationship among science journalists, science writers, and science researchers highlights the jockeying that can happen when dollars and recognition are at stake. Issues of feminism and diversity are reflected in the blogosphere as much as in any other aspect of academia. But what has been clear in every session and conversation is that solutions for clear, constructive communication come from within the community, and will be built out of what each of us brings to the table. From the pages of the New York Times to a class on blogging Extreme Biology, every one of us has something to offer. If it seems like I’m completely geeked out over this, it’s because I completely am. This conference has turned me on to a side of science dialogue and education that is immediate, accessible, and above all, relevant.

I want to close by taking some space to mention a few people that helped make these three exhausting, stimulating days amazing. I can’t wait for next year.

(Do I need to put the ‘this list is not all-inclusive’ disclaimer here? OK, here it is.)

Dr. Rubidium. The first actual SciO12 face I saw. Her enthusiastic welcome at the airport set the tone for the next three days.

Kevin Zelnio, whose onstage presence at the open-mic made me too shy to talk to him later but whose writing has the casual honesty of an old friend.

David Manly, a quietly funny science writer from Canada with a passion for dinosaurs. He made me laugh, and that doesn’t happen a lot.

Cedar Riener, who listened very patiently to my babblings about education, and who is a marvelous writer and communicator on the subject.

Emily Willingham. DoubleXSci blogger, scientist, and mother. She writes with straightforward language and a candor I envy.

Danielle Lee. Irreverent and unflinching in her observations, she’s a fabulous dinner companion. Her work reminds me that the science in my own backyard is as grand as anything in National Geographic.

David Shiffman. Shark expert and conservationist, mentor to one of my own former students. His generosity and enthusiasm gives one the impression that he’s having fun every minute of the day.

Khadijah Britton, a livewire of an activist for science education and erstwhile lawyer with fearless lyrical stylings and an infectious laugh. Her personal story is as impressive as her plans for science outreach and youth.

Bora Zivkovic, the glue that holds Science Online together. I am certain that he puts this on with the help of countless people. But during the conference, he is everywhere with everyone. He never sleeps and he’s always online. My only personal interaction with him was when I hugged him on arrival, but it was a good hug.

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