“So, what do you actually do?”

Jul 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Since leaving “the bench” I get a lot of questions about my work. I’ve written about my fellowship with Mozilla Science here before – the work is outside what I imagined for my career path, and very different from what I did during my nine years of bench work. I work on projects that advance open science. But the term “open science” doesn’t mean much without context. So, what do I actually do?

Open science means different things to different people. It’s an umbrella term that encompass a bunch of other ideas, research practices, and movements. To me, advocating for open science practices working to increase the transparency of science and people’s access to science.


Under the umbrella: Open science includes using open source software or other tools that make research more transparent and reproducible. It includes creating inclusive environments and working to address equity and inclusion in the profession of science. Open science means sharing your work in a way where it can reach people, including sharing preprints of publications, posting data to data repositories, and sharing code (example of code and data shared together here).  Citizen science — when research is conducted with the participation of the public — is open science. Engaging in public communication about science and the creation of open educational resources can empower the public with a better understanding of what we do, and can begin to address equity and inclusion when diverse audiences are on consulted and considered. Open science encourages publishing in journals that are freely accessible to all, so anyone can read your work. Open access publishing enables access to knowledge and helps to dismantle the systemic gate-keeping has that has  disenfranchised scholars from communities and regions of the world, for too long.

Importantly, you don’t have to be already doing all these things to be an open science advocate in your field on at your institution. Some institutional IP policies restrict open source software development.Grad students often don’t get to pick where they publish, and supervisors often push for prestigious, pay-walled journals.  Resistance to preprints remains, though that’s changing. (If you can’t publish preprints of your work, you could start a preprint journal club to send authors feedback during the publication process.) Through my fellowship with Mozilla Science, I’ve trained people in how to use open source software, developed curriculum, discussed policy around open access and data sharing at institutions, and tried to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations about where science is now and where we want it to go.

So, what do I actually do?

My fellowship team is distributed, so we travel once a quarter to work together. These work-weeks are both an opportunity to work in the same room, and a chance to engage with the community where ever we are. I just got back from a trip to South Africa, which is the last big trip I’ll do as a fellow. On this trip, the 2016 Mozilla Fellows for Science and Mozilla Science lab joined Mozilla Science staff and special guests Chicago Hive’s Kenyatta Forbes and new Kent State faculty and 2015 fellowship alum Christie Bahlai! Together, we are research scientists, data scientists, community managers, and advocates for open scholarship practices. We gathered for a week of discussion, workshops, and exploration in Cape Town, South Africa where we were graciously hosted by Spin Street House, an inspiring co-working space in downtown Cape Town. I’ll break down this trip as a week-in-the-life of a Mozilla Science fellow and open science advocate.

Travel: Cape Town is about as far from the West Coast of the USA as you can possibly get, so I’ll skip the part where I flew for over 24 hours to get to Cape Town. Teon and I arrived a little early and prioritized finding the best coffee in Cape Town.


Monday: On Monday, I woke up in Cape Town after spending Sunday hanging out with my fellow-fellows Teon Brooks, PhD and Bruno Vieira. We’d checked out the Etherpad, which is an collaboratively editable document where we work out the schedule for the events and activities, to prep for the week. We pinged the people we knew in town and made some last minute invites to our event on Thursday and Friday.  I had a few people I was hoping to connect with. One was Jeremiah Pieterson, a librarian at University of Cape Town and an advocate for open access to scholarly work with SPARC Africa, who I met in 2015 at OpenCon in Brussels. And another was Mmaki Jantjies, scholar, advocate for women and girls, writer, and Head of the Department of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape.

We started the week with coffee and an introduction to Kenyatta Forbes. Kenyatta is the Community Manager at Hive Chicago and, like, so so much more… more here, here, and here. She joined us in South Africa to learn about our curriculum and process, and we were excited to have her there to learn from her and gain her perspective on our challenges. Although we need community buy-in to accomplish anything in academia – whether it’s launching a new course, to changing a policy, to challenging the status-quo – we don’t often learn the skills that can help get things done. One spectacular thing about this fellowship has been the emphasis on community. Working with Kenyatta for a week, I learned tools and exercises from her that’ll help me better document what’s happening and be constructively critical of my vision for community in open science.

Tuesday: Funding is on everyone’s mind. There have been eight Mozilla fellows so far, and of them three have stayed (or will stay) in academia. While the five that are no longer in academia aren’t applying for research grants, most of us are still engaged in the non-profit world to some degree. On Tuesday we devoted time to discussing the funding landscape for nonprofits, the pros and cons of becoming and nonprofit, and where our projects might fit into the landscape. Well truthfully, as the fellowship as almost over, this conversation started on Sunday as soon as we’d had coffee and continued for the entire week. Looking for funding is like dating? Or is it like applying for a job? How do you network, when you’re a little bit desperate, without appearing desperate? We tossed around a lot of metaphors and ideas, but my fellow-fellow Kirstie said it best when she commented “The most important principle is to look for connections you can build between people, rather than looking for stuff for yourself.”

Wednesday: This was a ten month fellowship. At the beginning of a ten month fellowship, it seems long enough to accomplish almost anything. At the end, it seems like it was barely enough time to start. On Wednesday we worked on our talks for Thursday evening’s event, spent time to document our fellowship projects, and discussed ways of communicating our work. To this end, we worked on resumes of all our fellowship projects and events – check out my fellowship resume (I am inordinately proud of the emojis).

Thursday: We took a half a day off to visit Robben Island, but the ferry was not running due to rough weather. We opted to tour around Cape Town instead!

We then returned to Spin Street House to prep for the Working Open Workshop (WOW). The workshop sessions on Friday are designed to help participants learn more about our curriculum, run through how to teach the material, and discuss their communities needs. Thursday evening was reserved for lightning talks and mingling!

Steph getting the party started at our Working Open Workshop kick-off party.


Lightning talks from fellows and participants kept the energy high on Thursday night. Christie talked about using other people’s data to teach research data management and analysis, Teon talked about democratizing access to science through open source, open hardware, and the Do it Yourself or DIY ethos. I shared my perspective on playing the long game in my local community. Bruno enlightened us all about the volume of genomic data in the world today and discussed growing his online open source community. Kirstie described her thought process through setting up her new lab at the Turing institute and assured us all that while she sounds very fancy she is just faking it until she makes it. And Jeremiah Pieterson of SPARC Africa told us about how libraries are advocating for greater access to scholarly resources and knowledge across Africa.

Friday: In the past, WOWs have invited participants to bring projects to in-person workshops to progress through a series of sessions designed develop open science, open community, and open source initiatives. In South Africa, our goal was to work closely with a small group of community leaders to train and catalyze them to disseminate the Working Open Workshop modules (or the spirit of the WOW process)  in their own communities. As the fellows and staff in attendance are all based in the global north, we have worked mainly in large well-funded Western universities.  We can’t tell participants what will work in their local South African scientific and scholarly communities and were eager to get the perspective on what works and what doesn’t in South Africa. We tried to create welcoming spaces for our participants to connect with each other and talk about their communities, their priorities, and their visions. We worked together to create definitions of the terms we use, like “open”, that are meaningful for our participants.

Collaborative definitions of Open in South Africa:



Cape Town Working Open Workshop participants and session leaders!

At the end of the day, we made friends and learned from each other… and then had a fantastic dinner where bibs were required!

So, what do I actually do? It’s some teaching, but on my best days it’s probably more learning than teaching. It’s a lot of writing (and rewriting) of grants, talks, papers, and informal communication (like blogs and tweets). I run workshops and give a lot of talks – I can now give a talk with almost no preparation. On the highest level, I try to understand people’s perspectives and needs so that I can connect them and their projects to new colleagues and collaborators. I try to help people find the tools and resources to do their best work. I advocate for research practices – skills, workflows, cultural norms – that will make for a better and more inclusive future for science. And, sadly, the fellowship is almost over. Through this fellowship experience I’ve been able to prioritize developing “soft” skills like communication, public speaking, strategic planning, and project management. For now, this is the type of work I want to keep pursuing. I want to keep working with scientists to work for the future of science. I’ll keep you posted on what’s next!

*Parts of this post is repeated on the Mozilla Science Blog… because there’s only so many hours in a day.

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