Five years ago: A sort of homecoming. . .at ScienceBlogs

This past week in 2006 marked the largest expansion of ScienceBlogs.com, the scientific blogging network that while not the first, certainly gave rise to the genre. Beginning with 14-ish bloggers in January 2006, a round of recruiting by founder, Christopher Mims, and community manager, Katherine Sharpe, led to another two dozen of us being asked to join SB. No surprise to many of you will be that The Blogfather, Bora Zivkovic, exhaustively detailed at that the bloggers who moved to SB or started fresh on 9 June 2006.

Many of the writers there became very good friends and continue to be among my most valued colleagues. ScienceBlogs is also where I came to know some truly remarkable professional writers such as Pulitzer prize winner, Deborah Blum, who later moved her own Speakeasy Science here to PLoS Blogs.

In fact, it was precisely because of the good things at ScienceBlogs that led to my invitation to start a new blog here at PLoS Blogs as well as move my Terra Sigillata blog to CENtral Science, the blog network of the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News. While I was among the 20 or so bloggers who left ScienceBlogs in the PepsiGate dust-up, my four years there gave me a platform that enhanced my skills writing for the general public and technical audiences and provide objective information on the often-misleading area of drugs and herbal dietary supplements. My goodbye post there wasn’t half bad.

At the other end of the spectrum I went back to look at my own ScienceBlogs welcome post five years ago. I realized how much I really like it and how much it said about me. While that was a time where I wrote under a fiercely-protected pseudonym, I wrote a rather personal story about my connection to growing up a stone’s throw from the ScienceBlogs office at Seed Media Group. Today’s pixels are coming to you from a PLoS server in San Francisco but I wanted to share with you my story of when I first went live at ScienceBlogs.

The post below entitled, "A sort of homecoming...," appeared originally on 9 June 2006 as my inaugural entry on ScienceBlogs.

Welcome to the new home of Terra Sigillata, a blog dedicated to disseminating objective information on Pharmacology, Pharmacognosy, Pharmacy, the Pharmaceutical Sciences, and all aspects of medicines from the Earth.

More later on the theme of our discussions and links to classic posts.

I thought I’d start with a brief introductory essay on coming home, under the fold…

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Seed Media Group, the host of ScienceBlogs, is located in the Flatiron District, 11 miles (18 km) from the town in northern New Jersey where I spent the first 17 years of my life. Growing up in the literal shadow of the New York City skyline, one cannot help but be awed and amazed by the grandeur of its man-made beauty. I’ve known of the Empire State Building since my earliest memories and watched the two World Trade Center towers slowly rise above the horizon in the early 1970s.

As a kid, I thought that every US city or metropolitan area had two major league teams in baseball, basketball, and hockey. The latter now at a count of three with the relocation of the New Jersey Devils to the remediated swamp called The Meadowlands Sports Complex. I thought that the call letters of everyone’s local TV stations were the same as the networks: WCBS, WNBC, and WABC.

Even the radio stations took those call letters and I fondly remember listening to a young, brash DJ named Don Imus on WNBC 660 AM more than a decade before he spawned the unnecessarily over-the-top and far less intelligent Howard Stern. My teenage years were spent in a pizza joint as a prep cook listening every Saturday evening to a four-hour show on WCBS-FM with Sid Marks, Saturday with Sinatra. My boss played this to keep the drunk and unruly kids out of the store, but I developed a deep respect for the talents of Old Blue Eyes while my car’s cassette tape deck was filled with The Clash, The Police, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Dire Straits, and Joe Jackson.

My grandfather’s boyhood home along the Hackensack River on Paterson Plank Road was demolished to make way for the New Jersey Turnpike extension for the Meadowlands. Still, he continued to take us grandkids down to the river to use bamboo poles and bread on a line to catch small killiefish which, I learned later, meant “creek fish” in the vernacular of the Dutch settlers of New York and New Jersey. We stored these lovely specimens of Cynopoecilus in freezer bags to use as crabbing bait later in the summer on the Jersey shore at Barnegat Bay. In fact, when the Hackensack was cleaned up in the late 70s, hardshell blue crabs started coming back up from New York Harbor into the brackish water. We gladly cooked and ate them, learning only later that they were still full of mercury and other heavy metals.

My last memory of my grandfather was on a trip home from my postdoc in 1990 flounder fishing off Sandy Hook with my cousin, now a deep sea partyboat captain in North Carolina. I spent most of the trip “chumming” as the wine and meal in New York’s Little Italy and beer from Chumley’s procured during the previous night and wee hours of that day became one with the Atlantic Ocean, as lower Manhattan mocked me on the far distant horizon.

Before I could drive, I rode my bicycle to the Meadowlands racetrack before and after it opened in 1976 to watch the trotters and pacers work out and handicapped the racing page of the New York Daily News until I was old enough to bet myself. We watched as the then Brendan Byrne Arena (now Continental Airlines) rose from the swamp. New Jersey’s patron saint and folk hero, Bruce Springsteen, played a six-night stand to launch the place in the summer of 1981, the year of my high school graduation. I still have my ticket stub from the 18th row of the floor.

Music and Medicine
I grew up on a hill looking south where I could see the tower of the US outpost of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Hoffmann-LaRoche, now known simply as Roche. My uncle was a facilities manager there and, from my earliest frog dissection, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and maybe work at Roche someday. As you would drive back east from the Roche campus on Route 3 at Exit 153 of the Garden State Parkway, the New York City skyline burst up across the horizon. It’s still a thrill every time I come home.

But what captured my imagination was radio. Radio, Marconi’s magnificient means to reach the masses. In the pre-internet, pre-MTV days, we actually relied on radio stations for cutting edge music and New York was fortunate to then have a long-running, critically-acclaimed album-oriented-rock station, WNEW-FM at 102.7. The musical knowledge of people like the late Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, and Carol Miller, amazed me and these people had cult-like status, drawing crowds all over the tri-state area. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of listeners hung on their word for opinions on new albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. They held our hands after John Lennon was murdered in the city in 1980.

For the popsters, there was WPLJ-FM and good old 99X, WXLO-FM. It was a DJ named Jay Thomas at 99X who first made me think of a career in broadcasting, perhaps with a career as a meterologist. I remember my Mom taking me to meet Mr Thomas at the old Gunther’s Camera in East Rutherford, NJ, the afternoon that I was crushed in the second round of a junior high school spelling bee. The autographed picture he gave me hung for years on the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame that was plastered in the basement stairwell of my childhood home together with a now-famous Rolling Stone portrait of Pete Townsend portrait with his fingers bleeding. I taught myself guitar and bass and practiced in that basement with a rock band comprised of two other classmates, my high school history teacher, and guidance counselor – true educators, they.

Music and radio – I was mesmerized by these media that could reach so many peoples’ hearts and minds and create a culture of like-minded souls. But it was my Mom’s career in nursing and the embryonic imprint of the Roche tower that led me to a career in biomedical science. I traveled for my first installment in the American South (the Ivies wouldn’t have me) then came back to give an interview seminar for a postdoctoral fellowship in that Roche tower I admired from childhood. I was offered the position but ultimately turned it down. You see, I flew directly from Newark Airport to other interviews in Arizona and Colorado where I became enchanted with the American West and Southwest – I mean, people did science out there, even won Nobel Prizes – without living in New York.

Radio, Radio
Funny thing, that radio mystique. As I became known for my research in herbal medicines, I was invited as a guest on a university AM health program. And again. Local TV called. Science journalists called. After I was a guest on a nationally-syndicated NPR health program, my sister called and laughed, pointing out how my life came full circle. I’ve since even dabbled in TV and have made friends with science journalists around the world, many of whom left the bench for a more predictable but equally-harried lifestyle. Somehow, I’ve accumulated the credentials to serve as an graduate advisory board member for university medical journalism training program – a hack scientist and accidental science writer among an esteemed group of some of the foremost minds in health journalism in the US. But, oh, how I love radio the best.

Part of my personal mission has always been to provide regular folks with health information in an understandable manner. If you’ve ever met me in a bar, perhaps with me and my brother John or T.P. at McSorley’s Old Ale House, you can be certain I’d have talked to you about cancer research. (Beer, after all, is a natural product.) This mission became more serious after I studied herbal medicines and natural products at the request of my pharmacy, nursing, and medical students – a common modus operandi in my career where the students have taught the professor many things. I was amazed but not surprised to learn that many consumers are preyed upon by unscrupulous marketers and heartless hucksters promising hope to cancer and AIDS patients.

I’d heard about this blog thing but figured that someone had already launched something in this medium about herbal medicines and dietary supplements. Unfortunately, the blogosphere was mostly populated by those hucksters and marketers. So, I started exploring this strange world and having discussions with like-minded but oddly named characters such as BotanicalGirl and Orac, among others. With their encouragement, I started writing on my sister’s birthday last year, mostly so I wouldn’t forget my bloganniversary. The hits started coming, the blogroll links, the carnivals, and the quotes. Then the call to come up to ScienceBlogs.com came from Katherine Sharpe…on my birthday.

Like the late environmental author and hellraiser, Edward Abbey, I now struggle with my need to live in two worlds – the wilderness of the American West & Southwest and civilization, my love for cities, especially New York City. In 1968, Abbey wrote near the end of Desert Solitaire,

“Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time I am attempting to make the best of two. After six months in the desert I am volunteering for a winter of front-line combat duty-caseworker, public warfare department-in the howling streets of Megalomania, U.S.A. Mostly for the sake of private and selfish concerns, truly, but also for reasons of a more general nature. After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue. Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, lbkuhnikivats and other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof. I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own-let me hear the wit and wisdom of the subway crowds again, the cabdriver’s shrewd aphorisms, the genial chuckle of a Jersey City cop, the happy laughter of Greater New York’s one million illegitimate children.”

New York City, 2006
Carol Miller of WNEW-FM now reaches the world from the New York studios of Sirius satellite radio channel 18, The Spectrum. Sirius also counts Jay Thomas among its personalities. Thomas, an aspiring actor during my childhood, left 99X to become the deli clerk on Mork & Mindy, had a regular role on Cheers, and co-starred in Mr. Holland’s Opus. But he’s back in New York, also on Sirius. Like Edward Abbey, a grizzled and cranky Don Imus and his wife keep a ranch in New Mexico to provide wilderness opportunities for kids with cancer, but he can be seen around the world on MSNBC doing his show from New York City. The media may have changed, but not the need for communication and the sharing of stories and culture.

And now I write for you, all over the world, via a server that sits in New York City.

It’s great to be home.

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