Monday, 28 June 2010

Bloggers behind the blogs: Mo Costandi

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the world's leading psychology and neuroscience bloggers.

Next up, Mo Costandi of Neurophilosophy.

How did you become a psychology/neurosci blogger?

Out of boredom. Ten years ago, I was doing a Ph.D. at the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, but I left the lab without completing it, for various reasons. After a short stint as a secondary school science teacher (which I didn't enjoy) I ended up working as a security guard. The job involved long hours but very little work. I had always enjoyed writing, so I decided to set up a blog. On the Ph.D., I was getting bogged down in the technical details of my experiments, and began to lose sight of the bigger picture, of why I had become interested in neuroscience in the first place. The blog really helped me to rediscover my passion for the subject, because I read and write about virtually all aspects of brain research.

What's your blog's mission?

At the beginning, its purpose was to stop me from going mad in a mind-numbingly boring job. But about three years ago, once I had built up a readership, I started thinking about earning a living as a writer. I decided to stop posting YouTube vids, quick links, and so on, so that I could focus on writing short essay-type posts. The idea was to turn the blog into a sort of portfolio, or showcase, of good quality writing about neuroscience. It paid off - various editors noticed it and offered me freelance work, and a while ago I was contacted by a wonderful literary agent, with whom I'm now working on a book proposal.

Are you also on Twitter - if so, how do the two outlets complement each other?

Yes, I'm on Twitter (@mocost), and I enjoy using it. Blogs were once thought of as being interactive, but in fact they're quite static. Twitter, however, really is interactive, and it's by far the best of all the social media websites I've used. I mainly follow researchers and science writers, and it's a great way of engaging them, as well as anybody else who's on there - my readers, editors, and even some of my favourite musicians. It's also very useful for posting quick links, which I no longer do on the blog, and for finding interesting new stuff too (although it still hasn't replaced my beloved feed reader).

What are your weapons of choice - i.e. what blogging platform / hardware do you use and why?

I started off on Wordpress.com, which I still think is one of the best blogging platforms there is. Three years ago, I moved my blog to the ScienceBlogs network, which uses another platform called Movable Type. As for hardware, I use a desktop PC, a laptop and a netbook. I've used Macs in the past, mainly to analyse DNA sequences while I was in the lab, but I've always preferred PCs.

What advice do you have for any budding psychology bloggers out there?

Write about what you know and are passionate about. Try to write regularly, but don't force yourself to update your blog just for the sake of it. Blogging should be fun, so if the mood doesn't take you, then log out and come back to it later. Building a blog takes time, so it needs perseverance, but if you know what you're talking about, you'll be recognized sooner or later. Also, read and comment on other blogs - that'll help you get noticed - and, although it's nice watching your visitor number increase, don't get too obsessed with your stats.

What blogs do you read (list up to five)?

Other than yours, Mind Hacks, The Neurocritic and Neuroskeptic are essential reading for anyone interested in neuroscience and psychology. I love Carl Zimmer's blog, The Loom, and also BibliOdyssey. There are thousands of great blogs out there, so it's very difficult to list just five. I'd urge everyone to browse my blogroll, which is full of excellent blogs that I try to read when I can.

What books or other traditional media are you reading at the moment? (up to five)

I usually have three or four books on the go at any one time. At the moment I'm reading The Phenomenology of Perception, by the existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Body, by Michael Sims. I like to buy The Guardian on Saturdays, mainly for the Review section, and have been subscribed to The Economist for about 10 years - it's conservative, but very well written and informative.

And finally, what blog post of yours are you most proud of and why?

That'd have to be my post about the pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. It's very long - about 6,000 words - but that's not why I'm proud of it. A lot of research went into that post, including reading Penfield's original papers from the 1930s, which I really enjoyed. When I posted it, there were some lovely responses in the comments section and elsewhere. Vaughan Bell - who writes one of my favourite blogs - linked to it, calling it 'probably the best article on Penfield you're likely to find on the net', and I also got an email from William Feindel, the director of the Wilder Penfield Archive, telling me how much he enjoyed reading it. Those are some of the things that make blogging worthwhile.

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