Credit: D. Quinn
The Wikipedian Geobiologist
Before Alice Michel began her senior year at Caltech, the Wikipedia page for her major, geobiology, was a short and rudimentary entry—"woefully incomplete," according to Michel's academic advisor, Professor of Geobiology Alex Sessions. "It was a bit of an embarrassment to be part of a scientific field that couldn't even manage to explain itself on Wikipedia," he says.
Michel needed to fulfill Caltech's scientific writing requirement, so she and Sessions decided to expand the Wikipedia entry for geobiology—a relatively new discipline that works at the intersection of life and Earth sciences. The project and article have drawn attention from the Los Angeles Times and the WikiEdu Foundation. We sat down with Michel and Sessions to discuss this unusual project, how it came to be, and its importance for inspiring and educating future geobiologists.
How did you come up with the idea of rewriting the geobiology Wikipedia page?
ALEX SESSIONS: The idea sort of emerged spontaneously one day when we were talking about her courses, and Alice was saying that she was not so excited about taking the required technical writing class because it was focused on engineering. Earlier that week I had noticed that the geobiology Wikipedia page was very brief and focused heavily on just a few idiosyncratic ideas, the kind of thing that makes you think nobody had put much effort into writing. I suggested that Alice could take three units of independent study with me and rewrite the geobiology Wikipedia page to fulfill the technical writing requirement.
ALICE MICHEL: I thought it was a great idea, having seen before that the article was really short and described something a bit different from my impression of geobiology. The article's "major geobiological events" section jumped from bacteria's role in the rise of oxygen to dinosaurs' role in shaping rivers. We felt it needed a bit of filling in with more attention to all of life's inventions throughout Earth's history, such as the role of the vast diversity of microbial metabolisms that alter the geochemical environment and affect elemental cycles. Still, it was nice to have the basic framework, and we kept the major events section. One reason I was drawn to geobiology originally was because it is a field encompassing evolution, the history of the earth, the rise of oxygen, and so many more fascinating topics. I think I kind of lost sight of this big picture as I took more focused classes, so it was really good to use this project to take a step back again.
You both have extensive backgrounds in geobiology. Was it challenging to write for a general audience?
MICHEL: It was fun to try to write for the public. Writing a Wikipedia article requires a different tone than your average term paper, one that I hadn't used probably since high school, so that was simultaneously relaxing and challenging. But at the same time it was intimidating because anyone can read Wikipedia. The hardest part was figuring out what to include and highlight. Hopefully it's a helpful starting place for the general public and for other geobiologists to add to.
SESSIONS: Geobiology is a relatively new field, and to many outside the field it is not entirely clear what it is all about. People intuitively understand geology, or astronomy, but… geobiology? This is exactly what Wikipedia is so useful for, that quick reference to orient and educate yourself about a subject. One of the biggest challenges Alice faced, though, was that not even the experts agree on what exactly geobiology is. For example, paleontology—the study of fossils—is a clearly related but much older and bigger field. Is geobiology a part of paleontology, or vice versa? So in addition to the challenges of translating scientific concepts for the non-expert reader, there was an important element of trying to find some consensus in a lot of diverging viewpoints, as well as being diplomatic. We didn't want to alienate anyone in the field.
What was your process in writing the article?
MICHEL: We had weekly meetings to go over the plan, what I had written, or the figures I was thinking about including. It was a great opportunity to get to talk to Professor Sessions about what geobiology means to us and to try to come to some clear definition that captures what geobiology accomplishes as a whole, even though in practice it is a really varied field.
All the professors in the geobiology department helped. To pick which things to include I went back through my notes from Ge 11b (Intro to Geobiology), taught by Professors Fischer and Kirschvink [Woody Fischer, professor of geobiology, and Joseph Kirschvink, Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology]. Delving deeper into each section, I drew on summaries of classes and conversations with everyone in the department and the books that Professor Sessions lent me. The pictures that I used as figures were provided by Professors Sessions and Grotzinger [John Grotzinger, Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology; Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair, Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences]. Also, other undergraduates in the division helped me think about parts of geobiology that I wanted to include but didn't know much about, like geochemistry-relevant aspects, and others helped me proofread it. So it really was a group effort!
What did you learn from the experience?
SESSIONS: For me, there were a couple important lessons learned. First is the true importance of motivation. Alice immediately saw and embraced the benefits of writing an article for public consumption, versus a term paper that only her teacher would read. My sense is that she went far above and beyond the bare minimum effort needed for this assignment, precisely because she was so motivated by the value of what she was producing. Second was how difficult it can be writing about a scientifically technical subject for consumption by a general audience. The cliché really is true, that you don't realize how little you know until you have to teach it to someone else.
I think this is a great example of just one of the benefits of having such a low student-to-faculty ratio at Caltech. These kinds of direct and creative learning interactions are much more feasible. The whole exercise worked out so well that word spread, and this term I have another GPS student signed up to write another Wikipedia page.
MICHEL: Writing the article was a really fantastic opportunity to get a broader sense of geobiology. I had the chance to think about parts of it that were new to me and revisit which aspects I like the best.
It also got me to consider science in general from the perspective of an outside public who is unaware of what goes on in the basements of these universities, and to try to reason why geobiology might matter. This is hard because it's always tricky to think about why theories about ancient history are relevant to the public. But I guess I do think they're relevant. It is important for society to understand a little of what scientists do, and Wikipedia is a nice platform to bridge that gap. It would be really cool if our article helps some high schoolers who are, like I was, confused about but interested in geobiology. I'm really happy and lucky that I got the chance to work on the Wikipedia page, and I hope future students will also get on Wikipedia and make the geobiology article, and others, better!