Freshman’s Wikipedia work creates opportunities

Sydney South

When most people think of a biophysics conference, images of scientists and professionals with high levels of education gathering together come to mind, not a college freshman attending or even speaking at the event. One Loyola student, however, has been invited to do just that.

Olivia, an 18-year-old biology, physics and biophysics triple major, will speak at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, taking place in Philadelphia, Pa., Feb. 2-6.

She landed her invitation to this event through her volunteer work, which involves researching, writing, editing and other administrative duties for Wikipedia, the free, collaborative Internet encyclopedia.

Due to security reasons involving her position at Wikipedia, Olivia’s real name has been changed for this article.

The freshman has been involved with Wikipedia for five years, with a two — year hiatus from about January 2010 until April 2012. Olivia started as an editor when she was 12 in April 2007. Since then, she has been granted volunteer administrator status, which Olivia describes as “getting a delete button.”

However, she said she does much more than that. All of the work Olivia does on Wikipedia is unpaid and considered volunteering, as she spends several hours on most days a week working on the site.

“I do a lot of administrative work, like looking at the decisions of the community in discussions, deleting stuff that should not be there, antivandalism work,” Olivia said. “I do some dispute resolution work too, so when people get in fights [in discussion forums or concerning content edits], I try to solve them.”

Olivia has written six featured articles, or articles featured on Wikipedia’s homepage because they are the website’s most reliable content. She has written one article on cannons in a group with 10 other people, as well as a piece on the history of timekeeping devices, including clocks, sundials and other devices. On her own, Olivia has also composed several pieces about constellations.

“We have very strong policies that you have to use reliable secondary sources, you can’t do your own research and put that in,” Olivia said of writing and researching for an article. “You basically find out everything you can and distill it into an article.”

She also participates in Wikipedia Projects.

“We call them WikiProjects for short. They’re focused areas of collaboration for people; so it’s where anyone who is interested in whatever can work on stuff and bounce ideas off each other, create work lists or lists of resources,” Olivia said. “Anybody can edit, that’s the beauty of it. Not a lot of people realize that anyone can edit.”

She started a WikiProject, “WikiProject Women Scientists,” with Sarah Stierch, a gender gap fellow for the Wikimedia Foundation, who reaches out to women to get them more involved with Wikipedia and who tries to get more articles written about women.

The Wikimedia Foundation is “a nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual content,” according to their website, and not only operates Wikipedia but also Wiktionary, Wikiquote and Wikibooks.

“[Stierch] and I decided that there is a systemic bias in Wikipedia against articles about women and against things that relate to women,” said Olivia on why she started the project. “It was just a natural fit, since I want to be a woman scientist also.”

Her invitation to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting occurred when a female professor and biophysicist from Duke University was perusing an article about herself. When Olivia saw who was browsing the profile, she contacted the professor and invited her to join her WikiProject. Their conversation turned into an invitation for Olivia to attend the conference, engage in and help with a Wikipedia meet-up and editing session and tentatively speak to the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women about the biographies of females scientists and the importance and ease of writing them on Wikipedia. Her flight and registration fees will be paid for by the Biophysical Society.

“I can’t quite believe this is happening,” Olivia said. “It’s awesome. I’m very excited.”

The Biophysical Society Annual Meeting attracts over 6,000 attendees from over 45 different countries, including scientists, professors and other biophysics enthusiasts.

Olivia’s roommate Anne, a freshman forensic science major who is not using her last name in order to protect the identity of Olivia, shares similar enthusiasm for Olivia’s opportunity.

“It’s an incredible opportunity that someone who is 18 years old and just in college is personally invited to an amazing conference like this,” Anne said. “She totally deserves it.”

Olivia’s mother, Sue, whose name has also been changed because of her daughter’s sensitive Wikipedia involvements, said she was as excited as her daughter.

“This is obviously a wonderful opportunity for [Olivia] to, first of all, really immerse herself in the subject of biophysics and confirm, or not, that this is the field she wants to pursue,” Sue said. “And meeting other students, professors and professionals in the field will help give her a really good picture of what working in this field would be like. It just seems like it’s an important door opening for her.  She might have had the chance to attend in a couple of years, but getting to go as a freshman just seems like a jump start.”

Olivia’s involvement with the project has presented her with a unique opportunity not only to attend the conference, but to participate in a collective community.

“I’ve seen really great collaboration, I’ve seen people write great things,” she said. “I’ve seen everyone from stupid 12 year olds to 80-year-old grandparents work together and create things. [Wikipedia] gives me opportunity to work with people around the world and create a body of knowledge that the world has never seen before. I also get to share all of the cool things that I’m interested in, and that’s awesome.”


by Melanie Krohn

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