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AAAS: Science and Social Media RECAP!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sci is back from the AAAS meeting! It was lovely to meet so many new people! And Christie and Dominique and I were delighted with the response to our session on science and social media.

While Christie covered WHY scientists should get on social media, and Dominique talked about some of the hazards and research on internet science communication, I focused on HOW. We know that we should get on social media, but what can it do for us and how can we do it?

So I’ve included my slides and the “text” (really I just kind of spoke off the cuff, but this is what I wrote down I was going to say) of my talk below, with links to all of the sites, to help you navigate the world of science and social media if you want to jump in!

Let’s get started.

Hi. I am the blogger Scicurious (I’m not sure why those XXXXs are in front of my name in the program). I’m a science writer at Scientific American and at the site Scientopia. I’m also a practicing scientist, with a PhD in Physiology. And today I’d like to talk to you about science blogging and social media, and the ways that you can use them to get science out there.

I’d like to start with a question. Do we have any scientists or science students in the room? Raise hands! Great. Do we have any scientists or young science professionals who are interested in getting and receiving mentoring or advice? Do we have anyone interested in forming collaborations? Do we have any science communicators or science writers? Excellent! Do we have people in here who like science?! Let me see them! That’s great! I love science too!

Today I’d like to talk to you about social media. In particular, the way social media can help people in science and science communication do their jobs, do them better, and help themselves and other people out.

So let’s start with outreach. Who here likes science? Let’s see those hands again.

…talk about preaching to the converted.

A lot of us like to do science outreach. And there are many different ways to do it. There are science conferences, where we can do outreach by sharing what we do with other people slightly outside our field (or even totally outside it! This meeting will have me headed to talks about stuff I have NO idea about!). We can do outreach by speaking at museums. We can write articles in science magazines. we can publish great and accessible books about science for the public. We can go to schools. All of these are great forms of outreach.

But with the exception of schools, these outreach forms have one problem. They all tend to hit people who are already interested in science. While it’s really really great to talk to those people, and those people themselves can serve as ambassadors for science, the reality is that the group is limited. You still need people to enter the science section of the bookstore and buy your book. You need the other people to become scientists to come to your conference! You need people to read the science magazines.

School outreach is a great program for getting kids interested, and in the end producing more scientists. But it fails in one other important respect: it doesn’t get the information about current scientific events to the people who need to know it NOW. To the people who are not already interested but who still need to know, who need to become interested. To the people who pay the TAXES, and who make the voting decisions, decisions about what to buy and where science will go, because those taxes pay many of us to do what we do.

So how do we get to those taxpayers? The tax payers who maybe aren’t interested in science, unless it directly impacts them? The ones who would never walk into the science section or read a science magazine? The ones who, maybe, could find out how totally awesome science really is…if only they saw it in action, or saw something they could relate to.

We can use the internet.

What about those of you who are in science. Maybe you’re not sure how your career is doing. 8% paylines getting you down? Do you have someone to help mentor you through the grant writing process? What if you don’t? Do you have a mentor at all? Someone with whom you can discuss difficult topics like work/life balance, or mental illness in the workplace? Are you, maybe, looking for alternative careers, but have no idea what those careers might entail, as you’ve never seen someone who does this?

Welcome, to the internet.

I’d like to start with a bit about how I got started myself. So back in time, back in 2008. I was in graduate school and starting to feel unsure about my life. Lab work wasn’t going very well, and I was in the third year slump where I had kind of lost my spark. I really wasn’t sure that academic science was for me.

But what else was I trained for? I mean, I could pipette, I could handle a mouse with the best of them. I had really excellent pubmed fu. But otherwise I was at a loss. So I got audacious and asked a writer at Scientific American how I could develop my writing. I thought I must be a decent writer, I won this poetry contest back in 7th grade this one time. He told me to meet this guy, Bora Zivkovic. So I went to a coffee shop, to meet someone who I didn’t know what they even looked like. It was my first time meeting someone via the internet.

It would not be the last. Bora, it turned out, was a science blogger, then at Scienceblogs blogging at A Blog Around the Clock. He was nice, encouraging, and convinced me to try something new. 24 hours later, Scicurious was born, and I wrote my first post. The happiness that I felt when I got my first TEN HITS that were not my mother cannot be described. Ten hits! And none of them was my mom!

So I continued writing. Mostly, I was trying to develop science writing for the masses. I wanted to tell people how the drugs they use really work, and what that means. I wanted to tell people what mental illness is, how we think it works, and what we are doing about it. I wanted to tell them more, how their bodies work, what we know about their brains! And I wanted to do it in ways that would get people to listen. I work very hard to make sure it’s not a lecture, it’s more about me saying “Hey! I just heard the COOLEST THING about how we process sound in crowded situations! You know you wanna hear about it!”

Gradually, as I wrote, I built up an audience, some of them fellow science bloggers and writers. They helped me get noticed, passed my posts around, and told me what I was doing wrong. Soon I was recruited to Scienceblogs. After that to Scientific American. Along the way I have gained friends and mentors and connections. Not all of them related to writing! Many of them are fellow scientists! Heck, I even have a collaboration. I got awards and books and blah de blah. And I really developed my writing skills.

And I am not alone in this! Hundreds, probably thousands now, of scientists and science writers have started using social media. Blogging, tweeting, Facebook. If you’re a writer, these things can help build your audience. If you are a scientist they can help build your network. And no matter what, they can help you communicate.

Of course, this doesn’t have to involve a complete side job. It can be on your own terms. Not everyone has to do open science or blog 3 times a week about science. But you can still use social media to help you.

Let’s take a tour.

First, blogs. They are one of the oldest forms. This is where a lot of people tend to put their longer form pieces, like essays. But science blogs are not what you had for breakfast (though they can be that too). Many people use science blogs as science news sites, where they can receive in-depth coverage of new science news, and longer explanations of complicated topics like optogenetics. Two examples here, these are the handsome and talented Carl Zimmer, and Ed Yong. Carl Zimmer writes The Loom, and Ed Yong writes Not Exactly Rocket Science (also now a nail polish color!), both of them currently housed at National Geographic’s Phenomena, along with the talented Brian Switek and Virginia Hughes, all of them talented science writers and journalists. There are also scientists who use science blogs.

Now you might think, well fine, but only people who SEARCH for science blogs and who want to find the information will! Initially, yes. But the internet these days is as much about sharing as it is about finding.

Here’s an example. This is a post I wrote two weeks ago about how our brains process silent reading. It turns out that there is significant auditory component in language areas, we “hear” the words even though we are reading them silently.

At first it only got modest views. But then it got picked up by twitter a bit. From twitter it found it’s way to reddit, from reddit it found its way to HuffPo, and from Huffpo, it got all the way to the Daily Mail. All with links to my work. And all accessible by people who might not otherwise have clicked on something about science. But they saw “reading”, and they got curious. Science started in a science blog, and made it to the masses.

So that’s one way in which we can use blogs to do science outreach. But what if you’re a scientist and you just want to get some advice? What if you just want to network?

Here you can see Drugmonkey. Drugmonkey, and other bloggers like him, including Proflike Substance and Female Science Professor. These are usually more senior people, blogging mostly about grants and the inner workings of the academic world. They are wonderful resources for information about grant writing, they know the process inside and out. They are also often good resources for mentorship, FSP writes about a lot of the mentorship and work life balance questions she gets. Not all of the people are senior. Some of them, like Dr. Becca, are just starting out. They write about the trials and travails of the job hunt, HOW they went about getting a tenure track job. Their advice is very important, it’s the advice of experience. And seeing blogs like these can do a lot to make you feel like you are not alone! They can help you share ideas and work through difficult times. I have asked other bloggers to read my writing, to read my grants, and my manuscripts. Often, they do, and the feedback is amazing. Social media can give you a network outside your immediate institution. This can be very important on the job hunt, and in day to day life as an academic.

And there’s a third kind of science blogging. This is the kind that actually tells the science AS IT HAPPENS. This is much more rare, but it’s great insight into the world of science, how it works, and how we do things. For this I definitely recommend you start with Rosie Redfield at RRResearch.

Here’s Twitter. Now, often when I mention twitter people say they don’t see the point. 140 characters they say. What could you POSSIBLY do in 140 characters. I find twitter to be useful for two things: getting information quickly, and building a network. I generally use twitter to send links out about my own writing. Many of the comments on it come back via twitter. It a major way to spread links to things I find interesting. I also use it to build my network, it’s very easy to “meet” people on twitter, the bar is very low! Just @ them and reply to something they said! Twitter, to me, is like a constantly running cocktail party, where the conversation is usually interesting and there are piles of different conversations going at once. You can join any one you want. You just follow people you find interesting, and watch the information come flowing down your screen. And twitter can be a great place to show how science is really done, and that scientists are people. You don’t have to go any further than #overlyhonestmethods, a whole group of scientists, sharing the truthful and often funny ways in which science really gets done.

Here are options called Pinterest and Tumblr. I used to think of Pinterest as where I got inspiration for my next scarf pattern and tumblr as the place I where I go for hilarious memes. But these can also be used to inspire science. By showing pictures of science, what scientists and the process of science really looks like. You can see here the example of “This is what a scientist looks like“, a Tumblr dedicated to showing real life scientists, and to breaking down the stereotype of what we think a scientist is. Scientists aren’t people who are serious in white coats. We play pool! We dress like legos!

 

 

The two videos above are examples of scientists using Youtube. One of the best ways to spread wonder of science is to let people watch. There are dozens of YouTube channels out there devoted to science. As an example here’s Joanne Manaster and her science series, which mostly involves the study of chemistry by the grisly death of gummy bears. And for the adult crowd there is Carin Bondar, who’s series “Wild sex” makes people think of biology and evolution the sexy way. Many people have started up youtube channels to spread science, and others have started them just to have some fun. Either way, you spread science.

Now, a lot of these methods of doing science outreach, or building a network, involve actively BUILDING something.

But you don’t have to do that! You can use the social networks you already use to do a little outreach here and a little networking there. Take Facebook and Google +. Both of these are social networks, where you can have conversations between people you “know”. Facebook tends to be a little more personal. Here, the difference is that you are engaging with people that, in theory, you already know. But this can also be the opportunity to lay down some science. As an example, I was hanging out with a girl I knew mainly on Facebook. She mentioned to me that she never drank decaffeinated tea unless it was herbal because it contained harmful chemicals. I wasn’t too sure about this. We looked up together how tea is really decaffeinated (by high pressure carbon dioxide soaking, or by ethyl acetate or dichloromethane), and I was able to tell her that the potential for toxicity of these methods was extremely low…and that she should really try the decaf tea I was offering. Had we not known each other through Facebook, it is highly likely that that exchange never would have happened.

Now, LinkedIn, I know many academics have told me they don’t see the point of LinkedIn. It’s true that as an academic I don’t use it much. But if you are a scientist…and you’re looking for other ways to use your talents, LinkedIn is amazing. It can help you find all the people in those alternative careers, and to find out where they went, and what they are doing. We often hear about the overproduction of science PhDs and problems about how many academic jobs there are. We know that 85-90% of us will never get that coveted research TT job. The question is…where do we GO?! As a postdoc myself, I have often wondered where all the postdocs have gone. To find them? Go to LinkedIn. That’s where I found out that one of my former grad school roommates was a medical writer, living in the city where I’m doing my post-doc no less! And I got in touch and got her to come speak to the alternative careers group on my campus.

So to conclude, I hope that I’ve shown you how scientists in and out of academia and science writers and communicators can use different aspects of social media. I hope you know that there’s a lot in it for you! A chance to develop new skills, to build a network, to acquire mentors and new experience and to broaden your own knowledge, whether that be about grant writing or about how the echidna penis works. Thank you for your time.

I’m so glad we had such a lovely audience for the session, and I was particularly proud of be part of an all female panel as we invade the internet with SCIENCE! Thanks so much for all your comments and questions, and I hope that people will get in touch with me (see contact info on this blog!) with more rants, races, and questions!

And finally, there was a beautiful Storify of the session from Lou Woodley and Laura Wheelers! Thanks so much ladies! You can check it out below.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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