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 _Social_ is probably the last word that people who know me well (Hi Mom!) would use to describe me. But being one of those pesky _millenials_, I was born too late to ever get to know the (academic) Dark Ages intimately, i.e. the pre-internet past. That, and my abysmal high school diploma, which made sure that no university would accept me for studies in the two years after finishing school – afforded me lots of spare time for _professional social networking/instagramming_, or _blogging_ as it was called then. So I came, somewhat naturally, from blogging about my daily routines to writing about my adventures in the lab, studying and doing science. At some point in ~2008 this developed into the idea of doing a joint science blog with Philipp, then my fellow student of biology, now my co-conspirator on _openSNP_. Being good students we came up with the blog’s title, _Beerology_, after a couple of those I assume (nope, the pun doesn’t really work better in German). Writing about our studies, the latest scientific papers we had read and about the political changes in European Academia not only helped in learning about other perspectives through comments, but also in more tangible scientific experiences. Besides regularly meeting up with other blogging scientists, it also helped in getting around a bit, like like my trip to the _Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings_ in 2010. Many of the friendships formed on these trips are good and lasting. In the best case allowing me to Erdős-esk crash on couches around the globe, re-visiting friends wherever the academic life brings me to. This already means the world if you’ve been on the research-travel-circuit for long enough. However, it probably won't convince everyone of the benefits of social media. Especially not if you're dealing with people who for example complain about things like _professional instagramming_. So let’s instead turn to the metrics that scientists care about: getting publications out. According to Google Scholar I’ve (co-)published 12 manuscripts since 2012. Why is this relevant in the context of discussing the benefits of Social Media for your research? Well, just looking through these I find that OVER 40% OF MY PUBLICATIONS WERE ONLY EVER WRITTEN IN THAT FORM THANKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA. My Master’s degree in Ecology & Evolution nicely explains my work on plants/fungi/fish/rabbit poop (yes, that’s a thing). But my work on bioethics and personal genomics is not a natural fit to my professional education, to say the least. And this is because those were developed completely independently, to a good extent even while I was still finishing up said degree. First, there are the two publications on family-wide personal genomics and crowdsourced personal genomics. These go back to Philipp and me finding the work by @manuelcorpas on these topics more or less accidentally on Twitter & Reddit. Some tweets & emails back-and-forth later I was not only sitting on a plane to the UK to meet in person & discuss how to improve our project _openSNP_, but it also led to two very cool papers, with one of them even being the second-most influential paper in that journal for that year. In a similar way the collaborations with @EffyVayena go back to Twitter as far as I can tell. Besides working on participant-led research, we also did a large survey amongst the users of _openSNP_, collecting very useful data on our cohort, which is being analyzed and written up right now. It’s hard to overstate how useful these connections have been and still are, especially given that I was still early in my career at the time of embarking on those collaborations. Usually you don’t easily get the opportunity to form international collaborations as a Master’s student. But thanks to social media you might as well, especially if you want to connect with people outside your own narrow research field. Because if it was not for social media, I probably would not have been doing some social science. So the TL;DR is: SOCIAL MEDIA ISN’T ONLY GREAT TO FIND PEOPLE TO TALK SCIENCE TO, BUT ALSO TO FIND PEOPLE WITH WHOM YOU CAN ACTUALLY DO SCIENCE.
We can consider ourselves lucky. We live in a „dreamtime” of abundant and easily accessible knowledge, the importance of which is hard to overestimate. The advent of the internet democratized the availability of information, and made long-distance communication essentially free. Before, even simple tasks like finding academic papers meant browsing through volumes of reference works, often only to find that the article of interest is only available through costly interlibrary loans. The chance of never stumbling upon something that could have been useful was in no small part a matter of luck. Interacting with researchers and the public was infrequent and limited. The digital revolution eliminated these constraints – but there are new challenges ahead.The way scientists are doing things has fundamentally changed, yet the status quo and the inequality of the academic landscape is largely unaffected. Papers published in the so-called „glamour journals” are on average somewhat better, but tend to get several magnitudes greater number of citations than those published in more modest periodicals. Though the accessibility of the top and mid/low-tier journals is now basically the same, yet the Matthew effect of science still persists. The dramatic increase of research activity is at least partially responsible for this. For example in 2015 about twice as many articles were indexed in PubMed, as in 2005. Since the amount of information is overwhelming, scientists need to go out of their way, and seek unorthodox ways to increase the visibility of their research, The widely used „publish or perish” phrase is now almost obsolescent – without using novel means to stand out of the crowd one can easily publish and perish. Research published by the top dogs of academic publishing is made sure to get the limelight, by promotion through e.g. popular science news sites, accompanying editorials, and influential newsletters. However, less prestigious venues usually don’t have the same resources. Even if you are a really successful scientist, chances are that most of your papers won’t end up in the elite journals. This means that to scientists need to go DIY, take action, and reach out towards their audience - and this is where social networking sites can be game changers. Effective use of social networking services certainly goes beyond posting selfies with posters and blurry images of the keynote speech. All the different services have their own strengths and weaknesses so finding the best way to your audience requires some experimentation. Twitter for example is selective if not aristocratic, having a handful of key influencers at the top, and a vast number of users with modest followership. So unless you have influential followers to boost your visibility, your tweets will likely to remain unnoticed regardless their quality. However twitter is great for learning how to be succinct – 140 characters really isn’t much after all. In contrast, reddit is more "democratic": find a relevant subreddit for your content, submit, and wait for the collective decision of the community. Only the quality of your submission matters, its irrelevant whether you have just registered or you have a 20-times gilded account with a karma of 1M. But what if your article would be too technical to follow for a broader audience? Do what the top journals do – write a short perspective piece about it, highlighting the main findings and importance of your study using layman’s terms, give it a expressive title and share it as a blog post (e.g. medium is a good venue for this). Unfortunately, undergrads/grad students are rarely bombarded by requests to deliver keynote speeches at conferences at sunny resorts Thus, junior researchers should embrace alternative ways to connect with other scientists working on their field, and professional networking sites like Researchgate or Academia.edu can be of great help. These sites make it easier to follow the activity of other researchers, share paper, presentation, or raw data, ask/answer technical questions, review papers and preprints, and ask others to scrutinize yours – so all in all interact with your peers, hone your communication skills, and if all goes well establish collaborations. In summary: social networking sites (both academic and of general) offer some much needed leverage for early career scientists, spark collaborations, and can reduce the infamous Matthew effect in science. The scientific community should utilize these non-traditional forms of outreach more actively, which should be reflected by the graduate school curriculum as well.
Graduate school is notoriously lonely- so I’m on Tinder. And so is the rest of my lab. I’ve seen your profiles, guys! For those unfamiliar, Tinder is a dating app that allows you to very simply browse mates by viewing pictures. You swipe left if you don’t like what you see or right if you do. It’s a social networking site in that it allows you to sort through other people nearby and interact with only those that also swiped right on you. All people, not just grad students apparently, get lonely so Tinder represents a relatively diverse cross section of the population. I’ve met people on Tinder with professions from house painter to software developer to professional clown (swipe left, swipe left!). Now as far as social media goes, it is generally well integrated into my professional life. My advisor is active on twitter, regularly posts on her blog, and encourages us to use online platforms for everything from notebooks to lab organization. We are a modern lab. But this social media communication that we typically practice, such as live tweeting conferences or posting on ResearchGate, ends up being almost exclusively scientist-to-scientist communication. While students should be sure to integrate this sort of communication into their work, most of the world is not populated by scientists. Most people are house painters, software developers, clowns, etc. and my time on Tinder has taught me how utterly incompetent we are at communicating our work with them. As a bioengineer with an emphasis on genetic manipulation, I tend to get a pretty formulaic response from new people. “Oh wow, bioengineering. Miss smarty pants over here.” There’s a certain level of pedantic shock and surprise when you’re young, blonde, female and a PhD student in STEM. This is usually followed by some joke, always pertaining to possible nefarious activities that I might be undertaking in the lab. “What kind of super virus are you cooking up?” “Resurrect any dinosaurs lately?” When I first started talking to people on dating apps about my career, I was shocked by how many assumed I was getting a PhD in Evil. Most people go into my field with the intention of curing cancer, not causing vast global plagues. But our portrayal of scientists in pop culture as generally a little whacked in the head, and superstitious fears of GMOs explain a lot of this. Many people have no picture of what a scientist, bioengineer, or other STEM professional looks like outside of the general stereotype of an old white man with crazy hair. We have done a terrible job showing non-STEM folks that we can be women, people of color, queer, etc. And we have failed in communicating the motives behind our work to them. Tinder has put me into contact with more diverse groups of people than any other social media platform. My list of Facebook friends and Twitter followers is full of scientists like me, but I swipe right on people from all walks of life. Over time, I’ve developed an elevator speech for my work that I can give to non-scientists. I’ve figured out ways to define complicated topics like horizontal gene transfer in metaphors that make sense to a broader audience, ie that bacteria swap genes like Pokemon cards. I’ve become able to talk about complex biological engineering with people who haven’t taken biology since the eighth grade. And these new skills from late night chats and many, many first dates, have improved my science communication skills vastly. I have translated them into speaking clearly with possible funding agencies, improving my K-12 outreach, and describing my work to broader media outlets. But I shouldn’t have had to learn this through Tinder. If we ever hope to see strong funding for science, public understanding, science-conscious policy making, and true diversity in science, we need to shift our communication style. We need to learn in the course of our studies how to communicate outside of our special little STEM club. There is a world of house painters, software developers, and clowns out there that is curious but hopelessly uninformed. We’re the experts and the onus is on us to be able to keep them in the loop by including them in our target audience for communication. We have the luxury of knowing how to find answers in databases, understand primary literature, and think critically about data. Joe from Tinder never learned this stuff. It’s our job to make sure that when we publish a paper, we blog about it in a way he can understand and that is still accurate. It’s on us to ensure that this makes it to media outlets that he uses. And it’s our job to make sure that when we match with him on Tinder, we know what to say.
I started a Twitter account in 2010, during my first year of graduate school, because I was told I needed to. Not by my graduate program, but by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). I had just been accepted to be an official “neuro-blogger” for the SfN conference – an annual gathering that draws over 30,000 attendees. The requirements for outreach were minimal: at least one blog post per day during the conference, preferably within our assigned “theme”. Additional postings were encouraged and Twitter accounts were mandatory.
As an undergraduate network science researcher, I use social networking platforms to keep abreast of cutting edge research and publications in my field, engage in larger conversations with leaders in my own and adjacent fields, and enter into personal conversations that have extended beyond social media and into real friendships and mentorships. These opportunities did not exist in the same magnitude before the advent of modern social media, nor did the analogous version of these opportunities have such low barriers to entry. Because of social networking sites, I have had to the opportunity to expand my peer group, mentorship circles, and overall access to the frontiers of numerous fields of academic research far beyond what was available at my own university and social circle. As a senior in college, trying to figure out what academic path I should take after graduation, the conversations I have had with both groundbreaking academics and PhD students alike, across a broad range of scientific fields, from architecture and urban planning, computational biology, particle physics, and natural language processing, to name just a few, have been extremely fruitful in guiding me toward a broader perspective both in terms of my personal and professional trajectory, and my active research project. For my senior thesis, I am working on a computational and mathematical epidemic model for the spread of the Zika Virus. While my thesis advisor has been tremendously helpful in providing me support and guidance and answering my questions, I have also gained a significant amount of my current knowledge from following the right accounts on Twitter and reading the articles, both general and scholarly, that they tweet out to their followers, as well as the ensuing conversations that occur with other experts on their profiles and the larger social media sphere. When trying to develop a model for the spread of the virus, I stumbled upon papers and comments discussing the spreading phenomenon of memes on twitter and then witnessed their spread firsthand through the very discussion. An experience like that gives deeper and fresher insight into the underlying science than just diving into journal articles with techniques and ideas that are at least 6-months old. Rather than detract from this phenomenon, by alleging that it is without precedent and not in the spirit of scientific discovery, or that it may only serve as a distraction, I embrace the shift to lively discourse on these social networks, where everyone from the top academics in the field, to students, to interested lay-readers can contribute their voice to the conversation and join together to create a vital spirit of science, discovery, and discourse that is the heart of modern scientific research. Improvements to the ad-hoc social networking that is currently done in science could include introducing semi-formal discussion forums that help to foster a sense of community and enrich the discussion by situating it within a digital place and time rather than the current seemingly random diffusion of ideas. This random diffusion is still very valuable and should not be disregarded, but can be enhanced by adding this second, organized component. Cultural attitudes that need to change center around the majority of academics’ disregard of social networking sites as silly and not part of ‘real science.’ Ways to adjust this attitude would be to engage in campaigns on campus to bring more academics into the social media fold by creating accounts with them, showing them relevant sources and people to follow, both within their field of expertise and the larger scientific and popular discourse, and slowly chipping away at the inherent bias against engaging in meaningful discussions online.
They say that life is full of surprises. That is the understatement of the moment, especially as it relates to the integration of social media within our career trajectories. It is difficult to imagine where I would be in a professional capacity in the absence of social media. My journey in the world of social media began over four years ago, where I facilitated the development of an educational blog known as Emergency Medicine PharmD, which is aimed at defining the role of the emergency medicine pharmacist. My involvement in the blog has allowed me to unite several passions of mine in one vehicle: research and lifelong learning; writing in both scientific terms and prose in the form of storytelling; and emergency medicine pharmacy. At around the same time, I created a professional Twitter account as a means of disseminating newly published entries from the blog to those who followed me in addition to sharing articles and interesting posts related to the practice of emergency medicine pharmacy. In serving as associate editor of the blog, having authored over 75 educational entries since its inception, and through my active engagement on Twitter, my contributions within the world of social media has propelled my professional career as an emergency medicine pharmacist in ways that I never thought could ever be remotely possible. I realized early on that social media can be leveraged for research purposes and to date, I have had formal publication of three research papers in the medical literature related to social media and pharmacy. With this, I have also been able to interact with several other individuals within the international community of emergency medicine clinicians and collaborate on blog posts and podcasts on various topics as well as participate in research studies and other such activities. Last year, I joined a team of emergency medicine pharmacists from around the country in producing an online curriculum called the Capsules series, which is focused on creating educational modules related to practical pharmacology for the emergency medicine practitioner. One of my greatest achievements to date has been being elected to serve as incoming chair of the Emergency Medicine Practice and Research Network of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, where I will take the lead on various activities throughout my term on behalf of more than 1,000 members of the network in this national organization. Finally, in their provision of prescriber and patient education related to medication safety, the Food and Drug Administration (yes, THE FDA) cited one of my own blog entries as a featured reference in a recently released drug safety warning. That was the icing on the cake; to have a major federal agency cite my own writing on an education blog in their efforts to enhance medication safety was not only a “mind blown” moment for me, but it also reflects a turning of the tide, demonstrating that our contributions in social media can be influential on the grand scale – and that you never know who may be following your work in these outlets. These opportunities serve as conversation starters of the penultimate question related to social media: “What’s next?” There is room for improvement in this medium. We need to begin to develop those discussions with folks who may be of the “traditional” mindset, particularly those who may serve on promotion and tenure committees, on the value of social media in professional development in a manner that they can understand and appreciate. No longer should it be conventional to scoff at social media for all of its associations with frivolity and “time wasted”, which has been a traditionally held attitude in the past. As more and more academics, researchers, and clinicians professionally engage in social media, it is also important to recognize the opportunities that arise as a result of their involvement. In addition, social media is not without its shortcomings, not unlike any other medium where information is shared, and one area is in the lax peer review process. There can be any number of methods for conducting peer review, whether it be pre- or post-publication, of material that is open access and available for wider web of readers and users. If this is conducted as a means to enhance the accuracy and quality of information shared within the resource, it may facilitate presentation of the medium in such a way that members of promotion and tenure committees may recognize and value, and perhaps become more receptive in accepting these materials as scholarly activity in the same manner as traditional print publications. Suffice it to say that social media is indeed here to stay. The window of opportunity in the world of social media is wide, and through these improvements, research and discovery can progress to support and further the work of contributors of this movement.