Category: Social Media

Are There Any Sci Comm Superheroes Among Us?

You cannot do everything. Neither can I, none of us can. A few weeks ago I attended both the Science Online and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conferences. An issue that kept coming up in discussion is how to be better at science outreach and communication. For scientists and communicators (and the many people who are both) it was clear to see that everyone wanted to be better. But, I noticed people getting frustrated, and sometimes even a little heated when it came down to the nitty gritty of HOW to be better.

No one person or group is, or can be, solely responsible for science communication. Science communication is an ecosystem that includes journalists, writers, bloggers, comedians, cartoonists, artists, video and audio producers, storytellers, social media enthusiasts, and scientists. What unites us is our end goal, we all want to share a love for science that explains, while also exciting people about science. How we go about achieving that end goal is different for all of us – and it needs to be. I would argue that the reason the science communication ecosystem has evolved to include so many different types of communicators is because we have a need for different voices communicating about science in different ways. The more quality communication out there, the better.

That doesn’t mean any one person can be a regular sci comm superhero and do it all. I can’t be a journalist, writer, blogger, artist, comedian, cartoonist, video and audio rockstar, etc. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for that. I don’t know anyone who does, and communication is my main focus. I think it’s a little bit crazy to expect scientists to be scientists and also communicators, but on top of that layer on every type of communication. You alone can’t reach everyone, that is why we need all of us out there communicating in different ways. It is the only way we can reasonably expect to reach a wide audience.

Credit: Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve seen a lot of conversation lately about the idea of scientists writing lay friendly abstracts for their scientific papers. I’ll be the first to admit lay abstracts are helpful. I recently sat with a researcher who made a graphical abstract to represent the research in pictures, it was awesome. But, I’ve seen the lay abstract idea get pushed even further into scientists writing full articles for the public. Where do we draw the line? If all the scientists get out there and start writing lay-friendly whole articles for publication in the mainstream…well then what the heck am I supposed to do all day? This isn’t about jargon (please, please, let’s not have the jargon fight again) I certainly don’t think that all scientists are bad at communicating. Some are very good at it, and some aren’t so great. But you know, I would be a lousy scientist. I’m not trained to be a scientist, those aren’t the skills that I have. What I am trained to be, is a writer.

Writing well is something that requires certain skills and know how, in addition to a little bit of talent. It is something that develops over time, the more you write, often the better you’ll get at it. All of the other modes of communication, audio, video, etc. include their own skill set. Sometimes I feel like people take for granted that everyone should be able to write and communicate well. There is a distinct lack of appreciation for the level of skill and dedication it can take to communicate well. That’s not to say people can’t learn how (or that for some, it will come much easier than it does for others) – but the same way I can’t just snap my fingers and be a great scientist, I don’t think you can just wish to be a good communicator and make it so. It takes time, which is the one thing that is in short supply for all of us.

I don’t want or expect scientists to do my job for me. I want to write, I just need the help of scientists so that I can. One thing, in my opinion the most important thing, that scientists can do to be more involved in outreach is to make themselves available to science communicators so we can ask our questions and then synthesize the material for a public audience. It takes time to sit with a writer, I know, but it is time well spent. It is also time that doesn’t require developing an entirely new skill set.

If scientists have the time to learn how to communicate well and then get out there and do it, that’s great. Direct from the scientist themselves communication is awesome. I value it highly. But I also don’t think it’s fair to expect scientists to do their job and then also do my job. Not when being a scientist is itself basically two jobs because in addition to being a scientist, most are also professors and teaching itself is it’s own career. I’m all for stepping down from “the ivory tower” but that doesn’t have to mean becoming a master communicator yourself. Outreach, like communication, comes in many shades.

If you don’t think you have the skills to write well, and you think your time could be better spent elsewhere, then fine. If you’d rather give a talk for an audience or demographic that you normally wouldn’t reach because that’s what you feel comfortable doing, then do it. If you’d rather sit with a journalist for an hour and just talk about your research so that they can go get the article in the media, then great. If the best way you think you can reach the public is by joining twitter and then adding value to conversations about your field of expertise, then do that. If you want to sit in front of your computer and film a short video of you summarizing your work, do it. I’m all for doing something, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything.

I’ve said before in blog posts about learning to code, that I don’t think journalists should be required to excel at every different type of communication. Try, sure. Try out new things. Try new ways of communicating and reaching people. Be open. But there is a difference between trying new things to see if you enjoy or are good at them, and a blanket expectation that you have to use every single means of communicating out there. Similarly, I don’t think you can expect scientists to do every different type of outreach. Some outreach, sure. Scientists can be open to new things too, and try them out to see how they fit. But just like I don’t enjoy code, some scientists might not like Twitter. It’s okay to not like Twitter. I choose to communicate in ways that I am good at and enjoy. I love Twitter, that’s why I use it. I don’t see why scientists shouldn’t have the same rule of thumb when it comes to outreach. There are so many different ways to get a message to someone. We need all of the ways, and we need different people to try them.

I’m not a sci comm superhero. I don’t do it all. Mostly because I like to sleep, and I like my sanity but also because I’m not very good at certain things. I can’t draw to save my life. You’re never going to catch me trying to be a sci scribe. I’m okay with that, because drawing isn’t how I communicate. It’s not what I do, and it doesn’t have to be. Scientists don’t all have to be writers. There are other ways to get your message across without having to be a sci comm superhero. I’m not saying don’t try, but let’s just be realistic here. Yes, scientists need to communicate about their work, but I’m not going to expect scientists to communicate in every way when I don’t even do it myself.

You don’t have to do it all just to do something. Even if that something is just talking to someone who does want to write, that itself is a positive step. So maybe, rather than trying to do all the things all the time by ourselves, we could just try to do a few things, and rely on each other to fill in the gaps. That way we as the science communication ecosystem can reach the most people in the best ways. Is that too idealistic? Maybe. But I can hope can’t I?

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Introducing The Scientist of the Month Segment

Science For Six-Year-Olds is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do. 

Hello first graders, welcome to Science Decoded! I am so excited to be writing posts just for you this school year. We are going to have a lot of fun blogging together, because we are going to have a special year-long spotlight on who scientists are and what they do. We’ll have our first Scientist of the Month in October, but before we do I first want to find out what you know about scientists. 

What do you think a scientist looks like? Are they all wrapped up in a laboratory like this person on the right? How would you describe a scientist? Are they smart, funny, kind, brave, patient, or happy? Do scientists get to have fun? What do you think scientists do all day? How old do you have to be to be a scientist? Are scientists boys or girls or both? Do any of you know anybody who is a scientist? What are they like?

The reason I wanted to do this segment for you is because scientists aren’t any one thing. Yes, they are all bound together by the fact that they very systematically analyze information to learn new things. But scientists are a very diverse group – they are lots of different people, with many different interests and backgrounds. Scientists also study all kinds of different things. A scientist can study plants, animals, cells, chemicals, energy, the way things move, medicine, space and how to build or put things together in addition to a lot of other stuff! 

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are important to all of us, because they work hard to try to figure out things about the world that we don’t know. There used to be a time when people didn’t know that all living things are made of cells, but today we know so much more about them and have learned that understanding what goes on in cells is critically important. What are some of the things that you know about that scientists have discovered? Do you know the names of any scientists? 

I hope you have had a good time talking about who scientists are and what they do. I’m really looking forward to introducing you to some great scientists and helping you learn more about what it means to be a scientist. Our first scientist is a paleontologist and geochemist (don’t worry, we’ll learn what that means) but in the meantime if you have any questions for me, feel free to leave them in the comments. 

I’m not a scientist, I’m a science writer. I went to school to learn how to research, report on, and write stories about scientists and what they discover. But, even though I’m not a scientist, helping share scientists’ ideas is my specialty. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that with these posts!

The SA Incubator: Helping Hatch Science Writers Since July 2011

I am a baby chicken. Not literally of course, but figuratively speaking I am a little chick of a science writer. Fledgling, if you will. Continuing with this analogy, I recently left my incubator in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and am now out in the world looking for work as a journalist. It is tough out here for a baby chicken, and any clips and exposure you can get have tremendous value. This is why I think it is downright wonderful that Scientific American has a blog in their network dedicated to new and young science writers.

Borrowing from the blog’s about description, the SA Incubator is, “a place where we explore and highlight the work of new and young science writers and journalists, especially those who are current or recent students in specialized science, health, and environmental reporting programs in schools of journalism.”
USAGOV-USDA-ARS via Wikimedia Commons

USAGOV-USDA-ARS via Wikimedia Commons

On the SA Incubator you can find profiles of new and young science writers, links to interesting work from these science writers (and others) chosen by the blog’s editors, profiles of student run science publications, and other assorted posts on topics of interest to writers who are just getting started.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a science writer who doesn’t aspire to see their name in Scientific American. Speaking from personal experience, having a profile dedicated to you and your work on a Scientific American blog is a thrill. It was an experience that I enjoyed so much that I wanted to learn more about why a publication like Scientific American would set aside such a great space on their network for someone like me. What is in it for them?
To answer that question, I turned to the Blogfather himself, Bora Zivkovic. The SA Incubator is written by Zivkovic, who is the Blogs Editor at Scientific American, and Khalil Cassimally, community manager of Nature Education’s Scitable blog network.
How Big Can It Be?According to Zivkovic, there are a lot of reasons why the Scientific American network includes a blog about new and young science writers. One reason is the network’s size. When it launched in the summer of 2011, I remember being struck by the sheer volume of awesome that is included in Scientific American’s blog network. While it is a large network, there are still limits on how many blogs can be included. The cost, time and effort it takes to manage the network are obvious reasons why there would be a limit, but Zivkovic also pointed out that some of the value of having a network in the first place comes from it being of a limited size.

One of the coolest things about the Scientific American network is the diversity of writers and topics. If the network got any bigger, it would be difficult for the average person to read all of the posts. If the number of posts becomes daunting, the reader’s habits will change from browsing to more targeted reading. “Instead of at least occasionally checking out all of the bloggers they only focus on their favorites (some readers always will, but at least some don’t) – thus the ‘network effect’ for bloggers is diminished,” said Zivkovic.
What does that mean for the SA Incubator? There simply isn’t space for everyone to have their own blog on the network. Therefore, creating a blog that includes a lot of work by a lot of people is a way to increase the number of voices in the network without it becoming completely overwhelming. It also gives Scientific American a chance to bring new members into the family of bloggers without diluting the existing community too much. According to Zivkovic, this helps maintain a balance between keeping the network fresh and diverse while still keeping it coherent and friendly. For the new and young science writers it is difficult to compete with more seasoned bloggers for a space in the regular network. The SA Incubator gives new and young writers a space where they can participate and be seen and heard without taxing the network.
For new and young science writers, the SA Incubator is also a way to have a presence in the network without having to take on the full responsibility of having your own blog. Zivkovic explained the juggling act new and young writers perform: “Many of the youngest writers are still in school, too busy with class assignments, or are in internships, or are too busy breaking into freelancing to be able to blog with regular frequency.” The SA Incubator gives these writers the opportunity to get noticed without adding to the stress and demands of finding your way as a journalist.
Getting Over The Wall, and Getting A Job
Another reason to include a blog for new and young science writers is because the job we do is so important, but so competitive and difficult to break into. There is a big difference between a general reporter and a science writer; the more skilled science writers we have out there, the better. When I think of science writers I admire and the good work that they do; good to me meaning factual, nuanced, interesting and true; I’m inspired and intimidated. Inspired because I really believe science writers can make a huge difference in helping people understand and appreciate science, and intimidated because the bar has been set very high. The more people we have out there combating the bad science coverage by debunking, clarifying, and explaining, the better.
When journalists talk about this we tend to refer to it as the Push vs. Pull strategy. Essentially, it is the idea that if the general public isn’t drawn to science stories on their own (pull) perhaps we can bring the science stories to them wherever they are (push). To be able to be able to pull people into places where they can access science content and also push out science content everywhere we can, we need a large well trained work force. Increasing the profile of new and young science writers and helping them get the opportunity to do this job is the value of the SA Incubator.
According to Zivkovic, helping get new and young science writers hired is part of the joy of running a blog like the SA Incubator. If you are looking to hire a science writer, you can find them at Scientific American on the blogs homepage, in the weekly linkfests, in the ScienceOnline interviews, on the Guest Blog and on the Incubator. As Zivkovic said, “Hire away! Let the good young writers infiltrate the media giants and transform them from within.”
For Zivkovic, giving new and young science writers a hand really is about community. To understand why, he recommended reading and watching Robert Krulwich’s commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011, which I too recommend. Krulwich talks about how to get over the wall that new writers face. The wall is what separates you from the journalists who actually get to do what you want to do.
Zivkovic isn’t a trained writer, but he started blogging about science back in 2004 anyway. He was invited to a blogging network in 2006. His job as Blogs Editor at Scientific American? Yeah, safe to say his blogging had something to do with that. This success story is something he attributes to the science blogging community. Blogging is what got Zivkovic over the wall, and now he is running the SA Incubator to help people like me figure out a way to pull themselves up over that same wall.
“These people became my community, my second family. It is that community that helped me every step of the way. They cheered me on. They hit my PayPal button when I was jobless. They pushed for me to get hired. They keep coming to ScienceOnline, they hug me at tweetups, they submit posts to Open Laboratory, they say Yes when I invite them to join the SciAm blog network, they were there for me all along and helped me climb over the wall. It’s payback time. It is now my turn to help others climb that wall, too.”
That is why he gets to be the Blogfather.
We’re In This TogetherAs if that isn’t enough, Zivkovic mentioned one other reason why he thinks the SA Incubator has value for the Scientific American blogs network, the concept of horizontal loyalty. Horizontal loyalty is a phrase borrowed from the Krulwich talk I mentioned earlier (seriously, go read it…after you finish this.) It is making something of yourself alongside people who are also trying to make something of themselves. Do it together. Make something. Be something. For Zivkovic, this is very much a part of why the SA Incubator exists.

“It is not so much about helping new writers get jobs in old media companies (though that helps pay bills for a little while). It is about helping them find each other, build relationships, build friendships, build start-ups, build a whole new science writing ecosystem that will automatically do both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ and reach everyone and displace bad science reporting from the most visible areas of the media, while providing them with a living,” says Zivkovic. “This requires a lot of them, but they need to know each other and work together toward that goal.”
So there you have it. The SA Incubator: Helping Hatch Science Writers Since July 2011. Creating a community for those of us who so badly want to be out there working alongside the more established writers to tell what I think are some of the most important stories there are. I was truly humbled to be counted among so many great science writers and be given a space on the SA Incubator. I wrote this post because I’m grateful for the chance to be included, but also because I really believe having a space for new and young science writers to connect and promote themselves is important. Baby chickens (and baby science writers too) all have to start somewhere.
Now, if you are a fellow fledgling science writer I know what you are thinking. You are thinking how can I get in on this? You can start by following, subscribing, etc. on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. You can start commenting on the blogs in the Scientific American network (Zivkovic reads all the comments.) You can also go the direct route and just introduce yourself. Send an email, pitch to the Guest Blog, or send Zivkovic a link to some of your work. A direct message on Twitter would work too; you can find him @BoraZ.

Social Media Tips from the Software Side of Things

This semester I’ve been taking a class in social media. For some people it might seem like a silly concept to sit for a few hours every week and talk about tweeting, but there is a lot that goes into being strategic online. By implementing some of the ideas I’ve been exposed to this semester I’ve definitely seen my social media presence grow. People actually say things to me on Twitter these days (@erinpodolak) and I’m starting to network, which is important since I’m currently in the market for a job. I’ve been doing a lot of listening on Twitter lately about how to use social media effectively, and how it can help you professionally. There are several schools of thought about these things, so to learn more I decided to ask someone who already has the job they want.

Kevin Newton is an eBusiness Software Architect for Serigraph, here in Wisconsin. He writes blog posts for his company to help maintain their social media presence, in addition to using social media as an individual for both personal and professional purposes. I’m constantly hearing people say that they have a Google+ and then don’t use it (which would be my answer) but Newton says he uses Google+ almost exclusively for personal purposes, which is something I honestly haven’t really considered doing. Newton has found value in LinkedIn for business, which I’ve heard some very mixed reviews on, and then uses Facebook as a mixture of the personal and professional.

Professionally, Newton has noticed that when blog posts go out on his company’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ accounts there is a flurry of activity. They have gained new clients from this, which is a direct return on investment for the time they put into social media. How much time is that exactly? Newton says that for a few hours of effort each month, they see direct value coming from social media.

I recently posted about Facebook and asked whether or not it was a good idea to transition from a personal page to a professional page, or whether I should try to have both. For Newton Facebook became a hybrid because contacts from his personal life and his professional life both wanted to connect using the platform. However, he stressed the importance of watching what you do online particularly when you have contacts from different parts of your life all coming together.

“Where it has a bit of both I try to be very direct in my posts and my responses,” says Newton “There are too many risks with things you cannot control when you have a mix. A friend that I have not spoken with for 20 years posts a rude picture or comment and it reflects poorly on me, so I try to distance myself from those risks.”

I think this is a good point, and not only if you are connecting with people from long ago. Even people who are currently a part of your life can post something inappropriate (or at least with the people that I know) so it is best to always be monitoring what appears on your profile. From my semester’s worth of studying social media, the answer I have heard consistently regarding appropriate Facebook content is that you’d rather be safe than sorry. You don’t want to lose job opportunities for a friend’s comment.

Since I am currently among the hoards of people out there looking for a job, I asked Newton what kind of value social media has for those of us actively engaged in job searching. Newton advocated LinkedIn to help get yourself in front of employers, but he warned that you need to have the content to back up whatever skills you are offering potential employers or clients.

“You have to have something credible to speak about and you have to post often for it to be effective,” says Newton.

Newton also noted that in addition to having something of value to say, it is also important to be helpful. Answering questions is a way to establish yourself as an authority on a topic (so long as you have the right answers) and get noticed for what you know. One way you can accomplish this (which I’ve said before is currently the bane of my existence) is by commenting on other blogs to help people out. Although, Newton did caution that if you are currently employed you might want to check with your employer before jumping into the social media scene to offer advice and tips about what you do.

Tweeting at the Science Museum

When I was in the seventh grade I got “lost” in the American Museum of Natural History while on a field trip. I got distracted in the Hall of Gems and Minerals and next thing I knew my group was gone. Following the directions drilled into us prior to departing from our middle school cafeteria that morning, I saw my English teacher with her group of students entering the hall and wandered over to her to announce the obvious, “I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” I was quickly reunited with the correct group and the day passed without other incident.

This memory has to be similar to memories held by students all over the tri-state area who have made the trek into the museum’s halls. Places like the American Museum of Natural History, or even The DaVinci Science Center where I would find myself interning nearly a decade after my adventure in the Hall of Gems and Minerals are special to me because they hold such great memories of exploring science as a kid, and helping kids explore science as an adult. I’ve always looked at science museums or science centers from that kid-centric lens. But these places have a lot more to offer, particularly for adults and I think one way science museums and centers can reach adults is through social media.

I’ve noticed this particularly since I started following the American Museum of Natural History on Twitter. Social media presents an enormous opportunity to connect with different types of people, and I feel like the American Museum of Natural History in particular is reaching a wide audience and making the most of having a social media presence on a platform like twitter. This isn’t just marketing to soccer moms and elementary school teachers, not with over 91,000 followers. I mean I’m neither of those things and they’ve got my attention. I wanted to share a few things that I’ve noticed about the @AMNH‘s twitter stream that make me think whoever is behind the keyboard over there gets it.

A screenshot of the @AMNH twitter page. I love their background!

A screenshot of the @AMNH twitter page. I love their background!

1. Offering the why, not just the what – Any organization can operate a twitter account and fill it with plugs for their programs. What an organization does is important, but why they do it is more important. The why is what is going to keep people coming back long after that single exhibit they were originally interested in has moved on. While the AMNH account certainly tweets about reserving tickets to special exhibits, the majority of the tweets offer the why. There is actual information to be had here, like this piece on archaeology on St. Catharines Island. Is it promoting the museum? Sure the post’s writer David Hurst Thomas is the curator of North American Archaelogy in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. But is it offering information you wouldn’t otherwise have? Sure. It is also providing depth to a topic that perhaps wouldn’t have drawn many people to the museum, I mean it’s hard to compete with the blue whale. It gives you a sense of who the people are who work for the AMNH. Which in this case, I think could turn a one time visitor into that person who comes back again and again.

2. Tweeting about other things – Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo has a new baby aardvark, and the Google Science Fair is currently accepting entries. These two things have little to do with one another aside from the fact that I learned about both from the @AMNH twitter account. Tweeting about things other than yourself tells me that one there is a real person behind the account, and two that person is interested in the science community not just getting people through the doors. I like that. It makes me trust not just the information in the twitter stream, but the organization itself.

3. Variety – Even when just dealing with tweets regarding the museum’s own content, there is a tremendous amount of variety in the @AMNH twitter stream. There are picture galleries, videos that explain different of topics, podcasts, hashtaged tweets about lectures or talks, and replies to individual twitter users. There is information about the people who work at or are involved in the museum when they are covered in the media. It all adds up to creating a feeling that this is about people. In terms of marketing, I think this strategy really works because it highlights all the people and topics that the museum is involved in, which makes it seem personal and approachable rather than simply like a box office.

There are plenty of other examples I could give about how a science museum could use social media, or even about what I’ve observed the American Museum of Natural History doing. They are clearly involved in a lot and have embraced social media and the interwebs. But for now, I encourage you to check them on Twitter for yourself. Whether you have kids or are a kid at heart who still gets butterflies entering the hall of African Mammals, a person who just has an interest in science and related topics or cool stuff, or are looking for an example of how to run a professional twitter stream I think there will be value in it for you. The @AMNH is #doingitright and might be worth the follow.