Using Social Media for Communicating Science: Be Authentic and Target Your Audience

By Pooja Naik, MS

Speakers: Caitlin Vander Weele, PhD; Ana Maria Porras, PhD; Shannon Odell, BA

Image: The Social Media panelists answering questions at ComSciCon-NY 2019. Image credit: Pooja Naik.

I had never considered using social media for science communication—it was actually what I used to procrastinate working on my science—until I attended the ComSciCon workshop at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY this August.

The Social Media panel at this workshop was led by three incredible scientists. These women have harnessed various social media platforms to effectively communicate science with other scientists and the general public.

Meet the panelists

Caitlin Vandal Weele, PhD started her social media journey by tweeting about her anxieties as a sixth year PhD student–a topic that is very relatable for me as I just wrapped up my sixth year of graduate school. As a neuroscientist, Dr. Weele also shared stunning images of the brain on Twitter where they were enthusiastically received. She then founded Interstellate, an outreach initiative that promotes science through art by showcasing beautiful microscopy images from people all around the world.

Ana Maria Porras earned a PhD in biomedical engineering and has captured Twitter’s interest by combining two of her passions: microbes and crochet. She started the #MicrobeMondays Instagram series in which she features pictures of one of her crocheted microbes accompanied by interesting microbial facts. Her handy crochet work draws in more than just science enthusiasts, giving her the opportunity to share exciting information about microbiology with a wider audience. In addition, Dr. Porras believes that science communication should not be restricted to English and has a separate Spanish account to expand her audience. She highlights Colombian scientists on both of her accounts and also talks about her life as a Colombian in the United States.

Shannon Odell is a writer, comedian, and neuroscience PhD candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine. She co-hosts and produces an experimental comedy show called Drunk Science that stars three intoxicated comedians who compete to defend the best scientific dissertation to a panel of science judges. She also co-created and stars in Your Brain on Blank, an Inverse original series where she discusses how everything—from caffeine to alcohol to puppies—affects the brain.

Personalize your presence on science social media

While the three panelists differed in their scientific background as well as social media usage, they all agreed on the importance of showing your personality in a science communication forum. They emphasized how important it is to not just showcase scientific facts but also the person behind the account to really resonate with followers. Scientists are stereotypically seen as highly competent but lacking warmth–a theme brought up in the keynote address and repeated throughout the workshop. The panelists stressed how scientists can use social media to combat this stereotype by being approachable and warm in these spheres, in addition to being competent.

The panelists also discussed choosing a social media platform for communicating science. Dr. Porras claimed that the decision to pick your platform is based on content: Instagram for image-heavy content, Twitter for writing-heavy content, and Youtube for videos (though this platform usually targets a school-aged audience). Odell suggested Facebook videos to post longer videos and pull in a wider audience. They noted that Twitter and Facebook posts are easier to share and retweet than Instagram posts which could affect your audience demographics.

Dealing with controversy online

Next the panelists discussed how they dealt with controversial topics on social media. Odell advised science communicators to not engage with everyone for their own mental wellbeing and emphasized how you have to take control of what to respond to and whom to engage with on social media. Dr. Weele reminded the audience to curate their own experiences; she suggested putting in the work upfront to mute and follow accounts based on what works for them. She also directed them to her blog post with helpful tips about Twitter for Academics.

When asked if the panelists believed it was their responsibility to go out and engage with people about controversial topics such as vaccination, Dr. Weele cautioned people to be self-aware of what they could communicate, depending on where they were in their life and career, and Odell emphasized the importance of engaging people on a friendly level and not responding to hostility with hostility. Odell reminded people that there is a person behind the screen, and it helps to approach them with compassion. No one’s mind is changed by hostility.

Establishing yourself on science social media is an iterative process

The panelists stressed the value of building your own brand and voice and to remain true to yourself in the process. It is important to be authentic and curate your content rigorously. Dr. Porras highlighted the need to target your audience properly and to continue to tailor your content for your audience. Dr. Weele specified that she considered the quality of social media engagements to be more important than the number of followers. However, she does believe that a science communicator’s account is considered more trustworthy after reaching at least one thousand followers. She explained that people can look up their Twitter analytics to optimize their accounts based on factors such as the timing of posts, emojis usage, and getting retweets.

The three panelists ended the discussion with their strategies on how not to be overwhelmed by Twitter, reiterating the importance of curating who to follow, unfollow, and mute in order to optimize your signal-to-noise ratio of desired content in your Twitter feed. Dr. Porras cautioned people to not be trigger-happy with their follows and to be quick to unfollow an account if the content makes them feel more sad than happy. Dr. Weele left everyone with the following advice: you can try to keep up with content the best you can, but remember that you could never really keep up with everything. She suggested allocating only fifteen minutes to spend on Twitter in the morning and evening in order to stay on top of the latest information while not being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content.

I learned a lot from this panel and am inspired to begin my own foray into social media as a science communicator. And I will always remember Dr. Weele’s parting advice while I am communicating with the world: “Your name is your brand! Always say your first and last name while introducing yourself to people.” So here goes: my name is Pooja Naik, and you can follow me on Twitter here.


About the author: Pooja Naik is a PhD candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine studying cell signaling during Drosophila embryonic development. She is interested in pursuing a career in science communication after she completes her PhD in December 2019.