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Science and social media: Tweets offer glimpse into the lives of faculty

Laura Dassama and Carolyn Bertozzi
Photo Credit: Ben Lin
Oct 25 2018

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By Stefanie Pietkiewicz

Since its introduction over a decade ago, social media has become a ubiquitous part of daily life. Today, many scientists are leveraging Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to engage with the global scientific community and communicate their research findings to the public. Professors Carolyn Bertozzi and Laura Dassama are two of the most active Twitter users in the Department of Chemistry. They share what they love about the application, how they have used it to develop meaningful relationships with other scientists, and why they believe tweeting is worth the time investment.

Dipping a Toe into the Twitterverse

Bertozzi first joined Twitter in 2014 when she became the editor of ACS Central Science, a journal published by the American Chemical Society. Encouraged by several ACS employees to create an account, she starting using Twitter to follow scientific journals, professional societies, news outlets, biopharma companies, and other scientists across a range of disciplines. As she spent more time on the platform, she began to discuss her research, retweet interesting articles, and air her grievances about “life’s petty inconveniences” in witty, light-hearted posts that gave followers a rare peek into her life outside the laboratory. Over time, she has amassed a following of over 9,000 people, but she admits she was not always a social media advocate.

“Some of the best, most diligent scholars that I know are on Twitter and feel very strongly that it is a medium that can be used to benefit science and science communication.  I realize there are many who are skeptical and think social media is a frivolous waste of time,” she explained. “Honestly, I used to be more like that side of the aisle, but now that I am integrated into the social media community, I totally understand its value. Through this portal, I can read journal articles, learn about other opinions and pursuits, follow the evolution of political debates - some that heavily affect science - and keep up with colleagues, institutions, and former trainees.  I can’t live without it!”

Like Bertozzi, Dassama cautiously entered the Twitterverse several years ago, but she only recently discovered that she could use the application as a way of engaging with the scientific community. “Whenever you make a discovery, there is an eagerness to share it with people,” she explained. Thanks to social media, she has the ability to communicate new publications and ideas with her counterparts at academic institutions across the globe and receive almost instantaneous feedback.

Cultivating a Community

While critics claim social media is destroying personal relationships by slowly eroding social skills, it has undoubtedly made it easier for individuals to connect with one another and become engaged in communities they care about.  

“If you’re a scientist, you can use Twitter as a professional tool. I use it for information gathering and dissemination, networking and to keep my finger on the pulse of things that I wouldn’t know were happening otherwise,” said Bertozzi.

Dassama agrees, “For the most part, Twitter is like my professional community. I can tweet to scientists all over the world and get responses from them, which has been great because usually you are doing science in the confines of your lab, but with social media you have a much larger audience that you can reach.”

Dassama received an outpouring of support when she started tweeting about her experiences as a new faculty member at Stanford. “I’ve been able to build relationships with people whose papers I’ve read but haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person. And in many cases I’ve been given career advice and advice about starting up my lab,” she said.

Bertozzi has even had a collaboration materialize through Twitter when she came across the feed of a European scientist who was working on similar research problems.

Carolyn Bertozzi Tweet

She has also wielded the platform to successfully link job seekers with opportunities. In one post she proclaims, “Twitter at its best: I retweeted a posting about an open postdoc position, an academic follower saw it and pointed it out to his student who was looking for postdoc, she applied and it turned out to be a great match, the deal is done! Love it.”

Finding the Time to Tweet

Between traveling the world, mentoring graduate students and searching for funding opportunities, when do professors find the time to tweet? For Bertozzi, standing in line at Safeway or hanging out in an airport lounge provides the perfect opportunity to dive headfirst into the online space.

“Mostly I’m tweeting during moments of the day when I’m stuck in a place and I’m looking for something to do,” she explained.

Dassama added, “I think people are hesitant to use social media to create buzz about their science because it takes time, but you don’t have to spend hours on Twitter each day. You would be surprised by the kind of community you’ll find there, how engaging people are, and how they’ll reach out to you and support you.”

Educating the Public

Having an online footprint gives scientists a direct channel to disclose what is happening behind-the-scenes. Dassama, who conducts research directed at understanding and mitigating bacterial multidrug resistance, hopes to give her followers a sense of hope and a better understanding of the challenge she is tackling through her interactions with them online. She admits that many people view bacterial drug resistance as an insurmountable problem, especially with sensational, clickbait headlines declaring that an antibiotic apocalypse is on the horizon.

“Making it known to people that this is something we are actively pursuing and that we are using a multi-pronged approach is critical,” she said. “It’s important for the public to know that the tax dollars going towards scientific research are being put to good use. They can see the purpose of the work you’re doing and how it is beneficial to mankind.”

Carolyn Bertozzi & Laura Dassama

Hashtag Activism

In addition to providing chemists a way to interact with one another and the public, Twitter is also helping social movements gain momentum. In recent years, Carolyn Bertozzi has observed many people leveraging social media to speak out against gender inequality at scientific symposia. “In a couple of instances, that public attention prompted organizers of those conferences to re-balance the gender distribution of their speakers,” she said.

Bertozzi feels a sense of responsibility to utilize her platform to discuss topics she cares deeply about, such as diversity in STEM. “I know people are following me, and I know that there are a lot of people who feel like they’re not in a position where they can articulate a frustration,” she said. “I think it means a lot to younger people to see that someone with a voice is aware of these issues and is supportive.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Of course, despite its benefits, social media has a dark underbelly. Many channels are infiltrated with fake news, and scientists often become exasperated when they encounter it on their feed.

“A major pet peeve of mine is seeing misinformation about vaccines. Sometimes I am tempted to call people out, but what I have found to be most effective is messaging those people privately and helping to dispel some of those myths,” said Dassama.

Bertozzi added, “The nice thing about Twitter is that if something is out there and it’s incorrect, the community will correct it immediately.”

While social media gives individuals, including CEOs, politicians, and celebrities, the freedom to express their opinions, there is a consequence to doing so in scientific circles where fact checking is crucial to one’s reputation. “In the science community, you can’t just say something without having facts and data to back it up. If you do, you will lose your credibility, and our credibility is our primary currency in society. You lose that, and you do a great disservice to the profession,” said Bertozzi.

Not Just for Kids

With each passing day, social media is recruiting more and more users from diverse backgrounds and generations. “I’ve seen my advisors start to use it, and it has been great to see more well-established scientists recognize that this can be a really powerful tool,” said Dassama.

In today’s interconnected, digital world, is social media a requirement for researchers? Bertozzi is on the fence. “I don’t know that it’s a necessity, but I think it’s a powerful capability. It costs you nothing, the time is minimal and you can make important connections,” she said. “People have asked me, ‘How to you know what is happening in so many labs, places and fields? How do you have the time?’ Most of the time, I tell them, I learned it on Twitter.”

Dassama and Bertozzi would like to see more scientists join the Twittersphere to give people the opportunity to learn about the exciting research they are undertaking. “I think it’s important that we have a social media presence so that people can keep up with what we’re doing and take best advantage of our connectivity,” said Bertozzi. “I would like to know more about what some of my colleagues are doing here at Stanford and one of the most efficient ways I can collect that information is through social media.”

Keep up with the Stanford Department of Chemistry on Facebook and Twitter