At the invitation of Professor Kandace Knudson, I have the fortune of visiting the UC Davis graduate seminar “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Communicating Science and Outreach for Broader Impacts”. The following are notes for the November 14th session.
James Bond could always depend on Q — his quartermaster — for the latest gadgets to accomplish his mission. In the Bond films, it was always a thrill to see what Q came up with — from tracking devices and miniature cameras, to armed sports cars and exploding pens.
And who is to say the life of a university researcher is any less exciting? For those of you who are ready to share your exciting research and field adventures with the public, there are so many online tools and electronic gadgets today that can help you complete your mission of broadcasting and sharing your research. So get familiar with them and be your own quartermaster.
Your Vehicle: A Professional Website/Blog
It all comes down to the car — it says everything about you, your profession, where you go and what you do. It also takes you places and it’s where you might show off your gadgets and tricks.
In that sense, your first step in communicating your research is to establish a personal website — the vehicle for your online presence.
This is where you tell the world who you are and what you do. Post your CV. Link to your publications. Share updates, photos and videos from your research. Provide content and tell the world why your research is important. And as others find your website, they will come to see you as a resource and expert in your field — may they be a fellow researcher or the interested public.
While many universities offer webpage spaces to their faculty and students, there are many free online services that also let you quickly set up a more comprehensive website (which you can link your university profile to):
- WordPress.com – A free blogging service.
- Blogger.com – Another popular free blogging service.
- Tumblr.com – A good one for photo-heavy blogs.
- Facebook.com – Yes, you can also set up a Facebook Professional Page as your personal website as well. But you have less freedom over format and tools.
- LinkedIn.com – Some people prefer LinkedIn to be their professional page. Again, you have less freedom over format and tools.
Your Transmitter Device: Social Media Accounts
Once you have content, you’ll want to transmit and broadcast it via social media. This further shapes your online presence — telling people how to find you, and lets you find new colleagues and join new networks of conversations similar to your interests. These tools also amplify your presence and content, as you post and share your stories and photos via these networks.
- Facebook – This is where Facebook really comes in handy. Without question, Facebook is the dominant social networking service on the planet. Witness any of George Takei‘s Facebook posts to see the maximum reach of a catchy photo. We all have our personal social networks, and tools like Facebook simply facilitate these connections, allowing us to rapidly and simultaneously share our news and photos to our friends and friends of our friends. Use your personal account, or set up a professional page. (Example: ocean advocate J. Nichols)
- Pinterest – If you are a field biologist or work with other types of beautiful, captivating images, Pinterest users will love you. It’s not quite a photo-sharing service like Picasa or Flickr, but it’s more of a bookmarking and scrapbooking service. The audiences here are mostly the lay public, however. (Example: California Academy of Sciences)
- Twitter – Twitter is the next most dominant social networking service around today. Its advantage is that you’re not sharing your whole life with every connection/follower you meet, as you might in Facebook. There is also high concentration of researchers, science bloggers and journalists who scan Twitter constantly for headlines and news and photos that interest them. Twitter also has huge applications at scientific conferences, where users make a habit of tweeting updates for talks they’re sitting in, to the point that you can follow multiple sessions at once and not even be at the conference yourself!
- Google Plus – The jury is still out on Google Plus. There was a funny article recently about how Google employees aren’t even using it. It is very much like Facebook, except it is synced with other Google services such as Picasa. Also, its Hangout feature allows you to video conference with others for free. To be continued.
- LinkedIn – To me, LinkedIn is the modern equivalent of the White Pages. It doesn’t tell you much or let you tell very much, but you are best served if you listed your name anyway. At the least, it is a very well populated social network with decidedly professional atmosphere.
- Google Scholar Profiles – Google Scholar is another way to file your CV and citations online. Its profile options are fairly new, but worth exploring for their stats and metrics. (Example: USGS/UCSB ecologist Kevin Lafferty)
Your Surveillance Gadgets: Smart Phones and GoPros
A photo is truly worth a thousand words. And unlike words, photos can’t be edited down and diluted — its value is in retaining its full majesty. A detailed image — be it a photo or microscopy image or telescope image — will draw oohs and aahs around the world — and take your name and work along with it. (Hat-tip to Karl Leif Bates and the PIO session at Science Writers 2012 for emphasizing this concept).
Great photos and videos get even better mileage when they’re shared on Facebook and Pinterest. Fortunately for you, you don’t live in the 1960’s, where Sean Connery’s James Bond would be envious of a palm-sized film camera. Many cellphones have cameras today, and if you own a smart phone like an Android device or iPhone, you can take videos and photos, and upload them directly to your blog or Facebook or Twitter account instantly. And if you’re underwater or in rough country, cameras like the GoPro lets you take footage in those conditions, too.
Your First Mission: The Scientific Conference
Let’s put all those ideas together, shall we? Here is your first mission, double-o-scientist.
Suppose you’ll be presenting at an upcoming conference (be it oral or poster), and you’ve got your website up and social media accounts set up and ready to go. Here are some possibilities you can explore:
- Announce that you’ll be presenting at the conference: Write a blogpost or story about the research you are presenting. Tell people when and where your talk/poster will be. Upload and link the PDF of your poster and other supporting handouts to the blogpost. Talk about your research directions and any unresolved questions. Invite people to visit you and to meet up while you’re at the conference.
- Share the news: Many conferences now set up Facebook Professional Pages or Twitter hashtags (keywords such as #TWS2012 or #ESA2012) to help focus the social media conversations. Find out the ones for your conference. Share your announcement using that conference hashtag. Look around the Facebook Pages to see if there are people looking to share rooms or airport rides. Use the online social network to make personal social connections.
- Connect your presentation: In your slides, make sure your website address is big, bold and clear! Show it at the start. Show it at the end. Show it as a footer on every slide if you want. Tell your audience that they can find more information about your research on your website — perhaps more photos or graphs or visualizations or even data for download. You can even use a service like bit.ly to shorten overly long URLs into customized links (as I’ve done here: http://bit.ly/younglandisUCD2013). You can then turn the link into a QR code to slap on your slides or on your poster, so that someone with a smart phone app like RedLaser can simply snap a photo and bookmark your website instantly for future reference.
- Network the conference: Join the conference conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Search the conference hashtag and look for tweets from other conference attendees. Talk back. Ask questions. Offer tips and ideas. People active on social media love to help others out (there’s a certain social acceptance and lowering of pretenses for various reasons), and they love to meet online contacts “in real life”. And remember that every contact you make over social media are likely to have their own highly engaged network as well, so that by making connections with them, you’ve broadened your own reach.
- Use your tools: If you have a camera phone, don’t forget to use it. Why take notes on a poster/talk when you can take photos of graphs and text?
When you get back home, do a little homework. Follow up with those new colleagues. Take a look at the visitor statistics on your WordPress or Google Analytics, and see how many people visited your conference blogpost and how they arrived on your page. With luck, you’ll see that your advanced prep work in building your online presence and brand will have helped you broadcast your research and helped you meet new colleagues.
Quick footnote: Some conferences are still slow to adopt social media, and some presenters are overly protective of unpublished work. When in doubt, ask the conference organizer or presenter before taking photos/videos or tweeting findings from talks/posters.
Communicator, Science Communicator
That’s just one example of what you can do, once your online presence is in place. And there’s much more. You can use those free blogging tools to host an interactive version of your thesis. Or signup for a fundraising website and let it link back to the great photos, videos and blogposts about your research, so that prospective funders are enticed to support your research.
More importantly, science bloggers, journalists — and even public affairs officers at your own university — are always in search of great content to write about. They want the science straight from the scientist, and they want beautiful photos and tantalizing tales of lab ingenuity and field adventures. So give it to them.
Most importantly, however, you are performing a critical service to your profession. Scientists have long been viewed as isolated academics who can’t speak normal English. Break that stereotype. We’re all in the sciences for a reason — whether it’s to change the world, improve lives or increase humanity’s understanding of the universe. Help share that passion with others. Provide information so that others can be more knowledgeable and make better decisions — make broader impact. And if you can successfully translate your research to a wide audience, you’ll be attracting the attention of your peers and fellow researchers and funders at the same time.
With today’s online tools, you are your own quartermaster, broadcaster, promoter and reporter. You are now a science communicator.
Examples of How Researchers Use the Web to Broadcast/EnrichTheir Careers
- Amasian Science (Viet Le, Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & Biochemistry, Brown University)
- Molecular Love (and other facts of life) (Brooke LaFlamme, Cornell University)
- Tree of Life (Jonathan Eisen, Department of Evolution and Ecology, UC Davis)
- Diadasia: The Lives of Other Bees (Rei Scampavia, Department of Entomology, UC Davis)
- Tetrapod Zoology (Darren Naish, University of Southhampton)
- Christie Wilcox (Christie Wilcox, University of Hawaii at Manoa)
- Per Square Mile (Tim De Chant, formerly UC Berkeley)
- Boundary Vision (Marie-Claire Shanahan, University of Alberta in Edmonton)
— Ben Young Landis
Addendum: Thanks to Katy Sater and others for additional tips/reminders in putting together this post.
Updated 2013.01.22: A print-friendly text version of this blogpost (PDF)