Social Media: A Virtual “School of Athens” for Researchers

"The School of Athens" by Raphael, 1511. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (Image via PDArt/Wikimedia Commons)

“The School of Athens” by Raphael, 1511. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (Image via PDArt/Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been asked by the Delta Stewardship Council to speak briefly at their Delta Science Fellows workshop on January 23, 2013, on how social media has influenced my career in science. Here are my notes.

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When I was a boy, I had this vision in my head of what college and academia would be like. And it was this painting — “The School of Athens” by the Renaissance master Raphael.

Which one is Stallone?

Which one is Stallone?

This fresco pretty much features “The Expendables” of classical philosophers and scientists. You’ve got Plato chatting with Aristotle down the middle. Socrates looks like he’s preaching some serious stuff to the upper left. And on the lower left, everyone’s looking over Pythagoras’ shoulder to copy, presumably, his math homework.

One grand hall. So many great minds. Everyone’s relaxed, familiar, and engaged in some deep conversation — or maybe gossip and friendly jests. You can imagine just strolling around a room like this, as if you were wading into a confluence of streams of great ideas and insights — picking up a tidbit here and an inspiration there; stopping to listen to something that caught your ear; or even speaking up and joining a particular conversation.

This is what the social media experience can be like for you in the research field.

Some scientific societies engage in social media directly. Check out @ESA_org to see how the Ecological Society of America engages researchers using Twitter.

Some scientific societies engage in social media directly. Click to see how the Ecological Society of America engages researchers using Twitter @ESA_org.

Social media tools may seem daunting and confusing, what with privacy concerns and ever-changing formats. But the most important thing to remember is that tools like Facebook and Twitter are merely augmentations and extensions of the social interactions and networks we already cultivate in everyday life.

As researchers, you already engage with mentors, students, fellow scientists and the public, and you already attend conferences to meet new colleagues and hear the latest in your field of research. Or partake in workshops to exchange new skills — much like we’re doing here today.

What tools like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter can do is to facilitate these exchanges and broaden your network to all reaches of the globe.

Q and James Bond in a scene from the movie Skyfall.

Today’s online tools let you manage your own network of contacts and add on tech-savvy gadgets to share your research. Click to read a primer on how to “Bond” at research conferences. Image Credit: MGM/Danjaq, LLC

And this network is ever present. It’s like a free research conference that’s going on 24/7, where you can step in and out at any time to scan for interesting conversations and new findings; ask for help with a question you’re stuck on; or share your knowledge and educate others.

Much like in the non-virtual life, the more conversations you participate in and the more people you engage, the wider your network becomes. The impact and reach of your ideas becomes amplified, not only within your research field, but possibly to members of the public and the media.

For a primer on how to use social media tools to promote your research and network at conferences, read my post “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Be Your Own Quartermaster”

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AFS also tweets research and conference news at @AmFisheriesSoc.

AFS also tweets research news and conference updates at @AmFisheriesSoc.

I owe much of my recent career to social media.

In 2009, I was finishing my masters in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, where I was introduced to the annual ScienceOnline conferences — undoubtedly the best example of how researchers from diverse disciplines are banding together to advance research, careers and outreach via social media. (For a taste of this vibrant community, read the Twitter feed #scio13 when ScienceOnline2013 takes place next week from January 30 through February 2.)

While the new colleagues I met at ScienceOnline came from all over the U.S., U.K. and beyond, I was able to keep in touch with them through tools like Twitter and Facebook, reading the links they posted about new discoveries or job opportunities.

For an example on how researchers use blogs to share science with colleagues and the public, click to read Deep Sea News.

For an example on how researchers use blogs to share science with colleagues and the public, click to read Deep Sea News.

When I began my science journalism training as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in summer 2009, this same network helped share the new articles I wrote, and continued to introduce me to new colleagues. (I highly recommend the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship to anyone interested in a summer sabbatical to learn how to be an effective writer and explore a career in media; I honed many research and work skills here, not just writing and social media skills.)

My online network helped out again when at the end of my summer fellowship, I happened to see a ScienceOnline friend tweet a link to another science writing opportunity — and that’s how I found a job through Twitter.

That job was writing about fisheries and coastal research at North Carolina Sea Grant, part of the NOAA Sea Grant system — where I further honed my writing skills and played with other social media tools like YouTube. (So like all of you today, I, too, have much to thank Sea Grant for!)

My career successes via social media culminated in early 2010. To organize my writing samples and job experiences, I created a personal website and blog to showcase my abilities and my portfolio of works. When it came time to present my body of work to a potential employer — USGS — I was able to offer this very website, and let the recruiters see the skills I could bring and the voice and insight I could inject into my work.

With the help of social media, I had gone from grad student to full-time science professional in little more than one year.

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I should note that these seemingly baby steps of building relationships, meeting new colleagues and friends, getting career tips — they all involved living, breathing human beings. Behind every user name and avatar is a real person, and no computer or website is going to replace those personal relationships and friendships you genuinely earn, and take the time and effort to nurture.

But social media tools can introduce you to these new relationships and opportunities more easily, more instantaneously, or connect you with ones you might not have known about. These tools are simply the latest form of communication through which human beings can reach out, find their community of common trades and passions, and engage in conversation — all without the confines of brick-and-mortar campuses and institutional departments, nor the limits of intercontinental travel.

Your very own School of Athens is waiting out there for you — go on in.

— Ben Young Landis

Thanks to Jacob O. Iversen for reviewing and editing this post.

Download a print-friendly text version of this blogpost (PDF) and the accompanying slideshow presentation (PDF).

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9 thoughts on “Social Media: A Virtual “School of Athens” for Researchers

  1. lol. Well, for bloggers, it would definitely start with Bora Zivkovic and Ed Yong for sheer productivity and reach of network (plus Bora helps fill the European accent quota). It’s fuzzier from here on out, with science blogging being such a wide field (talent and topic-wise).

    And what would an All-Time team be like for science communications in general? The likes of Sagan and Attenborough? That would be a fun list to come up with.

  2. Pingback: How Twitter Amplifies Your Reach: Example from the “School of Athens” Post. « Ben Young Landis

  3. Pingback: Why Twitter is essential for Journalists | Active Voice

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