How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

It is no news to any of us that science is currently under attack with the current administration – with EPA dismantling, proposed funding cuts to the NIH, but also with erroneous views about climate change and vaccines causing autism. But more importantly, this seems to me to be a consequence of how the general public view science, overall. They tend not to trust scientists because they cannot relate to us. They don’t understand what we do, and also they don’t believe to know any scientist. The #ActualLivingScientist hashtag was a great response to this, but we still need to fix the fact that the general public don’t really understand what we do.

The scientific community as a whole does not think about the public as being an audience of what we do as scientists. When we get a grant, we should be thinking about how to explain to the public why we are doing this, to get their engagement in the science (@SenatorPhD, heard on the ScienceDisrupt podcast)

During the last #AAASmtg there was a lot of discussion about #SciComm and public engagement (you can read more about this on a previous blog post). Yes, most scientists agree that they should do science outreach,  but do we really know how to do it? Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we are talking about?

Last month I published a guest blogpost at the PLOS Neuro community discussing a very interesting paper on neuroendocrinology of female reproduction. I was very happy with the final result, but IT WAS EXTREMELY HARD TO WRITE IT! First, because it was my former area of research, and I wasn’t sure how simple I should get. But also, having read so much about this particular topic made it harder to actually make it more simple and appealing to non-experts. Writing to a general audience is not an easy task, and it requires a lot of practice and attention to the language (passive voice and jargons, anyone?)

It is important to properly communicate our results to the general public – not only to gain their trust, but also to avoid misinterpretation of results. We discussed this topic during our last #DiversityJC and how this can harm science and society in general. One of the main critics to the #OpenAccess movement is – “why should science be open to the general audience if no one is going to be able to understand the research?”. In fact, science needs to be more open, but also more accessible!

Apparently there are a couple of journals that already started including ‘plain-language summaries’ to their research articles. eLife published a nice guide explaining its summary (called e-Life digests) and the importance of doing so. But if the journal where you published your research is not among those, there are still several ways you can increase the visibility of your research, and among all those suggestions, I totally encourage you to blog your own research. It’s great practice to “explain or expand upon your research for non-specialist audiences, and to provide additional information and background that perhaps didn’t make it into the final version of a paper.”, as @protohedgehog suggests.

You may say why should I bother if there are already science journalists and communicators that are trained to do this job? The problem is that only super hot-topic research ends up being presented and discussed to the general audience. Others may also argument that no one reads science blogs anymore. I can tell you by experience that the general audience will not follow your blog, but it will sure find your blog post using google. My post about Prolactin secretion and miscarriage was published back in 2013 and since then it hasn’t had a single month without a reading.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 5.26.57 PM

As Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And we all should start practicing to be able to explain it simply. To share your knowledge and to fight for science!

Twitter vs blogging: why ‘OR’ when it could be ‘AND’?

 

We all love Twitter. Ok, not everyone loves Twitter, but I’m talking to YOU! The reason why you’re reading this post is probably because you clicked on a link that was shared through Twitter. So either you follow me, or someone that you follow RT it.

Twitter is great for so many things. What I like about it the most is the ability for instant communication –  it makes conversation and interaction so much easier! There’s a lot you can say in 140 characters. Did you read some interesting article? Click on the Twitter share button, and boom! Your followers can see the article’s title along with a link to read it, if they want. Twitter made our lives easier including a ‘RT with comment’ feature, which is great when you want to make a personal comment to a tweet.

A while back, Twitter started to group tweets that are part of a single conversation, to make it easier to follow along. Recently, this feature was extended so one can reply to your own tweet and create a thread. I personally like the idea of Twitter threads, specially when there’s a time-lapse between tweets and you want your followers to see the correlation. Also, sometimes it’s really impossible to say everything you want in 140 characters.

 

THIS! Twitter threads are good, but why are people not putting them on a blog post anymore? I see more and more twitter threads on Twitter. In number and in length. Yes, it is easier to write a thread, and it’s somehow easier to grab the attention of your reader for a longer period of time. But I feel like people are over-using this feature, and lots of those long twitter threads could be easily turned into a blog post.

 

So people are not reading blogs anymore. Why is that? Is it really Twitter that’s slowly killing blogging? When I joined Twitter back in 2013, Google Reader was still around, and it made my life so much easier re: following and reading blogs. The service was discontinued shortly after, and I believe this was the ‘beginning of the end’.  Or maybe RSS was already on its deathbed and the discontinuation of Google Reader was an inevitable consequence of what was already happening.

I named my blog “Science Reverie – Because I love being a scientist and talking about it”. I confess that I have never blogged constantly. Partially because I use my blog to vent about professional problems/dilemmas, but mainly because my pseudo didn’t allow me to share a lot about my specific research (when I was still in academia). But in a world where science is hidden behind paywalls, how can we make science available to everyone?

Social media is important for science communication. But not only Twitter! Despite the fact that the tweet is also in the internet forever, it is much harder to find a specific tweet in the internet than a blog post. Blogging is important not only for dissemination of science, but also in between peers. When I was applying for jobs, I can’t name the number of blog posts I read regarding tips to write a cover letter or how to tailor your CV/resume. Academics keep complaining that they live in an ivory tower, but then they don’t do anything to expand their horizons. Some institutions are trying to combine research and teaching with the local community, allowing discussion and engagement. But what place better to do that than the internet?

One can argue ‘why write if no one bothers to read?’

If everyone stops writing, people won’t have what to read.

Blogging is essential for science outreach! It is one of the easiest ways for scientists to publish their science and make it available globally. It improves your writing skills. It is fun and can bring fulfillment to your life. It is your space, where you can share your research, your points of view about a specific subject, or simply vent. Setting up a blog requires some work in the beginning, but blogging is easy and fast to publish afterwards. We need to expand science, not keep hiding it. We can’t let blogging die.

If you do have a blog, please, keep it up!

If you don’t, consider creating one – for the sake of SCIENCE!

How are things going? 1 year post-academia update

I know I’ve been way too negligent with this blog. I think about cool things to write about all the time, but either they don’t seem that cool anymore after a while, or I don’t take the time to write about them. But on July 1st I celebrated one year working outside academia, and a lot of people has been asking me: how are you doing? How things are working for you?

I wrote a blogpost about six months ago about how things were going back then: “There’s life after academia: 6 months update“. Things changed a bit in the following 6 months. In fact, work started to become much easier than in the beginning. I acquired experience on how to talk to professors in order to understand their research and their equipment needs, make quotes, and everything else involved in the process. I actually feel like I know what I’m talking about! (most of the time, at least). Of course, I still need help, but things are much easier now.

On one hand this is pretty amazing, but on the other hand I must confess that I started to feel a little bored. I work mainly from home, and I started to miss human interaction. I’m on the phone about 4+ hours per day, but this is definitely not the same as interacting with people, physically. I’m a people person, after all!

So I started to “force myself” to go out more often. Visit more professors, interact more with people that were not really planning to buy any equipment from me, but people that are worth meeting (and that are willing to meet me, of course!). I also started some side projects. My old PI asked if I could share some tips with the graduate student that is still in the “lab”. I’ve been acting as a consultant, helping the GS with guidance and suggestions mainly. And it’s great to have an excuse to go to campus, so I can still visit other labs once I’m there. Although it feels really good to help and to share your knowledge, amazingly this didn’t make me miss academia, or made me want to come back. I’m happy where I am now!

I also came back to be more active on Twitter. After my crisis of not knowing who I was on Twitter after my career move, (you can read more about it here) I think I finally found my new place there and feel comfortable tweeting again. I’ve lost some followers, but gained lots of new ones! I’m still mediating our #DiversityJC once a month with Emily And Ian. This Diversity journal club reads literature & holds Twitter discussions relevant to #diversityinSTEM every 3rd Friday of the month (for more info, take a look at our blog). I must confess that at some point I thought about giving this up, but now I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s really gratifying to make part of it.

And now we are about to launch our Recovery Academic Podcast, along with Amanda and Ian. This project required a little more work and preparation, but now that things are ready to go, it’s super fun to record the episodes. It feels like we are having a beer among friends and discussing that “there’s sunshine outside the ivory tower”. I’m super excited about it! All those things make me busy, and by being busy I don’t have time to feel bored anymore – and life goes on 😊.

Who am I on Twitter now?

I created a Twitter account a looooooong time ago, using my real name, and as the vast majority of people, I couldn’t get into it at first. A couple of years later I decided to give it another try. As a postdoc, I started following scientists and enjoying what I was reading. But although I was comfortable reading, I was not comfortable at all expressing my thoughts. Internet never forgets, and I’d think about everything and everyone before hitting that tweet button! What when I’m in the job market and someone from the committee reads my tweets?

That’s when I created my pseudo account. That was so much better and easier. I could really “be myself” and those of you that know me IRL can confirm how, in a way, I’m mostly myself when I tweet. However, everybody has several personas*. When I started to be active on Twitter, I embraced the postdoc persona: underpaid, hoping for a TT position, bitching about experiments and my academic world. And that’s when I’ve gotten most of my followers (I guess? I don’t really track this). Of course, every now and then I used to tweet about something different, but my Twitter persona used to be a very sciency and academic one.

Now things have changed. I’m no longer a postdoc. I’m not applying for academic positions anymore. Although I still deal with professors and research, I’m not the one doing it. But still, most of my Twitter followers are academic science fellows. So I came back to think a lot about what to post on Twitter. I read about failed experiments, grants submitted, stupid reviewers… and I have nothing to say abound this subject anymore! I feel like most of things I want to talk about are boring and no one wants to read them. That’s the main reason I’ve slowed down my Twitter usage during this past 6 months or so. I feel like I don’t belong there anymore. I’m in a mostly academic community and I’m afraid I have nothing to contribute to it…

But I do love Twitter (and my peeps!) too much to quit. Leaving academia for me was not an option. I am very happy about it now, but at the time, it was very painful. I’ve thought about creating a new pseudo account and starting fresh. A brand new non-academic account. But that would be too painful as well. I guess what I’ll try to do is to embrace my new “non-academic” persona on Twitter. I know I’ll lose a couple of followers, but at least I’ll keep being myself.

 

*Jung describes the persona like this:

The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society . . . a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual (Jung 1953, p. 192).

3rd #DiversityJC recap, guest post by @jkgoya

Our third #DiversityJC article was this letter presenting and analyzing the changes in women and minority involvement in the Ecological Society of America, at both the membership and leadership levels. As a letter from members of the Society, to the Society, critiquing the Society, it represents an important type of critical feedback, and it gives us a chance to see the Society’s response to the letter (as well as the community response).

The letter suggested that the absence of women and underrepresented minorities in the Society leadership could be attributed to either a time lag as we wait for the recent changes in membership proportions to propagate to leadership, or that selection committees preferentially exclude women and underrepresented minorities from consideration, whether intentionally or otherwise.

I think we agreed here, that just giving it time would not lead to balancing out the proportions.

Another point that was discussed was that it’s often potentially damaging to one’s career to speak out about these kinds of issues (diversity, harassment, injustice generally). I’ll leave off embedding those tweets as it seems wrong to publicly blog an embedded tweet in which someone expresses concern about speaking out.

We also discussed what happens outside of academia. Is it better or worse? What role does academia play in the larger culture?

 

Finally, many links were shared to try to answer some of these questions:

The importance of open access to research for supporting diversity:

http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcseriesblog/2012/12/06/guest-blog-why-i-publish-open-access/

An example of the scale of hostility that can exist outside academia:

http://www.nj.com/business/index.ssf/2013/05/post_269.html

Reports from various STEM-related organizations on career trajectories:

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/start.cfm?CFID=16466301&CFTOKEN=55531281&jsessionid=f030f7015d517b2f872e303224a2f61e45f3

http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=15855&page_id=2

http://www.biochemistry.org/Portals/0/SciencePolicy/Docs/Chemistry%20Report%20For%20Web.pdf

http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/24/why-women-leave-academia

http://diversegreen.org/report/

2nd #DiversityJC recap

For those who don’t know, the idea to create a #DiversityJC (a twitter journal club discussion around #diversity in #STEM) was born of twitter interactions between Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein), Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), and myself (@Doctor_PMS). You can read more about it here. For our first #DiversityJC we discussed the paper that started the conversation and it was a great discussion (recap)! For this second #DiversityJC we chose a more general article by Kenneth Gibbs (@KennyGibbsPhD), describing what is diversity more broadly and why it matters in science and STEM fields. I was gladly surprised by the number of people that joined our discussion, I barely could keep up with my feed! There was a lot going on, so I’m going to try to focus on the main points in this recap.

As a heterogeneous group, many issues were brought up in the beginning of the discussion. Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) stated the importance of having people who make determined efforts to promote diversity, Dr. Wrasse (@labroides) pointed out the loss of smart people from the academy when only traditional groups are supported, with big implications in conservation because we are closing doors to people from biodiverse countries. Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein) commented on the serious issue of meritocracy in academia (that is, the idea that diversity can be ignored because those that are best at science will still rise like cream to the top). Importantly, @PhdGeek pointed out the comments of the article, where it seems many people don’t recognize the issue as a problem “we need deportation programs”.

Exactly. “So if the answer is increasing diversity, can we do that through recruiting more diverse applicants into programs?” (@labroides). This is one option. Other alternatives suggested were diversity training at work (@MicroWavesSci), mentoring programs for minorities (@Doctor_PMS), target grant-writing seminars, fellowships for diverse peoples aim to prepare women and POC (@AlyciaPhD), on-paper diversity (@jkgoya), and more formal hiring criteria (@PhdGeek). Perhaps formalized diversity committees in Institutions. Of course, hiring is one end of the pipeline. “Problem has to be tackled at an earlier stage than job search” (@CoralReefFish).

Another point was  the importance of a good mentor. “Potential mentors should be approaching minorities, not wait to be approached” (@mccullermi). The importance of having a role model, teaching not only skills but also demonstrating passion for research. To this end, we also needmentoring training, as well as diversity training.

Our second Diversity Journal Club made clear we all cared about this issue, and had a lot to say. The take home message I believe it’s that “Diversity needs to be seen as mission-critical, not as an add-on” (@AlyciaPhD).

Please feel free to contact me to be added to the #DiversityJC twitter list. And here is the article for our next #DiversityJC on October 17th, 11EST: Diversity at 100: women and underrepresented minorities in the ESA. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 434–436 from Kate Boersma (@kateboersma). All are welcome to join!

Thanks to all participants: Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein), Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek), Dr. Wrasse (@labroides), Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee), Rhiannon Jeans (@PositronicNet), Laura Williams (@MicroWavesSci), Alycia Mosley Austin (@AlyciaPhD), Rebecca Weinberg (@sciliz), albatrossphd (@albatrossphd), Luiz Rocha (@CoralReefFish), Megan McCuller (@mccullermi), Wes Wilson (@WesleyWilson), Cara Fiore (@clfiore1).

#DiversityJC recap, guest post by @DrEmilySKlein

“According to my clock it’s 1100EST, let’s get this #DiversityJC rolling!”

 

And with that, we were off.

 

You know, it’s funny how things get started these days (especially for a twitter newbie like myself). One little tweet can ring so true, and next thing you know, you’re talking with complete strangers over the interwebs. But they don’t really feel like strangers, do they?

 

The Diversity Journal Club (#DiveristyJC) was born of conversations between Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) and myself (@DrEmilySKlein). For our first paper, we discussed the one that got it all started (learn more here, and read the article here. The premise of the paper was that women get more positive feedback on their grant proposals than men do.

 

And our thoughts?

 

First and foremost, many had concerns with the methods used. Of course, as scientists assessing study in an unfamiliar field, we tempered that with a healthy dose of “well, the methodology was new for me so…”. Regardless, we generally agreed that the methods had to be somewhat addressed to assess the limitations of the study and critique results.

 

Concerns with methods included weighting very different words with the same value (i.e. being a genius is apparently the same as having a knack for something), distribution of words used, and how words were categorized and what those categories meant. Re-doing the study as a double-blind would also help, as well as a more narrow choice of words in general (such words like “queen*” and “king*” seemed… excessive, and were – let’s hope – doubtful found in a single response.) Authors should have limited the words addressed by their analysis to those that may have actually been used by reviewers instead of what appears to be a standard list of YAY and NAY words. Also, pretty small sample size. Of course, as Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) pointed out, it could be a pilot study. In any event, we agreed that the methods needed some work, but we’d all like someone versed in them to provide a better critique.

 

However, a note: My understanding was the words used did come from other, published studies and methodologies. Either way, there did appear to be a underlying bias in the words used – perhaps indicating a larger, systemic problem with the words we use to define people along the gender binary, and how we code and value those words. As Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee) noted, “In perhaps not-so-subtle way, this could have incorporated broader biases about masculine vs feminine words into the analysis.”

 

Moving on to those “larger issues.” First and foremost, why would women be praised more than men? Especially given the increasing evidence that women are seen as less competent and are overlooked for jobs, tenure, even mentoring, and described using less capable words even by people trying to get them a job/money (e.g. in letters of rec)?

 

Given the findings argued by this study… What’s going on with grants?

 

Well. Perhaps we should be looking at it a bit differently. As Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), the premise could be seen another way: “Do reviewers use different language to review women and men?” Ahhhh… now we’re getting somewhere…

 

For the first potential explanation, an old favorite of mine: Chivalry and the gender binary. Ladies be all soft and sensitive, duh, and, moreover, a true gentleman is not rude to ladies. Yes that’s an exaggeration, but you get my drift: Men used “nicer” language when speaking with women than with men.

 

Although… the women were also better funded, according to the study, so there’s less evidence that men were just being nice and letting the ladies down easy. That said, Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya) still noted “from personal [experience], I’m pretty sure men speak to each other in much more directly critical language than between men and women.” Also personally believing this to be true, I’m unwilling to throw out this explanation as a possibility. In addition, R. Deborah Overath (@scienceknitsteryes on that name) pointed out that, given how awesome the words were for women, they should actually have scored better.

 

Alternatively, as Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer) suggested, maybe men are becoming more aware of their biases and are overcompensating or being too careful… ?

 

Another explanation: The bar is lower for women. Many people are just surprised (surprised!) when women write a stellar grant proposal. They don’t expect it, so are more glowing in response. Moreover, Jonathan Goya noted “…to get the same scores, women have to really wow the reviewers” and Lauren Sakowski (@LaSaks87) reiterated that the women may have put in “extra effort for the same funding/recognition”.

 

Basically, we either don’t expect women to do well, or they have to put in the extra effort for the same recognition. Or both.

 

As some additional evident, Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) noted that there is a larger difference between the positive and negative words used for funded women, but little difference for men. Perhaps the actual content of proposals from men somehow counted more. In addition, again to R. Deborah Overath’s (@scienceknitster) point that women possibly should have gotten better scores given the words used in their reviews. Perhaps the bias is not in the language used, but in the actual score that, you know, actually matters.

 

Of course, perhaps women just write better grants.

 

Or… they have more experience with them and exactly what reviewers are looking for. We all know grants can be formulaic. We also know women are less likely to be tenured or in leadership positions. Maybe these women have spent more time in soft-money jobs that simply require more grant writing to stay afloat in the world. Consequently, they’re just better at it.

 

Yet, again, as scientists assessing a study from a generally unfamiliar field, we craved more information. We speculated on additional variables that may help us piece apart the methods and the results, and really assess why this paper, on its surface, seems to contradict what more and more studies are telling us, and what many if not most of us know from experience: women are biased against in the sciences. We are still going up the stairs, when men have had an elevator.

 

 

Finally, Ruth Hufbauer reminds us that, yes, we’re scientist, but we’re also human. Just like the reviewers and the authors. It’s difficult to do things, like be on review panels, without either being biased in some way, or at least being worried about it.

 

This would be the final point I’d make, and I hope it’s one we come back to repeatedly in the Diversity Journal Club: As Dr. Wrasse (@labroides) asked: does a fish know it’s in water?

 

How do we recognize our own biases?

 

And what do we do about them when we start to figure them out? How do we deal with them in others?

 

That was where the Diversity Journal Club left off: contemplating how we become more self-aware, how we educate ourselves and others, and how we raise awareness.

 

We hope we’re doing our little part of this, in our own little corner of the twitterverse. Until next time, kids…

 

Lastly, a quick but very important note from Jonathan Goya and Beth Hellen that I was absolutely guilty of: avoid using karyotype (e.g. XX or XY) when discussing men or women. This automatically assumes sex, and negates a person’s right to self-identify their gender. Therefore, please instead use M, F or alternative. And please keep these critical hints coming!

 

 

The next Journal Club will be next week! We will post a paper on Monday 9/29 to review on Friday 10/3 at 11am EST. Have one we should read? Let us know! Since we just did one on gender, let’s have a new diversity topic for the next one – any and all welcome.

 

Thank you to all participants (and give them a follow, they’re awesome!)*

 

Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) – the one who got us started with one little tweet!

Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya)

Dr. Wrasse (@labroides)

Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek)

biochem belle (@biochembelle)

Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)

Mark (@NE14NaCl_aq)

PinkGlitteryBrain (@aiquintero)

Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee)

Lauren Sakowski (@LaSaks87)

Deborah Overath (@scienceknitster)

Ian Street (@IHStreet)

Storify of the #DiversityJC

 

… and anyone else who checked in and followed the discussion. Again, we invite any and all participants, as long as you read the article and no trolling, please (although that just means we’ll ignore you. Which is a bummer. For you.)

 

‘Til next time!

 

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)

 

*Let me know if I got any names wrong or you have trouble finding someone!