Science Communication (SciComm) enables the communication of research information to the scientific community, the general public and beyond. It is helpful in breaking barriers, particularly the perceived ‘inaccessibility’ complex research might pose to the general public. With many ground-breaking discoveries being regularly made in the research world, the way we communicate findings, increase awareness and establish our next steps are imperative. Yet, there are no officially recognised SciComm bodies in place to provide authoritative guidance, and further challenges in the translation of complex scientific principles and event planning / organisation mean that fewer and fewer individuals are partaking in SciComm.
Guess how much time you spend engaging with posts whilst scrolling through social media outlets? Typically, 2-3 seconds – which wouldn’t be enough time to fill one row of a 96-well plate with a multi-channel, let alone understand the role of VEGF in tumour angiogenesis!
Your engagement time is monitored on the number of likes or reposts, which may not be the most accurate measure of actual engagement – by which I mean actively reading or interacting with a post, as opposed to scrolling past it. A ‘double-tap’ may not correlate to this internalisation of all information on any given post. A comment or even a share may be a better indicator of outreach.
So how does one effectively avoid the dreaded ‘scroll by’?
The key thing to remember with public SciComm is that you really can skip over the complexities. The main elements are being concise and more importantly – having fun with your work. Let your enthusiasm and passion shine – and everyone else is bound to get as excited as you are!
The American Society for Cell Biology outlined several ways to undertake SciComm effectively. One tip is the ‘elevator pitch.’
I’m sure you’re aware of this from interview practising, but in theory, you have to explain why your research matters in 30 seconds. Another technique proven useful for this is the 5 W’s – namely the who, what, where, when, why of your research. This helps condense your work into one-liners and then you can elaborate more on the scientific background when asked by the public. Condensed concepts are one way to avoid the ‘scroll by,’ – by showcasing a tiny snippet of your work (usually accompanied by an image you’ve acquired from it), you’re enticing readers to (hopefully!) click and read further. Always leave them wanting more, right?
Using SciComm in the wider world
So the above is on an individual / team level. But how can SciComm be used to a grander scale for more diverse audiences?
Engagement events hosted by large organisations also allow the spread of current research to the general public. Many institutions are now incorporating public engagement as part of employee workflows – these can range from open days to charity events or large-scale networking hubs. The beauty of such events is unlimited as it attracts a vast audience, which opens your work up to be observed from various angles. It gives researchers increased perspectives, particularly from social, ethical and economic standpoints, allowing thought-provoking conversations to be had.
What’s the last scientific concept you tried to explain to your grandmother? I was lucky to attend and present my work at one such event – ‘The Cancer Revolution’ at the Science Museum in June 2022. Donned with hand-painted ‘cell-fies’ (see Figures 1 and 2 below), models and posters, our group showcased work conducted with 2D and 3D cell models at St George’s, University of London. Again, this links back to making the SciComm event ‘fun’ and interactive – in our case, we asked individuals to share their ‘cell-fies’ with us on various social media platforms.
As the theme was cancer, we spoke about these models relating to our work in pancreatic, melanoma and prostate cancer, talking to the public about what we do in the lab. But the most common question I was asked about 3D models is not how they work or were made, but more simply – why use them? What’s the point of them?
Of course, it’s easy to launch into a description of how they represent the cell-cell contact, fluid dynamics and nutrient usage similar to in vivo circumstances (and with that list, flashbacks to my master’s dissertation ensue…) but what does that mean? What’s the point of what we’re doing now? (existential, I know, but bear with me!)
It can be very easy to let the purpose of one’s work slip away, especially when spending long hours in the lab faced with experiments not working as intended, resulting in severe frustration (I refer you to the epic ‘Just a little optimisation’ piece from Sean Patmore earlier this year). Engaging with SciComm can help us slow down, take a break and think more about the ‘why’ of our research, especially when our work sometimes seems far removed from the end goal. Sometimes reminding yourself of the end goal and telling others about what you plan to do moving forward can be a great motivator to keep going.
“Which social media would be the most effective for SciComm?”
This brings me to my last point. Which social media would be the most effective for SciComm? According to Statista, in January 2022, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram were ranked as the top four social media platforms, reaching millions of users per month. Most institutions use Workplace (a subsidiary of Facebook) to interact and share information, however, this is usually limited to within the organisation. Furthermore, many researchers are branching into YouTube, creating vlogs (video blogs) of lab tours, allowing a ‘behind the scenes’ peak at the current research world.
Bottom line – pick whichever one suits your / instutitional SciComm needs best! I chose Instagram as it tends to be more relaxed and informal than LinkedIn (Facebook’s older cousin that you feel unjudged for opening and scrolling through at work), which contains more formal posts. I’m sure we’ve all learnt many a thing scrolling through LinkedIn, so why not extend this beyond the scientific community? For example, I read about these fascinating ‘hairy’ nanoparticles that could potentially help the clearance of excess chemotherapeutic agents from the blood. Sometimes a one-liner is all you need! But it’s a necessary one-liner to let people know about your research.
Conclusively, SciComm is an essential platform through which individuals can be more open about their work and maintain clear transparency on research directionality with the public and the scientific community. Such openness, transparency and general acknowledgement are crucial to the advancement of scientific research.
About the author
Mary-Pia Jeyarajasingham is a first-year Biochemistry PhD student at the University of Cambridge / AstraZeneca. She completed her MSci in Biomedical Sciences at St George’s, University of London in 2022. Her current research focuses on the actin cytoskeleton, specifically molecules that may influence filopodial assembly. Outside the lab, she enjoys playing the piano and violin, reading, travelling and posting regularly on her science communication (SciComm) Instagram @TheBiomedWaterCooler.