There are many ways to be a science communicator

Science magazine published a peculiar opinion piece titled Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. It’s peculiar because it starts off well, and then reaches an ugly conclusion, and because it’s coming from a graduate student who is going to be looking for a job, and there’s no effort to give her anonymity while promoting a controversial opinion and, frankly, bad reasoning. Here’s that promising beginning that could have gone off in a far more productive direction.

Science Sam is a big name on campus. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in the sciences who wants to pursue a career outside of academia, like me. But unlike me, she is our school’s science communication, or #scicomm, superstar. Her Instagram page, which aims to show the “fun and trendy” side of science, was recently celebrated in the school’s newsletter for increasing the public’s trust in scientists. At a career workshop, graduate students were urged to follow Science Sam’s example and use #scicomm to build our personal brands as we enter the job market. I already have an Instagram account, but it reflects my interests in photography and baking more than my love of science. The workshop got me thinking: Should my posts focus less on pastries and more on pipettes?

OK, so I took a look at Science Sam’s Instagram account. I’ll be honest, it personally left me cold. I’m not into Instagram, the format lends itself to superficialities, it’s focused a great deal on selfies of a photogenic young woman, and I won’t be subscribing or following it in the future. But that’s just me. There exists a large instagram-centered subculture, Science Sam is good at fitting into it, and I am glad there is someone doing science outreach there, and doing it well.

I think the @scicomm community would also agree that the point isn’t to conform, but to express yourself freely and share your appreciation of science in ways that fit your personality and interests. There should be no message that says you must be a slender woman with a large fashionable wardrobe and artful skill in applying makeup in order to be a good science communicator — I’m kind of the opposite of all that, so I (and many of the science communicators I know) would be right out of the business from the get go. David Attenborough would also be out of work.

At this point, my advice to this grad student would be yes, focus on the pastries and the photography as a hobby. You be you. There is another huge subculture that is interested in the visual arts and food, and you can be science’s ambassador to those people. If the message you got from your university’s career workshop is that you have to imitate Science Sam, they fucked up. The career workshops I’ve participated in emphasize the breadth of possibilities, and should definitely not be telling new scientists that they have to follow the path of performative traditional femininity. That is one path out of many.

But this grad student confesses to “increasing bitterness” over the example of Science Sam. She has somehow come to the conclusion that another person’s approach is directly harming her.

When I next interview for a job, I won’t have an Instagram page to show that my love of science doesn’t make me boring and unfriendly. Publicly documenting the cute outfit I wear and the sweet smile I brandish in the lab isn’t going to help me build a fulfilling career in a field where women hold less senior positions, are paid less, and are continuously underrated. Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men. That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.

Jeez, someone needs to talk to whoever put together that career workshop, because at least one student has come out of it with a seriously warped perspective. You shouldn’t have to flash a sweet smile and a cute outfit to get a job (I know, often women are expected to, which not right and grossly unfair), but you do have to have an enthusiasm for the work, which even homely grizzled old geezers like me can achieve. If you’re trying to do science outreach, bitterly policing other people’s approach is a negative — find your own strengths and explore and expand them. You’ll be happier doing that than feeling like you have to conform to a role you detest. There also has to be work/life balance — if Science Sam enjoys spending time on Instagram as her avocation, she should! If there’s something outside of work that makes you happy, you should do it without guilt!

Seriously, too, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Science Sam’s angle, and she’s going to be effective at reaching some people, I’d find an instagram account about photography much more interesting. So would other people. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

I really hope whoever was in charge of that career workshop is feeling rebuked by the fact that the bitterness it invoked was highlighted in Science.


  1. Oggie. says

    One of my (very many) collateral duties where I work is helping volunteers develop interpretive programmes for presentation to visitors. One of the things that I point out is that I have a couple of different styles I use on programmes — the lecturer, the questioner, the ‘you-ask-a-question-and-I’ll-riff-from-there’. Each style has advantages and disadvantages. Some are for large groups, some for small. So when I work with a volunteer, I focus on helping that volunteer find the strategy (or strategies) that work for him or her. What works for me may not work for you. And it may take a season or two to find who you are as a guide.

    I also point out that, at any park, there are an almost infinite number of good programmes. There are also an almost infinite number of bad programmes. That part is easy. The next step, though, is helping them understand that what is a good programme for me may be a bad programme for the volunteer. And vice versa. Some volunteers are very comfortable using models and photos to help interpret the resource. I’ve tried that. I could not find a way to make it work for me.

    We have one ranger who specializes in Facebook and Twitter (on government accounts). I couldn’t do that. But I can take an amorphous idea brought up by another ranger and, with a little research, some good questions, and a little time, come up with a Rosie the Railroader brochure aimed specifically at girl scout and brownie troop leaders who may be wondering why they should bring their girls and young women to a railroad site.

    So, yeah, outreach is important. But it ain’t cookie cutter. What works for me, interpretative programmes or outreach, may not work for someone else. Expecting everyone to use the same few tools from an infinite toolbox is a good way to get boring programmes, boring outreach initiatives, and bored customers.

  2. says

    I read the article differently from you, PZ. The author explicitly says she is not bitter towards Science Sam. She was complaining about the expectation that women work harder than their male colleagues. In this case the work the extra work they are expected to do is in science outreach, rather than focusing on their research.

  3. Chris Capoccia says

    science photography is a big thing. there are competitions and awards that make international news every year. the only thing i would tell science sam is that i’d recommend having multiple instagram accounts and put the selfies and midriff shots on a different account. loko kitchen is just shots of pie and very good at that one thing

  4. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    I read the article in a similar way to you.
    Her problem aren’t different modes of science outreach. Her problem is that science outreach is just one example of all the extra work that women are supposed to put in to, as she says, ‘correct for gender disparities’.
    From the article:

    Female scientists spend demonstrably more time teaching, mentoring, and participating in community outreach than their male colleagues, just as there are far more female #scicommers on Instagram than male.

    And I bet that this doesn’t reflect badly on their male collegaues. Because women often don’t start from the same position as men, women have to work harder just to be considered as good as the men. That‘s what I got from this article.

  5. Oggie. says

    And I processed it through my privileged brain and saw it as a lament of one-size-fits-all-ism. Sorry. Disregard my #1.

  6. says

    David Attenborough would also be out of work.

    Someone did say he had “big teeth” so I think that means he doesn’t have a career in radio, or something.

  7. magistramarla says

    Speaking as a non-science person who happens to have an interest in science, I want to see more scientists who are good at being science communicators. I have scientists in my family who are not so great at explaining the science to me. I’m happy to go to someone on the internet who can explain it in a way that I can understand and make me excited about it.
    The same goes for computer science. When my husband (CS PHD) or one of my children, and now, one of the grandchildren/digital natives) attempt to explain something to me, my eyes glaze over. I appreciate someone who can explain it on my terms, and then I will usually begin to apply what I have learned.
    We need good science and computer science communicators!

  8. kupo says

    magistramarla @ 7
    We need more men to learn how to be good science and computer science communicators. I’m always expected to dfo the documentation because women are supposed to be good at communication.

  9. snuffcurry says

    the only thing i would tell science sam is that i’d recommend having multiple instagram accounts and put the selfies and midriff shots on a different account.

    A woman has a tummy and wears clothes while living her life and doing her job! Grr!

    Men self-promote with glamourpuss shots all the fucking time. Take a gander at Dawkins’s carefully tousled coiffure or Hitch’s just-so duckface cum dangling ciggy cum Bill Hicks-lite all-purpose misanthrope pose photos once in a while. Can any of us escape the admittedly beautiful visage of NDT? Has he been chastised for dancing and flexing too much? No, he hasn’t. Men are allowed their bodies and their pretty faces. Women are asked to put those things away and think of the children, are accused of ruining it for other women. Ridiculous.

  10. snuffcurry says

    As to the author’s original complaint, does she think this is a problem unique to science? This is the bog-standard reasoning for excluding women everywhere. There’s no room for them at the top because somebody has to be Mother, make the tea, and fluff the feelings, join all the boring hand-holding committees, teach and mentor the first-years, and leave the best grants and stipends for the Real Experts. She thinks a woman on instagram is holding her back? She thinks communication is floofy silly stuff, anything women happen to do well or exceed at must not be worth doing? That’s called being a useful idiot and carrying water for the men who take their unnatural advantages for granted. She could use a large dose of history and some remedial social science (y’know, gross girl stuff).

  11. taraskan says

    This grad student’s opinion on Instagram / maintaining a public research image is just part of a larger problem of the necessity of networking in academia, so I can understand some of that bitterness quite easily. No, nobody’s expecting you to be a celebrity when you fly around the country on your own dime giving job talks, but it helps, just like having an in at a particular department helps, and, really, these are petit bourgeois things scientists should stand far above. This student is concerned her research won’t be enough to speak for itself. There is something to be said for personality, for conduct, for teaching experience, since that is part and parcel of being in academia, so sure, it isn’t all research – but every time a new non-research aspect crops up, of course it’s going to feel like it’s adding onto a pile of responsibilities for someone who’s already overworked and underappreciated by default. Fuck instafaceytweet and all of social media; I won’t be using it in academia, either. It’s becoming relevant when it’s not relevant.

  12. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I dunno, as someone who’s still pretty bruised from the “YEAH, YOU KNOW THAT TECHNICAL EXPERTISE AND INTELLECTUAL ABILITY THAT’S, LIKE, THE THING YOU’RE REALLY GOOD AT, AND THAT YOU’RE PROUD OF? THAT’S ALL WORTHLESS!!!!!! ALL THAT MATTERS IS MAKING PEOPLE SMILE ELL O ELL!” ‘career development’ ‘advice’ I’ve been subjected to, this really resonates with me.