Reporter on the road: from cellfies to sciencegram

8 December 2018

Social media has changed our lives, for better or worse. But what about our professional lives? Can we embrace social media and use it to our professional advantage? I am by no means an expert, but I will try to share with you my own experiences with venturing out into the social media jungle, and what I learned from talking to other scientists online.

The basics of online presence
Whether you want it or not, you have an online footprint. More importantly, your online record is only one Google search away. The use of nicknames, privacy settings, etc.; it all seems very basic. However, it is never a bad idea to check this every once in a while. Google your name and see what pops up. This is what your colleagues, fellow scientists, the HR team of the university or biotech company you are interviewing with, will see. Is this the image you want them to have of you?

Okay, so you’re ready to start shaping a professional online presence. LinkedIn and Google Scholar profiles require very little effort and can easily function as your basis to start from. I would argue that there is a wealth of apps and social networks out there which, while they maybe require a bit more input, yield a far greater return on investment. However, there is no one size fits all in this. Which apps do you use yourself? What do you want to get out of social media in the context of your career? The answers to these questions will likely
predict what will work best for you. Below are some examples of how scientists use certain networks and apps in their professional lives.

A little bird once told me
From Trump tweets to teens eating dishwasher soap pods, there is more nonsense being spewed on Twitter by the second. As a result, it may come as a surprise to learn that Twitter is probably the bestsuited social network for scientists. Tweets are 280 characters in length, forcing you to be concise. No boring 15-minute talk, no full paper to read: science Twitter gives you the essence of every important paper in your field in just a few sentences.

The brevity, wide audience and swiftness of Twitter are its major advantages. This is especially
highlighted by two examples. First is ‘live-tweeting’ at a conference. During the last EMBO meeting, I was tweeting the bottom line of every talk for three days straight using the hashtag of the conference (note: always consult the conference’s social media policies, and respect authors’ wishes to not tweet about their data). While conferences are important networking events, you can now build your online network at the same time. Numerous people that could not attend the meeting followed the conference in real time via my tweets, hereby moving the discussion from the conference room to the global stage. An important professor in my field that missed his flight came to thank me on the second day of the conference since, through my tweets, he was able to keep up with the meeting while traveling. Just 280 characters and a valuable new connection.

The second main use for Twitter is keeping up with literature. With the rise of pre-print servers, a PubMed alert no longer allows you to stay up to date with the field. Rest assured, there are currently people in your  field tweeting about every interesting study that is uploaded to BioRxiv. A lab mate once emailed me a quite controversial Cell article that had just come out, with the question, “Did you see this?!”. I told her that my Twitter buddies and I already completely turned that paper inside out three months before its publication, since someone had fished it out of BioRxiv and tweeted about it. As pre-prints will become more and more important, their fast distribution will also be key, and given its characteristics, Twitter could be one of the most suitable platforms for this.

Sharing #cellfies on #sciencegram
Instagram. The app has a lot more to offer than just pics of people’s dinner. Just as there is on Twitter, there is a large community of scientists from across the globe active on Instagram. The visual aspect of Instagram makes it ideal for outreach and science communication, and this is exactly why the app has become increasingly popular among (mostly younger) scientists. Whether it is a selfie of you in the lab or a ‘cellfie’ of your cells in the petri dish, by sharing such pictures you can achieve two main goals. The first is to show the
world that scientists are not only old white males with beards, but a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, etc. For example, @500queerscientists is an initiative that aims to highlight the LGBTQ community in STEM. Secondly, pictures of your science allow you to easily communicate about your work to laypeople. @science.sam is an Instagram rock star who pioneered this use of the app to successfully explain neuroscience to a broad audience.

We all know that PhD training can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, and it is no secret that mental health issues are very common among trainees. Within this context, there is an Instagram community that seeks to break taboos surrounding this issue and tries to provide a supportive environment for fellow students. An example is @ph_d_epression, an account where PhD students share their setbacks and provide inspiring stories of how they eventually made it through those difficult moments during their PhD training.
Besides Twitter and Instagram, there are many other social networks and apps that can be useful to our science. Slack is a forum-like app that is used by numerous labs and groups of scientists with similar
interests. ResearchGate is a well-known online scientific community that is mostly used for sharing papers. Yet, there are many more options.

A waste of time? No way!
“Interesting points, Steven, but isn’t this all a waste of your time?” While benefits won’t be immediately obvious since building a network takes time, I would argue that doing so is very rewarding. I got to know other postdocs in my field through Twitter and Instagram, and this has resulted in multiple new spontaneous collaborations. I also received feedback on manuscripts and new experiments, and regularly have online brainstorming sessions with fellow scientists. Even more, no matter which conference I attend, I know I will never be alone, since my online friends will surely be there.



Steven Boeynaems is a VIB alumnus who worked at the Kevin Verstrepen Lab and the Ludo Van Den Bosch Lab. Recently he traded Belgium for the Californian sun. At Stanford University he keeps pursuing his passion for science and science communication.

Instagram: @steven.boeynaems
Twitter: @BoeynaemsSteven