Last week was certainly A Week for science communication, in more ways than one. On the one, positive, exciting hand last week was Brain Awareness Week, and – if you’re in the UK – national Science Week (and we also managed to squeeze in Pi Day on the 14th of March, and National Sleep Day). On the other, less positive hand, the week also saw feathers ruffled in the online science community by an op-ed article published in high-profile journal Science, which slated women who use Instagram to communicate their research. But more on that later.
For me, Brain Awareness Week was a non-stop fest of getting out of the lab and taking my work out and about to the public. First stop was a trip to a girls’ school in Slough, having been invited to speak at a science careers fair they were holding. This was a great experience: I was thoroughly grilled and put through my paces with a series of quick-fire, speed dating-esque question sessions, to give the pupils a chance to find out what it’s like to be a scientist and what it takes to get there.
Right after this, it was straight back to London to head to the Francis Crick Institute, who were hosting their second evening ‘Late’ event: Deconstructing Patterns. Like other museum ‘Late’ events, such as those at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, this gave members of the public a chance to come and have fun with science after-hours for free. As one of their Science Buskers, I was wandering around the event, roping (literally!) attendees into all kinds of hands-on science games: from a rope escape puzzle simulating how chromosomes line up and are divided between replicating cells; to ‘Mystery Object’ – where participants are invited to pull a mystery lab object out of a bag (including tubes of live fruit flies!) and guess what it’s for.
Finally, on Friday I headed to a village primary school in Buckinghamshire to give an assembly to round off their science week activities. In this I introduced the kids to the tiny-but-mighty fruitfly: Drosophila melanogaster, which we work with in our lab. After getting them to guess from a photo of me what my job was (brief false start where one kid thought I ‘baked cakes’, because of my white coat!) we chatted about where fruitflies come from and their lifecycle. This of course required that we enact the stages of this (complete with paper-maché fruit fly head and wings for one lucky volunteer). I also discovered that there is little that 7-year-old kids find more hilarious than gleefully wrapping their head teacher in bubble wrap to turn her into a fly pupa!
So, now that I’ve finally had a chance to take a breather, let’s talk about why Science’s article has been such a slap in the face for many involved in science communication, and especially women. In a nutshell, the article was one woman’s opinion as to why she doesn’t use Instagram to communicate her research. She argued that women who use Instagram to reach out to a wider audience with their work and research do so because they are forced to by gender inequality in science as a male-dominated profession. This is unfair because ‘time spent on Instagram is time away from research and this affects women more than men’.
Firstly, the writer is completely entitled to their opinion, and the article could have been a very interesting critique on gender inequality in science. However, instead it was a poorly written rant which focused on holding up one particular member of the SciComm community, Science Sam (Samantha Yammine) as a critical example that bordered on a personal attack. It’s main argument relied on unnecessarily shaming her for portraying her femininity alongside her science in her Instagram posts. The writer criticized that the majority of science communication on social media consists of ‘pretty selfies, fun videos, and microscope images captioned with accessible language and cute emojis’, which, they claim, portrays a narrow subset of femininity.
This article was disappointing to read because it supports the stereotype that women in science have been battling since we were first allowed into labs: any femininity you display makes you less likely to be taken seriously. That you’re somehow painting a distracting layer over a lack of scientific ability and brains with lipstick and a pretty dress. Or that you were only graciously hired by a man because you’re deemed conventionally ‘attractive’, not because you’re intelligent and a good scientist. Essentially, Legally Blonde but with lab coats. More than that, it’s saddening that instead of offering solutions to the problems they criticized or stepping up to fill the gap in the Instagram science community they cited (what about the women in science who didn’t like make-up and ‘pretty selfies’?) the female writer instead decided to tear down another woman working hard to be a visible female role model in science. If the writer of the Science article had taken a moment to do some research, instead of picking one woman as an example, she would have seen that female scientists sharing their experiences on social media are a diverse bunch. There are plenty of us demonstrating that every kind of woman can be successful in the lab – not just advocating the message that (shockingly!) yes you can like makeup and still be a badass scientist.
Yes, there is an underlying motivation to increase the visibility of women in science for future generations and demystify science as a career. To spread the message to young girls that a scientist does not look like an old, white-haired man in a lab coat, but in fact looks just like them. I wish I had had the opportunity to discuss the nitty-gritty of what being a scientist involves with an actual scientist when I was in school. From my experience, careers information generally leaves you with the impression that scientists work in labs, wear lab-coats and generally spend their time looking thoughtfully at coloured liquids in test tubes far too complicated for you to possibly understand. ‘I didn’t even know brain science was something you could do as a job!’ was a comment I heard repeatedly from the girls I spoke to last week. And this is one of the reasons why I make time to take my research out of the lab and beyond the research community.
Besides this, given the response of the online science communication community (check out #scientistswhoselfie, #whyiscicomm on any social media) it’s painfully obvious that this article has missed the simple point of why so many of us – who happen to be women – use online platforms to share our research with the world. It’s not because we are ‘forced’ to by gender inequality (although we are all extremely tired and fed up of it, yes). First and foremost: we love doing it!
Using my own personal experiences, the reason why I love sharing my science – especially with all you non-scientists out there, and especially with children – is because it’s fun. We want to share the exciting work we do, and not only that but it’s incredibly motivating to talk to others and see them get interested and excited about what you do! Plus like many, I do it as well as my research – and, honestly, rather than jeopardising it, it makes me better at my job. As I told many of the girls at their careers fair: there is no point in doing incredible research unless you can communicate and tell the world about it!
Nothing to see here, just a wee fruit fly talking about science.
Ultimately, our emojis and pretty microscope images make our work accessible and relatable to the many outside of science who are actually curious about what we do. And they represent the passion and excitement that drives why so many scientists share their work through social media, and beyond. If having a late-night craft session after a day crammed with research, and goofing around in a paper-maché fruit fly head – for absolutely no payment other than ‘because it’s fun’ – isn’t a prime example of this I don’t know what is. It’s certainly not a look that’s going to make me look pretty on Instagram.
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