We Need to Talk About SciComm

Life as a Scientist, Women In Science

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.

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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.

Careers Fair.jpg

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.

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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!

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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.

  • Can’t wait until the new blog post? Jump on board! Train of Brain is now on Instagram and Twitter  – follow for more regular snapshots of lab life and interesting science snippets I’ve found across the interwebs. (Plus, you’ll be the first to know when the next blog post is fresh out the oven 😉 )
  • Got a question? If there’s a burning subject you’d like to see discussed on Train of Brain in future posts, leave a comment and let me know.

Who Run the (Science) World?

Women In Science

Hot on the heels (or whatever damn shoes you do your best work in) of last month’s International Women & Girls in Science Day, today is International Women’s Day! What I have to say is nothing new. Dip into social media today and you’ll encounter a roar of positive voices, of which mine is just one. But, if enough of us keep on saying this, maybe one day it’ll finally – finally – get through.

No girl or woman should ever feel that any particular path in life is off limits because of her gender. I may not have known it aged-4, tea-cosy on head, but for me, my path was science – one so notoriously entrenched in old-straight-white-male-ism it has its own separate women’s movement. I was personally fortunate enough that I grew up in an environment surrounded by people that taught me that, if I worked hard and tried my best, nothing was closed off to me. I’m also incredibly fortunate enough still, that now that I’ve got here, wiped my feet, taken my shoes off and made myself at home and said ‘yes, I would like to science please’ – I have yet to experience adversity or negativity specifically because I’m a woman…as far as I’m aware of. But just because I haven’t experienced this directly doesn’t mean there aren’t a multitude of implicit, subtle attitudes against them that women in science encounter regularly, which they may not even notice.

We need this day. We need it as a reminder that change still needs to happen. Let’s start with the more obvious. At one extreme of the scale, there are girls who need this day because even wanting to go to school, let alone wanting to be a scientist, is an act of defiance that could get them killed. We need this day because women are still being paid less than men in the same jobs, fighting a pay gap which, at the current rate of improvement, will take over 100 years to close.

And then, at the other end of the scale, in science we need this day for more subtle, implicit reasons that come from being in an environment dominated by men. For every time an emotionally insecure male colleague does not take you seriously intellectually, because you had the audacity to cry once when that experiment didn’t work for the fifth time and the work was piled high with no end in sight. For every time your opinion feels like it counts for less, that you’re seen as less committed because today you chose to wear a dress and take five minutes extra to do your make-up. For every time when you’ve spoken up in a meeting, argued your point about an experiment result with a male colleague who does not agree – and know that it’ll probably have earned you a muttered reputation for being a ‘bitch’ or ‘intense’, when if it were the other way around, they’d have been commended for being ‘assertive’ and ‘insightful’. Every woman like me, who has enjoyed a positive experience in science so far, knows a female colleague with a ‘horror story’ about a male academic who was manipulative, exploitative, crossed personal boundaries, women who have quit positions knowing their accusations won’t be taken seriously. We need this day because, on my floor of the building I work in, the research staff is dominated by amazing women but there is not a single female lab leader. If I had £1 for every female colleague I’ve heard say they’re uncertain they’ll stay in science after their PhD…I could almost make a dent in my student loan.

As a litmus test (what can I say, I can’t resist an experiment) when I’m working in schools or with children I often ask them to draw me a scientist, and it gives me a mushy feeling of hope for the future every time I see a girl draw themselves in that lab coat, or a boy who draws me, as opposed to an Einstein-esque character. I firmly believe that being the change you want to see is one of the best ways forward, which is why next week – which also just happens to be British Science Week –  I’ll be visiting two schools inviting children to hit me with their burning questions about what it’s like to be a scientist. Past experience tells me to expect some corkers. (‘Do fruitflies poo?’, ‘Does a scientist always have to lick their experiment potions?’ and ‘Does brain smell like ham?’ are some of my previous favourites which will be pretty tough to beat, if I’m honest.) Aside from the comedy value, sharing what we do and inspiring the next generation of future women in science is one of the most empowering things we can do. What better way to make sure there are more incredible women in science in the future than by going out there and finding them yourself?

Not only is today a day to make the need for change heard and how much further we have to go, but it’s also a day to reflect and celebrate how far we’ve come. So to all celebrating today, Happy International Women’s Day! To all the incredible scientists who also just happen to be women: keep doing you! All we ask for is equality, and until we get it: we need this day.

  • Can’t wait until the new blog post? Jump on board! Train of Brain is now on Instagram and Twitter  – follow for more regular snapshots of lab life and interesting science snippets I’ve found across the interwebs. (Plus, you’ll be the first to know when the next blog post is fresh out the oven 😉 )
  • Got a question? If there’s a burning subject you’d like to see discussed on Train of Brain in future posts, leave a comment and let me know.

Leading Ladies of Science: No Imitation Game

Neuroscience in the Media, Women In Science
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Image: Black Bear Pictures

Recently it seems (to me anyway) that scientific genius is somewhat in vogue on the big screen. November saw the release of ‘The Imitation Game’, the biopic of Alan Turing, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the code-breaking, mathematical genius whose work not only laid the foundations for artificial intelligence and modern computing, but also had an impact on neuroscience. Today we discuss the brain using words like ‘wiring’ and ‘network’ without a second thought: the brain is the most complex thing we know of, so we tend to describe it in terms of our most complex technology. We have Alan Turning to thank for the analogy of the brain as a kind of computer.

Without turning this into a film review, I loved ‘The Imitation Game’, and would even go so far as to say that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Besides his appalling treatment by the British government due to his homosexuality, one of the reasons Turing’s genius had until relatively recently gone unnoticed and under-appreciated by the general public, was due to the secretive nature of his job. Even now, some of the code-breaking methods pioneered by him whilst working for the British government during the war have only just been de-classified in recent years. So, in my opinion, this film went some way towards placing him back in the public eye where his contributions to science can be properly realised and appreciated by everyone.

Two films hardly counts as a ‘trend’, I know, but another film which places scientific endeavour in the spotlight is the forthcoming ‘The Theory of Everything’, starring Eddie Redmayne as Professor Stephen Hawking. I can’t wait to see this, not just because some of it was filmed right outside my university halls last year, but because it looks likely to be another fantastic film about the life of an incredible scientist.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, released 1st January (UK). Image: Liam Daniel/Focus Feature

However, you could say that these aren’t so much films about science, rather about the people behind the science. You’d have to be a ridiculous optimist (or just ridiculous) to expect ‘Crossword Puzzles and Enigma Coding 101’ to gross a not-too-shabby $3,155,576 at the box office, even if Benedict Cumberbatch is in it (but, on second thoughts…). Why are we suckers for a tale of genius? There’s clearly something that appeals to us in that romantic ideal of a remarkable, lone individual overcoming adversity – be it war, disease, or ridicule and scepticism – to defy the status quo and do incredible things. It makes for good cinema, warms the cockles of our hearts (which are actually in your brain, but let’s not get technical) and makes us feel that as humans, we are capable of anything.

The problem is, science doesn’t really go in for first person. By and large, the questions we ask are: ‘what?’, ‘why?’, and ‘how?’ Not: ‘who?’ And unsurprisingly, few people want to spend their time struggling through original research, and often dry works of even the most famous scientists, nor trawling through the internet to search out obscure scientists whose work has gone unappreciated by those outside the scientific community (and sometimes, even within it!) But these recent films are a strong example of how powerful, inspiring – and accessible – stories of science can be when they go hand-in-hand with art. It is often the story of the person behind the work that has the power to captivate our interest, and make us go away thinking ‘that’s incredible, I never knew that!’

So why is it still the case that, when questioned, your average person on the street will only be able to name one, perhaps two, eminent female scientists? Try it yourself now. (If you managed to name more than two, or any who weren’t Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin, I applaud you.) Where are the films about them? Now, the point I’m not trying to make is: ‘women must have an equal amount of attention for their scientific endeavours as men, because otherwise it’s just not fair on principle.’ While I don’t disagree with this per se I think there is – and should be – so much more to it than that. The point I am trying to make, by no means a particularly revolutionary one, is this: there are many scientists – completely unheard-of compared to the likes of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking – who have done incredible things, have fascinating stories of how they came to achieve the things they did…oh, and it just so happens that some of them are women too. Here are just two such remarkable – and, in my opinion, film-worthy – women in science you’ve probably never heard of:

Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011)

Joint winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her contribution to development of radioimmunoassay (RIA), an analytical lab process which uses radioactivity to measure tiny amounts of biological substances, such as hormones and enzymes, in blood and other fluids. It was enormously useful for initially monitoring insulin levels in diabetics, but has since become a widely applicable technique in the lab. Despite talent she’d shown at school for maths, chemistry and later, physics, she had to win her way inch-by-inch onto a university course via a ‘backdoor’ entrance by first becoming secretary to a biochemist (and you thought UCAS was a hardship!) After completing her first course Rosalyn was then accepted onto a graduate course at the Faculty of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, the only women of its four hundred members, where she scored straight A’s in 2 courses and an A- for laboratory work. The only comment the Chairman of the Department of Physics had to pass was: ‘That A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work.’ The Nobel Prize that followed later on speaks for itself, really.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012)

Initially told by her traditional-minded family that studying for a career would ‘interfere with the duties of a wife and mother’, she managed to convince them otherwise and went to medical school in Italy. After graduating in 1936 she enrolled on a specialist neurology and psychiatry course to decide whether she wanted to pursue research or medicine. Within years the Second World War began, and regulations tightened as Mussolini issued laws banning non-Aryan Italians from being academics and doing research. Not to be deterred, Rita built her own lab in her small bedroom at home in Turin, where she continued her work studying chick embryo growth. Unexpectedly, she was soon joined by her old tutor the famous histologist Giuseppe Levi. He had just managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Belgium, and from then on became her research assistant. Eventually heavy bombing forced Rita to pack up her bedroom laboratory and flee to the countryside with her family…where she rebuilt her lab and continued her work. Even this wasn’t safe, as they later had to relocate again to Florence where Rita worked as a doctor in a war refugee camp. The war finally ended and she returned home and to a research career that spanned the rest of her long life and saw her set up several research programmes, including one in Rome. In 1986 she was awarded a joint Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering nerve growth factor, a chemical that directs the growth of the developing nervous system and for the discovery of tissue growth factors with her colleague Stanley Cohen.

Once they let us into universities and labs we never looked back. Throughout history there have been abundant brilliant discoveries we owe to scientific geniuses who happened to be women. And, now the ball is rolling thanks to recent films, I reckon it’s high time the leading ladies of science had their turn on the big screen. The talented actresses, writers and directors of our age are more than capable of rising to this challenge. What better cause to use the power of film – and art in general – than to not only bring to light overlooked scientific figures who made amazing, important discoveries that impact our lives today; but also to potentially inspire future generations of girls and young women not just to become token female scientists and settle for that, but to show them just how dazzlingly brilliant it is possible to be. So, creatives of the world, let’s have more of this please: