Scientists and new media: overcoming a healthy skepticism

Commodore PET computers in use after 30 years after their introduction to the market. They were a very important part of my PhD dissertation as they controlled  the experimental setup. Alas! no internet connection available.

I started a Twitter account two months ago. Somehow during the process I became a Social Media evangelist that pesters old and new friends so they start talking about their science online. I successfully got one friend to open a Twitter account (and use it), and I got another friend to start using hashtags during meetings. And now I want you –yes, I am talking to you– to consider giving new media a try.

Most scientists understand the need to communicate their work to the public, either to help them take informed decisions in the public health and policy area, or to make sure the taxpayers learn the very important labor that scientists do with their money. A lot of my friends, including me, do science communication because it is fun, and because it is great to talk with people about what we love. But when I start telling my friends to put content on a blog or following people on Twitter I see in their faces “a healthy skepticism about return on investment of engaging in new media” as Liz Neeley of puts it (Check this post from Heater Reiff for more). I must concede that engaging your science online takes time, but is it worth it? YES! it is totally worth it.

The learning curve for social media is not too steep, there are plenty of online resources to start –including this Social networking for Scientists WIKI started by Christie Wilcox of Science Sushi— and the benefits are potentially enormous: Two weeks ago I was talking with another post-doc about opportunities to do some science outreach in Seattle. I was surprised to notice that I had so many local people to recommend, most of them I didn’t know before I started using my Twitter account and following the local community. On Twitter you can do several things:  learn about people with similar interest, learn what conferences are popular in your field, find new funding opportunities and get fast answers to questions to the community. More important, when you start building content you also start building relationships and name recognition. Who knows? Maybe a new scientific collaboration or your next job may come from Twitter.

There is more to new media than Tweeter or blogging. LinkedIn,, Google Plus, Storify, and Wikis are great tools that you may consider using.

For more reasons to start engaging your science online and for more information about the different resources available please go to the social networking for scientist Wiki, Have fun!

Update 10/30/12: If you want to start measuring your success with new media tools, you should read Online ROI: How to measure social media impact. This summary from Science Writers 2012 by Christie Wilcox is about the appropriate metrics to measure success in science communication, and the multiple tolls you have to do it.

Deadline: Diversity in Science Blog Carnival

Our friend Elisa Maldonado from Larval Metamorphosis blog is hosting October’s Diversity in Science blog Carnival. Deadline is 29th of October. You can still submit your post!

Reminder: send in your posts!

This is a reminder to send in your blog posts for the Diversity in Science blog Carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

This month’s theme will be Latino / Hispanic Health: Science and Advocacy. Anyone can participate! Even if you don’t have a blog! You can submit new posts as well as relevant posts from their archives by email (please put ‘DIS blog carnival’ in the subject line) or using the online form. The deadline for submissions is October 29, 2012.

Scientific writers come in Trojan horses

A bunch of friends inside the Trojan Horse. I am the guy in the bottom center. © Ivan F. Gonzalez

My last post was about the “Science Salsa Method” to become a better science communicator. In that post I mentioned an awesome Commencement Speech by Robert Krulwich.

This speech in front of the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011 takes half an hour to watch. My friend Jessica Carrilli of “Jessica’s Blog of Bad Advice” made me realize that not everybody has the time to watch it.

If you don’t watch it, you may not know what “looking for friends in low places” means. Let me explain what I meant:

Krulwich paints this picture for the newcomers in journalism:  You are outside the fortified city of Troy and want to get in – to get a job as a journalist in a company. Traditionally you wait on the sandy beaches and send cards to the people inside the fortress until somebody  trows you a key from the high towers and you are allowed to enter.

In the golden age, If you could get yourself into the New york Times or WSJ, and you gave your life for the company, the company would take care of you. That is no longer the case. Krulwich reminded us that “A job at NBC, ESPN, New York Times, NPR, may look safe today – but things change. They always change. And companies won’t protect you from that change. They can’t. And these days, they don’t even try.

As an alternative he proposes this: “Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something.”

The example he used was science journalism. Some people started with a blog, and now “They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!”

Krulwich advice continues: “So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.

Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy.  Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.

And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

The bold font is mine, that is what I meant to say when I said: I am looking for friends in low places!

If you want to read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s speech, please visit this blog post by Ed Yong: “There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine.

Science communication: if you need to start somewhere, start here!


How to become an excellent science communicator?

In science communication nothing beats the dual-package: carefully structured message combined to the ability to hear and read the audience. I am good at engaging the audience but I really want to become the kind of person that can do both engagement and structure effectively; and to keep it fresh, so we can have fun.

I tried the easy way; I searched online for a 5-minute-a-day method for science communication. Results guaranteed after the first two weeks, or your money back. I couldn’t find it.

Plan B is to find my own method for adding formal structure to my own voice. The first step on my method is to learn the craft of scientific writing. There are several things I am doing to make progress in that area: I am using a twitter account to learn to write a compelling message in 140 characters or less; I am taking Writing in The Sciences, an excellent Coursera class taught by Kristin Sainani at Stanford; and I am writing every day, some of those writings you will see in this blog in the future.  I am mainly doing what I do best: learning by observing and by reading other people.

How have other people started as science writers?

I think the best start to answer the question is reading Ed Yong’s blog. Ed is a British science writer with a blog called “Not Exactly Rocket Science” . He is very active in the Science Online community  and he compiled this great list of scientific writers –145 of them– telling you their personal path to get there; Ed said about this group of people, ”You can already see that they’re a varied bunch. Some stumbled into it by accident. Some came from traditional journalistic backgrounds. Others were bitten by a radioactive Carl Sagan. The more the stories accumulate, the better this diversity reveals itself.” The blog post is here: the origin of scientific writers.

I haven’t read all the names in the post. I prefer to read a new one when I have five minutes free, check their web page, maybe start following their blog or twitter account. You may want to do something similar to what I do; find stories that touch you personally, read the author’s work, and maybe contact them.

What path is Science Salsa following?

To properly answer that question, I think you may watch this half-an-hour video about journalism and starting your career by writing your own blog: Friends in low places – Video of Robert Krulwich. I really like his work on the radio, and RadioLab is one of my favorite shows. I think Krulwich makes a very good point in the video about the need to start gaining professional experience blogging from your own living room.

If you really want to know, the answer is simple: I am happily looking for friends in low places.

For more about the video: If you don’t have half an hour to watch it, I wrote another post with relevant  parts of the transcript  here.

Aprendiendo a comunicar ciencia

En el pasado he divulgado ciencia de una manera intuitiva e improvisada. Aunque siempre tuve una experiencia agradable en mis conversaciones con otra gente, noté que las pocas veces que tenía un libreto (estructura) sobre el cuál construir un diálogo (improvisación) lograba una comunicación más rica y efectiva.

Mi objetivo es aprender a formalizar estructuras para comunicar ciencia efectivamente y de manera profesional. Por ello estoy tomando dos cursos en línea:

El primero es sobre escritura en la ciencia “Writing in the Sciences”  de Coursera en colaboración con la Universidad de Standford. Muy efectivo y completamente gratis. Lo recomiendo para escritores y científicos por igual.

El segundo es un curso de la OEI sobre Comunicación de la Ciencia. Está diseñado para entender la comunicación científica desde un punto de vista histórico, cultural y político. Lo más interesante es que se basa en discusiones de los estudiantes que comparten sus interpretaciones de las lecturas y de sus experiencias personales.

En esa clase me he enterado de muchas experiencias interesantes, y quería compartir el dato sobre el congreso de divulgación científica de la Universidad de Antioquia y el Parque Explora en Medellín, Colombia que finalizó ayer.

Me parece genial que pueda ver el congreso en línea desde cualquier lugar del mundo. La charla inaugural estuvo a cargo de Nicolás  Witkowski, en idioma Francés. El Parque Explora dice sobre su charla  “De James Bond al LSD y a Voltaire, la divulgación de las ciencias puede ser un camino de seductoras estaciones. ¿Por qué ―se pregunta Witkowski― se inyectan dosis casi letales de sedantes en los manuales escolares de ciencia?”

Bravo por la Universidad de Antioquia y el Parque Explora!

The name is out!

Science Salsa is here!

I made public the name of my blog during the Blogging and Twitter section of SACNAS 2012

Sometimes the best option is just to jump into the pool, not to wonder if the water is too cold or if there is a shark lurking underwater. The blog is public!

What a great baptism in the company of Danielle Lee, Cara Santa Maria, Sabrina Bonaparte, Cynthia Coleman, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc.

Ready or not,  Science Salsa is starting to pour right now!


Judging a poster presentation? Try it next time, it may be good for you

My son ‘wearing his first SACNAS T-shirt.
* This was my first blog post, one year ago. The writer on my wants to rewrite it completely, as I believe it does not give justice to the experience of volunteer judging, a really amazing and energizing experience. If you go to SACNAS this year give it a try. It is really going to help some young and passionate scientists and engineers.*

Have you ever tried to help as an organizer or judge in one of the conferences you attended? Why not? You may be missing out!

There are practical reasons to volunteer as a judge or organizer in a conference. The organizers will remember you. They will know and remember your area or areas of expertise. They may invite you as a speaker next year just because your name comes first to their mind.

Additionally, you will have a better understanding of how things work behind the curtains. You may gain a better understanding of what makes a good poster or a good presentation. In some conferences with restricted number of assistants to be an organizer may be your only chance to secure a spot at the conference.

But I am not here to tell you about those reasons. I am going to tell you about my personal reason:

Last weekend I was at the Seattle Convention Center, volunteering to judge poster presentations at SACNAS 2012, “one of the largest annual gatherings of minority scientists in the country”, according to their website. The SACNAS National Conference is interdisciplinary, inclusive, and interactive; the organizers put a big emphasis in mentoring and they ask the judges to give a written feedback to each one of the poster presenters.

Listening to, and talking with the undergraduate students was an immense joy. They are very smart people making a conscious effort to tell you what they did last summer inside a laboratory, or what they did at school during the last year. Most often they do a great job with their poster presentations and I make some small recommendations about style or presentation. I try to always give positive feedback and give a little bit of career advice (little do they know about my own ‘pinball trajectory’ career).

Sometimes there is a personal connection and I see a spark in their eyes when we talk about a shared passion. Moments like that make feel I may have a positive impact on this young scientist or engineer. They certainly make a positive impact on me: they motivate and inspire me.

I see in those amazing young men and women the perfect example, the small little tale to tell my son if –twenty years from now– he decides to pursue a STEM career: They will be great scientist and engineers, and they will have last names that sound like his last name. These future scientists are going places; I can already tell you that!