Cancer in English: Translating cancer cell biology for everyone through Instagram

In today’s age of social media, it’s easy for the sheer volume of posts and opinions floating around the internet to distract us. Communication on social media focuses heavily on quick ideas, immediate updates, and instant gratification and much less on the depth of information. From my perspective as a grad student in biology, this format is strikingly different when compared with scientific research articles, which often take years to produce and far longer to read than a 280-character tweet. Although scientific research articles are absolutely essential for the dissemination of new knowledge to experts in the field, they are perceived as intimidating, boring, and/or inaccessible to the general public. It’s time for us as scientists to rethink how we communicate with those outside of our academic bubble so we can make science accessible and interesting for everyone.

One day while scrolling through the sea of cat pictures and college friends on my Instagram, a new account posted by a fellow Emory University grad student (and brand-new lab member) caught my eye that completely changed my ideas on how we can share our science in a social media-driven society. Joseph Yoon, a second-year PhD student in cancer biology, created an Instagram account titled “Cancer in English.” In it, he produces a series of short 10-second images and videos explaining cancer cell biology using plenty of pictures and no difficult jargon.

I interviewed Joseph to learn more about his social media science breakthrough in the hopes that more people can use his methods to share the wonders of scientific discovery with people who would otherwise miss it.

So Joseph, what is “Cancer in English”?

“Cancer in English” is an Instagram account that I started to make learning about cancer easier than it currently is. Everyone knows about cancer—almost everyone is affected by it somehow. Yet, although many people know of how scary cancer is, many don’t really understand what cancer is to begin with, how cancer works, and what cool strategies and methods are being employed by the scientific community to find a cure. Learning about science can definitely be intimidating (rightfully so), and my hope is to be able to make science—particularly cancer biology—easier to understand to people who hated or were not very interested in their science classes in high school/college.

What inspired you to start this project?

I was listening to a lecture in which we learned about how certain bacteria could potentially reduce the size of tumors (original article here). It was even more interesting because the way scientists found this was by noticing that mice with cancer that lived in groups (when compared with mice that live alone) had smaller tumors, and something that mice do often is eat each other’s poop (which contains bacteria). I was blown away by this story and the idea that something we normally associate with disease can actually be used as a potential cancer treatment.

So, after that lecture, I made a short series of Instagram stories and shared it with my friends on my Instagram account. I knew that many friends were not science majors or were not interested in science, so I made sure that it was really easy to understand. After sharing it, I was surprised by the number of people who told me that they absolutely loved it and how interesting they thought it was. They encouraged me to make more, and since then, I have shared Instagram stories on my personal account as a series titled “Cancer in English,” and I’ve received a great response from my friends and acquaintances.

Why do you use Instagram as your platform of choice?

A lot of people swipe through Instagram posts and stories to pass time, and for many it is a routine just to see what people are up to. So I thought it’d be cool if I snuck into this routine with something a bit different and educational that doesn’t require too much effort to digest. I particularly like Instagram stories because my series of stories are indeed meant to be a story describing either a particular characteristic of cancer or a new treatment strategy for cancer. In my official “Cancer in English” Instagram account, however, I have shifted toward just making posts rather than stories so that people could see my content even after 24 hours (since stories expire after 24 hours).

Additionally, I just feel that Instagram is different from other social media platforms in that it places heavy value on quality. The quality of my posts and stories have really evolved over time, and I put a lot of effort into ensuring that each post or story is not disorganized or hard to read in any way. I do want to make sure my content is aesthetic, and considering that Instagram users mostly want to see high quality content, I thought it’d be the ideal platform.

What’s an example of one of your recent posts?

One of my recent stories on my personal account that I really enjoyed putting together was on the research my PhD lab is heavily focused on, which is collective tumor invasion and how different subpopulations of cells within a tumor cooperate to invade and eventually metastasize. Our lab is interested in two subpopulations in particular: leaders (which are on the very tips of invasive chains and do the actual moving) and followers (which are cells directly behind leaders that support leaders), and I shared about how each interacts with one another to cause a tumor to become invasive. It was fun to put this together because the concept of leaders and followers can be easily understood by anyone, and I was able to use that concept to explain how tumor invasion works. Also, since our lab has a heavy focus on imaging, I showed some live cell imaging from the lab, which people really seemed to find interesting!

Any upcoming posts that you’re particularly excited to create?

I’m excited to make more posts on recent research that is being done right now to treat cancer. One challenge that I’m also excited about is making signaling pathways interesting and easily understandable, considering that so many of the drugs being tested right now against cancer are targeted therapies against particular important signaling pathways. Unfortunately, signaling pathways can be quite dull and complicated, so I’m excited to see how I can make it friendlier to people who may already be scared of how complicated science is.

What audiences are you hoping to reach with “Cancer in English”?

My target audience is the general public, particularly those who are ambivalent to science or even hate it. I believe that science in many schools is taught without really showcasing how cool and interesting it is when applied to real life. I want to be able to help people realize that science isn’t simply difficult and thus impossible to understand—instead, it can actually be fun to learn about and super cool.

The Insta-stories you put together look incredibly high quality! What programs/apps do you use to make the images that go into your Insta-stories, and how did you learn to use that software?

I actually make all these posts and stories on iPhone apps using my phone! In particular, I use two apps: InShot and Adobe Spark Post. Initially, I just used the features available on Instagram to make my stories, but they were incredibly limited on the different styles of fonts I could use and the other different ways I could make my stories more fun and visually appealing. As such, I began to experiment with InShot and Adobe Spark Post and found that these apps really made my posts look more put together and stylish. Thankfully these apps are not hard to use, so it didn’t take me too long to understand how to use them!

Any advice for other students/postdocs/scientists who have interest in starting similar social media projects to make science friendlier?

Presentation matters. A lot. I believe that many people are “scared” of science mostly because it isn’t presented in an appealing and interesting way. When people are bombarded with just a ton of different graphs, Western blots, and words it is easy to lose interest quickly. As such, I believe strongly that when explaining science, different visual depictions, moving images, and cartoons can help people visualize how the science works. Having said that, if anyone wants to grab the public’s attention, particularly when it comes to sharing about science, it needs to be visually appealing. It can’t be black and white—it needs to be colorful and stylish. If you can make scientific knowledge look like that, then people will be interested and it will open their hearts and minds to want to learn. Otherwise, science will forever be too complicated and difficult to understand for many people. I think a focus on making science artistic is very important in making science more “friendly.”

You can follow Joseph’s work on “Cancer in English” on Instagram @cancerinenglish.

 All images used with permission from the “Cancer in English” Instagram page or Joseph Yoon’s personal Instagram page. Microscopy in the third image used with permission from the Marcus Lab.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.




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