Science Twitter is fun, useful, and really nice—no, really

Most scientists are excited about their research. Chances are that the majority of scientists reading this blog think their science is super cool. Fun, even! After all, scientific research is one of the very few endeavors that independently rich people throughout history chose to do. You don’t have to work? Then do an experiment. Heck, if I did not need money, I would do almost the exact same job that I do now. (Not the grant writing part, but pretty much everything else.) I am in love with the scientific process and find joy in training the next generation of scientists. There is a thing we do not know. We do some experiments. Then we know it. In the process of figuring that one thing out, a landscape of other things we did not know we needed to know about gets revealed. The result is that we never run out of unknown things to figure out. Yes, many would find this excruciating. Scientists find it exhilarating. It is a truly beautiful process that creates new knowledge. And scientists want to share this beauty with others. But therein lies the problem: Scientists are not generally trained to share their research with a broad audience.

During training, scientists learn to present their work in very specific formats. We all learn how to write papers where we present our data spread out over multiple figures. We also learn to give oral presentations in the safety of our own labs and then at conferences. For most of us, conferences entail presenting to other scientists using our data printed out on a large poster, and—if you are good, lucky, or ideally both—presenting an invited talk using slides (e.g., PowerPoint, Keynote, etc.). In each of these cases, we have the opportunity to present introductory material to bootstrap the listener into our project. What’s the problem? Why is it important? How will I go about addressing it (i.e., worms, flies, mice, or some random-sounding stuff in a test tube)? But this is all just to get to your data. After all, that’s what’s new here. Using microscopes or other fancy imaging devices to obtain photographs of a cell or of a gel are often accompanied by quantification of those photographs. This means graphs. Lots of graphs. Maybe a table or two. This is the meat of the story we try to tell, irrespective of the presentation format. After we get through the data, we can wrap it up and give our audience a conclusion and a tidbit about what the future holds for the project. Most of the time there is time for audience participation. Often, well-heeled scientists get up and ask for clarification on a particular part of your talk or how it relates to some other data; or they just make a comment. All in all, presenting our results is a lovely process that can be very satisfying to the presenter, and—more importantly—disseminates the science to a wider audience. In short, we are trained to be good at Science Communication. The problem is that we really only get formal practice communicating with other scientists.

A neuronal growth cone from a bag cell neuron isolated from a giant sea slug (Aplysia californica). Microtubules (yellow) and actin filaments (blue) are shown.

When I first started my graduate work in 2000, I liked to talk about neuronal growth cones a lot. Like a lot a lot. But when I tried to explain to my mother what I was working on, I somehow failed to get across what a growth cone was in the first place; let alone why watching their actin filaments and microtubules move around was interesting. Off the bat, it was clear that I was trying to stuff in multiple, rather complex concepts. “Back up, why are you using neurons from a sea slug again?” I knew that if my mother—a highly intelligent woman—could not understand what I was talking about, then that was on me. Clearly, my pitch was not working. That turned out to be remedied by bringing in a prop—a photograph (Figure 1; actin filaments (blue) and microtubules (yellow)). [We can agree to disagree as to whether a pseudo-color overlay of two grayscale images constitutes a real photograph. It is real enough.] That photograph of a growth cone became a way to stage a naturally evolving conversation around the growth cone’s relative position to the cell body and what it could be doing (e.g., trying to find another neuron to make a new connection in our brain; or in this case, another bag cell neuron to regulate egg laying in a giant sea slug). Of course, the actin and microtubules became real with this image as it is actually a photograph of them. Exploratory microtubules at the edge of the growth cone were particularly fascinating to me at the time, and I could show my mom exactly where they were and what I thought they were doing there. [Side note: I still do not know what they are actually doing there; remember the ever-expanding landscape of things?]. A framed version of this photograph hung on my mom’s living room wall and she would use it to show her friends what her son—the scientist—did for a living. Actually, you did not even need to be her friend; just in the living room at the same time as she was. You were, thus, introduced to the growth cone. And you would listen too. Single mothers earn their bragging rights.

I learned from my early experiences that a single Prop and a short punchy Pitch were effective ways of engaging people. It was easier for me than some as my Props were always brightly colored photographs of cells. But there was no medium to try this out on a large audience. All of my interactions were one-on-one and in real life. Then social media came along and made it so easy to share my Props/Pitches with lots of people. But I did not start out using social media for science communication. I got into it for the money….

The first Tweet used to promote a Burnette lab paper.

I created a Twitter account in 2014 to promote my then-company We produced large prints of photographs taken through a microscope and clothing—scarves, T-shirts, etc.—that had designs taken from these photographs. The company folded but the Twitter account remained. I started using this account again initially with the single-minded goal of promoting the research coming out of my lab. Advertisements, if you will. The work from our second paper had just started to be repeated by others and was being presented without citation. To bring attention to this paper, I used a video showing focal adhesions assembling after cell division with a link to the paper and the hashtag #ASCBEMBO2017 (Figure 2). That tweet was retweeted 10 times and liked 39 times. Not stellar by viral standards, but I was blown away when 87 people clicked on the link to the paper. It started getting cited and we were even invited to write a review in which the editor specifically mentioned my Twitter presence in the invitation. By that point, I had been tweeting for a year and I had moved beyond simply using Twitter to promote my lab’s results. I had discovered a delightful thing about social media. There is an audience for just about everything. I learned that there are people who think photographs or videos of cells are a form of entertainment. I had found my people. I was no longer a promoter; I was an entertainer! OK, maybe it is not that grandiose. In the end, all I am doing is posting photographs and videos I acquired using a microscope; mainly displayed as colorful overlays. But people seem to enjoy it. Furthermore, almost every comment and interaction I had on Twitter was positive and uplifting. While there is a funny “Reviewer 2” account, real Reviewer 2s don’t often show up on Twitter. That’s right, the vast majority of Science Twitter is really nice. I think that it helps that you can only “like” something or “retweet” it to share it with your followers; both positive things that take a bit of work to turn into a criticism. So, to satisfy that Reviewer 2 in you, you have to write that criticism down and then have the bravery to publish it in one of the largest open access journals on earth; probably with a picture of you sitting right next to it. So instead, you say, “Congratulations on the paper! This work makes it clear there is so much more to explore!”. What a positive and uplifting comment. Could there be a little edge hidden in there? Maybe, but just as easily not. I think it is awesome that we can share our research in such a positive place. And yes, the psychology I lay out above may not actually be what’s going on. But Science Twitter seems rather positive to me. But then again, we do curate our own experience on Twitter by choosing who we follow and/or block. Hmm…. so, if your Science Twitter does not seem positive or uplifting—and you want it to be—push that mute/block button on those Negative Neds. You will still get all of the benefits of finding out about interesting pre-prints and enough cool data presented in bite-sized chunks to facilitate way too much scrolling; just without the Neds…… (I would like to apologize to anyone named Ned. You are just one in a sea of victims of lazy and incomplete alliteration.)

Being able to curate your own experience on Twitter is a big deal. I did not start by curating anything. I simply followed everyone who liked or retweeted my posts thinking that they would be interested in science. That was a mistake. At some point, I was following ~13,000 people. That is too many people! My feed was useless. Every time one of my graduate students would say, “Did you see that paper about X, Y and Z that’s blowing up Twitter?”, my answer was usually, “No”. My feed ended up with very little science. Instead, there were a lot of people being mean to other people and lots of stuff about politics. Those two things were obviously not mutually exclusive. The idea of going through all 13K of the people I was following was really overwhelming. In the end, I unfollowed everyone and started over. Now I follow everyone who follows me. That is if their profile blurb indicates they are a scientist or someone who is actually interested in science. Your “personal twitter statement” is fairly important. I think a lot of people are like I am and rely on it to make a snap judgment as to whether they are going to follow someone or not. Unfortunately, many people do not write one or say something that may sound profound on the surface—“Jack of all trades, master of three.”—but does not give any indication as to whether they are worth following. (I am not generally good at sounding profound; that’s the best I’ve got right now.) “Graduate student at Rutgers. Interested in nerve regeneration.” Now, I would follow that account.

About the Author:

Dylan T. Burnette is an Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine. He is a cell biologist by training and remains a cell biologist by choice.