Social Media for Scientists: Science Communication at Your Fingertips
An interview with Yasmin Meeda, marine scientist and Instagram-famous science communicator
It feels like it was yesterday when I joined Facebook in 2008. I remember being excited because I connected with so many friends from my childhood who I hadn't seen in a very long time. Back then I was living in Norway and far away from my home country, Venezuela, so, the revolutionary Facebook changed my life. More than ten years later, an explosion of social media platforms arose. These platforms stayed with us to completely change the way we interact with others. And with no exception, the way scientists communicate with the public.
The era of social media has allowed scientists to pop their academic bubble to start interacting with the world outside university walls. In this blog, I interview PhD candidate, Yasmin Meeda, from the University of Exeter in the UK, who has used social media not only to communicate science, but also to share the challenges of being a PhD student.
Yasmin Meeda in the lab working on phytoplankton for her thesis research.
Hi Yasmin, can you start off by telling us a bit about you and what your current PhD project is about?
"I’m Yasmin Meeda, a first-year PhD student studying marine molecular biology at the Marine Biological Association and the University of Exeter in the UK. My PhD project is about understanding the biology of plant-like microalgae called diatoms. Diatoms are extremely important organisms as they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (for us to breathe) through the process known as photosynthesis. These diatoms form the base of the marine food web and are important for maintaining biodiversity within the ocean. The ocean can encounter rapid changes in nutrient levels (iron, nitrogen and phosphorus) and my research aims are to understand how shifts in phosphorus impact diatom growth and productivity. I am looking at specific pathways that enable diatoms to sense and respond to changes in their environment."
As a scientist, where did your interest in communicating your work arise and why do you think it’s important?
"I believe that science should be accessible to everyone! Growing up, I never really had a particular role model who I thought 'yes, that’s going to be me in the future,' and perhaps that was because I didn’t see many people who looked or acted like me. I also never really thought science was accessible as I assumed you had to be a genius or someone who just spent their whole life in a lab doing research without a life outside of work. However, since getting into science, especially at the PhD level, I have realized that these stereotypes may be true for some people, but they do not represent everyone in this field. I want to help show others how diverse the science field is and that you can do science without fitting these stereotypes. Also, I think that it is important to see role models who look and act like you, and to show people that scientists are just regular people, doing the same things as everyone else. Even though I'm a scientist, I binge watch a lot of TV shows too. These are the main reasons that I wanted to get into science communication."
You clearly do a great job at this on social media. Congrats for recently reaching 10K followers on Instagram! Can you tell us a little more about your audience and what sort of content you post to engage with them?
"I still cannot believe that I have reached 10k followers on social media! I never thought my Instagram profile, @MarineBiologywithYaz, would grow this much. I started my social media page for family and friends who do not come from an academic background. I wanted to show them what I get up to on a daily basis and teach them things in a way that was accessible to everyone. Since then, my social media audience has grown, and my demographic is mainly school or university students, other women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and people who are interested in learning about the ocean. I tend to post content about PhD life and about marine microbiology. People tend to generalize the work that marine biologists do as wither studying sharks or dolphins, the charismatic megafauna, so, I wanted to highlight the other aspects of marine science which includes my work on phytoplankton!"
As social media is all about making connections, how has it helped you create collaborations with external organizations and institutions?
"Social media has definitely helped me create collaborations with other organizations and institutions. It’s been a great way to connect with others working in the same or similar field as me. It’s not only helped me understand that science doesn’t always work out how you expect (many experiments tend to fail or need to be optimized), but also that there are so many helpful people and resources out there! When I am struggling with some of my own research I can often seek help via social media and there is always someone who knows something I don’t. I find that external organizations are happy to chat and collaborate and it makes you feel integrated in your community. I have yet to gain a research collaborator through social, but I am sure they are out there and I am excited to see what’s to come!"
We know the life of a research student can be highly rewarding and challenging. What kind of things have you learned throughout your journey that you want to share with other PhD students?
"My five career advice tips would be (1) do not compare yourself to anyone else. This is your journey, focus on you and your project. (2) Experiments will fail, this doesn’t mean you are a failure. (3) A PhD is a learning process; you are still a student which means you do not need to know everything (even professors don’t know everything). (4) Make time for yourself and set boundaries! You don’t want to hate your PhD because you’re overworking and getting sick. Finally, (5) network with anyone and everyone. I’ve found that a lot of the time things happen because of showing up at the right timing and being in the right place by putting yourself out there."