The Power of Science + Social Media: An Interview with @Science.Sam

Our theme this month is “Things that Give Me Hope,” and one thing that never fails to inspire me is seeing how education can happen on and across so many platforms.  When I heard about the dynamic @science.sam from a friend whose son is studying with her, I knew I had to learn more.  Plenty fired off our burning questions, and Sam graciously replied with thought and care.

Samantha Yammine is working on her PhD at the University of Toronto in brain development and stem cell biology.  She is also a science communicator, and in that role has a fantastic Instagram and Twitter presence that helps to bring science to the masses.  We asked Sam about everything from pseudoscience to mentoring to sexism.  Have you ever wondered why social media posts with your photo get more likes than your other posts?   Read our interview below to find out why!

Plenty: You are working on a PhD in brain development and stem cell biology, but you are also cultivating a social media presence to help bring science to the masses.  What was your inspiration for becoming @science.sam?

Sam: A PhD gives you time to explore your favourite questions in science, and I’ve been really lucky to be given a lot of intellectual freedom in my degree to explore and learn all kinds of topics. I was learning a lot and wanted a place to share it in a way that anyone could benefit, and I realized social media might be a good place to do this. I didn’t even have an Instagram account at the time, but my best friend Michelle convinced me that it’d be a good place to share science in a fun and interactive way and so I created @science.sam! Turns out she was right 🙂

Plenty: Were you active on social media as a teen?

Sam: I think my age group has played a really interesting role in the development of social media. I got my first email account when I was 9, and I was really active on the – at the time – popular chatting service MSN throughout elementary and high school. In high school personal websites like “friendpages” were all the rage, and I made myself a pretty cool one, which in retrospect was a great way to introduce young people to html. In my second year of high school someone introduced me to Facebook, so I’ve been using it since its pretty early days. Since then, I’m usually pretty excited to try out new platforms!

Plenty: Is it part of your private life as well as your professional life?

Sam: I’ve spent a lot of time debating what type of content to include on my Instagram account… I always knew I wanted it to be educational, but I decided early on that it would still be pretty personal and honest. I think these more human narratives are less told in STEM and that they’re really important, interesting, and compelling.

Plenty: Tell us about the Scientist Selfies project.  Why selfies?  Has there been any backlash?  How do you counter the reaction that those featured will lose credibility?

Sam: Whether people like it or not, selfies are the language of social media! Our brains are really great at recognizing faces, and pictures with faces tend to get more engagement than those without them. A selfie makes things a little more personal and a little less formal, which I think can be really helpful for a scientist who’s trying to connect with people in a genuine way through digital media.

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks this, and a bunch of science communicators have formed an international collaboration to investigate this academically! We’re testing whether scientists on Instagram are perceived to be more warm, friendly, and/or competent when they post just their work or include themselves in the image, too. Importantly, we’ll also be testing whether things like age and sex change these perceptions. We crowd-funded to support this research and raised over $10,000 USD in just 3 weeks thanks to our generous supporters!

Our research team comprises Dr. Paige Jarreau, Becky Carmichael, and Dr. Lance Porter from Louisiana State University; PhD Candidates Imogene Cancellere from the University of Delaware; PhD Candidate Daniel Toker from Berkeley; and me. We all met through social media and regularly Skype and chat on the phone to discuss the study. It is currently underway at Louisiana State University, and all of our results will be summarized into a helpful infographic when we’re done.

Plenty: Your work in social media helps shine a light on work in the sciences, but does the relationship work both ways?  How does your social media work inform your lab/doctoral work?

Sam: I love this question! No matter who I’m teaching I always feel like I get as much back as I give. I’ve used Twitter and Instagram to crowd-source answers to some nuanced questions I couldn’t find elsewhere, and I get a lot of motivation and encouragement from the online community that I am so grateful for. Also all of the amazing questions I receive about the work I share has given me a really refreshing renewed outlook on the day to day work I’ve been doing for over 5 years.

Plenty: What do you see as the greatest challenge to scientists working in the age of fake news and climate change deniers?  How do you overcome those challenges?  It strikes me, frankly, as a source for great despair.  How do you stay positive?!

Sam: I think a lot of the backlash against science we’re seeing is really a symptom of lack of trust in science and scientists, which is compounded by how inaccessible science is. I really think the responsibility is on scientists, and that we need to find new and innovating ways to get our messages heard. We need to invite more people into scientific conversations and remain inclusive with our messages if we’re going to really earn people’s attention. It’s a tough but worthy cause, and I’m really committed to helping us get there because it is so important for the advancement of our society.

Plenty: We seem today to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.  On one side is distrust of scientists, on the other is the increasing use of scientific jargon in advertising.  How can the lay person learn to sift the wheat from the chaff?  How can we learn to spot the kind of pseudoscience that is used to back up false claims about the efficacy of natural remedies or the exaggerated claims of the beauty industry, for example?

Sam: It is NOT easy to tell the difference between real and pseudoscience anymore. I think my best quick tips are to be wary of your source.  Just because someone on the Internet has an MD it doesn’t mean they are giving you factual information. Always ask yourself, “Is there a way for this source to be held accountable?” When you go to your doctor’s office, they are legally bound to give you the best possible health advice. Supplement and cosmetics companies, on the other hand, are not stringently regulated, so they incorporate a lot less evidence into their claims. If you’re ever looking for health information, go to government websites like Health Canada and the NIH.

Most importantly, please do not be shy to ask experts for help deciphering information.  Ask them how they know what they’re claiming. It’s not enough for someone to tell you facts, they have to tell you WHY it is true. If their reasoning does not include some sort of limitation, or if they’re speaking in absolutes, I wouldn’t trust what they’re saying. Everything truly scientific has a probability attached to it…. 99.9998% of the time 😉

Plenty: How are you working to mentor girls and young women in the STEM subjects?  Were you inspired and mentored by women?  By (social) media personalities?

Sam: My family has always been a fantastic support system for me – my parents always encouraged me to pursue whatever would make me happy and reassured me that I would be great at whatever it was so long as I worked hard.

I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was young but didn’t know any. It took a long time until I met any who I could relate to and see myself in, and that led to a lot of what is now referred to as “imposter syndrome.” I didn’t always feel like I belonged, and for a while thought I had to change the way I dressed, spoke, and acted in order to be taken seriously.

This has to change. I finally have the confidence to realize that if anything I am better for my unique experiences and perspectives. It concerns me that we may be missing out on some of the world’s next best ideas because they’re hiding in the mind of someone who doesn’t feel welcome and empowered to explore their thoughts.

I am committed to mentoring those who need it, and championing a future where there is equity, diversity, and inclusivity in STEM (and everywhere). I am grateful to be mentored by some amazing people in STEM and related fields, including my academic supervisor, Dr. Derek van der Kooy, many wonderful friends, and fantastic people I’ve met in the last few years including Dr. Imogen Coe, Dr. John Preece, and Paul Lewis, each of whom are fantastic advocates and supporters.

Plenty: What are some of the obstacles to women and girls studying and continuing to study STEM subjects?

Sam: I think the biggest problem – at least in my area of STEM, the biological sciences – is the retention of women in STEM fields including academia. We describe this as being due to more than just a “leaky” pipeline – it is because of a broken pipeline whereby the systems we have in place fail to support women and many other underrepresented groups. Unconscious biases change the way women are treated in the workplace, including how women are over-mentored and under-sponsored, defaulted into more support than leadership tasks, ignored and excluded in intellectual discussions, and subject to unprofessional and inappropriate comments.

We need to talk about this more openly and work together to understand all of the ways we may unintentionally be reinforcing these behaviours. We need to realize that all of us play a role in changing things for the better, and that women are not the only ones affected. Factors like identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, socioeconomic status, geography, disability, Indigineity, age, and ethnicity all alter the opportunities people are given in a manner that deviates from a meritocracy that would lead to the best innovations.

While these obstacles and challenges are very much real and amplified in certain communities, they are surpassable. Find champions, mentors, and advocates who will support you, talk about challenges, and ask for help. You are not alone!

Plenty: Are students being directed too soon to too narrow a field of study?  You combine the arts and sciences by telling great stories about science and scientists.  Did you complement your study of science with the arts in high school and undergrad?  Any regrets?  Anything you’d like to go back and study for fun?  (For me, it’s art history.  Sigh.)

Sam: I think I was ushered into science really young – in part by myself but also by those around me. It’s a bit strange to me that we make people choose between subjects when really skills and approaches are a bit more relevant when you’re doing something everyday. For example what I really love about science is the problem solving involved, but that is relevant in almost any career and can be applied to any scenario. I am now rather scientific with how I create digital content, how I understand social systems, and how I choose skincare. I don’t regret pursuing science, but I do think it’s worth reminding youth that they can pursue many different paths and still be happy.

I was always very focused on the sciences, but I am really glad I still stuck to my French education in high school because I really love languages. I also loved drama in high school and still continue to take improv classes now and then and go to as many plays as I can. Like science, the arts help us better understand the world around us and I think both are present in everything!

Plenty: Effective communication in the sciences is a hard balance: you have to inform without getting bogged down in the jargon.  How do you advise scientists to communicate to sound authoritative but not impenetrable?

Sam: There is a really delicate balance between demonstrating authority and being inclusive. I think social media helps me walk that line rather easily because I can visually convince people of my competence by showing them that I work in a lab doing real experiments, and then use plain language to talk about things more generally. At the same time, I wouldn’t want anyone to just believe me outright, so I try to link to sources or explain how I know things when I can. I think this is really important for communicators to do so that we get people in the habit of thinking, “Hmm… how do you know that?” We need to foster a questioning culture, even if it is directed at us!

Plenty: What are some other great social media accounts to follow for a savvy and fresh approach to science?

Sam: @thestemsquad is an amazing account that features awesome female-identifying people in STEM and highlights how to be more inclusive with our education. You’ll find tons of awesome accounts just through there, and it’s a great online community if you’re looking for support and inspiration!

I really love the Instagram account @steamotype and Twitter account and company @ArtTheScience because they both take such beautiful artistic approaches to science storytelling. My friends and #ScientistsWhoSelfie collaborators @biologistimogene and @the_brain_scientist are both PhD researchers doing an awesome job sharing insights in their respective fields. Rob Nelson @untamedscience is an awesome science filmmaker and adventurer. There are some great people on YouTube, including AsapSCIENCE by Greg Brown & Mitchell Moffit, Veritasium by Derek Muller, Brain Craft by Vanessa Hill, Gross Science by Anna Rothschild, and The Physics Girl Diana Cowern. 

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