Social media helps doctoral candidate reach out on research

July 3, 2012

by Chris Barncard

For researchers, describing complex science to folks outside their discipline can be a tricky or even unpleasant experience.

But it’s not an experience everyone avoids.

Photo: Jacquelyn Gill

Gill

Jacquelyn Gill, a doctoral candidate in geography, has embraced talking about her work. Her research on changing climate and the extinction of big animals -- think wooly mammoths) -- during the last tens of thousands of years was published in the journal Science and has landed Gill in the New York Times and on platforms such as  National Public Radio and the BBC.

Gill defends her Ph.D. thesis Thursday, July 5,  and on Aug. 1 starts a post doctoral fellowship at Brown University. Before she leaves town, we talked to Gill about what makes her so successful connecting with people — she’s got thousands of Twitter followers (twitter.com/jacquelyngill) and a popular blog (contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com) — especially with tools many scientists seem loathe to use.

Inside UW: Have you always been comfortable talking about your work?

Gill: I came to science late. I have a theater background — drama and voice — and I think that helped me get in front of an audience. But I’ve always been the kind of person who learns something and can’t wait to tell someone else. While I came through grad school I decided I also wanted to be able to do all the things we as scientists supposedly can’t do well—like talking to the public. The common stereotype is that we’re antisocial nerds. That’s a large part of our battle: that scientists are perceived by the public as a particular kind of person, and so you can’t be a scientist if you’re not that way.

Inside UW: What’s the value in fighting that battle via social media?

Gill: Well, people talk about incentives, like branding yourself and getting familiar with journalists. It can be even more direct. I put out a call on my blog and Twitter about a conference I wanted to get to, and my followers helped me crowd-source the funding to make the trip. I’ve gotten two speaking engagements out of Twitter. And I get to have a voice. When I want to make a point about something — someone else’s work, or if I see a misinterpretation of science — I can join or even start a conversation. There are also people out there deciding what the future of science communication and publishing will look like, and I think scientists have an obligation to be part of that.

I’m also learning things constantly because of Twitter. My advisor (geography professor Jack Williams) — who is on Twitter now, with my encouragement — would ask, “Where did you hear about this really cool paper? Where did you hear about this good grant?” And the answer was pretty often Twitter. I’ve gotten all sorts of technical help on Twitter, and that has directly improved my work.

Inside UW: Your work has been featured in some of the most high-impact journals and respected media outlets around. Doesn’t the Internet seem a little lightweight by comparison?

Gill: People have this perception that you can’t have meaningful interactions and discussions online, that the only exchanges that matter are peer-reviewed or presented at a conference hosted by a scientific society. But if you still believe that, you’re really missing out. My favorite coverage of the Science paper I worked on was on Ed Yong’s blog (Not Exactly Rocket Science on Discover’s website). Ed is a really good science writer, and he works largely in this community online.

Inside UW: How can Twitter work for scientists? Doesn’t a 140-character limit hamper your ability to delve into your research?

Gill: Twitter will expose you to more people outside your work, and if you’re willing to interact with them you’re going to have to get out of the standard scientist voice. That’s a good thing, and most people should realize they already do it. Even at your department happy hour, you don’t talk like you do in front of a formal crowd at a scientific conference. For me, Twitter and blogging have improved my writing. You get to know an audience, and write to it. Journal articles are written to cover so many ambiguous groups, the specific connections you’d like to make get wiped out. I try very hard to avoid abbreviations and the kind of jargon that might make me harder to understand. Twitter forces you to concentrate on what you want to say, and that improves your communicating in every environment.

Inside UW: How do you avoid wasting valuable work time?

Gill: First off, this isn’t as big a deal as people make of it. When you’re driving and you hit traffic, you just turn the radio off because you need to concentrate. And when the traffic clears, you turn it back on. I treat Twitter the same way. And there’s a long-standing stigma that if you’re not spending all your time collecting data you’re doing your science a disservice. But if you look at it that way, I’m not sure how you can stay passionate about your work. Not every scientist has a big media experience even once in their career. They don’t get the opportunity to talk to reporter after reporter about their work, so it’s worth it to try to make your own opportunities.

Inside UW: How would you recommend getting started?

Gill: Give it a try. That’s really all there is to it. Try talking about things other than your projects. Try to take off your scientist hat. Watch other people, but be yourself. Don’t edit everything like a formal publication. But remember the Internet is not written in pencil — that’s from “The Social Network,” the movie about Facebook. It’s electronic ink. Things live on, and people are always watching. So don’t treat it like something nobody will ever read, either.