Soapbox Science

Social Media from an Institutional Perspective – Why are we on there?

PaulaSalgado1-300x225Paula Salgado is a Lecturer in Macromolecular Crystallography at Newcastle University, UK. As a structural biologist, she uses protein X-ray crystallography and structure determination, to allow a deeper and wider understanding of biological processes and biochemical mechanisms. She is particularly interested in proteins involved in disease caused by infectious agents, aiming at providing molecular details of key mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions, relevant for the development of more effective treatments.

Parallel to an active research career, she has always been a strong advocate of communicating science within the scientific community and beyond, to both children and adult audiences and has been involved in many science communication activities. You can follow her on Twitter @pssalgado and find out more at http://www.paulasalgado.org/.

I’ve recently joined the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biosciences, (ICaMB), at Newcastle University, UK. This is a major UK biosciences research institute, with about 300 staff and students, formed in July 2004.  Today, we are launching  ICaMB social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter and our own blog: Inside Cells and Molecules Blog.

There have been many conversations in recent months about the importance of scientists engaging in wider outreach; last year there was a SpotOn NYC event about “Reaching out of the ivory tower” which inspired a series of #reachingoutsci blog posts where scientists described their motivations, blockers and strategies for taking science beyond the lab. There was also a very popular session at the recent AAAS meeting in Boston where discussions centred on encouraging scientists to engage more widely. The tweets on that #AAASbeit hashtag were collated in the following storify.

Here, I’d like to offer an institutional perspective on one tool for science outreach: a social media presence, including an institutional blog.

Fig1 – Snapshot of ICaMB Blog

It all started with an informal chat with Bob Lightowlers, Director of ICaMB about how the Institute could make itself more attractive to students and staff, particularly young researchers, as well as beyond academia, where I suggested we should try social media. This idea grew and Neil Perkins and Phil Aldridge joined our discussion. There are several reasons why we all considered online could provide a great showcase window for ICaMB:

  • The next generation of students will see social media as 2nd nature, as an integral part of the way they relate with the world. High Education Institutions (HEI), particularly those that are research-driven, must engage with it or suffer the risk of becoming irrelevant
  • The breadth and importance of online scientific discussions is growing and to take part of in them, you must join in
  •  In such a large Institute, with very diverse interests and research topics, it can be hard to stay connected. People feel better about where they are if they feel part of a communal enterprise, not locked away in their own lab all the time.
  • ICaMB produces great, high level research – but, beyond the traditional publication output, how can we know anyone is really paying attention?

To summarise why we think it is important: engage, engage, engage.  And that engagement really breaks down to our desire to reach out to three broad groups:

  • Researchers and scientists, internally and externally
  • Our students, current and prospective
  • The world outside of academia – locally, nationally and internationally

We’re convinced that the impact of our research is seen in the economic gains from patents and spin off companies and in the longer term benefits for health. However, there’s another important benefit and that’s how people see science, scientists and our work. We think that inviting everyone to join in, to take the ride with us and to share our doubts and successes is the best way to get there. Our aim is to share more than our science; it is to bring a bit of ourselves into the conversations about our research. Scientists are like everybody else: we have fun (even if our sense of humour might be a bit weird at times), we are very passionate about our work and, in some cases, we can even be accused of having a sense of fashion or enjoying a football match! Social media provides an amazing barrier-free connection to share this and we’re looking forward to joining the science-driven conversations there.

So, how are we going to get involved? Firstly, we had to decide which social media platforms we thought were most appropriate.  We had clear views that a Twitter (@ICaMB_NCL) presence was a great idea, as the members of the core “social media team” have been using it for research and science related matters, including science communication and policy, with very positive results. Good examples are Phil Aldridge’s involvement with Microbiology Twitter Journal Club (#microtwjc) – an organised twitter-based chat on microbiology every two weeks, where a chosen paper is discussed. They recently succeeded in engaging the authors of one paper in the discussion, making it even more interesting for everyone, and getting some publicity for the authors on the way. Personally, I’ve met many scientists, science journalists and communicators via Twitter and it has been the main drive of most of my science communication activities – including taking part in “I’m a Scientist”, which resulted in setting up a collaboration that is currently the basis of a grant application!

Facebook was the next option as we think this might appeal to potential and current students. Due to its visual nature, we considered it to be an ideal place to share photos and videos to highlight ICaMB’s people, facilities, research, events. As most of our students are already FB users, it is an ideal platform to connect with them.

Finally, we decided we needed a blog to showcase our research and researchers, and to discuss in more detail issues that are relevant to the scientific community and beyond.

As well as engaging with those outside our Institute, these activities will also foster internal social interactions including connecting with our newly formed postdoc (IPA) and postgraduate student associations (PANIC) online, which are also using social media as the main means of communication.

The next discussion point was: how can we get people to know about it? We realised that Prof Jeff Errington’s recently accepted Cell paper provided an ideal opportunity. The paper describes a key mechanism of cell division in bacteria without cell walls (which are therefore resistant to certain antibiotics) but it also hints at how early life forms might have proliferated. Having such an interesting topic to bring to the table seemed like a great way to make the initial connection.

Fig 2: Errington & team: Jeff Errington (left), Romain Mercier (centre) and Yoshikazu Kawai (right), the team of researchers behind these exciting discoveries

And so our first blog post was born! Do let us know what you think and what else you’d like us to discuss in the future.

How our adventures in social media will progress will depend on us, the core team at ICaMB, but, most importantly, on everyone else, within our walls and beyond. And that also means you. Welcome to this journey of discoveries!

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