Science is Not Always Pretty

I’m leading a summer science communication workshop for interns that I’ve been part of for the last four years. This week, we took a deeper dive into social media platforms, especially Twitter and Instagram. I tried something new; I asked the Twitterverse who they thought did #scicomm (science communication) really well and I projected some of the accounts. There was a range of accounts that people defined as successful, from those having less than 1,000 followers to those with 100K+. While I understand the number of followers is only one aspect of scicomm “success”, it’s an easy metric, and if you are trying to preach beyond the choir (one of my goals), you do need

An example of an Instagram account that has a coordinated (and gorgeous!) color palette run by my new friend @mycancerchic.

to reach the masses. When it came to looking at Instagram accounts, I asked this question to the interns, “Why do some accounts have way more followers than others when the messages are seemingly similar?” They were quick to point out that some accounts had grid themes, meaning if you look at the profile and scroll down, the posts are from the same color palette or there are only selfies in the middle column. They said it was because those accounts looked better. I knew Kim Kardashian did this with her account (I heard her talk about it), and recently I joined a blogger network and saw many fashion bloggers do it with theirs, but I didn’t realize that scientists were doing it.

Before I tell my story, let me me make this abundantly clear: I am not criticizing specific accounts or anyone who decides to take a deeper look at their Instagram grid to make it more beautiful. I am genuinely happy there are scientist accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers out there so people can see how amazing our world and science is! What I am saying, is that for myself, there is a compromise that has to take place. One of my main goals in scicomm is to show people what science is really like, therefore creating a tension between portraying reality from what is ideal to post on Instagram to try to attract more followers. Let me explain.

I came back to my lab and looked at my account kind of bummed. It was all over the place: a mammal camera trap photo here, a fashion post there, a fish and turtle “rescue” I had; they all seemed random, happenstance, and uncoordinated. I felt like a hot mess and started to think about what my color scheme could be. Would it have to be black and white because most of my mammal posts are in black and white? And I love to wear black and white? But then I thought of all of the beautiful color camera trap photos I couldn’t post. Then I thought it should be greens because our camera trap animals are usually against a green backdrop. But then I thought I would have to nix the black and white photos, leaving out the majority of camera trap pictures we get. And what about my outfits? I love color, I could never decide on one, and I could miss out on some really fun posts that truly reflect my personality. I even started to delete some posts that stuck out and didn’t seem to look beautiful in the grid, but as I came across some of the the posts that stuck out, I couldn’t take them down. They had really important messages and the experiences could not be recreated to be more beautiful or cohesive. What was I doing? Why was I taking down posts that used to be important? I also thought about how much work it would take to plan out grids. Individual posts take up a lot of time and work, even though it is fun for me and something I deeply enjoy.

My absolute favorite #bodypositive instagrammer, @bodiposipanda, showing off and loving her rolls and cellulite.

I remember feeling the same way when following any accounts devoted to fitness. They only posted photos of bodies of what society currently defines as the ideal – highly toned. Following the accounts made me feel obsessed about my body. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough; I wasn’t eating “clean” enough or working out enough because I didn’t look like them. Even around the end of the year I found myself depressed reading all of the Instagram posts from what seemed like everyone’s accounts about everything they accomplished in a year. However, I didn’t have an academic paper out this year (only an education one, albeit two in review). I didn’t get 4/6 grants I wrote (other two were still in review). I felt like a disappointment even though I worked really, really hard. Writing one NSF grant alone was a gigantic accomplishment in my mind, yet I wrote two, but I still didn’t felt like I didn’t have anything to show. One of the best things I ever did for my mindset in relation to body image was to follow people that loved their bodies no matter what they looked like and purposely show cellulite and stomach rolls (#bodypositive). Even women with the “perfect” body would show how much lighting and posing was involved in making them look thinner. I loved these accounts and still love them for their raw authenticity and vulnerability about their internal struggles with their bodies.

So why should my scicomm be any different? The past few months, I’ve found myself posting better, higher quality, more beautiful photos, photos that I think will get more likes and more reach. I never post photos where I think I look bad. I’ll take 40 selfies sometimes to get the right one. At the end of last year I wanted to write about how I felt like a failure because I know if I am feeling this way, others must be too, but I’m on the job market, so who wants to advertise that? But that’s real science! I remember the first time my manuscript got rejected, my committee member Ray Semlitsch said that was the first step in the process, to just move on and keep going. Failure is normal and a built-in step in science. I worry that if I change my feed to focus on aesthetics that I will compromise my shared perspective as a scientist because I am already seeing this effect to take place. I even see it with students coming in to volunteer in our lab. Their perspective of a wildlife biologist is that they will get to chase and handle wild animals because this is the perception they get from television and the Internet, when in reality there is a lot of boring data entry, reading, and writing papers.

My research is not always the Instagram ideal, and by only presenting the most beautiful photos would leave out a big part of it. I am really glad that I had this science communication workshop with interns because it has allowed me to think deeply about what I have been doing on social media. I have been biased. I have only been presenting the good side while privately chatting with friends about my struggles. The struggles are what I really loved about the #bodypositive community, so why not love this about #scicomm too?

Me at my desk capturing a less than perfect science photo. Lighting is not the best and I’m always at my desk making it difficult to take lots of interesting and beautiful posts. I also have to wait until lab members leave so I don’t annoy them. Science realness.

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