April 2011

Beyond the bench: social media in science

Social media is more than just reconnecting with old friends on Facebook


Say you’ve spilled buffer on your formaldehyde gel recipe, or your protein purification protocol is tattered beyond recognition. Don’t worry; there’s a site for that. Chances are, you can find what you need on the internet: protocols, recipes and, on the forums, advice ad infinitum. The contents of countless scientific tomes and manuals are readily available on the web. But say you’re ready to leave the bench behind, and you’re on the hunt for a “real” job. Well, there’s a site for that too.

Making connections

The job-seeker’s mantra always has been “network, network, network,” and the internet has made networking a far more efficient process than it used to be. Where to start? You could use Facebook, but there’s always the possibility of your future boss happening upon embarrassing photos from some long-past summer break. A widely used alternative is LinkedIn, which bills itself as the world’s largest professional network on the Internet and maintains a membership of more than 90 million people worldwide.

Career counselors at scientific institutions often encourage membership in LinkedIn. At the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Intramural Training and Education has transitioned from forwarding job postings via e-mail to sending them to members of its LinkedIn group, providing an incentive for members of the NIH community to join LinkedIn. “[LinkedIn] is good for moving forward professionally,” says Lori Conlan, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services at the NIH. “It’s a great way to connect with people in a social network that’s not Facebook.”

Joining the conversation

It’s easy to think of one’s self as the beneficiary of all of those connections – a node at the edge of the network – but for scientific organizations, the real power of social media comes from being at the center of it all. “I think the conversation has changed to a large extent for all of us endeavoring to further scientists’ careers,” says Melanie Sinche, formerly a career counselor at the NIH and the new director of the Office for Postdoctoral Affairs at Harvard University. “We are no longer simply sending information in one direction, to be consumed by a passive population – we are now actively engaged in conversation,” Sinche explains.

While social media can help broadcast an organization’s message more clearly or advertise a scientific seminar more efficiently, maintaining the conversation takes time and effort: updating blog posts often enough to keep people coming back, for example. “Incorporating social media into any organization’s mission takes thoughtful planning and strategic thinking,” Sinche notes. To that end, Sinche is heading a workshop titled “Using social media to build relationships and market your program effectively” at the National Postdoctoral Association’s annual meeting. In the workshop, Sinche plans to examine case studies of how scientific organizations have used social media successfully to engage postdocs and assist them in career development. For those interested in using social media, Sinche recommends an initial review of current best practices – she likes the U.S. Army’s Social Media Handbook. But don’t be intimidated by all of the guidelines, says Sinche: “Try blogging or tweeting on a topic of interest – you might find you really enjoy it!”

Science and social media

Whether you’re an outlying node in the social network or in the thick of it, there is actual science to be had. If you miss the excitement of benchwork, try citizen science, in which you can participate in a project, often with a network of volunteers, to conduct research. One of the longest-running citizen science projects is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, conducted by volunteers every November since 1900. A century later, NASA introduced its ClickWorkers project, which enlists volunteers to count craters on the surface of Mars. There’s also DIYbio, an organization “dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists.” Local DIYbio groups use social media sites like Meetup.com and Google Groups to coordinate events from Chicago to Copenhagen, tackling projects both simple (extracting DNA from cheek swabs in New York City) and complex (developing an inexpensive way to synthesize Taq polymerase in Baltimore).

You can find ASBMB on LinkedIn and Facebook too.

Scientists are making use of social media in their day jobs too. This past April, researchers from Stanford University published a paper describing an algorithm they developed to predict the spread of infectious disease and inform vaccine administration using social networking data collected from Facebook. And in October, astronaut Douglas Wheelock checked in to the location-based social media site Foursquare from space, then tweeted about it moments later to nearly 100,000 Earth-bound followers.

From job searches to vicarious space travel – and advice about that blank Western blot too – social media surely is every scientist’s friend.

Leslie W. Chinn (leslie.chinn@gmail.com) is an ORISE fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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