January 2013

The merits of Google Plus

Logo for Google Plus

Like many of my generation, I was introduced to the brave new world of social networking through my children. After the initial excitement of discovering long-lost college mates and cousins on Facebook died down, I became disenchanted with the realization that nothing more profound than one’s breakfast bagel was on our collective minds. So when my daughter sent me a coveted invitation to the new Google Plus network during its beta stage, I dutifully opened a profile page fully expecting it to languish in the ether. Indeed, my children promptly abandoned the fledgling platform, but a chance encounter with a few science enthusiasts drew me back.

It turns out that Google Plus was designed to function more like Twitter but without the character limitation. This meant that one could broadcast short paragraphs of text (microblogs) paired with eye-catching images or movies on a public platform and acquire a following. I was asked to contribute to ScienceSunday, a Google page that was initiated by two academic scientists. That fateful first contribution unexpectedly turned out to be wildly popular: An animated image of the rotating ATP synthase accompanied by a short description of the mechanism made it to the top of Google’s “What’s Hot” list, where it was shared by thousands and inspired hundreds of comments and lively debate.

There is an insatiable appetite for quality science among the Google crowd, which is composed largely of tech-savvy and educated readers. I write about anything and everything that catches my interest: how a bee’s foot fits snugly into the conical cells of a petunia flower buffeted by the wind, the optics of the compound eye or the gating mechanism of a potassium channel. I recruited one online volunteer to convert movies into attention-grabbing animated GIFs and another to pair science to music. Now I could explain the contractile spring of Vorticella in tune to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles or showcase the molecular dance of the Ca2+-ATPase with its uncanny resemblance to a couple doing the tango. I try to keep the science real and the language simple without sacrificing the hard numbers by leavening what I write with a generous dose of humor. I joined the curating team that has now expanded to five academic scientists ranging from a college dean to postdoctoral fellows. Today, ScienceSunday is a worldwide weekly event that reliably trends on Google Plus, with thousands of searchable posts tagged with the #sciencesunday hashtag.

The impetus to find and recommend other fellow scientists to follow on social networks led to Science on Google Plus: A Public Database. There, we compile and curate profiles by scientific discipline and promote shared circles ranging from anthropologists to astronomers, mathematicians and neuroscientists along with hundreds of promotional pages for scientific societies and organizations. A popular post on famous female scientists inspired another young scientist to set up a database showcasing STEM Women on Google Plus. More recently, we have been hosting Hangouts on Air, archived on YouTube, where we discuss current scientific events or critique influential papers, such as the largely debunked study linking genetically modified corn to cancer. All this has caught the attention of Google Plus administrators, who have offered us technical assistance and publicity for our science outreach efforts. If you have a taste for science evangelism, do join me on Google Plus!

Photo of Rajini RaoRajini Rao (rrao@jhmi.edu) is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board member. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/madamscientist, read her blog at http://madamescientist.wordpress.com, and check out her posts on Google Plus at http://bit.ly/M3r5bY.

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