“I walk the line”. This famous song title by Johnny Cash describes best what science communication means for many scientists – a constant balancing act. Balancing between communicating in a personal way, but not revealing too many personal things. Between communicating understandably, maybe even for a broader public, but still remaining precise.
I talked with impressive marine biologist of project CUSCO and science communicator, Mar Fernández-Méndez, about her experiences in outreach, the stumbling blocks in SciComm and her personal tips for starting one’s own science communication as a researcher.
In case, someone wants to read the interview, you can find it in a shortened version below:
Q: What is your profession called? Is it a “marine biologist?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: I think, we can give it the name ourselves. That’s the nice thing of this job. On the paper, we are called “scientific employees” or “scientific researchers”. But when I have to write short bios, for projects, I think, depending on what the project is about, I choose the words differently. So, sometimes I’m a marine ecologist, which is maybe more broad, sometimes I’m a marine biogeochemist, which is a little bit more specific. But in the end, it’s about how you describe yourself. My studies were biology with a specialization in marine microbiology.
Q: Of all the scientists that I work with, you are one of the people that use social media the most. Which channels do you use?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: That has changed through the years. Like, I think I’ve been adapting to whatever comes up. I started using a lot Fotolog, back in the times where Fotolog was the thing. And then, of course, I moved to Facebook, like everyone else. And now it’s more about Instagram and Twitter. It’s kind of funny, because they are used for different things. Instagram is more about pictures, with of course a short message, and I DO love pictures, so that’s the one I use the most. And Twitter is more about news or more information. So that’s also very useful, to find out about conferences happening, or about papers being published. So, I think both are useful, but maybe in different ways, and I use both.
Q: How much time does that take you per day/per week?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: I think it doesn’t take too much time to just, let’s say, look into it and retweet or reforward things. That takes seconds. Of course, if you sum it up through the day, some days it’s more, some days it’s less. But that’s kind of something that you do in the five minutes that you have, while you wait for your coffee to get warm, or whatever. So that’s not a big thing. But – creating content, THAT takes time. Because then you have to think a lot about what you write, how you write it, with which image, maybe you need to find the picture. So, when I write a little more elaborate things, that maybe takes me an hour, something like that, to get to that final post.
Q: Then my follow-up would be: How do you do it? Because I know, you are actually very active in science, that is your main job. How do you manage?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: For me it’s more like something in between. I need that change of focus, to keep moving. I cannot spend one day just working on one thing. I need some moments of doing something else. The evenings is usually the time where you find most time to sit down and relax and think about something else, think about ‘what have I done today?’ and ‘how can I bring that out to the world?’. It’s usually the extra-time in the evenings.
Q: How beneficial, would you say, is this outreach work and the time you spend? How beneficial for your scientific situation is it?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: I actually don’t know. Because, you write a post and you send it out there and you actually don’t really know what an impact it has. Of course, in my case, I don’t have open public profiles. It’s mostly my friends and family. In Twitter it’s a little bit different, because there it’s open and everyone can read it, so maybe those posts have a little bit more outreach. How that impacts actually my career? I have no idea, because no one ever tells you, if you’re being judged by that at all. I know that in the last years I invested some time in publishing a paper for kids and I don’t know if this is a positive thing or not. I will see down the line. I mean, I’m investing now a lot of time in a podcast and for me it has a lot of personal benefits. But I don’t know, if, in terms of my job, if that will actually have benefits. I do want to think, and I do believe that funding agencies are looking more and more for these multidisciplinary profiles, where scientists are not just that person that sits in the lab and does some analysis. They want someone, that is also able to communicate what they do, not only through a scientific paper, but also giving talks, or through social media, writing blogs or giving interviews. So, I want to think, that on the long run, this will be appreciated.
Q: Have you already posted a tweet with a paper you recently published, and would you say that that gave you a broader target group, or something?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: To be honest, I don’t know. I have published some papers – or let’s say, when I published a paper, I’ve put it on Twitter or Instagram. I don’t know if that really makes the paper get further out there. Of course, if an institution picks up on that paper and they make a press release and they tweet about it, or instagram about it, then I think, that has a much broader outreach than if I just retweeted from my personal account. Because in the end, it’s about the followers. And as I said before, the followers I have are mostly my friends. They are not the ones that are going to cite that paper, for example. But I do think what works best, what I’ve seen direct impact from is, when I publish a paper, I also try to send the PDF to all my scientific collaborators, contacts, whatever, in that community. So, for example, if I publish a paper about the Arctic, I send it to all my collaborators and people I know, that work on similar topics, because I know, that they are the ones that are going to publish a paper in the next months or years and they will cite it, because they need that piece of information for their puzzle. So, I think, that is maybe the most direct way of actually getting your papers more cited and more visible.
Q: What I wonder: You have channels, and you also, on these channels, post personal things. So, you don’t just post scientific stuff, or about your work, you also mix it with your personal life. As how problematic is it for a scientist to post personal things, or about their personal life and situation? Or would you say, this is really no problem at all?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: So, the fact that I still only have one account for everything, has two issues. One bad thing and one positive thing. The bad thing is, of course, that because I post both things, I don’t want to make it public. And that’s why in the end, my outreach doesn’t get too far, because it’s just my friends and my family, and I really curate who is following and who is not.
That, of course, is a bad thing in terms of the outreach that I do. But of course, it protects my private life from being public. But the positive thing is, that that people see that you’re actually a real person and that you have a life. You’re not just a scientist. Science is not the only thing you do.
Q: Then I have a follow up. I wonder, especially now when you are mixing it, but also when you’re not mixing it: Do you fear or are you afraid, that anything you post might in the end affect your scientific credibility?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: I’m maybe too impulsive and passionate to think about that. I mean, it can have a negative impact. Sure. I mean, if you don’t think 20 times before you post something, you might post something that is not correct. Even if you retweeted something, it might turn out, that the person you are retweeting is actually from a company that is destroying the environment, for example. But you didn’t know. What we post online, stays there forever, and we will be judged on that. But at the same time, I think, the Internet is moving so fast and there’s so much out there that people will judge you for the majority of your content, and they will not go to pinpoint, like, the time where you did that mistake.
Q: I ask this because I. I have the impression that many scientists are really afraid that they may just be misinterpreted or misquoted when they go out there and do outreach. So, is this something that you feel might actually really happen? Is this something that is happening a lot?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: It can happen very quickly. But actually, I think, it happens more often, when you give actual interviews. For example, you go to the Arctic, you do an expedition and you have a new discovery. But of course, it’s very preliminary and the press is waiting on the harbor to talk to us. The scientists are not trained to do this. And so, you blab something out as you come to land of what you’ve done in the expedition and then that gets misquoted. I think that happens more easily. Or, let’s say a journalist that read your paper understands nothing about it, and they don’t contact you, but they just interpret the message they want out of the paper and they publish that. I think that happens way more often than being misquoted on social media for something that you wrote. I think that the fear of that shouldn’t be in social media. I think it’s more when you directly talk to journalists.
Q: So, you would say, rather press training than staying away from social media. And what would you say are the channels that scientists, in general, use?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: Twitter seems to be the place where most scientists, even high impact scientists, older scientists, they feel comfortable there. And they do publish more and share more about conferences happening, workshops, papers they publish. I think that happens more on Twitter than on other channels right now.
In terms of newspapers or magazines: I think Geo and National Geographic, are still very, very big platforms for broadcasting your science to a broader population. But of course, not everyone has access to having someone from the National Geographic team on their expedition, to broadcast what they’re doing. That usually comes together with, if you work in some area that is extreme or beautiful. Then they usually come. But I think in the end, to be honest, it’s about having personal connections. If you know someone that works for some TV or for some magazine, then they know about your work. And then, you know, it’s like: ‘Okay, let’s organize something.’
Q: How exactly do media work for and how do scientists like the possibilities? Would you say they use them or are they rather shy about them?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: I think that depends a lot on the character. In general, for example, in Germany, I have the feeling, there’s less scientists using social media. Maybe because of this fear of being pinpointed for something that they said, that was not completely true. But in other countries, I’m making the comparison with Spain or with South American countries, their people are much more open to using these channels. To share their science and what they’re doing. So, I think it depends. For each person, it works differently. And people just have to give it a try and see what works for them.
I think this is also a matter of, as we said at the beginning, what is requested and from the funding agencies. You know, when you get a project funded, if outreach is a must, then scientists are obliged to do it. And they have to do it in whatever way they want. But they have to do it. While, if it’s not even mentioned or is not even relevant, then no one would do it, because, of course, it takes time.
So, I think many scientists, at least what I’ve experienced in Germany, they focus a lot on what they’re doing and publishing their papers and reaching out only inside their little circle in the scientific community. But they don’t really care if the world knows about what they do or not.
And I think there’s also a big difference between, whether, if what you do is basic research, versus, if what you do is applied research. If, what you do, is basic research, maybe one day your results will be used for something. But maybe not. And so, many scientists, think that the public is just not interested in knowing for example which new bacteria they found in some deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
But I think scientists that work on more applied things, they’re eager to actually tell the people: ‘Okay, this is what we discovered. This is what might be useful for us as a society.’
Q: Would you say that your limited spare time as a scientist, is then a huge challenge for your outreach work?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: It is. And it’s a matter of priorities. But I mean, it is the same with many other things in science, right? So, of course, you could not supervise any student, not give any lectures and spend the whole time writing your papers. And maybe then you have more papers published, than someone, that has supervised three students, three masters, two bachelors, whatever, you name it. There’s so many things, so many extra things that you can do. And I think, it’s a personal choice for me. It was always clear, that I like that part of science. I want to do it, even if it comes at the expense of then maybe having one paper less or later out.
I know, that some people think, that this is not good for your career, because in the end, you will be judged for the papers you’ve published. But I am a firm believer, that this is changing and that we’re not looking anymore for scientists, that are just able to publish papers, but also, that they’re good at supervising and motivating, at leading, at communicating. And I think, all these things are now becoming to be more and more important in the CV and in the portfolio of skills of a scientist.
And I think that also young scientists are starting to realize that that is not any more like in the old days, where you just sit in your ivory tower, in your corner, you work on your data, you publish it, and that’s the end of your work. I think everything – everything counts. And I really hope, that this is counting more and more, when you’re selected for your next job.
Q: Now, you don’t just do social media, which is what already many young scientists might do. You also host your own podcast. It’s called “The Sargassum Podcast”, and it is a podcast, actually, about the floating macroalgae Sargassum, and about all the people that study or use the algae. So, how did you get the idea for the podcast and how do things work out so far?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: Okay, so first of all, that was not my idea (grins). So, this was again related to not having the time to read papers about a new topic. I got really excited about the idea of using Sargassum as a carbon sequestration measure in the ocean to mitigate climate change. This idea came from Victor Smetacek who is one of my most dearest mentors, and I got really excited about it.
Of course, yes, I could go through the literature and start reading all the papers that have been published about Sargassum. But when I started doing this, a few years ago, there was not that much published (because that has become a big issue recently, with all the strandings of Sargassum on the beaches of the Caribbean and West Africa).
And so, what I discovered, while I was trying to find all this literature and trying to have a good idea of what the sargassum community is doing, right now, I found out an information hub about sargassum, that had an e-mailing-list, called SargNet. And then I registered on that. Because I said: ‘Okay, this could be a good place to meet people working with sargassum.’
And then there was a girl, Franziska Elmer. She’s doing a climate change sabbatical. Meaning, she is using one year of her life to volunteer for any work related to climate change mitigation, which I find pretty cool. And she was the one who came up with the idea of doing a podcast. As usual with these things, at the beginning we were like ten people, or something and with time it turned out, it was just Franziska and me, putting effort in making this move forward. I thought it was a really cool idea and I thought, this was a good chance for me to get to know a lot of people working in this community.
So, this was my motivation behind starting the podcast. Because this is a lot of work. This has nothing to do with social media. You have to prepare the interviews, you have to record it, you need to edit them, you need to prepare the webpage, you need to do the outreach. So, this is really extra time in my free hours that is going into that.
Q: So, you did already say that more scientists should do their own outreach, right? What would you give as a tip, to somebody who is a beginner? Like, which channel to use, or where to start? Which tip would you have for someone who says: I wonna do outreach as a scientist now?
Mar Fernández-Méndez: So, I would do two things. The first one would be, yes, to create your account. I would go for Twitter and Instagram, but of course this is up to your personal taste. And I would start by tweeting small things. I think people are also interested in small things. Like, don’t wait until you have a big paper published to tweet something, or to post a picture.
I think it’s important, that our job is represented in social media, so that the young people see: ‘Okay, do I want to be a scientist? Yes or no.’ And they can make an informed choice, seeing the variety of scientific profiles that are out there. So, men, women, people that go all the time to the field, people that are all the time in front of the computer. And they see: Okay, this is what being a scientist means.
Because, to be honest, the new generations, they are all stuck to their phones, 24/7. And ninety percent of the content they see, is some superstars and football players. Things in that direction. And they need to know, that this is not the cool stuff. The cool stuff is the astronauts flying to the ISS, the scientists going deep into the ocean, finding new things. THIS is the cool stuff, and we need to show the cool stuff. So, I’d start with that.
And the second thing that I would do, I would go to schools, to give talks. I think, that for me has been one of the most rewarding experiences, I have ever had. I do it way too little, but it’s actually a very cool experience. To go to schools and to tell this class of 20-25 kids about what you do. And then the questions they ask you. They will blow your mind. Like, I remember once, giving a talk about artificial upwelling, right? And so, we were telling them: ‘Yeah, so we bring nutrients to the surface, to create more biomass and the nutrients are in the deep and the light is at the top and we just want to bring them together.’ And then one of the kids raised his hand and was like: ‘Wait, why don’t you bring the light down to the deep sea?’ And I was like: ‘I never even thought about that. That hasn’t crossed my mind.’ It’s interesting to see your science with the eyes of someone that is so blank, yet. And this brings a new perspective into your science.
So, if someone wants to get started with outreach, I would definitely recommend them to organize a couple of talks with schools. Go back to your home school, where you went to school, and talk to some of the teachers and say: ‘Hey, would you be interested in what I do?’ And they usually appreciate that a lot. And I think, that’s a really neat place to start.
Author: Ann Kristin Montano
Former scientist who worked long enough in other fields to build up stereotypes about scientists. Now likes to work among scientists to break down the stereotypes. Enjoyed this interview very much and hopes that SciComm will get more attention, time and funding in future research, to give scientists more room for doing outreach.