Today’s women scientists navigate internet trolls and stereotypes to share information and enthusiasm
Prevalent and wide-reaching social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — allow today’s female scientists to interact, share information and promote diversity within the scientific community and to the public. However, pioneering women scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries did not have these social tools to share their triumphs and challenges. If they did have their own social media accounts, what might they have posted?
Mina Spiegel Rees, who became the first woman President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1971, was an influential scientist and mathematician. Like many women in STEM, she experienced hardships throughout her career, one of them occurring during her time as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1925. Rees didn’t have to deal with sexist Internet trolls like some scientists have, but instead, she learned unofficially that “The Columbia mathematics department was not really interested in having women candidates for PhD's.” If she had her own social media accounts, she may have been able to raise awareness about this unofficial policy. Instead, she attended a more progressive school at the time, the University of Chicago, where she received her doctorate studying associative algebras in 1931.
Unlike Rees who did not have a Twitter or Facebook account, Samantha Yammine — a scientist known to many as “Science Sam” — uses social media as a tool to communicate about her experiences dealing with sexism, marginalization and other barriers. “Social media can be a powerful tool in a larger strategy to dismantle such structures,” Yammine said in a Letter published in Science in April 2018. Additionally, Yammine and colleagues believe that scientists use social media to discuss many problematic topics in academia, such as engaging the public, boosting science literacy, fostering trust, discovering career options and networking, among others.
Other female scientists agree with Science Sam about social media’s benefits. “I think the benefits of being on social media as a scientist outweigh the costs,” said AAAS member Taryn McLaughlin, a fifth year Ph.D. student studying immunology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “I use [social media] more as a support system so far. It’s really been camaraderie-building.”
Twitter, for example, is a way that McLaughlin expands her horizons. Her Twitter handle is @basic_scientist. “Twitter is a nice way to discover what is really impactful in my community, on a global scale, not just what’s going on at my school,” she said.
McLaughlin also publishes a blog called “The Basic Scientist,” which she started as a tool for science communication. It has morphed to a more personal view of her experiences, written for both colleagues and non-scientist friends.
“People get this idea of what a scientist is in their head; a mad scientist, like an anti-social person in a lab, turning things different colors, blowing stuff up. That’s really not what it is,” she said.
In addition to blogging and Twitter, Instagram is a popular social media platform for many female scientists. AAAS member Crystal Grant, a Ph.D. candidate currently participating in a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship in the Netherlands, encourages scientists to use Instagram and other social media to “gently” instruct others about scientific realities. Her Instagram handle is @itscrystalgrant. For example, Grant has seen unproven claims about self-help anti-aging tactics, like fasting, on social media. “If [someone] sends out a link that is false, I need to get proactive and debunk it,” she said.
Specifically, Grant encourages scientists to follow the model of 29-year-old freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), better known as AOC. For weeks after her election to the House of Representatives, Grant said that AOC posted daily videos explaining everything she was going through in setting up her Congressional office. The thorough details showed an accountability and a level of detail not shared before with average voters, Grant said.
Proactive social media use can be an effective tool for scientists like Grant and McLaughlin to communicate accurately about their work, but for some, keeping pace with social media can be challenging. “[The older generation] think the most important science communication is within the scientific community,” said McLaughlin. “I think that attitude needs to shift dramatically. I think we need to be focusing more on the broader community, by utilizing these platforms.”
The AAAS Resource Center offers guidance on keeping up with social media, something an older generation of scientists may still be reluctant to tackle. It offers strategies for blogs to make a bigger impact, how to use social media to connect and collaborate, and how to use professional quality audio and video to leave the strongest message.
While we will never know what female scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries like Rees may have posted on their social media accounts, it could have been a tool for these female scientists to challenge traditional norms within the scientific community at the time.