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Sarah Feakins Takes a Lead on Social Media Engagement for Her Department

On her lecture tour, Sarah Feakins engages with visitors at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, TN.
Sarah Feakins interacts with visitors at the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, TN.
Photo credit: Adventure Science Center

Although social media was just one of the activities outlined in her public engagement plan for the year, Sarah Feakins found this to be an increasingly useful forum for direct communication. “Media coverage and newsworthy research ebbs and flows, but general public commentary on research progress is where there’s a consistent platform for scientists who want to engage in the public square,” she says. Over the course of her 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellowship, Feakins made an effort to communicate more consistently with the public via Twitter and in so doing increased her Twitter followers from 600 to more than 1,000, which has been shown to be a threshold where scientists begin to reach non-scientists in their audiences.

Seeking but failing to find undergraduate journalism students interested in collaboration, Feakins and her graduate students took matters into her own hands with social media, including taking over the AAAS handle, @MeetAScientist, for a day. With AAAS guidance, Feakins also began tweeting from the dormant University of Southern California earth sciences department’s Twitter account. “I realized that with social media vs. interview-based media coverage, we can be in direct control of the products we put out,” Feakins says, pointing out that social media doesn’t depend upon journalistic interest or availability.

For those new to social media, Feakins recommends thinking of Twitter as a place for conversation rather than a place to sporadically promote their publications. For scientists wanting to communicate about research, they can comment on other people’s posts and engage in dialogue much as they would at conferences, but without the carbon footprint. She finds that adding her perspective to discussions of methods or results of public interest is a great way to engage conversationally with fellow researchers, students, journalists and those that are interested in following her threads – similar to conversations she might have in person, but with greater reach to students and others not in her immediate circles. “Saying useful things publicly is one way to expand your circles,” Feakins says. She uses Twitter to stay in touch with colleagues and up-to-date on developments in her field of science, including the next scientific questions to tackle.

When she does have a research publication to share, Feakins creates a thread about her paper, sharing the key figures and ideas. She often posts pictures of herself and her collaborators and students in the field and lab, or otherwise in the process of research, as this humanizes science and builds a community. Feakins finds that Twitter’s word count “helps you to concisely state your ideas in an engaging way, which is useful skills-building for all other aspects of communication” (and she notes that creating graphics that will work on social media is a useful exercise, as well). She also has found it to mostly be a positive space. She knows “people worry about negativity. But I find that because our comments are public, there are incentives to present yourself nicely. There are many rewards that come from interacting as a good citizen in that space.”

Feakins, an associate professor of earth sciences who studies past climate to understand what it means for our future, also worked with her graduate students on using social media to talk about science. She asked Gemima Philippe from the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science, which runs the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute, to give a webinar on using social media for public engagement. Philippe conveyed key information to the students to guide their engagement and to Feakins for developing a strategic plan for her department. 

Feakins finds that many students seem anxious about the permanence of their tweets or haven’t yet found their voice and what they want to say, so it takes them a long time to write them – and she understands the potential time commitment concerns. She is also aware of the potentially addictive nature of social media use, and the time it can take away from research. To manage this herself, she avoids using social media while at her desk or computer, and typically uses it for news and social conversation only during those times when one would normally converse, such as while waiting at the bus stop. She spends just a few minutes a day on the department’s Twitter account, retweeting items of institutional relevance and highlighting the department's activities.

During her year as a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, Feakins was also a distinguished lecturer for the International Ocean Discovery Program and gave lectures at seven locations between July 2018 and April 2019. In terms of public interactions, the first of these was the most unlike a typical academic talk because it was held at a children’s science museum and included a day of interacting one-on-one with the public at a booth, as well as with the museum staff. Other lectures were held at universities around the nation, in many state schools where the number of visiting scientists is not as large, so she was able to share research and ideas with new audiences of students beyond her campus.

Her Leshner fellowship year recently came to an end. Eventually, Feakins hopes to hand off the reins for her department’s Twitter account to another department member keen to build their communication skills. In the meantime, she seeks groups interested in temporary take-overs while they are conducting research in the field, or at conferences, for example. But for now, she is enjoying being more connected with her department.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.