Update August 2017 - I've launched a new research project to study public perceptions of scientist Instagrammers with a team of incredible researchers! Check out the project at experiment.com/scientistselfies - you can help us by contributing images and supporting the research through Experiment.com!
According to Pew Internet data published in August 2015, 55% of online adults ages 18 to 29 use Instagram. What's more, an increasing percentage of young audiences (under 34 years) are getting their science news from online-only sources. Is Instagram one of those sources? It might be, but scientifically we know very little about the extent or type of science-related content currently being shared on Instagram. We know from Pew data that photo and video sharing have grown in the past few years, and Instagram audiences appear to be more diverse than Twitter audiences, Reddit audiences or the audiences of many other social networks. So it's a shame we know so little about the #science Instagram world from a scientific perspective.
Over the past month, I've been preparing a scientific study with Dr. Nicole Dahmen of how science is depicted on Instagram. Because studies of science on Instagram are few and far between (in fact, scientific research dealing with Instagram is limited in general), and we couldn't find any extensive lists of Instagram accounts that share science-related content, we decided to start with a content analysis of Instagram visuals posted by science museum accounts. Based on various lists of science museums in the U.S., we've pulled together a list of over 200 science museum Instagram accounts for a study of what and how they share content related to science.
In the meantime, I've been wanting to get a more personal perspective of how Instagram is being used by science communicators. So I've invited science instagrammers to answer a few of my questions about their science IG practices. First up is @sciencemomtd, or "Dr. Thomai D., the Science Mom." Thomai creates books and art to promote STEM learning, says her Instagram bio.
*Links below to particular Instagram posts added by Paige.
"My Instagram is simply a visual guide to my inner thoughts of what I consider scientifically fascinating." - Dr. Thomai Dion
Me: When did you start Instagramming about science?
@sciencemomtd: I started using Instagram only a few months ago for scicomm [science communication]. It all started as an effort to share my children’s science books that I wrote originally for my son. It has since branched out to cover a wider array of scicomm-related efforts and it’s been a lot of fun.
Me: Do you use Instagram to share straight science, or more to share your life as a scientist/science student etc.?
@sciencemomtd: Both. I like to share as much straight-science as I can, but I’m a person just like any other on Instagram. I think humanizing scicomm is important in order for it to be engaging and relatable. I’m a pharmacist by background but I'm fascinated by all things science. I also love to garden, create art and to do crafts. I’m also a mom, so there’s a lot there that I find applicable to share on my Instagram feed.
Throughout my professional career, teaching was a common thread for me, whether that was through patient consultation, public speaking, department presentations, mentoring or managing. I’m now at home full time with my little guy and being with him has sparked that love of teaching all over again. I try to teach him about as much of the world around him as possible, and a lot of that has to do with science. Our “lessons” were what sparked the idea to put it all to paper, so I created “Think-A-Lot-Tots.” a science book collection for babies, toddlers and kids. I’ve always loved art so I illustrate all of my work as well. (When I was choosing colleges it was either art school or something science-related. I chose the latter, but was thrilled to have discovered an avenue to bring both interests together again.)
My Instagram feed started off as a way for me to get the word out about my books. I’ve learned so much since I began by connecting with so many amazing and intriguing people out there. I learned the terms “scicomm” and “sciart” and what they mean. I thought “Hey! That’s me! That’s what I do!”
My feed has become an amalgam of my own children’s literature, my science-based art, my photography, activities at home that I use as STEM teaching-points for my child, straight-science and related news that I simply find fascinating, my own rambling thoughts about scientific concepts, updates about my website development (and soon blog!), and other interesting educational-based crafts and projects that I have going on.
Being a mom is part of who I am and the main driver for me having started any of this. It’s not all of who I am, but it has been my catalyst and greatest adventure. We do our best to learn and study about whatever we are passionate about, and throughout it all I’ve learned that sometimes our kids teach us the most. There’s a quote hanging in my home that is so true in my opinion and is one of my favorite insights.
“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”
It’s also the reason I decided to call myself “TD the Science Mom” amongst other titles as I found it to be the most fitting with regards to how I started and why I keep doing what I do.
Me: What are your goals when instagramming science? To inform? To entertain? To get people interested in science? To promote public engagement with science? To change public perceptions of scientists?
@sciencemomtd: Yes to all. I’m a scientist, an artist, a woman and a mom doing and talking about science. I have a white coat but it’s not what I wear often. I’ve always been an overly visual learner so Instagram is something I naturally gravitated towards when thinking through “how am I going to talk about this stuff?” There are many goals associated with my work, but the highlights are:
1. To introduce STEM concepts to children and to spark that love of learning as early as possible. One of the goals in doing this is to build upon their scientific vocabulary. I would argue my books can be read to babies as well as used as educational reading up through age 12. My soon-to-be-4-year-old periodically runs around the house exclaiming, “mitochondria!!!” So that to me is a parenting win. [I love it! - Paige]
2. To intrigue adults about science by presenting it in creative ways. I mentioned previously that I love doing art and photography, and I hope to create and share more of that as I continue instagramming as well as building out my website, art gallery, products and blog. Science communication is more than just reiterating facts to others. [You can say that again. OK, I just did. -Paige] Fascination requires a unique perspective on topics, and I hope to achieve that through my work.
3. To promote diversity and empower others to pursue areas of STEM and their passions.
With regards to my children’s books, specifically “Think-A-Lot-Tots: The Neuron," I’ve made a point to illustrate children of all ethnicities in order to ensure inclusion and connection regardless of who decided to read them.
With regards to adults, I’m a woman and a mom. Motherhood does not mean you have to permanently put the brakes on doing what you love. You’re still a person with interests and questions. You’re someone with a drive to reach goals and personal or professional accomplishments. We can do it all, just not all at once, and that’s OK. I’m hoping my Instagram can communicate that message and help others who are considering families or in the midst of parenting that there’s never going to be an “ideal time,” but if it’s something you want, go for it. You CAN do it.
Me: What kinds of things do you usually post on your (science) Instagram account? How often do you post?
@sciencemomtd: My Instagram account is the only account I have, and I post all sorts of pictures in relation to the topics and concepts I covered above. I love to garden so you’ll see a lot of what I grow on there, particularly my flowers. You’ll also see updates about my books and progress on my art projects. You’ll see a smattering of activities I have going on and some straight-science that I think is just simply cool. Periodically, you might even see me.
Me: How often do you post original visuals you created yourself, vs. reposting images or videos created by others? What are your favorite kinds of things to post on Instagram?
@sciencemomtd: I try to post as much original content as possible, although sometimes someone else’s post is just that interesting and / or beautiful that I cannot help but share it (and credit them, always!) I think collaboration is critically important, and the empowerment to pursue science does not come from me simply talking about myself. Rather, I make sure to encourage and support others in what they are doing as well. I love to post photos that depict a scientific concept in a unique way, or a photo that just speaks strongly to me and says a lot without words. I also like to post compilations of my projects (books, activities, art, etc.) as I think the story about creating those things is just as important as the finished product. Success isn’t something that happens overnight, and if I can show that through my work I do so when possible.
Me: What kind of reception do you get on your Instagram science posts? What kinds of posts seem to get the most likes/comments?
@sciencemomtd: With my work I try to go for quality, not quantity, so although I’d love thousands of followers (and hopefully I’ll get there someday!) I am absolutely thrilled to have the several hundred that I do. The people that currently follow me are beyond amazing – I’ve had full conversations occur in my comments section, which I think is fantastic and achieves a major goal for me in doing what I do. I want people to ask questions, share information, help each other out and simply discuss science. It’s wonderful to see a community form because of a foundation you’ve set.
I’d have to say my original posts are what I get the most discussion around, especially if I include a write-up to accompany the photo (which typically includes my own thoughts and ramblings about the science and meaning being depicted.) I’ve also had a phenomenal and admittedly touching response to some of the more personal posts I’ve made. There’s one where I posted with no makeup on, looking out into my backyard drinking my morning coffee, and people seemed to appreciate the honesty and human aspect being expressed. I also recently wrote an article for ScienceDailyDose.com that covered the topic of physical and mental health while pursuing careers, my path embarking on motherhood and how I eventually started writing. I received the most amazingly thoughtful comments from individuals out there and made some really great connections by posting about my writing. For as much as I like to talk about science on my Instagram, the reality is that it’s all being put out there by a person. I figured if I’m sharing my honest thoughts and curiosities with people, I might as well share “me” too.
Me: How do you KNOW when something / some piece of science content is Instagram-worthy? (What kinds of standards do you use when posting to Instagram about science)?
@sciencemomtd: Mainly, if I find that it’s interesting I’ll likely share it. My Instagram is simply a visual guide to my inner thoughts of what I consider scientifically fascinating. I also have my own “rules” below that I follow:
Rule #1. I do not post anything that directly puts down anyone else’s beliefs. Science to me is about not only learning, but also experiencing a sense of wonderment. I am more than willing to discuss the concepts and accomplishments of science with anyone who mutually wants to listen. I would not want anyone to force their beliefs on me though, and so I proceed by the same standard. I also think everyone deserves that personal sense of wonderment in their lives. In the end, it’s all about whatever helps you sleep at night.
Rule #2. I do not post photos of my family or child. Particularly my child. Yes, I am a private person, although this rule more so stems from the fact that my little one is a person too. I don’t know how I would feel if one day I discovered there was already more than a decade of history about me available for all to see. If my toddler one day decides to share his life on the internet then that is fine because it will be his decision. In my mind, sharing about someone’s life needs to be a decision made by that person. I’m his mom, but to me it’s still not my place to decide that for him. Only he can do that.
Rule #3. I don’t post about my body. I refuse to use my body to garner attention. It’s that simple.
“My mom taught me a woman’s mind should be the most beautiful part of her.”
This is another favorite quote and mantra of mine, especially having become a mother.
Rule #4. I keep my posts professional; i.e. no over-the-top language or shock-value. I’m not a prude, I just like to write. I’ve read so many eloquently constructed sentences that have made me say “wow” and I’d like my work to one day have that same impact on others.
Me: Anything else you'd like to add about your science Instagramming practices, or tips for others getting into using Instagram for science?
@sciencemomtd: If you’re passionate about what you do and – just as importantly – it makes you happy to do it, then keep at it. Some days it will feel like you are talking to yourself. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re out of the loop, like you are the only one who hasn’t been invited to the #scicomm party yet. [Thanks for saying this. I think this is something that happens to often in the science communication community; an "cliquish" air, and I actively work against it by responding to anyone who tweets at me, or by highlighting new bloggers and science communicators here. - Paige] Write, write, and write some more. Keep your posts unique and interesting. Stay factual, and stay kind. And understand the importance of networking. It is critical to be part of a community to help others and share ideas. Find a niche for yourself and master it. Present it in creative ways and teach others about it. It will take time, a lot of time, but you’ll get there. I guess I have a lot of quotes that I like, but here’s one from me that I recently tweeted about (also @tdthesciencemom) and keep in mind often.
“You won’t be discovered today. You won’t be discovered tomorrow. Or the next day. But someday you will, and that day will be yours. Practice owning it.”
If you are a science Instagrammer and you'd like to be featured on my blog, e-mail me!