Update August 2017 - I've launched a new research project to study public perceptions of scientist Instagrammers with a team of incredible researchers, including Sam Yammine, the Instagrammer featured in this post! Check out the project at experiment.com/scientistselfies - you can help us by contributing images and supporting the research through Experiment.com!
Happy New Year everyone!
My first blog post of 2017 welcomes back my series on how scientists and science communicators are using Instagram. I've become very interested in this topic over the past few months, as I've started a study with Dr. Nicole Dahmen on how science is depicted on Instagram. I'm also teaching a 3-week online class on using Instagram to share science starting at the end of this month! Anyone can register here.
The goal of this blog series is to get personal perspectives of how Instagram is being used by science communicators. I've invited science instagrammers to answer a few of my questions about their science IG practices.
Fifth up in this series is Samantha Yammine, @science.sam on Instagram. Samantha is a PhD student studying in the areas of neuroscience and stem cell biology. She works in the Neurobiology Research Group at the University of Toronto.
*Some links below to particular Instagram posts added by Paige. Light editing for clarity.
"I use my Instagram account to engage the public with science and the variety of interesting people who do it." - Samantha Yammine
Me: When did you start Instagramming about science? What is your Instagram username?
@Science.Sam: Exactly 6 months ago! I started it on my way to the airport for a science policy conference. It was my first ever Instagram account and though it started with a different name it is now @science.sam.
Me: Do you use Instagram to share straight science, or more to share your life as a scientist/science student etc.?
@Science.Sam: I do a bit of both. I do weekly #ScienceSunday posts where I share an image of something I'm working on in the lab with a detailed but easy-to-follow explanation of why I think it's interesting. I also do weekly #FeatureFriday posts where I showcase multi-dimensional and multi-talented people in STEM fields. In between I'll post random selfies, lab scenes, fashion, or pictures from events I've attended.
Me: What are your goals when instagramming science?
@Science.Sam: My big-picture goal is to increase science literacy, which I think requires public engagement with science but also scientists. I think scientists sometimes have a negative reputation and this makes it difficult for us to successfully dispel harmful pseudoscience. I hope that by showing people how normal and relatable scientists - including myself - are, people may start to feel more comfortable with openly discussing science vs. pseudoscience.
A note from Paige: Previous research has shown that scientists don't necessarily have a negative reputation in terms of credibility, but that they are often viewed as not very "warm" or relatable. Social media posts where scientists make themselves more relatable to people outside of the scientific community may help improve scientists' reputation in this regard.
On a related note, I also use my Instagram to advocate for underrepresented groups in STEM fields, including (but not limited to) women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ community. I like my Instagram to be a platform upon which they can voice their opinions and experiences, which I accomplish by featuring members of these groups in my #FeatureFriday series.
Me: What kinds of things do you usually post on your Instagram account? How often do you post?
@Science.Sam: I do #ScienceSunday posts featuring the kind of everyday science I do, hoping to surprise people by how interesting something random in biology can be. I also post weekly #FeatureFriday posts highlighting other people in STEM. I probably post on average ~3x/week, with the third weekly post being something related to a thought/reflection I've had or something fun I'd like to share.
Having such a diverse mix of things was a bit of a "branding" challenge, but I decided I wanted to stay diverse to show that scientists can be "normal" and "cool" - even if it comes at the expense of having a less obvious brand [on Instagram].
I also do Instagram stories almost daily, though I try to only post them when I have something interesting or funny to share.
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?
@Science.Sam: Almost all of my posts are original, though I do like to support other people who I think are doing something awesome with the occasional repost. If geographically feasible, each #FeatureFriday picture comes from a photoshoot I've had with that individual. Almost all the #ScienceSunday pictures are my own pictures I've taken during my PhD. I love posting pictures of my cells because I am always curious to see how they will be received. What looks good to me is largely influenced by scientific reasons, but for other people my science pictures are mostly art, so it's interesting to become aware of things I may not appreciate in the images I look at every day.
I actually love posting Instagram stories - they might even be my favourite thing. They spark a lot of one-on-one conversations that I actually enjoy ("sliding into one's DMs [direct messages]" is usually seen as negative but I think my content attracts positive and enjoyable conversations). I also like that they're an easy and impermanent way to share my own personality + the personality of the world around me.
Me: What kind of reception do you get on your Instagram science posts? What kinds of posts seem to get the most likes/comments?
@Science.Sam: Much to my delight, my science posts or posts of personal achievement always get more likes than any glamour pictures/vanity selfies. While I love celebrating each individual's beauty and am by no means condemning a good selfie, there is already a lot of that content on Instagram so it makes me really happy to see something besides the norm, something like a picture of cells or my work, being celebrated.
One of the reasons I decided to join Instagram was because I know that's where a lot of the younger generation of people spend their time. Any success my Instagram has gives me more hope that I can set an example for younger people, especially girls, to show that they are valued for more than just their appearance. I think the way some young people communicate and judge worth is through likes on an Instagram photo and follower counts, so I'm trying to send the message that they are valued for their intelligence and that they should not be condemned to stereotypes.
I've noticed my posts that reveal me being true to myself, human, and exposing my own vulnerability tend to get the best engagement in terms of comments + likes. This is something I've observed on Facebook, too. I think it's easy to get carried away with the battle to be forever perfect on Instagram, but that it's very rewarding to also just make these genuine connections with people based on truths and reality.
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)?
@Science.Sam: I have 2 main quality control checks: 1) that the picture is nice, and 2) that it can be accompanied by something interesting. I have a whole folder of images that I've taken that I think are nice and so meet criterion 1, but that I don't have anything meaningful to say about, so they haven't been released.
Sometimes I'll save a really really nice picture that is very "instagrammy" (eg. faded pastels and lots of white space) as "bait" for a time when I have an important message that might otherwise be overlooked. I did this with this post about anxiety that I thought was really important to share but that is not necessarily super fun to read about. I find these types of strategies helpful to create the best possible packaging for important conversations that are otherwise less palatable. It is always a priority for me to stay loyal to my message and that comes before any loyalty to a certain aesthetic, style, or beauty standard.
Me: Anything else you'd like to add about your science Instagramming practices, or tips for others getting into using Instagram for science?
@Science.Sam: Sometimes I feel lame for wanting more followers, but then I remember that this is my message and that I am always true to it and I feel justified and motivated to continue with my goals. Because I feel so much more strongly about the success of my goals in general than my personal success as an instagrammer, my IG philosophy is to support other like-minded individuals as much as possible. I try to engage with the people I follow whom I think are doing good things as much as possible to help them continue to reach success. That way we have a better chance of getting a good message out there.
For all others who want to use IG for science, I think the most important thing to remember is that it is a bit of a game and many people like to fill their feed with things they think are cool and things they aspire to. At the end of the day you have to have "a thing" to attract engaged followers. It's a competitive market, so unless you're ready to compete against the big people with lots of resources, I think it's helpful to carve out your own unique niche.
With that said, I think IG is about quality over quantity; having a lot of followers is useless if your engagement is low. Whenever I start to get seduced by numbers of likes or something, I try to stop and remember that even a single like could mean 1 more person than before has potentially benefitted from something I had to share.
I am very fortunate that people feel comfortable messaging me or commenting about positive ways my posts have benefitted them, and each time I think, "amazing, mission accomplished. Anything beyond this is a bonus."
How do YOU share science via Instagram? If you are a science Instagrammer and you'd like to be featured on my blog, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Read more about science Instagram practices: Black holes and Supernovas - Meet the Face of NASA Marshall's Instagram Account.