Over the past few weeks, I've been helping with an online course on using Instagram for science communication hosted by SciFund and the LSU College of Science. (I wrote a lot of the materials, which you can find here, here and here.
The course has been a ton of fun so far. We started with around 80 students, and people taking the course (mostly scientists and science students, but also some science communicators) have been very active in producing content. (See for yourself on Instagram - browse the hashtag #LSUscifund). As a class, we've produced over 200 posts so far!
In planning this course, we wanted to go beyond Instagram button-pushing and really give science professionals the tools to produce effective visual content with specific science communication goals and audiences in mind. We've covered defining and finding an audience on Instagram (hint: effective use of hashtags is very important), the power of experiential visual content (taking an audience with you on a journey through your scientific experiences), and trends of how scientists today appear to be using Instagram.
I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the key takeaways or discussion points that have come up so far, from my perspective. So if you enjoy Instagram and science, read on!
1. Share the Human Side of Scientific Research.
Through the power of visuals, scientists on Instagram can communicate more than scientific research findings. They can post selfies, share visuals that communicate lab or field experiences and science-in-progress, talk about their own lives as scientists and show people what a day-in-the-life of a scientist looks like.
During one of our LSUSciFund class discussions, we talked about using the hashtag #babyscientists to share images of ourselves as children and stories of how we found science as a career path and passion. We also discussed research showing that people engage more with visuals that include human faces or a human element. That goes for science selfies, too.
2. Use Hashtags Wisely.
Hashtags are vital to expanding the reach of Instagram posts. Effective hashtags are not just words or phrases you make up and put a "#" in front of. An effective hashtag is one that you do some research on and find that other people are using in ways consistent with how you are using it. Different hashtags can be used to tap into different audiences. You'll want to search for a hashtag before you use it on Instagram to see if there isn't another hashtag that could tap into a wider audience.
Tip: Entering a hashtag into the Instagram app search bar reveals how many public posts exist that include that hashtag.
For science, you could use very specific hashtags that would allow those with more scientific knowledge to find them on Instagram (e.g. #quokka, #macropod) or more general hashtags that would tap into a wider audience (#wildlifewednesday, #biology, #animallovers). The best hashtags are ones that are specific enough that communities of users interested in that type of content would be likely to browse posts including that hashtag, but not so scientific that only a handful of people use the hashtag.
3. Make Instagramming Part of Your Research Process
I'm personally always cautious about encouraging researchers to "just do one more thing" when it comes to science communication and outreach activities. I know all too well that one's time as a graduate student or scientist is very precious, and research often does and should take priority.
This issue has come up in our LSUSciFund class discussions. Folks taking the course are obviously very interested in visual science communication with broader audiences, but finding time to take photos and videos in the lab or field can be very difficult.
When it comes to this issue, I encourage scientists to incorporate Instagram into their existing research processes. For example, if you already have microscope images you are using for data analysis, or field site photos, pull some of these to tell a quick story about your research in an Instagram post. If you are already in the lab to care for your research specimens, or you have a wait step in an experiment, take a quick photo to share your research experiences with folks who've never been inside a science lab. Never underestimate the power of visualizing what may seem to you like mundane specimens, data collection processes and research equipment. Most people don't see what you see every day!
Having trouble finding opportunities to take photos of your science? Re-sketch a figure you've created for a manuscript in a drawing/painting app on your tablet or phone, in a way that would be easier to process for a non-scientist on Instagram. Or, when you learn something new while reading your science textbook or a research paper you already have to digest for work, take a minute to share that knowledge with a picture and informative caption on Instagram. As a bonus, it will help you remember it yourself!
Most of us nearly always have our phone handy, whether we are in the lab or field. If you are alone and don't have anyone to take photos for you, if can be a matter of simply setting up your phone on a stand or tripod to capture a quick video of yourself doing science (you can always take a screenshot from the video for a picture!) Action shots are the best! They can communicate a lot about what you do in the name of science.
4. Look at Science in New Ways
To communicate science to broader audiences, it helps to look at your own scientific experiences and the things you see every day with fresh eyes.
Newbie photographers often learn this principle in photography classes and workshops: break out of your comfort zone. Don't just take the easiest photo you can capture of an object or scene. Try looking at objects in new ways: get closer to them, hold them up to the light, photograph them from multiple angles, think about what's in the background and whether the background provides context or just distracts the viewer's eye. By looking around you with fresh eyes, you'll probably see things that could be of interest to your Instagram audiences.
5. Brainstorm Content and Plan Ahead
As scientists, science students or science communicators, we might create an Instagram account with the best of intentions, but within a few weeks draw blanks on what to share.
One of the first things I asked LSUSciFund students to do during our weekly discussions was to brainstorm specific ideas of what they might share. If you try this yourself, I encourage you to think beyond the obvious things you could share visually, for example images that directly communicate your recent research findings or that feature species or equipment you work with (or photos of you at your computer.) Think about what you have access to that other people might not - how might you give others a "virtual tour" of your lab or daily scientific experiences? What would you photograph or draw to help people understand what you do? Think about how you might bring people with you on a journey through a scientific experience, through selfies or video showing yourself doing science. Think about the unique scientific expertise, or stories about how the world works, that you have that other might not. What visuals could you use on Instagram to tell these stories?
Tip: Don't be afraid to pull photos from Wikimedia or other Creative Commons, public domain or .gov sites to use on Instagram as a means to tell your stories about science!
The best way to ensure longevity of your science Instagram account is to plan ahead. Don't share all of your content at once! Instead create a calendar for yourself and plan out the stories you'd like to tell about your scientific experiences, research procedures and findings, or basic science facts you'd like to communicate in visual and fun ways. And most of all, enjoy the experience!