‘Everybody should be on Twitter!’
Countless chemistry laboratories in more than 40 different countries were left empty one Monday at the start of September 2020. Several hundred scientists, mostly from Latin America, spent the day at the LatinXChem, a digital conference held on Twitter. The chemists uploaded more than 1200 posters and videos to showcase their work and exchange ideas about it with others.
The Brazilian chemist Felipe Fantuzzi, who carries out research at the University of Würzburg, also took part. His poster on the chemical compounds of cyanoborylene were read more than 700 times and got 110 likes. Fantuzzi says that the free conference, which was designed to be easy to participate in, was a good opportunity for students from poorer countries in particular to showcase their work. For a number of reasons they are often otherwise not able to take part in international meetings.
‘A great success’ was also the view of Ariane Ferreira Nunes-Alves. The Brazilian biochemist was one of the co-organisers of the Twitter conference. When helping to organise the conference she never met the woman in person who originally came up with the idea. The organisations team communicated online via Zoom and WhatsApp.
Dr. Ariane Ferreira Nunes-Alves
Ariane Nunes-Alves (born 1987) has been a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation since 2019 and carries out research as a postdoc at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies. The biochemist studied at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and develops computer-aided methods for researching the interactions between proteins and small molecules. Nunes-Alves has co-organised events which are aimed at increasing the participation and visibility of minorities in science: a digital conference on the impacts of the corona pandemic on female scientists and LatinXChem, a poster conference on Twitter at which chemists from across Latin America presented their work.
Many scientists are already present on Twitter
Nunes-Alves has had a Twitter account since 2009, but she has only actively used it for the last two years. It was around two years ago that she met a science editor at a chemistry conference. Over a game of Jenga he told her that he was active on Twitter. ‘If he was doing it then I should too,’ thought the chemist. Since then she has posted more than 3000 Tweets and gained more than 1500 followers.
‘Everybody should be on Twitter!’ she believes. She says that a lot of scientists are active on it, first and foremost as a way to quickly find out about new jobs. Though Nunes-Alves warns against the danger of becoming addicted. ‘Keep an eye on the time, because otherwise you can end up spending all day on Twitter.’ She has even set herself a limit: no more than 20 minutes every morning.
Dr. Felipe Fantuzzi
Felipe Fantuzzi (born 1987) joined the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg as a postdoc and Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2018. The chemist had previously obtained his doctorate at the University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He mostly carries out research into computer-aided methods in order to explain the electronic structures, compounds and reactivity of main groups and organometallic substances. Fantuzzi has his own website, and considers it very important for researchers to be active on social media to counteract the effects of misleading information with serious research.
Making science more democratic
Felipe Fantuzzi also thinks that Twitter is the most important of the social networks. ‘The corona pandemic in particular showed how important reliable information and serious papers are,’ he says. He went on to say that this is how biology students in Brazil informed themselves about the risks posed by the coronavirus. ‘They filled a gap which would otherwise have been filled with fake news,’ says Fantuzzi. He believes it is important to share his scientific work with society at large instead of just with colleagues.
Since 2015 Fantuzzi has also published his research on his own website, which he created because his research group in Brazil had no online presence beforehand. He advises other junior researchers to also publish their research online, particularly those from the Global South.
Social networks and online conferences make science more democratic – this is something that Ariane Ferreira Nunes-Alves and Felipe Fantuzzi both agree on. ‘Even after corona a lot of conferences should still be held online,’ Nunes-Alves insists. The carbon footprint is a lot smaller because nobody needs to fly, which in turn makes the event more accessible. This way, scientists from countries which don’t have a big budget for research trips can still take part.
The Internet opens up doors to people
The free ‘Women in Science’ online conference at the beginning of September, which Nunes-Alves also co-organised, proves that making it easier for participants to take part leads to an increase in diversity. The reason for the conference was a study which showed that the number of scientific papers published by women fell drastically during the lockdown, while those published by men remained the same. The speakers came from Europe, America and Africa. The speech which impressed Nunes-Alves the most was given by a pharmacology professor from Nigeria. The two women would probably not have had the chance to meet if the conference had been held in person.
Social networks can also open up doors to a scientific career overseas. For Felipe Fantuzzi, the virtual research network Researchgate changed his working life forever. After he finished his doctoral degree, he wrote to a group of biochemists from Würzburg asking if there were any opportunities for collaborating. A professor recommended Fantuzzi apply for the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers, which he did – and in 2018 he came to Germany.
Marina Shalginskikh (born 1982) is a German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation until the end of this year, and works on the recycling economy and waste management at ‘Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland GmbH’. To take up this position she relocated her family for a year from Moscow to Cologne. Shalginskikh studied economics and worked in marketing at Burda Russia. She has been active as an environmental activist and eco-blogger for a number of years. She campaigns for the separation of waste and writes about an environmentally-friendly lifestyle on social media.
Blogging to increase your visibility
Another tool for promoting your own research is keeping a blog. The Russian environmental activist Marina Shalginskikh for example publishes articles on blogs belonging to Russian and German environmental organisations as well as on her own Facebook and Instagram pages. More than 2500 people follow her.
Shalginskikh says that a good blog post needs three things: attractive images, an interesting text and a first-person perspective. ‘It’s important to develop a personal brand. Who am I? What do I do?’ says the environmental activist. On Instagram for example, she posts pictures of herself with her children at the ‘Yoga & Clean Up’ event by the banks of the Rhine in Cologne. They are all wearing rubber gloves and red T-shirts, while her daughter carries a bag full of collected cigarette butts in her hand and Shalginskikh carries a full bag of rubbish. The photo looks authentic and conveys the message that picking up litter with your children is definitely a good thing to do in your spare time, and you’re doing something positive.
This action went down well with her followers. Many of them sent her photos of themselves picking up litter as well. She often gets messages from followers who say she has inspired them to change the way they live their lives. The blogger is convinced that ‘Even if you only have a small reach, you can still achieve something.’
Of course things haven’t always gone the way Shalginskikh intended. ‘If a text is too complicated or if it has too many technical terms in it, people stop reading. So my tip is to write short texts that are easy to understand.’ Texts do still have to fit the format though: She writes long-form articles for the blog of an environmental organisation, but shorter, more simplified versions as Instagram and Facebook posts.
Which digital formats of science communication do you use? Have you ever attended a Twitter conference? Let us know in your comments.
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