Monday, 14 December 2015

My 2015 Reading List

As many people are looking for presents at this time of year I thought I would round up some of my favourite books that I read in 2015 (along with a few other favourites).

My plan was to write full reviews of all of these books but somehow it is the end of the year and I never quite managed it. This year has gone by so quickly.

If you have any suggestions of your own please add them below. I am looking for a few new reads over the holidays

So You've been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson
I really enjoyed this book and the follow ups Jon has done with people who have become well known for all the wrong reasons due to exploits, mishaps and misinterpretations on social media. It starts to think about how and why people behave like they do online and it could go into a little more depth but is a great read to make you think about how mob mentality, anonymity and online behaviour in general can be a powerful tool but also a dangerous force.

How to Thrive in the Digital Age, Nick Harkaway 
A great, short, positive discussion of where we are today in the digital era. It explores a lack of control in the online environment and risk but also the huge opportunity we all have.

Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread - The Lessons from a New Science, Alex Pentland 
This is a brilliant book about how effective networks can be created. It's data and experiment led and includes evaluations of interventions that companies have put in place to provide a creative and idea rich environments. It's focused on offline rather than online networks but there is some discussion of the use of social media. The author quotes his own studies for most of the book and I would have liked to have seen more of an alternative perspective but for anyone who works with ideas and/or people this is highly recommended.

The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Basil Mahon 
A great biography of Maxwell, it does get pretty heavy on the physics but I like that they haven't skipped on the science as often happens in books about scientists.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler
I read this book while I was in China and it really helped me relate to the country and the people I was meeting. It took me a little while to get into the book at first but once the writers journey in China settles a bit it becomes really good. Even if you don't have an interest in China it is an excellent read. I want to read his follow up now.

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
If you like stories about people and stories about the weird things people do and get up to then you will enjoy this collection of short stories. Easy, enjoyable reading.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
If you haven't read this book yet then you need to. It's an incredible story of rapid scientific development alongside a family story of understanding. I read this book when it first came out but it is one of the most important books that I have ever read and so I wanted to include it on this list. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

PechaKucha, Androids and Line: Science Communication in Japan

The last week of my Churchill Fellowship was spent in Tokyo, Japan. I learnt an immense amount about Japan, it's attitudes to science, engagement initiatives and its use of social media ... did you know Japan has a social network called Line? No, me neither... My short trip also included a PechaKucha presentation, a debate about whether we could love robots and a meeting with the ultimate in robots, ASIMO.

Tokyo was incredible. I completely fell in love with its chaos, speed and the people.

During my week I went along to the PechaKucha nights and spoke about my Fellowship and my journey in science communication. You can watch it below. If you don't know what PechaKucha is, you have 20 images and 20 seconds to talk about each one. It's a challenge but great fun.

The night was really enjoyable and there was about 250 people there. I really enjoy running the PechaKucha nights in Aberdeen so it was fantastic to meet with the founders and organisers of the nights. It's amazing that PechaKucha nights now run in over 800 cities around the world. All the PechaKucha team have been great to chat to via email and they were just as great in person. The other talks from the night were really fantastic too so you should check them out.

ASIMO and how the Earthquake changed how Japan interacts with science

I was privileged to meet with staff from Miraikan, Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Also, the home of ASIMO.

I learnt how after the 2011 Earthquake the centre was closed due to some damage and during this time the team started to think about how they could still interact with the public without a physical science centre. They set up a Facebook and a website to gather science questions from the public and the sites were inundated with queries. Responses were created by the science communicators and scientists who they approached to answer questions. This dialogue seems to be ingrained within Miraikan as there are an unlimited number of opportunities to share your own views on science and our lives.

The team at Miraikan, Tomonori Hayakawa, Yuko Okayama and Chiharu Yamada from the science communication, office of International Affairs and Public Relation sections.

The exhibits include the science and scientists too, you can participate in real experiments. My favourite exhibit was about the future of data and technology, Anagura: "It is a research laboratory for sharing people's information and turning the connections into a powerful force for humankind."

The Anagura exhibition, the round projections on the floor followed you as you moved around and interacted with the stands.

I got a little excited about the shop...

Could we fall in love with an android?

My first few days in Tokyo were spent at Tokyo Tech with Professor Kayoko Nohara and found out more about her work into research into translation and science communication. They have run a number of science cafe's but created a new, more interactive format that fuses art and science in a 'creative cafe'. These Creative Cafe's involve the audience in the event and sound like a fantastic exploration of science beyond the lab and lecture format.

I also met with Professor Tom Hope at Tokyo Tech and was lucky enough to attend his 'Think Aloud' session where I debated whether we could ever fall in love with androids and what it means to be human and the concept of love with students who are practicing their English skills and discussing science and societal issues at the same time.

The students also chatted to me about how they use social media (Facebook, Twitter and Line). Line is a little like Whatsapp and WeChat but is used to plan social events and connect with others of similar interests. It's also popular because it's 'stickers' which include dancing rabbits and other things..

How many graduates from your university have traveled to space?

Later in the week I met with the public relations team at the University of Tokyo. They have developed a bilingual digital resource to connect people with the UToyko Research. Discussing with them I learnt what happens when one of the Professors you work with is awarded the Nobel Prize, how the general community in Japan is pretty interested in science and technology and is also trusting of science and scientists. GMO's, climate change, vaccines are not topics of 'debate' in Japan.

We had a great discussion with a wider group of staff about interactions via social media and the challenges of having to ensure that both English and Japanese translations are included. Many manage not one, but two social media sites that are the same but differ in their language. It's also challenging because the descriptors and language used for a Japanese audience aren't always what they would like to host in English.

They had a great shop on their beautiful campus too. The shop sold not only University of Tokyo branded goods but objects, items and information about spin out companies from the University and their own branded Sake, created from a strain of yeast they thought was destroyed but was found in the university archives many years later.

The University of Tokyo campus

Participating in an experiment looking at walking styles at Miraikan

See you soon Japan!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Science, China and why we should all take notice of WeChat.

I spent last week in Shanghai exploring the use of social media to communicate science as part of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

I had an extremely busy week and was lucky enough to meet with researchers in science communication, representatives from Nature and the Royal Society of Chemistry in Shanghai. Who all gave me extremely valuable insights into science communication and social media in China.

Welcome to Shanghai!

The majority of my time was spent at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which is a well established institution in China. I visited researcher Dr Yi Mou who has written a number of papers about the use of social media for health messaging and its uptake by academics on a professional basis in China.

Yi Mou also translated some interesting findings from science communication surveys in China that have been conducted over the past number of years.

Me, Dr Li Mou and Dr Nainan Wen from Nanjing University where I also visited

I was incredibly lucky to meet with a group of people who were so accommodating. China is an interesting place and I was a little apprehensive about how I would navigate around but actually it was pretty simple. The subway in Shanghai is so easy to use and despite no access to google maps I didn't get lost once (this is unusual).

In China, access to websites and social media platforms is limited. There isn't a lack of social networks to choose from as many platforms created in China have materialised. These include but aren't limited to Weibo (which is a public discussion forum limited by characters, similar to Twitter) and WeChat (which is an interesting mix of Facebook and WhatsApp where you can post publicly and interact in groups or one-to-one). I found out about another bunch too that work in interesting ways but I will save those for another post.

The uptake of these platforms in China is huge, although the use of Weibo has declined rapidly recently due the shift of people to the WeChat platform and due to issues with the shutting down of accounts and deleted posts.

A number of studies have been conducted on science communication on Weibo. As it is an open platform like Twitter the data is easily available. The public were found to ask questions of science and want to know more, GMO is a hot topic in China, but there are very few scientists engaged in communication with these audiences*.

Social media in China is monitored and managed so participants are wary of what they share online. WeChat involves a lot of private messaging and closed group discussion but these posts are also monitored.

Speaking to students at Nanjing University about why scientists might interact on social media

When it comes to social media and smartphone applications China is SWITCHED ON. Comments like, "In China everyone wants everything fast" and "everyone wants to feel part of something" highlighted to me just how attached China is to social media. The constant notification sound from WeChat that you could hear 24/7 confirmed this, and it is still ringing in my ears.

WeChat is HUGE. A statistic that I was told is that 90% of China's population that have access to the internet use WeChat (trying to find a source for this, if anyone can please let me know), that is a lot of people. For some more informed but slightly outdated stats see this post.

It's good to note that this rise in popularity of WeChat isn't only because other networks are blocked as these can be accessed pretty easily via a VPN. Facebook and Twitter accounts are visibly advertised on business cards and other promotional material in China but WeChat is most definitely China's favourite network.

Everyone is on WeChat and because of this pretty much all communication goes through WeChat. From department meetings and university announcements to communicating with your mum everything takes place via WeChat. I saw it in action when a International Student's networking night by the communication school at Shanghai Jiao Tong University was arranged via WeChat.

When it comes to science on WeChat. There are some scientists that blog and have some influential pages, sharing popular science updates and comments. These are very much the minority and tend to be high profile scientists, but they do attract big numbers of followers. Beyond the public face of the WeChat superstar scientists, specialist discussions about areas of research also take place in closed groups (which can include up to and over 500 people). These chats are global, with scientists located everywhere contributing to discussion.

The closed groups are great for scientific discussion and collaboration but create a problem in that unless you know they are there you can be excluded from conversations. They are monitored too of course.

Beautiful colours on the Nanjing University campus

The way people use WeChat and how it works is incredibly interesting. We should take note because many of the apps more common to us in the US and the UK will be moving in this direction soon if Mark Zuckerberg has his way. A comment over dinner highlighted one key difference between WeChat and Facebook, "it's interesting because Facebook TELLS you what you want, whereas on WeChat it's easy and you create what you want".  The premise is that people can give you access to information faster than an internet search ever can. You can ask in a group, "can anyone tell me where to find xxx" and the answer is with you instantly. This is something that people have realised and use Twitter for too; answers, experts and papers are only a question away if you are in the right group.

You can pay for goods, donate money and pay for articles (recently it's started prompting people to 'thank' people for a good post with money) via WeChat. You can book appointments, flights, anything and everything. This has created an interesting shift where people no longer visit websites or use email. No other app offers this amount of functionality. I constantly have to shift between apps and networks to do what I want. Not on WeChat.

All the great suff aside, it's not without its problems, as messages can get missed (many people are in multiple groups). People I spoke to wondered if it was being overused and relied upon too much. Will people switch off to the constant updates?

WeChat isn't just contained within China. Anyone wanting to do business or interact easily with those in China quickly realises how useful WeChat is for collaboration and its use outside China is increasing.

Me in Nanjing University campus
No matter where content comes from the content on WeChat is still monitored which will prevent many from signing up but I think in the future we may all find ourselves shifting to a service that allows us to do everything we need to without clicking on a website.

The rise of messaging vs broadcast social media platforms may cause a bit of a problem for science communication. Conversations will take place within distinct groups of interest and between those 'in the know' rather than on open platforms like Twitter where everyone can pile in and see the conversation taking place or the content that is shared.

The popularity of messaging may mean that conversations become more closed in the future rather than more open, despite us having the technology and ability to hold open discussion. This makes me feel a little worried about the rise of messaging.

*This information was taken from the Blue Book of Science Communication in China.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Social media networks are becoming more like real life, not less

This week there's been a higher than normal amount of discussion around to the topic of 'the death of social media', well, there has been on my social media networks. And that links to what I want to talk about in this post.

The Atlantic published a piece yesterday on 'The Decay of Twitter' which followed the announcement that Twitter was running at a financial loss. Today, Essena O'Neill announced that she is quitting Instagram because social media 'isn't real life'.  I've found the discussions around both of these really interesting but many discussions about social media often assume a couple of points that I think should be thought about further and these haven't really been addressed in commentary that I have seen.

1) Everyone should be using the same social network

Obviously for a social network to be a social network it needs users and for business (like Twitter) additional users is a sign that they are doing well. But as a user of a network does more users mean that it is a better network to use? Many people use multiple networks because they offer different functionality. Some people like images, others like reading or connecting with videos and this need can shift depending on what content people are looking to find.

2) Everyone uses social media networks in the same way

The Essena O'Neill story made me think more about how people use networks. Not everyone uses social media to broadcast their perfect life or to broadcast at all. Members of patient and other support groups use social media to communicate and help each other. People going through difficult periods of their life use social media to connect. Other use social media to communicate with friends, family and with others with shared interests like sport, or science. Not all Instagram accounts exist to promote unachievable beauty goals, some exist to inspire curiosity in science and to share moments of real life.

3) The way we use social media changes and that's natural

As we age, change jobs, location, interests and friendship groups the way we interact online with others changes to reflect this. It's natural really, so is it newsworthy?

The problem is that as in our 'offline life',  our online life is dominated by information from sources we choose to visit or recommendations from friends and connections. There's an increasingly diverse set of social networks, tools and functions and these open up the what we interact with or what we read in news and commentary but these are limited by who we choose to connect with. Because of this we see a skewed view of the overall picture.

Social media is certainly not dying a death. The number of people interacting on social networks is growing but the field is diversifying and becoming more reflective of different interests and ways people prefer to connect to each other. For me, I love soaking up information from different accounts and hearing from people I wouldn't be able to connect without social media. Far from consuming everything social media is valuable and offers a great amount of opportunity to explore, learn and connect.

Just a note...

I want you to help me (and researcher Paige Brown Jarreau ) to understand more about who reads this blog and other blogs related to science. 

You will also get FREE science art from Paige's Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Updates from Hapsci and a call for help!

Next month (November) I will be continuing my Churchill Fellowship with a trip to Shanghai and to Tokyo. As you can imagine I am very excited about taking this trip. 

I will be meeting with a number of interesting people including two research groups that focus on science communication in China and in Japan.It's going to be a new experience for me and I'm looking forward to the trip. But before I head on my way I wanted see if there are any particular questions people wonder about science and science communication in China and Japan from my blog readers. 

It would be great if you could tell me if you interact/follow any great science focused accounts that are based in China or Japan. I would be interested to know if there are any particular pages or accounts that people really love.

I also want you to help me (and researcher Paige Brown Jarreau ) to understand more about who reads this blog and other blogs related to science. 

You will also get FREE science art from Paige's Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:

Thanks for helping me out! 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

How to Be A Social Media Wizz: Top Tips for Researchers

I have written a Buzzfeed post of the 10 top tips I have gathered from science communicators, universities and science writers in the US and Canada... click on the image below to be taken through to the guide. I hope you find it useful.

This list was compiled as I undertook my Churchill Travel Fellowship. I also wrote up some good example case studies and how to plan a social media engagement strategy on the LSE Impact Blog

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone that supported me and met with me during my Fellowship. Everyone I met was so open about discussing what they do.

I was worried that people wouldn't want to speak openly to a stranger who was external to their organisation but that wasn't the case at all. Every single person I interacted with was incredibly welcoming. Their thoughts and views have definitely impacted on me and how I will approach everything in the future. Many discussions included not only the focus of the sharing of science and engagement with science on social media but more general discussions around the nature of scientific discovery, evolution of science communication as a field and chats about life in general. I've created a happy photo collage of some of the amazing people I met. It doesn't include everyone as sometimes we got carried away chatting and I forgot to take a photo.

A special thanks goes to the University of Aberdeen and to Lou Woodley who helped support my Fellowship. Lou also helped me edit my Buzzfeed  :) and it was great to meet up with her and the Trellis team in Washington D.C.

Just to summarise this part of my Fellowship covered:
  • 4 weeks
  • 5 cities (2 countries)
  • 10 Museums/Science Centres
  • 37 interviews
  • 310,000 steps
  • 400 tweets
  • 8 blog posts
  • 2 (and maybe a bit) bags of Cheetos

It was an incredible experience and I really can't thank those that I met enough. The Churchill Trust Fellowships are open for applications this year. So you should take a look.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Churchill Fellowship: Toronto and the Social Media Lab

Ah, beautiful Toronto. I wasn't expecting to fall in love with this city as much as I did, but I really did. I met some fantastic people and had some great discussions about the use of social media for public engagement with science.*

*disclaimer, there are lots of city skyline shots in this blog post.
I spent a good four days in Toronto exploring over the weekend and meeting with scientists and staff at the University of Toronto and speaking with the fantastic Social Media Lab at Ryerson University. I was invited to speak at the Ryerson University Social Media Lab about my Churchill Fellowship. I've included my slides and a YouTube video of my talk 'How scientists are using social media'  at the bottom of this post.

Toronto by day

Toronto by night
The space they have in the Social Media Lab is great (it's based within offices once lived-in by Google). I tried out one of the 'chairs' in the image below although thankfully that experience isn't recorded in a video.

The Social Media and Society conference is taking place at the Social Media Lab from the 27-29 of July this year. There are some fantastic sessions scheduled and I am looking forward to following through the hashtag #SMsociety15 .

The audience at my talk was great and asked lots of questions. I started to sum up some of my thoughts from my trip. One message I wanted to get across is that social media can be a really valuable tool but it isn't always the answer to all problems and setting up a Twitter account isn't automatically going to connect you with a public audience. Social media is one tool of many that can be used for public engagement but in order to do that requires planning, knowledge of the network and the setting of  clear, achievable goals.

We had a really open discussion about the value of social media and how the use of it can be implemented within universities. You can hear it all on the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

In the afternoon I met with the wonderful Ophira Ginsburg (@opheriaG) at the Women's College Research Institute at the University of Toronto where we discussed  how social media had changed her outlook on engaging with public audiences and a particular focus on engaging with active patient groups. Ophira has led and been involved with large scale twitter chats for International Womens' Day and leads the Lancet Series on Health, Equity and Womens Cancers. This discussion happened while live interactions on Twitter were taking place!

The University of Toronto campus
Visiting the University of Toronto I met with a number of groups including Liam Mitchell from the Communications office in Faculty of Medicine and Paul Fraumeni in the Office of the Vice-President of Research and Innovation. It was great to chat to people across the institution about their visions for how the university could be communicating in the future. They are approaching a new structure and approach to communications across the institution and it was really interesting to hear how they are looking to implement that.
Up until now they haven't embraced social media as much as they could but they are moving in a new direction where for every element of communications they will think about which medium would be best for that particular communications. In the past traditional routes have been the default option - print. Now they are looking to approach communications (including interaction with research) in a way that utilises many different tools.

Sometimes it might be print, sometimes via social media but the important change is that the communication medium is thought about at the start and,  like I discussed at the Ryerson Social Media Lab,  social media becomes part of a toolbox as they approach communications rather than an add on or an afterthought.
On my final day in Toronto I was invited to speak to a group of scientists at Ryerson University about how social media can be used as an effective tool for networking and helping career progression. It was a chance to talk about a subject I am very familiar with and discuss what networks can be useful for PhD students to PIs. Thinking about what people can find out about you online is important. Google yourself! Make sure your online profiles reflect what you want future employers/collaborators to see. For scientists there are a number of networks that can be helpful, for example ResearchGate which allows you to easily collate your published papers and academic career (much easier than LinkedIn) but you shouldn't overlook the more general channels.
So Toronto, you were fantastic and I hope I can visit again soon. I even managed to pop into my PhD supervisors lab and remind myself that I can still pipette, if needed!

YouTube video of the talk

Yoga in the distillery district



Sunday, 28 June 2015

Churchill Fellowship: Science policy and public engagement in Washington DC

Washington DC was a VERY HOT whirlwind of interesting conversations. new experiences and lots of lessons in American history. I think the time I spent in DC is going to spawn a number of blog posts focused on different topics but for now, here's what I got up to and my thoughts from DC. I've included a summary of my take home messages at the bottom of the post.

First stop was the American Association of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's (ASBMB) 'Hill Day'. This is where a group of scientists from the association meet with with their representatives, Senators and Congressmen to discuss their science and issues in funding.

Benjamin Corb and the policy team at ASBMB do an excellent job of training the scientists in what to expect from their meetings with Senators and Congressmen, how to structure their short discussions and get the most out of them.

It was fascinating to see the interaction between scientists and their representatives(and see the Capitol in action)! Policy engagement is incredibly important to ensure that the bills and recommendations that are made help the investigation of science in a responsible way. Ben even managed to give me a quick tour of the Capitol in between meetings. I managed to snap a quick picture with Churchill too.

When the busy day had ended all the participants gathered for some wind-down drinks. The discussions about their day showed how much they had learned from the experience. They were all enthusiastic about their time on the hill and keen to keep connected in with policy and their representatives about science.

The Library of Congress Building
I also got to spend some time in the ASBMB offices. It's quite possibly the friendliest office in the world. I had some great discussions about their plans for public engagement training for scientists, and their thoughts on the use of social media by scientists and by them as an organisation. ASBMB have been extremely proactive in supporting and encouraging scientists to engage with new audiences and the use of online tools. During my PhD I was invited to blog for them at the annual Experimental Biology Conference about the conference and science being presented.

During the week I met the deputy head of Social Media at NASA, Jason Townsend and Sarah DeWitt who is a Communications Officer at NASA. I had fantastic discussions with both of them about the approach NASA has to engagement on social media and the training programmes they have. It was incredible to spend time with both of them, and share some similar frustrations and thoughts too.

The Lincoln Memorial at night
Many science communicators and writers are based in DC and I met a number of familiar and new faces at the DC science tweet-up. This informal gathering was a nice break to the more office-based settings I had been in during the day. There were some great chats about social media but also about general thoughts about working in the States in DC, interactions with government, politics and what happened the day the @nih_bear came to visit.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organisation focused on science advocacy,  had some fantastic examples of engagement beyond an audience of scientists online. They've worked with partner organisations focused on particular drives and themes to get their messages out online. Great use of hashtags. I've written a little about them in my previous blog post.

The Monument (the DC by moonlight 'trolly tour' is a great way of seeing the sights in the summer when it is really hot!)

As I spent the weekend in DC I got the opportunity to explore many of the museums and famous landmarks. I know fairly little about American history and so this trip was a real learning experience. I didn't appreciate just how big the monuments are and, of course, it was great to see the White House. DC is easy to get around using the metro system.

The Smithsonian museums in DC are incredible (and free!). I spent over half a day in the Air and Space Museum and still didn't see everything. I love a planetarium and this one didn't disappoint. The show on 'Dark Matter' narrated by Neil De Grasse Tyson left you with a clear message ringing in your ears, "there are still many great discoveries to come, we just have to keep exploring".

American Dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The museum is also home to a replica of the Hubble, the Wright Brothers' plane and many other important and significant artefacts from the human and space exploration. It's amazing to think that the first flight was only just over 100 years ago.. and the technology we have now has exceeded what we could even dream of (I'm actually writing this sat in an airport lounge so it makes it even more real to me at this moment in time)!

The Air and Space museum has a volunteer programme too. I find this approach interesting as a community building initiative and wondered what incentives (if any) people get - or if this programme relies on people being passionate about the subject.

My week in DC was crammed full of more meetings and discussions than I have mentioned in this post, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and their Public Engagement team.  It would be silly to try and cover all the conversations so I will cover my biggest realisations from when I was in DC below. Some common themes started emerging over the week and a half I spent in DC.

  • Without proper resource, planning, training and knowledge connecting with new audiences via social media and building a community is difficult. 
  • Everyone wants to engage (rather than disseminate) more but time and resource is an issue
  • A common comment is that social media isn't always the answer and it it isn't an easy solution but sometimes it can be an extremely useful tool 
  • Many researchers discuss how useful social media has been for their own networking but there is little discussion of its use for public engagement 
  • Rather than trying to build your own empire online, think clearly about what your goals are. Does it make sense to work with others that have already built an audience?

This June I am undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to look at the communication of science via social media. I will be traveling to North America and I am looking to connect with people as I go. You can read more about it here.

Contact me!


Email *

Message *

Follow by Email