What I learned about science from Twitter

I have used Twitter since my freshman year of college. I have over 12,500 tweets and have taught quite a few of my friends how to use the platform. I would consider myself a Twitter veteran, but for most of my time on Twitter my account was private. After a conversation with my best friend, we both decided to change our accounts to public. I can say without any reservations that making my Twitter profile public was the best decision I made in 2013.

When I began my foray into Twitter networking, I had no idea what I was doing. I followed some science bloggers I had heard of, then followed people that they followed, then followed people that they followed, and on and on. The science community on Twitter is a tangled web and everyone seems to know everyone else.

My mission to use Twitter as a networking tool has really taught me a lot.

First of all, I had one primary goal: to follow female scientists. At first, this seemed difficult. Most of the people that I had heard of on Twitter when I started were men. I soon realized how wrong I was; there are plenty of female scientists on Twitter and they are vocal. I hope to live up to their standards.

Secondly, I realized that I could learn so much about so many different disciplines. I follow paleontologists and paleoecologists because it is relevant to my current and future research. I follow biological anthropologists because I’m fascinated by human prehistory and evolution. I follow entomologists and ornithologists and climatologists because it is important to understand the world I live in. I follow scientists who are well known in their field, scientists who have just started their tenure-track, post-docs and graduate students. I’m sure that many of my non-scientist followers get annoyed at my science tweets and retweets, but maybe they will learn something.

Thirdly, I made friends. My family doesn’t understand when I tell them this, but it’s true. There are people on the internet, whom I have never met, who I consider my friends and wish them all the best. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet one of my internet friends at the GSA meeting in Denver in October. Emily Graslie, one of my internet role models, has a great video about internet friends.

Similarly, I have access to the hive-mind. One of my favorite aspects of the science community on Twitter is the hashtag #icanhazpdf. Scientists will pose questions to the group, seek advice, and offer insight. Stereotypes portray scientists as lone geniuses with limited social skills who never ask for help. In reality, science is frequently based on collaboration, and communication is key. I wish the media saw scientists the way that I do: as men and women who are excited to learn and to share their excitement with others.

Finally, I have a much better idea of what I’m getting myself into than I did last year. I have learned from Kate Clancy’s survey on harassment at field sites. Hope Jahren taught me about being a woman in academia. Katie Mack started a great discussion about alternatives to academia. I know that it is difficult to be a scientist in academia, particularly as a woman. I wish I had known the reality of my decision to pursue an academic career sooner, but even so I don’t think I would have changed my path.

If I could give my fellow graduate students one piece of advice it would be to join Twitter. Sure, there are plenty of teenagers using it to complain about their #firstworldproblems (as many of my classmates complain), but that doesn’t mean you have to follow them. Follow people who interest you. Join conversations. Put yourself out there. Get an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Most importantly, listen and learn.


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