“I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Katie Mack
Where are you based?
Who do you work for?
University of Melbourne, School of Physics. I’m a postdoctoral researcher, studying dark matter and the formation of galaxies.
What type of science communication do you do?
Most of the science communication I do is via Twitter. I talk about a lot of different things: recent results in physics and astronomy, life as a research scientist, the joys and challenges of academia, stuff I’m working on, and science in general. Because it’s my personal Twitter feed, I also post about what I’m up to on any given day, which I hope keeps me sounding like a human being rather than just a science robot.
I also write blog posts and popular-level articles about science and the academic life, and give lectures, and do school outreach, and co-host an astro-chat YouTube series, and am now branching out to Facebook… I pretty much talk science whenever and however I can!
What do you think branching out to Facebook will add?
Twitter is a great way of connecting with people, but not everyone with an interest in science is on Twitter. I started the Facebook page to see if the science I share on Twitter would be of interest to Facebook users, and to allow for the possibility of longer discussions. So far, over 100 people have “Liked” the page. At the moment, I think most are people who already follow me on Twitter, but I think it’s a more accessible medium for some people and I think there’s a chance it’ll expand to a bigger following. It’s sort of an experiment at the moment!
Why are you increasing your online presence?
I really enjoy doing outreach and talking about science, and doing that online is something that feels pretty natural and non-intrusive. I also like taking on the role of a sort of resident expert on matters of physics and astronomy, and the bigger my online presence, the more opportunities I get to do that. Of course, I also think it’s important for there to be more female scientists out there as role models, and since I enjoy this sort of thing and find it helpful for other areas of my career, I might as well put myself out there as an example.
Why do you think social media is such a useful tool?
The interactiveness is really the key thing. There’s a real need people to be able to engage with scientists directly, as much as there is a need for outlets that simply present information. Social media is a great way to allow for two-way interaction, in a way that’s not too demanding of the scientist’s time. I don’t answer all the questions I get, but I can talk to people directly, get people’s opinions, and find out what kinds of concepts are confusing or most interesting to people. And the system of feedback (retweets, “favorites,” “Likes,” shares) makes it easy to tell what kinds of topics and modes of engagement are resonating with the audience. It’s great for honing communication skills.
Who is your main audience?
When I first got started using Twitter as a science communication tool, I defined my audience to be the sort of person who would seek out and follow an astrophysicist on Twitter. Basically, I mostly write for people who are interested in science but not necessarily educated in it at all. I try to keep the things I write accessible to people with a high-school level of education and no science background. In practice, I think a healthy fraction of the people who follow me on Twitter or seek out my other science communication work are either scientists (aspiring or established) or science educators, but I hope that what I put out there interests the general non-sciency public as well.
How did you get into it?
As for science writing and outreach, I got started in that while I was still in college. I’ve always loved talking about science to anyone who would listen, so talking at schools or writing for the popular press were fantastic things to get to do whenever I had the opportunity.
Getting into Twitter was originally an attempt to use social media as a professional tool. A colleague of mine did a lot of tweeting about conferences and seemed to get a lot out of it, and when I attended a talk of his at Cambridge and saw that he had put his Twitter handle on his title slide, I knew I had to try it. I live-tweeted a meeting on dark matter at the request of that same colleague a few weeks later, and it just kind of snowballed from there. When I saw that a lot of my followers were not fellow astronomers but actually just people who stumbled upon my feed, I realized I could do some very direct science outreach by answering questions and bringing my expertise to the public in an accessible way.
What impact do you think a tool like Twitter can have in science communication?
I definitely think the interactivity is key, as well as the casual nature of Twitter (for most tweeters). With Twitter, scientists can allow non-scientists to have a window into what they do on a daily basis, what they think about, and what their lives are like. Check out the @RealScientists Twitter account for a project based mainly on that concept. It can be a great way to humanize something that most of the public finds completely mysterious. And it allows the public to directly interact with scientists and ask them questions, which makes it possible for the public to have a voice in the communication and to ask about what they are most interested in exploring. It also opens up science communication for scientists who don’t have the time or inclination to get involved in more structured outreach projects — scientists can just pop over to Twitter from time to time without making a major commitment. In that way, it can be a lot more valuable than science communication that just relays facts — with social media, we can relay how science actually works, which is, I think, much more important.
Do you think science, and science communication could benefit more if more scientists use tools like Twitter?
I think so. Things like Twitter are a great way for scientists to connect with each other and to become better communicators, which is helpful just from a research science perspective. And the level of engagement social media allows makes it great for science communication. I don’t think it’s necessary for ALL scientists to use social media. Certainly some people just aren’t into it, and that’s fine. But I think it’s a more versatile tool than a lot of scientists realize.
Why do you do it?
I really enjoy it! There are few things more fun for me than talking about science to people who are genuinely curious. But I also feel that, as a publicly funded scientist, I have a moral responsibility to share my knowledge as openly as possible. Governments fund science because improving our understanding of how the Universe works is something that advances humanity as a whole, and if those of us doing this work just keep it to ourselves (or make it effectively inaccessible by only publishing for specialists), we’re hindering that process. I’m not saying EVERY scientist should do a lot of public outreach, since obviously some of us are much better suited to it than others, but I do think that those of us with a passion and opportunity for science communication really should do it as much as we can.
I should also mention that I think science communication helps my professional work in a number of ways. It definitely helps keep me up to date with the latest advances in a wide range of areas in physics and astronomy, which is crucial for me as an interdisciplinary scientist. It also makes me a better communicator, just by giving me a lot of practice explaining things in simpler and more creative ways than I would usually to do within academia. And it helps keep me enthused about my subject. Academia can be a bit hard on the ego sometimes, especially when you feel like you’re not making much progress, but with science communication, there are always enthusiastic people who are excited about what you have to say, and that makes it a lot easier to get through the tougher times.
Why do you think science communication is important?
It’s becoming more and more important for people to be scientifically literate, to make informed decisions in a democratic society. From climate policy to research funding, voters have to make decisions based on their understanding of the latest scientific consensus, and it’s important that they have access to not only the information but also the scientists who are experts in their fields. And that’s not even to mention all the benefits of scientific literacy in an increasingly high-tech society where an understanding of science affects the daily choices people make in their personal consumption and habits. I think it’s hugely valuable to de-mystify the process of science research and give people a direct line to professional scientific practice, so they can make more informed decisions in their daily lives.
What has been your favourite project?
I’ve been really enjoying doing the YouTube astro-chat series “Pint in the Sky” with my colleague, Alan Duffy. It’s super low-budget and all very haphazard and thrown-together, but making videos where we just talk science in a casual way is a lot of fun. We recently took a road trip out to Canberra for a National Science Week event and were lucky enough to get to interview Phil Plait (Bad Astronomer) and Henry Reich (Minute Physics), which was pretty amazing. We’re probably never going to get anywhere near their level of impact, but it was really inspiring to chat with them and other high-profile science communicators about why they do what they do and what kinds of messages work best.
How did the Youtube show “Pint in the Sky” get started?
My colleague Alan Duffy and I attended a one-day workshop run by the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), on the topic of science communication via YouTube. The workshop went through a number of different ideas and techniques for doing sciency YouTube videos, but at some point Alan and I were chatting about it and realized we both had the same idea, that we could do some kind of low-key astro chat video series. We wanted to recreate the kind of casual science chats astronomers have when we gather for drinks at the pub during conferences. So we just decided to try it and see what happened! We’ve gotten a lot of support from CAASTRO, which has made a huge difference.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I have a few things I’m trying to get together, but nothing big on the schedule at the moment. Mostly I’ve been building up my online science communication presence lately, by adding a Facebook page and working on a personal website. And I’m always doing what I can on Twitter, of course!
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
* Be patient and keep at it. If you’re trying to build up an audience, that takes time, and getting good at science communication takes practice. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t seem like you’re making much of an impact right away.
* Know your audience. It’s important when you get started to know who you’re trying to reach, and to tailor your message accordingly.
* Let your passion shine through! Your audience is much more likely to get excited if you’re excited about the science and can communicate that passion.* If your outreach is on the Internet, interact with people as much as you can and don’t talk down to them. People can tell if you’re condescending, and it will make them less open to whatever you have to say. Try to keep things simple without dumbing them down. It can be a hard balance, but it’s worth working toward.
You can follow Katie Mack on Twitter at @AstroKatie to see what she’s been up to!