Why old(er) dogs can and should learn new tricks

This is a guest post by Dr Isabelle Côté, famed coral reef ecologist, documeter of gloom-n-doom, and lover of blennies.  Her post is part of a conversation on science outreach centered around commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement.  Also see related posts here, here, and here.  

Why old(er) dogs can and should learn new tricks:  My 300-day (and counting) journey through the world of social media


I describe myself generically as a marine scientist.  If pressed for more detail, I might say that I’m a marine ecologist, or a coral reef ecologist, or increasingly often, a marine conservation ecologist.  I’ve been at it for a while.  I’m a tenured professor, I’ve written a good number of scientific papers, have been cited a fair few times, and have a decent h index.  I could sit back in my swivel chair and gently sail into retirement.  But about a year ago, I decided that that wasn’t enough.  I felt that my ‘applied’ papers, almost all of which have some mention of relevance to managers and decision-makers in the final paragraph, were not having the wished-for effect.  The catalyst was probably watching the government of my country (Canada) making a hash of every decision that touches the environment.  Time to speak out.  Call it a mid-life crisis.  I see it more as a mid-life opportunity.

I was 49 years, 7 months and 14 days old when I sent my very first tweet.  It said this:

Tweet 1

I was at the time taking a COMPASS communication and leadership training course, along with 15 or so other marine scientists from the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network.  That seemed like a good way to learn how to speak out effectively. Most were graduate students; a few of us were more ‘seasoned’. Nancy Baron and Meghan Miner extolled the virtues and values of social media, including tweeting, for communicating science, connecting with people, and effecting change.  So we all jumped in.

Now, 323 days later, I’ve sent just over 300 tweets, which makes me a regular, but not an addict.  I still don’t follow Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber (much to my youngest daughter’s despair).  Instead, I follow about 150 people and organisations – all related to science, oceans or Canadian environmental politics.  I tweet mostly about science.  I highlight current events relating to the oceans and interesting papers (mine or someone else’s),

Tweet 2 Tweet 3

whimsical observations about marine creatures or funky science factoids,

Tweet 4 Tweet 5

and I often criticise my government’s environmental positions, policies and legislation.

Tweet 6

All of this in 140 characters or less.  It’s actually amazing how much you can say in 140 characters, and you can convey a whole lot more by including clickable links that send your followers to the papers, news articles or websites you tweeted about.

Tweeting has allowed me to broadcast my thoughts much further than I could have before (if I’d wanted to).  I have 300 or so followers, who come from all walks of life, including non-scientists, politicians and media people (see below).  The only opportunity I normally get to speak to so many people at once is when I teach introductory biology to first-year undergraduates, but most of them don’t really want to be there!

FollowersI feel that I’ve gained a tremendous amount by tweeting, and this came at very low cost. Twitter has become my tool of choice for taking the pulse of marine science and conservation.  Although I don’t spend much time on it daily (3 to 20 min – usually to kill time between lectures, meetings, etc.), I feel much more connected and much more aware of ocean research and events than I was before.  New papers get brought to my attention almost daily, and I get to them easily by clicking on links that others share in their tweets.  I also feel that it’s improved my writing, or at least my awareness of unnecessary words. And the beauty of it all is that tweets don’t ever add to my workload.  They don’t accumulate in my inbox the way emails do.  Nothing disastrous happens if I don’t check twitter for a few days or weeks.  Instead, I feel clever when somebody retweets me.  I even managed to strike a collaboration with three younger tweeps and we wrote a paper together recently on the role of social media in the lifecycle of a scientific publication!

My fledgling interest in science communication hasn’t been limited to entering the Twittersphere.  I learned to create websites soon after the workshop.  No more antiquated lab pages for me.  My shiny new lab site has attracted 13,000 views since I posted it about 300 days ago.  13,000!!! I must admit that it looks pretty spiffy, and it has some fun features too.  We have a page devoted to 60-sec plain-language podcasts of our recent papers, and another with up-to-date lab news, complete with pictures and links to media activity.  The most recent addition is a page of ‘field notes’ – short accounts of some of our field adventures.  I’ve encouraged my graduate students in these activities and most of them have caught the comm bug too.  Not everything has been successful though: I made a foray into Facebook and set up a lab page there, but I couldn’t see what this added to my other comm activities so gave it up.

The last step in my ‘conversion’ has been to stop declining requests by media people (or, more honestly, to stop not replying).  In the past 300 days, I’ve been interviewed to speak about a major report which I co-authored for the Royal Society of Canada on the impacts of fishing and climate change on marine biodiversity, appeared in an investigative documentary on the sad state of Canadian oceans, spoken at a public event on the muzzling of Canadian scientists by the federal government, ‘starred’ as an intrepid marine biologist/diver in a TV series about the Vancouver Harbour, and shared a public stage with Canada’s Environment Commissioner to explain why we need marine protected areas.

This is not about seeking the limelight.  In fact, the little flickers of publicity glare that reach me when I partake in comm events are still more scary than they are thrilling.  But the bottom line is that I believe strongly that we are doing a poor job of taking care of the oceans.  I believe equally strongly that the people who can speak out authoritatively, such as scientists (like me) who have a track record of relevant research that gives us the credentials to weigh evidence and call out decision-makers when they get it wrong, have a moral obligation to do so.  I know that I will leave a fine scientific legacy, particularly in the form of all of the wonderful students I’ve trained over the years.  But wouldn’t it be great to leave a few better-phrased laws and some marine protected areas behind too?

3 Responses to “Why old(er) dogs can and should learn new tricks”

  1. Carina says:

    Love your enthusiastic declaration for science communication! 😀
    I’m considering getting a twitter account just so I can follow you and maybe spread some curious science tidbits of my own. 😉

  2. HM Galindo says:

    This is fantastic! I love that you not only shared your Twitter story, but also provided snapshots and DATA. What better way to get scientists involved? You have inspired me to up my tweeting game a bit!

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