By Lauren Dobischok
When people ask me what my greatest influence was to pursue science in university, I think they expect to hear a vaguely inspiring story about how I was driven to make the world a better place or more deeply understand the intricacies of life around me. The real answer? Twitter. Upon hearing this many people are incredulous that material more complex than hashtags and memes exists on Twitter- isn’t that where people go to procrastinate on homework they have to do and complain about the state of their hockey team? Fortunately, over the years Twitter has evolved into a platform for professionals to network directly with each other, as well as interact with members of the public. Businesses, innovators, academics, artists, scientists, and the general public are now able to share content, provide opinions, crowd source, and meet new people with shared interests through a website initially intended to assist groups of friends in keeping tabs on each other. Not bad. As a student now in second year university who discovered the online scientific community in high school, Twitter changed the way I thought about science and how it is communicated, and continually introduced me to new research and current issues that I am simply not aware of through reading large, popular science magazines and websites. In my eyes, when academics use Twitter to network and educate, both professionals and the public are the beneficiaries.
Since the advent of modern science up until recent decades, much of academia was shrouded in mystery and kept away from the eye of the public. Those who wanted to access papers and research were often stopped at the paywalls most journals sit behind, leaving anyone who wasn’t a scholar in the midst of a scientific drought save for what the media published. When the Internet came along, things began to change. “Open Access” journals now allowed anyone with a computer to access peer reviewed articles, free of charge. Scientists were now able to harness the publics’ power to assist in research projects, also known as Citizen Science. The standard model of science that placed a great divide between scholars and members of the public was challenged, and began to slowly evolve. Academic blogging fell into popularity, and with it came the emergence of scientists and academics on Twitter.
The beauty of a social network like Twitter is that people can contact each other quickly and directly, like a conversation. Academics are now able to network and receive feedback from fellow researchers and the public online, which builds friendships and presents professional opportunities. Scientists online can converse with fellow writers, scientists, artists, researchers, and teachers from all over the world, a pool of contacts far larger than any university faculty. In a technology based age, building a strong network of colleagues based on Twitter followers is almost as valuable to having a detailed LinkedIn account with many connections- jobs and other opportunities can come from it, and having a strong following can help one’s reputation. Over the years I have Twitter to thank for several blogging and networking opportunities, and was able to access them all without leaving my chair.
Beyond professional benefits, Twitter can be used as an educational tool to engage non-scientists and break the paradigm of science as something only reclusive, PhD wielding people are capable of understanding. By bringing science to the public in digestible 140 character messages in a neutral environment such as the Internet, people are able to access science without taking any risks or making an extensive effort to involve oneself. They can choose to further engage themselves in the conversation by “following” scientists, asking questions, or stating opinions at their own discretion. Additionally, Twitter illustrates that scientists are real people too: there are many ups and downs and nothing ever runs perfectly the first time, a common misconception among students particularly (See #OverlyHonestMethods). The academic world can seem pretty daunting to an outsider, but Twitter is breaking down these barriers and taking science out of the ivory tower, to the benefit of everyone.
So to Twitter users and those who repel technology, scientists and students, I say: look at your social media differently. See it as a way to educate yourself as well as share your thoughts with large audience. The Internet and Twitter can be invaluable source that can change your outlook and spark a new passion, or be a wealth of connections, information, and opportunity. All in under 140 characters.
Lauren Dobischok is a second year Health Sciences student at SFU in the Life Sciences stream. She is excited to be an editor for SFU SURJ this year and spends her free time cross stitching and visiting new places.