Science communication online
Perhaps you’ve marched for science, talked to your congressional representatives, or explained the science behind global warming/GMOs/vaccines with your friends and family but are still looking for other outlets to share your scientific knowledge and passion to a broader audience. Through social media platforms online, it is now easier for scientists to embark in science communication and outreach with the general public.
There are numerous ways to share scientific ideas and results with a wider scientific audience than at a conference presentation or a wider lay audience than your family and friends. Starting a blog is a great opportunity to become an active science communicator: long-form blog writing is a way to share information, teach concepts to a new audience, and engage with interested readers who are curious about your topic.
Starting a science blog is not a trivial task, nor is it easy to maintain a website or keep up with a regular posting schedule. Keeping up with a blog takes time, energy, patience, and good planning. That being said, the potential for rewards for both you and your readers can be worth the effort.
This week we hosted the #SciBlogHubChat and discussed the challenges and strategies for active science bloggers. Today’s post is a summary of how you can start and keep an active science blog and some considerations for maintaining your creative energies. We are also only a few weeks away from celebrating the two-year anniversary of Science with Style. It has been a fun yet challenging two years and we hope to share some of the things we learned along the way!
Step 1: Lay out your blogging goals
Our online presence is becoming more of a part of our lives, and our careers, than ever before. Because employers and collaborators will look at your online presence as a portfolio alongside your CV/resume, it’s important to ensure that what you say online reflects who you are and what your goals are. It’s not enough to set up a blog and let it sit there empty until you write a 5000+ word post ranting about a bad day in the lab. You have to figure out what you want to achieve with your blog and what work it will take to achieve your goals on a weekly or monthly basis.
Start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who is your audience?
- How will you share your material with your audience?
- What ways will you promote your website (Twitter, Facebook, posting on other blogs, etc)
- How often will you provide new material for your audience?
- How much time do you have to devote to writing posts (be sure to include time spent brainstorming ideas, reading relevant papers/articles, and conducting interviews)?
Answering these questions will help you determine the style of your website, if you link your blog to a social media platform like twitter, what sort of language you use in your posts, and how long your posts will be.
For Science with Style, I write posts for early career researchers who come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds; for that reason, my posts focus on professional development and science communication. For my new project, the ToxCity Tribune, I am looking to reach people who are interested in toxicology and environmental science news. I write these posts in a way that is more general in terms of discussing scientific concept and I focus less on themes that are more relevant for early career researchers such as career development.
Science with Style posts tend to be around 1500 words long and the ToxCity Tribune posts are slightly shorter (1000 words). Part of this is the time required to read articles and write complex topics more concisely for ToxCity Tribune whereas for Science with Style I have time to talk more about a topic since there is less background research needed.
Step 2: Set up a clean and simple online presence
There are many hosting websites you can use to set up your science blog. A few examples include WordPress, Weebly, Blogger, and Wix. If you are more social media savvy than I am, you can also explore the applicability of websites like Tumblr and Reddit for your writing activities. Stick with a template that allows you to adopt a simple, clean style for your website; you don’t need anything flashy or complicated that will drown out your message.
Finding the best design for your message will take time and will most likely involve you trying out a few different approaches. Be open to changing things around if the template is not working. The good news with websites such as weebly is that if you change your layout, you won’t lose any of your content.
If you are using a free hosting platform, you won’t have full control over your URL; this service only comes when you pay extra for an expanded hosting package. When you are just starting your blog you can try out a couple of different websites before you commit to a paid plan and custom URL (if having one is important for you). I pay around $60 USD per year for both the URL and the upgraded Weebly package. I don’t make any of that money back on ads or revenue, but I consider $5 a month a low enough cost to feel comfortable with paying for the upgrade.
If you have HTML skills then you can create or customize your own website and only pay the URL and hosting fees. This means an investment in time instead of money (unless you pay someone to do the customization). But don’t feel pressure to become a computer programming or design expert—keep it simple, clean, and invest the time and/or money into the parts that are the most rewarding to you.
You might also want to develop a social media presence to go along with your blog. This can either be connected to your personal account or to a separate, blog-specific account. This will depend on your blogging goals, what type of posts you want to write (more personal or more detached from your own work/experience in science), and what audience you want to reach. If you decide to separate the personal from the professional, you can establish separate accounts to help you follow and find relevant materials for your blog and can keep your personal account for fun or your personal perspectives.
I use @SciwithStyle and @ToxCityTribune to follow accounts that are relevant for each blog. For Science with Style, I follow academic professional development organizations, science communicators, and outreach-related accounts. For ToxCity Tribune, I follow toxicology and environmental science research groups, toxicology papers, science news websites, and government institutions.
Having a social media account also requires you to have a social media plan in place: how often will you post on the account, how will you engage with others online, how will you share and promote your materials, whose materials will you share in return, and who you will follow. Social media can also be a distraction from work or from your writing, so be sure to limit your time to 5-10 minute increments. Distractions aside, I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of inspiration, news, and connections to interesting people I never would have met were it not for a curated account or a hashtag.
Step 3: Get to writing!
Long story short: writing is difficult and it takes time! For a single blog post, I usually spend ~30 minutes planning (developing the idea and preparing an outline), 1-2 hours writing the draft, and another hour editing the post, finding a relevant image, and posting the material.
Keep in mind the amount of time that writing a single blog post will take and plan your schedule accordingly. I dedicate a set time each week to drafting each post, generally with outlines and prep work on Monday night and draft writing on Tuesday, to keep me on schedule.
Part of getting into the writing ‘zone’ involves figuring out your own process and establishing a rhythm. I like starting with an outline and some notes the day before I write the post because it helps take the pressure off of the day that I need to write the post in full. I’ve met people who prefer to do all of their writing in a single sitting. Try a few approaches to see what works best for you and then stick to a routine to help maintain your pace.
Step 4: Hone your writing skills
Even the best writers need good editors. Find a reliable friend, colleague, or family member who is willing to read and edit your posts. A good editor will not only read your post and find any grammatical mistakes, they will also take the time to think of more impactful ways to share your message. This is someone who helps you improve any awkward or unclear phrases and a person who provides feedback on a draft that you can immediately use and incorporate into the final version. Comments like “This is great!” or “I don’t like the conclusion” are not that helpful; comments such as “I like the short introduction” or “You can improve the conclusion by adding another citation” are things that can improve your writing. Ideally, you should also be confident in your editor so that you don’t have to spend time editing his/her edits.
Step 5: Get inspired!
Another challenge with maintaining a blog is finding inspiration for new posts. Inspiration will often come from unexpected places, like a dinnertime conversation with a friend or a flash of insight on your commute from work. Take notes of your ideas as they come…I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very easy to forget even the greatest ideas!
To get inspired, stay on top of what other material is out there by following active bloggers and writers as well as recent science news. There is a lot of material online, but remember that your perspective will always be unique, and there is more than one way to look at a story. You might have a unique perspective as an early career researcher or from working on a topic at a level that most people might not recognize (like an anthropologist studying climate change).
When thinking about stories that might be interesting for others, think about what you like to read about, either for your blog, your work, or just your personal interest: What topics do you care about? What inspires or interests you? What worries or concerns do you have related to science and technology? Chances are if it is something that fundamentally interests you, someone else would also love to read about it.
Not feeling inspired? It happens to all of us! We all run into the occasional roadblock when it comes to writing. Check out our previous post on how to free yourself from writer’s block. When you are in a creative mood, make a list of post ideas and potential blog topics and keep these handy for when you get to a day when inspiration fails to strike.
A science blogger’s life
Starting (and, equally important, maintaining) a science blog can be a rewarding activity if you are ready to commit to the work required to make it happen. Even if you don’t feel that you are a ‘good’ writer, blogging can help you improve your written communication skills by helping you find your writing rhythm and keeping you on track with a post schedule. It’s also an opportunity to receive feedback from colleagues and readers and to share your perspectives with a new audience online.
Once you’ve become an established blogger, you can also more broadly share your work using common hashtags, joining twitter conversations, and guest blogging. Whatever your professional interest or skill level may be, science blogging is a great place for aspiring science communicators who are enthusiastic to share the world of science with a new audience.
A new study from Canada shows that preservatives commonly used in cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos can be found in the urine and breast milk of pregnant women.
The article, published in the April 4th issue of Environmental Science and Technology, looked at the relationship between how often pregnant women used personal care products and the levels of preservatives, specifically parabens, present in their urine and breast milk. The women in the study noted the cosmetics they used on a daily basis and researchers calculated if parabens levels were related to the number of personal care products used.
Scientists from Health Canada, Brown University, Harvard University, and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute analyzed urine samples from 80 women from 2009-2010. All samples were collected during the second and third trimesters and breast milk samples were collected from 2-3 months post-partum. Women were asked to indicate the number and type of personal care products they used each day in a diary. Products were separated into categories such as deodorants, make-up, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, hand soaps, and lip products. Four different types of parabens were measured by chemical analysis: butylparaben, methylparaben, n-propylparaben, and ethyl paraben.
Parabens are used in cosmetics and other personal care products, including soaps and shampoos, as an anti-microbial preservative. Previous studies showed that parabens can be found in over 40% of rinse-off products (shampoos and conditioners, body wash, and face cleaners). Parabens are also found in leave-on cosmetics such as lotions and lipsticks, with methylparaben being the most abundant. Recent studies showed that some parabens can act as weak estrogen mimics. This finding, coupled with a 2004 study that found parabens in the breast tissues of women with breast cancer, raised concern about their ability to cause cancer. After scientific review, parabens are still considered safe for use in personal care products by the FDA, but certain types of parabens have been banned in the EU.
The study showed that methylparaben was the most prevalent paraben in both urine and breast milk samples. Methylparaben levels in breast milk were 30 times lower than levels in urine samples. On average, the highest levels of parabens were found in urine samples collected during the morning hours (from 8am until noon) with the lowest levels seen in the evening (from 6pm to midnight). The researchers believe that this is due to women using more cosmetics and personal care products in the morning hours.
Researchers also compared paraben levels in urine between women who used different amounts of personal care products. Women were classified as low users (0-5 products in a 24 hour period), medium users (6-9 products), or high users (10-14 products). When comparing different types of users, medium users had 21% higher levels of methylparaben in their urine when compared to low users, and high users had 161% more methylparaben than low users.
The researchers also found much higher parabens levels when comparing women who did not report using a specific product versus those who did report using a product. For example, women who reported using lotion had 99% more methylparaben in their urine than women who did not use lotion. However, some products, such as oral care products, led to variable paraben levels that did not clearly show an increase with increased usage. This could be due to study participants forgetting to log certain items or differences in how the women used each product.
Paraben levels measured in breast milk did not demonstrate a clear connection to personal care product use. Further analysis showed an increase in methylparaben levels in breast milk in women that reported using eye make-up. However, the magnitude of increase is small, strongly varies between study participants, and is found in only a small subset of the study group.
Paraben levels in urine samples are lower than what was reported in other studies from the US, Spain, and Puerto Rico. This may be due to differences in the types and amounts of personal care product used among different socioeconomic groups. Other studies also found that women are more likely to have higher urinary paraben levels than men, which the researchers believe is due to women using more personal care products.
Parabens are 10,000 times less potent than natural estrogen. Parabens are also far less estrogenic than natural phytoestrogens like daidzein, which is found in soy. Epidemiologists have yet to find any associated cancer risks linked to phytoestrogen consumption, so the chance that an estrogen as weak as parabens will cause harm is extremely unlikely.
Critics of the 2004 breast cancer study which reported that parabens were present in breast cancer tissue point out several flaws with the findings. Researchers did not measure paraben levels in non-cancerous tissues, making it impossible to assign any blame to parabens in causing breast cancer. Parabens also have a very short half-life, which means that these chemicals do not remain in the body for very long and are rapidly excreted.
Concerns about paraben safety led many cosmetics companies and consumers to seek out paraben-free alternatives. Regulators are still working to ensure that parabens are safe for consumer use but the data available now seem to point to parabens being of little concern.