Scientific conferences are great for meeting interesting individuals in one’s field. These individuals may be well known Nobel Laureates, current or potential collaborators, patient advocates, your future Principal Investigator, or even your potential life partner! Even when conferences become routine, there is always something to find that makes it worthwhile to attend. At this year’s International Society for Stem Cell Research conference in Boston, I had the opportunity to connect with Samantha Yammine – first through Twitter and then at the conference itself – to discuss science communication. Samantha is in her final year of her PhD program, and an enthusiastic, passionate communicator of science to the public. In fact,it was her consistent, informative tweeting that led to my discovering Samantha among the 3000+ attendees!
One of the main topics at the conference that sparked the discussion on science communication was the recent issue of unproven stem cell treatments provided by t clinics - a major concern in the scientific, medical, and regulatory community. “Who should take action” against such clinics, and “what can we do” are the ongoing debates at most scientific meetings. As a scientist, I believe, scientists and physicians are all responsible in tackling this hurdle to successful patient treatment outcome. But in addition to providing the treatment, we are also responsible for educating the public. The best route might be to increase public engagement and provide a stage for science communicators such as Samantha to translate our scientific findings, thereby preventing the repercussions of uninformed decisions that are made in desperation to cure one’s disease.
Interested in finding out more about science communication, and how we all can support, or take part in delivering information to the public? Read Samantha’s interview below on science communication!
Sadaf Atarod: Thanks for the tweets, Samantha! Can you enlighten us on your science, and what are you passionate about?
Samantha Yammine: I am in the final year of my PhD. at the University of Toronto. I’m researching how stem cells build and maintain the brain. I am also passionate about science communication, outreach and sports – in particular, Muay Thai kickboxing!
SA: How did you first get into science communication?
SY: My start was through Twitter, writing tweets for the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine. I was (and still am) their scientific writer, translating science papers into tweets! I started this around the second year of my PhD.
SA: So, what got you interested in science communication?
SY: I was curious about how science gets funded. I started learning about science policy, and realized it matters what everyone thinks about science, not just the people doing it. Public perception of science dictates what gets funded, and so learning this made me want to do more outreach. I hope in doing this we can increase support of science, both ideologically and financially, and continue progressing our pursuit of knowledge as an international community.
SA: Do you think every scientist needs to become a science communicator?
SY: No, I don't think every scientist needs to be a communicator, but we do need to have a couple of good ones. It is important that we strive for good communication, but that takes time, a lot of work, and a unique set of skills. It is not practical to expect every scientist to also be an excellent communicator and to do as much daily communication as needed, so we need scientists to respect a handful of communicators to help with this task.
SA: What has worked best for you, in terms of communication channel?
SY: There is no best route. It really depends on who you want to reach. I find that my Twitter conversations tend to be among my peer group: other specialized researchers. A lot of the younger generation is on other platforms like YouTube and Instagram. All of these platforms can be helpful, but the content needs to be tailored. And you don’t have to be on all platforms. I think it’s best to just do one or two things really well instead of trying to do everything all at once, especially when starting out.
SA: Have you faced any issues with exposing your research?
SY: I usually just talk about my research conceptually – the big picture and random cool details. I don’t think being a communicator puts scientists at any risk of getting scooped because if you're writing in that much detail then you're probably not doing that good a job, right?! No one else cares for as many details as we do (She smiles!)
SA: Has it infringed your own privacy?
SY: I don’t think so, though I do wonder about how my image has changed in the lab in response to often being on my phone and taking pictures… In general people can be quite judgmental about those who take selfies, but I actually see a real value in taking them in the lab.
“I don't think every scientist needs to be an active communicator, but we do need to have a couple of dedicated good communicators”
SA: What is your career plan?
SY: I will continue doing science communication, striving to stay at the leading edge of outreach and strategic science communication.
SA: Is there enough support out there?
SY: I think there is good support but there needs to be more. Some people look down on going into communication after a PhD so there is not a ton of financial and moral support for those who choose it. Personally, I get a lot of support from other communicators, but less from other scientists. This is a challenge because I am actively seeking grants to support me in expanding my platform, but am finding a lot of them are tailored more to in-person outreach events -whereas I think we need to strive to put more good content online where it is openly accessible. Adoption of these more modern forms of outreach and communication might take time, but I think with funding cuts being threatened all over that it is an urgent thing to push for.
SA: Last but definitely not the least, if you were to share just one advice with our women in STEM, what would it be?
SY: The best piece of advice I was ever given was to go for what you want! We often undervalue ourselves and need to actively compensate for this by fiercely pursuing our goals despite inevitable feelings of inadequacy. Tell people what you want with confidence and ask for things even when you think you don't deserve them … because you probably do!
Samantha Yammine is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. She shares her science research and daily journey to PhD on Instagram at instagram.com/science.sam. She is passionate about sharing science with everyone and is committed to doing this in increasingly innovative ways, such as through event livestreams and live Q & As about trendy new research. If you want to see what it’s like to be a scientist and stay up to date on the latest in biology, follow Science Sam at:
Twitter.com/heysciencesam (for research summaries)
Sadaf Atarod, PhD. is dedicated to transferring more bench-side knowledge to bedside. Thus, improving patient treatment outcome has been the central focus of her career to-date. She was awarded her Ph.D. degree in the Molecular Biology of Bone Marrow & Stem Cell Transplantation. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Center for Regenerative Medicine of Boston University and Boston Medical Center. In her present research, Sadaf is investigating the biomechanical determinants of lung cell fate. Her research involves using stem cells for tissue engineering applications. She is passionate about public engagement, science communication and mentoring the next generation to kick start their careers in science & technology!