Lessons learned from three years as Social Media Editor

Happy holidays social insect enthusiasts!

It’s been a big year, for many reasons. The Insectes Sociaux blog has had over six thousand readers worldwide, and we have continued to build our community over social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social insect scientists have shared their coping strategies and advice for others amid chaotic transitions in research and teaching while continuing to publish exciting research in our journal. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to all of the blog contributors and interviewees for providing some brilliant insight and candid stories during this time.

I’ve had a wonderful three years as Social Media Editor for Insectes Sociaux, but it’s time for me to move on. I have been pursuing a Ph.D. while I’ve held this position, and interacting with you all has enriched my scientific training and been instrumental in connecting me to the global social insect community. It is difficult to step away from such a rewarding experience, but life (as it tends to do) has taken me down different paths, and I can no longer give this position the time and energy it deserves. Daniela Römer has been working alongside me for many months now and is taking over the role completely.

Part of what makes Insectes Sociaux special is that it is a truly international journal, publishing science conducted by individuals at all career stages worldwide. This globality has made working for the journal all the more rewarding, as I have had the pleasure of seeking blog contributors diverse as the contributors to the journal. I have been reminded daily of the immense diversity and interconnectedness of science, and the field of social insect science in particular – something that makes this field incredibly fun and exciting. I hope to see an even greater expansion of our authors, audience, and research opportunities for social insect scientists around the world going forward.

Besides the regular inspiration I have gathered from our blog contributors, I have learned a lot about communicating science over social media and in blog form. I have compiled a few key takeaways from my experience as Social Media Editor:

Social insect scientists contain multitudes and are super friendly.

I have interviewed nearly fifty social insect scientists over the years and read interviews conducted by my counterparts Daniela and Bernie Wittwer. In every interview, I have discovered something unexpected, inspiring, or hilarious. I mean, y’all seriously know how to have a good time! From dangling above a pool of dolphins to spot a bee colony to embroidering and illustrating your study organisms, social insect scientists love to combine travel, adventure, and creativity with their research. I love that this community of scientists values and promotes a diversity of hobbies, activities, and lifestyles! I have also learned that it is way easier to reach out to scientists than I thought when I was a new graduate student. It can be intimidating to cold-email someone whose work you admire and who has been at the job for decades longer than you. But I have experienced overwhelming friendliness and enthusiasm in responses from scientists of all ages, career stages, and nationalities. No matter what career level you are at, if you have a question or simply admire someone’s work, reach out to them! Social insect scientists are an exceptionally friendly bunch.

Behind almost every study is a hidden motivation, an unexpected turn of events, or an adventure not reported in the paper.

The blog format is remarkable because it allows scientists to tell the backstory of their study – all the details that an academic paper format simply does not allow. Although we write academic papers in a way that makes it seem like we carried out our research in a very logical and straightforward manner, we all know that this is rarely the way it goes down in reality. Instead of a well-formulated research question succinctly coming to us in the lab, we observed a crazy ant behavior in the park. We then messed around with some ant workers in our basement at home until we had any sort of clue what might be going on. Instead of the clean 100 replicates we had planned, half the colonies died in the lab, someone mislabeled a microcentrifuge tube or two, the dog chewed on your lab notebook, or a pandemic interrupted behavioral trials. Sometimes “collecting colonies” means dressing from head-to-toe in a bee suit and tramping through the rainforest for miles by the light of a headlamp. And sometimes, “collecting data at 1-hour intervals for 24 hours” really entails staying up all night with your labmate as you play games and watch movies to keep each other awake. Academic journal articles never contain the full story, and often not the most exciting one. As scientists, we are trained to be as objective as possible, which is just what we need in analyzing and reporting the results of our work. However, we must remember the human side of science. The act of pursuing scientific inquiry is this amazing interplay between our intuition and our logic, and that’s why it’s such a human experience. How do we keep humanity in science? Through storytelling. And blogs are an excellent platform for storytelling. The origin story of your childhood that led to your scientific interests today. The people you met while traveling for fieldwork. The ways in which an experiment forged an unexpected friendship. When we tell our stories in an authentic, jargon-free voice, it is a catalyst for human connection around our science.

Communicating the results of our research can be simple and within reach for everyone.

Although there is a lot to be said for honing science communication skills, there is no reason why it needs to be a complicated endeavor. Communicating science is easily within everyone’s reach! I have learned some simple things everyone can easily do to make their science more accessible and engaging for everyone:

  1. PHOTOS: Everyone loves pictures and, nine times out of ten, will be drawn to them more than the PDF of your journal article. It doesn’t even matter much what the subject matter of the photo is – snap a photo of your study organism, experimental setup, or gel electrophoresis result – even if you think it’s a boring photo, chances are someone who doesn’t work with your study system will find it fascinating or at least intriguing. Think nobody will understand what the photo is depicting? That’s where the intrigue starts! In the end, it’s less important that your audience understands the image entirely and more important that it inspires questions and opens a conversation. In the end, science is an attempt to understand the beauty of the world, and photos can accomplish this too. Social media (Instagram, in particular) is a great place to share pictures because many people engage with these platforms every day, and posting a photo only takes a minute or two. 
  1. STORIES: Humans arguably love stories more than photos. And what’s better – we’re natural storytellers as a species. As mentioned above, chances are there is a backstory to your study. No need to write the next great novel or film a Discovery Channel show about it; simply tell the story to your neighbor, the person sitting next to you on an airplane, or your family at the dinner table. It will likely start a more in-depth conversation about your research, which is your chance to get into the details of your work if that’s what you want to do. 
  2. REACH OUT: Inspired by someone’s work and want to discuss research ideas? Send them an email – science communication doesn’t only have to be aimed at the general public. Notice that the journal where you just published has a blog or social media presence? Let them know that you would like to contribute – they are usually looking for scientists just like you to help them produce content. Notice that the journal does not have a blog or social media presence? Suggest they start one – it will make the science they publish more accessible, and they will likely gain a broader readership as a result—a win-win for everyone.

Stay kind, adventurous, and curious, social insect enthusiasts! And keep your eyes open for more social insect content from Daniela on our sites into the future.

Thanks again, everyone,

Madison Sankovitz

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