Last July, my social media feeds were flooded with grey “I heart Science” tshirts — they were posed with coffee mugs, lab coats, field notebooks, computer monitors, standing alone with a dog or huddled around other science tshirts. We were all sharing our #DayOfScience, posting twelve pictures over twelve hours as part of the Earth Science Women’s Network Science-a-thon.
Recently I flipped back through my own tweets from that day, photos of me setting off on a run with my 20 lbs toddler in the jogging stroller, a stack of field guides arranged on a coffee shop table in preparation for an exploratory field site visit, a shot of myself and my PhD advisor at Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday party in Concord, Massachusetts.
It’s been 14 months since the first Science-a-thon and it’s hard not to imagine the montage of where my career has taken me set to Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ I did the exploratory field site visit, and then, in March 2018, the grueling and amazingly awesome winter coring fieldwork in Baxter State Park. Since Thoreau’s 200th birthday, I — the prodigal grad student from our lab who eschewed Concord for Maine throughout my entire PhD career — coauthored a manuscript centered on some Thoreau data.
I miss pushing a 20-pounder in that jogging stroller, and not just because that kid is bigger now and demands to get out and run stretches of the Charles River with me. My running is on hiatus because that kid just became a big sister. I hung up my trailrunners before Labor Day weekend, and by mid-September my running tights had become my defacto uniform, though the sportsbras and race tshirts were replaced by nursing bras and burp cloths. The montage ends with me on the phone with the Science-a-thon founder Dr. Tracey Holloway. “Think about what you’d do if you were taking your cousin, or teenager, or parent to work” this is her advice for Science-a-thon 2018. “You’d show them a normal day, but with a little extra fun, you’d give them a tour of the lab. If you think your day is boring, or not interesting, or if you are in meetings all day — not everyone imagines that a scientist’s day involves lots of meetings!”
Science-a-thon is next week — and the Day of Science has become the whole week of October 15-19 to celebrate the many faces of science. Science-a-thon hopes to counter the one-dimensional caricatures of scientists as white guys with white hair wearing lab coats in ivory towers. The visible faces of science in popular culture are pretty limited: over 80% of Americans can’t name a single living scientist. Holloway wants to highlight the diversity of scientists and showcase our excitement in science. She noted that she herself has good friends who have no idea what she does in the course of her day. When scientists are featured in the media, often the glossy, big picture issues overshadow the day-in-the-life experience of being a scientist. Science-a-thon is a chance to peel back the curtain on the mundane, to document the daily grind of science across a range of disciplines and career stages in what Holloway calls an “avalanche of experiences.” The format of scientists posting 12 photos over 12 hours is meant to capture the humanity of scientists — our full day at the office, or lab, or research station, and what we do before and after work.
One of the perks of blogging for PLOS is the ability to cold-call a scientist and ask, hey what is this thing that you’re doing? I asked Holloway about the origin story of the Science-a-thon, and how it supports the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN). First, she stresses the important point that Science-a-thon is not just for women and not just for earth scientists — everyone is encouraged to participate! In 2002, Holloway and some colleagues founded ESWN as a peer-mentoring network. They had zero budget — they couldn’t order pizza or reserve a room, which made it difficult to plan for the future. In 2014 ESWN became a nonprofit, which meant that now they needed to think about fundraising while also pursuing the mission of supporting scientists. When Holloway’s friend did a bike-a-thon for charity, a light bulb went off — we support our friends who bike and run and dance for non-profits not because we have ties to the organization, but because if they are willing to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, we trust that they are doing it for a worthy cause. So it follows that if your best friend or family member says, “ESWN is great! Help them support women in science!” you will trust their endorsement. Science-a-thon blends the watch-me-do-something-new-and-challenging and the help-me-support-a-cause-I-believe-in aspects of a bike-a-thon, no spandex required. The scientists who participate in Science-a-thon can set up fundraising pages through crowdrise to support ESWN. This is the same platform that I used when I ran the Mount Desert Island Marathon as part of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society team. Except instead of shredding my quads on the hills outside Acadia National Park, I’m trying to train my outreach muscles. My alarmingly bright yellow MDI Historical Society race shirt matches (thematically, if not sartorially) my soft grey Science-a-thon tshirts. Last year, there was no registration fee, but all participants had to set up a crowdrise page. This year, fundraising is not required, though there’s a small registration fee to cover the cost of the event.
I’m looking forward to next week’s Science-a-thon: it’s coinciding with a trip to Maine where I’ll visit my postdoc home institution, watch a labmate’s PhD defense, and attend a conference at a National Park. These will be my first big, postpartum “days of science” and I’m looking forward to seeing my community of scientists in person — and watching the wider community of science share their days through social media. I already love the daily grind of science, but I have some worries — will my day of science reach an audience beyond “science twitter”? and will my current days of science (I’m right now typing and rocking from a glider, my infant is napping, my tea is cold, my “office” is my messy living room) be of interest to anyone who is not my mom?
Over the summer, FACETS published Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? Dr. Isabelle M. Côtéa and Dr. Emily S. Darling analyzed the Twitter followers of faculty members in ecology and evolutionary biology. They wanted to know if twitter was providing real opportunities for science outreach — were scientists engaging with nonscientists? Or are scientists on twitter just tweeting to other scientists? The answer is both: on average, scientists comprise over 50% of the followers for scientists on twitter. But, there seems to be a tipping point — around 1000 followers — where the range of followers diversifies to include “research and educational organizations, media, members of the public with no stated association with science, and a small number of decision-makers.” Science-a-thon covers both preaching to the choir and singing from the rooftops. The Day Of Science features social media heavy hitters and folks who only tweet for the day. It’s more formal and more contained than a hashtag movement, which can be more accessible for scientists who aren’t all in on twitter. Holloway’s advice to be honest and show the “boring” parts of our days means that we get to see process of science reflected in our social media feeds: the false starts, the quirky equipment, the waiting, and maybe even the baby spit up. This representation matters both within our scientific community — I know that seeing other academic parents was hugely important for me as grad student — and across a broader audience — many of us are funded by taxpayers, and this transparency pushes back on the barriers between scientists and the public. Last year about 200 people participated; ESWN is expecting around 300 scientists to sign up through their website in 2018. These “tshirt-official” scientists will receive the ESWN goodie bag, though as the Science-a-thon rolls on over the week, Holloway expects many others to spontaneously join in the hashtag and share their day. And that is her favorite part — watching her twitter feed fill with science, “the diversity of experiences woven together like a tapestry” as the movement expands outside of the “official” event.