Guest post: creating scientists in 140 characters

I first talked to John Romano when he agreed to give an interview for our Sci-Ed story “Anatomy Lesson“. John was just back from ComicCon, and his enthusiasm (in comics and in science alike) was palpable on the phone.  He blogs for Convergent Education, sharing his experiences in science education. Today, we get to hear one of his novel approaches, which illustrates the use of twitter in sci-ed (topic we covered in our three part series).

As a high school science teacher I am constantly looking for new tools to improve my students’ education. The most recent addition to my educational toolbox is live-tweeting. High school students are adept at using smartphones and teachers typically struggle to prevent the use of this technology in class, but the effectiveness of such policies is slim when they are outnumbered 25:1. So I decided to invoke the age old adage “If you can’t beat em’, join ‘em,” and introduce Twitter into my classroom.  The Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC, known unofficially as #Scio13, provided the inspiration.

So I decided, let’s try this in class.  In my high school senior-level class, Evolution & Comparative Anatomy, we often use documentaries to expose students to things like the dissection of animals that most people will never get to see.  I am constantly stopping the video to let them take notes.  It is a very slow and tedious process — one that is on the way out.  Combine this with the constant battle of having students secretly texting, or using social media during class, and the answer was obvious.

 Let them use Twitter to take notes.


There are some concerns as an educator when you are using social media in a classroom. In fact it is still a large grey area for many schools on whether or not teachers and students should even interact on social media. So to take care of any problems that might arise, I first spent a whole class period going over the proper use of Twitter.  They each set up a specific “student” Twitter account that I told them would be viewable by any administrator, teacher, parent, scientist, admissions officer, etc.

After these lessons, my class of 16 students was ready to live-tweet their first documentary. Because we were an evolution and comparative anatomy class there was no better show to watch than Inside Nature’s Giants. We had already watched a few episodes of this series and the students were always allowed to take notes and then use these notes on a short-answer test that I would give them afterwards.  (I try to always use open-note tests because rarely is a scientist without the ability to look up information, and with the advent of the Internet grey-matter-recall is becoming a thing of the past.) The students have always scored decently on this, but it was always the same breakdown: individuals who took copious notes scored well, those who were half into it and took OK notes did OK, and those who went from memory alone barely passed.

I set up the video and put my computer on the screen as well with the timeline for our hashtag running in the background so the students could see what was being tweeted.

The results were instantaneous — it was like being plugged into every student’s brain at once. You could see who was participating, who was getting the main ideas, who was extrapolating and asking good questions, and more importantly, the students could see what their peers were thinking.

This was something that really helped, when someone tweeted a fact and half the class also tweeted the same fact it reinforced the students that they were on the right track. I would also tweet along with them to help them see if they were on the right page. The beauty of all this was that it was all uninterrupted documentary watching. No stopping and starting, no asking what was just said, it just flowed.

twitter paleoromano students 1

As you can see in the image above the fact about where animals get their hydration is reinforced by students and the teacher, plus it is stated in three different ways. It also allowed students to add a little of their own personality and humor to the class-sourced notes.

twitter paleoromano students 2 - edited

Due to retweeting and including the hosts in tweets, we caught the attention of other scientists who would chime in with facts, adding to the already huge pile of streaming information we were gathering under our hashtag. For example, our tweeting inspired a scientist to blog about lions after she came across our #INLion hashtag regarding a lion documentary.

 twitter tasha metacookbook

The part that really made me want to high-five myself as a teacher was watching the students’ reactions when they got a retweet by me, a classmate, or another scientist.  The retweets validated their knowledge on the subject matter. Young people (and even adults) live for a retweet by their favorite celebrity or scientist, and seeing a seventeen-year-old let out a “WOOHOO!” when a scientist retweeted their fact on the camel cardiovascular system was one of those moments that made the low pay and long hours of teaching worthwhile.

Then it happened — the host of the documentary started getting involved in our Twitter conversations. Simon Watt, the young, colorful co-host of Inside Nature’s Giants started conversing with us on Twitter answering questions and adding various anecdotes to the documentary.  The students were loving it; it was like having the author of their textbook available for questions. It humanized the two-dimensional scientist on the screen and made him real.

twitter paleoromano simon watt simondwatt

Simon agreed to Skype with the class and we had one of the best hours of my teaching career. The students asked Simon questions, interacted with him, and saw him a as a regular person — someone like them.  It was a bit awkward at first, as Skype sessions usually are, but soon they fell into the flow and they were exchanging laughs.  I think that was a moment where most of those high school seniors realized being a scientist is something they were capable of doing. That those people on the documentaries we watch aren’t unlike them, and if they wanted to they could pursue a career in science.

 twitter paleoromano students 3 - edited

This has always been my goal — to create scientists — and it floors me that a hashtag and 140 characters can do so much toward accomplishing that.

Twitter for Sci-Ed Part 3: To boldly go where no lecturer has gone before

So far, I’ve talked about how Twitter can be used by scientists to help disseminate information, and acquire new information. I’m going to change gears in my final post and talk about how Twitter can be used in the classroom, and how it can be used by scientists moving forward.

If you missed them, click here for Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

Reason #4: For lecturers, Twitter can contribute to discussions and deepen understanding

While researchers spent most of our time trying to get our work published and publicized, another responsibility we have is to train the next generation of researchers. With increasing budget cuts at Canadian universities, being offset by increased undergraduate and graduate enrolment, classes are getting bigger while there are fewer lecturers to teach those classes.

Twitter can be used to give shy students a voice, and allow for them to have discussions with peers easily. They can be pushed on issues, deepen their understanding and further their knowledge; which is the goal of education. This occurs in a forum that they might be more comfortable in. While people may be nervous to make a point in class, or simply unable to due to lack of time and large class sizes, Twitter allows for those conversations to continue easily outside of the classroom.

Twitter has been used by professors with some success. Monica Rankin at UT Dallas taught a history class (video above) where she used Twitter to engage students. She also wrote about her experiences here, for those who would prefer to read about her experiences or cannot access YouTube.

For those interested, Mark Sample has created a framework that sums up how Twitter can be used in the classroom based on an idea proposed by Rick Reo. There are many ways Twitter can be used in the classroom to supplement learning – it just depends how you want to use it!

An interesting framework for how Twitter can be used in the classroom. Click to go to Mark Sample’s blogpost.


Reason #5: The way we translate information is changing

This is important for those beginning their careers in science. The current publishing paradigm has come under fire recently, with many improvements being proposed. There has been an explosion in science blogging, which is a great way for people to get their work out and communicate with people they otherwise wouldn’t. Big networks such as Nature Blogs, Research Blogging, Scientific American, Science Blogs, Occams Typewriter, PLOS Blogs and others have provided a haven for scientists who want to get information out. Knowing how to use Twitter, and use it effectively can help get your message out. Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor at Queen’s University, talks about this, specifically how those in Public Health can use social media, in more detail here (her slides are embedded below as well).

And now for a rant. While I would like for you to embrace social media and see the value of it in your work, I realize that many people either 1) don’t have the time, 2) don’t have the means, or 3) don’t have the interest, in engaging in social media. But there are few things that frustrate me more than when someone posts about how they dislike social media because “all it is is people posting pictures of cats” or “how much can you really get across in 140 characters.” This is cheap, and this is lazy. The fact is that your students will be using these platforms, and the general public is using this platform. Simply putting your head in the ground and ignoring it just adds to the ivory tower attitude that people have towards scientists.

Now, there are good reasons to not use social media, and the worst thing you can do as an organization is start using social media but not have a clear vision for what you want to do with it. Social media has become a bit of a buzzword, and, as a friend of mine in communication says “It’s the ‘we need a brochure’ of the 21st century.” Organizations make an account, but have no idea how they’re going to use it, or what their goal is. That’s a bad idea – social media is not a magic bullet, where, once you make an account, you suddenly have thousands of followers and your business triples overnight. Like any form of communication, it requires time, and also requires cultivation of information. However, if you choose not to engage your audience on social media, be aware of what doors you’re closing, and how you’ll engage those people otherwise. You’re deliberately ignoring sections of the population, and so you need to engage with them using some other means. That requires a plan, and that requires some forethought. But don’t just rule it out based on preconceived ideas.

So there you go – five reasons why I think you should use Twitter. What are your thoughts readers – is there anything I’ve missed? Any reasons why you think other readers should or should not sign up for Twitter? Let me know in the comments!

Ed note: A version of this series originally appeared on Mr Epidemiology (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Twitter for Sci-Ed Part 2: Networking and connecting

This week, I’ll be talking about Twitter (Pic via Tweepi)

On Monday I discussed some of the reasons why I think you should sign up for Twitter, and why it is a useful tool.

Encouraging scientists to use social media isn’t a new idea. When I originally posted this piece, friend of the blog @muddybrown (you may remember him from the graduate school roundtable) pointed out a series by Christie Wilcox (@nerdychristie – you should really give her a follow). It’s a four part series, but definitely worth a read for another perspective on social media and science (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

Today, I’ll be continuing that discussion, but focusing on two other aspects of Twitter: How it can be used to get information that you wouldn’t otherwise, and how it can be used at conferences.

Reason #2: It’s a great way to get information you otherwise wouldn’t

You can use Twitter in many different ways. You can use it socially, posting funny comments, videos and pictures, or academically, posting links to interesting news articles and journal articles. Alternatively, you can use it similarly to an RSS reader or news crawler. If you follow organizations and individuals you find interesting, when they post links to new content, you will see it on your Twitter feed. Suddenly, you have a whole host of information being presented to you, and it’s been filtered by people for accuracy and quality. However, social media follows the principles of GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage out. If you follow celebrities, musicians and athletes, you’ll get tweets relevant to those people. But if you follow national organizations (the CDC, NASW, PLOS), you’ll get information relevant to them, which will be markedly different.

One of the most useful ways I’ve used Twitter is in “Twitter chats.” @NinaJTweets and @SaraRubin are two public health professionals who have set up #PubHT, which is a biweekly discussion group on public health issues. On the 1st and 3rd Monday of the month, at 9pm EST, a bunch of us get together to talk about burning public health issues (and occasionally non-burning issues, such as sharknado attacks). It’s been invaluable in helping me gain other perspectives, and has opened me up to a world of ideas and broadened my horizons considerably. But it isn’t limited just to this – Steven W. Anderson has compiled a list of Twitter chats here and you can see they range from coaching, to STEM discussions, to everything in between. Even if you’re not interested in participating, listening along can be quite rewarding.

In the same vein, it can help connect you with others in an informal setting. And what better way to connect than with humour! We talked about #overlyhonestmethods before on this blog, but other popular hashtags include #melodramaticlabnotebook and #sciconfessions all help break down the barrier than exists between the public and science, and shows that scientists have a sense of humour.

Twitter also useful as a networking tool. I’ve had the privilege of “meeting” some really cool people on Twitter, both academics and non-academics. In fact, I met Jonathan Smith through Twitter, and that was how the interview series that I did on my old blog started. It’s exposed me to a whole host of science bloggers and Epidemiologists I would never have met, and perspectives on education, healthcare, science and policy that are far outside my thinking (the way an economist views a healthcare problem is considerably different to a clinician for example). I’ve also made a point to meet up with fellow tweeps at conferences too in order to put a face to the avatar 🙂

And speaking of conferences…

Reason #3: At conferences, Twitter is invaluable for stimulating discussion and finding out what is happening in other sessions

This is one of the best reasons to join Twitter in my opinion.

Twitter is being used extensively at conferences. While some conferences have yet to embrace it formally, others are encouraging the use of social media, even going as far as “hiring” bloggers to cover the events; the National Obesity Summit in 2011 was covered by Travis and Peter of Obesity Panacea, and the Society for Neuroscience conference was covered by a host of bloggers, including friends of the blog Neurobytes.

Using Twitter, you can join conversations with other delegates, as well as organize meetings and events around the conference schedules – referred to as “Tweetups!” It’s a great way to meet new people. Indeed, I used it at the 2013 CPHA conference, and there were people who stopped by my poster because of my tweets. Christian Sinclair at KevinMD agrees, and provides other reasons. More creatively, at the same CPHA conference, Dr Martin McKee used Twitter to get questions from the audience after his keynote, giving a voice to many who might be too nervous to speak up in a room of 800-1000 people.

But here’s my favourite part. Even if you’re not at the conference, you can still be involved. Using Twitter, you can follow conferences in real time by using the conference hashtag. Delegates write short comments and quote speakers, and discussions stem from there, and you can ask for clarification, ask questions, offer opinions and thoughts and still be involved in the conference. I was following along with the #Scioclimate discussion on Twitter, and found it very helpful.


Consider this: The 2nd National Obesity Summit in Montreal had approximately 800 delegates. Of those delegates, only a handful tweeted. Approximately 500 tweets used the #con11 hashtag, and those tweets reached upwards of 80,000 people. While the conference had enough people to fill a large lecture hall, those tweets reached enough people to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto AND have people waiting outside.

The Rogers Centre can seat approximately 70,000. Tweets from the 2nd National Obesity Summit reached 80,000.

Especially for graduate students who may not have the time or funds to go, this is a great way to remain involved and learn about new research in your area.

Ed. Note: Twitter only keeps the most recent Tweets saved. So the #con11 tag is no longer active as the conference was in May 2011.

Similarly, you can use Twitter to cover any live event. The Golden Globes used the #goldenglobes hashtag, and people commented live as the event unfolded. The Canadian leaders debate used the #cdnpoli and #db8 tags. As the event is going on, people are voicing opinions, challenging what the speakers are saying, and posting quotes from the event. It’s a great way to get other perspectives on an event, and discuss it with others who are interested and passionate about what you are watching.

This can be completely self-driven. While conference themselves may lack the resources or may not want to cover the event using social media, as long as delegates have a common hashtag, you can still tweet through the conference. This highlights the beauty of social media – it can be completely grassroots.

Come back next Monday for the final part of this series.

Ed note: A version of this series originally appeared on Mr Epidemiology (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Twitter for Sci-Ed Part 1: Teaching in 140 characters or less

This week, I’ll be talking about Twitter

Twitter is a well known microblogging platform. People can post updates in the form of 140 character “tweets” that can be read by followers, who can “retweet,” i.e. repost that tweet to their own followers, or reply to the original post. I started using it about a year ago, and have found it to be equal parts whimsical and hilarious, along with useful and informative.

Several other authors have discussed reasons why scientists should be using Twitter, including this excellent post on Deep Sea News and this post through the American Geophysical Union. For a more personal opinion, Dr Jeremy Segrott gave his thoughts after he used Twitter for a three months. Scientists are realizing that social media is an important way to translate knowledge to the public when done well, and Twitter provides another avenue by which this can be accomplished.

What I will do is post 5 reasons why I think, as a scientist, you should be using Twitter, or, at the very least, be signed up for a Twitter account. Over the next three posts, I’m going to cover five reasons why I think you should use Twitter, and how it can be incredibly useful as a networking tool. Reasons 2 and 3 will be up on Wednesday, and reasons 4 and 5 will go up on next Monday. I’m not going to go into details about how to set up a Twitter account, and will instead link to some Twitter 101 guides to help you get started at the end of this post. However, before we start, I’m going to cover some terms I’ll be using so everyone is on the same page.

  • A “tweet” refers to a message up to 140 characters in length. This is the message that you write.
  • A “hashtag” is a Twitter based “filing system.” Within Twitter, people can use hashtags to categorize tweets. So, for example, tweets about graduate school use the #gradschool hashtag; Tweets about Kingston (the town I live in) use the #ygk hashtag. It means that anyone who wants to find Tweets about Kingston can search #ygk, and as long as the original person used that tag, they’ll be able to find it. Other popular tags include #scied, for science education, #phdchat for discussions around PhD-related issues, #madwriting for people who are trying to bust through a writing slump, and #TMLtalk for those with terrible taste in hockey teams. Events such as the #GoldenGlobes also have their own hashtags, and you’ve probably seen hashtags at the bottom of your screen while watching the news, or even TV shows.
  • Retweeting” refers to when you repeat what someone else has written, giving them credit. This can occur either through a direct retweet (using the retweet button), or by adding a comment and the letters RT before the original tweet. Sometimes you have to cut down the number of words used if you want to add a comment in front of their tweet, and so the acronym MT (modified tweet) is used to indicate that you have changed their original tweet.

Reason #1: It has very direct, and very relevant implications for those in Public Health

Everyone has a cellphone; some people have two. With the advent of social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter etc), we are sharing more than we ever have in the past, and anyone can know about that awesome new app that I found, or the delicious Christmas dinner I made. However, while personal tweets can be frivolous, using them to track when people report symptoms of being sick is something that Epidemiologists can use. You imagine the number of “I hate being sick!” and “My nose is stuffed up!” tweets people write in the winter and you know what I mean. This is a very rich, but very poorly understood data source. There has been some exploratory work in this area. A researcher at LSU looked at the accuracy of using Twitter as a predictor of influenza outbreaks, finding that it was quite accurate, as the graph below shows.

Figure 2: Fitted and predicted ILI rates. The red line is predicted rates, the black line is the actual rate. The vertical line separates training from predicted data. (Culotta, 2010)

This is a new area however, and of course, this still needs work:

These results show extremely strong correlations for all queries except for fever, which appears frequently in figurative phrases such as “I’ve got Bieber fever” (in reference to pop star Justin Bieber).

Thanks to Jessica S. for that paper 🙂

Another example of researchers using Twitter is investigating how misinformation spreads through social media. Misinformation bothers us, and it is something Beth has discussed over at Public Health Perspectives, as well as our own Cristina Russo here at Sci-Ed.

Researchers at Columbia sampled 1000 tweets that mentioned antibiotics to investigate how they were reported on Twitter. While the vast majority of tweets were innocuous, there were some that were clearly incorrect or misinformed. What is important however is the reach of these tweets: while 302 tweets by 277 individuals incorrectly used the words “cold” and “antibiotics” together, those tweets reached 850,375 followers (although this number is heavily skewed; the median number of followers was 66).

Rest assured readers, Bieber fever is not a contagious disease | Photo via

Come back on Wednesday for Reasons 2 and 3!

For a guide about how to set up a twitter account, I’d recommend the following links for a handy “how-to”: Wikihow, CNet, Brent Ozar’s FAQ, as well as Travis Saunders’ post about Twitter etiquette. If you’re wondering who to follow, I’d recommend checking out these lists: Colby Vorland’s list of Nutritional and Health Science people, Health Scientists, Shelley Wallingford’s list of Epidemiologists,  Sara Caldwell’s Science-y Folk, RenuShenu’s Public Health Tweeple, Melonie Fullick’s PhDChat and Liz Ditz’s MedSocialMedia.


Scanfeld, D., Scanfeld, V., & Larson, E. (2010). Dissemination of health information through social networks: Twitter and antibiotics American Journal of Infection Control, 38 (3), 182-188 DOI: 10.1016/j.ajic.2009.11.004

Culotta, A. (2010). Detecting influenza outbreaks by analyzing Twitter messages Unpublished. Available online at:

Ed note: A version of this series originally appeared on Mr Epidemiology (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)