Earlier today I reflected on my start as a Blogger™ over on Twitter, which is basically where I blog now (hashtag blogging is dead or something). Stephen Heard (who has his own blog) suggested I post it here too, and I figured for old time sake (and so I don’t forget my login information) that that sounded like a great idea.
Today marks the 7th anniversary of the greatest career decision I've made: I hit "Publish" for the first time on my blog.
Breaking Bio, the newest science podcast to hit the internet, with your host, Steven Hamblin!
I have a confession to make: I’ve been “secretly” recording a podcast with other biologists from around the world and haven’t told anyone about it.
I’m happy to share with you a new podcast having fun with (and at the expense of) science. Momma always said I had the face for radio and the voice for newsprint, so I’m happy to be putting it all to the test with this new media project!
Breaking Bio was the brainchild of Steven Hamblin, a behavioural ecology/computational biology Post-Doc currently working in Australia, and he soon enlisted a motley crew of twittering scientists:
Rafael Maia – PhD candidate at University of Akron studying evolution of bird colour,
Tom Houslay – PhD candidate at University of Stirling studying sexual selection in insects and our resident eye-candy (or so I’ve been informed),
Bug Girl – Queen Bee of the insect blogosphere and provider of sage advice and witty responses,
Michael Hawkes – PhD student at University of Exeter studying sex, selfish genes and insecticide resistance in Drosophila (he’ll be making his debut soon),
Crystal Ernst (aka The Bug Geek) – PhD candidate at McGill University studying Arctic beetle ecology (she’ll be making her debut soon as well),
We’ve recorded 5 episodes, and have so far managed to slander a dead tortoise, compare notes on the grad student life, discuss the world’s smallest fly, give a how-to on academic bridge burning, and share stories from international conferences (among many other topics & tangents). Overall it’s a light-hearted look at science and a way for us to share our passion while having some fun and unwinding a little!
It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of, and I hope you enjoy it while having a laugh or two at our expense! Of course, if you have a question or topic you’d like to hear us discuss, or want to join in on the fun yourself, let us know and we’ll be happy to taint your CV bring you on board!
Back in April, Bug Girl found a trailer for a movie that looks amazing, “Eega”. The movie is about a man who is murdered while protecting his girlfriend from the bad guy and is reincarnated as a house fly to seek revenge! AMAZING. Well, I think that’s what the movie is about because it’s in Telugu, a language unique to southern India, and there weren’t any subtitles. I’ve added the trailer at the bottom of this post because I don’t think I shared it at the time, and honestly more people need to see it.
It is with great delight that I’m sharing this story with you. Telugu (an Indian language), and Southern India (known to make unique (read bizarre) movies, made a movie a few months ago. It is called Eega (Telugu word for House Fly). The story goes like this: A guy falls in love with a girl. But a gangster likes her too, and has the boy killed, who is then reborn as a fly (M. domestica), and seeks revenge on the villains. More on this movie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eega
The first thing that came to my mind was to share this story with you. Please see the attached image.
Really, flies are taking over the world. The whole of the world looks upon other arthropods as a means of destroying the world – but not the flies! Isn’t this the most best means to spread awareness?!
Exciting news since the last Weekly Flypaper: Piotr Naskrecki, orthopteroid taxonomist, photographer, and author (Relics and The Smaller Majority) has started a new blog — The Smaller Majority. So far Piotr has been killing this whole blogging business, with fascinating posts on tropical entomology and macrophotography tips. I’m pretty sure I bookmarked every post he made for future reference, but here are a few of my favourites:
Carl Zimmer was a plenary speaker at the annual meeting of the Society for the Presevation of Natural History Collections a few weeks ago, and they just posted his talk on YouTube. It’s long (more than an hour), but it’s an interesting talk and well delivered.
Among the regular cadre of peer-reviewed journal articles supporting the author’s findings were two blog posts by University of Glasgow professor Roderic Page. Rod is a major proponent for digitizing and linking biodiversity literature with all aspects of a species’ pixel-trail across the internet, so I was excited to see his blog being “formally” recognized. As I finished reading the paper and reached the References section, I skimmed through to see how a blog citation might be formatted. Much to my dismay, after breezing through the L’s, M’s, and N’s I found myself within the R’s, with nary a Page in sight.
Despite having directly referenced Rod’s work on three separate occasions, the authors failed to formally acknowledge his contributions to the field. I may still be a little wet behind the ears in this whole academic publishing game, but I suspect that if someone didn’t properly cite a Nature paper, they’d be quickly reprimanded by the editor of the journal they submitted to and be told to include the citation or face rejection.
I’ve been thinking about this situation all day, and I can’t come up with a reason why the author’s didn’t include a proper citation, other than the continuing bias against blogging (and social media in general) among the scientific community. Certainly there are those in the scientific community who realize the potential of social media and blogging in science2, but in large part it seems the message is being ignored because of prejudices regarding the medium in which it’s published.
But why do scientists have such a hard time accepting blogging & social media as valid outlets? It can’t be because of the holy peer-review process, as Bora Zivkovic3elegantly points out:
“One of the usual reasons given for not citing blog posts is that they are not peer-reviewed. Which is not true. First, if the post contained errors, readers would point them out in the comments. That is the first layer of peer review. Then, the authors of the manuscript found and read a blog post, evaluated its accuracy and relevance and CHOSE to use it as a reference. That is the second layer of peer-review. Then, the people who review the manuscript will also check the references and, if there is a problem with the cited blog post, they will point this out to the editor. This is the third layer of peer-review. How much more peer-review can one ask for?”
So if the quality of content published on blogs is of interest, well supported and being recognized by our peers, why do we still see this disconnect between traditional literature and social media when it comes to proper credit? I think the social media movement4 is so new, seemingly free of traditional rules & roles and so quickly evolving that many academics have yet to take the time to explore its potential before dismissing it as a waste of time best reserved for celebrities and teenagers. Frankly, with the ever increasing pressure to publish, find funding and shoulder more responsibilities within academic circles, I can’t say I totally blame them. But just like those in academia have (mostly) accepted and embraced other technologies, I’m confident that social media, including blogging, will find its place among the scientific community and will revolutionize the ways we go about doing, discussing and disseminating scientific research. Certainly it will be an uphill battle for those who aspire to change the way this new technology is perceived and credited within the academic community, but ultimately I think it’s in all our best interest to push the boundaries!
Perhaps Rod Page summarized this entire post in a single tweet:
.@bioinfocus I suspect because blogs don’t fit into the “normal” landscape of publishing – yet
4- Which is exactly how I see it. Much like the cladistic wars of the 1980s and the Darwinian debate 100 years before that, it’s only a matter of time until social media is embraced by the scientific & academic communities.
I was going through my photos today for a project and happened across one I completely forgot I had taken:
Taken in Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, Costa Rica, this white-faced capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus) and its troop stumbled across our group while we were hilltopping for flies. Clearly this one thought we looked like fools swinging nets around while wearing our ridiculous field clothes. On reflection, I can’t say I really blame it, we probably did look odd.
I’ve left my usual watermark off the photo because I think everybody could use a little Monkey Face Palm from time to time. Feel free to download and use this image however you see fit, whether in blog posts, on Facebook, as a Twitter rebuttal, or printed out and given to friends/colleagues/students when they do something dumb!
I just ask that if you happen to make money from it, you ask me first and share the spoils, because I’d hate to #MonkeyFacePalm myself for missing that opportunity…
UPDATE: It turns out my first theory involving oestrid bot flies was full of holes. I’ll leave it up because the biology of the individual parasites is accurate and interesting, but see the bottom of the post for an accurate description of what happened in the photo. I apologize for the misinformation.
Recently, I was catching up on Twitter late at night when @PsiWaveFunction shared a link to a photo on Reddit that stopped me cold in my tracks and that has kept me morbidly fascinated since. I’ve spent the better part of a day thinking about the photo, and I think I’ve pieced together the series of events and organisms that lead to the case of the mystery myiasis. If my theory is correct, this might be one of the coolest cases of parasitism I’ve ever encountered, and features a fly who’s life history beautifully illustrates the intricacies of evolution, another fly that’s threatening the birds which helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution through natural selection, and a bird who is being selected against by the worst possible luck.
Normally I’d include the photo in question right about here, but out of respect for those victims readers who are a tad squeamish at the sight of parasites (or birds), I’ll simply link to it and allow your curiosity to battle your better judgement1. I’ll give you a moment to decide and, should you accept the challenge, digest what you’ve just seen.
So, were you amazed? Disgusted? Wondering what the hell you were looking at? If you’re like me, you probably felt a little bit of all three, and then immediately went back to take a closer look.
Welcome to the wonderful world of warble flies (family Oestridae)! Each of those oddly formed lumps is actually a bot fly maggot which has burrowed beneath the skin of the chick to feed and develop. You’ll notice two dark marks on the exposed end of each maggot; these are the spiracles through which the maggot breathes. After a few weeks, each of the maggots will wriggle free from the bird, drop to the ground and pupate, eventually emerging as an adult ready to breed. Normally the host is left mostly unharmed after providing safe harbour for a bot fly, but in this case I suspect the bird might have problems due to the shear number of maggots present (at least 15 that I could make out).
Dermatobia hominis -- Photo by J. Eibl, Systematic Entomology Laboratory, USDA.
What’s odd about this situation2 is that these bot flies have parasitized a bird. You see, almost all bot flies are mammal parasites, infesting anything from rodents to elephants, and are usually very specific about their host species. One bot fly however, Dermatobia hominis, is a generalist, and has been recorded infesting a number of different animals, from humans and monkeys to dogs and cats, and of relevance to this story, birds on occasion. In a family of narrow specialists, it’s a wonder that D. hominis is such a broad generalist; until you learn how D. hominis distributes its offspring — by hijacking other flies to serve as expedited egg couriers.
Psorophora sp. (Culicidae) with D. hominis eggs attached. Illustration by A. Cushman, Systematic Entomology Laboratory, USDA.
After mating, female D. hominis will snatch up other parasitic flies, like mosquitoes, flesh flies and muscid flies3, and lay a clutch of eggs on the enlisted fly. When the carrier fly locates and lands on a host to feed4, the body heat of the victim signals the bot fly egg to hatch and fall from the carrier onto its new home, where it quickly burrows in to begin feeding. This amazing life cycle means that the female bot fly has little control over where, and on what species, its offspring ultimately end up infesting, resulting in a nearly random generalist parasite that must be able to survive on whatever host it finds itself on, including our small bird.
Obviously the natural world is a complex system, and unfortunately for our bird, it’s full of a diverse array of parasites, all looking for a free meal. Let me introduce you to another player in this saga, Philornis downsi (Muscidae), a fly native to continental South America and Trinidad & Tobago, where our unfortunate bird lives.
Philornis in nasal cavity of deceased bird. Image from O'Connor et al. 2010
While adults are unassuming, feeding on pollen and nectar, Philornis downsi larvae are brood parasites of nesting birds. Hiding out of sight during the day in the bottom of the nest, maggots emerge after dark to crawl within the nasal passages of developing chicks, feeding on their blood and tissue, sapping their energy. As the maggots continue to grow, they begin feeding elsewhere on the nestlings, causing severe damage and ultimately death. Throughout the Galapagos, where the fly was introduced sometime prior to 1964, Philornis downsi has been causing nestling mortality rates as high as 95% in Darwin’s finches, the unique birds who’s diverse beak shapes inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. While there has been a great deal of work done on P. downsi in the Galapagos in an effort to save these ecologically important birds5, I assume it is also receiving research attention in its native range, which is where we return to Reddit, our original photo and what I think happened.
Of all the parasites, in all the nest boxes, in all the world, she flies into mine.
My theory was wrong. See below for information about the actual parasite.
A recently mated female Dermatobia bot fly was looking for a carrier fly
A female Philornis downsi happened to fly by, was quickly snatched by the bot fly and entrusted with a load of bot fly eggs
The female Philornis was released, and continued her search for a bird’s nest to deposit her eggs in
Finding a nest, the Philornis female walked around, laying eggs among the nesting material, and happened to tread across the young bird in the nest
The bot eggs, sensing the proximity of a warm-bodied host, hatched and quickly found their way to the unlucky bird’s face
The Philornis female finished laying her eggs and took off from the nest, leaving chaos brewing in her wake
Later, a social media-conscious research assistant comes along, finds the disfigured nestling, and does the only logical thing; takes a picture and posts it to the internet for all to enjoy!
Of course, this is only a theory based on a single photo and a very small fraction of information about the team’s research, but given the evidence and biology of the species potentially involved, I think it’s certainly a plausible hypothesis. There are a lot of potential fallacies in my theory, like whether the bot fly larvae are actually Dermatobia, or whether Dermatobia even uses Philornis as a vector (although it’s known to use 11 species of Muscidae), but these are the sort of questions that can be observed and tested eventually. Hopefully the researchers behind the photo will rear the maggots from the bird’s face, identify the parasites involved, and then publish their work so I can find out whether any of these ideas turned out to be accurate6.
Whether my theories were correct or not, the fact that they’re even plausible keeps me interested and excited about entomology and the intricate roles parasites play in our daily lives!
Eibel, J.M., Woodley, N.E. 2004. Dermatobia hominis (Linnaeus Jr., 1781) (Diptera: Oestridae). The Diptera Site. Accessed June 6, 2012. http://1.usa.gov/MbTexi
Fessl B, Sinclair BJ, & Kleindorfer S (2006). The life-cycle of Philornis downsi (Diptera: Muscidae) parasitizing Darwin’s finches and its impacts on nestling survival. Parasitology, 133 (Pt 6), 739-47 PMID: 16899139
O’Connor, J.A., Robertson, J. & Kleindorfer, S. (2010). Video analysis of host–parasite interactions in nests of Darwin’s finches, Oryx, 44 (04) 594. DOI: 10.1017/S0030605310000086
UPDATE June 7, 2012 @ 3:30PM EST: It turns out that the maggots in the bird’s face aren’t Dermatobia hominis, or even bot flies of the family Oestridae at all! After doing some further research, I’ve learned that they are more likely to be another species of Philornis fly. I was totally unaware that there were flies outside of the oestrid bot flies which burrow into the skin of hosts and form warbles like these, but it turns out there are.
While Philornis downsi are ectoparasites that feed on nestling birds as I described, it seems that there are several species in the same genus which burrow within the skin and form welts similar to oestrid bot flies. Here’s an example of Philornis vulgaris infesting a Tropical Mockingbird nestling from Colombia:
Philornis vulgaris infestation from Amat et al. 2007
Looks vaguely familiar no? I think it’s safe to say now that this is what happened in the original photo and not the complex tale of 2 parasites like I described above.
I’m incredibly embarrassed by my Taxonomy Fail here (which holds a TFI of 11.3). Although the biology of the two parasitic species I originally discussed are accurate, the chances of them having anything to do with one another appear to be unlikely. I sincerely apologize for publishing a story that spread such inaccurate information, and I’ll do my best to not let it happen again.
Note to self: don’t assume you know anything, especially when it involves parasites.
On the bright side, I learned something new about Diptera (and humility) today, and we can all rest comfortably knowing that there are multiple, unrelated groups of flies that get under the skin of their hosts. Because I’m sure that makes everyone feel better.
More information about subcutaneous Philornis:
Amat, E., J. Olano, F. Forero & C. Botero 2007. Notas sobre Philornis vulgaris (Couri, 1984) (Diptera: Muscidae) en nidos del sinsonte tropical Mimus gilvus (Viellot, 1808) en los Andes de Co- lombia. Acta Zoológica Mexicana, 23(2): 205-207. http://bit.ly/LwsHh1
Uhazy, L.S., Arendt, W.J. 1987. Pathogenesis associated with philornid myiasis (Diptera: Muscidae) on nestling pearly-eyed thrashers (Aves: Mimidae) in the Luquillo Rain Forest, Puerto Rico. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 22 (2): 224-237. http://bit.ly/KlXBGR
1- If you can’t decide, I vote you click and look. You can thank me later.
2- Beyond the whole face-of-a-million-maggots of course.
4- Something these blood-sucking flies have evolved to do quite well obviously. The fact that bot flies “cheat the system” in this regard, getting their eggs to their host without needing to invest energy in complex host-finding senses, just goes to show that nothing is more awesome than evolution in action.
I’d like to introduce Dr. Blake Bextine, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Tyler who specializes in the interactions between plants, insects and pathogens in agricultural ecosystems. While at the Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno last fall, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bextine speak on his use of Facebook to facilitate undergraduate student learning. I thought it was an interesting discussion and so I invited Blake to share his ideas here.
The statements that will be made in this article should be prefaced by saying that I have mixed feelings about technology in the classroom. On one hand, I am a strong believer that the one-on-one interactions between the student and teacher or between a student and another student are very difficult to replicate with technology. On the other hand, technology can facilitate these interactions by adding a forum where students that traditionally do not participate are more comfortable. I also teach in the sciences, not any other subjects, so I cannot comment on the outcomes of using technology (strictly on-line delivery) in other disciplines.
At the 2011 Southeast Branch ESA meeting I spoke at a session on Technology in Entomology Teaching and took the hardline against on-line teaching but heard several talks from people that have has much success using alternative delivery methods. Realizing that I had not taught this way before, I decided to give it a shot in the Fall 2011 semester in my Cell Molecular Biology class at the University of Texas at Tyler. I took a summer coarse on Technology in the Classroom and was ready to go with my new hybrid lecture course (50% in class/50% on-line) when the year began. I found both good and bad things came from my experience. One positive that surprised me was that students whom were usually quiet in class were more vocal in on-line discussion. Student comments were also easier to track and participation was easy to monitor. I found my way to engage them by tracking them. A negative that surprised me was that it was easy for me to start a discussion and then let the class go, which lead to me stepping away and engaging with them less. This brought a dilemma that I had not previously considered…we always talk about “student engagement”, but what about “teacher engagement”?
So, I think we have much to think about with respect to technology in the classroom. There is no “one size fits all” answer to being a proponent or opponent of the new teaching methods. To use a few clichés, we are operating in the “new normal” and there has been a “paradigm shift”. We need to utilize technology when it fits and avoid using it simply because it makes economic sense.
A major point that needs to be considered is what technology we should utilize. I have seen classes where students have to learn to use three computer programs to access class content. Often, we think students in this current generation all know how to use every type of technology we can throw at them…they don’t. In fact, many have limited knowledge, often not past using Apps on their smartphone. That is why I like to utilize technology that they are familiar with, like Facebook. It is free, almost everyone has seen it, and most people check it often throughout the day. The result is no learning curve and very fast adoption at the beginning of the semester. It provides a platform to post media, articles, and comments while organizing the posts in chronological order. Facebook is currently used in all my classes as well as my research laboratory. It has become the central way we keep in touch. In short, I am utilizing technology to better engage the students by meeting them halfway with “their” technology and as a side product, I have become better engaged in the process.
It’s not often that flies make headlines, and when they do it’s usually in a negative connotation (malaria, mosquitoes, black flies, etc). A new paper published Tuesday in PLoS ONE (Core et al, 2011) is certainly not helping this Detrimental Diptera Dillema (DDD), announcing that a species of scuttle fly (Phoridae) has been discovered parasitizing honey bees (Apis mellifera), one of the most loved insects on the planet.
Fig. 2 - Images of Apocephalus borealis and honey bees from Core et al., 2012
Of course things attacking honey bees isn’t in itself news, especially in the age of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The real news here is that the scuttle fly, Apocephalus borealis, has seemingly switched hosts, previously known to be parasitic in bumble bees, paper wasps, and even black widow spiders (Brown, 1993). Other Apocephalus flies are better known as ant-decapitating flies, who’s larvae will pupate in the dismembered heads of their ant hosts. As for A. borealis, it’s association with honey bees was thanks to a serendipitous natural history observation:
(John) Hafernik, who also serves as president of the California Academy of Sciences, didn’t set out to study the parasitized bees. In 2008, he was just looking for some insects to feed the praying mantis that he had brought back to SF State’s Hensill Hall after an entomology field trip. He scrounged the bees from underneath the light fixtures outside the biology building.
“But being an absent-minded professor,” Hafernik joked, “I left them in a vial on my desk and forgot about them. Then the next time I looked at the vial, there were all these fly pupae surrounding the bees.”
After further observation, a few behavioural trials and some interesting molecular techniques, the research team found that not only were these scuttle flies parasitizing honey bees in the San Francisco Bay area, but also in migratory bee colonies housed in the Central California Valley and South Dakota, and also that infected honey bees would leave their colonies at night to fly away and die (often congregating at man-made lights and acting strangely); that all of the parasitized bees had been exposed to Nosema ceranae (a fungus which can lead to death from diarrhea and malnourishment) and/or Deformed Wing Virus (a disease that can cause malformation of a bee’s thorax and wings during pupation); and that some of the flies had evidence of these bee pathogens in their systems.
This is a lot of really interesting information for one study, but it’s not hard to see where the authors were going next with their story: scuttle flies could be contributing to CCD and posed a “new threat” to honey bees. The authors proceeded to pose a long series of questions regarding future areas of research, and how all of their findings could be detrimental to honey bee populations and the potential role these flies play in CCD. Overall, this is a very cool piece of natural history research, with a bit too much CCD hype for my liking!
You can see why the media has fallen in love with this paper; it includes flies (which no one likes on principle), honey bees (which everyone likes on principle), CCD (which scares the daylights out of everyone) and zombies (which also scare the daylights out of everyone). At the time that I wrote this post (midnight-ish Wednesday morning), I found 13 major news outlets or blogs from around the world which had covered the story (see list below).
This is where we have a problem though. Of the 13 stories I looked at, 8 of them had errors in their reports, of varying severity. What’s worse, all of the erroneous accounts were in major reporting outlets, potentially misinforming thousands of readers! It’s not surprising however, to see that 7 of the 8 stories that got things 100% correct were all science-focused publications/blogs, while one was a small-market news affiliate:
KQED News – ‘Zombie’ Parasite Preys on Bay-Area Honeybees, by Lauren Sommer
MSNBC (WebCite copy) – Stated bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (misinterpretation of Fig. 3A of Core et al., 2012)
Mirror (WebCite copy) – Stated that the parasite “is similar to one being found in bumblebees” (it’s not just similar, it’s the same species)
Press Association (WebCite copy) – Title states that the flies are linked to bee losses (not true, the connection between fly parasitism and CCD is simply proposed by the authors); Implied that bees are immediately turned into light-seeking zombies after the female fly lays her eggs (it appears to take up to a week for this to happen)
Daily Mail Online (WebCite copy) – Title states link between flies and global decline of bees (see above); Didn’t italicize species names (minor I know, but it bugs me)
CBC News (WebCite copy) – Implies that bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (see MSNBC)
io9 (WebCite copy) – “This parasite is a likely culprit (in reference to CCD – MDJ) because it does indeed force bees to abandon their colony” (authors say the fly may contribute to CCD, not that it is the likely culprit)
Daily Express (caching not allowed) – Implies that bees are parasitized in their hives and that they immediately “abandon their hives in a crazed state” (the authors are unsure of where the flies attack, but they know it’s not in the hive, and see the Press Association above); didn’t italicize species names (argh)
While I doubt that heads will roll at these institutions because of these errors (sorry, a little Apocephalus humour there), the moral of this story is that the science content the majority of the public is exposed to is not exactly the best science content available! Hopefully, as scientists and science writers continue to use social media and blogs, the good stories I featured here will reach more of the people who would normally only see the “bad” versions, imparting a correct and positive experience with the fantastic research being done every day around the world!
Update (Jan. 07, 2012, 20:30) Brian Brown, a co-author on this study and the world’s expert on these flies, has expanded on the natural history and taxonomy of the flies involved in this research on his blog ‘flyobsession’. The remainder of the research team behind this study will be setting up a FAQ to help ‘clarify’ some of the errors I reported on above, and are also beginning a new citizen science project to begin understanding how far flung this parasitism is.
Core, A., Runckel, C., Ivers, J., Quock, C., Siapno, T., DeNault, S., Brown, B., DeRisi, J., Smith, C., & Hafernik, J. (2012). A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis PLoS ONE, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029639
Today is my 1 year Twitterversary, making it as good a time as any to share why I think Twitter is one of the most important resources available to scientists, how to make the most of it, and what makes it great for interacting with non-scientists.
Twitter is as simple a social network as you can get, “limited” to text-based updates of 140 characters telling people “What’s Happening” in your life. But as they say, it’s not the size of the tweet that matters, but rather how you use it, and there are roughly 2 million ways in which to interact with the Twitterverse, sharing and finding all manner of relevant content, ideas, and information!
These people won’t be at the usual conferences I attend, but that doesn’t mean my research isn’t related to theirs. By exposing myself to a wide array of scientists, I have found inspiration to apply to my own projects, methods to experiment with in future, and kindred spirits who are also working their way through the trials of academia and provide invaluable advice. As I move forward, who knows how these individuals may influence my career, with each “tweep” a potential collaborator, advisor or hiring committee member; fortune favours the prepared, and Twitter has allowed me to diversify my knowledge base significantly, better preparing me for future research obstacles.
With over 200 million users posting more than 95 million tweets per day, you may find it daunting to discover tweeters relevant to your field of science. Luckily there are several ways to get the most out of Twitter with minimal time investment. You can easily subscribe to lists of scientist twitter users, or super-tweeters like @BoraZ who share content from a wide variety of scientists (or you can start with who I follow even). It’s important to note that when you follow someone on Twitter, the information being shared is unilateral, meaning you can see what that person posts, but they don’t see what you post (unless they reciprocate and follow you). This means you can tailor the information you receive to only those you find interesting, without getting inundated with updates by all the people who may follow and interact with you.
However, to unlock the real power of Twitter, I recommend exploring the #hashtag. Integrated by Twitter as an automatic search term, hashtags allow you to filter tweets from all 200 million+ users simply and directly. There are a number of interesting and widely adopted science hashtags which may interest you, but you can create, use and follow any hashtag which you consider interesting or relevant (like #Diptera, or #ScienceShare perhaps). There are 2 in particular however which I have found to be the most powerful; #madwriting and #IcanhazPDF.
#madwriting is a rallying call for those that may struggle with writing or dedicating the time to do so. Created to develop a shared sense of community, accountability and encouragement, #madwriting bouts last about 30 minutes, and encourage undistracted writing, followed by a sharing of progress after the time is up. Major portions of my Master’s thesis were accomplished thanks to the #madwriting community, as well as numerous blog posts (including this one).
Although grammatically terrible, #IcanhazPDF is the most useful hashtag for scientists in my opinion. If you or your institution does not have access to a journal, it can be frustrating, time-consuming and difficult to obtain a copy of a paper. Traditionally this obstacle would be overcome using interlibrary loan or contacting authors or other colleagues at different institutions and requesting copies directly. With #IcanhazPDF, the Twitter community has changed the game, crowd-sourcing paper requests from complete strangers across the world. The speed at which you can obtain a paper has now gone from days or weeks to minutes, allowing you to go on with your research & writing without delay. I can personally attest to this system, having made a request last spring and receiving the PDF via email less than 20 minutes later. While no different from making direct requests from colleagues (which has gone on for decades), there is the potential for legal trouble, so be sure to make an informed decision before taking part.
As you can see, there are numerous ways for scientists to benefit from Twitter, but Twitter is also a great way to reach out to the general public and give back. Whether you share tales from your research (or more personal stories that demonstrate that scientists are human too), pass along links to popular science articles or blog posts (or even open-access journal articles), develop citizen science projects, or simply interact with the public by answering questions, it’s easy to give back on Twitter and potentially inspire future generations of scientists. I’ve helped identify insects for people, provided answers on biodiversity, and tried to change people’s opinions about flies in general, all via Twitter. The 140 character limit I mentioned earlier has also forced me to become more concise with my writing, and lead me to change my use of verbose terms common to scientific jargon. I can also see Twitter being incorporated in the classroom, facilitating interactions between students and teachers/professors or being used as extra credit (recording wildlife sightings, extracurricular readings, etc).
While I understand scientists are busy people and may be hesitant to join a(nother) social network, I feel that careful integration of Twitter into a research program can actually increase productivity and innovation. If you’re not already tweeting, I encourage you to give it a chance and explore what you may be missing!
You can find me on Twitter @BioInFocus.
UPDATE (Jan. 3. 2011, 00:30): @BoraZ sent me a link to another great clearing house of science twitterers, Science Pond. At this time their tweet display algorithm seems to be down, but you can still browse the long list of scientist users on the left hand side.