The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public. Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.” Here’s one bit:
“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?
If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”
I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:
I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments. I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.
We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion. Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)
There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time. I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.
One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.
That is what online science communication success looks like now.
With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance. It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.
We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication. And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)
It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too. Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value. Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.
The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal. We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.
Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.
Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.
And then things started to get really awesome:
One of the things I’ve struggled with during my online career is how to figure out what impact, if any, I’m actually creating with all my blogging, tweeting, and other online social media activity. It would be nice to show a potential funding agency or employer that I’m not just farting around on the internet. I’m actually accomplishing something.
Farting around on the internet.
There are a lot of different ways that you can try to measure how far your online efforts are spreading your ideas. (BTW, there is a large and argumentative literature about the differences between Assessment, Evaluation, and Measurement. I am going to stick with the less controversial term ‘Measurement’ here.)
You can track your traffic using Google Analytics. You can count how many followers you have on Twitter, Friends on Facebook, Followers on G+, and Pinheads (?) on Pinterest. But before you jump into measuring, stop and think. You are a scientist. Would you run around measuring all possible variables for an experiment? I hope not.
Start with WHY you are online. What do you want to accomplish? I really like this graphic, because it shows how what you measure should be driven by your goals.
When I started blogging, I wanted to try to get better at writing for a non-technical audience (personal goal) and I wanted to get more people thinking insects are cool (squidgy professional goal). Those are not, of course, proper goals. But it’s a start.
I’ve had 1.3 million visits to my blog. But what does that really mean in terms of my goals? That traffic could just be the result of very good search engine optimization. It might be a million people clicking through, going “Damn it, no porn!” and then leaving.
If you are counting followers, or blog visits, you probably have an upward trending line. Yay! But that doesn’t actually mean that you are changing any behavior, or having any influence. What you want to know is how many “Likes”, RTs, comments, or other sorts of things that show people actually engaging with your content there are.
What’s an appropriate metric for those goals? Google Analytics data for length of time on a page tells me if people found my writing interesting enough to stay for a while. Number of return visitors tells me if people ever come back, or if they read one thing, and then decide that’s enough.
Don’t measure everything from the giant firehose of internet data. Choose metrics that actually help decide if you’re heading toward your goals, or at least give an indirect measure.
Do you really need to keep track of any of this stuff?
That depends on your goal! If you really are messing around on the internet just for fun, then why worry about investing time in this sort of record keeping? That’s time you aren’t writing awesome stuff.
On the other hand, you might want this info for a portfolio. Much better to have some data than none. You can set up a few monthly routines or use some automated tools to gather basic info that you might want, so it won’t eat a lot of your time.
This post will focus on Quantitative data about your online activity–things you can measure. You should also save things that are qualitative–really nice comments, emails, or other interactions. Those are nice for portfolios, and also preserve moments you can look back on for a warm fuzzy feeling.
There are good tools out there that can give you lots of data about your social media and blogs. Many of them are expensive, but some are free. Lets look at some of the biggest free ones. Continue reading
As tiny animals that live widely dispersed, finding a partner of the proper sex and species to reproduce with is a problem for insects. How do they arrange a hook up?
Insects have solved that problem in a variety of ways, but sexual pheromones are one of the most common solutions. Pheromones are “chemicals emitted by living organisms to send messages to individuals of the same species.” The message transmitted doesn’t have to be about sex–there are lots of different kinds of pheromones–it’s just more appealing to human prurient interest when sex is involved
By making a species-specific blend of chemicals and releasing it into the air, insects are able to communicate over great distances. With sex pheromones, the message is usually from the female, and has the content “I’m here and ready to get it on, big boy!”
So, how do insect sex pheromones work?
Male moth antennae are exquisitely sensitive to even individual molecules of a female sex pheromone. (You can see an animation of what happens neurologically in a moth antenna when pheromone hits a receptor here, courtesy of UC Davis. Davis also has a movie of how male silk moths react to pheromone in a commonly used test apparatus.)
Reception of the pheromone triggers a series of behaviors in the receiver (male), leading to the two insects meeting and, hopefully, reproducing.
My illustration shows a theoretical situation.* The female (on the right) emits her pheromone from a gland, and the wind disperses it. Think of each pixel of color as an individual pheromone molecule. The more concentrated the pheromone, the darker the color.
Males fly upwind following a pheromone concentration gradient, and eventually find the female. (animation version here). Moving into of an area of lower pheromone concentration is a signal to turn, to try to follow the concentration as it increases.
This model makes a lot of assumptions–that the female is a stationary point, for example–but it’s a pretty good description of how the system generally works.
In fact, this simple system has been used in robotics to develop a robot that follows a smell to the source of a chemical leak!
How do synthetic pheromones muck up this process and provide insect control?
Many types of biological control in the last few decades have developed out of identifying and using an insect’s natural biochemistry and metabolism against itself. Insect sex pheromones are commonly marketed for control or monitoring of insect pests.
There are several ways that synthetic pheromones are used for insect control, but the one I’m interested in today is mating disruption. The theory is that if you saturate an area with pheromone, the males will be unable to follow a chemical trail, and will be unable to find the females. Males will also be attracted to the synthetic pheromone dispensers, and try to mate with them–with predictably unsatisfactory results for the male. Sometimes synthetic pheromone dispensers are combined with traps to kill the male insects, and really make sure no mating goes on.
No male + female = no eggs = no pest insect reproduction. It’s a type of insect birth control.
The beauty of the system is that it is specific to one species. A problem with pesticides or biological toxins are “off target” effects. You spray to kill the bollworms, and also kill all the predators that would help you out by eating the bollworms. Oh, and any butterflies and pollinators that happened to be in the area, too. Bummer.
Mating disruption involves very small amounts of a chemical, released in a small area, that results in lots of horny males and frustrated females of one species, and no fertilized eggs. Because males are so sensitive to the pheromones, micrograms are used, not pounds of active compound/acre. When it works, it’s been pretty awesome–pink bollworm and tomato pinworm are two success stories.
The problem is, mating disruption doesn’t always work 100% of the time. (What does, really, in any biological system?)
This is usually because while synthesizing a species’ pheromone is relatively easy with new molecular tools, understanding the complexity of a species’ behavior and ecological dynamics isn’t that simple. As we learn more about insects and their population dynamics, we continue to get better at figuring out why this works well on some insects, and not others. Entomologists also have seen evolution in action, as it’s turned out that insects have variation in their chemical blends, and are not as chemically monolithic as the model suggests.
All in all, it’s a fascinating system, and I’ll talk more about it tomorrow.
For additional info:
- Read a whole textbook chapter on sex pheromones!
- Visit the UC Davis chemical ecology site, and look at more cool movies and research
- A National Academy online book about pheromone communication in insects
*Disclaimer: the graphics and examples used here are for illustration only. Females don’t emit pheromone in a rectangle, and males are not a blue blob. If you can’t deal with this much abstraction in the purpose of communicating with lay readers, get a life. Or, make the graphics for me :p