Science, Social Media and Going Viral

In the world of science, there is much more than meets the (naked) eye. Something as small as viruses (like the ones I study), are only visible under an electron microscope. Less than 100 nanometres in size, these tiny yet exceptionally powerful entities can have a huge impact on human health, biodiversity and medicine, making viruses a hot topic of study for researchers all over the world.

As a PhD student, my research focuses on a particular type of virus called a bacteriophage - a virus that infects and kills bacteria and may be used in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Specifically, I work to understand the novel mechanisms by which a bacteriophage forms. I do this by studying the functions of specific proteins that make up the bacteriophage. Because proteins are incredibly tiny, about 100x smaller than the bacteriophage and smaller than the wavelength of light, I have to combine a number scientific techniques in the lab to do this.

A typical month in the laboratory will involve growing litres of E.coli cells in media and using these bacteria as factories to express the DNA of a particular protein I want to study. I have to harvest the cells and purify the protein out of them before I can analyze it using multiple techniques and assays to see what the protein does and how it responds to my tests and experiments.

But there’s another side to science. Say I’m in the lab waiting on an experiment to finish. I whip out my smartphone, snap a picture of the equipment, add a filter, use a hashtag, write a description about the amazing science behind the scene and post it. This is an emerging format of science communication, one that capitalises on the popularity of social media platforms, and one that I explore with my own research. As a science communicator, I share science through Instagram. It’s a lot of fun and my favourite way to share science and learn from other science communicators. Through a casual smartphone scroll, a viewer can not only learn a bit about science but perhaps more importantly see a real-life female scientist in action.


Why is this important?

Science communication, science outreach and the promotion of female scientists has been imperative to my own success as a budding scientist, as well as that of others. As a new graduate student, being a woman in science felt isolating and, at times, impossible. As I sought support from peers and mentors, I quickly learned that this was not something I was alone in experiencing. In fact, data shows that this issue is widely prevalent. Studies show that there are fewer women in high-level positions in STEM fields than men, that women are often not promoted as frequently as their male counterparts and are subject to limiting gender biases in scientific careers(1). Even high school students still have trouble naming a female scientist(2), suggesting that gender disparity in STEM is sourced from an unconscious bias which develops early on. There is hope, however, as studies have shown that the perception of scientists is changing towards more positive stereotypes (intelligent, highly trained, devoted)(2) and that science communication can be a valuable tool in making scientists more relatable, accessible and thus, trustworthy(3). By sharing science and showcasing diverse scientists on social media, we can harness a tool 90% of young adults are using daily(4) and start to move away from false stereotypes, creating a new understanding which truly depicts who can be a scientist: anyone!  


Sasha Weiditch is a science communicator, content creator and biochemistry PhD student at the University of Toronto. Through her experiences as a female pursuing the scientific field, she has become an advocate for women in STEM and science education, sharing her passion through social media as @SciGirlSash. Sasha is involved in mentorship programs in the community and has spoken at numerous events including Soapbox Science, Girls Metamorphosis and TEDx UofT.

To hear more about her research and STEM advocacy work, join RCIScience on October 4 when our Science in Mississauga series returns with ‘Science, Social Media and Going Viral!’

1. Knobloch-Westerwick S, Glynn CJ, Huge M. The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest. Sci Commun. 2013;35(5):603-625. doi:10.1177/1075547012472684

2. Schinske J, Cardenas M, Kaliangara J. Uncovering scientist Stereotypes and their relationships with student race and student success in a diverse, community college setting. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2015;14(3). doi:10.1187/cbe.14-12-0231

3. Fiske ST, Dupree C. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2014;111(Supplement_4):13593-13597. doi:10.1073/pnas.1317505111

4. Perrin A. Social Networking Usage: 2005-2015.; 2015. doi:202.419.4372