UI scientists engaging public with social media

BY ALY BROWN | JULY 17, 2012 6:30 AM

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University of Iowa science officials are using social media now more than ever to engage the public and colleagues with new research developments.

Dan McMillan, the director of communications and external relations at the UI College of Public Health, said the school is active across many social-media platforms, including Facebook.

"It's a cool way to build a community of people that encompass a very broad range of interests, from current students and alumni to practicing professionals and parents of students," he wrote in an email. "There's a directness and an authenticity that comes through in these communications, and it really helps paint a picture of the exciting educational and career opportunities that exist in public health."

The college searched for a name for the café in the new College of Public Health Building using social media, and it hosts student blogs for students to share their study-abroad and practicum experiences.

Tara Smith, a UI associate professor of epidemiology, said she and her colleagues are using tools such as blogs and Twitter to make science more visible.

"We feel it is important for science to be more visible and for scientists to get out in the community, out of what is called the ivory tower."

Smith said being active in social media helps make scientists relatable and trustworthy to the public.

"I think people still have the idea of Einstein as the prototypical scientist," she said. "A lot of people don't understand what scientists do every day and how it has relevance to their lives. People don't trust us because the don't know us. We use anything we can to show we aren't just sitting in our labs doing experiments all day. We're people."

In an effort to discover new ways to disseminate their research to a wider audience, UI scientists and medical professionals invited science journalist Carl Zimmer to speak at the UI Carver College of Medicine on July 13.

Zimmer, an essayist and the author of science blog The Loom, presented "Infecting Minds: Science Communication in the Age of New Media" showing how communication has evolved from book and newspaper publishing to interactive public dialogue.

"With a book, you are in their head for two or three weeks, and you get depth you cannot get with other media," he said. "But it was a slow process. Almost dinosaurean. With blogging, I can develop ideas in a public way and connect with readers and with books I had written."

Eli Perencevich, a UI professor of internal medicine, said he wanted to learn from Zimmer how science journalists and the public want to interact with scientists.

"Maybe a thousand people read our blog or 200-plus people follow our Twitter, but he interacts with tens of thousands of people," he said. "I want to know how do they want to engage scientists and how they find research."

Zimmer explored the media migration of his article about Emerald Cockroach Wasps from his blog to pop-culture websites to the album of a Los Angeles glam-rock band to a guest spot in the video game Dead Rising.

Perencevich said he experienced a similar dissemination with the spread of his team's paper on warm weather contributing to hospital-acquired infections.

"None of these things happen if you just publish a paper and let it go," he said. "The key message for me is that scientists have to take science communication into their own hands. Given the tools we have, such as blogging and Twitter, we have a lot more opportunity now to do that easily and cost effectively. Now, we can't just stop with publishing."

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