Twitter for scientists… is it worth it?

Way back in 2012 I set up a twitter account and I used it just like I did facebook: to follow friends, discuss what was on TV and talk about celebrities. It quickly lost its charm. When I started my PhD in 2013, I started posting about the stresses of PhDs, interesting science facts and promoting conferences. My followers didn’t interact, there was nobody to relate with and so I made the decision to make a new ‘professional’ account. Fast forward 7 years and I no longer have my previous twitter account, and despite the majority of my posts focusing on some aspect of science or academia, it is also a reflection of me as an individual. I post about snow… because I love snow! I post about science-themed crafts… because I like to do crafts with a nerdy science theme. But now, when I post about deadline stress and unsuccessful grants, I have interactions with other scientists, which picks me up and gives me the opportunity to talk with people who really get what I am saying. But was it worth the effort, and how did I build up the kind of followers/following that I wanted?

Figure credit: Chris J David on unsplash.com

Find interesting people to follow:
Maybe you know a few scientists who you admire or work with, who have twitter. Give them a follow and then go and look at their profile. Who do they interact with? Any names that you recognise? Then give them a follow too!
It may seem creepy or strange to begin with, when you follow people who you don’t know in person, but that’s the beauty of twitter. It allows you to interact with a scientist, without having to stand awkwardly next to them at a conference until they notice you.
A good way to find scientists in your field is to follow union/society/institution profiles (e.g EGU_CR). They will likely have a lot of followers or interactions. They are more likely to post regularly and something that is relevant for you.
Another great aspect of twitter is a hashtag, these look like this #HashtagExample. Find a hashtag that is interesting to you e.g #FieldworkFriday and see who is tweeting about this. Celebrations and events such as Antarctica Day, International Women and Girls in Science, LQBTQ Stem Week, Black History Month and others, are a great way to find like-minded people. There is usually a hive of activity on these days and with hashtags that you can track. I often have waves of new people that I follow on these days… and it is great!

How to increase your followers:
Everyone wants to know they are not shouting into the abyss when they post something. But how do you increase your followers? Three main ways: follow others, edit your bio and actively tweet. If you are following your everyday scientists (not the semi famous or actual famous kind), then chances are, most of them will follow you back. People are more likely to follow you back, if you have information in your bio. This can say whatever you like, it is a reflection of you! Lots of people make it clear that they are scientists, and even describe their field, so that others know they are not a bot… or a climate change denier! This is what mine says:

It describes the aspects of my career that I like to highlight (scientist, researcher, communicator, atmospheric modeller, ECS rep), and parts of my life outside of my job (tweeter, knitter, netballer, gin drinker). Some people have funny sayings or clever puns, others keep it simple and just say what they research and where they do it.
The third way to increase followers: tweet. It sounds obvious, but people are interested in discussion and interaction. If it looks like you’ve had twitter for years but never tweeted, perhaps people will be less likely to follow you. But the first few tweets can be nerve-wracking. Nobody wants the horror of reliving their first facebook posts (so bored… what’s everyone doing?) all over again.

Get started! Your first tweet:
Introduce yourself. Since I first had twitter, they’ve extended the character limit, so you can say a decent amount about yourself now. Here are a few options, please feel free to use them!
‘Hi, I’m XX, an atmospheric PhD student at the University of Science in Poland. My research focuses on transport of dust to glaciers. Outside of science, I love to play darts, bake cakes and water my plants.’
‘Hello twittersphere… I’m new here but really excited to interact with other scientists and cyclists. Can anyone recommend some fun accounts to follow? I’ve recently moved to YY city, so any local cycle routes would also be ideal!’
‘First tweet and first day at my new role as science communicator at XX institute… not sure which is scarier. Will be great to interact with other #scicomm people out there. Give us a shout!’

And now what?
You’ve sent your first tweet, phew! Now the easy job, just be yourself. If you want to post about your cool new results, then do it. Maybe you want to rant because you’ve spent weeks running an experiment only to find out it failed after an hour. Maybe you want to highlight the deadline of an interesting conference. Do it! Write whatever you are comfortable with. Lots of scientists and science communicators write about their struggles with academia, finding a job, mental health and other things. But if this feels daunting to you, then write about your successes, failures, science, non-science. If you only want to write about science and academia, that’s fine. Maybe your passion is climbing or baking or drawing, so tweet about that. Twitter is a world of likeminded people, who are genuinely interested in hearing about your dog, new science, fieldwork fails or the weather.

Any downsides?
Sure, you’ve heard about celebrities being bullied on twitter and you’re worried it might happen to you? I personally have had a very positive experience with twitter. But that’s likely related to the fact that I am a white, straight, cis female, with comparatively few followers and no controversial opinions (or at least I don’t air them on twitter… it’s nobody else’s business that I like pineapple on a pizza). I’ve blocked a few people who told me I was a liar for discussing climate change (if you have the energy to debate and try to change their mind, go ahead, but its 2021 and we’ve known about climate change for 50+ years now… I don’t have the energy). Block, mute and unfollow anyone you want. Keep twitter as your safe space.
The biggest issue I have is procrastination. I can spend hours scrolling through twitter, especially when I have a deadline looming. Sometimes it feels like work, because I find an awesome paper to read, or I network with people who become collaborators. Switch of notifications or limit your screen time to help this!

End on a high:
Twitter has been a world of wonder for me. I have ‘met’ a whole bunch of cool scientists that I would never have known about. My world has been widened too: I follow lots of scientists of colour and those who are in the LGBTQIA+ community, which has highlighted topics and issues that I didn’t know about. I have found cool groups to join (sci-comm crafting is a dream) and become friends with people that I didn’t know before. I follow archaeologists, space scientists, microbiologists and more! It has been a useful tool for teaching and finding unions or societies. It also shows that you are not alone. There will definitely be someone else on twitter who is interested in your quirky, nerdy pastimes, or who will be there to talk if you need it. Give it a go!

2020: Our most extreme year yet?

In September 2019, I wrote a blog for the EGU Cryosphere blog series which focused on the extreme weather events in summer 2019. I spoke of wildfires in the Arctic, extreme melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and melting sea ice (I am sure many can remember the picture of dogs pulling a sledge across bright blue water instead of white ice). When I wrote that piece, I assumed that I wouldn’t be writing about extreme seasons for a few more years. After all, the nature of extremes is that they don’t occur all of the time. Oh how wrong I was. Enter stage left: 2020.

The year 2020 will be remembered by most as the year that the coronavirus took hold and we spent most of our time indoors and separated from loved ones. But this blog post will focus on the extreme weather conditions which happened alongside COVID-19. From January 1st 2020 to December 31st 2020, many extreme or wild weather events took place. Here is a look back at just some of them.

The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season

On an average year, the Atlantic ocean sees approximately 12 named storms (once storms become sufficiently strong or large, they are named and listed) and 6 hurricanes, of which 3 are considered ‘major’. The 2020 hurricane season recorded 30 storms (they even had to switch from the English to Greek alphabets, as they were running out of names), 13 hurricanes and 7 major hurricanes.

Photo Credit: NASA at unsplash.com

Many of the hurricanes made landfall in Central and Northern America, causing widespread flooding, intense rainfall and wind damage. Over 400 people died in the 2020 hurricane season and almost every hurricane caused losses of over a billion dollars (disasterphilanthorpy.org).

Research is ongoing to identify how climate change has and will impact hurricanes. Warmer oceans will likely cause an increase in the intensity (Mudd et al. 2014) and frequency of strong hurricanes (Holland and Bruyère, 2013) whilst increased water capacity of the atmosphere (a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture according to the Clausius-Clapeyron theory) will cause more rainfall during hurricanes (Keelings and Hernández Ayala, 2019). Furthermore, higher sea levels will likely cause more coastal flooding associated with the tidal surge of hurricanes (Lin et al. 2012).

Wildfires across the globe

2020 started as it meant to go on, with wildfires ravaging Australia. Throughout the austral summer of 2019-2020 (December to February), wildfires spread quickly throughout many states, especially in the south. Whilst wildfires are a natural occurrence, they have been larger and more frequent in recent years, both in Australia and beyond. In Australia specifically, three years of drought, including three very dry winters (King et al. 2019) led to the fast spread of fires. There were many disturbing images in the media in early 2020, of firefighters trapped in trucks and communities fleeing to the beach and ocean to escape the fires.

Photo credit: Malachi Brooks at unsplash.com

Humans were not the only species affected by the wildfires however. Koala bears in Australia and migrating birds over the west coast of North America suffered injury and death due to the fires. Further north, wildfires burned through large parts of the Arctic. That’s right… the Arctic was on fire again and earlier than ever before. Starting in May (July is the usual start of the wildfire season at this location), parts of Siberia set alight (Witzer, 2020). Fires also burned further north than before and in regions previously ice covered. The additional issue with wildfires in the Arctic is the burning of peat. Unlike in mid-latitudes, where forest fires are common, peat burning in the Arctic does not grow back, meaning the carbon is permanently lost (Witzer, 2020).

Sea ice; second lowest on record

It seems like every year we are breaking or nearing records for sea ice loss. On September 15th 2020, sea ice extent reached the second lowest on record (after 2012) (NASA, 2020). The high melt season started early after a Siberian heat wave in spring prompted early melt onset. Increasing sea ice melt, year after year, means now even thicker ice floes are disappearing, and there is very little multi-year sea ice left. The ice is therefore shrinking in area and thickness.

Photo credit: Tapio Haaja

Drought and heatwaves

Even in areas without wildfires, droughts are becoming more frequent. In Zimbabwe, groundwater is becoming rapidly scarce thanks to year after year without adequate rainfall, and drought conditions since 2018. Across many parts of Africa, droughts are becoming more frequent and intense (EOS, 2018). Rainfall in Zimbabwe is set to decline due to climate change by 5-18% by 2100 (EOS, 2020), so drought conditions are unlikely to let up. Over 38% of Zimbabwe’s population rely on groundwater, including farmers, which means many people are affected by droughts which have occurred regularly since 1992 (EOS, 2020).

Drought in Southeast Asia in spring 2020 led to the first billion-dollar drought on Earth. Meanwhile, April heat records were smashed in Kyrgyzstan (35.1°C), China (43.5°C) and Mongolia (36.0°C), with temperatures more like July values (wunderground, 2020). North Korea and Japan also observed new heat records in May, with many places recording temperatures above 40°C! In summer, Thailand declared a state of emergency due to salt water intruding into fresh water aquifers due to the lack of precipitation (wunderground, 2020).

Photo credit: Yoda Adaman at unsplash.com

Looking forward to 2021

So looking forward to 2021, will this year be as extreme? Extreme conditions are hard to predict, but there are some indications that the hurricane season will be above average, and wildfires are expected across large parts of the midwest of USA. Unless drastic reductions to our greenhouse gas emissions happen over the next decade, we should expect to see more extreme conditions in the future.

Moving abroad for a postdoc

In August 2017 I moved to Nürnberg, Germany for my first postdoc position. In August 2020, I stayed at the same institute for my second postdoc. So now I feel like a Nürnberg local (apart from my terrible Frankonian accent), but it didn’t always feel like home and it definitely wasn’t easy. A few PhD students have asked me what it was like to move abroad and what advice I could give to others moving. So I thought I’d share some thoughts. Disclaimer: I can only give info about Germany, specifically Nürnberg, but I am sure some things are applicable to other places.

Germans are like coconuts: they have a hard shell but once you crack them, they’re soft and sweet.

‘Understanding the Germans workshop run by the Welcome Centre at FAU’

My first few days in the office were quite shocking. I’d spent my PhD in an old building, 10:30am and 3pm coffee breaks and a cohort of 30+ students. In FAU, my office was brand new, big and a little sterile looking. There were no regular coffee breaks and generally a lot less chit chat in the office. I started at the same time as a Canadian colleague and friend Carolyne. She’d also had a similar PhD experience, so we stuck together to learn the ropes of German academia and life.

One of the bigger differences between my PhD friends in the UK and those in Germany, is that Germans tend to start their PhDs a little later in life. Many are married with children, or living with partners, which makes spontaneous trips to the pub quite difficult. Two weeks notice and starting at 4pm is more the norm. Also, many of them are from the immediate region and have grown up nearby. They already have many friends and social activities to attend. Whereas I moved there without knowing anyone, so wanted to make friends at work. Making friends as an adult is hard! So, me and Carolyne set up a social committee and we organise monthly ‘after work drinks’ at the institute. After a few social events, there was a transition from colleagues to friends and I felt quite a lot happier!

Part of the parcel of being a postdoc on short term contracts is that you carry academic baggage with you. I finished my PhD thesis corrections on August 4th 2017 and moved to Nürnberg on August 28th 2017. Funnily enough, during that time, I didn’t finish writing up my PhD papers. So when I started my job, I still had to work on my previous papers and reviews. Whilst I did most of the work on evenings and weekends (the negative of academia is the lack of work-life balance), my boss was very understanding and allowed me to work on my projects during the work day too. This isn’t the same story that I have heard from some friends. Perhaps ask in your interview what your future boss’s opinion is on this. My second PhD paper was published in 2018 and the third in 2020 (three years after I finished), so it was quite a long process, but I’m very glad to have them done.

Experiencing the culture of a new place is my favourite part of living somewhere new. Nürnberg is in Bavaria and is a very typical, cute German city. It has four clear seasons (although it doesn’t snow much, sadly), excellent tasting sausages, great beer and lots of festivals. I enjoy living here, and even enjoy learning a new language. I have lessons at the university during semester time, approximately 3-4 hours a week. If I was to move to another country (with a different language), then I would try and take an intensive course first. It was only after 3 years that I felt confident talking German.

Nürnberg is fairly centrally located in Europe. I can get to Prague by bus in 3 hours, Berlin by train in 3.5 hours and Amsterdam by train in 8 hours. Nürnberg also has an airport, which did have direct flights to the UK when I first moved here, which was handy for the long-distance relationship. But since the end of that, I prefer to travel by train, to reduce my carbon footprint and stress levels! In just 10 hours, door to door, I can get the train to Birmingham (my home town) via Brussels and London with Eurostar. I’ve also driven round Tirol in Austria and visited many European cities including Hamburg, Copenhagen and Vienna. Before the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to travel, I had planned to extend my travel to Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. Maybe next year!

So why did I stay for a second postdoc? I was lucky enough to work on a big group project, which also secured funding for a second phase, which afforded me another 2 years of money to continue my research. I also enjoy my project and have many ideas that I would still like to complete. I like my working group, have friends, know my way around the city and want to stay in academia for a while longer. I think after this project though, I will move onto pastures new. I get itchy feet after living in a place for a few years and want to move on. I also think it’s academically important or beneficial to collaborate with new people and work with other research groups. Overall, I am enjoying my postdoc life, although it does occasionally feel a bit like doing another PhD!

My role as an ECS rep

In April 2019 I became the Early Career Scientist (ECS) representative for the cryosphere division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Phew! So many acronyms… what do I actually do?

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is the leading organisation or union of scientists in the Earth, planetary, space and geosciences fields in Europe. It is a non-profit organisation with over 20,000 members across its 22 science divisions. They foster scientific geoscience research and professional development and address key societal environmental challenges.

One such scientific division is the cryosphere, which covers all aspects of icy, snowy and cold science. I am the Early Career Scientists (ECS) representative for the division. Along with 21 other ECS reps (one for each science division), we are the voice of our members, to ensure that EGU caters for young scientists and develops programmes to promote networking and skill development. The reps ‘meet’ every two months to discuss issues and propose changes to EGU. Recently, such changes include: widening the definition of ECS to better represent the non-linear nature of a career in academia (e.g parental leave, disability and illness, national service or industry experience), suggestions of changes to awards to better reflect the diversity of scientists and implementing a jobs board to advertise new scientific jobs on offer. I have also personally been involved in working groups, targeting career development for ECS and improving wellbeing and mental health in academia.

I currently lead the working group for career development. We recently organised a webinar on non-academic careers. Four panelists from a range of science disciplines and now in a variety of non-academic roles, gave advice and tips on their experience in transitioning from research to non-research roles. Over 300 people attended the webinar live, and 725 people have streamed the content on EGU’s youtube channel since (as of October 2020). Further webinars are planned for 2021, as we continue to support ECS and their careers.

As part of the working group for wellbeing and mental health, we have spoken to a professional psychologist and are in the process of writing a blog with her to give advice on how to better handle the stresses of academia. We also organised a lunchtime yoga session at the 2020 general assembly. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, this session was cancelled.

Further activities that I have been a part of include: promoting the LGBTQ+ social events and twitter account launch, organising in-person and online social events and quizzes for ECS throughout the year, attending a leadership and strategy workshop, convening a ‘great debate’ with over 400 attendees on the topic of cutting carbon emissions in the geosciences. I also discuss and vote on the awardee of the division ECS outstanding scientist award.

I feel very lucky to be part of an active and fun cryosphere ECS team. As part of the team, we have two chief editors of the weekly blog, social media managers, outreach officers and many many blog authors and editors. As a group, we organise short courses at the general assembly. Previously, these have included: how to find funding and write a research grant, blogging for beginners, polar sciences career panel and meet the EGU editors. We have regularly been awarded the best EGU blog and have lots of traffic to our weekly posts. We are also very active on twitter, where we highlight interesting science papers, promote our blog posts, post job adverts and interact with the wider cryosphere community. I think the warmest of people study the coldest of places.