Real Scientists 2016/03/20-26

I curated the @realscientists twitter account last week and it was a fun, intense, and more vulnerable experience than I would have thought.

I took over the account on Sunday morning and had a general idea of topics I wanted to do, though I ended up not fully sticking to the plan during the week. I knew I wanted to talk about mental health in academia, plant biology, talk about my life as a scientist and some of what my career ambitions are, a little bit about diversity, GMOs, and science communication.

This was pushing my comfort zone. Curating someone else’s account for a week– with 31,000 followers. The account presents real scientists and what they do, how we live, how we work. Despite 16 years in science, I don’t often feel like I am a real scientist. A frustrated one. One with not a ton of success. One that wants to step away from the lab bench into a editing/communications role, and one that has come back from some mentally dark places.

I wanted to curate well. I almost wanted to “win” realscientitsts…though mostly I just didn’t want to screw up. I didn’t want to anger the admins or the followers (which I did in one case- I apologized, but still feel a bit bad about it).

I had no idea my first day I’d end up starting my first ever trending hashtag: #AcademicSelfCare.

I storified it in two parts here (there may be some redundancy):

#AcademicSelfCare part 1

#AcademicSelfCare part 2

#AcademicSelfCare part 3

People shared all sorts of things, including Michael Eisen who just said: “Twitter. #AcademicSelfCare”. I can’t disagree after the outpouring I saw– it is heartening to know that despite physical isolation from each other, we are not alone in our experiences. I know social media can be a double-edged sword, but I am happy to say I didn’t see anything abusive or rancorous during my entire week of curation. Everything was respectful. Especially when talking about self-care.

@PhDpositivity even gave a graphic design to one of my tweets from later in the week:

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It’s something I think is true– our own scientific training and habits can have negative effects on our mental health if we internalize them too deeply– true of a lot of things held too tightly.

People also shared links such as this list of resources for neurodiverse STEM workers.

And @kyra_schwarz shared this self-care cheatsheet that was popular:

SelfcareCheatSheetKyra_schwarz

A few people, but started by Jesse Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus) noted that all the self-care in the world may not be sufficient in light of a system that is harsh and unaccommodating (and seemingly increasingly so–affecting ever more of the STEM workforce). Self-care ideas can seem like lip service a lot of the time. It is good to see initiatives coming from institutions like the Royal Society (#AndAScientist) acknowledging that scientists are humans too and do need lives outside the lab, but at the same time, the Royal Society and other big institutions of science still define the world of science and there are definitely some bigger changes that could happen I think.

At the same time, I do think scientists sharing the fact that they do get down, that they have a hard time sometimes, that living with uncertainty is hard, that systemic inequities affect some scientists and they need coping mechanisms sometimes, does help in a small way at least. It builds a community of people with similar feelings. It acknowledges issues are widespread. That we are not alone (my rational brain knows that to be true. The emotional side fails to fully internalize that and I tend to feel isolated). It was impossible to feel alone on Twitter this last week with everyone sharing their self-care habits and routines, and how they think about their mental health and what helps. People responding were everyone from grad students to PIs. It was really heartening to see. I hope it helps someone that was just listening in on the discussion in some small way. And having all of this out in the open can help drive institutional change.

I know it can be hard to talk about mental health. We fear for our careers, fear it makes us seem weak (which it isn’t). But being vulnerable can really drive change. No one *has* to open up– that’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves. My story is enough in the past that I’m comfortable sharing pretty widely. When I first started to open up, it was a very small audience of people I felt close to. And it widened from there.

Another thing that came up when discussion #scicomm on Friday was just how important education, science communication, and other efforts to talk science outside (and probably even within) disciplines matters for doing actual science. These aren’t frivolous activities to scientists that do them. They are integral to their joy of science and of being a good scientist. It echoed the self-care discussion. I know blogging has helped me reignite my love of science– and for me, I like writing about other’s research rather than my own.

People also shared their #FavePlants too, which was fun to see a diversity of plants shared. Some of the stories were really personal, like planting trees when kids were born. Another resonant them on Saturday when talking about networking via internet were a number of meeting significant others, but also many, many career stories too.

@paleoblais also started #pancakerule. For things you screw up the first time but then get better at. Even if you are an experienced scientist, you do new things all the time.

That was my week and a few reflections curating realscientists. I am grateful for the experience even if it was intense and really pushed me into some new territory. I want to thank everyone that followed along with me too. Thanks for a good week,

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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