As an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and director of infection control at its treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Dr. Steve Pergam likes to know what potentially deadly viruses may be lurking just a plane ride away. Today he has a new tool for tracking that information in real time from multiple sources around the world, including people on the ground:
“I know about outbreaks almost every day because of Twitter,” he said. “Nothing else is as fast.”
Pergam is one of a growing number of scientists who has come to learn that there’s more to the social media site than cat (or Kardashian) videos. In addition to perusing the site for early hints of outbreaks and epidemics, he tweets (as @PergamIC) reminders to get flu and other vaccinations, retweets health and medical news stories, participates in Tweetchats, broadcasts fellowship and job openings, reports on and reacts to conference presentations, and shares his own and his colleagues’ academic papers.
Rather than leaving science to those who have the time, money and training to wade through jargon-rich scientific journals, he aims to deliver information as broadly and as quickly as possible.
“We need to transmit science,” he said, “the way we do respiratory viruses.”
Just how many scientists have taken to Twitter since the online networking service was founded in 2006 is hard to quantify. As part of a larger look at how scientists engage the public, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that 27 percent of the 3,748 members of the American Association of Science (@aaas) who responded to a survey said they used social media such as Twitter or Facebook to talk about or follow science either often or occasionally. It was the first time Pew had asked scientists about using social media.
A year earlier, the journal Nature emailed thousands of researchers to ask how they use social networks, and received more than 3,500 responses from 95 different countries. About 13 percent of those who responded said they visited Twitter regularly to follow discussions on research-related issues and “to comment on research that is relevant to my field.”
At the most recent ASH — American Society of Hematology — conference in December, more than 450 scientists in attendance live-tweeted the meeting.
“Younger scientists get it,” Pergam said. “They’re interested in building networks. Students get excited about interacting with faculty all over the world.”
More established scientists can be another story. Pergam hears: “Who cares? Why is this important? I don’t have time as it is for my writing. Who cares?”
He has an answer for that.
“A small-town doctor or someone in Africa needs access to information,” he said. “And the more things get tweeted and talked about, the more people understand it.”
Access. Information. Empowerment.
“Always get good info from oncs on Twitter,” she said — or rather, tweeted — in response to a question about why it matters whether scientists tweet. “Tweetchats are very helpful. I always learn something, and also feel more empowered.”
Gralow first began tweeting about four years ago when she was asked to take part in a tweet chat — an online discussion using Twitter that is open to anyone with a Twitter account — hosted by an online breast cancer community identified by the hashtag #bcsm, for breast cancer social media. (Other types of cancer use hashtags as well for online networking and discussion.)
Like Pergam, Gralow is a minority among her peers. But the numbers are growing. She points out that the American Society of Clinical Oncology (@ASCO) now sponsors a “Tweetup” at its annual conference for physician-scientists Twitterati to meet up in person, and that SWOG (@SWOG), a nationwide cancer clinical trial consortium, has a social media working group and a recently named digital engagement executive whom Gralow had introduced to Twitter.
In addition to taking part in Tweetchats and live-reporting from conferences, Gralow is a prolific retweeter, sharing articles on breast cancer from the general media and the academic press, often posted in the wee hours of the morning. (Scientists don’t appear to sleep.) Like Pergam and other physician-scientists, Gralow views Twitter as a multi-way street, allowing patients to learn from physicians (and each other), but also giving physicians and researchers insights into the experience of having cancer.
“Twitter is where it’s at,” she tweeted in response to a question about why scientists use the social networking tool.
Like many scientists, Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Trevor Bedford had at first dismissed Twitter as a place where people posted what they had for lunch. He credits a colleague, computational biologist Dr. Erick Matsen (@ematsen) with showing him that it can be used to talk about science.
Bedford (@trvrb) now tweets, he estimates, about once every other day, often about papers in his field that catch his eye. He relishes the challenge of meeting Twitter’s space limit.
“I try to see if I can summarize a paper in 140 characters,” he said. “That’s been kind of a nice thing.”
One of his favorite Twitter interactions occurred when a University of Michigan journal club — kind of a book club for scientists, only they dissect academic papers instead of novels — reached out to him with a question about a paper he’d written. He wound up taking part in a live Twitter discussion.
Twitter, he said, has the advantage of lowering barriers to access but not in a way that drains too much time. “People will ask quick questions, and you can throw off a response really quickly and not really worry about it,” he said.
He throws out quick questions himself, most recently trying to nail down solid information on the number of Zika cases reported. Bedford and his longtime collaborator, German physicist and computational biologist Dr. Richard Neher (@richardneher), are using genetic sequences to draw up a phylogenetic tree, or genetic history, for the Zika virus, just as they did for the Ebola virus and have long done for influenza.
Real-time tracking of genetic mutations during disease outbreaks helps scientists discern what makes viruses so severe and inform public health efforts to contain them. Being able to do so depends on researchers openly sharing data, something that not all scientists embrace in a world of competition to publish in prestigious journals and stake claims to discoveries. Researchers who use Twitter tend to believe, as Bedford does, that sharing preliminary information quickly speeds discoveries and is therefore good for both science and society.
“Pretty much everyone on Twitter is into open science,” said Bedford.
Dr. Kathy Barker (@scienceactivist), the author of “At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator” and a former assistant professor in cell physiology and immunology at Rockefeller University, summed up the reasons for scientists to be out there on Twitter at a recent meeting of the Seattle chapter of the Association of Women in Science (@SeattleAWIS). The collaboration possibilities are “amazing,” she said. The access to information is “stunning.” And Twitter’s 140-character limit is “a useful exercise in describing science concisely.”
“If you’re an expert in your topic, nobody else is talking about it as well as you could,” she said “And if you’re not talking about it, it’s not getting out there.”
“Social Media 101,” ASCO’s resources for cancer care providers, patients and patient advocates.
“Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach,” published in PLOS Computational Science.
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.