Tuesday, 18 October 2016

I tweet therefore I am (an academic)

The new intake of undergrad and PhD students have arrived, and here at the University of Edinburgh they are being inducted, inspired, indentured, indoctrinated and undoubtedly intoxicated (they manage this last one all by themselves). One of their university training sessions was on using social media as an academic, and I was surprised to be asked to join the class to talk about my online "presence".

I'm certainly not any sort of social media guru - what on earth have I got to say about being online? I was a reluctant twitter user only a few years ago, wondering what the hell anyone could say in only 140 characters. However, it's true that I'm now a convert (some may even say addict), and I'm often proselytysing to fellow academics at conferences.

So in the aftermath of the worshop, I've been reflecting on the experiences the other demonstrators shared, and the questions the students asked us, and I've decided to offer up some tips for anyone who is considering starting using social media as part of their academic life. Hopefully some of it might be helpful? Most of this advice relates to twitter, as I find it the most useful platform, but most of it can be applied to other platforms.
If you have advice of your own, please comment, or better still: tweet me!

1. What do you want to acheive?

It's helpful to spend some time thinking about what you want to get out of using social media as an academic. Being active online doesn't interest everyone, nor does it suit everyone. However it can be a useful tool in several ways.
- Networking: social media can put you in touch with other academics, as well as publishers, the media, and the public. Don't underestimate the power of "getting to know" other people in the online environment. It makes going to conferences easier, as you know people's faces, and talking with strangers can be smoothed over if you've been reading their tweets and know a bit about what they're working on or where they've been recently. I've met loads of funny and interesting people via twitter who I'd never get the chance (or have the confidence) to speak to otherwise, including people working in palaeontology who come from my hometown.
- Market yourself: it sounds a bit callous to say you can use social media to market yourself, but there is some truth to it. Prospective employers can find you online, and if you have a track record of commenting on your subject area, and can show you are in touch with the zeitgeist, it could help your career. Academic collaborations are partly made because of subject area - which you can find out about online, but also through people's research publications - but it's also about personality. People may want to work with you based on getting to know you online, as inevitably our personality comes through in our social media usage. The flip-side is that if you behave badly online, this will also be visible, so think carefully about what you do and say. General rule: if you wouldn't say it in a room of fellow academics at a conference, don't blurt it out online.
- Popularising your subject: if you work in an area that isn't well known, is misunderstood, or perhaps is controversial, social media can be a great way to spread the word or tackle misconceptions. I've been doing this with my subject area (#MesozoicMammals). If you don't know what Mesozoic mammals are, then my job is not yet done!
- Transferable skills: people are always banging on about transferable skills, and being online gives you some. You have to learn brevity in writing (something many academics are woeful at acheiving) and how to not only distill research into the bare essentials, but also make it interesting to the public (if that's one of your goals) as well as fellow researchers. If you blog it improves your writing skills, and shows you are consistent and productive. If you are a young academic remember, you may not end up working as a researcher in the long term, so other skills gained in an online setting are useful in publicity and media, publishing and business. As a researcher, experience in public engagement and good communication skills are highly sought after.

2. Follow, follow, follow.

I first joined twitter on the encouragement of a lecturer. He was the first person I followed, and he immediately tweeted me the advice, "now you must follow, follow, follow!"
You might feel like you have nothing to say, or you aren't sure how to put together a post/tweet/message. By following other people, you get an idea of what works and what doesn't. Sure, this is all personal taste - what you like to read might not be what your best friend likes - but you can be sure that if you find a style of online content interesting, so do lots of other people. As an academic, if you're using twitter to reach other academics or members of the public with an interest in your subject, the chances are they'll have similar tastes to you.
So start by following people you know, and search for a few big names whose work interests you. You'll soon see what works (not everyone you follow will be good at twitter! See below). Look at their retweets and shares, who are they retweeting? If they sound interesting and tweet/post good stuff, follow them too!

3. Don't wade through the junk.

When I talk to people who've tried twitter, they often complain that they couldn't keep up with all of the posts, and so they gave it up altogether. The thing is, you aren't meant to read everything. Think of the online space as a room at a party. You can listen to people's conversations, join in where you like. You decide to leave the room. When you walk back into the room later on, you don't expect to find out what everyone said, word for word, the whole time you were away, do you? Twitter in particular is like that. As you follow more people you are less able to read everything that was posted since you last checked, but that's okay. Live in the moment! If someone said something really interesting several hours ago, you can bet it'll be retweeted soon enough anyway.

4. Pruning the tree (aka. not everyone is interesting).

Tree, hedge... you get the idea. (Source unknown)
At the risk of sounding bitchy, not everyone using social media is interesting. Far from it, there's a ton of boring, stupid, irrelevant crap content out there that you probably want to avoid wasting your time on. So I recommend regular pruning. If you see that the academic you followed is constantly posting pictures of their food, or doing nothing but ranting about stuff that doesn't interest you... stop following them. This mainly relates to twitter, which isn't like facebook. On twitter, unfollowing someone isn't a huge faux pas. I would caveat that by saying you should probably keep following your friends and closest academic collaborators, as they may take offence if you don't, but otherwise, get out those scissors and start snipping!
To create a useful online space as an academic, you have to tailor your feed to your interests. If you want to know what that researcher ate for lunch, then fine. I personally don't begrudge knowing about all the coffee my fellow academics drink, as I too enjoy that delicious caffeinated beverage. I also quite like to know what people's pets look like (I need a daily dose of floof). I also follow a couple of really stupid accounts on twitter purely because they brighten my day (@FacesPics for example), and I sprinkle in some politics and literature for variation. Think of it like the perfect cake, flavoured with all the stuff you like.
The result of judicious pruning and following will be a feed of posts/tweets you find relevant, interesting, inspiring and useful.

5. I don't know what to say.

From another good guide to twitter for academics
To begin with, don't worry about having something to say. Follow steps 1-4 and see what's going on out there - you don't have to launch yourself online and expect to be a source of instant wonder and astonishment to everyone who sees/reads you. When you feel ready, start setting yourself a minimum post target, maybe once or twice per week to begin with. This can increase as you get comfortable. Share things you find funny. Try commenting on the things you share; why are they interesting? What made you share it? Does it relate to your own work, or suggest future projects? This is especially good practice when it comes to new research papers and news reports. It shows you don't live in a vacuum, but know what's happening in the wider academic world, you understand it and have an opinion on it.
When it comes to original content, here are several suggestions things you can post about:
- Here's what I'm doing: post/tweet/write about your work and what you do each day. This ranges from hardcore lab work, to a photo of your unkempt desk complete with mouldy coffee mugs. I once wrote a blog every day for a week about what I was doing, and was delighted by the response. People like to know what you are up to. Check out #FieldWork #FieldWorkFail #RealScientists #LabWork and #LabWorkFail for inspiration.
- Oh my god this is cool: if you've read/seen something amazing, tell people about it! I did this recently when I read an especially inspiring paper. If you find it amazing, other people will too.
- Bloggers anonymous: if you blog, share your latest post. Don't be shy. No one will know it's there if you don't share it, and that somewhat defeats the point...
- Facts: bare facts are great for social media, especially twitter. What are the fun or amazing facts in your academic area? (Obviously make sure you are correct when you do this, or as correct as you can be, new research permitting.) These work especially well with a really good picture/image to illustrate it, especially if it's amusing.
- Academic irrelevancy: no I don't mean that academics are irrelavant, but that just because you are an academic using social media, doesn't mean everything you say has to be hewn from rock hard intellectualism. Despite what I said earlier about people posting pictures of their lunch, some irrelevant, stupid every day stuff shows you are human too.
- Jump on some bandwagons: if there is a cool hashtag or trend happening, join in! One of my favourites was #AddLaserToPaleoart, but they range from the serious (#WomenInSTEM) to the satirical (#DistractinglySexy). People find you and follow you this way, and again, it keeps you up to date with the online conversation and mood.
- Live Tweeting: if you are at a conference you can also tweet about it, using the hashtag associated with it (and these days every conference has a hashtag).  You can either share a great quote, or your opinion on the talk - though it's better to be positive or constructive about this. Also, take care not to tweet anything the speaker might not want shared publically. If in doubt, leave it out.
- Use pictures: people are visual, add a good pic where you can - but make sure you credit the source where necessary!

6. Haters gonna hate

Trolling is a problem, I'm not going to lie to you. Depending on your subject and visibility, it may effect you to a lesser or greater extent. We are all (humankind that is) still trying to figure out the best ways to deal with people who have nothing better to do with their lives than leave nasty comments on blogs, or attack people via twitter.
My advice is two-fold:
1). Keep a piece of yourself private. As in "real life", don't overshare. Make a space for yourself online that is non-professional. Many people use facebook for their private lives and twitter for their public, and this works well. Make sure your privacy settings are right for you. This then becomes your safe space online.
2). Ignore more than you reply. Not everyone will agree with me, but personally I think you should err on the side of outright ignoring people if they are weird, nasty or innapropriate, and only reply in very few, select circumstances. Mostly, trolls are just looking for a response from you, so saying anything at all just fuels the fire. Sometimes of course, a sharp retort is needed. Wierdly, James Blunt is especially famous for his stinging retorts. That's army training for you. If you aren't this good at comebacks, don't bother. Getting into online brawls can make you look stupid at best, aggressive and unpleasent at worst. Just have a stiff drink, complain to your friends, and get on with being you.

There's probably a lot more I could twitter on about (groan), but those are the main things to get started. I hope that by being a social media savvy academic you'll find the same great network of inspiring and exciting people I have, and be able to reach out to them and the wider world with your work, your daily grind, your highs, lows, and of course, your lunch.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A world without mass extinction?

How would life evolve on a planet with few, or no mass extinctions? This is a question posed recently during my lab group's discussion on the role of mass extinctions on the evolution of life on Earth. While the group’s topic moved on, I found myself chewing over this idea. It’s a delicious thought experiment.
We’ve all heard of the term Goldilocks planet: referring to a planet that is not too close nor too far from the sun, but “just right” for life to evolve and thrive. With increasing computation and more powerful equipment, astronomers are searching the skies for signs of other inhabitable worlds. Such worlds are announced by excitable journalists every few months or so; for example the European Southern Observatory found the nearest one in August. NASA has a series of Kepler worlds, illustrated with beautiful concept art on their website.

NASA is searching
What I didn’t know is that there are not only Goldilocks zones around individual stars, but within each star cluster, and within the galaxy itself. Astrobiologists don’t look too near the centre of the galaxy, nor at the edge. They look for planets neither too big nor too small, somewhere not too hot nor too cold. Life develops within a narrow, balanced band on habitability.

On our planet earth, there have been five major mass extinctions, and multiple smaller ones. The causes range from the infamous striking asteroids of doom, to massive gut-spillings of lava from the earth’s interior (which belch monumental volumes of greenhouse gas), sea level changes and mountain building - both of which can so radically alter the atmospheric composition and ocean currents that huge swathes of the planet are changed. Each of these events can lead to extinctions on a massive scale, often with knock-on effects that cause ecosystem collapse or re-arrangement on timescales from many thousands to millions of years.

This image was just so over the top, I couldn't resist it. (Source)
Most extinctions are not caused by external forces (asteroid strikes), but are the result of earth movements. And yet without plate-tectonics, life wouldn’t get very far. First off, the movement of earth’s molten core generates our planetary magnetic field, deflecting dastardly space particles and solar winds, preventing them messing up life’s precious DNA. Without the recycling of nutrients that results from plate-tectonic processes, could there be the complex webs we see on our own interconnected world? There would be a huge dearth of ecological niches. New forms usually emerge to exploit new niches, or those left vacant by others.

So let’s say we have a Goldilocks planet in a Goldilocks zone, in a Goldilocks galaxy, but this one – unlike earth – is never hit by asteroids, nor does it have plate-tectonics. The main causes of mass extinction are absent. What path would life take?

So this brings us to mass extinction again. What role does it play in evolution? Undoubtedly extinction opens up space that is eventually refilled, either by similar organisms, or those that evolve novel ways to exploit that niche. A good example are the marine reptiles of the Mesozoic, which rapidly moved into the oceanic space left vacant after the disastrous end-Permian mass extinction. And when the marine reptiles bit the dust after a the K-Pg extinction… well along came the whales and dolphins. Life has a tendency to converge. If a niche was worth its salt, some critter is going to come along and exploit it.

So the question remains: would life be so diverse if there were no mass extinctions?

Sepkoski’s famous diversity curve seems to show that life has consistently been slammed by extinction, only to diversify to levels still even greater than before in each aftermath. While the tricks played by a patchy rock record mustn’t be overlooked, it appears to be the case that life is more diverse now than ever before. Did extinctions cause this, or would it have happened anyway?
Sepkoski curve, showing the big 5 extinctions, and the elusive Ediacaran/Cambrian changeover (marked as 0).
One of the earliest turnovers in life – and increases in complexity – is seen where the Ediacaran biota gives way to the Cambrian. There has long been a search for a mass extinction to explain this. Did something wipe out most of the soft-bodied microbial mat dwellers, paving the way for Cambrian settlers? Or was the Cambrian “revolution” a takeover by organisms that had hit on more “winning designs*”? The jury is out. But if there was no great calamity responsible for the emergence of Cambrian life, it could support the idea that organisms would inevitably become more complex, rather than it being the result of plate-tectonic – or cosmic – intervention.
The Ediacaran: the age of doormats. (Source)
 Like many people, I think basic life probably springs up all over the galaxy, where the conditions are right. As for it evolving into more complex forms… This is a trickier question, one I cannot answer.
The role of plate-tectonics is, on the other hand, almost indisputable. A planet with no mass extinctions is probably oxymoronic: life is unlikely to exist without plate-tectonics, and most mass extinctions are caused by earth processes that result from plate-tectonics, therefore a planet with life, is naturally a planet with mass extinctions.

Perhaps the mythical planet without extinction would consist of little more than a billion year microbial soup (I think I ate that once while travelling). But then again, life may just... find a way.

*I use design in the colloquial sense. Of course nothing is designed in the natural world, it is selected for, based on advantage.