CAREER COLUMN

How we use Instagram to communicate microbiology to the public

Social media is a powerful tool for science communication. Instagram’s image-focused model is no exception, say Hunter Hines and Sally Warring.
Hunter Hines is @microbialecology, and a PhD candidate in microbial ecology at Bournemouth University, UK.

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Sally Warring is @pondlife_pondlife, and a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where she studies the genomics of single-cell eukaryotes.

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Hunter Hines (left) with Dr. Pondlife

Hunter Hines (left) and Sally Warring (right) sample microbes at a microbiology conference in Vancouver, Canada.Credit: Hunter N. Hines @microbialecology

While in graduate school, we both created Instagram accounts to share photos and video clips of microorganisms that we encountered through our research.

We started using Instagram because we both felt a deep sense of wonder when viewing microbial organisms through the microscope, and thought this was something that could be shared. As PhD candidates in microbiology laboratories, we were viewing microbes daily. When looking for an online platform for sharing this content, Instagram ticked a lot of boxes.

Instagram is an image-based social-media platform on which users share photographs and short videos (of up to one minute) with optional written captions, and interact with other users by liking and commenting on the content they share. Although several social-media platforms exist for the sharing of visual information, Instagram is the simplest to use: you don’t need any video- or photo-editing skills beyond the application, for example, which makes it straightforward to post videos and photos directly from your phone to the platform.

Instagram is also a thriving community. Since its launch in 2010, user numbers have steadily grown, hitting 1 billion in 2018 and making news along the way, including when 50 million people — equal to the population of Spain — ‘liked’ a picture of an egg. Along with its expansion has come the popularization of the selfie. Many accounts are dedicated to lifestyle and beauty content. A growing body of scientists is there, too, sharing imagery from the lab, field, microscope, data figures and selfies in interesting and informative ways.

Hunter Hines sampling microbial mats in a freshwater spring

Hunter Hines samples microbial mats for organisms such as tardigrades and small ciliates in a freshwater spring.Credit: Hunter N. Hines @microbialecology

Instagram’s algorithm can work like a positive-feedback loop. You post an image or video that is seen by some of your followers, and Instagram will monitor how many of those viewers engage with your post by liking or commenting. The more engagement the post gets, the more people Instagram will show it to, either by bumping it to the top of followers’ feeds, or by adding it to a curated collection of posts in Instagram’s ‘Explore’ section, which is seen by followers and non-followers alike. We’ve found that regular posting — once daily or every other day — keeps your audience engaged, which encourages more viewers. Posts can be organized into categories by adding up to 30 hashtags covering topics as broad as #biology, or as specific as #loxodesrex, which helps interested users to find your images in a sea of content.

We’ve found that predicting what will go ‘viral’ is nearly impossible (the tardigrade or ‘water bear’, however, is an invariably popular subject), and instead recommend posting a wide range of content within your niche, and experimenting with different visuals and captions. These approaches have taught us what draws the most interest. To generate new content, we often find ourselves expanding the diversity of organisms we examine far beyond the scope of our projects, which in turn increases our understanding of microbial ecology.

Constructing the captions that accompany each post and keeping track of their impact has given us experience in how to communicate microbiology with a tone that is understandable and relaxed, yet informative. A brief text explainer of the image and its significance is sufficient. The goal is to stimulate interest and conversation, rather than to be conclusive. Followers will soon ask you questions if they want to know more. We’ve found that questions can lead to exchanges about the basic biology of a cell, the nature of consciousness and intelligent life and the role of climate change and pollution in shaping ecosystems. The more you engage with your followers, the more you’ll get back.

Microscopic life

Clockwise from top left: a ‘green sun animacule’, likely in the genus Acanthocystis (viewed at 400x under phase-contrast microscopy); a tough tardigrade ‘water bear’, collected from a spring in Florida, that has ingested microbial food (phase-contrast microscopy at 200x); a tardigrade moulting eggs into its shed cuticle; and a ciliate contorted into a heart after feeding on various filamentous algae and cyanobacteria (200x under differential interference contrast microscopy).Credit: Hunter N. Hines @microbialecology

These accounts also provide connections outside the lab, and expose us to increasingly diverse communities. Our activities on Instagram have led to ongoing collaborations with artists, film-makers, industry professionals, community groups, start-ups and non-profit organizations from all over the world. S.W.’s account, @pondlife_pondlife, for example, is currently exhibiting images of microbial life at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and works with several educational organizations throughout New York City, running workshops on microscopy. Combined, @pondlife_pondlife and H.H.’s account, @microbialecology, have more 100,000 followers from all around the world, and we continually receive positive messages from people who have never had access to a microscope and are fascinated by what they are seeing in our posts.

Our time on Instagram has left us thinking that there is much public interest in the daily workings of science, and that many researchers could find a following for their work, from audiences with specialist-level interest to those with no familiarity with science. Instagram can be seen as a microphone for amplifying newly published research and current projects in real time to a much wider audience than conventional scientific publishing can manage.

We hope that we are also showing microbes and microbiology in a positive light for the general audience, and are increasing public awareness of microorganisms as part of Earth’s biodiversity.

As scientists, we produce a tonne of visual data in many different forms. If you’re looking for a way to share yours with a wide audience, Instagram is a fantastic place to do it. We find the community on Instagram to be engaged and engaging, and we see the platform as an ideal tool for scientists to share information freely on a potentially unlimited array of subjects.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00493-3

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com

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