CAREER COLUMN

How an online community can support your career — and change things for the better

Aliyah Weinstein explains how engaging with other researchers outside of academic spaces is beneficial to scientists’ career development.
Aliyah Weinstein is an immunologist currently working in scientific marketing and communications in the non-profit sector in Boston, Massachusetts. You can find Aliyah on her website (https://aliyahweinstein.com/) and on Twitter (@desabsurdites).

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In September 2015, I discovered Letters to a Pre-Scientist, a science-education non-profit organization that matches middle-school students from high-poverty communities in the United States with scientists around the world as pen pals. The programme is led by science teachers, and every student in their classes participates. Statistically speaking, these students are not likely to encounter scientists living or working in their communities. Students will clearly not aspire to careers they do not know exist and so are missing out on the opportunity to have a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) profession.

Growing up, I had no idea what the job of a scientist entailed despite having had a strong science education. I didn’t begin to learn this until the end of my undergraduate degree, so Letters to a Pre-Scientist seemed like the perfect programme for me. I first joined as a pen pal and corresponded with a middle-schooler from Florida. It was fulfilling to see my pen pal discover how physics applied to basketball, which she loved, despite her professed dislike of science. She told me that she was practising free throws, and I explained how the basketball’s path through the air is based on principles of gravity and force.

In September 2016, Letters to a Pre-Scientist was looking for a volunteer social-media coordinator. I applied, got the job and began managing the programme’s social-media accounts; my goal in this role was to develop a platform where scientists could learn more about the mission of Letters to a Pre-Scientist and interact with each other and our team. I planned to share the stories of the scientists, students and teachers participating in the programme. Over the past 3 years, I have grown our Twitter following to 10 times its size when I started, more than doubled our following on Facebook and created our Instagram account; we now have more than 4,000 followers across social media. I’ve brought together a community of scientists with the shared cause of sparking students’ interest in STEM careers and acting as mentors.

Building this community furthered my career development by boosting my skills in science communication and outreach, a field in which I now have a full-time job. I learnt which hashtags are great for connecting with other scientists (I like #scicomm, #ActualLivingScientist and #DiversityInSTEM) and the types of content that our scientists like engaging with on particular days of the week (long articles are great for weekends!). While the Letters to a Pre-Scientist programme was teaching middle-school students about the variety of career options in STEM, the community of scientist pen pals on social media taught me and others about the unique jobs of our peers, benefiting our professional development. And building a community around a cause I believe in showed me that a mission-driven career is right for me — I now work at a non-profit organization doing scientific marketing and communications.

For much of the time that I was building this community, however, I did not see myself as a part of it, partly owing to the anonymity I had behind the organization’s social-media accounts. But when I began to engage as myself with the community I had cultivated, the community gave to me what I had seen it give to so many other scientists: life-changing connections with others whom I never would have met in my daily life. Our participation in Letters to a Pre-Scientist as pen pals brought us all together, but we also connected and collaborated on other interests, such as researching abroad, blogging, outreach and mentorship.

My experience with running social media for Letters to a Pre-Scientist taught me that a cause that you are passionate about is the best foundation for a community to be built on. I care about equity in access to STEM education and careers, so Letters to a Pre-Scientist is meaningful to me. Other scientists have fostered communities around mental health (such as PhD Balance) and diversity (The STEM Squad, for example). To any scientist interested in creating a community of your own on social media, I recommend following people who are already engaged in your cause and sharing relevant posts and articles about that topic. Most important, be yourself and keep the reasons you’re doing this in the front of your mind. Whether your community ultimately grows to a handful or thousands of members, the most important outcomes are the connections you form over a shared passion and the work you do to make positive change.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02368-z

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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