Can selfies make STEM more inclusive?

"Using a visual-based platform like Instagram as a tool in your science communications toolbox is worth the time and the effort," says University of Delaware researcher, conservation biologist and Instagrammer Imogene Cancellare.

A post on Imogene Cancellare's biology-focused Instagram.

(Screenshot via Instagram)

University of Delaware researcher Imogene Cancellare’s Instagram doesn’t look the least bit out of place among the style influencers, celebrities and #instamoms. Interspersed among the beautiful nature shots and wildlife closeups are fresh-faced selfies — lots of selfies. Her account, @biologistimogene, is devoted entirely to conservation biology.

Cancellare isn’t alone. Other scientists, many of them women, curate social media brands that are as visually appealing as they are scientific.

Not everyone in the science community sees value in it.

“Yesterday, Science Magazine, one of the most prestigious publications in the science world, published an op-ed that denigrates women who do science communication,” posted Cancellare on March 16, 2018. “The author of this article, a female PhD student, said that these efforts contribute to superficial views of women, and that participating in science communication takes away from research and makes us lesser scientists.”

This negative view of social media — especially visual-based platforms like Instagram — is common across various industries, especially when it’s a woman sharing photos of herself looking on-point in a natural palette.

Are #scientistswhoselfie (the hashtag of solidarity for science Instagrammers) harming the very serious world of STEM?

Scientifically, no.

In fact, according to a research study Cancellare co-authored, women scientists who Instagram are influencing a key demographic: young people, who may otherwise see science as a boring, male-dominated field.

Even before Science Magazine snubbed scientists who selfie, Cancellare had been invited by Dr. Paige Brown Jarreau, then of Louisiana State University (LSU), to work on a research study.

“Basically Paige was interested in addressing the question: ‘Can we impact the way people perceive scientists — more specifically, can we positively impact the public trust of scientists?’ We wanted to see if the whole idea of selfie culture can feed and foster trust in science and help change public stereotypes,” she said. “The study was built on the work of Dr. Susan Fiske, whose research suggests that scientists have earned American respect, but not their trust.”

In addition to Jarreau and Cancellare, the six-person research team included Becky J. Carmichael of LSU, Lance Porter of LSU, Daniel Toker of UC Berkeley and Samantha Z. Yammine of University of Toronto.

“We applied for a grant — we didn’t get it,” Cancellare said. But, thanks to the #scientistswhoselfie hashtag, they had social media on their side: “We built a crowdfunding campaign and raised more than $10,000. We had donations from around the globe.”

The money was used to build an online survey using over 1,600 participants from LSU who represented U.S. demographics who were then presented with a series of images.

“The first two images included something scientific like a microscope accompanied by a scientist’s smiling face,” Cancellare said. “One was a male, one was a female. The control was the same piece of information like a microscope, but it didn’t have a person in the photograph.

“What we found was that the perception of scientists as warm was increasingly more prominent when viewing an image that includes a person,” she said. “But more specifically, and what’s even cooler, is that that perception of warmth was even more prominent if the images contained a female scientist. There was also [contrary to the Science Magazine op-ed’s suggestion] a slight increase in the perceived competence of female scientists in selfies.”

Why does that matter?

“Instagram is used by young people, and people who view science images of a female scientist might reevaluate the stereotypical perceptions that are often developed at an early age,” she said. “Gender-related stereotyping is a huge problem in the STEM field — women get fewer opportunities, and fewer grants. Over 60% of undergrads in my wildlife ecology department are female, yet across the U.S. in most positions of power there are more men than women.”

The bottom line? If you’re in STEM, and you feel so inclined, posting regular selfies in the field is good for science.

“It empirically shows, for the first time, that using a visual base-platform like Instagram as a tool in your science communications toolbox is worth the time and the effort, and is something that universities and employers should take note of,” Cancellare said.

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