Epigenetics for all

The epigenetics@ HMGU community places a strong importance on exchange between their scientists and the general public. 

In addition to active participation in national public engagement activities, we aim to launch our own initiatives to bring epigenetics research to the general public. 

Interview with our PhD Student Vera Manelli about why she started to be a 'Scifluencer' on Instagram next to her PhD

Vera Manelli is one of our EpiCrossBorders PhD student in the Bonev group at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. Her work focuses primarily on neuroepigenetics. Next to her PhD work, she is working on her passion project 'Vera in Research' on Instagram, where she talks about all the different aspects of research.

Hi Vera, you are communicating your research on Instagram next to working on your PhD. What was reason behind starting this side project and what is your mission?

This small project started quite spontaneously! It grew out of my posts on Facebook. I come from a non-academic family and during the first wave of the Covid-19 outbreak I realized that most people I knew suddenly had a lot of questions about this bizarre world I work in – and there is no manual that explains the dynamics of academia and what it’s like to be a scientist. In addition, the pandemic made me quickly figure out that the sources of scientific information I was using to build an opinion were not accessible to most of the people I knew, so I decided to address this issue by opening the @verainresearch Instagram account. My goal is to build an authentic narrative of how research is done, to show the complexity behind it and to make it accessible to everyone who wants to learn about it.

What exactly do share on Instagram? Which content does your audience like the most?

I talk about how (academic) research works, and why it’s also important for non-researchers to understand it. For example, I recently talked about what preprints are. Does anyone care? Well, there have been a lot of newspaper articles being shared around social media which present preprints’ claims as established facts. To my surprise, a lot of the followers found the preprint discussion quite helpful in figuring out what sources should be trusted. They seem to really enjoy footage of experiments that scientists carry out in the lab (I recently showed the time course of a neural differentiation protocol I was performing). My audience has also appreciated some posts about cognitive biases and how to avoid them: I’ve noticed some really strong motivation towards being logically rigorous. 

One last thing: I found out that people are extremely curious about scientists’ life outside of the lab and sometimes end up quite surprised that I like painting or detective fiction. I think that movies and tv series sometimes contribute to create a non-realistic image of who does research is, so, from time to time, I share something about my private life in order to show that we are people, just like everyone else.

Where do you find inspiration for the content you share?

I think most of the inspiration comes directly from the questions of the people following my Instagram account. The exchanges I have with non-scientists are invaluable because they ask me to expand upon aspects of a topic that I’d naively assumed everyone knew about! 

In addition, I was lucky to find a very inspiring online community of researchers interested in science communication: we all have different styles and focuses and we like to give each other tips and ideas. I find this interaction extremely enriching and fruitful!

You use Instagram as your main communication channel, even though Twitter is the platform where many highly established scientists are active. Why? Do you also use other platforms?

I am on Twitter too, but I mostly use it to stay updated on the latest discoveries of my field and find cool science! For my SciComm activity, I like to use Instagram because it really allows me to reach people with all sorts of backgrounds and levels of familiarity with academic research. It’s the social network my target audience uses in their free time, which makes the atmosphere very relaxed. It’s an extremely versatile platform that stimulates my creativity and allows various interaction formats!

So, and now some straight talking  how time consuming is what you are doing? How do you find the energy to show up every day live on Instagram? How tough is it to find time for yourself next to doing a PhD and being a Science Blogger? 

Like every PhD student, I’d really love to have 48-hour days! This SciComm project is indeed time consuming because it takes a lot of planning, reading around and energy. But I think I found a good balance: so far, I only treat it as a hobby that I enjoy doing in the evenings and weekends. It might sound exhausting, but to me connecting with people outside of my usual research bubble is also very invigorating. It contributes to the feeling of having a direct impact on society and this actually fuels my productivity in the lab!

What would you recommend fellow scientists who consider to start communicating science and their work on social media?

I’d suggest starting with some big-picture thinking: who’s your target audience? What’s the intersection in the Venn diagram of what you’d be good at communicating, what they’d be interested in hearing, and what you want to achieve? For example, my audience has been very interested in Covid-related matters, and I want to combat misinformation, but I’m not a virologist – so, given my background, I had to think about where my best contribution could be. It’s also important to engage in a conversation with the target audience that includes a lot of active listening! You’ll be surprised by both what they do and don’t know. Last but not the least, if you’re trying to communicate to people outside your field, you can’t be too careful about avoiding jargon. For example, after all these years in the field, it’s easy to forget that terms like “cell proliferation” and “gene expression” are opaque to non-biologists.

The last question, please tell our readers more about your PhD work in a way you would talk about it on Instagram.

DNA is in some ways the “instruction manual” that the cells in our body use to do what they are specialized to do (skin cells protect us from the external world, eye cells sense light, white blood cells defend us against viruses).  But…did you know that each of your tiny cells contains 2 meters of DNA? It’s like fitting a 20km long string into a tennis ball!  This means that DNA is compacted into a very restricted space but, at the same time, cells need to unwind it in some precise spots and read the instructions written on it to know what they are supposed to do. It’s very important for the cells to be able to read the instructions they need, but at the same time not to read instructions meant for other cells.   In the Bonev lab, we study how the (dis)entanglement of DNA influences the formation of the neurons of the cerebral cortex, the outer part of the brain.

Interview with Dr. Silvia Sironi about why good Science Communication is so fundamental for everyone

Dr. Silvia Sironi is the Science Communication Manager at the Helmholtz Zentrum Munich. Together with research institutions from Spain and Italy, she recently won a grant from the Erasmus+ program to develop a digital escape room to bring research into classrooms. She is also a trainer for Scientists on Science Communication and gives courses at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, such as 'Workshop on design thinking for science communication - 5 lessons to develop a prototype for science communication' or 'How to use twitter as a scientist. 

Hi Silvia, you are the Science Communication Manager here at the Helmholtz Center Munich. Can you please tell us what you do? How did your career in Science Communication start?

My responsibilities here at Helmholtz Munich are split in half. 50% of my time is dedicated to taking care of social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram) and 50% to public engagement activities including training for scientists on science communication. Last year we won an Erasmus+ grant, a European grant, with other European Institutions from Italy, Spain, and Slovenia. The grant allowed us to develop a digital escape room to bring research into classrooms.

In which SciComm projects are you involved at Helmholtz and apart from work?

I am currently Vice-President of She Is a Scientist, as association working towards raising awareness on the gender gap in science and with the aim to change the stereotypes around female (and male) scientists. If you are interested in the project follow us on Instagram (www.instagram.com/she_is_a_scientist) or visit our website (www.sheisascientist.com)!

Why is Science Communication becoming more and more important? And what makes a ‘good’ science communicator?

In the past two years, due to the pandemic, everyone had the chance to realize how the communication of science is fundamental for many different aspects of our life as it can influence our own decisions, but also the policy-makers decisions and thus our lives. Even though we have seen many people, politicians, and others improvising themselves communicating science due to the contingencies, being a good science communicator needs training and a good knowledge of the latest good practices. In the past years (until the years 2000) the model that was mainly used to communicate science was the deficit model (also called the top-down approach). According to this model, most people lack scientific knowledge, and that is why they make wrong decisions. This model though has many flaws, as it is completely forgetting the complexity of human nature and the complexity of our own lives which carry previous experiences, our culture of belonging, our religious beliefs, and so on. A better model that science communication could use, is the dialogue model. According to this one, the scientist is still perceived as the expert, but it is also able to have an open dialogue with the public, without assuming that his/her own truth are the one and only. According to this model non-scientific forms of knowledge, such as cultural and experiential knowledge, are considered to have equal value as scientific knowledge and should be taken into account. Being a good science communicator means communicating also using empathy and understanding the different audiences we are talking to. 

The COVID-19 has revealed many deficits in how science is communicated to the lay public. Where do you see the potential for improvement?

I am originally Italian, and I think that most of the media (digital and paper) – even the national ones – have communicated science probably in the worse possible way, with the pure aim to gain attention, not considering the consequences that such communication could have had, for example, on the vaccination campaign. The best would be if, especially in these delicate moments, communications of this kind would be supervised by experts in science communication. 

What would you recommend scientists that would like to communicate their work, but don’t know where to start?

Get in touch with your communication department! They know for sure how to help you and which is the best channel to communicate your research. If you want to try by your own, why not starting by explaining to your family what you do? This is the best way to start, if they understand you, you are in a good place! 

Why are social media platforms so important for successful science communication?

Social media is a fast and accessible way for scientists to communicate about the results of their research, find potential collaborators, and make a positive connection between the science and the public at large. 

You lead the ‘Social Media Team’ at the Center. Why have you initiated it and what is the main scope of the team?

I initiated the social media team with my ex-colleague Gemma Fornons, during the pandemic, and the idea was to bring together all the social media managers from the different institutes at the center and create a unique voice at Helmholtz Munich. I believe it was one of the best things we have done as the team gets on very well. We recently opened an Instagram account after months of brainstorming and planning and we are always thinking about new digital campaigns for Twitter and LinkedIn. (If you don’t follow us yet on Instagram: www.instagram.com/helmholtz_munich)