Changing the Face of Science… With a Selfie

Many people carry outdated or unfavourable stereotypes about scientists. The #ScientistsWhoSelfie campaign is helping change perceptions.


Who is a scientist?

When asked this question, children as young as kindergarteners often draw pictures of white men in white lab coats. Studies have shown that adults tend to negatively stereotype scientists as inhospitable and socially inept, and that while scientists are often perceived as being competent, they’re rarely referred to as “warm” — and worryingly, this lack of warmth is associated with feelings of distrust.

With preconceptions like these keeping women and minorities out of scientific careers, and causing problems when it comes to garnering public trust in scientific research, what can scientists do to break the stereotypes?

For Paige Brown Jarreau, a Science Communication Specialist for the College of Science at Louisiana State University, the answer was Instagram.

Jarreau’s work on the impact of Instagram on public perceptions of scientists was released earlier this month in PLOS ONE.

Let’s take a #selfie!

Increasing numbers of scientists are turning to Instagram and other forms of social media as a new method of communicating their research and reaching broader audiences — many of whom may not be regularly exposed to scientific research.

Jarreau herself has been active on both Instagram (@SciCommNerd) and Twitter (@FromTheLabBench) for several years, and she’s not alone. The #science hashtag on Instagram is associated with over ten million posts, and some of the most successful science-related Instagram accounts reach tens of thousands of followers every day.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that when Jarreau asked herself how she could use social media to change public perceptions of scientists, her mind turned to selfies.

“What could be better than the culturally iconic selfie, or the self-portrait, to give people a more personal glimpse into science and help them better relate to, and thus trust, scientists?” she asked in an article for American Scientist.

To selfie or not to selfie?

While Instagram has become an increasingly important tool for science communication, Jarreau was interested in learning whether or not people actually trust the scientists who show up in their social media feeds.

To do this, Jarreau teamed up with a group of prominent researchers and scientist Instagrammers across a range of disciplines, including Samantha Yammine (@Science.Sam), a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto’s Department of Molecular Genetics.

The project was funded entirely through a crowd-funding campaign, and the goal was to determine whether selfies could be used to enhance perceptions of scientists’ warmth. Since warmth is associated with trustworthiness, the outcome of the experiment could help scientists determine how best to communicate their research in the future.

Challenging public stereotypes of scientists

To investigate how selfies affected public perceptions of scientists, the team exposed research participants to different experimental conditions, all of which involved browsing through a feed of Instagram posts. The different feeds were made up of photos of just science-related objects posted by male or female scientists, as well as selfies of male or female scientists with the same scientific objects as before. Participants were then asked questions about their perceptions of the photos they saw, as well as their perceptions of science in general.

An example of the images used in the study, along with survey results. Credit: Paige Brown Jarreau et al. 2019.

The outcome of the experiment shows that, as Jarreau and colleagues suspected, selfies can indeed be used as a powerful tool for positive change in the science community. Scientists posting selfies from the lab or field were seen as warmer and more trustworthy, but no less competent, than scientists posting photos of only their work.

They also found that subjects who viewed female scientist selfies perceived science as less exclusively-male than other experiment groups. Encouragingly, this result suggests that Instagram can be used to break down negative stereotypes about who scientists are, and perhaps encourage more women to enter the traditionally male-dominated field.

“By humanizing themselves on social media,” the authors go on to explain, “scientists may be able to increase trust, public support, and interest in science.”

In her American Scientist article on the project, Jarreau includes some best practice tips for Instagram selfies. For example, she suggests avoiding jargon that might make followers feel excluded, and including “real” discussion of the motivations and struggles behind scientific research.

So next time you’re in the lab, make sure to snap a #selfie. It may just be the positive change needed to break stereotypes about scientists once and for all.

Research2Reality is on Instagram, too! Check out our posts for lots of #ScientistsWhoSelfie and other science-related content.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.