BSC Graduate Students Reach the Masses with Creative Social Media Efforts

Oh, you haven’t heard about the latest SciComm efforts by BSC graduate students yet, have you? Let’s change that…

The Department of Biological Sciences has a long-standing history of communicating science to the general public through outreach, community engagement, and service-learning programs. These efforts engage thousands of people each year through interactive face-to-face events designed to communicate ongoing BSC research and encourage the active participation of the general public in STEM fields. In addition to these efforts, some BSC graduate students have taken their passion for scientific communication (referred to as SciComm on social media) beyond the confines of the Department and are carving out their own creative paths to reach the masses.

Brooke Fitzwater.
Brooke Fitzwater’s TikTok account educates the general public about weird and interesting organisms like this deep-sea anglerfish.

When PhD student Brooke Fitzwater began making SciComm videos two years ago for her Instagram page, she didn’t realize she’d be honing the skills that would lead her to amass >85k followers and >2.6 million views on TikTok in just a few short months in 2022. Going by the name oceanfilly, Brooke is now producing almost one video per day on TikTok, which are aimed at educating the general public about the weird and wonderful world of marine life. These short 1-minute videos are not just spouting facts about your favorite animal, but rather, combine a very clear fashion aesthetic with a unique delivery Brooke says has been described as “vaguely threatening.” She states “I try and pick species and topics that have some aspect about them that is particularly odd that will resonate with people. The delivery and aesthetic grab people’s attention and keep them engaged.”

Brooke’s first TikTok video was posted in January 2022, and it has exploded in popularity ever since. “The most surprising part of this is how it took off as well as it did” Brooke says. “I had experience making these types of outreach videos before so I thought in the back of my mind this might gain some traction, but I didn’t think it would gain this much traction.” Brooke attributes some of this SciComm success to the user-friendly nature of the platform TikTok, which has rapidly become the social media platform of choice for younger audiences. She uses built-in TikTok video filters and is typically able to film everything on her phone in a single take. “TikTok is one of the biggest jumps and best apps for scientists doing outreach, Brooke states, “It has all of these different settings and filters we can use in a really easy way without needing a lot of digital media skills and equipment. This is something anyone can easily figure out to use on their own.”

As for long-term plans, Brooke says this is all so new she is just riding the current wave and continuing to put out videos, but as for advice for other scientists who want to effectively engage the general public in SciComm using social media she states “sometimes we tend to get so knee-deep in the topics we study that we forget how to talk about it more broadly, and that not every piece of information is critical for the understanding of the general public. If we start throwing a bunch of jargon at them, they will get turned off.”

It turns out that Brooke is hardly alone in her independent outreach efforts among BSC graduate students. PhD student Chandler Olson has combined his research interests in Malacology (the study of molluscs) with his background as an intern at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University to create an open access seashell identification website called Seahorse & Co. ( Staying after hours during his time at the ANS, Chandler would photograph the shell collection with his personal camera, focusing mainly on shells from the East Coast of the United States. “There were not a lot of good free shell guides that were focused on the East Coast, so I wanted to make something that created a lower barrier of entry to the hobby. Learning about things around you is the entry point of becoming a scientist and naturalist and just caring about the planet. So that’s the main idea behind the website” he states.

With such a diverse group of animals, creating a fully comprehensive database is difficult if not impossible, posing a real challenge to figuring out exactly where to start and how much information to provide. To solve this, Chandler states “What I like to do is use the citizen science platform iNaturalist as a gauge to figure out what the most common types of shells people are actively identifying and focus my efforts there first, rather than on the small, obscure, or rare ones that might not be as relevant. The goal and idea for this website is that you are creating that bridge for people who are just finding something on a beach to become more serious about it. Once you bridge that gap and they start understanding how things work and know what these terms mean, my website won’t be the place to go for the more experienced hobbyist.”

A year after starting the website, Chandler has expanded his outreach to his Seahorse & Co. Instagram page and has even started a YouTube channel to post videos. He mentions that the hardest part of this is the initial time investment and slowly building an audience, but now he sees web traffic every day and has even started seeing his website linked to iNaturalist species identifications. Long-term he hopes to expand beyond shells and profile Molluscs more broadly. “Right now with outreach, the way I’ve tried to approach this, is to create something with immediate value for people and that’s why they initially visit the website,” he explains, “but then once there are there they start learning about other things about Molluscs more generally. So the shells will be the hook for more longer-term engagement.”

Interested in participating in formal BSC outreach events such as BioFest, Meet a Bama Biologist, Scientist for a Day, or the Arts & Sciences Homecoming tent among many others? See the BSC Outreach website to get involved!

Chandler Olson.
Chandler Olson’s website provides user-friendly and practical guides to sea shell identification that is organized by U.S. state.