Science Sam discusses discrimination in STEM and Instagram as a tool for science communication

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Jun 30, 2018, 1:30 PM EDT

Back in March, Science Magazine published a somewhat shocking op-ed titled “Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach.” Just from the title, it was clear that this opinion piece was positioned in opposition to something or someone. You don’t have to read very far into it to see exactly who it was targeting: Samantha Yammine, better known as Science Sam, a Ph.D. student studying brain development and stem cell biology.

What followed was a strange and bitter reflection on the gender imbalance in the sciences, attacking social media communicators such as Yammine for posting photos on Instagram instead of lobbying for change at institutions and governments. “Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men,” the author says. “That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.”

Yammine uses social media such as Instagram (@science.sam) and Twitter (@heysciencesam) to send her message, and she educates thousands of her followers with every post. For example, in a recent Instagram post, she explains why we feel jet lag. In another, she discusses the struggle to learn scientific jargon if you’re a layperson reading academic work. In each of her posts, Science Sam is thoughtful, witty, and clear; the words are often accompanied by a selfie of Yammine doing the work she describes. Not everyone has taken kindly to that.

“I know what I do is unconventional and I don’t expect everyone to like it, but I got into science communication to help dispel myths, so it was really frustrating to read a piece so inaccurately describing something I care so deeply about,” Yammine explains. “I hope in the future more people learn that it is a lot more productive to call people in to conversations when you disagree with them instead of making assumptions, because that’s the only way we’ll really move forward.”

Yammine comes by her scientific curiosity honestly. “When I was maybe 8 or so years old, I would mix together household items (like toothpaste, oil, salt, and water), pop the mixture in the freezer or let it 'incubate' in the sun outside, and check what happened the next day.” This resulted in some explosions, but young Yammine didn’t care. “I just wanted to make stuff,” she said. “I dreamt of being a scientist when I was a kid because I had so many questions about the world."

Being in the sciences hasn’t always been easy for Yammine. Even before the Science Magazine article, which amounted to a personal attack on a young woman of color from a prestigious publication, she’s faced her share of discrimination. “Women are often over-mentored but under-sponsored, defaulted into more support rather than leadership tasks, ignored and/or excluded in intellectual discussions, and on the receiving end of far too many unprofessional and inappropriate behaviors,” she explained.

“I have personally had countless people discredit me as a scientist and educator, presumably because I do not ‘fit the stereotype’ of a scientist,” Yammine said. “For example, if I’m presenting a poster at a conference there are usually at least a handful of guys who come up to me to hit on me and not ask about my actual research. Or others who try to turn a regular business meeting into a date, and get mad when I don’t express interest back.” This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Yammine faces on social media platforms such as Twitter.

“While I hate the inaccurate assumptions about me and unwanted attention, I have refused to change the way I present myself, in part to help fight the status quo and serve as visible representation for others, but also because I’ve found it to be a good litmus test to find others who share and respect my values,” she affirmed. “But the amount of energy and wasted time that many women have to spend navigating these types of situations is unjust and needs to change, and they’re only multiplied with further intersections of diversity.”

The real issue, according to Yammine, is that academia must become more inclusive. “We need to talk about this more openly and work together to understand all of the ways we may unintentionally be reinforcing problematic behaviors,” she said. Everyone has a responsibility to make STEM fields more inclusive in every way; women aren’t the only people affected by discrimination.

That’s why Science Sam is so passionate about science outreach. “[It can] create more avenues for people to join conversations about science,” she explained. By being herself on social media, and showing people that science doesn’t have to be intimidating, Yammine is fostering scientific interest in people who never gave it a second thought before. What’s more, she’s showing young girls who look like her that it’s not just okay to be interested in science — it’s cool, and it’s fun. “The ability to use my own voice freely will hopefully translate to fostering more diversity and inclusion in STEM, and that’s another really important goal of my use of social media for science communication."

And as far as that Science Magazine article? Yammine is doing just fine after that. In fact, she got the opportunity to publish her own study in the journal Science, called "Social media for social change in science."

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