CTSA 2013 Annual Face to Face: The Power of Storytelling

Hosted by: University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center (HSC) in cooperation with UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC)

This year’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) communications key function committee (CKFC) Annual Face to Face  focused on the critical role of storytelling to lift research of out its silos to a wider audience.

Richard Larson, MD, PhD, UNM HSC Vice Chancellor for Research compared communicators to ambassadors of information – after all, “research ignored is research wasted.”

Purpose/Objectives of the Annual F2F:

  • Increase understanding and support of NCATS and NIH priorities
  • Improve awareness of CTSA value, dissemination of key information, and collaboration among key stakeholders across the consortium
  • Inspire CKFC members through new connections, skill building, clear direction, and storytelling

Here’s a selection of tweets by CTSA communicators during the two-day conference:

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Wanna Play? Computer Gamers Help Push Frontier Of Brain Research

berger-cube_dendrites-1Here is a fascinating NPR news story about using people’s addiction to computer games to advance science.

People can get pretty addicted to computer games. By some estimates, residents of planet Earth spend 3 billion hours per week playing them. Now some scientists are hoping to make use of all that human capital and harness it for a good cause. Read more…

How Social Media Is Changing the Way We Talk About Science

Five Questions With UCSF Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, makes use of big data, mapping, and mathematics to discover how brain regions work together and give rise to cognition. In his work as a researcher, science teacher, and outreach advocate, he regularly uses social media such as his blog Oscillatory ThoughtsTwitter, and Quora. In 2006, he split the Time magazine Person of the Year award.

Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD

Q: You’re interested in leveraging data to modernize science. Do you see a role for social media in changing research? 

Social media already is changing research. In many ways! First, there’s a direct effect wherein scientists are beginning to use data collected by social media organizations to analyze behavioral patterns, such as a study from 2011 that looked at millions of tweets to analyze fluctuations in mood.

The way we conduct and communicate research is also changing. Since the 1600s, scientists have communicated findings through peer review. But these results are static, and conversations regarding specific study details, methods, etc. were private. Now, scientific publishing organizations like Nature Network or SciVerse and professional sites such as Mendeley and ResearchGate are providing platforms for open communication and ongoing conversations about research projects.

Q: You’re using social media to promote your work. What motivates you to do that, and what do you see as the benefit?

While in a sense the first statement is correct, “promotion” is a loaded term. Science is an opaque process, and scientific publications are jargon-laden, dense documents that are inaccessible to all but the field-specific experts. These publications give an idealized view of the scientific process–from clear hypothesis to statistically significant result. The reality is a world messier and less certain than that, and I use my blog to communicate that.

Having students just jump in and read these artificially-refined and specialized manuscripts and Social media quote_Bradley Voytekexpecting them to learn from it is like trying to teach English by having someone read Shakespeare: it’s technically correct but the end result will be a mess.

I get a sense that many of my blog’s readers are undergraduate and graduate students, and I aim to communicate the real difficulties and uncertainties of science with them. I remember being there feeling confused, and feeling really dumb because I didn’t “get” scientific papers and could never imagine myself coming up with a novel idea, running an experiment to test it, and writing a paper. I remember looking at the CVs of really smart post-docs and professors and seeing page after page of amazing compliments and thinking I was inadequate.

My goal is to demystify the scientific process, to make it more real, to show how hard everything is, but also that it’s doable. I’ve got a whole section of my CV titled “Rejections & Failures” outlining every grant or award I was not given, every paper not published. I believe that listing those failures shows fledgling scientists that the process is hard, but not because it requires super-intelligence, but rather super-diligence.

Q: You recently made an offer on Twitter inviting people to ask you questions about neuroscience. Can you tell us about that?

This exemplifies another reason I blog, use Twitter, etc. When teaching, I took to heart the idea that if you can’t explain something clearly, then you truly have not internalized it and don’t really understand it.

Social media is a way for me to continue sharpening my understanding of difficult concepts. The time investment isn’t important to me–my job is to learn and discover, and this is another aspect of that. And if in the process I make something more clear and accessible to a possible future scientist, all the better. No scientist achieved their breakthroughs because they communicated less.

As for the offer on Twitter, I got quite a number of excellent questions, but a few stood out that really made me think. Specifically, there were three that are directly relevant to my research and that got me digging around the literature some more to figure out the answer. The questions essentially boiled down to two ideas: First, how plastic is a mature brain? And second, how many neurons can you lose before you (or someone else) notices?

Ultimately I wrote a blog post on what I’d found and rolled some of that writing and those ideas into peer-reviewed papers I’m still working on. This kind of challenge, discussion, and ideation exchange is extremely valuable for me, and it’s part of the reason that I make offers such as the one on Twitter or use Q&A sites such as Quora.

Quora is a particularly interesting example. It’s a site populated by very intelligent people, but given the kinds of neuroscience-related questions that appear there, it’s clear that there are still some pervasive misconceptions about how the brain works. On a site such as that, the feedback and discussions seem to flow a bit more easily than they do on my own personal blog, but they’re not limited in scope as on Twitter. It’s a nicer platform for the level of discussion I’m seeking.

It also doesn’t hurt my motivation when I get comments from people such as, “I’m a grown man with a family and a career and [Brad] made me want to become a neuroscientist!” or “I accidentally started liking science stuff thanks to you!”

Q: Lots of scientists are not using social media. When asked why, many say they don’t think people will care about their scientific work. What do you think about that perspective?

People who say such things underestimate the interest level and intelligence of the non-scientist public. When I hear this, in my head it translates to either, “I don’t care about what I’m doing,” or, “I’m not confident enough in what I’m doing to explain it to anyone who may ask really simple questions that undermine what I do.” The former is fine; not everyone needs to “love” their job or work to be excellent at it. The latter is emblematic of unclear thinking.

Q: What tips can you give researchers who are thinking about using social media but don’t know where to start?

Generally the tips I’ve seen from a lot of bloggers are “write consistently” and “be engaging”, but that’s like saying to be a good scientist you need to “work harder and be smarter”: technically true but not very useful. I wish I had some magic formula for how to be successful at using social media for science, but I don’t have such a thing.

Broadly speaking, knowing how to communicate complex ideas effectively is critical, but just as important is knowing how to network, how to spread your ideas, and how to write something other people want to read. You’ve got maybe a few seconds to capture peoples’ attention online, and getting them to read a 1000-2000 word article is hard. Time and attention are premium commodities in people’s lives, and what you’re asking them to do is sacrifice that commodity to you. You have to keep that in mind. When you write, don’t think “this will only be read by a half dozen of my friends who read my blog.” Instead, think, “this might get picked up and read by tens of thousands of people. Is this worth the time of thousands of people?”

I find social media helpful to clarify my thinking, but other people may have other methods of accomplishing the same result. The only remaining advice I have is to seriously consider the reasons for not using social media: are you not blogging/tweeting/whatever because you honestly think it’s a waste of time and can see no return-on-investment for you? Or, are you not doing it because simplifying your ideas is too challenging?

This Q&A is part of “Digital Media & Science: A Perspectives Series from CTSI at UCSF” and was originally published on the UCSF CTSI website. This series explores how digital media and communications can be used to advance science and support academia.

Related posts by Bradley Voytek

Brad is also interested in leveraging data to modernize research. He’s one of the creators of brainSCANr, an online resource that uses existing publication data to show the probability of relationships between neuroscience topics and ultimately support the discovery of novel research ideas. He is also a fan of zombies, and has devoted some of his time to mapping brain damage that would be caused by zombification.


Oh that Facebook…Can social media be used for clinical trial recruitment?

Social Media is all a buzz right now and everyone from industry giants, mom and pop shops, non-profit community organizations, and even the U.S government are trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage. Some organizations find social media platforms wildly successful, while others can’t quite hit their mark. Just days before Facebook opened on NASDAQ, General Motors Co. decided to stop their advertising on Facebook. Were their ads ineffective, or was GM not correctly seeing the potential power of the social network to build brand loyalty? Should we care?

For many organizations that are looking for quick short-term returns on their investment dollars in the pay-per-click advertising might be disappointed with the results. As the article points out, the value of the social media user is that they become an advocate of the brand. Many are wondering if this is a sign of things to come for the advertising in the Facebook social media world; since it remains to be seen whether this virtual user engagement correlates with a return on investment (ROI). Is it possible to accurately define or measure ROI in social media?

One of the great powers of social media is creating a community and buzz through social connectedness—a virtual word of mouth system. Your social reach is indicative of a classic Wayne’s World 2 scene, “You know how these things start… one guy tells another guy something, then he tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell their friends, and so on”.  If you witness a friend “like” a page or event, they are giving their social network a thumbs-up that they interested in a particular company, product, event, etc.—hey, and you might too. Conceivably your “friends” are more likely to share similar interests…or least be curious enough to check it out.

But how can this be applied to academic and clinical research realm—and should it? By creating a community around a specific disease or research area, you can create a group who has common interests and build loyalty within that group—that is if you can foster trust among your group members as a credible, reliable and useful resource. For instance, if you are a group member or follower of a specific group related to diabetes treatments and you see a fellow member of that group “likes” a diabetes clinical trial, then you might be more inclined to also check out that clinical trial.

The use of social media in clinical trial recruitment is a tricky area that still is trying to find guidance. In recent blog post by Rebar Interactive, brings this issue to light and raises  A Social Media Question IRBs Must Ask about how to appropriately use the power of social media to raise awareness of clinical trial opportunities; all the while, being mindful of patient privacy. This can be counterproductive in a virtual environment and age where absolute privacy may be disintegrating, with each allow access button we click.

The FDA still has not released official regulation on what is/isn’t allowed in recruitment via social media mediums. As a result, social media for clinical trial recruitment is such a gray area which is constantly evolving in its application. Although times are changing, IRBs shy away from encouraging the use of social media in patient recruitment because of the uncertainty in how to regulate it. In the meantime, you don’t want to be left outside the social circle, so here is a helpful resource to help navigate the unregulated waters: Patient Recruitment, Regulatory & IRB Considerations for Social Media

“From Twitter To Tenure”: MD Shares How Twitter Can Be A Valuable Tool For Academics

Credit: Jason Archer, http://www.academictechnology.org

There is still considerable resistance to embracing social media tools for academic purposes, but if you are reading this blog post on FutureDocs by Vineet Arora, MD,  you are probably willing to consider their positive effects. And the list of academic tweeters is growing.

Vineet shares the various ways social media has impacted her academic career including finding grant opportunities, disseminating research results, and being found as an expert for media interviews and lectures. Here is her list:

  • Media interviews – I was interviewed by Dr Pauline Chen through the New York Times who located me through – you guessed it Twitter!  She actually approached me for the interview by direct messaging me through Twitter.  She was following me and noticed my interests in handoffs on my Google profile which is linked to my Twitter account.  She was also very encouraging when I started the blog which was exciting!
  • Workshop presentations- I presented a workshop on social media in medical education (#SMIME as we like to call it), at 2 major medical meetings with 3 others (including @MotherInMed who encouraged me to start a blog and also is my copresenter at SGIM).  The idea was borne on Twitter…and the first time I actually met one of the workshop presenters (who I knew on Twitter) was at the workshop.
  • Acquired new skills  – My workshop co-presenter who I only knew through Twitter ended up being Carrie Saarinen, an instructional technologist (a very cool job and every school needs one!).  She is an amazing resource and taught me how to do a wiki.  After my period of ‘lurking’, I started my own ‘course’ wiki  dedicated to helping students do research and scholarly work which we are launching in a week.
  • Lecture invitations – Several of my lecture invitations come through social media.  Most notably, I was invited to speak for an AMSA webinar on handoffs and also speak to the Committee of Interns and Residents on teaching trainees about cost conscious medicine.  Both invitations started with a reference to finding me through Twitter or the blog.
  • Committee invitations – I am now on the SGIM communications task force as a result of my interest in social media.  Our most recent effort was a piece about‘tweeting the meeting’ with @medrants and an older piece focused on the top Twitter Myths and Tips.
  • Grant opportunities – I recently submitted a grant with an organization that I learned of on Twitter – Initially, I had contacted Neel Shah from Costs of Careasking him if they had a curriculum on healthcare costs.  They did not, but were interested in writing a grant to develop a curriculum so they brought my team on board and we submitted together (fingers crossed).
  • Dissemination - One of the defining features of scholarship (the currency of promotion in academic medical centers) is that it has to be shared.   Well, social media is one of the most powerful ways to share information.   In a recent example, we entered a social media contest media video contest on the media sharing site Slideshare.  Using social media, we were able to obtain the most number of ‘shares’ on Facebook on Twitter which led to the most number of views and ultimately won ‘Best Professional Video.’  To date, this video, has received over 13,000 views, which I was able to highlight as a form of ‘dissemination’ in a recent meeting with our Chairman about medical education scholarship.    While digital scholarship is still under investigation with vocal critics and enthusiasticproponents debating the value of digital scholarship in academia, digital scholarship does appear to have a place for spreading nontraditional media that cannot be shared via peer review.

Further reading:

How social proof works

We trust products and ideas that other people trust. Aileen Lee breaks down how social proof works in a guest piece on TechCrunch, breaking down the following categories:

Expert social proof

doctors for medicare

Celebrity social proof

Yao Ming

Individual user feedback social proof

Critical reviews (365:009)

Aggregate popularity social proof

Too many served

Friends’ recommendation social proof

Facebook hopes social proof with motivate users to clean their database

Read more:

Open data projects should start with user needs

Open data projects need to cross a utility/relevance chasm before they gain uptake. Tom Steinberg of MySociety, a prominent UK civic app development team, argues that app contests and hack days aren’t enough—you need to focus on concrete projects, laser-focused on real user needs.

Why is a user focus critical?

“What people never, ever do is wake up thinking, ‘Today I need to do something civic,’ or, ‘Today I will explore some interesting data via an attractive visualisation.’ MySociety has always been unashamed about packaging civic services in a way that appeals directly to real people with real, everyday needs. I gleefully delete the two or three emails a year that land in our inbox suggesting that FixMyStreet should be renamed to FixOurStreet. No, dude, when I’m pissed it’s definitely my street, which is why people have borrowed the name around the world.

“We learned this lesson most vividly from Pledgebank, a sputtering site with occasional amazing successes and lots and lots of “meh.” The reason it never took off was because, unlike the later (and brilliant) Kickstarter, we didn’t make it specific enough. We didn’t say “use this site to raise money for your first album,” or “use this site to organise a march.” We said it was a platform for “getting things done,” and the users walked away in confusion. That’s why our new site is called FixMyTransport, even though it’s actually the first instance of a general civic-problem-fixing platform that could handle nearly any kind of local campaigning.”

That might mean, Tom argues, that it makes sense to bet bigger on fewer horses:

“MySociety got lucky…its second ever grant was for…about a quarter of a million dollars. It was amazing luck for a small organisation with no track record…Those days are gone…but governments everywhere should note that that funding of this scale got us right through our first couple of years, until sites like WriteToThem were mature and had proved their public value (and picked up an award or two).

“In the subsequent few years, we saw the ‘thousand flowers bloom’ mentality really take over the world of public-good digital funding, and we saw it go way beyond what was sensible. Time and again, we’d see two good ideas get funding and eight bad ones at the same time because of the sense that it was necessary to spread the money around. It would be great if someone could make the case to public grant funders that good tech ideas — and the teams that can implement them — are vanishingly rare. There is nothing to be ashamed about dividing the pot up two or three ways if there are only a few ideas or proposals or hacks that justify the money. The larger amounts this would produce wouldn’t mean champagne parties for grantees, it would mean the best ideas surviving long enough to grow meaningful traffic and learn how to make money other ways. After a long road supported by public grant funding, mySociety is now 50% commercially funded and 50% private-grant funded, but we’d never have arrived there without being 100% public-grant funded for the first couple of years.” (source)

Read more:

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