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These Women Scientists Refuse To Stop Taking Selfies For Science

An op-ed in the journal Science has sparked a debate about how women in science use social media.

Posted on April 23, 2018, at 12:58 p.m. ET

Science Sam / Via instagram.com

A debate is playing out in a prestigious science publication about whether sharing selfies is hurting women scientists.

It started last month with an op-ed published in Science, titled "Instagram won't solve inequality," in which graduate student Meghan Wright expressed a "bitterness" in seeing how her fellow women scientists use the platform. Their posts include "pretty selfies, fun videos, and microscope images captioned with accessible language and cute emojis," Wright wrote.

"Although I am annoyed that the majority of the posts seem to celebrate a very narrow representation of femininity, my real bitterness comes from the systemic challenges that these posts are working to address, and from seeing so many young female scientists compelled to turn to their personal social media pages to try to correct the system's failures," Wright wrote. (She declined to comment for this story.)

"Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men," Wright wrote. "That's unfair. Let's not celebrate that."

In particular, Wright named Science Sam, the Instagram account run by University of Toronto graduate student Samantha Yammine, who studies stem cells in the brain. She's a big name in the small world known as "scicomm," and her feed is full of her work in the lab as well as, yes, selfies.

Science Sam / Via instagram.com

"I was really disappointed that not only myself but more importantly our community was misrepresented and misunderstood in such a notable medium, such a prestigious publication," Yammine told BuzzFeed News.

Yammine said she thinks Wright had good intentions, but she's disappointed Science published the piece. Though both women would agree that they and their fellow female scientists face barriers in their field.

"Science is like any other field where women are often objectified and sexualized," Yammine said. "I think young women especially — especially if you’re femme-presenting in any way — tend to be looked down upon and a lot of assumptions are made about you." And it's not just women, she added — people of all marginalized backgrounds face additional hurdles in the field.

Yammine wasn't the only one upset by the Science op-ed. An advocacy organization called 500 Women Scientists sent a letter to the journal, saying: "Pitting one woman scientist against another is destructive and irresponsible, and it perpetuates unreasonable standards for women and underrepresented groups in STEM." Science also published a series of other letters, including one person who said the original piece failed "to understand the many reasons why women choose to communicate science to the public."

The editor-in-chief subsequently published a note saying the original op-ed has been "interpreted by some as a sexist and mean-spirited personal attack on Samantha Yammine in particular and women science communicators in general." The original op-ed now begins with an apology from the publication and a promise to examine editorial practices moving forward.

This is hardly the first time Science has been accused of poor judgment with pieces and images concerning women and people from marginalized groups.

Yammine also wrote a response with several women defending Instagram use as a way to connect people to scientific work. Selfies, said Yammine, are sometimes just an easy way to get a post up. But it's more than that.

"The article made it seem like we’re mindlessly doing these things, and we’re not. We’re scientists who selfie because we want to connect," she said.

"We don’t want to be an ivory tower, away from the people who fund our research with their tax dollars."

Yammine and some fellow researchers are actually studying selfies to see how the scientific community can use them for communication, using the hashtag #ScientistsWhoSelfie. In the wake of the Science op-ed, Yammine said she's seen the number of people using the tag triple.

Christine Liu, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, cowrote the response in Science with Yammine and told BuzzFeed News she was frustrated with the op-ed.

She'd prefer her fellow researchers to see social media as a tool to reach a new generation of scientists. And for her, it's a reminder that all sorts of people can find a place in science.

Proud to be part of a wonderful community of #ScientistsWhoSelfie who focus on supporting each other because we each have a unique perspective worth sharing. I'm grateful every day for the scientists on here that encourage me to speak up for the greater good. https://t.co/jv9ipC0TLF

"Now I have all these faces that I know and I feel really comfortable with, so if I see anyone at a conference or on the street I can go up and say hey," Liu said. She added that because anyone can access social media, it's a blow to gatekeeping attitudes that keep those without power out of the loop.

"Being in these communities have really helped me feel like I do belong in science," she said.

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