Dear blogger, your headline may need a superhero

Batman delivering a punchline
Batman delivering a punchline (Photo credit: renophaston)

A room full of science bloggers fell silent after Liz Neeley (compassblogs.org) asked how much effort they invested in headlines for their blog posts.

Apparently most of the public in the room, including myself, doesn’t fuss a lot about headlines. Seasoned blogger Brendan DeMelle (DeSmogBlog.com) told us that this inattention may cost your post a lot of its potential audience. Most viewers/readers will only read your headline. You have a few seconds of their attention, then they are gone, adios, sayonara, arrivederci. What you wanted to communicate is lost in the past. Can you say what you need to say in those 3 seconds? Can you hook your readers so they want to read more? To write great headlines is a difficult art to master, even with the help of A/B testing.

But, how can a superhero help you with a great headline? That is part of a story that started the day before Liz asked such a good question to the science bloggers audience:

It begins with a very cool post at the New York Times Bits blog. I don’t want to give away too many details. There is a video with scientist explaining their software and image analysis technique, and showing diverse examples of uses for it. One example shows video of a sleeping newborn. With the software you can make visible the small movement in the surface of the baby’s face due to blood circulation, and measure his pulse — without touching him. Another example shows that no special camera is needed; they take a clip from a movie with a famous actor sleeping on bed, just as shown in theaters, then the software shows his blood circulating up and down.

What was the headline of author Erik Olsen’s blog?

“Scientists Uncover Invisible Motion in Video”

Not a bad headline, but I read about the  Bits blog from another blog first, and that blog had added more information to the headline. Aatish Bhatia (Empirical Zeal) added a little more explanation when sharing the link to Eric Olsen’s piece:

“A pretty amazing algorithm magnifies imperceptible motions, allowing you to see the invisible”

Empirical zeal

I was so excited about the link shared by Aatish that I decided to share it too. Not to be outdone, I wrote my headline with even more words (a bad initial decision that ended with a bad headline).

“Image processing at its best. Tiny movements are exaggerated: you may measure the pulse of a person using a camera”

Nevertheless, I believed the headlines where interesting enough and the research was so fascinating that people would feel really compelled to read more. Click for the awesome video and hopefully stay and learn a little about image processing. I did not find how wrong I was until later, when I opened my twitter feed and I saw this post from Ed Yong:

edtwitter

Ed Yong grabbed the amazing headline crafted by Robert Krulwich on his blog Krulwich wonders “MIT Invents A Machine That Can Look At Batman’s Face And See His Heart Beating” then added a WOWOWOW! at the beginning (meaning look guys this is awesome) and gave you the exact part of the video where you can look at Batman’s face and see his heart beating. The picture is already showing you batman… If you can resist to click on the link it can only be that you have no pulse.

Lesson learned. Next time I write a headline I will remember Liz Neely’s question, and the treatment that Robert Krulwich and Ed Yong gave to this piece. In my opinion Batman kicked other headline’s but, and I will try to write more Batman headlines in the future.

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The truth about this salsa

Bowl of salsa
Bowl of salsa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Salsa was originally the Spanish word for “sauce”. Today, the word salsa means a lot more than a spicy dip for your chips. Salsa music took over the world and now salsa brings to mind the image of a gorgeous couple dancing in sensual embrace. I do not mind that you have this beautiful image in your mind when reading “Science Salsa”, but the truth must be said, I meant to call my blog “Science Sauce”.

Delicious, spicy, and flavorful, but common, home-made, family recipe salsa. No fancy dancing here, even if we may dance salsa occasionally.

Why not “Science Sauce” or “Salsa de Ciencia”? Well, this is a bilingual blog, with a bilingual name, from a bilingual author. My personal recipe has a flavor that is unapologetic Latin-American, rooted in my childhood spent in Colombia and Peru. Sauce cannot describe it properly, it needs to be salsa! I did my PhD studies and postdoc work in the US and the science that I generate and consume is mostly in English. It needs to be science!

I gave you some clues about my identity with the tittle of my blog. My information is public and you are more than welcome to visit the “about me” link to learn more about my background, or my page www.IvanFGonzalez.com for more information. Please don’t expect pictures of my (living) family or other private stuff, but you can read Science Salsa with my commitment that you will have a sincere attempt to bring you some flavorful science. Just the way I can personally tell you about it, with no gimmicks or imposter voices.

Finally, did you know that the “hot” chemical in peppers affect small proteins called TRPV1 ion channels that normally sense pain? The “science salsa” idea came when I was thinking about my research on TRPV1 channels:  Nobody realizes their eyes are covered by nerve endings with TRPV1 channels…  until they are cutting hot peppers for salsa and make the mistake of rubbing their eyes.  Why we have those pain receptors in our corneas? How did pepper plants develop a chemical that affect our pain receptors (but not bird’s)? Those are some of the questions in science that I think would we fun to discuss with you in the future.

Scientists and new media: overcoming a healthy skepticism

Commodore PET computers in use after 30 years after their introduction to the market. They were a very important part of my PhD dissertation as they controlled  the experimental setup. Alas! no internet connection available.

I started a Twitter account two months ago. Somehow during the process I became a Social Media evangelist that pesters old and new friends so they start talking about their science online. I successfully got one friend to open a Twitter account (and use it), and I got another friend to start using hashtags during meetings. And now I want you –yes, I am talking to you– to consider giving new media a try.

Most scientists understand the need to communicate their work to the public, either to help them take informed decisions in the public health and policy area, or to make sure the taxpayers learn the very important labor that scientists do with their money. A lot of my friends, including me, do science communication because it is fun, and because it is great to talk with people about what we love. But when I start telling my friends to put content on a blog or following people on Twitter I see in their faces “a healthy skepticism about return on investment of engaging in new media” as Liz Neeley of CompassBlogs.org puts it (Check this post from Heater Reiff for more). I must concede that engaging your science online takes time, but is it worth it? YES! it is totally worth it.

The learning curve for social media is not too steep, there are plenty of online resources to start –including this Social networking for Scientists WIKI started by Christie Wilcox of Science Sushi— and the benefits are potentially enormous: Two weeks ago I was talking with another post-doc about opportunities to do some science outreach in Seattle. I was surprised to notice that I had so many local people to recommend, most of them I didn’t know before I started using my Twitter account and following the local community. On Twitter you can do several things:  learn about people with similar interest, learn what conferences are popular in your field, find new funding opportunities and get fast answers to questions to the community. More important, when you start building content you also start building relationships and name recognition. Who knows? Maybe a new scientific collaboration or your next job may come from Twitter.

There is more to new media than Tweeter or blogging. LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Google Plus, Storify, and Wikis are great tools that you may consider using.

For more reasons to start engaging your science online and for more information about the different resources available please go to the social networking for scientist Wiki, Have fun!

Update 10/30/12: If you want to start measuring your success with new media tools, you should read Online ROI: How to measure social media impact. This summary from Science Writers 2012 by Christie Wilcox is about the appropriate metrics to measure success in science communication, and the multiple tolls you have to do it.

Science communication: if you need to start somewhere, start here!

todolist

How to become an excellent science communicator?

In science communication nothing beats the dual-package: carefully structured message combined to the ability to hear and read the audience. I am good at engaging the audience but I really want to become the kind of person that can do both engagement and structure effectively; and to keep it fresh, so we can have fun.

I tried the easy way; I searched online for a 5-minute-a-day method for science communication. Results guaranteed after the first two weeks, or your money back. I couldn’t find it.

Plan B is to find my own method for adding formal structure to my own voice. The first step on my method is to learn the craft of scientific writing. There are several things I am doing to make progress in that area: I am using a twitter account to learn to write a compelling message in 140 characters or less; I am taking Writing in The Sciences, an excellent Coursera class taught by Kristin Sainani at Stanford; and I am writing every day, some of those writings you will see in this blog in the future.  I am mainly doing what I do best: learning by observing and by reading other people.

How have other people started as science writers?

I think the best start to answer the question is reading Ed Yong’s blog. Ed is a British science writer with a blog called “Not Exactly Rocket Science” . He is very active in the Science Online community  and he compiled this great list of scientific writers –145 of them– telling you their personal path to get there; Ed said about this group of people, ”You can already see that they’re a varied bunch. Some stumbled into it by accident. Some came from traditional journalistic backgrounds. Others were bitten by a radioactive Carl Sagan. The more the stories accumulate, the better this diversity reveals itself.” The blog post is here: the origin of scientific writers.

I haven’t read all the names in the post. I prefer to read a new one when I have five minutes free, check their web page, maybe start following their blog or twitter account. You may want to do something similar to what I do; find stories that touch you personally, read the author’s work, and maybe contact them.

What path is Science Salsa following?

To properly answer that question, I think you may watch this half-an-hour video about journalism and starting your career by writing your own blog: Friends in low places – Video of Robert Krulwich. I really like his work on the radio, and RadioLab is one of my favorite shows. I think Krulwich makes a very good point in the video about the need to start gaining professional experience blogging from your own living room.

If you really want to know, the answer is simple: I am happily looking for friends in low places.

For more about the video: If you don’t have half an hour to watch it, I wrote another post with relevant  parts of the transcript  here.

The name is out!

Science Salsa is here!

I made public the name of my blog during the Blogging and Twitter section of SACNAS 2012

Sometimes the best option is just to jump into the pool, not to wonder if the water is too cold or if there is a shark lurking underwater. The blog is public!

What a great baptism in the company of Danielle Lee, Cara Santa Maria, Sabrina Bonaparte, Cynthia Coleman, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc.

Ready or not,  Science Salsa is starting to pour right now!

Enjoy!