Social Media Essay Contest: Tinder

Graduate school is notoriously lonely- so I’m on Tinder. And so is the rest of my lab. I’ve seen your profiles, guys! For those unfamiliar, Tinder is a dating app that allows you to very simply browse mates by viewing pictures. You swipe left if you don’t like what you see or right if you do. It’s a social networking site in that it allows you to sort through other people nearby and interact with only those that also swiped right on you. All people, not just grad students apparently, get lonely so Tinder represents a relatively diverse cross section of the population. I’ve met people on Tinder with professions from house painter to software developer to professional clown (swipe left, swipe left!).

Now as far as social media goes, it is generally well integrated into my professional life. My advisor is active on twitter, regularly posts on her blog, and encourages us to use online platforms for everything from notebooks to lab organization. We are a modern lab. But this social media communication that we typically practice, such as live tweeting conferences or posting on ResearchGate, ends up being almost exclusively scientist-to-scientist communication. While students should be sure to integrate this sort of communication into their work, most of the world is not populated by scientists. Most people are house painters, software developers, clowns, etc. and my time on Tinder has taught me how utterly incompetent we are at communicating our work with them.

As a bioengineer with an emphasis on genetic manipulation, I tend to get a pretty formulaic response from new people. “Oh wow, bioengineering. Miss smarty pants over here.” There’s a certain level of pedantic shock and surprise when you’re young, blonde, female and a PhD student in STEM. This is usually followed by some joke, always pertaining to possible nefarious activities that I might be undertaking in the lab. “What kind of super virus are you cooking up?” “Resurrect any dinosaurs lately?” When I first started talking to people on dating apps about my career, I was shocked by how many assumed I was getting a PhD in Evil. Most people go into my field with the intention of curing cancer, not causing vast global plagues. But our portrayal of scientists in pop culture as generally a little whacked in the head, and superstitious fears of GMOs explain a lot of this. Many people have no picture of what a scientist, bioengineer, or other STEM professional looks like outside of the general stereotype of an old white man with crazy hair. We have done a terrible job showing non-STEM folks that we can be women, people of color, queer, etc. And we have failed in communicating the motives behind our work to them.

Tinder has put me into contact with more diverse groups of people than any other social media platform. My list of Facebook friends and Twitter followers is full of scientists like me, but I swipe right on people from all walks of life. Over time, I’ve developed an elevator speech for my work that I can give to non-scientists. I’ve figured out ways to define complicated topics like horizontal gene transfer in metaphors that make sense to a broader audience, ie that bacteria swap genes like Pokemon cards. I’ve become able to talk about complex biological engineering with people who haven’t taken biology since the eighth grade. And these new skills from late night chats and many, many first dates, have improved my science communication skills vastly. I have translated them into speaking clearly with possible funding agencies, improving my K-12 outreach, and describing my work to broader media outlets. But I shouldn’t have had to learn this through Tinder. If we ever hope to see strong funding for science, public understanding, science-conscious policy making, and true diversity in science, we need to shift our communication style. We need to learn in the course of our studies how to communicate outside of our special little STEM club. There is a world of house painters, software developers, and clowns out there that is curious but hopelessly uninformed. We’re the experts and the onus is on us to be able to keep them in the loop by including them in our target audience for communication. We have the luxury of knowing how to find answers in databases, understand primary literature, and think critically about data. Joe from Tinder never learned this stuff. It’s our job to make sure that when we publish a paper, we blog about it in a way he can understand and that is still accurate. It’s on us to ensure that this makes it to media outlets that he uses. And it’s our job to make sure that when we match with him on Tinder, we know what to say.