How social media has enhanced my education and research

As an undergraduate network science researcher, I use social networking platforms to keep abreast of cutting edge research and publications in my field, engage in larger conversations with leaders in my own and adjacent fields, and enter into personal conversations that have extended beyond social media and into real friendships and mentorships. These opportunities did not exist in the same magnitude before the advent of modern social media, nor did the analogous version of these opportunities have such low barriers to entry.
 
Because of social networking sites, I have had to the opportunity to expand my peer group, mentorship circles, and overall access to the frontiers of numerous fields of academic research far beyond what was available at my own university and social circle. As a senior in college, trying to figure out what academic path I should take after graduation, the conversations I have had with both groundbreaking academics and PhD students alike, across a broad range of scientific fields, from architecture and urban planning, computational biology, particle physics, and natural language processing, to name just a few, have been extremely fruitful in guiding me toward a broader perspective both in terms of my personal and professional trajectory, and my active research project.
 
For my senior thesis, I am working on a computational and mathematical epidemic model for the spread of the Zika Virus. While my thesis advisor has been tremendously helpful in providing me support and guidance and answering my questions, I have also gained a significant amount of my current knowledge from following the right accounts on Twitter and reading the articles, both general and scholarly, that they tweet out to their followers, as well as the ensuing conversations that occur with other experts on their profiles and the larger social media sphere. When trying to develop a model for the spread of the virus, I stumbled upon papers and comments discussing the spreading phenomenon of memes on twitter and then witnessed their spread firsthand through the very discussion. An experience like that gives deeper and fresher insight into the underlying science than just diving into journal articles with techniques and ideas that are at least 6-months old.
 
Rather than detract from this phenomenon, by alleging that it is without precedent and not in the spirit of scientific discovery, or that it may only serve as a distraction, I embrace the shift to lively discourse on these social networks, where everyone from the top academics in the field, to students, to interested lay-readers can contribute their voice to the conversation and join together to create a vital spirit of science, discovery, and discourse that is the heart of modern scientific research.
 
Improvements to the ad-hoc social networking that is currently done in science could include introducing semi-formal discussion forums that help to foster a sense of community and enrich the discussion by situating it within a digital place and time rather than the current seemingly random diffusion of ideas. This random diffusion is still very valuable and should not be disregarded, but can be enhanced by adding this second, organized component.
 
Cultural attitudes that need to change center around the majority of academics’ disregard of social networking sites as silly and not part of ‘real science.’ Ways to adjust this attitude would be to engage in campaigns on campus to bring more academics into the social media fold by creating accounts with them, showing them relevant sources and people to follow, both within their field of expertise and the larger scientific and popular discourse, and slowly chipping away at the inherent bias against engaging in meaningful discussions online.