Cross Country Checkup

Meet the PhD student who makes science accessible through social media

Samantha Yammine is a science communicator. The University of Toronto PhD student has been sharing her knowledge of science to the public through selfies, videos and anecdotes about her daily work as a researcher.
Samantha Yammine, who is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, educates people about science through social media. (submitted by Samantha Yammine)

By Samantha Lui  

By day, Samantha Yammine studies how the brain works. Along the way, she snaps selfies, takes photos of her research and tweets updates to thousands of her followers on social media.

Yammine, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's molecular genetics department, is a science communicator: she shares science-related topics with non-experts, whether it's through teaching workshops, giving lab tours or talking to others about her research.

"I want to show people what science really is, which is the iterative reproducible process of finding [and] getting closer to new truths," she said in an interview with host Duncan McCue during Checkup's episode on Canadians' trust in science.

For Yammine, Twitter and Instagram are her way of educating the public about her studies.

"I couldn't think of a better way to do it than just doing it the way every other industry does it, which is through social media," she said.

Yammine, 27, has been teaching and doing public outreach for most of her life. In 2016, she started an Instagram to get a bigger audience. Since then, she's gained over 20,000 followers.

"I think that the audience size tells us about a thirst people have to better understand the process of science," she said.

"I have a mixture of aspiring scientists, a lot of high school and undergraduate students. I have a ton of parents who have young kids who want to learn more about how their kids can get into a [university] program like mine. And then, I have other scientists following along as well who are just curious to learn about other people's work."

Samantha Yammine often posts pictures of herself working in the lab. (submitted by Samantha Yammine)

Criticism over her content

Scrolling through Yammine's social feed, it's clear makeup and fashion are among her many interests including science. Along with her photos, she often posts about neuroscience, her daily work life and fun facts from studies she finds interesting. 
Samantha Yammine, who often posts selfies on her Instagram, has been criticized on her approach to educating others about science. (submitted by Samantha Yammine)

However, her approach to teaching others about science isn't always met favourably. 

Yammine has attracted her fair share of detractors on the internet. In fact, her selfies, videos and use of emojis have even been criticized from her own colleagues at school.

"I think that it's unfortunately uninformed. I think that the medium … and your audience really dictate the way you should tell your message," Yammine said. 

"Something about seeing actual people doing it just really humanizes the research that we do and hopefully invites more people into conversations because they can relate to us. They can see who I am."

It's why Yammine is taking part in a project called #ScientistsWhoSelfie, a research project investigating how scientists' Instagram posts may change public perceptions of scientists.

For example, would a picture of a microscope get more reaction online than a scientist with a microscope? And would there be more interaction if the image pictured a man or a woman?

"If you look at #ScientistsWhoSelfie, you'll see all of the fabulous diversity of our community," said Yammine.

"And so, that's what we're actually studying, because we have seen anecdotally so many people who message saying that they never understood this concept before we explained it in an artistic and fun and light way."

Being a woman in the field

With science still heavily male-dominated, Yammine admits being a woman in the field can often be a challenge. 
Samantha Yammine often posts about her research surrounding the brain. (submitted by Samantha Yammine)

"It's difficult getting people to take you seriously, and I often have to prove my credibility and convince people that I know what I'm talking about," she said.

But nevertheless, she views her role as a scientist as important. And as a woman, she hopes to encourage other girls to get interested in science.

"I think in terms of a communicator, it's in fact extraordinarily necessary to have diverse faces," she said.

"The beauty is that as a female scientist, I think I can better reach half the population and those people who have never felt themselves, never seen themselves in [the field]. I have this immediate advantage just because I am a woman. I think people can relate to me more."

You can listen to Samantha Yammine's full interview on Checkup above. To hear more from our episode on Canadians' trust in science, click here.