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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

I don’t usually post selfies, but that’s about to change. OR, some things #scientistswho

Updated: May 30

Two women sit on a rock outside. One woman holds a sketchbook; the other woman gestures in a way that indicates she is explaining something.
Me (left) teaching a Sketching for Scientists workshop in Laramie, Wyoming (Image: B. Barber)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent Science op-ed that was a personal attack against a well-known and successful science communicator and neuroscientist active on Instagram and other communication and engagement platforms. Among other things, I see this issue as relating to insecurities, negative social conditioning, and lack of support that folks often face when pursuing careers in the arts, or even considering trying out an art form. 

At its core, the op-ed asserted that women scientists should not be posting selfies on Instagram. The writer then built around that theme an argument driven by an assumption that Science Instagram (and by implication Science Twitter) folks who posted selfies shouldn’t be spending their time on social media at all. Rather, the author asserts, women in science should be “advocating for policy changes at institutional and governmental levels.”

Not only was the editorial an unjustified piece of name-calling, but it missed the point of why many people share their personal+science lives on social media.

I’m not alone in pondering why the author wrote this piece, why Science gave it a platform, and what the fallout may be. 

Among the responses, two by Paige B. Jarreau and Gabriela Serrato-Marks stood out to me. Both take a close look at why scientists selfie. (Incidentally, selfies are something I’ve been loathe to post for most of the time I’ve been on social media.)

Paige points readers to hard data to quantify Why we scientists do Instagram. She studies how scientists use social media. Her piece is a valuable look at why scientists are actually on social media. Paige makes the important point that resenting social media users for not doing things, when the users aren’t on social media to do them, is logically flawed. As she puts it: “…how can we criticize science Instagrammers for somehow ‘failing’ to change gender disparities with their posts and communication efforts, if this goal isn’t even among their more important reasons for using IG?”

Paige’s full article taps into science of scicomm research that quantifies why scientists blog. It also touches on on-going research aiming to quantify why scientists use Instagram. So far, Paige writes, the findings of these studies suggest that core motivations are actually a) practice communication skills, b) share science with nonspecialist audiences, c) foster public interest in science and research, and d) connect with others (often folks doing related research and/or outreach). None of those are what the Science op-ed lambasted; indeed, the op-ed assumed a totally different priority that isn’t substantiated by the data.

Gabriela Serrato-Marks [1] takes the motivation point a step farther, in this article for Massive Science. Gabi addresses numerous issues with Science providing a platform for the name-calling and negativity in the op-ed. Importantly, she also sought out and highlighted perspectives from numerous other #ScientistsWhoSelfie. A key takeaway from Gabi, and one I heartly endorse, is: “By showcasing what they are passionate about, scientists on social media are able to reach large public audiences and break down stereotypes about scientists.”

Photograph of a seated woman holding a sketchbook. A small puppy is chewing on one corner of the sketchbook.
One of my passions is using sketching to learn about new ecosystems. In this picture from a few years ago, my then-pup was getting in on the fun of sketching cacti at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum north of Phoenix, Arizona. I was working on book illustrations commissioned for And Then There Were None, about the demise of bighorn sheep near Tucson, AZ (published in 2017).

No surprise – the theme of Gabi’s article dovetails closely with the motives for both blogging and social media use which Paige writes about. Holding folks accountable for your motives, not theirs, isn’t productive. That is what was demonstrated powerfully by the Science op-ed.

Likewise, we don’t encourage creativity when we hold folks accountable for making fine art, photorealistic drawings, or anything else artistic, in a way that doesn’t jive with their own motives for trying and making. Same goes for ourselves — getting some foundational training and practicing are essential to getting better at scientific inquiry and art practices.

On Twitter, I responded to Gabi’s article with a thread about how I see a relationship between #ScientistsWhoSelfie, #SketchYourScience, and advocates and naysayers for both.

I spend a lot of my life in a sort of limbo between art and science – advocating for more of the one when I am in the other space. And, I notice that folks who are not familiar with one or the other, or both, tend to have reluctance about doing them. They also tend to pass judgement in ways that are unproductive.

These observations underpin the Twitter thread I wrote, and I’m reposting that thread here, with slight edits.


Twitter thread...

Folks who participated in the #sketchingforscientists workshop got to select specimens from a smorgasbord in the @LUMCONscience collections room! Spaces like these are important for science, and they are like a candy store for #scicomm and #sciart folks!

Photo of people looking at samples of marine life (big shells, bones, etc.)
Participants in one of my Sketching for Scientists workshops select the specimens they will draw (Image: B.G. Merkle)

Part one of most of my #sketching workshops is blind contour drawings, which involve putting your paper on your lap, under the table. You can’t see the drawing! Just your specimen, so you shift your goal posts: observation > pretty drawing, & evens playing field! All look silly!

A lot of people looking at nature specimens
Participants in one of my Sketching for Scientists workshops (Image: B.G. Merkle)

By which I do not mean @gserratomarks, @sharkespearean, @coralnerd, @SaraSneath, @_klburke, and @BL_Owens look silly. Rather, the drawings range from abstract to gestural, none photo-realistic. This evens the playing field between those with drawing experience and those just starting.

Scribbly lines in red colored pencil (not legible)
Sketch by a workshop participant

Then, we added in observations to enhance (no correction!). We added questions to encourage curiosity and remind us that science is a a way of embracing the unknown. That’s what @samoester, @SolomonRDavid, @melissatruth, @guertin, and @omgirlsvt are working on.

People sit at a table sketching nature objects
Participants sketch during one of my Sketching for Scientists workshops (Image: B.G. Merkle)

Next techniques are rubbing to capture complex textures and tracing for scale, proportions, relationships of parts, and to give you a solid foundation to add details. As @omgirlsvt noted, tracing is legit for making #sciart.

Sketches in brown colored pencil depict a large, spiny sea shell
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

And then, we worked on building our mark-making alphabet. Like we need all the letters to write, we are much more equipped to sketch if we have practiced making lots of different marks. And, then we think about what those marks could be used for.

Sketches in blue and black colored pencil depict a sea shell
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

Finally, we worked on color control. My top three tips include: 1. Use only spot color for emphasis, like @BL_Owens did.

Sketches in black and red colored pencil depict a horseshoe crab carapace
Sketches by a workshop participant

2. Use two contrasting colors, for story or visual hierarchy, like @samoester did.

Sketch in black and red colored pencil of a piranha fish
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

3. Use complementary colors, or similar colors, for mood or to approximate realistic colors, like those used for this piranha sketch.

Sketches in black and yellow colored pencil depict a piranha fish
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

All three of these tips for using color when #sketchingscience enable you to be more efficient. They enable you to carry a smaller/lighter sketching kit with just essential colors. And, they help you make design decisions that lead to images you’re happier looking at and sharing.

Sketches in black, yellow, red, and blue colored pencil depict a fish with teeth
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

The bottom line is that, to #sketchyourscience, you need to feel confident enough to start, to try. And, it’s not a stretch to say that seeing others do it helps.

That’s also why #scientistswhoselfie is so important.

Sketches in pink, purple, and yellow pen depict something curly (not legible)
Sketches by a workshop participant (Image: B.G. Merkle)

Another way of thinking about this is that we often hold back from things like science or sketching because we think we must first be experts. No one is an expert without first being a novice. Innovation, skill development, and creative thinking often involve “silliness.” Let’s embrace it!

People sit at a table drawing nature objects
Participants in one of my Sketching for Scientists workshops (Image: B.G. Merkle)


[1] I recently had the great pleasure of meeting and collaborating with Gabi, at OceanDotComm, a science communication unconference hosted by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Gabi is a great filmmaker, as evidenced by this trailer of a film – Bayou Women – she co-produced during #odotcomm18. Check out that hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, etc., for lots of powerful scicomm and relationships that came from the conference.

*My thanks to the participants of the #SketchingForScientists workshop at #odotcomm18 whose sketches are used in this blog post. Not all the images are credited. I’ve reached out to workshop participants, and have credited images whose creators wanted to be identified. 🙂


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