IAmSciComm: Scicomm Strategies

In May of 2018, Layla Katiraee, Jenny Splitter, and Anastasia Bodnar hosted a week of science communication discussions on the twitter account @iamscicomm. They each had some amazing things to share that can help inform different aspects of science communication (scicomm for short). We’ll share each day of their tweets in a separate post. The third day, shown below, was hosted by Anastasia Bodnar, also known as @geneticmaize.

SciMoms is a project of Biology Fortified, and their goal is to share information in accessible language on the scientific consensus and guidance from medical/scientific community on topics of interest to parents. They use various forms of media to achieve our goals. SciMoms’ members are Alison Bernstein, Anastasia Bodnar, Layla Katiraee, Natalie Newell, Kavin Senapathy and Jenny Splitter.


Good morning! I am @geneticmaize from@SciMoms. Thanks so much to @BioChicaGMO and @jennysplitter for hosting on Monday and Tuesday. I’m really excited and honored to be hosting I Am SciComm today and Friday.

So you know where I’m coming from, I’ll start with my #scicomm origin story. A version is on the @SciMoms website and here is my SciMoms card, made by the talented @BioChicaGMO

Let’s start at the very beginning. I’ve always been into science. I was one of those kids who could tell you all about dinosaurs, minerals, space, plants, etc. I had big glasses and a bad haircut and was an all around super nerdy kid. 🤓

High school was a little rough. At @HCPSRobinsonHS I was a troublemaker. I founded the Ecology Club, and used can recycling as an excuse to cut class and smoke under the bleachers with my friends. Regardless of my hijinks, I got good grades.

Sometime in high school, I discovered genetic engineering and told everyone who would listen about the amazing things that could be done with the technology.

School was a breeze for me… right until I hit college. Did you know you actually have to study in college? I flunked out my first year and lost my Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

I applied to @MIT and @USouthFlorida, and got into engineering programs at both – though I meant genetic engineering. My guidance counselor didn’t know how to pay for MIT and I didn’t know how to ask for financial aid (1st generation college student) so USF for me!

I’m the oldest of 4 and my parents got divorced when I was 6. We weren’t poor, but we did have to charge groceries more often than anyone should, and the food bank was an important backup. Family paying for school was not an option. So I joined the @USArmy!

My @USArmy job title was Preventive Medicine Specialist. Our unofficial motto: “if it makes you sick, it’s our job to stop it!” Anything from noise to air/soil/water contaminants to insect/food/water borne disease to unsanitary pools/gyms/restaurants… I loved it all.

My first #scicomm experience was communicating health inspection results to higher ranking military members and to Korean owners and employees of restaurants through a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) translator. I had to be authoritative yet deferential – challenging but very fun.

Once back in the States, I ran a mosquito surveillance program for the northeastern US. We did some outreach at health fairs on the military base, where we showed off our hissing cockroaches and talked about insect repellents and pest control.

While I’m talking entomology, I highly recommend following @BugQuestions. They are a group of amazing science communicators that cover everything from cool bugs to integrated pest management to effective #scicomm strategies. And they answer questions!

I finished up my bachelors in biology taking night classes and then full time as a commuter student to @UofMaryland. I had no idea what to do next! But Professors Heven Sze and Caren Chang encouraged me to go to grad school. I’m so thankful for their guidance!

I had no idea where to go. My best friend since 6th grade had joined the Navy and met a man from Marshalltown, Iowa. So she suggested I head to @IowaStateU with her. I visited and loved it, and thankfully I got in to the genetics PhD program!

Grad school was amazing. I joined so many clubs, founded a few, became President of the Graduate Senate, learned as much as I could about conventional and sustainable agriculture, visited a ton of farms, and managed to do some really cool research on corn, too! I ❤️@IowaStateU

You might be thinking at this point, “ok lady, how does this all relate to scicomm?” I’m getting there, I promise.

My thesis research included increasing bioavailable iron in corn and using recurrent selection of a transgene (GFP) to increase expression of a native gene.

I learned about iron deficiency anaemia and I was so excited that our work might help people who rely on corn in Central America and Africa. But somewhere along the way, I realized that the seed would never be released because we had no path to commercialization.

So I started learning about the US biotechnology regulatory system. You can learn a bit about it in some recent tweets I did for @CropBioEng.

It quickly became apparent that you need a lot of $$$ to get a biotech crop through the regulatory system. The aren’t any required safety studies, yet the developers have to prove safety which means you have to do a lot of studies, which isn’t cheap.

All around me at @IowaStateU and many other places, there was amazing research developing biotech crops that could really help people. But none of them were moving from research to the real world – all due to this regulatory/money problem.

Biotech regulations were started out of an abundance of caution when the technology was not well understood. Over time, more and more research showed that the technology is safe.

It is possible to use the tech to make something dangerous, like if you inserted the gene for ricin into a food plant. Any tool can be used for nefarious purposes. But obviously such things would be stopped by food safety regulations.

Though my research, I realized that the current regulatory environment can not be changed unless the public elects congresspeople who will pass laws so that the regulatory agencies can change their regulations. So the next step was to try to talk to the public about it!

I started blogging about biotech first on Live Journal of all places and then started a WordPress site with the help of my super awesome and supportive computer scientist husband.

I kept bumping into another blogger, @kjhvm, in the comments on @grist and we decided to join forces! Thus, @biofortified was born! Yes, @tomphilpott, Biofortified is all your fault  😉 🌽

Unfortunately, expressing maize globin in corn wasn’t so successful at increasing iron – but we did find that plant hemoglobin was a good source of iron.

One thing that greatly pleases me is that @ImpossibleFoods cites my thesis in many of their papers about leghemoglobin and in their main patent [correction, it was their GRAS application].

Gotta run for a lunch break and hope to be back shortly! Anyone have questions about biotech regulation?

First, a question. When you’re doing #scicomm, do you think about the who, what, how, when, and why you are communicating? How does this info influence how you communicate? @scimoms has a specific “who” that we are speaking to- parents.

Why do you do #scicomm? What motivates you to keep going, even when you are busy with other things?

I do about biotech to share my excitement for the technology as well as talking about the safety, regulations, social context, ag context, and so on.

My “why” expanded while I was pregnant. I was shopping at @MotherhoodMat and someone was handing out these @ewg “Dirty Dozen” cards. The message was – you’re hurting your baby if you don’t eat organic. Pretty crappy message to send to already worried moms!

Every time I went to look up information about pregnancy, I was faced with absurd claims that I was hurting my baby because I wasn’t following some fad diet. Each of us @SciMoms have similar stories.

Who you are hoping to communicate with might just be the most important of the “why, what, who, when, and how” of #scicomm. Do you think about your target audience for each piece? How does that affect your work?

For the gun safety piece, our target audience includes all parents – because we all should know if there are guns in the house when our child goes over to play.

Parents who are gun owners are the bullseye in this target. So we carefully considered our language in hopes that gun owning parents wouldn’t be turned off. This is not a gun control piece, it is a gun safety piece.

Thankfully most of our posts aren’t as potentially controversial! Surprisingly, we got far more pushback on @mommyphd2‘s article on trampoline safety.

When I write about food and ag topics like biotech, my target audience is regular people who haven’t heard much about it. I’m not trying to convince people who already have decided GMOs are bad.

Easier said than done, but the more we practice talking about our science in plain language, the better we get. Think about who you know and who is in your community that might care about your message – a local gardening group, library book club, student group, etc.

Science outreach with children is always a good thing – you can mentor kids’ science fair projects, offer to give a presentation at your child’s school, do an experiment with a local scouting group…

There are many local events for #scicomm twitterers to gather, search for tweetups in your area!

I don’t know of a central repository [of events], unfortunately. But there’s some good places to look- @Meetup and @eventbrite, Google for your closest city and scicomm, check for local science march chapters, and network at an evening event at your closest science museum to name a few.

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!
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