Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, March 5, 2012

SPH students creating science blogs in social media course

It's not enough for new public health professionals to know the science that drives the field. To make a difference, they need to talk to the public and policy makers in clear, jargon-free language.


Read the blogs at

That notion is behind the inaugural graduate course Communicating Science through Social Media. It was created by Andrew Maynard, Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor, professor of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health and director of the Risk Science Center.

"There is an increasing hunger amongst public health students to be taught how to communicate and express themselves effectively," Maynard says. Public health practitioners and leaders must be more adept at conveying complex ideas to non-experts, he says, whether they are managers, CEOs, partners, politicians or from the public.

To that end, the 10 students in Maynard's class each are required to write 10 blog posts for the website Mind the Science Gap, which has received media coverage in The New York Times, Scientific American and other journals. Students have been inspired to write on subjects including struggles faced by the late singer Whitney Houston and how stress has been identified as a particular trigger in substance abuse among women, to research that finds urban sprawl and car dependence are leading factors for chronic diseases.

Nearly 50 mentors recruited by Maynard, and the general public, comment on the posts. Since launching, the blog has averaged 4,500 page views per week, with more than 1,100 comments on posts.

Maynard reports that the five most popular blog posts to date are:

• "Finding Hidden Heart Defects Before It's Too Late" by Drew Heyding

• "Zinc: The Secret to a Shorter and More Bearable Cold?" by Ashley Alexander

• "Type 1 Diabetes on the Rise" by Suzy OGawa

• "Bed Sharing, Infant Mortality and a Never Ending Debate" by Heyding

• "The Buzz About Caffeine Consumption and Reproductive Hormones," by Colleen Davis

Heyding speculates that his "Finding Hidden Heart Defects" post was effective partly because he can relate to the subject matter. That's because he also has been treated for a heart defect.

"You try to make the blogs personal to engage the audience; this was more personal than most. It makes you a little vulnerable to put yourself out there," he says, adding the post had impact.

Maynard, himself a veteran science blogger, says the best indicator of success in communication is when there is evidence of a connection between the blogger and the audience. "This is part of the power of social media: that rapid and often candid feedback. And this is where the concept of the mentors came from," he says, adding mentors and others who comment help spread the word about the series and make students better communicators.

Mentor Matt Shipman, a science writer at North Carolina State University, responded to Mead's recent "The Driving Force Behind Chronic Disease" blog: "Great example of a well-written post. Organized, coherent structure. Whenever a question cropped up in my head, you answered it. … This would be the great lead-off post in a series."

In her post "The Up(per)s and Downs of the Caffeine Nap," Alexander seeks to reach fellow students: "Through my years as a student, I've often found myself at that point during a late night study session when it's time to make a crucial decision — to chug a cup of coffee or take a quick nap." She goes on to detail research that finds doing both is actually best.

Alexander says looking for topics every week keeps her up-to-date on research and current events. She finds it surprising that people outside of SPH read the posts.

"I've found that humor and personal application help draw readers in," says Davis, a human nutrition and dietetics student who contributed a top-five blog. She says her approach to writing is to share science with someone who might not read about a research finding.

Maynard says the class will return in the fall semester.