Ben Laufer is your typical highly productive PhD student. He’s earned a national scholarship to pursue research on molecular genetics at Western University’s biology department, published multiple first-author papers in top-tier academic journals, and won major awards for his communication skills. But what makes Mr. Laufer stand out from many other successful graduate students is his active online presence in social media and how he is using it to promote his work and advance his career.
Mr. Laufer has his own website, which consists of a single page, showing a close-up picture of himself in a lab coat, grasping a pipette, and a short blurb about his doctoral work on epigenetics and human cognition. This sleek and minimalist homepage (designed and hosted using the free personal web service about.me) functions primarily as a billboard and hub for Mr. Laufer’s various social media links, which are neatly organized with colourful headings and eye-catching icons down the right-hand side of the page. One of the icons, for example, links visitors to Mr. Laufer’s CV, which is posted at LinkedIn. There are also links to his publications, which are downloadable through the online storage website Dropbox, and to his ResearchGate and Google Scholar pages, where one can view his up-to-date publication metrics, including number of citations. Clicking on the “T” and “F” icons will take you to Mr. Laufer’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, which he uses for posting scholarly updates, and at the top of the homepage there is an imbedded YouTube slideshow of Mr. Laufer giving a conference presentation. He has also included links to various blogs, press releases, and news websites, such as Medical Xpress, highlighting his work. By exploring all of these different links, one can quickly learn a lot about Mr. Laufer’s research and its broader impact.
Mr. Laufer really felt that an online presence was important for his academic. “I was losing sleep, you see. I was really worried that the exciting findings we were publishing on the epigenetics of moderate fetal alcohol exposure would get buried in academic journals and never reach their intended audience. So I turned to social media to help publicize the data.” Mr. Laufer’s strategy appears to have worked; his publications have garnered an impressive number of citations and media coverage in a relatively short span of time. Mr. Laufer attributes much of this attention to his promoting the research online, and regularly uses Reddit and other news-tracking web services, such as Altmetric, to back this up. His engagement with social media has also helped establish new collaborations. “Now that I’ve started to put myself out there,” said Mr. Laufer, “I’m being contacted by top scientists in my field wanting to collaborate.” Mr. Laufer went on to describe how he and his supervisor, Professor Shiva Singh, have established active collaborations with various physicians who’ve reached out to them online.
“Have there been any negative consequences to your online endeavours?” I asked. “None thus far,” claimed Mr. Laufer. “Although, I’m certainly very mindful and strategic about the things I post and say on social media, much more so than when I was as an undergraduate.” It is obvious that Mr. Laufer is passionate about science communication and takes his online identity seriously, treating himself and his research like a brand. Unfortunately, Mr. Laufer appears to be in the minority in his department when it comes to using social media for academic purposes. “Obviously, a lot have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but few are using these types of technologies to further their academic impact.”
Mr. Laufer also works as a writer and editor for Epigenie — a California-based website devoted to the field of epigenetics with over 20,000 monthly visitors. He started off by writing short articles for the Epigenie’s online newsletter, and now plays a key role in producing and editing news features, as well as updates for the homepage and marketing the site across the web. “Epigenetics is my area of expertise,” said Mr. Laufer, “so in some ways, working for Epigenie complements my thesis studies, and vice versa. And I can apply the same skills I used to promote my research at Western to promote the content at Epigenie.” This past fall, Epigenie flew Mr. Laufer to San Diego to meet with upper-level management and discuss ways to increase the company’s online profile among scientists.
Mr. Laufer still has another year and a half before he defends his PhD thesis. So what’s next? “I’m thinking of doing a postdoc on the West Coast. That way I can continue to do basic research and get more involved with Epigenie. But I’m keeping all my options open.”
David Smith is an assistant professor in biology department at Western University.