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Streaming for Science

On the affordances of livestreaming your research.

April 23, 2020
 
 

To kick off Earth Week, March for Science NYC and Earth Day Initiative hosted the Earth Day 50 Virtual Kickoff. The six-hour broadcast produced by act.tv featured scientists, activists, performers and public officials calling for rapid climate action. We divided the programming into hourly segments that touched on the intersection of the climate crisis with public health, mental health, food security, technology and policy. We heard from scientists and organizers working with their communities to ensure policies are grounded in justice. By presenting these issues altogether in one stream, we hoped to highlight the intersectionality required to address the climate crisis and how the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown how our current systems have not centered justice.

Hosting a virtual march wasn’t our first plan, but as much of the country remains under stay-at-home orders, we realized how far our event could reach while everyone is at home. Over the course of the day, we amassed nearly 400,000 views on Facebook alone -- and the full show is still available to watch (ASL version here). Next, we’re recruiting volunteers to transcribe and translate the broadcast into different languages. By having these resources online, we hope to make the science behind climate solutions accessible to as many people as possible.

While the kickoff was the largest virtual climate action of its kind, we aren’t the first to use livestreaming as a platform for science communication. Last year, Ph.D. student Henri Drake started talking about climate science while playing Fortnite. The idea came to him after Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist, tweeted about how few views her climate science webinar received compared to her son’s Fortnite video.

Under the handle ClimateFortnite, Drake played and chatted with viewers about climate. The gaming community has long been online, and taking science to this space opened doors to new audiences. One professor’s office hours at the University of Florida have even attracted an audience; three times a week, Josh Melko uses his stream to educate his students and sometimes entertain questions from viewers about chemistry.

“Twitch is all about a community -- it's really built with that in mind,” Melko wrote in an email. “A classroom is really a small community, and I wanted something that made my students (or other members of the general audience) comfortable in approaching a professor for help. I needed something less formal than Skype [or] Zoom and much more interactive and community based.”

Since he started streaming a year and a half ago, Melko has seen the educational community on Twitch grow, especially with the turn to remote instruction. Melko is now a member of the Knowledge Fellowship, a community of educational streamers started by biologist DrWD40. The group’s streamers range from scientists and makers to coders; they sat on a TwitchCon panel last year. Their goal is to “share peer-reviewed information on a variety of topics in a casual, highly interactive environment on Twitch and other livestreaming platforms,” using community platforms to educate and inspire viewers to find joy in learning.

Neuroscience graduate student Syed Hussain Ather has streamed himself writing code. It adds transparency to the process that I appreciate; Hussain has even said that viewers have offered him feedback that’s improved his research. These streams also humanize science and the scientific process.

Hussain mirrored the same sentiment as Melko when talking about using Twitch over other services. “It’s real-time experience with your viewers,” he said.

Beyond research, in an article in Science, Hussain wrote, “I have chatted with my viewers about the philosophy of neuroscience. I've practiced explaining my research in ways a general audience can understand -- a skill that will serve me well in my planned career as a scientist and communicator.”

The day before the virtual kickoff, the March for Science NYC team gave this a shot, too, in partnership with Rupeethon, a charity gaming group based in Long Island, N.Y. Over the past ten years, Rupeethon has raised money for various charities, primarily Child’s Play Charity. But last Saturday, the group streamed for science instead. Over the course of their daylong stream, they did what they normally do -- play video games and chat with their viewers; they played through the classic Pokemon Red, puzzle game Pikuniku and childhood favorite Freddi Fish. But every now and then they’d pause to talk about the virtual kickoff, which was a day of action that called for rapid climate action.

Two of the Rupeethon team members are graduate students -- Steven Farrell, who I’ve interviewed for "GradHacker" before, is pursuing his Ph.D. in materials chemistry at NYU. Jonathan Lewis is currently pursuing a master in public administration at the University of Bergen, and his thesis focuses on climate policy, exploring how subnational governments that have adopted climate pricing schemes such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs.

Several other streamers joined Rupeethon in raising awareness for the cause, talking about policies like the Green New Deal and the importance of evidence-based policy with their viewers. Our team didn’t game, but we chatted with viewers on Instagram live for an hour at a time, answering questions about organizing and our research. To my surprise, the chats made me feel more comfortable identifying as an engineer and researcher, talking to the public about my work. We didn’t have too many viewers -- maybe 10 or 15 at a time -- but it was informal, just a conversation between us and the viewers. It also forced me to think more deeply about the impacts of my work rather than focusing on the behind-the-scenes details of experiments and methods. The experience made me feel like part of the scientific community, something that I’ve struggled with even as a fourth-year graduate student in engineering. Social media has really been a force for change within STEM, and the ability to hop on my phone, go live and talk about science feels real and personal in a way that typical scientific meetings, networking sessions and poster presentations don’t. Twitch, Instagram, Facebook Live and YouTube offer us platforms that can diversify what science looks like.

“Joining MFSNYC was a no-brainer for me, specifically, because of my interest in climate change politics,” Lewis wrote in an email.

“Not only did I get the chance to hear from activists and scientists from all walks of life and all ends of the political spectrum (er, well, much of it anyway), which was important for developing my own holistic understanding of the current state of climate politics, but I also was able to offer what small insights I could to help the event become a success … we have all been friends for nearly 20 years, so it wasn't hard at all to get the team on board.”

In the case of climate, one of the most important things we can do to fight climate change is talk about it. As we’re all home, we’ve got to keep the conversation going online, and starting with your friends and family is a great place to start.

For graduate students interested in streaming, Melko’s advice is to just start.

“You don't need the best equipment; you don't need all the little gadgets and lingo down. You just need a webcam and a computer -- click 'Go Live' and give it a shot. Everyone is a little awkward and will make mistakes at the beginning, so definitely don't compare yourself to others. It takes time to figure out what is best for your expertise and content.”

On that topic, Hussain said, don’t be afraid to take risks. Not everything is meant to be streamed -- I won’t be pipetting on Twitch any time soon -- but think about your work in a way that’s creative and would grab people’s attention.

“What’s important,” Hussain said, is that regardless of the medium, “you share something you love with the world.”

Some other tips, from Rupeethon, Melko and Hussain:

  • Be patient, but be prepared. Plan some material and discussion points. The nature of Twitch is that you can't always depend on people to interact with. Some people just want to watch you without interacting, and other times people just can't find your channel or won't be interested.
  • Find a schedule and stick to it! This will help you gain practice building your voice and audience.
  • Know your limitations and your strengths. According to Lewis, when Rupeethon first started out, individual team members would often try to grind out 18-hour shifts with no breaks, to predictably poor results.

“Being on all the time is difficult, but absolutely vital for maintaining viewer interest … but if you're not being authentic to yourself, you won't find much success.”

Are you a scientist who has livestreamed their work? What was your experience? Tweet us @GradHacker.

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.​

Photo courtesy of March for Science NYC.

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