University of Melbourne Magazine

Unlocking the secret of tweet success

  • KatieMack hi-res square

    Dr Katherine J Mack

    I travel a lot for conferences and collaboration visits, so I often introduce myself to students and other researchers. Lately, when I say, “Hi, I’m Katie Mack”, there’s every chance the other person will pause disconcertingly, then say, “Oh! You’re AstroKatie!”

    My profile on Twitter — as @AstroKatie — has grown steadily for the past couple of years and I now have almost 9000 followers. It’s a rather weird experience. I started using Twitter as a professional tool in 2012. A colleague was using it to share astronomy-related news and papers with others in the field, and he asked me if I’d be willing to live-tweet a conference for him because he was going to miss the talks.

    I agreed, and discovered that it was a nicely focusing task, having to find at least 140 characters from each talk that were significant enough to share and remember. (In case you don’t have an intuitive feel for how long a tweet actually is, this sentence is 140 characters, with the parentheses included.)

    Tweeting kind of snowballed from there. I connected with other physicists and astronomers and followed along with conferences I couldn’t attend by watching hashtags. I asked questions, received references to papers, and got to know whom I should tweet at to get quick answers about things such as galaxy mass functions or Python coding.

    I discovered a whole community of astronomers and physicists who use Twitter as a kind of ongoing virtual conference coffee break, without the constraints of timing or location. I jumped right in and found it to be an excellent resource for keeping up with astrophysics and the world-wide academic community.

    The thing about Twitter is that your experience depends entirely on who you choose to follow. The vast majority of people I follow are fellow scientists and science communicators, and in general they make up a community that is articulate, clued-in and eager to share interesting and/or useful information – not to mention often wildly entertaining.

    Once I got going with Twitter as a professional networking and info-sharing tool, it became clear that a lot of people outside of science are fascinated by the universe and are thrilled to have a chance to ask questions of a real scientist.

    I’ve gradually adjusted my own Twitter stream to be as much about outreach and science communication as it is about maintaining a professional community. When I tweet about a cool new result, I sometimes include a few tweets of background information to put it in context. I answer questions about black holes, the speed of light, the Big Bang and what the expansion of the universe really means.

    These days, I frequently get requests to write articles for popular websites or do interviews or podcasts based primarily on my ability to explain things on Twitter. It’s a fantastic tool for science communication, and it’s a great way for the public to get access to a real scientist and find out what all this research stuff is really about.

    When a scientist on Twitter veers away from the pure science and talks about the life they’re balancing with (or building around) a research career, it helps break down stereotypes and increase public trust in science. I think it can be an especially good opportunity for women or minorities in science to become role models for young people hoping to follow the same path.

    The number one question people ask me about using Twitter as a scientist is, “How much time does it take?” It’s a question I can’t answer. It doesn’t take time in the same way other outreach tasks take time. It’s a constant ongoing conversation; you just dip in and out of it when you have a spare moment.

    Being active on Twitter is like having a chatty officemate; you can put on headphones if you want to, but if you have a question, or if you want to take a moment to chat (and are willing to risk being interrupted by a particularly amazing cat video), you might end up learning something, and it’ll certainly make those solitary nights in the office a heck of a lot more fun.


    Dr Katherine J Mack holds a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council on the topic ‘‘Dark matter particle physics and the first sources of light in the universe’’. For more on her work, view the AMA (Ask Me Anything) session she did on the New Reddit Journal of Science in April 2014.

    Follow University of Melbourne Alumni on Twitter: @unimelbalumni