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The New Face of Science: David Shiffman

13 Apr 2015

 

David and an intern from the RJ Dunlap Lab with a lemon shark. © Christine Shepard, SharkTagging.com

 

Why should you care – Science has discovered Twitter and is undergoing a public relations revolution, thanks in no small part to David Shiffman.

 

If you haven’t yet met David Shiffman, it is quite likely that you will soon. The reason for this is simple: he is fast becoming the marine biologist of choice for reporters to contact when they find themselves in need of such expertise. In the last year alone he has been interviewed on matters pertaining to sharks, his speciality, but also on various ocean topics on television, on the radio and in ‘print’ for the likes of CNN, NPR, the BBC and Wired.

 

You would thus expect that he is a long-standing expert in the field; a grey-beard; a silverback; a dinosaur. You would be wrong.

 

Shiffman does sport a beard, but it is (mostly) tidy and yet to grey. He has not yet even finished his Ph.D. He is, in fact, due to complete his studies in 2016 at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami. His research focuses on role that sharks play in the coastal south Florida ecosystem, as well as the different ways that various stakeholder groups perceive that role.

 

Shiffman and the RJ Dunlap team with a blacktip reef shark. © Christine Shepard, SharkTagging.com

 

So why is he so popular with the media? He combines his interdisciplinary research with a hitherto unprecedented online presence. Here he is a legend in scientific communication, writing for the popular ocean blog SouthernFriedScience.com. His has posted 68,000 tweets to his Twitter account, @WhySharksMatter, which has a staggering 16,000 followers and makes him just as popular as several Washington Capitals players.

 

In fact, his account was named one of the top accounts to follow for biology news by the Huffington Post. Business Insider also listed him on their list of 40 Science Experts [that] Will Completely Revamp Your Social Media Feed, along with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Moreover, a proposed new measure of total scientific influence would put Shiffman in the same ballpark as both David Attenborough and James Watson.

 

The recognition is also taking Shiffman to the red carpet. In April, he faces off against giants deGrasse Tyson and Nye in the category of Science at the 2015 Shorty Awards [http://shortyawards.com/category/7th/science ] at the Times Center in New York City. The shorty awards are essentially the Oscars for social media, and Shiffman’s efforts in science communication on Twitter have landed him a nomination.

 

But what does all this matter? Well, Shiffman is making himself accessible. As a result his thoughts and opinions are reaching a much wider audience than those of many more established scientists. Many others are taking note of this.

 

An increasing number of scientists are using the 140 characters allowed per Tweet to simplify extremely complicated concepts for public consumption. More still are putting links to their papers on Twitter and Facebook as this drastically increases downloads and, hopefully, also citations, which is hard currency in the scientific world.

 

There is also an increasing trend for live conference tweeting, where those in attendance relay talk titles and snippets of the presentation to the World via Twitter. They may also relay some of the resulting questions back to the presenters at the end of the presentation. Shiffman has been very important in demonstrating the utility of this as well, having now been funded to attend a number of conferences for the Society for Conservation Biology simply to tweet from the lecture halls.

 

 Remote teaching © Remy O'Cleire, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

 

Twitter has also become a venue for online classroom discussions, where teachers schedule one or more scientists to be available to answer questions from their students. As a result, willing Twitter-literate scientists are directly reaching high-schoolers around the world in an unprecedented way. Those scientists that are most interactive and can relay information clearly to the student get invited back for more such classes and the cycle continues.

 

Shiffman himself notes that, “The modern internet makes it easier than ever before in human history for expert knowledge to reach the interested public. It's never been more true that a small group of dedicated people can change the world.”

 

Shiffman is, of course, only one of a number of scientists leading the charge. But he is way ahead of most in terms of his dedication to his online presence. He also does not take himself too seriously. As a result, he’ll continue to be quizzed in the media on sharks, dolphins and other marine life, as well as more whimsical (or depressing) topics such as mermaids and sharknados. He’s accessible to all, easy to find, and both willing and able to communicate clearly to wide audiences.

 

This all means that Shiffman is coming soon to a channel near you.

 

 Reaching the next generation of shark biologists © David Shiffman

 

 

 

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