Personal Branding for Scientists and Science Communicators

Scientists and science communicators use the internet to connect with audiences and share our work, so developing a personal brand online is more important than ever. I talked with author and marketing expert Cynthia Johnson about her new book Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding (Feb 2019) to learn more about how science communicators can benefit from developing their personal brand. In addition, Cynthia and her wonderful publisher have provided a copy of Platform for a giveaway! With this book, you can learn how to develop and maintain a personal brand that benefits your style of science communication, whether you’re an undergraduate or running your own lab.

Here’s my interview with Cynthia Johnson about personal branding. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of her book, check with your local bookstore or find it online.

“Personal branding…has nothing to do with what you do for people or what you say about yourself. It has everything to do with how you make people feel, how you engage with them, and what they say about you to your face and to others.

Cynthia Johnson

Sarah Olson: What is a personal brand and why is it essential for today’s social media-focused world?

Cynthia Johnson: Your personal brand is made up of four pillars; personal proof, social proof, recognition, and association. The personal proof is your opinion of yourself and your relationship with your own abilities, accomplishments, and goals. Social proof refers to the things that you have done to prove to others that you are capable of new opportunities. Recognition is the reinforcement for both social proof and personal proof. Lastly, association is focused on how you relate to, are compared to, and categorized based on the people, organizations, and communities that you associate yourself with. When you add all of these items together and add the perception of an outsider looking in, you have your personal brand. The collection of moments and choices in our lives presented to another person (or people) for the purpose of growth and new opportunities.

SO: Why is building your personal brand important?

CJ: A personal brand is self-awareness, self-promotion, and self-preservation. It is the first impression that we can control and the vehicle that can be a tool for growth if it is managed properly and even minimally, but if it is not managed can harm growth opportunities. I look at personal branding as the evolution of cover letters, applications, CV’s, and resumes. If we want upward mobility and opportunity in our lives, we have to start accepting that people are looking us up online before they ever agree to meet with us. We have to put our best foot forward just as we would dress for an interview. Being prepared and aware is what changes our careers and allows for opportunity to find us.

SO: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur in science trying to build their following on social media?

CJ: Don’t focus on building a following, focus on providing value to a specific group of people. Don’t try to be everywhere, pick one place and become effective there before you branch out. People who try to be everywhere burn out and end up doing nothing at all. Start with one goal and on one platform. Once you have become successful at that first step, then look at growth strategies.

SO: What if a reader is not an “influencer”? Is this book still relevant to them?

CJ: I see this book being useful for people who have limited time, a desire for change, and a need to be heard in a specific topic or industry that they are experts at. I see this book as the how-to, and why-to book for people who have very specific goals in mind or a very specific message and not a lot of time. This is not the book for people who want to be famous, but it will be very beneficial for those who want to be impactful.

SO: One of the dangers in online science communication is sharing misleading, false, or unsubstantiated information (whether on purpose or by accident). How can we protect our personal brand from public mistakes?

CJ: Slowing down is the most important solution to this problem. Most people do not want to steer people in the wrong direction or spread gossip. These well-intended people do this unintentionally because of lack of time, not reading the content thoroughly before sharing it, and associating themselves with companies, people, media, etc. that don’t reflect their personal values or beliefs. Don’t rush this process. You can be just as effective doing less and moving more slowly.


Are you interested in learning the skills and tools you need to make your personal brand stand out and shine? You can get entered to win a free copy of Platform and one of the new Read More Science bookmarks simply by signing up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for science enthusiasts who love to read. Why should you sign up? Because by reading more books about science, you’ll also learn more about science communication! Seems like a pretty good deal.

Follow my Twitter at @ReadMoreScience and Cynthia Johnson at @cynthialive.


Here’s my review of Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding and details on how you can win a copy:

I genuinely think this is a book that could benefit the SciComm community. Cynthia Johnson puts entrepreneurship and marketing skills into a brief and relevant book that anyone interested in building their personal brand could use. As scientists and science writers who use social media to build our name and communicate science, we can benefit from using these helpful strategies. That’s why I’m hosting a giveaway of this book!

Through personal anecdote and interesting research, Cynthia develops her case for why personal branding is an essential skill in the twenty-first century. Her ideas transcend the world of business and entrepreneurship – they’re applicable to anyone interested in updating their LinkedIn or growing a following on social media. In a world where employers pay attention to interviewee’s online presence, it’s more important than ever that we learn to manage and maintain our online personas. Cynthia equips readers with the tools they need to do just that – and to shine at it as well.

I enjoyed how brief a read this book is. As a reader, you coast through it without being bogged down by an information overload. My only note is that Cynthia does seem to digress now and then into stories that are almost irrelevant, though she does seem to eventually come full circle.

This is a book that is useful for anyone venturing into personal branding. If you’re interested in winning a copy, sign up for the Read More Science monthly newsletter between Monday, March 18th and Friday, March 22 for your chance to win. I will be randomly selecting one of the new subscribers to the email list and will announce the winner Monday, March 25th.

Remembering The Black Woman Whose Cells Changed Science

I hosted a giveaway of a paperback copy and a handmade cell bookmark on Twitter.

Henrietta Lacks was all but lost to history when science writer Rebecca Skloot became fascinated with her untold story. Determined to share the history behind the woman whose cells greatly impacted science and medicine, Skloot set out to make contact with the Lacks family. At the time, she had no idea the adventure she would be in for.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the Read More Science Book Club pick for February, which is Black History Month. Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose cancerous cervical cells, HeLa, have been growing and growing since her body died long ago. In her book, Skloot explores how Henrietta died and why the doctors ended up with her cells, why they are so extraordinary, and how they have changed cell research. She also investigates how the wide use of HeLa has impacted the Lacks family, who live in poverty and have not seen any of the money that HeLa cells made.

Although the book was published nearly a decade ago in 2010, its exploration of race and socioeconomic issues, as well as ethical concerns, are deeply relevant to our world today. The book resonates powerfully with readers who care about making sure women, especially women of color, are not lost to history. By bringing Henrietta Lacks to life, Skloot has ensured that Henrietta Lacks will no longer be reduced to her cells.

Skloot’s book is simultaneously an exciting narrative-driven expedition to uncover the story of Henrietta Lacks and help her family discover the truth behind everything that happened to her, as well as a biography of a young black woman. It’s a well-written, perfectly paced, and profound piece of journalism. Whatever good things you may have heard about this book, it’s even better than that when you read it.

There were chills crawling down my spine when I read the introduction and Skloot explains why, ever since she heard Henrietta Lacks’ name in a college lecture, she’s been fascinated with her story:


How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah [Henrietta’s daughter] would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing the book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.

At the end of the introduction, Skloot emphasized that, in many ways, her book transcended simply the story of Henrietta herself.


The Lackses challenged everything I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family – particularly Deborah – and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Ultimately, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a profound and intimate examination of the treatment of black people by scientists in the twentieth century, the ethics of research and medicine, and the celebration of an extraordinary woman whose immortal cells changed history. It’s a book that every science enthusiast should have a copy of on their shelf.