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.

Questioning the Future and Fairness of the Nobel Prize

In cosmologist Brian Keating’s memoir about his quest for the Nobel Prize, he uncovers the darker side of science’s highest honor, calling into question many ethical dilemmas surrounding the award and its rigorous qualifications. Losing the Nobel Prize is Keating’s illuminating journey in his quest for truth about the notorious prize, as well as his own research.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Prize. By Brian Keating. W.W. Norton, Sept 2018. @ReadMoreScience

I chose Losing the Nobel Prize as January’s Read More Science Book Club pick. It was perfect to start off a year of reading more science. Keating’s book is part science memoir, part exploration into the history of the Nobel Prize.

Keating documents he and his team’s development of BICEP, a gravitational wave background telescope, their falling out, and his subsequent exclusion from BICEP2. In accessible, emotionally-vivid writing, he recounts feelings of excitement and disappointment upon hearing of BICEP2’s success — and his exclusion from even being credited for inventing the instrument in the first place. It’s a surprisingly gripping story of rivalry.

I read a not-so-great review of Keating’s book when it came out, and it initially turned me off towards the book. He was critiqued by other reviewers for coming across as resentful, or even vengeful — that by not receiving credit for his accomplishments, or because of the intense rivalry between scientific teams, he’s somehow blaming the Nobel Prize for his own failures. Then I found out Keating was critiquing the prize for reasons I wholeheartedly agree with, and I realized I absolutely had to read his book.

I did not interpret Keating’s book as some act of revenge or bitterness. In fact, by the end of it, I doubt very many readers will be mistaken that Keating’s intention was not to call-out other scientists he was frustrated with, or even to vent about not winning the prize. Perhaps a cosmologist or physicist would interpret it differently, but this is the way I read it. Instead, he calls into question several issues not just with the Nobel Prize, but with the field of physics.

Alfred Nobel, the wealthy inventor of dynamite, created the Nobel Prizes in his will and left an enormous sum of money for the awards. You can read a little bite more about the history of the prize and its creation here, but Keating summarizes it well in his book. Specifically, he focuses on Alfred Nobel’s original intentions for the prize — and how the award has strayed from them.

Though Keating’s book is structured around the narrative arch of his own experiences working on BICEP and recounting BICEP2’s story, he includes three chapters titled “Broken Lens” in which he explores a significant issue with the Nobel Prize. These were my favorite parts of the book, not only because they are well-written and thought out, but because they directly challenge an extremely powerful institution.

In the first Broken Lens, Keating mourns the death of Vera Rubin, who “was credited with the serendipitous discovery of dark matter.” Though she was considered “a shoo-in” for the 2016 prize, her death before the announcements ensured that she would not receive it: the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously. This is just one of Keating’s frustrations with the prize.

The gender inequity in the Nobel Prize for physics is extremely apparent. In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third woman to ever win the prize. The last female recipient was Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and the first was Marie Curie in 1903. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 112 times.

Keating explores this issue at some depth — yes, there is a lack of women in the field of physics, but it’s not as if there are no women in physics. There needs to be more recruiting, more mentorship, more encouragement of the young woman pursuing career in the competitive world of physics. There needs to be more acknowledgement of the work female professionals in physics due – you may have head that Donna Strickland wasn’t considered important enough for a Wikipedia page.

But I won’t spoil the other two Broken Lens chapters. I think Keating makes persuasive enough arguments without me having to vouch for them here.

This is a great book for those interested in the rigors of physics and cosmology research. This is an excellent memoir for readers curious about the life and work of an accomplished scientist. I would recommend this book even for those simply curious about the Nobel Prize itself, its history, its alleged failures (and successes). And ultimately, I think Keating makes important, interesting arguments worth readers’ consideration.

Find a copy of Losing the Nobel Prize at your local bookstore, and enjoy your journey into the cosmos!

Exploring the Wilderness Inside Your Home

In biologist Rob Dunn’s new book Never Home Alone, he introduces readers to the visible and microscopic organisms composing an indoor ecosystem, discussing what we know (and don’t know) about the creatures that share our homes.

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. Rob Dunn (Nov 2018) Source

If you enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, this book should be next on your reading list. Just like Ed Yong shows readers the fascinating microorganisms all around us, Dunn opens our eyes to the minute creatures that live within the confinement of our own homes. Drawing largely from his own research as a biologist, and backing up his claims with other relevant research, Dunn discusses what lives in the ecosystem of the home. From the bacteria lurking on shower heads, to drain flies, crickets, and spiders, Dunn investigates everything he can find — whether it’s benign, beneficial, or potentially malicious.

While this wilderness in miniature is fascinating, I was most surprised to learn that some of these organisms — many, in fact — are actually waiting to be “discovered”, if someone would take the time to look more closely at them:

“The discovery that almost a billion thumb-sized Japanese camel crickets were living in houses without anyone really knowing they were present left me a bit dumbfounded,” Dunn writes. “If you aren’t a scientist and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume scientists know what it is. If you are a scientist, but not an entomologist, and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume that entomologists know what it is. If you are an entomologist and you see a camel cricket in your house you assume the specialists in camel crickets know what that is.”

But this mindset — assuming someone else already knows about a certain organism — can be problematic.

“Meanwhile, just two people on Earth specialize in the study of camel crickets and neither of them happens to live in a house where the Japanese species is present,” Dunn adds, almost humorously. “I started to wonder whether this phenomenon — of assuming someone else knows — is likely to be more common in homes than other habitats, more common because homes are the place we are most likely to assume that someone else knows, most likely to assume that everything is under control.”

If Dunn’s idea is true, and we can indeed find new species right in our own homes and backyards, it could have important ramifications for science.

Dunn continues: “If I was right, it meant that not only was the home a place where it was still possible to make new discoveries but also it might be an ideal place to make discoveries, discoveries that, because they implicitly affect many people, would be important.”

But why is this discovery of new species inside our homes important? What makes the critters that crawl in our basement and on our walls so alluring to Dunn and his team? As it turns out, many of these species hold clues inside them — clues that can teach us how to create new technologies, medicines, and even prevent allergies. But unless we study these organisms purposefully, Dunn argues, we won’t unlock their secrets.

One of the more interesting species that Dunn discusses is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is notorious for sneaking into the guts of cats by manipulating the behavior of mice. More interesting is the implication of whether these parasites, after infiltrating humans by way of us cleaning the cat litter box, affect human behavior. I was hoping that Dunn may have some insightful theory or perhaps new information about the species explored in Kathleen McAuliffe’s book This Is Your Brain on Parasites, but he had little to offer in way of enlightening information or opinion. It seems the mystery of this parasite is yet to be solved.

Other than that, I have no complains about Dunn’s book. It was well-paced, fascinating, and made for wonderful holiday-break reading. I particularly enjoyed that Dunn shared a lot about his own research as well as his students – it’s always nice when a scientist talks about the important work his student assistants do and their contribution to their studies.

Overall, Dunn’s most recent book is makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. I encourage you to look for a copy at your local bookstore!


The 2018 Read More Science Book of the Year

This week I announced the nominees for the first Read More Science “Best Book of the Year”, my humble attempt to recognize outstanding science writing for the general public by an author who may represent a minority in the STEM fields. You can see the full list of nominees in my announcement.

The Read More Science Best Book of the Year is simply a way to acknowledge a book I see as incredibly relevant to our modern day, accessible for general readers, and deserving of more recognition. While I cannot possibly acknowledge every science book deserving of more recognition (as much as I would love to do that!), I hope that this effort will put the book in the hands of more readers.

I am pleased to announce that the recipient of this year’s award is Hannah Fry’s Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

Hello World is incredibly relevant to today’s world and extremely accessible for readers who may never have read a pop science or technology book before. In easily comprehensible and succinct examples, Fry clearly defines algorithms, machine learning, neural networks, and artificial intelligence. Her book also addresses how our data is being used – gathered, sold, and manipulated in order to influence our behavior as consumers. If you’ve ever wondered why ads seem to target your previous purchases, if you’ve ever considered why so many apps are free and want to know what you’re exchanging your data for, then this is the book for you. Fry’s warm and down-to-earth voice guides readers through the tricky technology of our modern world, paying special attention to how the biases of programmers can infect the algorithms they design and lead to social injustices.

As a woman in mathematics and computer science, Hannah Fry provides younger women with an excellent role model. I also felt that she deserved recognition on the basis that she spends so much time dissecting how algorithms may be used in the justice system and how we can prevent our own racial and gender biases from affecting their objectivity. Her attention to such relevant social issues is a significant reason I chose Hello World for this year’s prize – in many ways, the book is an excellent representation of our world in 2018.


Announcing the First Annual Read More Science “Book of the Year”


Big-name male science writers have long dominated the bestseller lists of the New York Times and other large and well-known book review sources. With this award, my intention is to highlight and promote excellent and overlooked science writing by authors who may be minorities in the STEM fields. 

I’ve started the annual Read More Science “Book of the Year” as a way to acknowledge a new release in popular science that appeals to general readers by an author who deserves more recognition. The book will be featured in the last newsletter of the year (just in time for the holidays) and displayed on the home page of readmorescience.com along with a short summary of why it was chosen. Although there will not be a “prize”, I will be promoting the book through social media and hope to provide a sticker of some kind as the award evolves. 

Without further ado, it is my pleasure to share the books that are under consideration:

Nominees for the 2018 Read More Science “Book of the Year” 

If 2018 could be described by a single phrase, it might be “overlooked no more”. This year gave us several wonderful histories of women who made significant contributions to the STEM fields but haven’t received proper recognition for their work. This year’s books also addressed biases both gender and racial in the fields of technology, artificial intelligence, sex robots, medicine, and the history of science itself. These books challenged conventional thought, delighted and outraged readers, and inspired varying degrees of controversy. These books are each truly a testament to the state of our world in 2018. I wish I could have featured more, because there were many books deserving of recognition!

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini


Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

Source

Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms by Hannah Fry


Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder


Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans


Close Encounters With Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates our Evolving Species by Sang-Hee Lee

Source

There you have it — this year’s nominees. I will be announcing the winning title this week, and those signed up for the Read More Science newsletter will be the first to receive the announcement. Get signed up and you’ll be automatically entered to win exciting titles like these every month! 

Three New Technology Books About Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence

Last week was computer science education week, and these three books are perfect for those of us curious about how algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robots really work — and how they first came about.

In British mathematician Hannah Fry’s award-winning new book Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms (Sept 2018), she dissects algorithms and AI, indulging readers in how our own data is being used and, quite possibly, abused.

In science historian Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Nov 2018), Mayor presents readers with science folklore at its finest. Who first came up with the idea of robots, anyway? 

Lastly, Kate Devlin’s book (out this month!) is called Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots and it’s everything you could ever hope for in a book about sexy automatons. Maybe not one to let the kids get a hold of, but definitely one that will spark conversations with coworkers while you’re reading it on your lunch break.

1. Hello World by Hannah Fry

When I picked up a copy of Hello World from the bookstore I work at, I’ll admit I was very nervous. Last month, I was on a streak with reading one disappointing book after another. I kept feeling like the books I was reading weren’t something I wanted to spend time writing a review for. But disappointing streaks happen to every avid reader now and then, and they are usually broken by something stunningly absorbing and well-written. For me, that was Hannah Fry’s Hello World. 

Fry’s debut book reads like a casual conversation full of warmth, intelligence, and wit. She expertly guides readers through basic and essential concepts for understanding how algorithms function and what purpose they serve. Her book is also the first popular science book I have come across to concisely explain artificial intelligence and neural networks. As a result, the reader comes away feeling informed without being talked down to. Fry is not only an associate professor of mathematics and a computer scientist, she’s also aware of the society in which she’s writing – readers can trust they’re in the hands of an expert as well as an individual who is socially conscious. 

For example, Fry investigates what happens when algorithms programmed for justice are actually racial-profiling. How can we make an algorithm that relies on statistics, unbiased? Fry discusses the problems with having a human judge determine whether or not to sentence someone. Could an algorithm better predict whether someone is guilty, whether they should be released in the future, and even how long their sentence should be? But we tend to want a human touch in these life-altering decision – should we dare to let algorithms decide for us, we fear they may sentence the innocent or set the guilty free. Of course, that’s already happening with human error.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying about social media, if you aren’t paying for a product, you are the product. Why is Facebook free? And what exactly happens when we let those quizzes access our profiles, anyway? Fry poses these kinds of pertinent questions about our online activities and breaks down exactly what’s happening with your data – and how, in some cases, it’s even being used to manipulate your behavior. 

2. Gods and Robots by Adrienne Mayor

Science historian and folklorist Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots is a mesmerizing exploration into the concepts of robots in myth and lore. If you’re a Greek mythology buff or simply interested in how the idea of automated technology came about through ancient storytelling, Mayor does a good job diving into the subject. The book includes beautiful photos to accompany her retelling of the classical tales of Greek and Roman myth.

Mayor makes several connections to modern examples of automated technology, but only in passing comments. This book is much more about the ancient history of robots. After all, Mayor is not a computer scientist. But the book is nicely done overarching exploration into classical tales of automation.

You can read my full review of it for Science Magazine here.

3. Turned On by Kate Devlin

In this tantalizingly entertaining and witty book, sex-bot expert Kate Devlin examines the past, present, and future and sex robots and AI. Combining humorous anecdotes with sobering philosophical questions, Devlin expertly guides readers through the fascinating controversy around robots designed for pleasure. You might find yourself keeling over with laughter one moment and considering the realities of female objectification the next. Through every topic Devlin will be there holding your hand, howling with laughter and outrage alongside you. 

Most of all I love Devlin’s attention towards detail – she cares deeply about the material she discusses. One chapter mentions the bond between humans and our pets and whether we may have a similar bond with robots one day. This triggered a childhood memory of a FurReal Friends Lulu My Cuddlin Kitty cat I had back when I was eight or nine years old. I loved that robot cat like I loved my real cat. When I stroked her, she rumbled with an electric purr and moved to your touch. If you ignored her for too long she would let out a soft, sad “meow”. You could scratch her and she would move her head back and forth. Then I accidentally left batteries in too long and they were destroyed by acid, so my dad took Lulu away and threw her out. I remember feeling so devastated over losing my “little robot kitty”, as I called her.

The ethical and moral implications of not only befriending robots or treating them as pets is one thing. It’s quite another when we model robots after female humans and use them for sex. After all, can a robot consent? These questions and more are explored in Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots, out on December 18th. 


Find these books and more popular science at your local bookstore.